Lost Highway (1997) – Esoteric Analysis

Film poster.

Film poster.

By: Jay Lost Highway is a bizarre, psychical film that has mystified most. Reviews and analyses abound with endless questions and speculations that often fail to transcend the most basic levels of “this is about Buddhism” and “a dreamscape.” When connected with other David Lynch films, these elements are certainly present, but remaining on this level fails to plumb the depths of more esoteric motifs and symbols that even further integrate the Lynch canon. Indeed, the Lynch canon must be known in entirety before the individual works begin to reveal themselves. Lost Highway is a convenient starting place for analyzing Lynch, as it initiates what a friend of mine aptly titles the “Hollywood trilogy,” comprising Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire. In contrast to Wild at Heart or Blue Velvet, the “Hollywood trilogy” focuses on the dark side and corruption of the film industry. Many critics have pointed out these themes in Lynch, but there is a deeper level to the rabbit hole. Lynch films are not merely dreamy zen meditations on Americana and film, but long, dark journeys into the dark side of the unconscious that envelop the viewer in something more ominous than satire or tales of pulp crime. The Lynch viewer is shown a profound, surrealistic revelation of the dark side of something much more ancient, functioning like a shamanic journey into cosmic, primeval mysteries. The best description for Lost Highway is Neo-noir occult psycho-drama. The telling of the story is non-linear, yet influenced heavily by classic 1940s (date) Noir. Lost Highway is influenced by zen philosophy and Jungian dreamscapes, but as for the deeper occult elements, it’s necessary to understand why the stories are presented in a interlinking duality, as they are in Mulholland Drive. Zen philosophy is concerned with duality and its transcendence, as ultimate principles, as well as with the individual’s particularized psyche, and its relation to the whole of reality. Zen is therefore a quasi-religious philosophy concentrated on ultimate metaphysical principles, known in philosophy historically as the problem of the one and the many. For Lynch, these philosophical questions are not just abstract philosophy, but also relate directly to the psyche in its conscious and unconscious/sleep states. The opening credit scene is a car racing down an ominous dark highway which will be our first clue to the ultimate meaning, as this is also the final scene. The highway will represent the mental stream of consciousness Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) is experiencing, as the truth of his life and actions begin to manifest in this cyclical dreamworld. Fred is on a journey into madness - into his subconscious, as he suppresses his guilt for murder. The murder of his wife Renee (Patricia Arquette) and two others due to his vengeful jealousy has led to a dissociation and split in his consciousness, as well as his darker side becoming possessed.

Alice/Renee draws Fred/Pete into a dark occult underworld of mafia crime.

The first scene is an anxious Fred lighting a cigarette. The igniting flame is a staple of Lynch films, signifying the a dark foreboding or evil presence is about to emerge. One thinks immediately of Wild at Heart or Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. The “fire walk” is the shamanic practice of obtaining possession in order to miraculously move over coals or through fire unharmed. The shamanic walk or journey also corresponds to the astral journey the spirit of the medicine man takes, as his hallucinogenic or spiritually induced state takes him down a ritual path of personal dismemberment and re-assemblage: the resurrection motif. However, in Lynch’s film, it is not Fred, our shaman, who will be resurrected, but his wife Renee that will undergo dismemberment, while Fred will suffer the punishment of guilt and torture with no escape from his self-imposed, cyclical nightmare prison.

The infamous Lady in Red, the femme fatale with an alternate personality.

The infamous Lady in Red, the femme fatale with an alternate personality.

Esoteric writer Peter Levenda comments on Lynch in this regard:

“‘I learned that just beneath the surface there’s another world, and still different worlds as you dig deeper.’ – David Lynch

A recurring feature of David Lynch films is the flickering light, a result, we are told in the pilot episode of Twin Peaks – of a “bad transformer.” This flickering electric light will appear in Lynch films such as Mulholland Drive [and Lost Highway], to announce the appearance of the Cowboy, a bizarre character who speaks in gnomic riddles, like a cross between Gary Cooper and and David Carradine. In Twin Peaks, it is the light in the morgue over the place where the body of Laura Palmer had been kept, and which is then visited by Mike, the one-armed man, who recites the famous poem:

“Through the darkness of futures past
The magician longs to see;
One chants out between two worlds
‘Fire walk with me.’”

