The Gothic Sublime Mystery of Twin Peaks

Red curtains hang all around and black and white stripes zig-zag across the floor. In the room, a girl resembling the dead Laura Palmer and a dwarf both speak backwards to an aged special agent Dale Cooper of the FBI. Before long, light flashes as the dwarf takes to dancing as jazz begins to play. The Laura Palmer doppelgänger kisses agent Cooper before whispering a secret message in his ear. Agent Cooper awakens, startled, before calling Sheriff Truman claiming that he has solved the mystery of Laura Palmer’s death. He smiles and snaps along to the music as the end credits of the episode begin to play. 

Fig. 1. Laura Palmer’s Doppelgänger and Dale Cooper in his dream

This sublime scene was captured in the fictional television show, Twin Peaks. The murder of Laura Palmer haunts this small, sleepy town where the residents are full of secrets. Directors Mark Frost and David Lynch designed the show to be mysterious and disturbing, encompassing the sublime aesthetic which was described by Edmund Burke as that which “excite[s] the ideas of pain and danger… or operates in a manner analogous to terror” (37). Qualities such as obscurity and terror are used in the narrative of Twin Peaks, which consists of multiple genres and has been described as “an indeterminate melange of detective story, serial melodrama, and horror-gothic thriller” (Blake 238). The strong cinematic images used to develop the mystery surrounding Laura Palmer’s murder draw from elements of Burke’s sublime as well as from gothic elements such as death and the supernatural to capture the attention of the audience.

Although the show aired only two seasons in its original run, both seasons of Twin Peaks contain many sublime and gothic scenes. In the pilot episode, Agent Cooper painstakingly inserts tweezers into the nail bed of the deceased Laura Palmer, only to remove the letter “R” from beneath her nail. The last scene before the pilot ends depicts a man with long, disheveled hair lurking in a mirror behind Sarah Palmer as she shrieks from a vision involving evidence from the murder of her daughter. These scenes are disturbing and uncomfortable to watch.

Another truly sublime and gothic scene occurs in episode six of season two. The audience witnesses a one-armed man named Phillip convulse and choke while going through drug withdrawal under the supervision of Agent Cooper and Sheriff Truman. He suddenly stops, sits up straight, and claims to be an inhabitant spirit named Mike. The spirit Mike explains that Laura Palmer’s killer is another spirit named Bob who uses a human host to feed on. Agent Cooper and Sheriff Truman listen as the spirit tells them that Bob is close by, inhabiting someone in the town. Ominous music plays as Mike explains that few can see Bob’s true form before staring directly into the camera. Viewers are left feeling uneasy and fearful at this revelation that a character they have come to know and love is Laura Palmer’s murderer.

This scene uses the sublime element of the obscure to strike terror into the minds of the show’s audience. Frost and Lynch expertly use the mystery of Laura Palmer’s murder to build suspense over two seasons of the show. With this revelation, Frost and Lynch introduce the gothic element of supernatural forces to further induce terror in the audience.

Frost and Lynch finally reveal Laura Palmer’s killer episode seven of the second season. The audience watches as a distraught Sarah Palmer drags herself headfirst down the stairs and into her living room. She looks up and the vision of a white horse appears before her. It fades away and she falls unconscious. The camera pans to show her husband, Leland Palmer, adjusting his tie in the mirror. He smiles and the camera reveals the reflection of Bob in the mirror. Suddenly, viewers are filled with dread as they realize who killed Laura Palmer. They are then forced to witness a deranged Leland, possessed by Bob, attack his niece, Maddy. The camera cuts back and forth between the images of Leland and Bob as they brutally kill her.

Fig. 2. The reveal of Leland Palmer as the host of Bob

With the introduction of the spirits, Bob and Mike, the lore of the show grows extremely complex in nature. The supernatural elements introduced act to fulfill elements of the gothic sublime. From evil spirits to powerful visions to the mythic realm of the Black Lodge, the show is full of confusing and elaborate details of supernatural forces. It is this obscure and supernatural design of the Black Lodge that lends itself so well to the gothic sublime.

