What’s Lynchian about David Lynch?

Alex Clark 21 May 2021
Image credit: Vulture

David Lynch is a name so synonymous with weird films that ‘Lynchian’ is itself a term used, often too liberally, to describe something weird you watch. The Lighthouse? A bit Lynchian, I reckon. Donnie Darko? Bro, that film’s so Lynchian. I’m Thinking of Ending Things? Got some Lynchian vibes there. But for those of you who are more familiar with Lynch’s work, you can probably tell these films might be weird, but they’re not Lynchian. Lynch’s work has a special type of horror behind it, and this is part of what makes it so special.

One thing often overlooked when tackling Lynch is the man has a real sense of humour. Dealing with existential despair, grotesque bodily horror and David Bowie can distract from this, but much of his work has an underlying sense of humour to it. Twin Peaks is, of course, not just the town of Laura Palmer’s murder, but also of all the fun subplots, like Sheriff Deputy Andy and Lucy’s will-they-won’t-they relationship. And this isn’t unique to Twin Peaks’ soap opera influences, but comes through just as well in Mulholland Drive’s hitman, Eraserhead’s uncomfortable family dinner, and The Return’s Dougie Jones. Where The Lighthouse and other films seek to establish the tone of suspense immediately, Lynch settles into the dreamy, comedic tone of his universes before the undermining starts – it’s essential the audience feels comfortable before they can be unnerved.

And this is where the next vital part of his horror comes into play: Lynch lets the scary play out the same way as the comedic. Take the Man Behind Winkies in Mulholland Drive. The scene goes out of its way to establish ideas of dreams, nightmares and reality, carefully explaining what is about to happen. Then, as each beat from the dream happens before us, the complete powerlessness sets in. This feeling is the fundamental core of so much of Lynch’s horror – the camera slows down, steady and consistent, the tracking across the carpark slow, and even the jumpscare is measured and deliberate. Just like the infamous BOB couch scene, the viewer isn’t rushed but rather forced to face what’s in front of them, first hoping it won’t happen and then unable to move and respond to it. Thematically this is no great surprise – much of Lynch’s work is, on the simplest level, an examination of the ‘chopped ear under the picket fence’ which opens Blue Velvet, the horror behind the gloss of the American Dream – but the moment is nevertheless all the worse for knowing it will happen, and you can’t escape it. When so much horror relies on shock factor, Lynch stands out for his deliberateness and patience with the scene, stirring the teacup until you reach The Sunken Place.

That being said, another vital aspect of Lynch’s work is his use of jumpscares. Most notably, WheresTheJump.com declares that Mulholland Drive only has one jumpscare in it, whilst across the rest of Lynch’s filmography the most he’s used in a single film is eight in Inland Empire. This is largely because, having most of the jumpscares relatively early on, they are fundamentally driven by building suspense rather than being an isolated incident. After the first jumpscare, the viewer is left expecting another at every corner – even if none are to come. As a result, the jumpscare is more about building a sense of dread then actually shocking the audience in Lynch’s films. After these moments, the comedy is also viewed differently: whilst the scene is still funny, you’re now aware of the underbelly, and this lingers on, making what would have been funny inevitably no longer so.

This interaction between the comedic and the horrific is essential to what makes something ‘Lynchian’, thematically, tonally and filmically. And really, part of what makes him such a great director, setting his work apart from others. Within Lynch’s work there’s so much more to explore, on horror and otherwise – his deconstruction of genre, his use of more practical, deliberately artificial or cheaper visual effects, or just delving deeper into Twin Peaks, but those are topics for another day. Right now, “I’m not gonna talk about Judy; in fact, we’re not gonna talk about Judy at all, we’re gonna keep her out of it.”