This essay originally appeared on my blog American Robotnik. It is part of a series of essays by writers and other artists about the influence of the TV show Twin Peaks on their work. Writer Shya Scanlon is collecting the essays in the Twin Peaks Project.
Nostalgia is the immigrant’s permanent condition. Faced with the uncertainty of the unfamiliar present, not to mention the unknowable future, he turns to what he knows: his own past. Perhaps it was just a natural extension of the nostalgic condition when a couple of years ago I set out to write a memoir of becoming a man in Czechoslovakia during the regime transition from socialist to capitalist and beyond. I flicked through the collection of my memories like through a stack of library cards until one, from my college years, caught my attention. At the time it seemed unrelated to my personal history as it unfolded on the backdrop of massive historic changes. But as I tried to shake it and concentrate on more relevant memories to put down in writing, I realized I could not proceed until I saw Twin Peaks again.
Losing the Twin Peaks Virginity
When Twin Peaks, or The Small Town of Twin Peaks in the Czech translation, first aired on Czechoslovak Television, in 1992, I was a sophomore in high school. It followed the showing of the film Fire Walk with Me in cinemas and was on very late on school nights. My parents didn’t own a VCR, so I didn’t see the show until it was re-run on Slovak Television in 1998. I was in the third (of five) years of college by then, living with my girlfriend in an apartment just outside of downtown Bratislava. The previous year I had seen Lost Highway in the cinema, alone. As I exited the Mlados? Cinema into the park stretching along Hviezdoslav Square, the trees followed me and the Mystery Man (Robert Blake’s character) lurked in the shadows of Old Town’s medieval streets, waiting to tell me through clenched teeth that we’ve met before. I’d never been so scared by a movie, not even by the It clown hiding in the sewer. When The Small Town of Twin Peaks appeared in the TV listings, advertised as David Lynch’s earlier work, released just as we were tasting the first rotten fruits of freedom and Wild East capitalism, I committed to watching all of its 30 episodes.
My girlfriend C., who was French, had no patience for Lynch’s weirdness. She gave up after Agent Cooper’s first dream-state venture into the Black Lodge. I watched the rest of the show alone, on a small TV set in a dark living room while late trams screeched outside and the Blumentál Church around the corner tolled every quarter hour. I loved The Small Town of Twin Peaks—or at least that’s what I remember.
Not Alone in Twin Peaks, After All
A few episodes in I discovered that a group of my friends loved the show just as much as I did. These were second-year students I knew through J., a friend of my high-school (ex)girlfriend. J. and I connected as soon as she moved to the women-only dorm of the Mountain Park dormitories complex, she going through a protracted split from a high-school sweetheart, I unable to find a romantic footing in the big city. We found solace in each other’s company. I showed her the cold, capitalist world in my eyes; she introduced me to emotions, weed, and the beauty of little things.
Meanwhile, things were getting weirder and spookier in Twin Peaks. In the tenth episode (Season Two, Episode 2 in the original), Maddy Ferguson sits on the floor of the Haywards’ living room when Bob emerges from around the corner in slow motion. He climbs over the sofa, crawls over the coffee table toward her, toward the camera—and toward me in the pitch black room, alone and helpless against the pure essence of evil pushing its way out of the screen. As Maddy screamed, I wished I could hide under the duvet in my childhood bedroom, with a flash light on and help on the way. Re-watching the show 16 years later, I imagined my 21-year-old self hearing his own thoughts in the words of Jerry Horn: “Is this real or some strange and twisted dream?”