The infamous realm of the Black Lodge is the most sublime element to Twin Peaks. Although it is difficult to decipher and fully comprehend what exactly the Black Lodge is, it is thought to be a realm or dimension separate from reality, where souls must pass through on their way to the afterlife. It is a place of misery and fear for those who do not have the courage to escape it. There is a portal to the Black Lodge located in the woods of Twin Peaks and it is speculated to be the birthplace of the evil spirit, Bob.

The Black Lodge plays a crucial role in the second half of season two. The rest of the season follows the aftermath of Maddy’s death and the discovery that Leland has been possessed. After Leland is killed by Bob, Frost and Lynch introduce the character of Windom Earle, Agent Cooper’s nemesis. Earle wreaks terror on the town of Twin Peaks as he searches for the entrance to the Black Lodge. Nearing the series finale, Earle abducts Cooper’s love interest, Annie, and enters the Black Lodge with her, forcing Cooper to pursue them.

When Agent Cooper enters the Black Lodge, the audience recognizes that it is the same room from his dream back in season one. While searching for Annie, Cooper enters through multiple rooms, all with varying sights of the odd and uncanny. In one room, a foggy eyed Laura Palmer doppelgänger screams as lights flash. In another, Earle tries to steal Cooper’s soul but is punished by Bob for his actions. In the chaos of Agent Cooper’s search, it is revealed that a doppelgänger of Cooper exists in the lodge and both are frantically trying to escape. Finally, the entrance of the Black Lodge reopens, and the bodies of Agent Cooper and Annie are found by Sheriff Truman.

Compilation of scenes in the Black Lodge

The scenes within the Black Lodge are considered to be some of the most terrifying and disturbing scenes in the entirety of the show. The multiple rooms within the Black Lodge and the chaotic sights within them are confusing, and even with an attentive viewing, it is difficult, if not impossible, to fully comprehend what is happening. With these scenes, Frost and Lynch truly capture the essence of the gothic sublime.

After escaping the infamous Black Lodge, Agent Cooper awakens in his room at the Great Northern, with Sheriff Truman and Dr. Hayward at his side. In typical Cooper fashion, he excuses himself to brush his teeth. Everything seems perfectly fine until Cooper enters the restroom. He slams his head against the mirror, breaking it, blood seeping from his forehead as well as spattered on the mirror and the sink. He smiles maniacally at his reflection, which reveals the image of Bob. As a worried Truman knocks on the bathroom door, Cooper chants “How’s Annie”, growing more crazed in nature with each cycle. The show fades to black on this note of gothic sublime, leaving viewers overwhelmed with intense feelings of terror stemming from this dark and ambiguous series finale.


Works Cited

Blake, Linnie. “Trapped in the Hysterical Sublime: Twin Peaks, postmodernism, and the Neoliberal Now.” Return to Twin Peaks, edited by Jeffrey Weinstock & Catherine Spooner, Springer, 2015, pg. 238. Web. 1 Nov. 2019. https://books.google.com/books?id=OIxaCwAAQBAJ&lpg=PP1&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false

Burke, Edmund. “A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature. 5th ed, vol. 2A, edited by David Damrosch et. al., Pearson Education, 2012, pg. 37-41.

Fig. 1. Kyle MacLachlan, Sheryl Lee. Twin Peaks. Dir. David Lynch. Giphy, http://gph.is/2pZWZUH

Fig. 2. Frank Silva, Ray Wise, scene still. Twin Peaks. Dir. David Lynch. IMDb,  https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0734824/mediaviewer/rm2606170880

Frost, Mark and David Lynch, creators. Twin Peaks. Lynch/Frost Productions Inc. and Propaganda Films, 1990.

Souza, Demerson. “Twin Peaks Crazy Scenes in the Black Lodge.” Youtube, commentary by Demerson Souza, 4 Nov. 2015, https://youtu.be/S7O1SQm1j5s

Tinkham, Audrey. “Gothic & Sublime.” University of Arizona. 2004. Web. 1 Nov. 2019. http://www.u.arizona.edu/~atinkham/Sublime.html