Viewing Mulholland Drive Through the Lens of Horror

What makes a film scary? It’s a question every horror filmmaker asks. Of course, the answers vary depending on the film; maybe it’s monsters, jump scares, or good, old-fashioned, bloody violence. Each of these has its merits, but I’m always on the lookout for horror films that do something unique and find new ways to terrify us. Fear is a strong emotion, after all, and there’s nothing quite like leaving a movie that has truly rattled you.

It seems other filmmakers are asking themselves the same question, as the past several years have seen a resurgence in slow-burn horror films. Movies like The Witch, Hereditary, It Comes at Night, and The Invitation, while often divisive amongst audience members, have sparked a renewed interest from small and large production companies alike in horror films that go beyond the standard jump scare-and-gore formula.

This has all gotten me thinkingnot for the first timeabout another film that in its own way manages to be quite frightening indeed but is rarely seen as a horror movie: David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive.

Released in 2001, Mulholland Drive is “standard” Lynchian faremulti-layered, dark, and confusing. The plot isn’t straightforward, and it’s filled with enough sinister scenarios to make freshman-year-of-film-school me afraid to get up at night to go to the bathroom. Yet, whenever I ask someonefilm student or otherwisewhat genre label they’d give to Lynch’s mind-bending masterpiece, few call it a horror movie. While most won’t hesitate to agree that the film is scary, they tend to view it as more of a thriller, a mystery, or even a romance. I can’t help but wonder why because no other film has left me with quite the same lingering sense of terror and existential dread.

Minor spoilers about Mulholland Drive below

So how does Lynch manage to provoke such reactions? The answer lies in Mulholland Drive’s very specific brand of scary, which stems from two things: Lynch’s ability to inject fear into banal, everyday situations and his ability to instill dread in the audience. No scene illustrates this quite so well as the now-infamous Winkie’s Diner sequence. In one of many seemingly disjointed scenes throughout the film, two men, Dan and Herb, are sitting at a booth in Winkie’s and eating breakfast. Dan tells Herb about an ominous dream he’s been having. In the dream, Herb stands by the counter in this exact diner, and behind the restaurant, Dan can see a terrifying figure, which has a face that is, quite literally, the stuff of nightmares.

Eventually, after Dan finishes describing his dream, Herb gets up to pay for their meal, ending up in the same spot he takes in Dan’s dream, and we as the audience begin to realize that this scene is playing out exactly as it does in the nightmare. The men venture out into the broad daylight, approaching a wall behind the diner, and at this point, we all know what’s coming. The tension leading up to the inevitable appearance of the monster is palpable, and even though there’s nothing particularly ominous about the setting, by the time the scare actually happens, we are gripped with terror. The creature itself isn’t even all that scary on its own, but the knowledge that something is behind that wall, something terrifying enough to give a grown man nightmares, is where the fear comes from.

While it might be the most famous, the Winkie’s scene is not the only example of Lynch using our own expectations as a horror device. From the discovery of Diane’s corpse to the sequence at club Silencio, Mulholland Drive is littered with scenes that you can’t help but watch from between your fingers. There is the sense that nowhere is safe, that something unspeakable is lurking just off camera, and that we are helpless to stop it as the characters come closer and closer to some horrifying truth.

The confusion of the narrative makes this even worse; what’s really going on? How does all of this fit together? Why do I feel like something terrible is right around the next innocuous corner?

This idea of the terrifying in the ordinary reminds me of a recurring nightmare I had when I was little… about a lake. That’s it; it was literally just a still lake in the middle of a forest clearing. There was nothing overtly frightening about it, but looking at that lake always made me paralyzed with terror because I knew that there was something wrong, something off, and the normality of the scene made the sense of dread that much worse. I always woke up in a cold sweat, and to this day, imagining that lake makes alarm bells sound somewhere in the back of my mind. That’s the thing about nightmares: they turn innocent situations into scenes of horror, and Mulholland Drive mimics that feeling perfectly.

Given that dreams are one of the themes of the film, it’s beautifully sadistic for Lynch to have made Mulholland Drive into so much of a waking nightmare. Images that on their own shouldn’t be considered scary are suddenly terrifying: a diner, a ringing telephone, a soft-spoken cowboy, a group of people dancing the jitterbug. These sequences all possess that same nightmarish quality of senseless dread for which the Winkie’s scene is so well-known, and when combined with the scenes that truly are nonsensical (Adam walking in on his wife in bed with Billy Ray Cyrus, Joe’s botched assassination attempt), the film accurately captures the feeling of a dream best forgotten.

None of this is to say that you have to consider Mulholland Drive a horror film—after all, an argument could be made for any number of genresbut considering the amount of fright it instills in me, I can’t not call it one. It is a movie with its own form of fear, one it uses to wonderfully unnerving effect, with no blood and guts to be found. In a world with a newfound interest the non-standard horror movie, revisiting it from this perspective can teach us a lot about dread as a tool and its role in some of the more creative scares that have been put on film in the last few decades. And if you haven’t yet seen it, it’s worth the watch; just make sure you do it with the lights on.