There, in a strange little verse, we have the key to unlocking the mystery not only of Twin Peaks but virtually all of Lynch’s films: the suspension of normal laws of time (“futures past”) and the idea that the magician lives “between two worlds.” The suspension of normal, linear narrative event in favor of a dreamlike, hallucinatory set of images that are taking place all over the fourth dimension is part of Lynch’s appeal as a director, and part of what makes his films so frustrating to the filmgoer. His realization that there are two worlds, and a place to stand between them, is what contributes to his aura as a modern, twenty-first century initiate of the Mysteries, for that is what “mystery” films are: elucidations of the core Mystery behind reality.” (Sinister Forces, Vol. 3, pg. 151.

And this forms the solution to Lost Highway, as well. The shamanic and magical elements are here in full force, as Fred is a character trapped in different psychical worlds that seem to unfold and envelop other psyches, as we will see. As Fred walks to his front door, he hears police sirens as a voice says, “Dick Laurent is dead.” The first key to my thesis that the film is his cyclical mental prison is that the end of the film shows who the voice was: Fred himself. The police sirens are the cops after him for the murder of Renee, Andy, Pete and Mr. Eddy/Dick Laurent. In the next few scenes this truth is hinted at as Renee and Fred begin to receive strange VHS tapes on their doorstep that feature their own house under surveillance. Disturbed, the couple passes it off, as Fred begins to suspect Renee is cheating with porn mogul Andy.  Renee refuses to attend Fred’s sax gig at Luna Lounge, and says she intends to stay home and read. Luna Lounge is significant, because the moon is a feminine symbol associated with the dreamworld, night and madness (lunacy). Fred sees Renee actually present in the audience with Andy, and as he phones home, the scene is lit red, signifying envy and rage.

Fred returns home to attempt to have sex with Renee, only to follow through with great difficulty, knowing that her lack of affection shows she has been unfaithful. The Cocteau Twins’ “Song to the Siren” plays, with the lyrics, “did I dream, you dreamed about me…” signifying again that this is a nightmare world. Fred dreams that night that he cannot find Renee in his house, and he is immediately confronted by a strange presence of the camera that frightens him. It is as if Fred’s world has come into contact with us the viewer, or the coming “man in black” that later records Fred at the end.

Welcome to the hotel California....

Welcome to the hotel California….

The meaning here is the jumbling up of these dreamworlds that Fred is lost in. In the dream state, a smoke appears, a fire roars, and the face of the man in black appears in Renee’s. The man in black is the devil, whom Fred has given entrance into his consciousness. In Jungian archetype studies and psychoanalysis, the house is an image of the mind. Rooms are like memories that store events. Fred’s house is thus his mind, and the entrance of the devil is the beginning of the cause of Fred’s suppressed guilt, madness and personality splitting. Fred’s displaced guilt for murder is placed on Renee, which is why he sees the devil in her face. It is important to note that in Fred’s dreams, he walks deeper into dark hallways into his bedroom. This is him going further into his subconscious, uncovering the truth of the crime he has committed and suppressed.

The next VHS that arrives is even more frightening, as it shows an camcorder entering the house and filming them sleep. Fred insists Renee watch it, though she is reluctant, but his insistence demonstrates that he is the likely culprit. When the cops arrive, they begin to be suspicious that Fred is the one behind the threat. In reality, we don’t know for sure which elements are real or a dream in regard to the videotape, but what we do know is that Fred wants Renee to feel threatened that she is under surveillance for her infidelity. Panopticism emerges here, as there is a statement being made about the rise of unmitigated surveillance that will be evident later in the film. What is the result upon society of everyone peering daily into the videodrome, and the NSA videodrome daily staring back? The effect is the transformation of the psyche of the public, as we saw with the prophetic Vertigo. When Renee calls the police she tells them the address is “703, Hollis, near the observatory…” The observatory is a huge glass eye that watches. It is another subtle clue concerning panopticism.

