This essay writer thesis analyzes the relationship between nostalgia and the uncanny by focusing on David Lynch’s groundbreaking television show Twin Peaks, including the original 1990 series, the 1992 feature film Fire Walk With Me and the 2017 revival Twin Peaks: The Return. The principle objective of this thesis is to provide a detailed analysis of Lynch’s Twin Peaks Universe in relation to nostalgia and the uncanny or “Unheimlichkeit”. The first episode of Twin Peaks aired in 1990, captivating its viewers and transforming television due its then unique and complex plot, characterization, and narrative style. The show’s revival, Twin Peaks: The Return, aired 25 years later in May 2017, still maintaining its characteristic and now cult nature of non-linear time narratives and unpredictability. The show’s revival also further emphasized the battle between good and evil while including alternative dimensions, dreams, and nightmares. The nostalgic and uncanny are heavily intertwined in Lynch’s universe and filming style. Both terms shall be analyzed in great detail while referring to specific examples within Lynch’s work as well as studies made by scholars such as Freud, Lacan, and Cavell et al. Two major questions shall be connected with the aspects of both nostalgia and the uncanny. These questions are highly-circulated amongst the Twin Peaks community and its fans and have yet to be answered (if such a task is even possible). The first question to be included in this analysis is asked by a character sitting in the famous “Black Lodge,” an alternate dimension and dreamscape space visited often by the show’s main protagonist and hero, Agent Dale Cooper. This question being, “Is it past or is it future?,” a common question shared by the viewers while digesting the show’s blend of 50s nostalgia and style in a seemingly modern world. The second question which shall be discussed appears much later in the series, during the revival’s two-part finale, when Agent Dale Cooper asks, “What year is this?” In this thesis, both nostalgia and the uncanny will be discussed in order to connect these two questions and discuss the complex non-linear narrative of Lynch’s show.
In David Lynch’s groundbreaking television debut, Twin Peaks, which aired for two seasons in 1990 and 1991, Lynch made television history by marrying the cinematic with cable television to create “cinematic television”, which immediately captivated American audiences due to the disorienting and bizarre collection of eclectic characters, the use of long takes, expressive music and sounds, filters, and low-angle shots (Lyons, 2017 p. 2). In the first initial season, Twin Peaks gained a cult following of audience members who were emotionally captivated by the unsettling feelings that Lynch evoked through elements of the unfamiliar, or uncanny, and the heavy reliance on nostalgic elements that spoke to the collective American culture (Albanese, 2012; Skopstov, 2015). Following a decline in viewership in the middle of the second season, the show was cancelled in 1991. Despite this, however, there was still immense interest in the Twin Peaks universe, which led to a prequel film being released in 1992, which received overwhelmingly negative responses from fans due to the divergence from the original show (Jones, 2011). As time went on, however, nostalgia for the initial experiences of the Twin Peaks universe triggered rising interest in a return of Twin Peaks, which was released as a miniseries in 2017 (Halskov, 2017). As with the original series and Fire Walk with Me, Lynch toys heavily with non-linear narratives, contextual clues, and cinematic experiences to engage viewers in a way that emotionally connects them to the work through elements of nostalgia and unheimlichkeit, or the uncanny, which creates a disorienting sense of unfamiliarity mixed with the familiar.
The nostalgic and the uncanny are both heavily intertwined within Lynch’s universe and cinematic style and the Twin Peaks universe provides an extended format through hour-long episodes that allows Lynch to delve into the Twin Peaks universe and toy with elements of the American Gothic genre, where he is able to blur the lines between good and evil through the use of alternate universes, dreams, symbolism, and the esoteric (Delvin & Biderman, 2011; Boyd, 2014; Haskalov, 2017). Both the nostalgic and the uncanny play dual roles within the Twin Peaks universe as well, not only through engaging the audience members, but within the world itself, which the characters are confronted with just as often as the audience. Nostalgia within the world itself is heavily laced with references and imagery linked to the 1950s, which within the collective American culture is typically viewed as a peaceful and idyllic time in American history, particularly as it refers to life in the suburbs, though Lynch introduces elements of horror under the surface of the town that fall within the American Gothic, or Suburban Gothic genre, which investigates the oppressive patriarchal system, murder, incest, criminal behavior, and the supernatural that directly contrasts with the quaint and simple image of a typical suburban town (Perry, 2014; Repa, 2016).
