From a distance, it can seem like your neighbors have the perfect life. When you catch glimpses of them it looks like mom and dad love each other and have a great relationship with their child. What happens behind closed doors, though? What if what you’re seeing is a carefully constructed mask built to hide sinister and even supernatural activities?
Those were some of the questions posed by David Lynch and Mark Frost in their cult drama Twin Peaks which ran on ABC from 1990-1991, was revisited in the 1992 prequel feature film Fire Walk With Me, and once more as the 18 episode limited series event, Twin Peaks: The Return, which aired on Showtime in 2017. The show was a surreal, soap opera that focused on a small town but often ventured into other states, countries, times, and dimensions. The scope and scale of the series could get huge, but much of the action came about because of a broken, but seemingly ideal, small-town family: The Palmers, comprised of patriarch Leland (Ray Wise), mother Sarah (Grace Zabriskie), and daughter Laura (Sheryl Lee).
“From a distance, it can seem like your neighbors have the perfect life [but] What if what you’re seeing is a carefully constructed mask built to hide sinister and even supernatural activities?”
Twin Peaks, of course, begins with Laura’s death and its infamous tagline is “Who Killed Laura Palmer?”. Episode 15 revealed that Leland in fact killed his daughter, but in episode three Laura’s boyfriend, Bobby Briggs (Dana Ashbrook), makes a proclamation that proves ultimately truthful when he says, “Everybody knew she was in trouble… but we didn’t do anything. All you good people! You want to know who killed Laura? You did! We all did!”
That’s because the town of Twin Peaks chose to just view the Palmers as they seemed. In their eyes, they were a skilled lawyer and doting father, a caring mother, and a daughter who was the town golden girl that everybody loved. They chose to dismiss and ignore the warning signs of The Palmer’s true reality. In actual fact, Leland was a monster who sexually abused his daughter and murdered women, Sarah ignored her husband’s activities, and Laura felt like she couldn’t trust her family, friends, and sanity.
In the original Twin Peak series we only really get to know Laura through other people, and we see what she meant to them. In Fire Walk With Me though we see Laura’s final days, and her story becomes so much more poignant, powerful, and tragic. The fact that she was able to make such a positive impression on so many people when she was wrestling with such horror and darkness is awe-inspiring. And the fact that many of the people who claimed to love her did not really see what was going on with her is just heartbreaking. It seems like they would have if they dared to look beyond the facade she presented to the world.
There were, of course, some people who truly cared about Laura and noticed something was wrong like her boyfriend, James Hurley, and her best friend, Donna Hayward. Sadly though, when they reached out to her Laura felt she had to push them away before the got corrupted or hurt by the forces trying to claim her soul. In the original series, we first get to know Leland Palamer as a grieving father before learning the twist that the malevolent “Bob” entity lurks in his soul, and when possessed by it Leland carries out unspeakable acts of violence and abuse. He too is a tragic figure though, because he never got the help he needed or had the courage to ask for help. We learn that Leland first crossed paths with Bob as a boy, but we don’t see how the entity originally takes hold of him or what he had to endure because of it. Surely he, or his loved ones, had to realize something was wrong though. As an adult, Leland loved his daughter so he had to know something was wrong with her, and we know Bob was infinitely cruel so there was bound to be a time that he revealed to Leland what he was doing to his daughter.
Still, Leland did nothing. He chose to ignore the warning signs and adhere to the toxic thinking of the times he lived in, by bottling up his feelings and pretending nothing was wrong. And his neighbors were happy to believe that everything was okay. They didn’t bother to look beyond what he showed the world, or if they saw something they chose to ignore it. Sarah Palmer also had to know something was wrong between her husband and daughter. There’s a truly terrifying scene of physical and emotional abuse in Fire Walk With Me where she witnesses Leland berate their daughter over washing her hands. She’s also a figure of some pathos though because of what happens to her after her husband and daughter die.
In Twin Peaks: The Return we catch up with Sarah 25 years later and she’s become twisted, angry, and bitter. To me, it felt like she and the town allowed her grief to isolate her from the world. So much so, that she became host to another malevolent entity from the Black Lodge. In episode 14 of The Return after being propositioned by a trucker her faces opens up, revealing darkness, and she bites out the trucker’s throat. To me, that’s a physical and metaphorical representation of all the pain and darkness she’s kept locked away.
The story of the Palmers is dark enough without all the extradimensional and supernatural forces that abound in the original Twin Peaks series, Fire Walk With Me, and The Return. And because David Lynch allows for multiple interpretations of his work you can choose to view those forces as purely metaphorical. Some do. I like those supernatural elements of Twin Peaks though, and to me they’re kind of the point.
That’s because the idea of malevolent spirits trying to destroy a small-town family and claim the soul of their young daughter elevates the seemingly mundane. It turns that family’s day to day living into an epic and tragic quest. It makes who they are and what they do important in the cosmic scheme of things. And it’s a great way to contextualize the battles that we fight, against the “negative spirits” that lurk within us all.
“[David Lynch and Mark Frost] showed the world the monsters lurking behind closed doors and idyllic facades.”
So, with Twin Peaks, David Lynch, Mark Frost, and all their collaborators gave us a tragic family in, the Palmers. They showed the world the monsters lurking behind closed doors and idyllic facades. They also illustrated that one of the most heroic and difficult things you can do is ask for help or offer help. In the penultimate episode of The Return a time-traveling Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle Maclachlan) does just that by extending a helping hand to Laura that literally saves her life. In doing so he fundamentally alters the nature of her hometown and the universe they live in.
Are you a fan of David Lynch and Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks? Who was your favorite family from the upside world of that iconic town? Let us know on Twitter, in the Nightmare on Film Street Subreddit, and on Facebook in the Horror Movie Fiend Club!