The debate within film communities of whether or not something constitutes horror has grown tiresome, don’t you think? Personally, I find it counterproductive to the study of film to have boxes to check off in order for a movie to be included in any genre, and that goes tenfold for horror. The less we categorize things, the more creative filmmakers become, and the result is usually an exceptionally satisfying and fulfilling movie experience.
That said, however, David Lynch isn’t a name certain horror communities closely associate with the genre. It’s a real shame, too, because although his work doesn’t necessarily contain traditional boogeymen or spooks, Lynch has a knack for tapping into some of our most primal fears: Twin Peaks has BOB, Mulholland Dr. has Winkie’s, Blue Velvet has Frank Booth. Lynch is unmatched in this because he possesses a keen ability to blend horror with comedy and the weird and surreal, creating esoteric, almost dreamlike worlds that exist in between his ideal of Americana and a dark corner of Hell. These scenes and the characters in them eat at us because they represent what we can’t possibly know or understand — or, at least, a perversion of things we do understand. Lynch builds dread and psychological tension by exploiting our fear of the unknown, and let’s be honest: Lynch’s monsters, so to speak, are just downright creepy. I often wish I could watch certain films again for the first time and experience the same rush of squirm-inducing, blood-chilling emotion. And, at the top of my list is 1997’s Lost Highway — a film I must confess that for a long time, I stayed away from. I don’t really have a good answer as to why, except maybe I somehow knew it would disturb me greatly, and I just wasn’t ready for that as a teen. Maybe I wasn’t ready to witness an actual nightmare plucked from Lynch’s bizarre inner psyche and projected onto my screen. Maybe, in 1997, I just hadn’t grown up enough yet to really process a film as fascinating and abrasive as Lost Highway (even with its cool alt-‘90s soundtrack).
But before we go too far down memory lane, is it possible to summarize Lost Highway? Can anyone clearly and succinctly state what the film is about? As with any Lynch endeavor, the story starts off straightforward enough. But then…well, it goes like this.
*** SPOILERS! MY GOD, THE SPOILERS! ***
Fred (Bill Pullman) is married to Renee (Patricia Arquette). Fred is insecure about their marriage, constantly suspicious that Renee is having an affair. The couple starts receiving mysterious videotapes containing footage of the inside of their home, while they are sleeping. Understandably, they are sufficiently creeped out. At a party, Fred meets the Mystery Man (Robert Blake), who may or may not be the devil himself, and who may or may not be the one generating those videotapes. Fred dreams that he brutally murders Renee, except maybe that dream is actually a reality. Fred is convicted and imprisoned, but one night after a freak event, all of a sudden Fred isn’t Fred anymore. He’s inexplicably replaced by Pete (Balthazar Getty), something that really happened, and we know because the prison guards and warden acknowledge it. Pete is released because, logically, he is not Fred, and he returns to his normal life as an auto mechanic. We then meet one of Pete’s customers, Mr. Eddy (Robert Loggia), whose girlfriend Alice (played again by Arquette) he immediately begins to fancy. The rest of the film is Alice leading Pete down a dark, weird path filled with more mystery and questions of identity. Oh, and Gary Busey is in there somewhere, too.
Let me tell you: I am very glad I came back around to this film when I did. It seemed to come to me at the perfect place and time: when I was growing out of my annoying indie-only phase plagued by repetitive quirky dramas and becoming very disillusioned with the state of modern filmmaking (these were the Garden State days, people). Around this time, along came the opportunity to pick up some of the weirder, deeper films that I missed in my youth. I watched Lost Highway, and it was like a revelation. There’s so much in the film that is personally resonant, so much that makes me think and feel and ask questions. Lost Highway speaks in riddles and forces us to challenge our ideals not only about the world, but also ourselves. Stay with me, friends, as here are some of the elements I’ve picked out of Lost Highway that make it not only scary, but so incredibly weird, off-putting, and profound.
Fear of the unknown. Our brains love to take shortcuts when processing information, and the major way they do that is by categorizing the information based on what we already know. If new or unique information is abruptly introduced, our brains have trouble categorizing it, and struggle to make it fit in somewhere with things that are already known. So, as we encounter uncertain situations, we become uncomfortable as we’re trying to make sense of what’s happening. That discomfort can quickly lead to fear, which in turn can quickly become terror as we are grasping to make sense of these situations. Lynch’s insistence on teetering between “yes, I’m following along” and “what the hell is happening?!” is a huge reason why his turns in horror are so extremely effective. Those moments of confusion throw us for a loop, and Lost Highway is full of them. It’s not just confusion of who-might-be-who, or a lack of an origin for the Mystery Man, it’s also strange moments like Alice disappearing from a photograph of her posing with Renee, Andy, and Dick Laurent. Or the upstairs hallway in Andy’s house seemingly morphing into the hallway of the Lost Highway Hotel. Just about every scene in this film asks a question, and that’s why it fills us with such unease.
