Grand Unified Theory of Lost Highway


Whisper to the reader: I will not attempt to address every symbol included in Lynch’s work within this piece; that would be tiresome and subjective. Rather, I will discuss the overlying themes and “main” symbols as they pertain to the story.

-Geoffrey A. Johns. 28 September, 2002

Grand Unified Theory of Lost Highway


In order to successfully discuss this film, we have to look at its two aspects: Delusion and “Reality.” Please note that “Reality” isn’t always reality as we know it on this physical plane; rather, it is often a deluded version of actual reality. As such, I will adopt the terms Delusion and Delusional Reality from this point on.

I am of the opinion that at no time in this film do we ever see “actual reality.” It is always tainted and filtered through Madison’s perception.


These events are not in the action of the film except in snippets and implication, and it is for this reason that I give this chapter its name.

This chapter consists of what we can glean happens in actual reality prior to the start of the film. There is some ambiguity here, and as such, there are a few alternatives.

Fred and Renee are married, and he suspects she is being unfaithful. This may or may not be the case however; Fred might just be unjustifiably suspicious. In any case, he is rendered sexually impotent by the fear that this is the truth. If he is deluded in this belief, the men he “decides” she is being unfaithful with could just have been picked arbitrarily, and could be wholly innocent of the depravity he assigns them. However, even if Renee has been unfaithful with one of the men, it does not necessarily follow that she has also been with the other. He may just suspect as much because of the connection between them and because of his own insecurity.

As it is more fun to assume the worst of people, it is my contention that Renee is being unfaithful with both the man we know as Dick Laraunt and the man we know as Andy. These men may or may not have knowledge of the other in the context of Renee; that they do could very possibly be just a paranoid delusion of Madison’s. The idea that all one’s enemies are conspiring together against you is a common paranoid delusion.

I believe that Madison one night follows Renee to the Lost Highway Motel and sees her enter Laraunt’s bedroom (this scene is in the film after Madison reemerges from Dayton at the cabin in the desert). After Renee leaves, he attacks Laraunt, takes him out to the desert, and kills him.
He then goes home and eviscerates his wife. Spaghetti O’s, anyone?

Also, some time between this point and the next, he may or may not kill Andy. Stay tuned for more.


This is where the film begins.

Overwrought with the guilt of his actions, Madison’s consciousness digresses into a state of delusion. He imagines himself back a few days prior to the murders. We can assume that perhaps he is trying to justify himself, or to gain atonement for his actions. He tries to love Renee and be with her, but his insecurity about her fidelity daunts him even in his fantasies.

Fred and Renee have sex. While this is going on, note the music. We will hear this again later, so watch for it. Fred has sexual difficulties one way or another during the exchange; we are led to believe that this is due to Fred’s assumptions of her infidelity and the fact that she seems cold, unavailable, and just all-around not “into” it. Fred suddenly sees the Mystery Man in Renee’s face… I’ll discuss him later… but this, like the movies (which come next), is an attempt on his subconscious’s part to remember reality: the murder(s). We also learn that Fred is even having “dreams” about the night he murdered Renee.

The first movie arrives.

The movies are the be-all and end-all of Lynchian symbolism in this film. As they eventually reveal to Fred all of that which he is trying to deny (i.e., the murder, specifically Renee’s murder) we can draw a parallel with Lynch’s later film Mulholland Drive. The movies are similar to the Magician in Club Silencio, and the Cowboy’s role at the end of the film. All of these items are trying to break into the deluded reality of the main characters and say “Time to wake up! You can’t close real life out forever!”

I would be remiss not to mention Fred’s quote about video cameras. It seems the trendy thing to do when discussing LH at any level. This sets up the idea that Fred likes his own version of reality better than actuality.

Just like Betty, Fred tries to suppress the message the films try to send him. As he suppresses, the tension builds, and he is confronted at the party with the Mystery Man… Fred’s doppleganger. The MM represents everything about himself that Fred is trying to deny and suppress. The message of the MM at Andy’s party is “I’m still here, and you can’t run from me!” Fred runs home with Renee to try and continue to deny further.

A sharp eye will, in the following scenes, see a brief reenactment of the dream he tells her he had earlier in the film in which she is calling for him through the dark house.

Fred sees the final videotape and is shocked into realizing what he has done, forcing him out of his delusion. What follows is probably the closest we come to seeing any semblance of actual objective reality. He re-lives the trial and sentencing. This is perhaps his own way of punishing himself.

In the end, however, he cannot reach any kind of peace with himself for what he has done. Fred’s guilt manifests as migraine headaches. This foreshadows his future break with reality in the form of Pete Dayton.


Pete is Fred’s opposite, but he is not a doppleganger as the MM is. A doppleganger can be thought of as an evil twin of sorts, whereas Pete is more like Fred’s antithesis. He is young, virile, sought by women… everything Fred is not. In this way, Fred has effectively re-created himself in his own idea of perfection. Even so, he imagines police trailing him on the edge of his consciousness because there still exists the lingering guilt, and the reality of his crime.

In this ideal world, he puts things into motion that he wishes he could have in reality… not only is Alice/Renee his, but he is effectively punishing the Laraunt character’s counterpart with an unfaithful lover, as he saw himself, and, to add insult to injury, he is betraying his friendship with him to do so. It is payback time for Laraunt.