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Viewing Mulholland Drive Through the Lens of Horror

What makes a film scary? It’s a question every horror filmmaker asks. Of course, the answers vary depending on the film; maybe it’s monsters, jump scares, or good, old-fashioned, bloody violence. Each of these has its merits, but I’m always on the lookout for horror films that do something unique and find new ways to terrify us. Fear is a strong emotion, after all, and there’s nothing quite like leaving a movie that has truly rattled you.

It seems other filmmakers are asking themselves the same question, as the past several years have seen a resurgence in slow-burn horror films. Movies like The Witch, Hereditary, It Comes at Night, and The Invitation, while often divisive amongst audience members, have sparked a renewed interest from small and large production companies alike in horror films that go beyond the standard jump scare-and-gore formula.

This has all gotten me thinkingnot for the first timeabout another film that in its own way manages to be quite frightening indeed but is rarely seen as a horror movie: David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive.

Released in 2001, Mulholland Drive is “standard” Lynchian faremulti-layered, dark, and confusing. The plot isn’t straightforward, and it’s filled with enough sinister scenarios to make freshman-year-of-film-school me afraid to get up at night to go to the bathroom. Yet, whenever I ask someonefilm student or otherwisewhat genre label they’d give to Lynch’s mind-bending masterpiece, few call it a horror movie. While most won’t hesitate to agree that the film is scary, they tend to view it as more of a thriller, a mystery, or even a romance. I can’t help but wonder why because no other film has left me with quite the same lingering sense of terror and existential dread.

Minor spoilers about Mulholland Drive below

So how does Lynch manage to provoke such reactions? The answer lies in Mulholland Drive’s very specific brand of scary, which stems from two things: Lynch’s ability to inject fear into banal, everyday situations and his ability to instill dread in the audience. No scene illustrates this quite so well as the now-infamous Winkie’s Diner sequence. In one of many seemingly disjointed scenes throughout the film, two men, Dan and Herb, are sitting at a booth in Winkie’s and eating breakfast. Dan tells Herb about an ominous dream he’s been having. In the dream, Herb stands by the counter in this exact diner, and behind the restaurant, Dan can see a terrifying figure, which has a face that is, quite literally, the stuff of nightmares.

Eventually, after Dan finishes describing his dream, Herb gets up to pay for their meal, ending up in the same spot he takes in Dan’s dream, and we as the audience begin to realize that this scene is playing out exactly as it does in the nightmare. The men venture out into the broad daylight, approaching a wall behind the diner, and at this point, we all know what’s coming. The tension leading up to the inevitable appearance of the monster is palpable, and even though there’s nothing particularly ominous about the setting, by the time the scare actually happens, we are gripped with terror. The creature itself isn’t even all that scary on its own, but the knowledge that something is behind that wall, something terrifying enough to give a grown man nightmares, is where the fear comes from.

While it might be the most famous, the Winkie’s scene is not the only example of Lynch using our own expectations as a horror device. From the discovery of Diane’s corpse to the sequence at club Silencio, Mulholland Drive is littered with scenes that you can’t help but watch from between your fingers. There is the sense that nowhere is safe, that something unspeakable is lurking just off camera, and that we are helpless to stop it as the characters come closer and closer to some horrifying truth.

The confusion of the narrative makes this even worse; what’s really going on? How does all of this fit together? Why do I feel like something terrible is right around the next innocuous corner?

This idea of the terrifying in the ordinary reminds me of a recurring nightmare I had when I was little… about a lake. That’s it; it was literally just a still lake in the middle of a forest clearing. There was nothing overtly frightening about it, but looking at that lake always made me paralyzed with terror because I knew that there was something wrong, something off, and the normality of the scene made the sense of dread that much worse. I always woke up in a cold sweat, and to this day, imagining that lake makes alarm bells sound somewhere in the back of my mind. That’s the thing about nightmares: they turn innocent situations into scenes of horror, and Mulholland Drive mimics that feeling perfectly.

Given that dreams are one of the themes of the film, it’s beautifully sadistic for Lynch to have made Mulholland Drive into so much of a waking nightmare. Images that on their own shouldn’t be considered scary are suddenly terrifying: a diner, a ringing telephone, a soft-spoken cowboy, a group of people dancing the jitterbug. These sequences all possess that same nightmarish quality of senseless dread for which the Winkie’s scene is so well-known, and when combined with the scenes that truly are nonsensical (Adam walking in on his wife in bed with Billy Ray Cyrus, Joe’s botched assassination attempt), the film accurately captures the feeling of a dream best forgotten.

None of this is to say that you have to consider Mulholland Drive a horror film—after all, an argument could be made for any number of genresbut considering the amount of fright it instills in me, I can’t not call it one. It is a movie with its own form of fear, one it uses to wonderfully unnerving effect, with no blood and guts to be found. In a world with a newfound interest the non-standard horror movie, revisiting it from this perspective can teach us a lot about dread as a tool and its role in some of the more creative scares that have been put on film in the last few decades. And if you haven’t yet seen it, it’s worth the watch; just make sure you do it with the lights on.



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