The use of the uncanny and nostalgia, along with the non-linear and disjointed narrative, serve a variety of purposes for the audience and the Twin Peaks universe that need to be more fully explored if the world that Lynch has introduced is to become more familiar and understood, especially given the blurred lines that exist between good and evil in Lynch’s work and the intensely Freudian elements that are explored by Lynch—from the use of the uncanny, a concept introduced by Freud (1899), the heavy interplays between the subconscious and conscious mind, the use of dreams to convey hidden messages to the receiver, Agent Dale Cooper, who must decode his dreams in order to find Laura Palmer’s murderer, and the reversed Oedipal elements where incest takes place because the fathers desire the daughters, as was the case with Laura Palmer and Audrey Horne, though the fathers themselves were not initially aware of it (Twin Peaks, 1991).
To fully understand the Lynchian universe and the elements introduced by Lynch in Twin Peaks, Fire Walk with Me, and The Return, Chapter Two: “Lynchian”: The Complex Universe of David Lynch, will explore Lynchian elements found within his cinematic works, in order to gain a better understanding of how Lynch approaches the obscure and unique style of narrative that is evident in Twin Peaks, along with examples of how the uncanny and nostalgia have been employed throughout his other work. Lynch’s work can be unsettling for audiences, both in terms of the content and the disorienting effects of the uncanny. Lynch disjoints time and space and explores the darker sides of human nature, relying on symbolism to convey deeper messages to his audience that must be puzzled over before they can be fully understood. By reviewing the Lynchian universe, a greater understanding will be gained of how the elements that appear throughout his work were expanded on within the television series and the subsequent miniseries 25 years later.
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Chapter Three of the thesis, The Uncanny, will explore the theoretical basis for the uncanny, or unheimlich, within the human psyche. Freud and Enrst Jentsch will be among the two primary theorists explored in relation to the uncanny, in order to understand the term and its many incarnations, so as to apply it to the Twin Peaks universe in later chapters. The uncanny itself signifies an eerie familiarity, but one that produces tension in the individual because of the difficult to determine elements that separate what is familiar from a sense of otherness (Camilletti, 2010). This is largely represented in Lynch’s work, where the unfamiliar, the uncanny, is juxtaposed against the familiar in a way that creates an emotional uncertainty within the viewer so that they are unsure of how to react or how to respond emotionally to the events they are experiencing on the screen. By understanding the familiar in a psychological sense, we can better understand how Lynch plays with the uncanny to emotionally manipulate his audience and keep them in suspense.
Following this, Chapter Four: Nostalgia, will explore the sense of longing that comes wih the condition, which causes the individual to yearn for an experience, an object, or a person from their past. Nostalgia can elicit a sense of pain and a sense of pleasure in the individual simultaneously, where they both remember fondly while they yearn for what they cannot have again (Kleiner, 1970). Nostalgia can be invoked through the use of symbols and imagery, through tactile experiences or through sensory memories, which can cause the individual to feel connected with others who have shared similar experiences (Sedikides et al., 2008). Within the Twin Peaks universe, nostalgia is manufactured among the audience, which is why it is important to understand how nostalgia can be triggered in individuals (Albanese, 2012).
In Chapter Five: Twin Peaks Universe, the chapter is broken into seven individual sections, in order to explore nostalgia and uncanny in depth and in combination to with other elements that exist within the universe itself. In the first section, the original series will be explored to provide a deeper understanding of uncanny and nostalgia in the first two seasons of the show, followed by an exploration of Fire Walk with Me, and The Return. In the fourth section, uncanny and nostalgia in relation to the universe will be investigated, both in terms of how the two elements work in the Twin Peaks universe and how the elements function in relation to the audience. Following this, the chapter will move onto the uncannies of time, place and ecology, with the aim to isolate the uncanny in relation to each category which will assist in a better understanding of how uncanny functions in multiple capacities throughout the universe. In the sixth section, the narrative complexity will be explored to determine the non-linear narrative employed by Lynch and how it impacts the universe and the audience simultaneously. In the final section of this chapter, the uncannies of sound and music will be reviewed, drawing on interviews given by Lynch and the idea of the sound-symbol, where sounds function as a way to overcome the disorientation of the image and allow for the audience to merge the familiar and the unfamiliar together.
