This is an article I wrote for a great new David Lynch Fansite worldoflynch.com, if you love Twin Peaks it’s worth checking out!
…And nightmares. Terrible nightmares. That’s what I remember from Twin Peaks the first time around; not being able to look in a mirror if I was alone, for fear of seeing Bob’s crazed, evil face staring back at me and laughing. Ok, so that’s what you get for watching a David Lynch production when you’re only ten years old. It wasn’t because my parents were extremely liberal that I was allowed to watch it. It was more the fact that they weren’t really aware of what kind of show it was, and to be fair, I don’t think anyone else was either, maybe not even the writers, when the first season premiered back in 1990.
I think my folks could be forgiven, at the start, for mistaking it for just another US crime drama procedural. But they should have quickly realised that it was anything but. From the word go, the creepy, unnerving sensation that all was not well in this apparent haven of remote, small town America was tangible. The image of Laura Palmer wrapped in plastic on the lake shore was far from grotesque; in fact it was her lifeless beauty that was more disturbing. Of course, I was far too young to have made those observations at the time; I have recently re-watched the entire two seasons on DVD, partly because there were a lot of things I had forgotten and wanted to understand properly about the story, but also as a sort of dare to myself, to see whether I would still be scared out of my wits by a TV show now I’m in my thirties.
Well, as a Twin Peaks fan, you won’t be at all surprised to learn that I found it just as mesmerising, disturbing and haunting as it ever was. Perhaps even more so, given that my childish imagination has had twenty years to develop in the meantime. Which made me wonder; what exactly is it that I find so scary? I can watch gory horror films without flinching, I watch the news every day, which contains violent images, and yet and don’t have nightmares or have to turn it off. Being the nerd that I am, and having briefly studied the theories of Freud in a university course about a hundred years ago, it got me thinking of some of the issues he raises in his essay on ‘The Uncanny’. It is, as Freud explains, a certain distinct realm of the frightening, of what evokes fear and dread, and makes us feel both uneasy and haunted. This category of fear feels like a good description of the source of horror in Twin Peaks, and by looking into this using Freud’s analytic lens, if I can understand why it’s so frightening, perhaps I will be able to watch it before bed sometime….
The word ‘Uncanny’ in German is ‘unheimlich’, which literally means unhomely. It is the opposite of homely, by which we mean everything that is safe, familiar and comforting. Impressions, experiences and situations which evoke a sense of the uncanny are always related to something which was at one time known and familiar, but which has been hidden and repressed, to return as something alien, uncomfortable and frightening. There seems to be something uncanny about the whole look and feel of the town Twin Peaks, before we even begin to learn about the characters and their stories. The place itself, on the surface, could be the very definition of ‘homely’; the landscape is idyllic and peaceful, the woods seem like a comforting guardian from the ills of the world outside. Everyone knows each other by name; they are all intimately acquainted. The ‘double R’ diner is the town’s communal kitchen, where everyone is welcomed with a smile, from high school dropouts with nothing better to do, to local oddballs who talk to inanimate objects.
The fact that Twin Peaks is ostensibly grounded in material reality also creates this sense of the Uncanny. If the strange events surrounding the investigation into Laura’s death were to happen in a different type of show, in which the audience expected and accepted things like ghosts, visions and objects that can ‘talk’ (the Log Lady’s log), it wouldn’t unsettle us at all. We would treat these things as though they were fully entitled to exist. In a way, we are given a false sense of security by believing that the universe of Twin Peaks is ‘real’, only to have the rug pulled out from under us with these contradictory elements, making the whole atmosphere of the show jarring and uneasy.
There is a sense in which ‘homely’ also means hidden; away from the prying eyes of strangers. Twin Peaks is nothing if not a place to hide; the woods are rather guarding their secrets than protecting the townsfolk. Immediately we understand that Twin Peaks is full secrets, which is clear from the mystery surrounding Laura’s murder and the hostility with which outsiders like Agent Cooper are treated. For me, the moments of intense anxiety and dread happen when things that were intended to remain hidden begin to come out into the open.
