Nightmare Aesthetics in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Murder in a Small Town:

“Home is a small town with a deadly secret.”
-Gary Indiana

The television series, Twin Peaks, creates a sense of nightmare by introducing a quaint, small, American town and then stuffing it with a seedy underbelly of sex, drugs, murder, greed and corruption. By building a television show on the story of the town’s good-looking, blond prom queen (Laura Palmer) being brutally murdered director David Lynch suggests that even the most pure images are susceptible to the dark side of American culture. By combining small town American life with subjects that are considered culturally and socially taboo, the realistic nature of competition between the norm and the id that exists in most nightmares comes to view in Twin Peaks.

Lynch brings that frightening and disturbing combination to life by employing a number of different visual and narrative elements to create his own unique and nightmarish vision of reality. What David Lynch suggests is that the Hell in Twin Peaks must be survived in order to reach purgatory, and only then to be followed by heaven.

The opening credits of Twin Peaks show a serene mountain town, with birds flying and serene landscapes accompanied by a very soothing melody. The credits always end with a shot of a large waterfall plummeting towards the town below. The very first image of the first episode shows the discovery of a body on the banks of a river in Twin Peaks. The juxtaposition of the two images of a waterfall pouring downwards to a dead body found in the river that the falls run into gives an overlying sense of one of the show’s major themes: a superficially beautiful town plummeting downward into darkness and evil.
In his critique on the television series, David Koukal writes:

In the beginning of Twin Peaks David Lynch’s characters seem to be motivated by workaday soap opera vices (greed, jealousy, envy, lust, adultery, etc.). However as the plot confronted more and more socially taboo subjects (pornography, incest, torture, sadomasochism), the story started to spin more away from superficially material explanations of human behavior.

As the show initially progresses, we learn more things about Laura Palmer and what happened to her before her murder. The FBI agent (Dale Cooper) investigating the murder says that “Laura Palmer is a girl filled with secrets, and secrets are dangerous.” We learn that among other things she was heavily addicted to cocaine, she had sexual relationships with many of the men in town and that she was involved in both prostitution and pornography. The only images of Laura Palmer that are shown during the series are of her body when it’s first discovered and a picture of her from when she was crowned prom queen. The latter image is more haunting, as we see this face of a beautiful girl who was a figurehead for the town, and begin associating that image of beauty with the unpleasant images of her life.

In the feature film prequel to the TV series “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me,” Laura Palmer is shown on screen during the last week of her life. We see her doing drugs, engaging in sexual activity with men she doesn’t really know and going on such a self destructive path that her death seems like a foregone conclusion. The film is provocative and scary but doesn’t take on the psychologically nightmarish quality of the TV series. Watching Laura Palmer committing sins, being victimized and eventually getting killed is more effective when it is left to the imagination. The TV series was effective in the way that it used a single, pleasant image of the girl and put the ideas of what happened to her into the heads of the viewers.

The life and death of Laura Palmer and the general nature of the town of Twin Peaks fits well into Robin Wood’s description of surplus repression. In particular, Wood writes about the surplus repression of women in society and how they can be punished for going beyond their standard sexual boundaries in society.

Wood writes: “The “ideal” inhabitant of our culture will be the individual whose sexuality is sufficiently fulfilled by the monogamous heterosexual necessary for the reproduction of future ideal inhabitants and whose sublimated sexuality is sufficiently fulfilled in the totally noncreative and non-fulfilling labor to which our society dooms the overwhelming majority of its members (110).”He writes in particular about women: “The third idea of surplus repression is the particular severe repression of female sexuality/creativity; the attribution of female passivity, her preparation for her subordinate and dependent role in our culture (110)”.

