The 13th Floor

The Mysteries of TWIN PEAKS: Part Two

This is a continuation of yesterday’s article—a quick refresher course in anticipation of the return of TWIN PEAKS on May 21.

In Brad Dukes’ book Reflections: An Oral History of Twin Peaks, Kyle MacLachlan points to the end of the third episode of TWIN PEAKS as the watershed moment for the series.  Anybody who got hooked on the show, he says, got hooked by the surreal dream sequence featuring a uniformed dwarf in a mysterious Red Room.  That sequence literally expanded the world of TWIN PEAKS, and raised questions that would define the series from that point forward….

What is The Red Room?

On one hot summer evening in 1989, David Lynch and series editor Duwayne Dunham were editing the extended pilot of TWIN PEAKS.  The improvised ending (with MIKE and BOB) wasn’t working for Lynch, and he was getting frustrated.  Around 6:37pm, Lynch left the editing facility for the day.  He went out into the parking lot, leaned against the sun-heated roof of his car, and (in his own words) “sssssst!—the Red Room appeared.”  In his 2006 memoir Catching the Big Fish, the director explains: “That’s how it starts.  The idea tells you to build this Red Room.  So you think about it.  ‘Wait a minute,’ you say, ‘the walls are red, but they’re not hard walls.’  Then you think some more.  ‘They’re curtains.  And they’re not opaque; they’re translucent.’  Then you put these curtains there.  ‘But the floor… it needs something.’  And you go back to the idea and there was something on the floor—it was all there.”  In Lynch’s vision, there was also someone in the Red Room….

Who is The Man from Another Place?

In his vision, Lynch saw his friend Mike Anderson, an actor he’d known since 1987.  “Little Mike” spoke and danced… backwards.   In an interview with Chris Rodley, the director speculated that he might have been remembering an idea he’d come up with many years earlier: “In 1971 I asked Alan Splet to record me saying ‘I want pencils.’  I asked Alan to reverse that sentence.  I learned it phonetically backwards and then spoke the backwards version and Al recorded that.  That was reversed, which made it sound forward, but a beautifully strange version of the original.  I was going to use this technique at a certain point in ERASERHEAD for a scene which was never shot in the pencil factory.”

For Lynch fans, this suggests a relationship between TWIN PEAKS’ Man from Another Place and ERASERHEAD’s Man from Another Planet—and perhaps also ERASERHEAD’s The Lady in the Radiator, who has her own curtained backdrop and her own strange dance.  But what exactly is the relationship?  Who are all these enigmatic beings?  Their power lies in the question, not in the answer.

In just a few short minutes of screen time, The Red Room and The Man from Another Place generated an aura of mystery that fueled the remainder of the first season.  Lynch wouldn’t return to the series as a writer/director until the second season, but his odd vision—revealed to be a prophetic dream of Agent Cooper—drove the narrative, providing oblique clues to the central mystery of Laura Palmer’s murder.  In one episode, we learn that murder suspect Jacques Renaud has a red room in his cabin.  This seems to be a case of the series writers (Mark Frost, Harley Peyton and Robert Engels) trying to make intellectual sense out of Lynch’s intuition.  The success of the series depended on striking a balance between the two.  But for every answer, there was another question….

Who is The Giant that appears to Cooper after he’s been shot?

Instead of explaining The Man from Another Place, David Lynch gave him an equally enigmatic counterpart at the start of Season Two.  He answered Mark Frost’s Season One cliffhanger—Agent Cooper getting shot by a mysterious gunman—with another surreal vision.  This one involved a Giant, who looks a bit like Lurch in the old ADDAMS FAMILY show.  Like his vertically-challenged counterpart, The Giant offers a series of helpful but cryptic clues, which the investigators (and the series writers) will have to decode.  Two of the clues eventually point toward MIKE and BOB, a pair of possessing entities that now seem like negative counterparts to The Man from Another Planet and The Giant.  From here, Season Two develops a dualistic mythology about a spiritual battle between good and evil.

The Giant’s third clue is more nebulous: “The owls are not what they seem.”  It’s obvious that he is trying to help Agent Cooper by leading him toward the truth—but, per usual, nothing is simple in the TWIN PEAKS universe…

What is the significance of the owls?

It is the Log Lady who first introduces the symbolism of the owls.  Midway through the first season, she tells Agent Cooper that on the night of Laura Palmer’s murder, “the owls were flying.”  Midway through Season Two, Major Briggs gets the same message—projected to him at a secret Air Force base where he conducts UFO research.