In the second to last chapter, Chapter Six: Past or Present? The two questions connected to the review of the uncanny and nostalgia shall be explored. The first question to be included in this analysis is asked by a character sitting in the famous “Black Lodge,” an alternate dimension and dreamscape space visited often by the show’s main protagonist and hero, Agent Dale Cooper. This question being, “Is it past or is it future?”, a common question shared by the viewers while digesting the show’s blend of ‘50s nostalgia and style in a seemingly modern world. The second question which shall be discussed appears much later in the series, during the revival’s two-part finale, when Agent Dale Cooper asks, “What year is this?” Drawing primarily on evidence from the original series, the film, and The Return, along with drawing on what has been learned through the investigation into the uncanny and nostalgia, and will theorize on the time that the universe is set in. Finally, Chapter Seven will briefly summarize what has been learned and will conclude the thesis.
“Lynchian”: The Complex Universe of David Lynch
David Lynch is an American artist and award-winning film director best known for his distinctive and unorthodox filmmaking style. Since his first early works in film during his time at art school in the 1960s, David Lynch has gained the reputation as “the creative mind behind some of the darkest, most disturbing films in cinematic history” (Borger 2003). Lynch’s television and film work consist of distinctive themes, producing a balance between high art and Hollywood. Although he receives both polar sides of critical opinion, Lynch has no shortage of accomplishments; having been nominated for an Academy Award three times for Best Director (in 1980 for The Elephant Man (1980); 1987 for Blue Velvet (1986) and for Mulholland Drive (2001). He has received both the Palm d’Or (for Wild at Heart (1990)) and the Légion d’honneur. From his first successful and later cult classic film Eraserhead (1977) to his Pacific Northwest, neo-noir television series Twin Peaks (1990-2017), Lynch twists and disturbs the audience’s expectations of a more traditional direction of narrative and story-telling, while also blurring the boundaries of plot points, character development, frame composition, and film style.
Lynch’s cinematic works are often considered as somewhat complex, obscure, and even challenging to interpret, which is also applicable towards their categorization within a range of genres. He presents an uncanny, often nightmarish, perspective that allows the audience to experience the universe of film and television in a completely unique way. The nature of Lynch’s work and the way in which he addresses numerous subject matters, including race, class, and gender, exhibit a multitude of features characteristic for the uncanny and nostalgic. By using specific and more complex narrative structures, many of Lynch’s works are considered as a representation of American film noir, holding characteristic components of postmodernism, while also connecting both intellectual and unrefined aesthetics.
The “Lynchian” cinema is distinctive and while his approach to filmmaking may daunt some, Lynch has continued to gain a wide audience of all ages over his fifty-plus years as a visual artist. Author John Alexander writes about Lynch’s career as both a painter and filmmaker in his book The Films of David Lynch. He includes insight on Lynch’s life and influences, from surrealism, Lynch’s views towards the American Gothic and the Uncanny, as well as film noir, stereotypes and characters, plot, and twists. Alexander provides a distinct definition of Lynch’s style while also comparing it to that of Alfred Hitchcock’s film style, referring to the specific similarities and differences between the two directors:
Lynch’s films balance precariously between the popular and the elitist, treading the fine line of commercial appeal and art house critical acceptance. Just as Hitchcock’s films appeal to the broad general market (good stories well told) and, following the acclaim of the French nouvelle vague, the film ‘literate’ (innovative, experimental in extending the film medium into untried territory), the same broad generalization can be made of Lynch. Like Hitchcock, he has also made the transition to media personality, in front of the camera as well as behind it. […] Unlike Hitchcock, Lynch is not associated with a particular genre. A Hitchcock film is synonymous with the thriller, and his few exceptions Hitchcock later considered errors of judgment. The Lynch catalogue, brief though it now may be, covers all genres, and the Lynch name is synonymous more with a particular style – namely, the bizarre. (John Alexander, 1993 p. 17)
In regard to David Lynch’s style, it is important to emphasize that everything Lynch produces is completely intentional and thought out. The characters, plot, and twists are not just random for the sake of being avant-garde. His approach, as a filmmaker, is to create a new reality, a completely new universe for his audience. Lynch constructs a reality that blurs the dividing line between what is on the screen and reality. Lynch spins both logic and false reasoning to help create a strange and at times nonsensical, universe. As mentioned in Alexander’s book, the way in Lynch meticulously works and plans stems from his upbringing. It is through this meticulous work and attention to detail and meaning that helps Lynch to construct a new universe through which the audience is pulled into the narrative, while simultaneously losing the capability to separate reality and fiction. Like many surrealist artists, who manipulate the rules of logic, Lynch’s universe can appear distorted and chaotic. But for his characters, existing within his created universe, everything makes sense.
