*CONTENT WARNING: sexual abuse, drugs, death*
The gothic is the unsung hero of horror. It is home to some of the greatest horror writing in history, and for centuries writers have defied social norms and explored transgression vicariously through their protagonists. More recently, it has informed cinema, becoming integral to the horror genre. In the gothic, the unconscious becomes physical, embodied in the form of unknown lands, deep caverns, unlit corridors, or blood-sucking monsters. Fear is everywhere—but so is temptation, because once acknowledged, resisting our unconscious is impossible. It is rarely discussed in relation to film, though its influence is undeniable, and while David Lynch’s acclaimed franchise Twin Peaks is not an adaptation of any classic gothic novel, it is indisputably a very pertinent portrayal of the gothic. In his prequel film, Fire Walk with Me, Lynch utilises an intricate selection of gothic themes to do justice to the short but explosive life of Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), a girl wracked by trauma, whose deepest, most unconscionable fears are manifested before her in the days leading up to her death.
FWWM precedes the events of the acclaimed first two seasons of Lynch and Mark Frost’s television series, Twin Peaks. While the pilot opens with the discovery of the plastic-wrapped corpse of the local homecoming queen, FWWM brings her to life once more. As the ‘pretty dead girl’, Laura exists as a soulless mirage who presents herself to FBI Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle McLachlan) in the mystical ‘Black Lodge’, all dolled up and grown up. In reality, her death is the eye of a storm that ravages the sleepy town of Twin Peaks in the form of a violent and unnerving murder mystery. She is made whole and human in FWWM, depicted by writers Lynch and Robert Engels as a girl far too innocent to exist in the cruel world she was born into.
The legacy of Lynch’s treatment of Laura, in both the film and series, makes it difficult at first to see anything remotely empowering or revolutionary about her character. She is the archetypal western ideal: white, blonde, able-bodied, middle class. On the surface she is the golden girl, homecoming queen-turned-victim, largely silent and complicit, and it cannot be ignored that her characterisation contributes to a white focal point in horror. What is also important about Laura, though, is what she represents for those who have and continue to live through trauma. In FWWM, Lynch subverts his own adherence to the norm, pulling up the floorboards of the Palmers’ pristine home to reveal a dark, twisted, traumatised teenager grappling at every means necessary to escape from her own life. The real and unreal become one, while Laura exists as both a perfect child and a renegade who abuses drugs and sex to break free. Every setting is hyper-symbolic, and at every opportunity we are seeing a delve into the human psyche that is so characteristically Lynchian, and that lends itself to the examination of trauma.
At the very core of FWWM is abuse; in every sense of the word, Laura’s life is entirely consumed with it. She is at the mercy of the men around her who take advantage of her, most often with a sexual motive. Her father, Leland Palmer (Ray Wise), and the men she seeks at the Roadhouse all abuse her sexually, and her trauma becomes more and more evident the closer she gets to her death.
The gothic is integral to Lynch and Engels’ examination of Laura’s life and mind. She is perpetually haunted by visions and fear. She is a child defenceless against abusive and manipulative men, and the gothic elements of FWWM present to us her attempts to cope, and ultimately her failure to do so. There are countless gothic allusions throughout the film, including Lil, the woman whose physical attributes explain a crime to FBI agents, Mrs Tremond (Frances Bay) and her grandson, and the Man From Another Place (Michael J Anderson). These people are all representative of something: the fear of speaking bad things out loud, the multigenerational suffering of trauma, the incoherence of traumatised minds. Laura is a child, and no matter how adult she makes herself appear, she cannot comprehend the things that are happening to her, or the ways in which her brain tries to protect her. Trauma is our psychological response to horrible things, but suppressed for too long, it can begin to tear at the seams.
While FWWM feels somewhat like it overflows with gothic allusions, there is something mesmerising about Laura’s painting. Mrs Tremond, accompanied by her grandson in his strange mask, gifts Laura a framed picture and tells her that “this would look nice on your wall”. It’s a room with an open door, old and dusty. Mrs Tremond’s grandson whispers to Laura that “the man behind the mask is looking for the book with the pages torn out”, which scares Laura enough to make her run home. The painting is key: a door ajar, representative of the parts of Laura’s mind that are slowly opening to her. Upon returning home her own bedroom door is slowly pushed to reveal BOB (Frank Silva) crawling out from behind her dresser, searching for her missing diary pages. The doors are both physical (insofar as one exists in her home, and the other in a painting), but metaphorical, too. Her mind is unravelling and cannot keep all the doors locked forever; opening one isn’t enough, and so Laura’s life begins to crumble from the weight of her trauma, once hidden behind lock and key, now escaping to haunt her day and night. The door in the painting seems, in her dreams, to lead to the Black Lodge, the iconic extradimensional space inhabited by various characters: The Man From Another Place, a large white horse, BOB, Dale Cooper. It delivers a variety of messages to Laura, including the omen of her death in the form of a bloodied Annie Blackburn (Heather Graham). Mentally, a door has been opened to the destructive effects of traumatic events, and they will continue to follow Laura to her grave.
BOB himself is a figure whose existence seems to extend beyond Laura’s imagination, and who represents something very dark. On an individual level, the abuse she endures at home takes his form. He is presented to us as a ‘spirit’ who possesses her father and, through his host body, abuses Laura himself. Rather than a complete devolution of responsibility from Leland, I think BOB can be interpreted as a manifestation of something far more pertinent and difficult to explain: in Laura’s mind, Leland’s abuse is confusing, uncomfortable but unexplained. BOB is Lynch crafting an embodiment of abuse, an unforgiving figure made entirely of evil and hatred. For Laura, separating her father from the cruelty he commits, alongside clandestine trips to the Roadhouse and copious amounts of cocaine, helps her get by. Though her reactions to her father tell us that she does know it is him committing the abuse, BOB is the one who completely petrifies her. But he seems to exist elsewhere, too. He is responsible for a number of murders, and seems to possess various members of Twin Peaks, but it is entirely possible that he is Laura’s version of something that is present in everyone, an unspoken inhabitant of their everyday and the result of wounds left untreated.
FWWM is filled with hauntings, only not the stereotypical ghostly kind. Its ambience is eerie and unsettling, and, when stripped back, it is about a girl running from her demons. Laura is a fighter, doing whatever she can to escape the things that chase her, but she is stuck in a cruel world surrounded by darkness. Even the location of Twin Peaks is gothic: it is set against a backdrop of never-ending forest, which divides the town and the Canadian border. In Laura’s world, the border is a place of immorality and evil, where men go to solicit young girls for sex, and where drugs are moved from one country to the other. Laura stands alone in Twin Peaks, and Twin Peaks stands alone against the desolate land beyond. She fights against the desire to succumb to her trauma, just as the inhabitants of her town fight against the desire to succumb to things happening outside its borders. Her life is unfair, and we watch her fall victim to the various forces working against her. While BOB may not be entirely real, and the door in the painting on her wall may simply be just that, they are both manifestations of concepts that are difficult to articulate. Laura’s life is a horror story, and FWWM is a horror film, but one that centres around a girl who is very reluctant to give up in the face of a world working against her.
by Alix Hudson
Alix (she/her) is a history student at the University of Edinburgh. She can be found on Twitter and Letterboxd @alixhdsn, where she yells into the void about how great big-budget disaster flicks and Jake Gyllenhaal are, and isn’t shy about how often she watches Spider-man: Homecoming. Her other favourites include Princess Mononoke, Arrival and Love & Other Drugs, and she writes on alixonfilm.com
Categories: Anything and Everything
What a brilliant piece – I’ve never thought about it this way!