Eucatastrophe: A Sudden turn of events for the good of the character in order for them to avoid a fate worse than death. Quite literally, a good catastrophe.
“But David Lynch’s films always end on a sour note!” Some of you readers may be uttering. Henry still cuts his baby to pieces, and it attacks him. John Merreck, after a horrific life, does die. Laura, too, is horrifically murdered by her own father. Jeffery is irreversibly an adult and Dorothy still carries the scars that Frank put on her soul. Sailor and Lula reunite but it’s only after Sail gets beaten up. Both Alvin and his brother are one step closer to the grave. Diane still kills herself. Who knows what happened to Fred and Nikki. The only happy ending is in Lynch’s “worst movie” Dune. But no one “sensible” counts Dune anyway! (Side note: I actually like Dune, just so you know.)
Nope, I say that the whole of Lynch’s films are filled with Eucatastrophe with two exceptions, Lost Highway, (both Twin Peaks Season 2 and Season 3 endings) and Dune. First we will explore the etymology of Eucatastrophe and how it really works in story. Then we will look at each Lynch film to see how each film, save the two exceptions, are Eucatastrophic endings.
Background of the Term
J. R. R. Tolkien coined this term to describe endings that do just that, they are happy endings but the kind of happiness that may include a bit of sorrow, or a twinge of pain. It’s not altogether happy and carefree in these endings. There’s always a bit of the shadow left behind. “A eucatastrophe is the opposite of a catastrophe. Whereas the catastrophe might be employed in tragedy, and is regarded as the down-turn of a story, Tolkien’s eucatastrophe is the shift in the faerie story for the good. It’s “the sudden joyous turn.” The eucatastrophe says that just when all hope appears to be lost, just when circumstances cannot get much bleaker, hope emerges.” (Willard).
This happened frequently in Tolkien’s greatest work, The Lord of the Rings, (bear with me, I’m coming back to Lynch soon). Just when Frodo had gone through hell and the ring had been destroyed, Sam and he were ready to die. That’s when the eagles swooped in and rescued them. Just when the battle at the front of the Black Gate was going illy and there was no way that the Men of the West would win their battle and that they’d all be destroyed, the ring was destroyed. Just when the Battle of Helm’s deep was about to turn for the worst, saviors arrived. In smaller moments too, Just when the king of the Nazgul was about to devour Theoden king of Rohan, he was saved from that fate and his deceased body was allowed the dignity of burial. This does not negate that all is well in the end and that the characters feel no more pain or no more suffering. Frodo still experiences periods of darkness and has his wound he received at Weathertop burn occasionally. He can’t stay with his friends for the rest of his life, because of those wounds. His friends must be sundered from him as he sails further into the West.
Therefore, with that in mind–that eucatastrophic endings are not perfectly happy, nor does it save the main character from all suffering, just the fate worse than death–let’s take a look at Lynch’s films.
Blue Velvet’s endings (there are two) are the most blatantly Euctatastophic. Dorothy and Jeffrey could have had a fate worse than the one that they ended up with. Dorothy could have ended up with both her husband and son killed and herself being the tortured victim of Frank for the rest of her life if Jeffery didn’t suddenly, and with good aim, kill the crazed homicidal maniac. Jeffery also could have been killed in the process.
Therefore, at the end of Blue Velvet, you do see Jeffery able to enjoy a family barbeque in the backyard. We do see Dorothy playing with her son. There is a robin at the window. So there is happiness here. They are both saved almost at the last minute by a sudden good shot. But there is still sadness here, too. Dorothy sings ‘but I still sing blue velvet, through my tears’ as a voice over. She will still have moments of PTSD obviously from her situation. I am also not too sure that Jeffery and Sandy will ever be totally whole from this experience either. Therefore they were saved from a fate worse than the ones they ended up with, but it is still sad. There is still a sense of catastrophe.
Wild at Heart.
Wild at Heart is yet another more blatant happy ending. Sailor and Lula are reunited and that is that. But there is a bit of a catastrophe. Sailor has just been in prison. He got out and thought he was not good enough for Lula so he walked away from her right into the hands of a gang that beat him up. From Gifford’s book, which I wrote about extensively in previous blog articles, a catastrophic ending occured. Sailor does leave Lula for a good six months. She returns to North Carolina and is still under Marietta’s toxic thumb. Sailor wanders about getting odd jobs and being haunted by his life. Neither of their lives are fulfilled and happy. There is a bad catastrophe there. There is no joy in their lives.
The end, though, of Lynch’s film, is joyful. Sailor is saved from his catastrophic thought process by the Good Witch and is able to reunite with Lula in a Eucatastrophic ending. Which doesn’t mean that the young kids are totally happy. I’m sure that Marietta will always be a pain in Lula’s posterior. I’m sure that the shadow of Big Tuna will always be over the couple. (In fact, in the final two Gifford books, Lula does have some PTSD moments of remembering Big Tuna and it affects her poorly, even into old age.)
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me
This is the best example of Eucatastrophe in Lynch’s whole ouvre! Laura does get brutally murdered, yes. But what was truly her fate worse than death? BOB’s end game was to possess Laura not to murder her. She was really close to having that happen. Her death was not what made her scream, it was seeing BOB reflected in the mirror. That was the fate worse than death for her. She was saved by having made the conscious decision to put on the ring. She gets killed, a far more “victorious” option.
But then she’s dead. Yes, but she does receive the joyous angel at the end. That’s eucatastrophe. I was watching a YouTube video where a man named Daisuke Beppu was talking about why he loves Fire Walk With Me and rates it as his favorite Lynch Film. He cites that there is a sense of optimism about this film. Perhaps it is because of the eucatastrophe in it.
