“Entering The Town of Twin Peaks”: Introducing the Here and Gone in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks (1990)

We are used to seeing frightening things appear very suddenly in film, like the overused yet effective jump scare. David Lynch films have a distorted sense of there and not. Lynch creates fear by sustaining a shot, focusing on seemingly mundane objects and rooms until they begin to feel sinister. After a while, we train our eyes to fill in these long shots, to look for frightening things. Lynch’s films are thus frightening not just for what they include, but what they don’t. Twin Peaks is arguably the most prominent example of absence and uncertainty in Lynch’s catalogue. The very premise of the show hinges on the sudden absence of Laura Palmer. By removing her from the community, under mysterious and frightening circumstances, the show implies that something else could disappear at any moment without explanation.

When a character or background element randomly disappears and then reappears, the show implies that it moved between reality and elsewhere. The object or person is never entirely gone, they were always threatening to reappear.  I say elsewhere because many of the jarring figures in Lynch projects appear and disappear without warning. There is just a random figure in a room, and they do something unnatural, maybe scream or speak backwards. Maybe they stay silent. The implication is that this person could reappear at any moment, and essentially invade any scene. The entire show is like a drawn-out version of a jump scare, where the tension keeps building but without a resolution or sometimes even a scare.

The frightening specters in Twin Peaks float between reality and beyond, a place which we could never rationalize. The show calls this place the Red Room, or the Waiting Room. It’s an unstable place where phantoms appear and disappear, or just wait. The Red Room is thus a middle ground, a conceptual limbo where plots and dreams intermingle and produce nightmarish visions.

“Laura is The One”

The pilot for Twin Peaks introduces this fear of sudden removal by playing with the boundaries between present and absent. The scene where Donna and James learn about Laura’s death is a good example of this, as it’s the first time we see a projected version of someone’s interior state in a clear way, something which becomes more apparent as the series progresses.

The scene begins with Donna, James, and Audrey sitting in homeroom during attendance. Donna and James realize that Laura is dead after officers enter the room to speak with their teacher in hushed voices. Their realization about Laura, and our realization that they know about her death, occurs without anyone mentioning Laura by name, with the exception of Donna’s quiet “Laura” whisper in the later part of the scene. We study the characters’ slow realization through visual cues, those which toy with the dynamics around here and not.

Although the teacher gets interrupted before calling Laura’s name, Laura is everywhere in the scene. Audrey, Donna, and James are the last people to be named in the attendance, which reflects their relationship and proximity to Laura. It is no coincidence that they are the only students we focus on in the scene, as they are also the only ones we ever return to.

“When You Least Expect It –”

When the teacher calls Audrey’s name, Audrey smiles and uses finger quotations around the word “Here”. This pose could either suggest that Audrey is literally there but mentally elsewhere, or that she is not literally nor mentally there. The concept of here is thus more complicated than just where a person is sitting.   

The shot composition in the scene continues this conversation on here and not, or “here” as Audrey so poetically put it. The camera focuses on the classroom (the literal here) while also drawing attention to Laura’s absent body (or what isn’t here). Donna realizes that Laura is dead after noticing the teacher staring at Laura’s empty desk. The fact that it is the only empty desk in the room implies that it is an extension of her body, as she is neither in her body nor this seat.

Laura is a ghost in the scene, and it feels like the characters and show itself are too nervous to mention her by name. Perhaps naming her would make her death too real, too concrete. Or maybe her death is still so uncertain that no one feels comfortable calling her name in case she suddenly appears. Not even the teacher can identify Laura or her death at the end of the scene, as she instead notes that the principle will announce something later. Everyone already realizes what has happened, but Donna, Audrey, and James are the only ones who react to this information, which makes the shocking news more unnerving. The rest of the class act as though their class was never interrupted. Their vacant and bored expressions are horrifying, especially when compared with Donna’s loud sobs. These events might have happened in a public place, but it is a private reactionary scene which focuses just on principle characters (and the teacher). Audrey’s small smile at the end of the scene is equally disturbing, as unlike the rest of the class, she has a reaction, but it isn’t typical.

Donna and James mention Laura very briefly in the hallway before this scene, but Donna has a strange reaction to Laura’s name. The only reason they can say her name, albeit with some hesitation, is because they are in this hallway, a space in-between. The hallway isn’t technically a room, it’s a middle ground between rooms, or a means of transit and storage. The hallway is thus similar enough to Laura’s position (here and absent), that Donna and James can talk freely about her. There are lots of other middle spaces in the show, like the hotel, which is a sort of home for figures like Dale Cooper. These in-between places often see the most spirit intervention in the show, as they function a lot like the Red Room. By positioning these rooms in relation to this middle ground, the show implies that the environment is an extension of the character’s emotional and mental state, which announcement scene similarly demonstrates.

“To Introduce This Story, Let Me Just Say It Encompasses The All”

As the officers enter the room, Donna hears a loud scream from outside, and turning her head, sees a young girl running across the courtyard with her hands over her eyes, still screaming. No one other than Donna seems to notice this bizarre moment, which suggests that only Donna can see it. This scream interrupts the dialogue between the officers and teachers, so we don’t hear them mention Laura or any details about her whereabouts. This cut away additionally reflects Donna’s mental state, her urge to leave the scene before she finds out the devastating news. The girl is covering her eyes, as though she can’t stand looking at the school or at what is happening around her. Unfortunately, neither Donna nor the blind running girl can escape from this situation. The decision to shoot the girl from inside the classroom, through the windows, traps her in a secondary frame, a window frame within a cinematic frame. We cut away before she reaches the edge of the windowsill, or her escape. By returning to Donna after this shot, the show implies that Donna cannot mentally nor physically leave.

Once Donna realizes what has happened, she immediately covers her heart with both hands, as though that will protect it from the news. She later covers her mouth while sobbing, as though she is trying to silence herself. She quietly whispers “Laura”, just once, and then continues to cry. These actions create a triptych image, the famous see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil. The girl running away represents the see no evil, as she holds her hands over her eyes, while Donna’s hands over her mouth symbolize the speak no evil. The hear no evil sentiment is a bit more complicated, however, we can read Donna’s hands over heart move in relation to sound. She has essentially covered her heart upon hearing the teacher talk about Laura, albeit without naming her.

Likewise, Donna closes in upon hearing the news, first retreating to her mental state (the fleeing girl), and then clutching herself. James does the opposite by pushing out. When he realizes the news, his thumb moves away from his body and snaps his pencil. His first reaction is a violent and destructive instinct, which says a lot about his character, and how other figures will think of him later in the plot. Both positions replicate the scene’s interest in here and there, as Donna moves inwards towards her emotional and mental state, while James moves outward. These different trajectories suggest that Donna and James will ultimately have different responses to Laura’s death, and will deal with the boundaries around her absence, and occasional reappearance, differently.

Shhhhhhh!

The faint and empty hum in the scene also adds to this uneasy sentiment. It begins right after the officers leave the classroom, as the camera focuses on the teacher as she reacts to the news. The sound has no start nor finish, it is just a sustained note playing overtop of Donna’s sobs. It is like a buzz, like the room and reality are slowly changing channels on a radio, but rather than finding a station, are caught between. The ghostly Laura has entered the scene, neither there nor here but in the reverb between these spaces. Like Lynch’s other projects, this middle ground is frightening because you never know what might step out, or what might get dragged in.

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