When TWIN PEAKS began to veer into the subject of UFOlogy, I couldn’t help thinking of Whitley Strieber’s book COMMUNION.  Published in 1987, Strieber’s book is the most famous account of UFO abduction in American history.  Despite all the pop culture clichés that have sprung up around it, it is basically a study of PTSD.  The author knows that something horrible happened to him, but he doesn’t know what.  When he wakes up on the morning after his abduction, all he remembers is seeing an owl outside his bedroom window.  Later, he theorizes that the owl is a “screen memory,” fabricated or implanted to cover up something unnatural.  The author goes on to note that owls are an ancient “symbol of hidden knowledge” and also “symbols of light and dark knowledge among certain American Indians.”

Owls begin appearing in TWIN PEAKS at significant moments in the middle of Season Two, when Laura Palmer’s killer is revealed.  They herald a much deeper mystery in TWIN PEAKS, one that will essentially replace the resolved murder mystery.  At that point in the show, Major Briggs is abducted by a blinding white light in the middle of Ghostwood Forest.  Later, when he returns, he will have the same kind of alien marks behind his ear that Whitley Strieber writes about in his book.  (We will eventually learn that The Log Lady also has similar marks on her leg.)  In the meantime, the abduction of Major Briggs introduces a new mystery…

What is The White Lodge?

When Briggs is abducted, Hawk relates a local Native American legend.  He says, “My people believe that the White Lodge is a place where the spirits that rule man and nature reside.”  He quickly adds, “There is also a legend of a place called the Black Lodge, the shadow self of the White Lodge.  The legend says that every spirit must pass through there on the way to perfection.  There you will meet your own shadow self.  My people call it the dweller on the threshold… It is said if you confront the Black Lodge with imperfect courage, it will utterly annihilate your soul.”

At this point in Season Two, visionary David Lynch seems to have relinquished the series to myth-maker Mark Frost.  The concept of the Lodges, around which the remainder of the season would be built, is a more traditional concept than anything in Lynch’s work—but it is equally compelling.  The dualistic mythology offers a context for the general weirdness of Twin Peaks, and builds momentum toward a climactic showdown between Dale Cooper (our white knight) and his newly-revealed nemesis Windom Earle, an FBI agent-turned-mad sorcerer.  The Windom Earle storyline dominates the latter half of the second season, but it does not take over completely—because Windom Earle is not the main villain of TWIN PEAKS.  Which brings us to back to Killer BOB, and one final question…

What is The Black Lodge?

Once the Laura Palmer murder investigation gets resolved, Cooper pointedly asks, “Where’s BOB now?”  The series answers this question, in the moment, with a vision of an owl… but the real answer comes in the final episode of Season Two, when Cooper pursues Windom Earle to Glastonbury Grove, the gateway to the Black Lodge.  Reportedly, David Lynch returned to the series to direct this episode and threw out the script, then improvised an extended return visit to The Red Room, which is now presented as a kind of “waiting room” between heaven and hell.  In that sequence, Agent Cooper and Window Earle match wits in the purgatorial netherworld and… well, I don’t want to spoil the ending for anyone who hasn’t already seen it.  Let’s just say that Lynch embraces the dualistic mythology that has been up by the series writers, while leaving the door open to other possibilities.  (It’s no accident that he spends most of the episode in the purgatorial waiting room.)  The Man from Another Place negates the finality of Season Two’s cliffhanger by promising Coop—and us—“I’ll see you again in 25 years.”

Which brings us to Now.  With David Lynch back in the director’s chair, these mysteries are bound to get even more mind-boggling in the new season—because the filmmaker has changed since he made TWIN PEAKS.  Today, David Lynch doesn’t really believe in dualism, or in linear time.  He believes that everything is related within a sub-atomic unified field.  Good is evil, and vice versa.  Intuition is evidence.  Mystery is a beautiful thing—and also terrifying, until you can discern the whole.  At that point, well…

We’ll have to wait and see.

PS – Anyone wanting to bone up on TWIN PEAKS mysteries and mythology before the new season premieres on May 21 should check out these books (all of which I have quoted above):

Chris Rodley’s Lynch on Lynch
Brad Dukes’ Twin Peaks: An Oral History
Mark Frost’s The Secrets of Twin Peaks
David Lynch’s Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness and Creativity