The central mystery – finding out who killed Laura – also evokes this sense of the Uncanny. The Palmer family could not have been more ‘homely’; Leland was the image of the successful self made man, doting father and loving husband, and Laura seemed to be the perfect daughter; she was the homecoming queen, a cheerleader, popular, pretty, dating a quarterback. But again, something dark and horrifying, something which was supposed to stay hidden, which although repressed was never too far from the surface, causing Laura’s life to spiral out of control, her mother to have psychic episodes, and eventually leading to her brutal murder at the hands of her father.
Another aspect of Freud’s theory about what gives us this uneasy, uncanny feeling is the concept of the double; the mirror image. The soul was, in Freud’s view, the double of the body, originally to insure against the fear of death since the soul is supposedly immortal. Because it is, he argues, part of a primitive phase in our development, once we have over some the need to insure against our infantile fears, this double becomes an object of terror. The theme of doubles, duplication and of mirror images is very clear and strong in Twin Peaks. There are obvious doubles such as Laura and her cousin Maddy, which is certainly uncanny. Maddy says she always felt close to Laura, like a sister, and hints that they may have have some kind if psychic bond, often associated with twins. Maddy’s appearance closely resembles that of Laura, even though the hair colour is different, and she begins to take on Laura’s role in terms of her relationships and place within the Palmer family, which ultimately leads to a duplication of the brutal death Laura suffered.
There are less obvious doubles and mirrors, however. It could be argued that Agent Cooper is a somewhat uncanny figure; he is often divided and conflicted within himself. On the one hand, he is methodical, rational and logical. He values his objectivity and fastidiousness in everything he does, and relies heavily on his powers of analysis and deduction. However, for such an apparently cold, analytical person, Cooper is exceptionally intuitive. He trusts in his instincts, even down to believing his dreams and visions have a useful purpose and, more often than not, they lead him to the next clue. There is something about him though which seems not quite real, not quite human.
There is always an air of mystery about Agent Cooper, as though he too has secrets, and his character as an outsider who longs to be part of Twin Peaks means he cannot be a reliable, rational observer, he can’t be our proxy, and this serves to undermine our sense of what is ‘real’. Then there are the white and black lodges, in which we encounter actual doppelgängers. These gruesome, demonic beings wish to inhabit the living bodies of the characters and enter Twin Peaks, feasting on its fear, secrets and lies. And, as we are advised by Deputy Hawk, if you confront your doppelgänger in the Black Lodge with ‘imperfect courage’ it will utterly annihilate your soul’, which we can only assume it did when we see the doppelgänger of Cooper, staring back at Bob reflected in the mirror in the final episode of season two!
The most terrifying aspect of Twin Peaks, though, has to be the evil spirit killer – with the least scary sounding name imaginable – Bob. But what is it that is so disturbing about him? As I’ve said before, I can watch gory slasher flicks and still sleep at night. If Bob were simply a spirit who possesses and uses his hosts to kill people, he simply wouldn’t have the same impact. It’s the uncanny feeling he inspires in us which haunts our dreams and makes us dread looking in mirrors for a good few days! So what makes Bob uncanny? There are several reasons. Almost every time we see him, he is reflected in a mirror. This demonic spirit is a twisted representation of the soul, the body’s double which has now become an object of fear.
Perhaps the most sinister aspect of Bob is the fact that he has possessed Leland Palmer and has been abusing Laura through him for a number of years, which brings us back to the theme of repression and return – things which were intended to remain hidden coming back in horrific ways. This dark and terrible secret at the heart of the Palmer family is the dark and terrible heart of the drama in Twin Peaks, it eclipses all the other myriad secrets and lies in the other character’s lives, and threatens to shatter forever the image of the ‘perfect’ little town. Bob is the manifestation of repressed and damaging secrets; a literal expression of the demons inside all of us.