When Laura Palmer was alive she was a highly sexualized person whose sexual desires clearly fit outside of society’s repressed standards. A fiction book was released in conjunction with the TV series (licensed by the creators of the show). It is a transcription of the diary Laura Palmer kept while she was alive that was referred to throughout the course of the TV show. A section of the diary states:

I hope that if there is a God, he will understand that I am trying to keep clean, and if this is a test that he is giving me, I’ll find a way to pass it. I bet it is a test. I bet God wants me to prove that I can take orders, or maybe that I am not afraid to die and come be with him. Maybe BOB knows God, and that is why he always knows what I am feeling inside. God must be telling him what to do to me. God wants me not to be afraid, maybe, of being dirty, if I’m not afraid he’ll take me to heaven. (59)

The person BOB that she writes about is a nightmare man who comes into her room at night to torture her both physically and sexually. BOB is a man that only Laura can see and at times she thinks he exists only in her nightmares, but the things he does to her seem very real. In the TV series it is eventually revealed that BOB is a supernatural being, an otherworldly creature that takes a human form and uses it to victimize different people.

Laura Palmer has been tortured by BOB her entire life and she begins to believe that it’s because of her natural, healthy, common thoughts about sex. She begins to feel deep regret about common preoccupations of adolescence such as masturbation and feelings towards boys. She tries to suppress her thoughts as a result of the repression forced on her and tries to maintain herself as a “normal” girl, but eventually she succumbs to them, and rather than having healthy sexual relationships with people, she begins to experiment with extreme sexual activities such as bondage, orgies and pornography.
Throughout the course of Twin Peaks there are a wide variety of women who are continually punished for their sexuality.

There is another young girl named Audrey Horne who is beautiful and seductive, but not only is she revealed to be virginal, but her sexual curiosity (including a strong, frequently expressed interest in an older man) leads her to being held captive and being shot up with heroin to the point of near death. Another character named Josie Packard has spent her life seducing men to obtain wealth, but when she actually develops a healthy sexual relationship with another man based on love, she ends up being killed. Two other very noticeable women in the town, Nadine and Margaret the Log Lady, have noticeable physical and psychological scars. Nadine wears a patch over one of her eyes due to an unexplained injury and because she is slightly eccentric she has an asexual relationship with her husband.

These women are strong-willed in different ways, but all carry around physical and emotional wounds that mostly stem from thinking outside of the repressed nature of their roles in society. The men in Twin Peaks, on the other hand, are often allowed to engage in perverse activity, act outside of the bounds of surplus repression and often get away with it. Ben Horne, the main businessman in the town, frequently cheats on his wife, owns and operates a brothel in Canada and fathers an illegitimate child, yet still remains in a strong position of power.

Bobby Briggs, Laura’s ex-boyfriend, cheats on her many times while he is still alive, carries on a relationship with a married woman and deals drugs for a living, but retains a strong social status as the high school quarterback. Leo Johnson is a man who beats his wife, cheats on her and hosts orgies involving Laura Palmer but is still able to maintain a somewhat respectable role in the eyes of society. Lastly, there is Leland Palmer, Laura’s father, is responsible for the murder of Laura who had raped her several times throughout her life.

The town of Twin Peaks is a nightmare for the women who occupy it. There isn’t a single female who is allowed to retain a healthy, monogamous, sexual relationship with a man without being punished for it. If a woman in Twin Peaks steps outside of surplus repression she is punished, whereas the men in the town often live their lives outside of surplus repression but are allowed to maintain social status.

Both the supernatural figure of BOB and the character of Laura Palmer’s father, Leland, become crucial to one another during the course of the show. When BOB comes into Laura’s room at night, it is actually her father. When BOB kills Laura, it is actually her father. There are many theories as to the relationship between Leland Palmer and BOB, and the nature of the BOB character itself. The most common one is that BOB is indeed a supernatural presence who exists to prey on people who sin or who display weakness in their sins. Since BOB is supernatural, he needs an equally weak human body to function and carry out his deeds, so he chooses Leland Palmer, a modest yet dopey man who has easy access to Laura, who is BOB’s true target.