When the police question the couple, they ask if Fred owns a video recorder. Fred replies that he hates them and prefers to “remember things the way he wants to, not how they happened.” In other words, the film is Fred’s victimized version of how he went mad, and how the devil tricked him, Renee lied, and his enemies deserved it. This becomes evident in the second half of the film with Pete, but before moving there, there is an elite Hollywood party Fred attends with Renee at Andy’s mansion. Here, Renee flirts with Andy and Fred walks off in a huff, only to bump into the man in black (the devil). During a creepy conversation with the man in black who appeared to also be in Fred’s house after forcing Fred to make a call to his own house, Fed is told that he “invited” the man in black in. In other words, the devil couldn’t just enter Fred’s consciousness, he had to be let in through Fred’s willingness. Fred discovers that Renee used to date Andy, and comes home to find someone upstairs rummaging around in his bedroom.

It is Fred that is upstairs in his bedroom, and as the couple retires for the evening, Fred walks down the long, dark hallway (of his subconscious). At the end of the hall, he sees himself in a mirror, and we begin to understand there are two Freds. The dark Fred is the man in black that possesses Fred, and causes him to split in consciousness, emerging from the dark hall to kill and dismember Renee. All along, Fred is being led deeper into the darkness, signifying his willing acquiescence to evil.

Peer into the abyss of the videodrome, and the videodrome abyss peers back!

Peer into the abyss of the videodrome, and the videodrome abyss peers back!

Following this sequence, Fred awakens to find himself being interrogated for Renee’s murder and sentenced to the electric chair. While in his cell, he seems to astrally project himself into the body of a young guy named Pete. Pete is a rebellious car repairman that likes to chase fast women and cheat on his girlfriend. Pete represents several things, but primarily he is the life that Fred wants – to return to youth and be the guy who is able to have multiple girlfriends and be the one cheating. Pete inexplicably ends up in Fred’s cell, symbolizing that he is beginning to be possessed by Fred.  Recall that in Twin Peaks, agent Dale Cooper ends up possessed.

Pete is then swept up into a tryst with mob boss Mr. Eddy’s girlfriend, Alice, who appears to be Renee’s twin. The theme of doubling is present again, and given that Fred’s imprisonment included him seeing a doctor and being medicated, we can speculate that there may be an element of mind control involved. Indeed, Alice we come to discover, is working with the man in black and Mr. Eddy/Dick Laurent, as a porn actress. Their circle is not just porn moguls and stars, but includes an occultic and Satanic element. When Alice tricks Pete into coming to Andy’s mansion to steal his money and kill him, we learn it was all her plan, along with the man in black. When Mr. Eddy threatens Pete, it is done under the direction of the man in black. In other words, there is a cult involved here that is tied into porn and the mafia: when Pete enters Andy’s house, Rammstein plays, and the lyrics are “you see him creep around the church.”

As Pete follows his femme fatale into the wilderness, Alice says they must meet a fence (thief) who will buy their stuff. The “stuff” the devil (the “thief”) wants are the souls that are going to die that Renee/Alice is going to help him get by getting others to do the killing. While at the devil’s cabin, Alice and Pete have sex again, and we hear the Cocteau Twins play again – “did I dream, you dreamed about me…,” and Fred reappears naked. The devil seems to be crafting this narrative of Fred’s desire, as he shows Fred to the Lost Highway Hotel, where Renee is cheating with Mr. Eddy/Dick Laurent. Fred beats and kidnaps Eddy/Dick from room “23” of the hotel and takes him to the desert where the man in black watches on. They hand him a small tv that shows a porn party with their circle watching what appears to be a kind of snuff film, with Marilyn Manson being killed.

