PRINT September 1991


From the shadow zone a voice repeats, I will tell you something. Bring your ear to my lips. What you seek is right in front of you: a passage from the prison of the present age, a ticket to the end of this world. A record plays, the needle stuck at a soft, echo-laden plea on behalf of “Just you and I.” It's saying we'll meet again where the known universe intersects with its dreamed double. Please don't be late.

SUMMER VACATION, 1991: a visit to the ruins of Twin Peaks, U.S.A. Lovely Washington scenery (what kind of incredible trees are those?), remarkable view (a majestic waterfall seen from what remains of the Great Northern hotel’s top floor), the discovery of a slice of fossilized cherry pie at the spot where the Double R Diner stood, a pilgrimage to the petroglyph of Owl Cave (so like some prophetic prehistoric map to the homes of the Hollywood stars). I come as a tourist but stay as an archaeologist. When excavation begins, what’s found is a secret burial ground. Here’s where TV’s mythic 19-inch discourse, from film noir fatalism to sitcom wholesomeness, seems to have gone to die. The figures and tropes decomposed even before they hit the ground, but they didn’t go quietly to their fates. They resisted, like transplanted organs tearing loose from their hosts to seek out dead donors.

The television series Twin Peaks debuted in April 1990. Spanning roughly 30 days in the aftermath of an unspeakable crime, it was set in a version of the present, but as though seen from another era. Twin Peaks would air its final episode 14 months later, but for most viewers the show was finished well before then. The initial mixture of hyperfamiliarity and dislocation surrendered to ever more impracticable conceits: barmy invocations of the supernatural, warmed-over James M. Cain (Double Inanity?), lame private jokes, blind allusions. Yet in the process, Twin Peaks conjured up a series of anomalous situations designed to thwart any conceivable expectations one might have entertained. In the same stroke, the parodic-serious nature of these situations appeared to allegorize such expectations, deferring them to another realm—an underground journey.

It’s tempting to see Twin Peaks as an elaboration on the themes and fixations of cocreator David Lynch, an attempt to relocate the sensualized extremity of his 1986 movie Blue Velvet within the everyday trauma of TV soap opera. “I don’t know if you’re a detective or a pervert,” went a line in Blue Velvet; in the series, that condition became symptomatic for much of the town. Lynch’s pet motifs recurred throughout the fabric of Twin Peaks—from the almost subliminal image of fire used to signify transgression to the whole framework of strangely reciprocal antinomies, a vortex where purity and corruption, “normalcy” and freakishness, revealed untold affinities.

Then there was the presence of Lynch’s favorite hero, Kyle MacLachlan, as FBI agent(-provocateur) Dale Cooper, another innocent deviant. Only his deviance was in essence otherworldly, taking the form of a spirit quest: a detective inspired not by J. Edgar Hoover but the Dalai Lama, he sought solutions—revelations—via astral projection, in the dimension next door. Having trance-state encounters with a midget or a giant (“one and the same”—messengers from the other side), or the girl whose murder he was trying to solve (“Sometimes my arms bend back,” reported the altered voice of the girl, who had been bound, raped, and tortured to death), Cooper was both voyager and voyeur. He performed every action at a cerebral remove, his masculine assurance inflected by a stillness and an almost virginal beauty. Victim, witnesses, evidence, crime scene moved as one from the physical world to the agent’s unconscious, where they surfaced as smeared maps to his past and future.

At this point, Lynch began to lose his hold on this material and his mystique ceased to be central to its consideration. His influence was still felt, but his compulsivity was refracted through the spectral landscape of television. The forest surrounding Twin Peaks was called Ghost Wood: a pagan place where ancient spirits and demons dwelt, it was an entrance to a world behind this one. Those woods served as a buffer against change, preserving the town in an idyllic (accent on id) ’50s time warp, but they were also transmitters, broadcasting scrambled signals residents received on private frequencies. Archaic spells and curses appeared in the midst of television’s eternal present—forty-odd years of simulated reality fractured, scattering meanings in the wind like pages torn from a diary. The world of which we speak—where every stereotype exists to confirm all others, where every act from murder to shopping to kissing is equally blessed and equally transient—gave way to that which it claims to represent. I gaze at the burial ground and something stares back: stolen promises, unsatisfied appetites, unpaid debts.

Messages in a dead tongue; severed words, cut-up syllables, a letter of the alphabet placed under the fingernail of a corpse. Talismans, then—disorienting traces of what we once might have been, or might have imagined being.

Two teenage girls in a living room sing harmony back to a boy with a guitar, a lonesome, drifting ballad. “Just you and I,” goes the call and response, one girl brushing her hair on the other’s shoulder, crosscurrents passing back and forth among the three, as if in these few seconds of fantasy they will discover all that can be measured of want and loss.