Fear of being watched. Scopophobia is the psychological term for the fear of being watched, but that fear itself typically lies under the larger umbrella of social anxiety. Many of us suffer from social anxiety, fearing social situations and interaction with other people, often furthered by a more intense fear of judgment and scrutiny. Social anxiety (and scopophobia in particular) usually leads to feelings of inadequacy, embarrassment, humiliation, and depression, so in extreme cases it can unfortunately be quite crippling to an individual sufferer. It’s the fear of being criticized or unaccepted that ultimately uncovers feelings of shame, because we are forced to confront what we feel makes us inadequate (presumably, this is why some cultures are afraid of being cursed by what they call The Evil Eye, which could, in a more modern sense, be a camera lens).
How Lost Highway foremost exhibits this is by using those mysterious videotapes as a plot device; not only do they serve as a means to move the story along and establish certain motivations, they function as a way to suck the audience into more personal involvement with the world Lynch is building. The videotape scenes offer an odd sense of relatability; as we watch, we think, “what if it were me in this situation?” Lynch exploits this anxiety by turning ordinary room images into something more nightmarish with slow, floaty movements and oppressive downward-looking camera angles. The images are emotionally unsettling on their own, but compounded with Lynch’s amplified use of room tone, he creates an even creepier atmosphere and seriously ups the sense of dread.
And maybe it’s not necessarily being watched that is the total fear, but rather who is doing the watching. Near the end of the film, Fred attacks Dick Laurent in the Lost Highway Hotel room, and as he speeds away in Laurent’s Mercedes, the Mystery Man is watching out one of the hotel’s windows. Returning to the fear of the unknown, it leads us to wonder what kinds of creatures (malevolent or not) could be watching us all the time without us knowing? Undeniably, that’s one of the reasons we’re so afraid of the possibility of ghosts and other supernatural beings. Shudder to think, there’s probably a ghost (or even a ghost-faced Robert Blake) watching you right now.
Fear of violation. Something else we all likely have experienced is a violation of personal space. When a colleague is standing over our shoulders, when guests stay for too long — these things are just a bit too close for comfort. But to take that even further is to have our homes broken into: in this circumstance, our once-safe haven is violated, and with that comes feelings of helplessness, sadness, and anger. We see our homes as an extension of ourselves, so when that is penetrated and defiled, we feel penetrated and defiled. And oftentimes, the vulnerability is compounded by apprehension of police not doing anything to help. After the tapes start arriving, we hear Renee pleading to the police dispatcher to send an officer over, “Someone broke in and taped us while we slept! Isn’t that enough?” Just in this small scene, we are highly affected; it’s anxiety brought on from the fear of being dismissed by a line of people who are supposed to make us feel calm and safe. And it’s probably Lynch’s comment on how disobliging and haphazard the police can be, but I digress.
But what probably zings the most in Lost Highway is the scene at Andy’s party where Fred encounters the Mystery Man. This is the scene. The Scene. You know, the scene everyone remembers, everyone talks about:
Mystery Man: “We’ve met before, haven’t we?”
Fred: “I don’t think so, where is it that you think we’ve met?”
Mystery Man: “At your house, don’t you remember?”
Fred: “No, no I don’t. Are you sure?”
Mystery Man: “Of course, as a matter of fact, I’m there right now.”
Fred: “What do you mean? You’re where right now?”
Mystery Man: “At your house.”
Fred: “That’s fucking crazy, man.”
Mystery Man: (hands Fred a cellular phone) “Call me.”
Fred dials his number, and waits for an answer.
Mystery Man: (voice coming through phone speaker) “I told you I was here.”
Fred: (to man standing in front of him) “How’d you do that?”
Mystery Man: “Ask me.”
Fred: (into phone) “How’d you get inside my house?”
Mystery Man: (voice) “You invited me. It is not my custom to go where I am not wanted.”
Fred: “Who are you?”
Mystery Man: (voice) “Give me back my phone.”
(Note: Just typing that gave me the chills.)
All at once, this scene elicits a multitude of emotional responses: a violation of privacy, a loss of a safe space, and the confusion and terror that goes with not understanding how the events taking place could possibly be occurring. In this moment, we are Fred — we feel his panic, his shock, his intense fear. At this point in the story, literally anything can happen next.