Let’s go through the few that aren’t eucatastrophic at all.
Dune and Lost Highway.
Lost Highway is an ending that is totally catastrophic. Like the endings of both Seasons 2 and 3 of Twin Peaks, there is no hope at all in the vision of Fred getting ripped apart atomically while fleeing from the police. Was he really in the electric chair at this point and being executed for his wife’s murder? He also went to his door to whisper “Dick Laurent is dead,” starting the whole film cyclically all over again. So he is the catastrophe and he has catastrophe happen to him. He is never going to have a happy or joy filled ending. There is no joy in seeing Dale possessed by BOB. The is a firm sense of the world being destroyed with Laura screaming and Dale confused about his own time-space location in the end of Season 3. These three endings are wholly catastrophe.
Dune, on the other hand, on completely the other hand, is an ending that is fully victorious. By the middle of the film, you knew that the Fremen and Paul were going to win. You knew that Arrakis was going to be liberated. This is because Dune is fully a fairy-tale-like ending. Its ending is certain and nothing will stop it from happening.
Now let’s look at the less obvious examples of eucatastrophic endings. This could be because the circumstances at the end seem too bleak to be truly good, or the sense of “catastrophe” for the main character isn’t present or for other reasons.
Henry’s life is one of floating. He is floating through life with no feelings either way. He is not alive; he makes no choices of his own. As soon as we find out from the X family that there is a baby, suddenly Henry and Mary are living together and the baby is in the apartment with them. When Henry, barely able to take care of himself, is left with the baby, his trials begin. He has his torturous dreams. The baby sickens more.
Thus when Henry kills the baby, is the moment that he makes his own choice. It almost destroys him in the process, because he perhaps made the wrong choice. Killing his own baby may not have been the answer. So it probably does destroy him. Who knows if he repents of his actions but at the end, he does experience a eucatastrophe. Instead of dying and the ending and the bleakness of nothing at the end. Instead, The Lady in the Radiator, his angel, greets Henry in some form of Heaven (where everything is fine). So he does receive an eucatastrophe. His death and the bleakness of that could have ended the movie (I reflect on the 1963 Haunting for a totally catastrophic ending here, where Eleanor, dies and gets absorbed into the house, to be continually haunted and haunting in turn. There is no happiness in death for her).
The Elephant Man.
We know that John Merreck was an abused person. He had a miserable life. In the film, he was kidnapped by his carnival manager again, and trapped in his awful life again (after the torturous incident in his own hospital room). But thanks to the other Carnival freaks saving him he is able to return to London. And thanks to him standing up for himself, he was able to be free to live publicly and with dignity. He was able to go to the theatre. He was able to feel at home in his hospital room again. He felt like a human again. So though he laid down like a human, and died in the process, he was able to be reunited with his mother. Yes, he is dead, but his death brings happiness and fulfillment of a heaven of sorts with his mother. Just like Henry too. His own choice caused his death, but it ended up eucatastrophic.
Nikki has lost her entire identity and we don’t even know who she is. So when she reclaims her identity and becomes Nikki again, she frees herself from the Phantom’s powers. She also frees the lonely woman in the hotel room to be able to return to her family again. Nikki is able to dance “Sinner Man” in her grand mansion with all the other women, in a freeing ritual of bonding.
How can this be Eucatastrophic? We see the fractured person, whomever she is, lying on the street and bleeding out and dying. She is saved by the calling of “cut” when we realize that Nikki was only acting. But for us, viewers, that whole thing was frighteningly real. She may have not been able to defeat the demons within her and free herself to have the joyous experience of the dance with other similarly wounded women, now healed but never forgetting their woundedness. She liberated herself from a fate worse than death. She liberated herself from the fractured state and became one person again.
The Straight Story.
But you’re saying, what’s so almost “catastrophic” about this sweet movie? It is eucatastrophic. They are both old men, too trapped in their own pride to reach out to each other over the years. It would have been catastrophic if they never met again. There was a catastrophe at the very beginning with Alan’s fall. What if he paid attention to the others around him and didn’t go to see Lyle? What if he just stopped his ideas when his original riding mower broke down right before the “Grotto?” What happens if no one came to help him the few times he was in danger as his newer mower malfunctioned? What happens if he made it too late, and Lyle was already dead, Lynch does make us fear that when no one comes to the door immediately when Alvin calls out his brother’s name. So there is an eucatastrophe. It is a joyous ending, but a joy not without pain. Both are old men. Both have serious medical conditions that are irreversible. So they have reunited with each other, but with the sadness of time past.
How can this be eucatastrophe? Doesn’t Diane just kill herself, plain and simple? Yes, she does kill herself, but somehow, at the very end, when we see her embracing Camilla/Rita, it’s their ghostly images. She has returned to her happy place. The place where she, as Betty, and Camilla as Rita were truly happy, in her own fantasy realm. Her ghost can be somewhat happy trapped in its own delusion. But for her, that is happiness. That delusion is joy.
Eucatastrophe. Lynch’s films truly abound with it. There is a sense of joy and happiness about endings for his films, which is probably the reason we return to them so often.
Beppu, Daisuke. “Criterion Collection DVD’s and Blu Rays: My Top 10 Favorites.” YouTube. 6/27/2018.
Ellis, Bruce, “The Hobbit: Deus Ex Machina & Eucatastrophe.” Power Point Presentation. www.slideserve.com
Williard, Tim. “Eucatastrophe: J.R.R. Tolkien & C. S. Lewis’s Magic Formula for Hope.” A Pilgrim in Narnia. December 21, 2015. apilgriminnarnia.com/2015/12/12/eucatastrophe