I mentioned an underground journey—the search for the killer of Laura Palmer became a search for the dream realm (who/what put the ghosts in Ghost Wood?), a grail quest where the grail had no fixed shape, no return address. It was a journey into amazement, if indeed that is what one finds in a maze. Its destination had no name, but bore a motto: Let’s get lost.

The best entrance to the show is not one episode at a time, where ineffectual subplots and aimlessly protracted scenes weigh on the most unaccountable moments. Approaching it in large chunks brings forward its sense of luminous dread, impacted desire. Unrecognized, maybe unrealizable demands rend the fabric of plot and contrivance. As when poor psychotic Leo Johnson, shot in his darkened living room, slumps in agony on the sofa, his VCR playing back a shooting on the glitzy soap opera Invitation to Love—a sadistically funny metatextual pun on the difference between simulation as rupture and simulation as pacification.

In due course, these impulses rewrite the storyline: they begin a dialogue among themselves. It might be something as simple and intractable as a look, a movement, an unexpressed tremor, a loaded remark (personal favorite: “I like to lick”). Or the erotic complicity between two girls in the diner, when slowly, as if alone in her bedroom, one begins to dance. Appetite refuses to be enclosed by events, and instead begins to narrativize them by its own lights. Which are blinding enough: a residual legacy of life before it was absorbed by habit, routine, repetition.

As you may have guessed, this will not tell us the form of the grail being sought, only what a glimpse of it would feel like. We are returned to Cooper, for like us he is trying to make his way in this maze. The vestments of law enforcement have dissolved on him, replaced by the trappings of Arthurian knighthood—chivalry, temptation, the search for Law as seen in the face of God. Or if absent, to find what lies behind that great, bloody mask. The setting is changed to that of a mystery play, a strange medieval pageant, with the conception of redemption and resurrection, sin and sacrifice, excised. Only suffering and wonder remain.

These days I speak of: is it clear how lost to time they are? Things begin near at hand, the here-and-now in plain sight. See the archetypes of nostalgia (a town after Mayberry, a sheriff named Harry S. Truman, a deputy cut from the irregular cloth of Barney Fife) dancing with the horrific spawn of a Stephen King (an evil presence rises from the swamp of inverted nostalgia, childhood fear and guilt revisited as real monsters). Then the tune changes. A woman attacked in an abandoned train car struggles to get the dying over with, her screams sucking the night into them. Our accustomed surrogates fall silent; they have forgotten their names. Others step forward to remember, to retrieve what has been made unthinkable: the pain of death, the mystery of desire. For a second, or a century, it is as though the Middle Ages had never finished, gone into hiding until the moment was right to reclaim our souls for the battle between doubt and absolute belief.

Nothing like a good heresy to try and run the God machine to earth. We find in Twin Peaks a penumbra of doubt around furtive systems of belief: systems where sorcery and Christian magic exchange spells the way mortals do bodily fluids. The heretical aspects of the show are chance constructs, by-products of its happy disassimilation of cultural ideology. It is a landscape of play and caprice, contagion and fate; culture (as the agency of what is and is not possible) is then merely a password for hysteria. Such a landscape says we have never really left the Middle Ages at all, but also that there still must be a way out of the tunnels of authority and superstition: an opening into the passions of a forgotten adventure.

Cooper moving toward the unthinkable. The murder of Laura Palmer is the first step: he dreams a red room where she comes to him as his familiar. “My father killed me,” she whispers, though it will take many days for him to hear her, or perhaps admit what he heard to himself.

She walks in virtue and in lust. In a world where her father exacts revenge upon her on both accounts, as in a game of sexual hate where the pieces representing God and Sade are identical, she is mutilated, made an example of. But her example is uncooperative, seductive. In death, teen-queen Laura makes murder suspects of at least a half dozen men. And she inspires a weird personality cult among her friend Donna, her look-alike cousin Maddy, and Audrey Horne, who operate as a vague conspiracy against whatever forces took Laura, tracing her footsteps and adopting her traits, trying to solve her murder but also gain her experience. They’re vestal antivirgins, tending the dangerous flame of her enigma.

More of Cooper’s dream: before the red room, the dancing midget, the garbled voices, Laura herself, there is the one-armed man addressing Cooper on the true instigator of Laura’s murder—“Bob.” Bob is a sterile device and seems intended as such. His appearance and demented cackle parody every Mansonoid drifter of the screen, his name likely chosen to recall Bob, once and future deity of the Church of the SubGenius. A bad joke, then, the camera pulling back from the death chamber to reveal a sheepishly grinning propman with a ketchup bottle.