Fear of intimacy. Because closeness in relationships can oftentimes produce vulnerability and the potential for strong negative emotions, many of us choose to avoid it altogether. We build up a sort of resistance to love, if you will, because in some cases, insecurities make it difficult for us to comprehend what makes us desirable. Fred and Renee seem to have a very rudimentary relationship; they love each other, surely, but they also seem worlds apart. Part of this is shown by how they act around each other (they sit far apart on the sofa, their lovemaking is passionless and rife with insecurity in itself), but Lynch utilizes different techniques like set design to help illustrate their lukewarm relationship. Their home’s interior design choices make it seem uncomfortable and empty, with angular furniture and mostly bare walls — and not really even a hint of a record collection (doesn’t that strike you as odd given Fred is a musician?). The entire house is just so minimal when it comes to any kind of personal flair, and that minimalism directly relates to their marriage. Of course the fear of intimacy can create an imbalance inside a loving relationship, usually when one partner is more standoffish than the other. Which leads us to the next element — one that is closely related to intimacy and independence.
Fear of rejection. Most of us have a yearning to fit in, to belong. The idea of isolation brings us anxiety; nobody wants to experience the hurt of being cut off. Rejection — a monster in itself — confirms one of our worst fears: that we’re unlovable. Rather than risk reaching out to others, we withdraw from them and suppress our true feelings. In turn, we abandon others before they have a chance to abandon us. Fred is so insecure with himself and his marriage that he lives in constant fear of Renee’s rejection, spending his days obsessed with the idea that she is cheating on him. He’s so convinced that she will leave him that he overcompensates by keeping a possessive grasp on her, evidenced by conversations they have. When she tells him she doesn’t feel like going out to his show, he asks what she’ll be doing at home, and doesn’t quite believe her when she says she’ll read. “Read? Read what?” he sort of jokes, letting a bit of the truth of his insecurity show through. Fred also watches her interactions with other men with disdain; he absolutely despises her friend Andy (Michael Massee), and takes any opportunity to pull them apart (this is something Fred apparently dwells on a lot at various points, eventually asking Renee, “How did you meet that asshole Andy, anyway?”). He comes on too strong, wanting to keep himself around her because he’s paranoid that she does not want to be around him. This almost desperate attempt at remaining an important part of her life is clearly attributed to Fred’s lack of self-worth.
Fred and Renee aren’t the only lovers affected by this struggle. Later, when Pete is making out with Sheila (Natasha Gregson Wagner) in his car, she whispers to him, “Why don’t you like me?” He replies that he does like her, and she says, “How much?” Deep down, Sheila knows that something weird is going on with Pete, and can sense he’s pulling away from her. In this relationship, Pete is the independent one (just like Renee, and for that matter, Alice), and Sheila is the needy one (just like Fred). These types of uneven relationships tend to self-destruct, and not necessarily due to confirmed infidelity. Most times that destruction is a direct byproduct of the paranoia and forced emotional distance that one or even both of the partners display.
This is a notion that Lynch drives home repeatedly throughout Lost Highway, culminating in the last third of the film. Alice embraces Pete in the desert, asking if he wants her. When he tells her he does, she sullenly replies, “You’ll never have me.”
Fear of losing our identity. Identities themselves can be abstract, and thus are a bit hard to define. But generally speaking, our identities are made up of attributes and values that characterize us: how we view ourselves, and perhaps how we think other people view us. Identity loss can come from a major traumatic event, like changes in the workplace, loss of job or home, or a disruption of a familial role, e.g. in the case of divorce or losing a loved one.
We can also lose ourselves by merging into a committed relationship, which, again, for many people is frightening. The fear of commitment takes its roots in the potential loss of a sense of personal wholeness or independence, which is why someone like Alice, who is forced into a relationship with Mr. Eddy, is looking to rebel by starting up a fling with Pete.
But Alice’s identity crisis is a side note when compared to the major storyline of the film, where we are trying to make sense of Fred’s identity swap with Pete and vice versa. Lynch loves to use this device, which ends up threaded throughout a large portion of his work; it seems obvious that Lynch likes to play with duality. However, Lost Highway may be the only one to explore how the identity swap really affects the character emotionally instead of treating it more superficially. After waking up inexplicably in a prison cell and being sent home, Pete understandably seems disoriented for a good length of time, moping about in a manner reminiscent of the ol’ Existential Dread. We catch Pete looking longingly at objects that would otherwise hold no special meaning to him — objects like a small sailboat floating in his neighbor’s kiddie pool. He’s hesitant to tell his friends what’s going on with him, dismissing their questions with “I just haven’t been feeling so good,” and claiming he doesn’t remember what happened to him. Pete is affected physically, too; for instance, he can’t stand Fred’s saxophone music when it comes on the auto shop radio. The music gives him an intense headache. In fact, he’s been getting those headaches a lot lately for reasons unknown to him.
