Black Lodge Meditations 13 Theses on the Darkness of Twin Peaks

From "Beyond Life and Death"

David Lynch and Mark Frost's Twin Peaks aired its last episode of season 2 in 1991, over a quarter-century ago. With the series finally making its return for season 3 on Sunday, May 21, we are celebrating all week with a string of Twin Peaks-related features. More from this series

Far from the offbeat humor of Nadine’s regression to her high school cheerleading days, past the precious teenage romance of Donna and James or the even more precious love triangle between Dick and Lucy and Andy, beyond Audrey’s sublimated longings for sex and companionship, beneath the money-grubbing and sometimes deadly Ghostwood Estates project, and even deeper than the bloody criminality of One-Eyed Jack’s, Twin Peaks harbors a darkness that overwhelms all its network television red herrings, its sub-sub-plots, its kitschy catch-phrase seeding. This darkness seems to be the one motif the show’s irony fails to master. It even overpowers its own dismissal as a cliché, as Lynch and Frost spend episode upon episode developing and deepening the metaphor of darkness and its looming power over the town and its environs.

But what, exactly, is it? With so many images of darkness in the show, ranging from the strictly physical to the nearly mythical, the concept is mysterious, even as darkness is, in a sense, mystery itself. A mystery wrapped within its own layers, darkness is not necessarily evil, though evil often finds it suitable to cover its crimes; and though death may be a mystery of its own, it is only a relative of darkness, since death, or a death, can lead us into the dark night. Lynch and Frost’s construction of darkness often juxtaposes the dark with its old enemy the light, invoking the classic/clichéd dichotomy, but here even the light seems to be complicit within the show’s notions of darkness, especially in its own impotence in the fight against the shadows that take sanctuary within the darkness. In fact, few things have power against this omnipresent force, and those that do must take darkness within them in order to confront it — a dangerous proposition.

This is a different sort of confrontation: to seek the heart of Twin Peaks’s darkness by encircling it from many sides. But it may be that the darkness has many hearts or that its darkest heart is hidden within layers and layers of darkness, down corridors we have not walked, behind curtains we have not drawn back. Take courage, regardless: whether few or many, vast or minute, shallow or profound, darkness lies ahead.

1. Wrapped in Plastic
From the pilot episode

Cast up from the dark lake, a form lies wrapped in plastic on a rocky beach. We watch as Pete, in the midst of his morning leisure, approaches the body, his face twisted in a mixture of horrified recognition and fearful curiosity. He knows what is hidden behind the semi-transparent sheets before he pulls them back, and all that stands between him and the darkness spilling over from the night before is a thin membrane. Like Laura’s mother, he already knows what lay there occulted on the beach, and yet he can’t prevent himself from peeling back the sheet to reveal the object of his horror: the truth, that the beloved Laura is dead.

Pete’s horror is such that he struggles to speak. He can verbalize the facts: “She’s dead… Wrapped in plastic.” But in his desire to speak the name of the crime and inability to form the words to do so reveals a yet-deeper horror beyond the fact of her death. Laura’s death also contains something unspeakable, the dark mystery of which animates the entirety of the series. What agency has executed this deed, and more, what motive could have prompted it? As the investigation of these fathomless mysteries unfolds, the myriad secrets that once lay hidden under the cover of night now spill over into the light of day.

The viewer first encounters Laura through a veil, an occulting screen. Her death, now discovered, is a mystery concealed behind another obscuring presence. The plastic sheet embodies the diaphanous darkness that conceals the mystery of Laura’s murder: the darkness that hides the crime but also announces it. With Pete, we first peer through the concealing element, and then, bravely, we see beyond it with him, uncovering the mystery to the light and to our collective horror. We have traversed the first corridor of the dark labyrinth concealing Laura’s murder and the forces behind it. Like the plastic sheet, the physical darkness of night conceals and yet also yields a deeper darkness, a darkness beginning with horror and never quite resolving. An abyss of secrets gapes beyond the screen.

2. Ghostwood
Animation: Korey Daunhauer

SHERIFF HARRY TRUMAN: There’s a sort of evil out there, something very, very strange in these old woods. Call it what you want. A darkness; a presence. It takes many forms, but… it’s been out there for as long as anyone can remember, and we’ve always been here to fight it.

