Lost Highway: A Home is a Man’s Castle

“What struck me about OJ Simpson was that he was able to smile and laugh. He was able to go golfing with seemingly few problems about the whole thing. I wondered how, if a person did those deeds, he could go on living. And we found this great psychology term — ‘psychogenic fugue’ — describing an event where the mind tricks itself to escape some horror. So, in a way, Lost Highway is about that. And the fact that nothing can stay hidden forever.” — David Lynch (“Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness and Creativity”)



It’s often said that OJ Simpson’s post-acquittal nonchalance was possible because, throughout the trial, Simpson lied so much that he grew to ‘believe his own lies.’ When we say someone ‘believes his or her own lies,’ we give colloquial testimony to the existence of Lynch’s term ‘psychogenic fugues’, something that if phrased otherwise (try ‘you can erase a memory if you lie it away’) would seem pretty unlikely. But it becomes more fathomable if we think of fugues—the inability to assimilate the truth; insistence on subjective reality—as a peculiar cocktail of trauma, paranoia, and confirmation bias.

Lynch knows that we need lies so desperately that, ironically, we’re even willing to rewrite our own backstories to defend our self-image. His 1997 film Lost Highway explores how a saxophonist, Fred Madison (Bill Pullman), who murders his wife, René Madison (Patricia Arquette), re-imagines his identity after the murder. Interestingly, he implies that this fugue occurs more in response to the humiliation of his wife’s indiscretions than the horror of her execution. We lie more to protect our egos than strengthen our alibis. But, as the film demonstrates, nothing we suppress “can stay hidden forever” -- and because of the connections we make between our egos and environments, the places we haunt prevent us from forgetting away our worst memories. Lost Highway shows us how egos and environments impact each other, either facilitating or foiling the selective amnesia we rely on to construct personality.

Waiting on a death sentence for the murder of his wife, Fred Madison transforms into another man, Pete Dayton. As soon as Fred thinks Pete into existence (and thus becomes Pete), the film switches from cinematic third to first person, depicting events as experienced within Fred’s ‘fugue-state’ re-imagination of events. Through Pete, a teenage auto mechanic, Fred can both erase memories of the murders, gain a new identity, and re-imagine his virility as so irresistible that a woman would cheat for him rather than on him. In this alternate scenario, the contested woman remains René save for a name change (now Alice) and change in hair color (now blonde).

Before Fred retreats into his alter-ego, we see why he needs an alter-ego in the first place. This is explained in the scenes leading up to the murder. Most take place in the Madisons’ home, where Lynch stages a semiotic exposition of Fred’s psyche. Using peculiar architectural details and color coded visual rhymes, Lynch creates a network of associations that visually represent the nature of Fred’s violent insecurities and unstable perceptions.


Windows at Madison House vs. Concrete Bunker Embrasure

The Madison home is an embodied mindscape. Defensive and introverted, the house’s exterior is homologous to the Madisons’ marital struggles. With slit-like windows that resemble the fortress embrasures shrouding cannon-fire, the exterior features a noticeably lopsided wall-space to window ratio. The house reads as self-consciously—even comically—protective.

Highlighting these windows, Lynch connects the home’s stylistic oddities and Fred’s psyche in the film’s opening. Prematurely awake and visibly troubled, Fred lies in bed smoking and watching his window shades rise (presumably connected to a morning alarm clock system). The light shines on Fred through a single-pane window, the only ordinarily sized window in the house. Red stage curtains flank the shade on this window. Introduced with a curtain rise opening, Fred’s room is clearly figured as a place of performance and visibility.  


Here, as he does in so many films, Lynch evokes performance anxiety with stage curtains and a spotlight. Throughout the film, he connects Fred’s professional and domestic lives using the red and black colors found in both his bedroom (red walls, black bed sheets) and the nightclub he performs in (black unlit club with red stage lights). This emphasizes the contrast between Fred’s superior musical performances and subpar sexual performances. His sex life is so brutally disappointing that, after the film’s first sex scene, René pats him on the back and repeats, “it’s okay”.

Contrast this with Pete’s robust virility, which is on display in either a red car with black vinyl upholstery (his car) or a black car with red vinyl upholstery interiors (Alice’s car).


While lying in bed, the message “Dick Laurent is dead” comes through Fred’s intercom, revealing the ease with which uninvited messages creep into his house—and even his bedroom. Fred rises to identify the intercom speaker, then goes to look through the embrasure-like window. Since it’s too small to see through, Fred walks over to the larger window, only to discover the area by the intercom vacated. Someone’s menacing Fred’s house (and mind) but he can’t tell who.


Later on, René opens a package on their doorstep containing videotape footage of the two of them lying asleep in bed. The footage is filmed using a high angle shot, a perspective often used to evoke a sense of omniscience. Similar shots are used throughout Lost Highway, creating visual rhymes suggesting memory and moral judgement. Appropriately, Scorsese calls these ‘Priest’s Angles’.

