For all the reality which Lynch gives to the world of the film, it is obviously not a realistic film. What Lynch does is to distort what is familiar ; at first one perceives it as strange, but as one gradually comes to see its familiarity, one is forced to reevaluate what is usually accepted without question. By showing us the familiar in the strange, he makes us aware of what is strange about the familiar. Normalcy is a habit ; but what is normal to the people of Eraserhead’s world seems strange to us. Yet they view it all with the same habit of acceptance that we ourselves have in relation to the “real world”. Thus we become aware of the habit itself as a distinct part of our own experience. In the film’s world our own rules no longer apply ; we have to seek out the rules by which this new world operates, and so become aware again of the rules we have come to take for granted. If people do not really act as they do in the film’s world, by what rules do people really act ?
In seeking the rules of the film’s world, we begin to take notice of any and every little detail ; is this, we wonder, significant ? Lynch himself finds the extent of this searching both surprising and amusing. Early in the film, Henry puts his right foot in a mud puddle, but when he gets home it is his left foot which is wet. The viewer takes note of the fact and wonders if it means something. In this case, Lynch laughed, “that’s accidental. Both socks were wet, but we couldn’t remember which shoe went in the puddle. You know, it’s hard to believe that someone looks at your films so closely.” But in the world of Eraserhead, the viewer has no choice but to search amongst all the details for what is significant.
By shifting the familiar, what we call “reality”, a few degrees over, Lynch knocks us off balance and the resulting uneasiness forces us to reconsider what we normally accept without thinking about it. We discover that the frightening, claustrophobic world of Eraserhead is not so different from our own experience as it first seemed. Lynch essentially just gives an external concrete form to familiar mental states : the baby which entraps Henry becomes an insatiable monster ; fear of sex becomes a parasitic disease in the form of “foetuses” ; the longing for escape into a comfortable security becomes a strange sterile heaven.
Given approximately $10,000 by the AFI, Lynch had to be very careful if he was going to see his film to completion. Yet at the start he had no idea just what a long haul it was going to be. Early in 1972, he began to make preparations. Below the main mansion at the Centre, there was a cluster of stables, garages, quarters for maids and mechanics, and a huge hay loft, plus a greenhouse and the grounds around it. It was there that Lynch established what amounted to a small studio. “We had” ; he recalled, “about five or six rooms and this giant loft where all the other sets were built ; a miniature soundstage and studio.”
The set-building began immediately, with Lynch being assisted by his brother, John, and Alan Splet. For $100, he had bought a lot of flats from a studio which was going out of business and these were used again and again. When one set was done with, it was taken apart and the pieces used to build another. The same area of the loft served for the pencil factory, the pencil company front office, the lobby of Henry’s building. “All these rooms were the same space with different sets built in it”, commented Catherine Coulson, the film’s camera assistant. “And now I work on union films and I see these art departments with ten people doing the same thing, not quite as well sometimes. David really pretty much did everything himself. He has tremendous energy ; he can just go and go and go for something that interests him.”