I invited J. and company to watch The Small Town of Twin Peaks with me in C.’s apartment. C. was reluctant at first: she’d always felt a little excluded and shunned by my friends who felt uncomfortable speaking English and, like me, put off by her refusal to learn any Slovak beyond the basic phrases. She relented for the fifteenth episode (Season Two, Episode 7). J. and just a couple of others showed up, high as kites and bearing a bottle of cheap red wine, which made C. grimace. At the end of the night, we all finally knew who killed Laura Palmer. While C., eyebrows raised, carried the wine glasses to the kitchen and my friends sat staring speechless at the credits rolling across Laura’s prom photo, I walked over to the window, rattled. Watching for something beyond the dark and empty Trade Unionists Square, I tried to decipher whether I was more frightened because of what I had just seen or because I began to suspect C. and I might not last past the summer.
Living in Twin Peaks Land
In the life after The Small Town of Twin Peaks, “Owls are not what they seem,” became my mantra. Of course, J. had tried to show me all along but it wasn’t until the Giant said so that I fully understood there was more to reality than what I could observe. I always thought this was the main lesson I took from the show.
Sixteen years on, my wife, whose power animal is the barn owl, and I now live in Portland, Oregon, three hours’ drive from the Washington towns of Snoqualmie and North Bend where Twin Peaks was filmed. For years the sight of mist rising from the deep forests of the Cascades would stir something in me that refused to settle until I re-watched the show, this time in the English original. I revisited the forgotten plot lines and old fears. I chuckled at the soap-operatic campiness. I shuddered at strange connections, for example when I heard Laura’s tape voice mention the Mystery Man, or when in the last episode I heard her in the Black Lodge tell Agent Cooper, “I’ll see you in 25 years,” just days after David Lynch announced the show’s return. I watched that series (now former) finale in the yurt at the bottom of my mother-in-law’s property while her cat, named FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper, hunted in the surrounding redwood forest.
Evil in the Woods?
With hindsight, I credit the Giant for making me a better writer, always looking beneath the veneer of the obvious, digging below the surface of things, seeking beyond the horizon of the senses. Later, I heard him echo through Plato’s cave and spotted him amidst Whitman’s appearances. And something else occurred to me as I slogged through the show’s last episodes, something even more elemental than the multi-faceted owls. Whereas Lost Highway suggested there are two people in each and every one of us, Twin Peaks showed evil is inside—Bob is all of us and we are all Bob.
The show begins, crests, and ends with a character looking at a mirror: in the Pilot, Josie Packard applies makeup staring at a distance beyond herself; in the middle Leland Palmer adjusts his tie and hair while Bob sneers back at him; and in the finale, Coop and Bob are one on either side of the mirror’s cracked surface. Of course, Central Europe, including my native Slovakia, is historically all too familiar with all kinds of violence. The Hungarians tried to make us into Magyars, the Nazis into Aryans, the communists into a whole new kind of human altogether. That’s the official version, that we’re the victims of outside forces just as Bob is one of “the things dark and heinous in this world,” according to Agent Cooper. But we’re both victims and perpetrators. Agent Rosenfield almost had it when he said, “Maybe that’s all Bob is: the evil that men do. It doesn’t matter what we call it.” We’d know our true nature if only we could see beyond the reflection in the mirror.
I shouldn’t have been surprised Bob occupies Agent Cooper: from the get-go some of his quirks and tics could easily be interpreted as early signs of madness. Perhaps the depths of his own soul were just the way he liked his coffee: “black as midnight on a moonless night.” And if Agent Cooper could turn evil, I could too. Bob didn’t stop crawling towards me when I turned off the TV. He kept going, squeezing through the shrinking white dot in the center of the screen, and went right in. Or maybe he was there all along.
Twin Peaks As the Beginning
Nostalgia’s purpose is to make sense of one’s current, uncertain condition by connecting it to the familiar past—in other words, to trace the origins of the present self in the former one in order to survive the future. As I watched episode after episode of Twin Peaks, I slowly realized that the show bookends my creative life. When Deputy Hawk said to Agent Cooper, “You’re on the path, you don’t need to know where it leads—just follow,” I knew what Twin Peaks really meant for me. Reading Stephen King’s novels I used to think, ‘I want to write like that someday.’ It took Twin Peaks to get me to start typing.