Twin Peaks is located in rural Washington on the border of Canada, in an area known for vast conifer forests, dark gray skies, and misty rain. The darkness of these pine forests is mythical. The Douglas firs Agent Cooper asks about in the pilot are dense with needles and staggeringly tall. Presumably, this is part of a survival strategy: the firs grow tall and close together to deprive other species of sunlight, allowing their kind to flourish. It’s said, however, that Douglas firs have poor shade tolerance themselves, making it hard for young firs to grow, so we know that the trees surrounding Twin Peaks must be ancient. Beneath these trees, on cutoff roads deep within the forest, in cabins hidden at the end of winding trails, there are numerous opportunities for solitude.

The semi-permanent shadows these forests cast not only suggest the concealing power of darkness, but also the paranoiac mood it evokes. Forays into the depths of these places reactivates some animal part of the mind, which takes care against the dangers that may lurk behind the trees. That mystery, the uncertainty as to what the darkness conceals, is a constant, even while the characters of Twin Peaks seek answers to the central mystery of the show. Each character, insofar as they encounter darkness, forms their own relationship to it and thereby their own interpretation of it. Sheriff Truman views it as an evil presence, yet Major Garland Briggs and Agent Cooper seek it out with their evening of night-fishing. Agent Albert Rosenfield, the urbanite, refers to the darkness as “the evil that men do,” but we must wonder if it extends beyond that formula.

It’s no coincidence that Laura’s body appears just outside the sawmill, near a massive piece of driftwood. The logging of Ghostwood forest disturbs the ancient darkness, transforming it into money (in the final episode of Season 2, this juxtaposition becomes explicit, as the cash from the exploded bank vault flutters down past the trees). An even greater transformation is lurking in the form of Ghostwood Estates, Ben Horne’s (and later Catherine Martell’s) real estate venture that hopes to cash in on the beauty of the area. Twin Peaks is growing, and as it grows, it encroaches into new territory, revealing some secrets best kept in the dark. This collision of the human with the primordial forest is in some ways the story of North America, but the darkness motif stretches beyond historical narrative into our own primordiality, our own fear of what lies hidden from view.

3. Laura Palmer’s Theme
Animation: Korey Daunhauer

If the setting of Twin Peaks conjures darkness as a mood, the undulations of Angelo Badalamenti’s soundtrack deepens that evocation. In the title sequence, rising and falling andante motions calmly suggest soap-operatic elements, drawing in the viewer; however, it’s “Laura Palmer’s Theme,” a variation on the title sequence, that most evokes the contrasts inherent in the show: the pleasant melodrama of rural romance and the brooding darkness of the town’s underbelly. A rising piano sequence crescendos and peaks, dissipating into a descending melody reminiscent of the title theme. But as this descending melody completes, a slow, minor key synth-pad drone settles in to take its place, with sudden hits of deep bass notes accompanying it. It’s like the melodic portion is attempting to escape the darkness, as if the emotional drama might rescue it from the creeping doom that pervades its majority. It never does, and the theme ends on the same brooding note on which it began.

Laura found herself caught between these same poles: her interest in James for his sweetness ultimately loses out to her boredom with his vapidity, and she falls back into the darkness, alternately seduced and terrified by its dangers. Why do we keep returning to it? Why now, after 25 years? Mystery also is mystique. Darkness’s power to conceal also enables it to seduce, to cause us to wonder what lies outside the window, past the edge of the woods, beyond the final curtain…

4. Damn Good Coffee
From “Zen, or the Skill to Catch a Killer”

PETE MARTELL: Mr. Cooper, how do you take it?
AGENT DALE COOPER: Black as midnight on a moonless night.
PETE MARTELL: Pretty black.

Black coffee is bitter, but for the right kind of enthusiast (in both the classical and contemporary sense), the bitterness is what makes it desirable. For Agent Cooper and Sheriff Truman, coffee enables them to do the work of uncovering the darkness in the light of day. They require coffee before each and every investigation, and fuel themselves with it throughout. The darkness must course through their veins before they can explore its depths. Thus, the coffee is by turns damned and good — its goodness is damned. It is a psychoactive substance (not too far from the pure-white powder Laura Palmer prefers) that attunes consciousness to become receptive to mystery, yet it also enables the lawmen to solve that mystery, to push through the darkness until a revelation occurs. It’s rare, however, that we see the lawmen drinking coffee at night, when darkness lurks nearest. But when their investigation pushes their bodies to the limit and carries on until very late, there, exhausted, they must replenish their supply of inner darkness to continue.