There is another theory, as discussed by the authors of the Frequently Asked Questions section of the Official Twin Peaks website: “Some who reject supernatural explanations believe BOB may be/have been a figment of Laura’s or Leland’s imagination, a means of psychologically dealing with the trauma of incest and adultery.” This theory seems unlikely as many other characters throughout the course of the show see BOB in the same image that Laura does, but it offers an interesting perspective into what might have really happened to Laura.

Was the trauma of an incestuous relationship with her father from a very young age so great that she developed an idea of a non-existent being that was responsible for her torture? The need to create an alternate view of what’s really happening is a very commonly recognized response to trauma. The concept of an incestuous relationship (which actually did occur, regardless of whether or not Leland Palmer was really possessed by BOB) is traumatic enough, but the idea that it may have been purely incest rather being caused by a supernatural being makes it all the more frightening.

The source of supernatural phenomenon in Twin Peaks relates to the legend of a mysterious place in the woods outside of the town called the White Lodge. From the FAQ on the Official Twin Peaks website: “Helen Petrovich Blavatsky, one of the the founders of Theosophy, is probably the source of the idea of the White Lodge. Theosophy is described by Blavatsky “as an all-pervading divine essence, an infinite ocean of consciousness, from which all things are born and to which they ultimately return.

The human kingdom is one of the phases of experience that each god-spark must pass through during its long evolutionary journey through the worlds of matter.” She wrote of the Great White Lodge, a group of spiritual masters or adepts who guided mankind’s spiritual evolution (in positive directions).” Just as the White Lodge moves spirits in positive directions, it has an opposite, known as the Black Lodge, which pushes spirits in negative directions. BOB is said to be a spirit from the Black Lodge, one of pure evil that only exists for the purpose of destruction.

There are many bizarre visual images in Twin Peaks that also contribute to Lynch’s nightmarish reality. Richard Hancock, a Columbia University professor writes:

Above all David Lynch has revived a taste for the eccentric and the bizarre. In a rather hysterical but determined attempt to break through the legions of beautiful, young, fit, smiling bodies which populate the television screen, Lynch (who made his international debut directing The Elephant Man) has resorted to dwarfs, giants, women with a patch on one eye, men with one arm, talking birds, people whose hair turns white over-night. These images would have been perfectly at home in many respectable18th and 19th century works, where raving insanity, disfigurements and mutilations were a matter of course.
Lynch punctuates the “real” settings of Twin Peaks with these kinds of images.

An example: Throughout the course of the show there is a vision of a “Red Room”, the room that is supposed to serve as the waiting room between the Black Lodge and the White Lodge. The Red Room is the room where characters decide whether or not they are going to embrace good in the form of the White Lodge or evil in the form of the Black Lodge. These images of the Red Room in Twin Peaks are given a very surreal, hazy, nightmarish tone. The scenes in the Red Room are also shot with a strobe light effect to maintain the illusion of slow motion to enhance the dreamlike, surreal impression. This combination of visual, audio effects and bizarre characters contribute to the nightmarish quality of the show.

All of the scenes within the Red Room were shot with the actors reciting the dialogue backwards. The dialogue was spoken backwards and then played forwards to give all the voices a very strange, echoing sound that’s awkward and difficult to understand (as in a bad dream, where you’re struggling to comprehend everything around you). The backwards speaking is also slightly reminiscent of speaking in tongues.

Speaking in tongues is a practice commonly associated with charismatic, fundamentalist Christians who speak in tongues because of the belief that a Holy Spirit is communicating through them. When Christians due this, it is required that a translator be present in order for them to be understood, and in his own morbid way Lynch provides his own translation by having all of the scenes that take place within the Red Room subtitled. The backwards voices might be used to suggest that God (a good spirit) is trying to communicate warnings to people who enter the Red Room. Often when a character enters the Red Room in the show the characters in the room are giving them some kind of clues.