Late one night at his home, Pete receives a call from Mr. Eddy. He tells Pete someone wants to speak to him (“a friend of mine,” he says), and he hands the phone to whom is revealed to be the Mystery Man. The dialogue from Mystery Man’s introduction with Fred is repeated (“We’ve met before, haven’t we?”), and then the Mystery Man begins in on a foreboding pseudo-warning, “In the East,” he says, “the Far East, when a person is sentenced to death, they’re sent to a place they can’t escape, never knowing when an executioner may step up behind them and fire a bullet into the back of their head.” Naturally, this strange statement doesn’t mean much to Pete beyond the glaring bewilderment of it, but if you think that maybe there’s a part of Fred that is somehow inside of Pete, inhabiting his body, the “sentenced to death” part suddenly becomes very pertinent. We ask: have they fully switched identities? Is Fred’s soul trapped somewhere? Is Pete being punished for something Fred did? Again, we feel like this is happening to us. To take a quote from the prison guard who discovered Pete in the cell, “Captain, this is some spooky shit we got here.”
Fear of confronting our own demons. With David Lynch, we know most things are open to interpretation. We can say the Mystery Man is a devil figure of sorts, capable of bringing unconscious fears and fantasies to full fruition — and some of these fantasies are things that Fred can’t even admit to himself. Fred has repressed his fears that Renee is secretly a whore possessed by another man (Dick Laurent), and his obsessive desperation to be the object of her desire is what fuels his murderous fantasies. This fantasy manifests itself in a very dreamlike sequence (no doubt fed by the nefarious meddling of the Mystery Man) where Fred is watching himself brutally murder Renee via the same type of videotape that appeared on their doorstep. This scene, with what looks to be buckets worth of blood and gruesomely severed limbs, may just be the goriest in Lynch’s catalog, and it fits right in with another theme Lynch likes to repeat: people are as wild and unpredictable as animals. Just think about Bobby and Mike barking at James in the Twin Peaks jail, or a similar scene from a relatively obscure 1970 Lynch short film called “The Grandmother,” where a father barks at his son. We wonder: is Lynch saying we’re crazy, or that we’re only doing what comes naturally to us?
Anyway, Fred says he doesn’t like cameras because he wants to remember things his own way, and “not necessarily how they happened.” He, like a lot of us, has trouble facing the truth. The videotape of the murder serves as a look inside Fred’s soul, at his deepest fears and desires kept out of check, and viewing it forces him to confront every horrible thought or emotion that he’s repressed. Sometimes it seems that when it comes to self-knowledge, ignorance is bliss; normally, we repress these things because we don’t want to think of ourselves as bad people or having bad characteristics (or in extreme cases as in this film, being capable of committing heinous acts). And that’s what Fred is doing — he loves Renee, so how could he possibly want to kill her?
Which leads us to several other questions that, in true Lynch fashion, we may never know the complete answers to. Were all the tapes a manifestation of what was going on inside Fred’s head? What “powers” does the Mystery Man actually hold? What the hell actually happened to Pete that night on his lawn? And maybe most importantly, what exactly is Lynch trying to tell us about the evil of mankind?
Lost Highway continues to be so enjoyable because of how provocative it is, how it evokes a dramatic sense of danger and unease. But why is being afraid so exciting to some of us (myself included)? Why do we find such joy in creeping ourselves out? We’re all probably familiar with the science behind being scared — the adrenaline rush we experience the split second before we internally choose fight or flight — and the brain chemical high we feel from that. Not only are we getting adrenaline, we’re getting a surge in dopamine and endorphins, too, so watching scary movies can potentially be quite a positive experience for a lot of people. Lost Highway, along with just about anything else in David Lynch’s body of work, is no exception.
But, beyond brain chemicals, there’s another reason we love to put ourselves in potentially threatening situations with unknown outcomes: the adventure of it is really what gets us going. And without uncertainty, there is no adventure. The most momentous things that happen to us, the most important decisions we make, they all stem from uncertainty and fear. Otherwise, we’re forced into a safe, predictable, even banal existence. Simply put, life without uncertainty and fear is boring, but overcoming those fears and any other anxieties we may have is an achievement to be proud of. Knowing that we can actually make it around the corner past the Winkie’s dumpster if we just keep walking, or that we can avoid the viciously over-the-top wrath of people like Dick Laurent by simply obeying traffic safety laws makes us feel more secure with ourselves. Thus, the joy, and the engagement. It’s really a matter of taking charge of our lives. Being scared is special, something that we all should embrace, because ultimately, it helps us grow as people. So let’s all recognize and thank David Lynch for his unique brand of horror, and for making us confront the more deeply-rooted monsters we otherwise would not want to.