A humanities scholar's occasional ramblings on literature, science, popular culture, and the academy.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Ghost in the Wood: Some thoughts on Twin Peaks

People often talk about the work of David Lynch in terms of genre. Much of his oeuvre fits the tradition of neo-noir, featuring postmodern remixes of tropes developed by the likes of Otto Preminger, Edward Dmytryk, and of course, Alfred Hitchcock. Noir elements are certainly present in spades in Twin Peaks, as are elements of soap opera. Twin Peaks isn't subtle in its self-aware embrace of soap opera styles, motifs, and plot twists; it signals this embrace through its frequent references to the show-within-the-show, Invitation to Love. Less discussed in analyses of the show (at least analyses that I've read--I don't profess expertise in Lynch scholarship) are its debts to the haunted house genre.

Twin Peaks is the least-ambiguously supernatural work that Lynch has produced. Whereas in films like Eraserhead and Mulholland Drive many of the weird fiction elements are attributable to characters' dreams or hallucinations, in Twin Peaks it's difficult if not impossible to interpret the demons, whatever they are, as anything other than a literal presence. Those demons' home, the Black Lodge, is the first in a tradition of sites of spiritual significance on TV, a tradition that runs through Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Hellmouth and Lost's island.

Significantly, the black lodge is located in the woods. The woods, and indeed, wood itself, is the show's dominant image. The opening credits sequence provides us not with images of the town itself, but images of the surrounding woods, juxtaposed with images of the sawmill that transforms those woods into industry. The first face that you see in the pilot episode is not that of the dead Laura Palmer, but that of Josie Packard, owner of said sawmill. The last time you see Josie's face, it's in the wood--having died of fear after killing her lover, Thomas Eckhardt, Josie's spirit is absorbed by the wood of the Great Northern Hotel, wood that was likely cut in her own mill. Wood is imbued with an animism throughout the series, most notably embodied by the Log Lady's log. How appropriate that the forest is called Ghostwood.

But if wood can carry spirits, the birds that perch on that wood, like the bird in the opening credits' first shot, can carry demons. The owls are not what they seem.

When I point to Twin Peaks' indebtedness to the haunted house genre, I mean haunted house stories in the broadest sense, encompassing stories of homes and people occupied by evil spirits, be those the spirits of the dead or the spirits of demonic others (in Twin Peaks we encounter both). Modern haunted house films, from The Amityville Horror to Paranormal Activity, take the elements of classic gothic fiction and move them out of the castle and into suburbia, transforming the middle class ideal of home ownership into a nightmare. This is why the genre is so amicable to the Lynchian treatment--many of his films, most notably Blue Velvet, are about finding the nightmares hiding behind the veneer of suburban contentment.

One of the best haunted house films ever made is Tobe Hooper's Poltergeist (1982), in which a real estate developer discovers after a series of horrific events that his new home is built atop a cemetery, and that his boss, when building the neighborhood, only moved the headstones, leaving the bodies. Poltergeist begins with an iconic shot of a cathode ray tube television at the end of the broadcast day, turning to static, which is how the ghosts haunting the property communicate with the people in the home. Ten years later, the prequel film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) would begin with an image of static on a TV tuned to a dead channel, and that image of static would recur throughout the film.

Looking at the opening of the film alongside the opening of the series, we get a juxtaposition that constitutes the heart of the story: nature vs. modernization, the untouched vs. the developed. People misremember Poltergeist as being a film about a house built on an "old Indian burial ground," but in fact the house is only built on a modern cemetery. In Twin Peaks, however, the area's connection to indigenous populations is unavoidable, represented either through Deputy Hawk's expositional monologues about local beliefs, or through Ben Horne's appropriations of native iconography in the design of the Great Northern (it's telling that Ben's intellectually disabled son always wears a Native American headdress). The Ghostwood National Forest may not be a burial ground, but it's certainly a site of the sacred.

That's why I think it's so interesting that the show's biggest B plot line involved Ben Horne and Catherine Martell fighting over the rights to Ghostwood Estates. I used to think this plot line was pure soap opera, but I've come to see it as essential. Twin Peaks' existing suburbs already boast haunted houses, most notably the Palmer house--what would happen if Ghostwood did become another housing development? What poltergeists would be unleashed?

Perhaps in the past 25 years, Ghostwood Estates actually has been built. If there's one omission from the revival's cast list that has me worried, it's Piper Laurie as Catherine Martell. Without her, I fear that the fate of Ghostwood Estates will be an ignored or underdeveloped component of the show. I hope it won't be. I hope we'll get to see Ghostwood, and Theresa Banks's ring, and Andy and Lucy's now 25-year-old child, who I hope is a daughter named "Judy."

But trying to predict what Lynch will do is probably foolhardy. More than anything else, I just hope to enjoy the ride.

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