In the “waiting room” at the Black Lodge, Cooper’s coffee transforms into a solid, black sludge, similar in viscosity to the burnt motor oil-like substance that marks the portal beyond the red curtains. The darkness there is hyper-concentrated. The one who offered it to him, the Man from Another Place, a.k.a. MIKE’s left arm, is an entity that seems to reside in the Black Lodge, and his motives are concealed behind its opaque curtains, so we can’t know whether the sludge is poison or potion. However, it is the Giant who delivers the coffee, in the form of the elderly room-service waiter. We know him to be a creature who appears in an aura of light, who attempts to help Agent Cooper as far as his divine constraints will allow him. Most likely, then, the coffee is both: a poison and a tonic. Ancient mystery schools used a secret concoction known as kykeon, and though there is no clear evidence as to the ingredients of this brew, there is speculation the beverage consisted of wine laced with either ergot — a poisonous LSD-analogue derived from a fungus on wheat — or henbane, a deliriant and poison. Regardless, mystes would imbibe the brew as part of an initiation ordeal, which often included a series of concealments and revelations: blindfolds, caves, bloody sacrifices. The floor of the Black Lodge, with its lightning bolts of white and black, evokes the freemasonic temple, and even the notion of the lodge itself hearkens back to that tradition. What does Agent Cooper lose by pouring out the sludge rather than drinking it? What kind of initiation is taking place?

But the Man from Another Place, upon noticing the consistency of the drink, invokes our embodiment of evil: “Wow BOB, wow.” Is BOB transmuting the elixir of coffee into the scorched motor oil? Perhaps Agent Cooper’s pouring of the coffee onto the floor is more a kind of libation for the lost. As in The Odyssey, Agent Cooper’s libation soon summons shades, the shadow-souls of the dead. Darkness calls out into darkness, and darkness answers.

5. That Gum You Like
From “Cooper’s Dreams”

Although Maureen, the Log Lady, prefers tea to coffee unless she’s eating pie (much like Major Briggs, as evidenced by the tall cups they drink from at the diner), the gum she likes, often found on the walls of the Double R, is made of pitch, the black resin of spruce trees. Her intimate connection to the forests leads her to chew on the substance that sustains the darkness. Now the viewer, in macerating the substance of the show, brings this gum back in style, in the form of attention to mystery, as a process of engaging with the darkness (though we too must ultimately spit it out).

6. Dweller on the Threshold
From “Beyond Life and Death”

Deputy Hawk, the show’s sometime “magical indian,” reveals that in the mythology of his people the Black Lodge is but a gateway into the White Lodge. But he states that you must not approach the Black Lodge with “imperfect courage,” lest it steal your soul away. In the same conversation, Hawk also reveals that the Lodge is the home of the so-called “dweller on the threshold.” Where Hawk’s people discovered a 19th-century occultist’s invention is anybody’s guess, but the term refers to, in Madame Blavatsky’s system, a discarded astral double, something like a ghost (the term was actually coined by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, of “It was a dark and stormy night” fame). The dweller on the threshold floats on the astral plane, attempting to attach itself to the living. Doppelgangers feature throughout the Lodge, the shadows of their living counterpart. But Cooper does not confront his doppelganger; whether in fear of what has happened to Annie or in fear for his own life, he runs away from room to room, always ending up in the same places, unable to penetrate the Lodge’s dream logic.

In the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the author counsels the dying listener to confront the manifold demonic beings that appear before them, as they are gatekeepers of enlightenment. To turn away from these monstrous beings drinking blood from skulls is to risk reincarnation into the wheel of suffering. The book places these beings in a special bardo state of consciousness, a liminal space between death and rebirth. Likewise, the Man from Another Place refers to the red room as the waiting room: the threshold of some other place, white or black. The beings that inhabit it are so many temptations into fear and despair, or sphinx-like guardians of the doorway, whose riddles you must complete to move past. As in dreams and other bardo states, reality and illusion blur, and shadows accept whatever form the mind projects onto them. Thus we can’t know the true nature of beings like the Black Lodge’s shadow-Laura, shadow-Leland, shadow-Maddy, or even the shadow of shadow-Josie (speculators suggest that a particular shadow in the curtains takes Josie’s shape). Are they beings stuck in the threshold between life and death, death and rebirth? Or are they just the form that the darkness has chosen in order to confuse and disorient Agent Cooper, to conceal his objective from him? In the land of shades, darkness is omnipresent.

