“That Gum You Like is Going To Come Back in Style”: The Revival of Twin Peaks and the Uncanny

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Next year, one of the creepiest murder-mystery TV series Twin Peaks will return for a new season. Being over 25 years old, the show is a true cult classic and has been subject to many tributes and references from various other famous TV-shows like The Simpsons and Adventure Time. Last summer I watched the first two seasons, and at times, when I lay wide awake in bed, paralysed by the sheer creepiness of it all, hoping that when I opened my eyes I wouldn’t come face to face with a grey-haired maniac in denim that was staring at me from beside my bed, I really wish I didn’t because it is genuinely the most horrifying thing I have ever seen.

Anyone familiar with David Lynch’s work would know what I am talking about. Twin Peaks is incredibly stylish and truly surreal, its plot occasionally narratively inexplicable yet drawing from familiar narratives. It has no definite genre, but alternates within one breath from cheap soap opera, to quirky comedy, to melodrama, to visual horror, and back. Crucially, it thrives on immense audience discomfort. Known for playing with the limitations of human reason, Lynch’s horror is not full-blown and more than just creepy. Twin Peaks is repulsively horrifying and in its confusing horror irresistibly attractive. In this, it lends it aesthetic from the Uncanny, a psychological concept first posed by Ernest Jensch and later famously adopted by Sigmund Freud in 1919. Positioning the German word for uncanny, das Unheimliche, opposite of heimlich, meaning “familiar”, “native”, and “belonging to the home” (Heim), Freud concludes that what is uncanny “is frightening precisely because it is not known and familiar.” In being familiar, yet incongruous, the uncanny creates an intense discomfort, due to being both attracted yet repulsed by it, leading to aversion and rejection rather than rationalisation and understanding.

Twin Peaks likewise revels in the limitations of human understanding by using elements that persuade the viewer to believe that there are matters and worlds which reason and common sense cannot account for. The series revolve around the investigation of the horrendous murder of homecoming queen Laura Palmer, led by FBI special agent Dale Cooper (Kyle McLachlan), a charming, genuine good-guy with an unconditional love for coffee and an unusual interest in Oriental spirituality. Despite the fact that the series initially seem to follow the familiar detective plotline, the series progresses towards the mythical, initiated by Cooper’s infamous Red Room dream, which elevates the series from generic murder investigation to supernatural horror. Being yet unclear on whether Cooper’s dream is merely a deus ex machina-like plot device or whether there really is a supernatural presence in Twin Peaks that helps him find the murderer, the series continuously messes with the mind of its audience by fluctuating between the ordinary and the otherworldly.

The woods outside Twin Peaks especially play an ambiguous and sinister role, being a site where the most eerie events seem to take place. As sheriff Harry Truman observes, “there’s a sort of evil out there. Something very, very strange in these old woods. Call it what you want – a darkness, a presence. It takes many forms but it’s been out there for as long as anyone can remember and we’ve always been here to fight it.” Originating from the woods, the show’s demon, a feral grey-haired man in denim who goes under the inappropriately ordinary name of Bob, haunts the series, showing up unexpectedly, causing extreme discomfort among the characters and the viewer. He says nothing, only stares or smiles manically – behind the footboard of Laura Palmer’s bed, crawling over the sofa towards the camera, appearing in the mirror images of characters. Bob is a human form of the uncanny; his appearance and name suggests a human familiarity, but the fact that we don’t know anything of him – not even whether he is actually human – and the fact that he behaves unearthly, gives his aura a certain unfamiliarity which turns him into an intrinsically creepy guy.

In its focus on the woods as a place for mythical supernatural forces, Twin Peaks uses folkloric elements, and this is where it gets psychologically interesting. Following his canonical ideas of humans being driven by repressed sexual and primitive impulses, Freud claims that the uncanny similarly is an expression of impulses that have become alienated through repression, but nevertheless come to the light. For instance, he assigns the fear of the Sandman, a folkloric figure who puts people to sleep by pouring sand in their eyes, to the repressed fear of going blind, which can ultimately be substituted for the fear of castration[1]. The uncanny is, then, a confrontation with the limitations of human reason in repressing primitive anxieties or impulses. In fairy tales, folklore, and mythology the woods are likewise a place for imagined supernatural forces where all sorts of human anxieties and impulses are projected on imaginary monsters.[2] In this context, the woods in Twin Peaks are not merely supernatural but also a place of projected repressed anxieties and primitive impulses.

And so, as we learn throughout the series, Bob is not the only disturbing presence in the Twin Peaks. As the plot unfolds, the inner darkness of the characters, most of whom at first seemed rather innocent and likeable, come to the surface with unsettling and destructive consequences. Charming little Twin Peaks is infested with all sorts of dark affairs like domestic abuse, drug-related crimes, and underage prostitution. So whereas the murder of Laura Palmer, who caught the sexual fascination of many adult men in Twin Peaks, is initially linked to the ominous woods, it actually took place in the confined space of her own living room. Laura Palmer’s murder alone, with its suggestive oedipal motivations, show that the real threat is not only coming from the woods but also from the people themselves.

This brings me to the other thing that is uncanny and surreal about Twin Peaks. Apart from the obvious nightmarish scenes like the Red Room in Cooper’s dreams and Bob’s disturbing appearances, Twin Peaks is creepy in the sense that nobody seems to know how to behave normally. The characters are absurd, floating around a spectrum of slapstick, surrealism, and melodrama. Occasionally this results in amusing absurdism, as is the case with Nadine, a woman with an eye patch, superhuman strength, and an obsessively needy relationship with her husband Ed, or from lanky dopey police officer Andy. Yet, often this behavioural fickleness balances towards the uncanny. Sarah Palmer’s terrifying dreams of Bob and consequent hysterical fits, and Leland Palmer’s psychotic episodes in which he spontaneously starts to sing or to dance, are clearly melodramatic but also incredibly distressing.

In short, Twin Peaks is a psychological train wreck. It evokes laughter, confusion, discomfort, horror, and is excruciatingly weird and inexplicable, yet, or rather consequently, irresistibly attractive. In this day and age, we have long ceased being perceptive of the horrors of folklore, myths, and supernatural forces. Through the rationalization of society as a result of scientific developments and secularization, we have become unknown to the unknown. So maybe this is why Twin Peaks is so unnerving. Since we are not used to the unfamiliar anymore, any confrontation with a supernatural anomaly may unleash the muffled fears and anxieties that reason and logic have been shushing for so long. Twin Peaks exposes the limitations of human understanding, causing us, after having abandoned irrational fear for many decades, to look over our shoulders again, feared to be haunted by unknown ghosts creeping up on us from the borders of our rationality.

[1] In Freud, castration anxiety not only refers to the fear of literal loss of, or damage to, the penis. It can also refer to the fear of metaphorical or symbolic castration in the sense that one may feel emasculated, dominated, or made insignificant.

[2] The vampire, for instance, can be interpreted as a creature that represents repressed mortal anxiety and sexual desires.

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