Sheila adds an interesting dynamic to the equation. She seems to represent everything that Renee was supposed to be in Fred’s eyes… meek, needy, etc., and he also ultimately betrays her as well, giving Renee the payback that she “deserves” …basically, he is having his proverbial cake, and chowing down on it too. Note well the nail polish that Sheila wears and in what scenes… as well as what nail polish Renee/Alice wears where and when. There is a connection! (This would likely be one of Lynch’s 10 clues about Lost Highway, if he ever made a list such as he did for MD)

As before, Fred cannot keep the gravity of his crime from creeping in on his fantasy. Reality starts to intrude as Mr Eddy/Laraunt realizes what is going on and begins to pose a threat. At the same time, Pete’s parents have a dark secret they refuse to tell… this secret is not Pete’s secret, of course, but Fred’s. Sheila breaks her role of submissive, na├»ve, quiet door mat and attacks Pete; his fantasy is beginning to break down around him. Cue sudden, inexplicable headaches. Hmmm… a pattern, perhaps?

Eddy/Laraunt calls, aided by the MM, and threatens Pete. This is another sign that his constructed world is falling apart, and the MM is driving the wrecking ball.

Pete and Alice decide to rob Andy and run off together. This part of the story gets a little tricky (hopefully, the irony is not lost on the reader seeing “a little tricky” being applied only now to a David Lynch film, much less Lost Highway, his notoriously most hard-core endeavor; but let’s press on).

Andy was Renee’s friend. It was he who first introduced her to Laraunt. Alice’s “interview” scene at Laraunt’s residence is probably a perversion of the actual events, but we can probably assume that a similar situation happened with Renee (i.e., a sexual encounter of some nature, as Renee more and more resembles everyone’s favorite insatiable homecoming queen). Further, Andy himself may also have been a sexual conquest of hers, or he may not have. We can speculate a couple of scenarios, but they are really inconsequential. What is important is Fred’s belief that Andy and Renee get busy.

Alice, at this point, has assumed the role of the whore Fred believed Renee to be, and this is distorted and amplified (literally and figuratively so) in the large screening room where a reel of Alice’s debauchery is highlighted.

There is a brief exchange and Andy ends up with his gray matter impaled on the corner of a rather tacky glass-topped coffee table (as serves him right for accessorizing with art deco). This may be a reflection of an actual murder Fred committed out of jealousy at Andy, or a recreation of the Laraunt murder with Andy in his place, he being the one Madison holds responsible for getting Renee associated with Laraunt in the first place. Either case works, so choose your own adventure.

There is a bit of an identity crisis where Alice suddenly seemingly accuses Pete of murder. This is another wake up call… and Fred/Pete can’t handle it. He retreats to the bathroom where he is confronted with even more memories of the night he went on his little killing spree.

The two lovebirds race off to the infamous burning desert house. This house might represent Fred’s tortured psyche, or his sense of sexual tension, or a bowl of raisin bran, among other things. But let’s not over analyze. No one is home, so the only logical thing to do is have raucous intercourse in the arid dessert sand, bathed in the halogen glow of the car’s headlights.

Pete, approaching the blissful climax Fred could never have achieved, professes to Alice how badly he (and Fred) wants her. As the headlights begin to flicker and the music which played during Fred and Renee’s “love” scene begins to climax with him, Alice leans down and whispers to Pete the one phrase that can utterly destroy his fantasy and melt his delusion. “You have no power over me!” Oh wait, that was Labyrinth. No, Alice says “You’ll never have me!” And she is gone. But not before the nude moonlit butt shimmy up the front stairs of the raisin bran house.

At this point, the jig is up, and Fred has regressed back into himself. He brushes the sand out of his ass and runs up the stairs of his psyche, er, the cabin… and goes through the door. There he is confronted with his doppleganger again, the Mystery Man. Fred asks where Alice is, and the MM effectively replies “There is no Alice, freak! It was Renee, it is time for you to FACE FACT! Face who you are and what you did!” And at that point, he wields a video camera, the ultimate objective witness, and one Fred cannot taint with his delusion and fantasy. So, he runs off again.

The following scene is a reenactment of the Laraunt murder, which Fred imagines the MM taking part in (as wouldn’t we all like to imagine our darker half being solely responsible for the things we know we shouldn’t be doing in the first place).

So, Laraunt is killed, Renee is killed, Andy is killed. –Cue the Moonlight Sonnata.

The next thing we see is the little indicator of the cyclical nature of the film… Fred goes to his house and says into the speaker the words he heard spoken from the other side at the start. To me, this signifies perhaps Fred’s desire to start over again, to delve back into the role he made for himself in the beginning of the movie. Who knows how many cycles of this he has already seen! Fred may actually be 60 years old by this time, still running his mental hamster wheel round and round.

The cops see him, follow him, and he decides once again to R-U-N-N-O-F-T. An exaggerated police chase ensues, and Fred is suddenly fried for apparently no reason. Perhaps he was quantum leaping back into the beginning of the story again… or perhaps the REAL Fred finally got his comeuppance in the electrical chair, silencing the hamster wheel. Will the mysteries never end? I hope not.

Funny how secrets travel on.

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