7. What the Owls Seem Like
Animation: Korey Daunhauer

Owls have always represented wisdom to Western minds (holding a special significance in Freemasonry), and in some Native American cultures, they played the role of psychopomp, the guide of the dead through the underworld. Others see a more sinister aspect: a certain brand of conspiracy theory believes the owl statue allegedly found at the Bohemian Grove meeting is an idol of the demon/god Moloch. Crucial to all of these symbolic associations is the owl’s mastery of the night. The owl, virtually silent in flight, uses the concealing powers of darkness to hunt more effectively, its senses heightened for the task. When owls speak, they ask a question to human ears: Who? And so in Twin Peaks, the owls seem to have grasped that the identified murderer does not represent the true agency behind Laura’s death. They keep asking, even after Leland/BOB confesses (especially during Major Briggs and Agent Cooper’s night fishing trip). Later we hear shadow-Leland state that he has not killed anyone (another unsolved mystery).

Yet it also seems clear: the owls are the lodge-spirits, and BOB himself takes this form when moving through the night. Strange, then, that he should be asking who, even once he has admitted to the crime. Does some deeper darkness lie in wait behind the killer BOB? He was once MIKE’s familiar, we are told. What master does he serve now? Where there is a mystery, there is no telling how deep the darkness extends beyond it.

8. Garmonbozia
From Fire Walk With Me

THE LOG LADY: But there is still the question: Why? And this question will go on and on until the final answer comes. Then the knowing is so full, there is no room for questions.

Twin Peaks, at first glance, appears to be a classic mystery show with elements of noir, melodrama, and supernatural horror. What distinguishes it, though, is the question of motive. When the show began, the identity of the killer seemed a mystery even to Lynch and Frost, who were apparently so secretive Ray Wise was surprised and a bit horrified to learn his character Leland was the killer. Of course, Lynch and Frost found ways of deepening the mystery even after the network forced them to reveal the murderer. Leland was only a vessel for the true killer, and the true killer is something difficult to comprehend. Why does BOB do what he does? He has no political motive, nothing material to gain, no vendetta or hatred. The mystery surrounding BOB’s evil is perhaps the kernel of all the enveloping darknesses of Twin Peaks, and there are few clues as to its solution.

The main one appears in the form of creamed corn. In a scene from Fire Walk With Me, MIKE demands that BOB pay him all of his garmonbozia, which is explained in the subtitles to be pain and suffering. MIKE is apparently a sorcerer (Windom Earle calls the Black Lodge Spirits drukpa) who once used BOB as his familiar, and who, after removing his evil left arm (a.k.a. The Man From Another Place himself), is now trying to stop BOB from doing evil. The pain and suffering BOB causes is a form of sustenance to these creatures from beyond the red curtains, and superfans of Twin Peaks have traced its presence through overlapping timelines and mysterious side scenes with characters like Mrs. Tremond’s grandson, who looks remarkably like a child Lynch. This tantalizing nugget of a motive remains largely unexplained, however. It becomes unclear who is at the controls, who sets BOB on to seek the garmonbozia, and further, where the as-yet mythical White Lodge is in all of this.

What is clear, however: is this even BOB must follow rules, just as darkness must yield to light. He refuses to allow Windom Earle to collect Agent Cooper’s soul, and exacts punishment against Earle by taking his soul for himself (the soul appears as a flame — fire walk with me). BOB can be compelled to give up his garmonbozia. He is prevented from possessing Laura by a ring with the White Lodge’s symbol on it. Darkness, though mysterious, can be contained. The evil it conceals is not all-powerful, but requires great powers to control it.

9. Falling
Animation: Korey Daunhauer

Falling, Falling/ Are we falling in love? Twin Peaks’ opening sequence features an immense waterfall pouring, in slow motion, from the heights into a dark pool below. Later in the series, we finally hear Julee Cruise’s lyrics for Badalamenti’s title theme, including the line, “Don’t let yourself be hurt this time.” If love and fear are gateways to the paths of light and darkness, respectively, why do they seem to go hand in hand? And if we fall in love — not by choice, like so many drops of water meeting at the base of a cataract — why should the light hold us accountable for that which we can’t control? Why does the light require our love and the darkness our fear? Aren’t they two sides of the same coin? The same symbol, upside down?

10. A Game of Chess
From “Beyond Life and Death”

Notice the floor of the so-called Black Lodge, or its waiting room: black and white zig-zags alternate in equal measure. Lights strobe: bright-white, pitch-black. Are the White Lodge and the Black Lodge one and the same? The Man from Another Place claims he and shadow-Laura are from “a place where the birds always sing,” a place whose description sounds remarkably like the White Lodge of Windom Earle’s myth. Perhaps their sinister re-reversed voices are not sinister at all; perhaps it’s only our imperfect courage that hears the darkness in their speech.