Pete, if you recall, was first seen out in the desert with a head wound when Fred entered him. Pete doesn’t remember what happened to him or how he was lost, but as the police follow him (more surveillance), Pete begins to suspect that another consciousness (Fred) has possessed him and carried out murders. The final desert scenes are thus Fred’s vantage of possessing Pete, and discarding him after it’s done. Pete, it seems, was both a lost soul in the aether with a head wound, as well as Fred’s victimized version of himself. The end is Fred buzzing his own intercom to tell himself (at the beginning of the film) that “Dick Laurent is dead,” as he races away from the cop sirens that alarmed Fred in the beginning. The final scene is Fred racing down the lost highway, going into a jerking seizure reminiscent of someone in the electric chair – his very punishment for the murders. We can speculate that the story is Fred Madison’s cyclical experience of his downfall and electric chair death, which then repeats again as he races down the road.

Alice/Renee draws Fred/Pete into a dark occult underworld of mafia crime.

Alice/Renee draws Fred/Pete into a dark occult underworld of mafia crime.

Lost Highway is therefore a non-linear, Neo-noir occult psycho-drama that looks at the dark side of the Hollywood underworld, where mafia, porn, crime and the occult are interwoven into a story about one man’s psychic journey down a lost highway of his own stream of consciousness and thought. As the viewer travels with Fred Madison down this road, we are brought back to the very point he began, and the cycle starts again. Packed with dualism, illusion and mystery, Lost Highway is about life and the dark side of our own inner underworld, the subconscious, which Lynch mystically links to others’. If we fail to realize the reality of these evils, such as possession and the mysteries of the subconscious, are we liable to be trapped like Fred in our own madness? His name itself is a clue – “Madison,” symbolizing his descent into madness, as “Alice,” Renee’s alter, brings to mind Alice in Wonderland and alternate worlds and personalities. Was Alice a victim of mind control like Fred, or were they both willing accomplices of evil? Will the obsession with the Hollywood celluloid videodrome and its cousin, the now omnipresent surveillance society, bring us truth, or more likely a descent into madness, depersonalization and dissociation like Fred? Either way, Lynch is forcing us to examine that at base, reality and the psyche are still mysteries to be decoded.

10 Comments on Lost Highway (1997) – Esoteric Analysis

  1. I like reading your indepth way of looking at things. You always make for an interesting and thought-provoking read.

  2. I don’t think enough credit is given to Blue Velvet for its obvious panoptic themes… amongst othes (like possible pedophelia, subconscious programming).

  3. very good explanation, from a real Lynch’s viewer, I’ll have to rewatch it.

    in my opinion a significant clue is even in the theme song “deranged” by Bowie
    deranged should be the best word for the entire story, and then also “down down down”.
    not only the main character is deranged, but also the personal of the jail, when they open the cell-door, it’s so metaphysical…

    I should add that maybe the way this Fred married that femme fatale and became involved, a musician, in the bad film-factory story, was in the type of an adolescent [second part], a part of him was too pure not to create some counter-accident, the Mistery Man.

    [sorry for my English I’m Italian]

    • Yes, but it is up to the viewer to fantasize which parts of the movie and which are dream. For instance, one could interpret the whole thing except the sex scene as a symbolic dream relating to perceived sexual inadequacy on the part of Fred with Renee and his psychological processing of said problem. The intensity of action up to murder occurs only in cases that make the “newspapers.” For most, there is just the dream.

  4. A little detail that you might have kind of implied but not stated explicitly is that Pete is more sexually potent than Fred in the sex scenes. Renee gives Fred a patronizing pat on the back saying its ok after she fails to orgasm.

  5. I also find it interesting to think that the first alternate reality is his trying to re-explain and justify the past events but the 2nd part of the film is him trying to imagine up a possible fresh start and future. The only way he could possibly leave the jail (i.e. literally becoming someone else) enables him to have a bright start. Both of the story versions end up being dragged down by the reality emerging.

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