Yet here comes Father-knows-best Leland Palmer, clicking his heels, the psychopath as song-and-dance man. The show wants to let Dad off the hook: Bob made him do it, the makers try to make us believe, forced upon him the killing of Laura and Maddy. They want to retreat from the unthinkable, smooth it over. But actor Ray Wise’s Leland is too full a creation to stand for that. Wracked by grief one second, the next he’s singing “Mairzy Doats” with the jaunty snap of a man who has the world on a string (or a dead niece in a golf bag in his convertible). He’s a family man entranced by the sentimental banalities of family life and driven to despair by them. Dancing with a picture of Laura, he smashes it by accident, his blood dripping on the photo; or later with Maddy, he mauls and bites her (the scene endless, unrelieved, no shred of suspense or “excitement,” only helplessness, agony), sobbing “My little girl” with perfect conviction before he smashes her to death against the living room wall.

“When I saw the face of God,” testifies the one-armed man with fine Old Testament zeal, “I took the entire arm off.” Despite the silliness of Bob, he’s a joke that backfires in an alluring direction. Because Leland, his hair having turned shock white in his sleep one night (“It’s the darnedest thing!”), cuts a swell Jehovah figure—always ready to turn from benevolence to total cruelty and back again. Leland says to himself, Kill me a daughter. Thy will be done, he answers, in Twin Peaks as it is in heaven. Then, tapping his feet to the carnival beat of a song the kids used to play, he thinks fondly of his loved ones: “When you see me comin’ you better run.”

Some of the people and events culled from a month in Twin Peaks: honor student found in lake, a sex murder; later found to have been prostitute, drug addict, orgiast, incest victim. Another kidnapped girl found walking dazed and bloodied across railroad bridge; goes into shock, falls mute. Mother of murdered girl has vision of demon; oblivious, however, to husband’s molestation of daughter. Woman receives communications through log. Leland throws self on Laura’s casket as it’s lowered into ground. Audrey eludes father in brothel, but is held for ransom by madam, who drugs her with heroin. FBI agent shot, has hallucinations. Arsonist Leo Johnson shot after leaving wife tied up in burning mill. Dr. Jacoby attacked after seeing, he thought, Laura Palmer’s ghost. Demure Donna Hayward sucks fingers of her boyfriend, formerly Laura’s, through bars of his cell. Catherine Martell, believed killed in fire, returns secretly in drag as Japanese businessman. Harold Smith commits suicide, leaving note: “Chez un âme solitaire”....

That is only a partial list. All kinds of unreason materialize, making some people conscious of their own lives, insulating others from consciousness. One form seems especially pervasive—schizophrenia. There are dissociative seizures, episodes of ego diffusion, signs and instructions from beyond, a whole panoply of 20th-century schizoid symptoms; or 19th century; or 14th. The religious implications are obvious; the psychological and metaphysical undertones less so. The one-armed prophet, for instance, shoots up an antischizophrenia drug to keep himself grounded in reality. But Cooper’s mad former partner, bent on finding an entrance into Bob’s reality, is a former user of the same drug, which he in turn uses as a truth serum on one who has knowledge of that other zone. That place proves to be the same as in Cooper’s dreams, a collective unconscious, a stage populated by grotesque self-projections, the crafty mind of God, or simply a crucible in which to find all such conceptions wanting.

The mystery play resumes. Cooper has gone as far as his quest will take him: into the dream world known as the Black Lodge, shadow self of the White Lodge (a heaven and hell that seem to share the same inner space; the red curtains also suggest they share a decorator with the brothel One-Eyed Jack’s). There are the usual suspects: “Doppelgängers,” quoth the midget, lots of them. There to rescue his true love and alter ego, Annie Blackburn, Cooper enters through a part of Ghost Wood called Glastonbury Grove—its namesake the reputed burial site of King Arthur and gateway to Avalon, the paradise where Arthur rules in eternity. Cooper isn’t so lucky. It is not certain what happens—there is no clear confrontation, just opacity and slapstick (we see Cooper chasing himself at one point)—only that he fails. He rescues Annie but loses his soul; it is the shadow Cooper who returns with her. The last moments imply that he has saved her only to be the one who in time will kill her.

More the end of a death trip than a mystery play—confusion, failure, oblivion. But oblivion can take away the power of dead notions over our imagination: God and Death making up alibis for each other in the master bedroom of the Black Lodge. Suppose one or two of us make a way past those alibis, out into the world they are intended to withhold. Past self-negation (or doppelgängers that exist to cancel each other out), past schizophrenia as a social contract struck between civilization and madness; what lies in that dreamed region?

A gaze might be enough to tell. It belongs to Donna Hayward: unanswerable, it’s a look of vehemence and intimacy, as if her whole being were trying to burn itself into someone’s conscience. It is constant, unrelenting—as brutal as it is tender. She is talking with Harold Smith, grievously shy recluse and confidant of Laura Palmer’s. She leans forward, looking into him, willing his abstracted air into focus: “There’s things you can’t get in books.” “There are things you can’t get anywhere,” comes his answer. “But we dream they can be found in other people.”

Rather: the grail isn’t discovered, nor is the passage, but is built from our intuition of what discovery entails.

Howard Hampton is a writer living in Apple Valley, California.