Agent Cooper seems trapped in the Black Lodge’s maze, but we must wonder how much this trap is of his own devising. Instead of pressing forward, he constantly turns back, trying to reach — what? an exit? Is he trying to find Annie? Is he merely running away out of fear? And if the door of the Black Lodge requires fear in order to open, why has it opened for him, our gallant hero? Perhaps Cooper, too, is not what he seems. His jailer at the Black Lodge may be his own fear: that he is too late, that he is inadequate to his responsibilities, that this is his fault. We will know in 25 years if he overcomes this obstacle, but even before, we saw images of him as a very old man.

Darkness and light form borders for one another, playing across the surface of all existence. Perhaps viewing them as a simple dichotomy, as absolutes, utterly separate, one to be sought and the other not to be meddled with, can cause them to seem more like the bars of a cage, constraining the will to act by imprisoning it with moralistic certitude. Perhaps our hero is too pure.

11. That’s Classified
From “Checkmate”

Besides: Major Briggs’s abduction into what he called the White Lodge didn’t seem all that wonderful. He emerges, days later, disoriented and hardly able to speak. He is abducted out of darkness by a piercing light accompanied by the calls of the very same owls. The site is under classified investigation by the US Air Force. Being somehow simultaneously deep in Ghostwood forest and also in the deep reaches of space, it sends cryptic, at times unhelpful messages. If we can assume the Giant is of the host that inhabits it, it is telling that the Giant takes the form of the incompetent room-service waiter who can’t save the dying Cooper. The White Lodge can’t interfere in the darkness, but can only lead others to the light.

If we’re to take Major Briggs’s abduction experience as evidence of what the light is, it must give us pause. It appears to be stupefying, even dangerous. Yet, after a few days time, we get a shot of Major Briggs kissing his wife in the Double R, just in time for everything in Twin Peaks to return to normalcy. So: it’s complicated. But Major Briggs ended up in a better place than, say, Leland Palmer.

12. Into the Night
From “Beyond Life and Death”

Lynch’s lyrics for Cruise’s “Into the Night” deal directly with darkness, through which the speaker “calls out your name” as “shadows fall.” Darkness then can represent a state of loss, of pain, of the impossibility of return, another state beyond control, summoning fear and anguish against even our strongest powers of composure. But perhaps more importantly, darkness can be simple closure. Beyond mystery, darkness can be finality. It can be a mere absence, a privation of a light, or pure emptiness; a void. And then it can seem to surround us with its negative weight, its haunting serenity.

Laura’s shadow in the waiting room reveals these two forms: anguish and oblivion. She states that we will see her again in 25 years. She then says “meanwhile” and strikes two seemingly opposite poses. In the second, she screams horrifically, in abject terror, madness, or rage. But it’s the first pose that shows a subtler side of her 25-year absence: she imitates Klimt’s painting Medicine, which features the Greek goddess Hygeia holding a serpent and cup. The cup is filled with the waters of Lethe, the underworld river that washes away the memories of the soul after death. This is the purest healing: oblivion, erasure. So, in the absence, in the darkness between two worlds: wail into the night — and forget.

13. Perfect Courage
Animation: Korey Daunhauer

WINDOM EARLE: What do you fear most in the world?
MAJOR GARLAND BRIGGS: The possibility that love is not enough.

What is to come? Some might say a darkness has fallen here now, 25 years later. And a seeming-darkness can conceal darkness much deeper, realms of darkness never before encountered, darkness past imagination, endless darknesses, the abyss. Whatever the nature of these darknesses, be they voids we fill with anguished suffering or haunting privations of what we’ve known before, be they concealers of crimes or waves of unfulfilled dread; whoever is its master and whatever is its motive and however much the light has become complicit in it or powerless against it; however deep or complex or seductive its mystery; only courage has any chance to free us from it, to push through it until we move beyond it (preserving it, all the while, within us). But remember that courage takes many forms, and the right action is not always the clearest. To defeat darkness requires first encountering it. Thus it is not mere bravery but perfect courage that stands as the only bulwark against the shadows on the threshold. Perfect your courage, then, or the darkness will swallow us up.

David Lynch and Mark Frost's Twin Peaks aired its last episode of season 2 in 1991, over a quarter-century ago. With the series finally making its return for season 3 on Sunday, May 21, we are celebrating all week with a string of Twin Peaks-related features. More from this series

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