Detectives inspect the house. They surmise the intrusions were made possible by their discontinued alarm system. Visibly off put by the question, Fred and René do not respond in a manner that suggests the alarm may have been turned off to ease René’s nighttime ventures in and out of the house. Cleverly, Lynch establishes a connection between René’s infidelities and the porousness of their home: her infidelities violated the literal and metonymic sanctity of their bedroom, “opening the door” to interlopers.

When the detectives suggest installing security cameras, Fred dismisses the idea: “I like to remember things my own way… How I remember them, not exactly how they happen.” However tech-averse, Fred tells the detectives that he has soundproofed the bedroom. This way, he can practice his saxophone and reclaim the bedroom as a place for something he’s good at.

Lynch further highlights the interstices of the house’s interior and exterior in one of the film’s most famous sequences, where we meet both of the Madison’s “home-wreckers”. After Fred realizes his wife is sleeping with the host of a party they’re attending, Fred heads over to the bar to order two drinks. A little person with a white-painted face, black hair, and rouged lips approaches Fred. He tells Fred that not only has he met him at his house before (Fred doesn’t remember him), he’s at his house right now. He hands Fred a phone and tells him to call his own home phone. On the other end of the receiver, the “mystery man” answers and tells Fred that he’s at his house because “you invited me. It is not my custom to go where I’m not invited”.


The videotapes and “the mystery man” scenes evoke and (quite literally) perform the definition of “the uncanny” as Freud storied it. Appropriately, the term also conflates domestic spaces and psychic phenomenon. An antidote to heimlich (‘belonging to the house’), unheimlich (“the uncanny”) describes the experience of something outside the house, alien, that feels familiar, like what belongs to the house. Freud famously uses the experience of ‘being robbed of one’s eyes’ (gauged eyes being the form of Oedipus’ “castration”) to explain the uncanny. Blinded by sleep but observed by others, René and Fred are robbed of their eyes by the intruder’s camera, a seizure of subjectivity that Fred (as he tells the detectives) already associates with cameras.

The Madisons’ seem weary of light bulbs as well. The home is filled with meager space lighting that continually impairs our ability to locate the characters in the house. Paired with a variety of non-right angles and full length mirrors, the house has a lost-in-space quality. Often lit from only the waist up, the characters seem to wade through the house, dissolving from one room to the next as if passing between states of consciousness.

While the Madison home is almost medieval in its lack of light and exposure, it is exceptionally technologically equipped. However, this technology is only featured when aggravating Fred’s anxieties (the invasion footage, his calls home to see if René has lied and left the house, the news of Dick Laurent’s death, the ‘mystery man’s’ phone call). This reinforces the home’s sense of slippage between exterior information and interior security, mirroring the quarrels between Fred’s conscious and unconscious realities.

The film’s Hollywood Hills home invasions evoke the uniquely uncanny home invasions the Manson family staged to prepared for the Tate-LaBianca murders. Calling them “creepy crawleys”, the family broke into homes and re-arranged furniture and various household item. Like Fred and René, victims of “creepy crawleys” would experience the unique fear of realizing people roamed around their house while they slept. Also like the videotapes, the idea is not to enter the victim’s house, but to get into their heads by getting into their house.

But Fred’s mind had already been trespassed. Since Fred repeatedly unknowingly invites intruders, its implied that he’s actually the source of his home’s vulnerability. Seeing as his home’s vulnerability is linked to his marriage’s and his own, it’s implied that his jealousy (and resulting bad husbandry) brought about his wife’s infidelities, instead of the other way around. As he let people get into his house, he let people get into his head.


“This may in fact be Lynch's true and only agenda—just to get inside your head.”

In an article recounting his visit to the set of Lost Highway, David Foster Wallace offers an academic definition of ‘Lynchian’, which he argues, "refers to a particular kind of irony where the very macabre and the very mundane combine in such a way as to reveal the former's perpetual containment within the latter." The macabre elements of Fred’s personality—his potential for violence—are muted by mundane, domestic feel of the film’s first act. After the murder, we can look back and bestow irony and violence on episodes that felt ordinary on first-viewing. This reinforces the sense that, when the film’s violence occurs, it feels simultaneously shocking and oddly familiar.

Lost Highway shows how a man’s failure to maintain a self-contained home causes him to lose his mind and his memories. Since maintaining a home’s safety is a job customarily bestowed upon men, this convention feels ordinary and unthreatening. But since this expectation is the same grounds upon which Fred goes crazy, murders his wife and loses his sense of self, failing to meet this duty has explosive consequences on his ego. Playing with the idea that ‘a home is a man’s castle’, and a mind is a man’s battleground, Lynch reveals the violence concealed within convention.