The main characters that appear in the Red Room scenes, as mentioned by Hancock, are a dwarf and a one-armed man, who are strongly connected characters. In the prequel film to Twin Peaks, it is revealed that the dwarf represents the missing arm of this one-armed man. The one-armed man was a former host body for BOB who attempted to rid himself of BOB by cutting off his own arm.

The dwarf represents a being stuck in a constant state of purgatory, who sometimes supplies useful advice to the characters in order for them to find the right way and other times give advice that might lead them down the wrong path. By cutting off his arm, the one armed man is able to leave the red room and reappear in human form in Twin Peaks, but he has to use drugs in order to sedate himself and suppress his evil tendencies.

While the layers of hell (the town of Twin Peaks itself) and purgatory (the Red Room) are readily apparent throughout both the show and the prequel, heaven is not as visually apparent but definitely alluded to. In the prequel film there are two different occurrences which would indicate that heaven is a possibility for people in Twin Peaks. Laura Palmer has a painting on the wall in her room with an angel in it. At one point the angel disappears from the painting, only to show up twice later on in the film.

As Laura is being killed by her father, a girl named Ronette who was present for her death begs for mercy and forgiveness and the angel appears before her, sparing her from death. The final scene in the film shows Laura seated in the Red Room with Dale Cooper, the FBI agent who solved the case of her murder. Cooper stands next to her as the same angel appears before her in the room. The Twin Peaks FAQ states:

It seems safe to assume that the disappearance of the angel from the picture in Laura’s room signifies the hopelessness of her situation, that Ronette was saved/watched over by her angel in the train car, and Laura was “redeemed” or escaped from her living hell at the end of the movie. Some on the net have suggested that the appearance of the angel at the end signifies Laura has made itto the White Lodge.

The idea that Laura has escaped both hell and purgatory could be linked to a couple key ideas from both the show and the film. First, the visual representation of the angel, a common association with God and Christianity appears to save the life of Ronette and the same angel appears in front of Laura at the end of the film. Laura could have freed herself from a life of torture at the hands of BOB (an evil spirit) by letting herself be killed and facing purgatory. At the end of the television series, FBI Agent Cooper enters the Red Room and sacrifices himself in order to stop evil from coming out. Evil does escape, as BOB enters the body of the agent and returns to Twin Peaks, but Cooper’s entry into the room and subsequent sacrifice could have been in order to release Laura Palmer from Purgatory and allow her to enter the White Room (Heaven).

David Lynch’s vision of the town of Twin Peaks is a representation of a nightmare. The concept that life on earth is Hell and the concept that you must live through that hell in order to reach heaven is a very scary, alternative vision of hell as a place you must be sent to. Lynch’s purgatory within the Red Room isn’t a resting place for lost souls, but a trial in which you can be stuck in for any amount of time. The idea that purgatory can only be escaped at the sacrifice of someone else is equally frightening.

Lynch shows that there is an idea of Heaven that can be attained but presents it as nearly unattainable due to what people must go through in order to reach it. These three very different, alternative visions of the afterlife are tied together on screen in different forms to give the viewers an uneasy sense of the real nightmares they frequently embody. Through the use of visual styles such as the Red Room, and narrative devices such as the three levels of heaven hell and purgatory and the suppression of women, David Lynch turns the town of Twin Peaks, and the sad, sordid tale of Laura Palmer, into his own twisted vision of nightmarish reality.

Works Cited:

Indiana, Gary. “Home”

Hancock, Richard. “Kin Peaks” 03/18/1991

Lynch, Jennifer. “The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer”
Oxford Books, 1990, Pg. 59

Koukal, David. “Critique of Twin Peaks” 06/24/1991

Twin Peaks Frequently Asked Questions. 02/24/1997

Wood, Robin. “An Introduction to American Horror Film”
Planks of Reason, Oxford: Scarecrow Press, 2004, Pg. 110

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