By displaying the distortions and twists of reality, along with logical paradoxes and misconceptions of the characters’ actions, most Lynch films can be confusing and disturbing to many viewers. Due to his films often being both violent and sexually explicit, with an unconventional narrative structure and heavily symbolic material, repeated viewings are emphasized as necessary in order to grasp the many layers of meaning in which Lynch is trying to convey (Delvin & Biderman, 2011). His narratives often take place in a multitude of story frames simultaneously, usually fragmented, going against the more conventional narrative while jumping from the real to surreal and uncanny, creating a feeling of conflict and disparateness. Not only is time and space disjointed in Lynch’s universe but also its’ characters, therefore, breaking the story away from the more logical and integrated narrative style. Lynch takes his narratives apart, putting the pieces together and then breaking them again, until the viewer is left unsure of what is real and what is a dream or perhaps, a nightmare. He involves his audience in the interpretive process, leaving much left open to the viewer and producing little-to-no clarifications of his own (Delvin & Biderman, 2011).
Lynch’s film career can be split into three main stages. His early stage, during his more experimental and learning phase, started in the 1960s. This early phase is exhibited by his short films and his first feature film Eraserhead (1977). The films made during this time were produced under a restricted budget and have a very minimal script. The films which represent Lynch’s early stage are Six Men Getting Sick (Six Times) (1967) and The Alphabet (1968), followed with The Grandmother (1970) and Eraserhead (1977). It was during the beginning of this early phase in which Lynch was studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, where he had first applied in 1965. At this time, Lynch was living with fellow artist and best friend, Jack Fisk, in a low-end apartment in the industrial area of Philadelphia. This poor neighborhood proved to be an opportunity of inspiration for the director, as explained by Olson (2011):
The landmarks of Lynch’s neighbourhood were seedy bars that opened early in the day, a prison, a morgue. An atmosphere of anxiety and dread, that had once inspired Edgar Allen Poe, who had lived nearby, gripped Lynch’s soul. […] Always stimulated by paradox, Lynch started to realize that Philadelphia’s crucible of menacing tension was where he needed to be. (p. 26)
It was during this time that the aspiring director was highly preoccupied with the subject of genesis (specifically in regard to birth, fertility, regeneration, and death). His early works were monochromatic, comprised of both metaphorical and literal imagery, blending the two together. This method was not only influenced by Lynch’s bleak surroundings but also by painting, sculpture, and animation. The fixation with genesis was likely triggered by the moment in which Lynch observed workers at a nearby morgue bringing in bodies enclosed in dark, black body bags, later hosed down with water and hung on a line outside for later use. This very image appears much later in Lynch’s career, in the pilot of Twin Peaks, when the body of Homecoming queen and town sweetheart, Laura Palmer, is found wrapped in plastic, by a local fisherman. Lynch used his personal experiences of the often uncanny and macabre to help his audience better realize the way he remembered a world far from the pure white, picket fences of his seemingly wholesome suburban childhood, a period of his life which shall be discussed later on in this chapter. It is in Lynch’s inclusion of personal experience and individual components, along with much planning, that helps him to achieve narratives of such detail and precision.
What seems random to some viewers proves to be deliberate and intentional, achieving a complex and logical plot. Originally, Lynch trained as a painter, focusing on more large and melancholic subjects, resembling paintings of German Expressionism. His early influences during this Philadelphian stage were Francis Bacon, Jackson Pollock and Edward Hopper, as well as Franz Kline and Jack Tworkow (Nochimson, 1997). Lynch was heavily inspired by their use of dark and rich colors, surreal and distorted. Through great study of these artists, particularly Francis Bacon, Lynch began to develop a more personal style and learned how to playfully distort basic understanding of the human experience in order to blend reality and the dream world into one. Cinema author Greg Hainge mentions Lynch’s “deliberate obfuscation and contravention of logic at the diegetic level” and describes how his “aesthetic vision fractures narrative (Delvin & Biderman, 2011 p. 24). In the book According to…David Lynch as well as the more recent autobiographical documentary David Lynch: The Art Life (2016), a much more specific and personal perspective of David Lynch’s life and career is presented. In the documentary the audience is presented with scenes of Lynch himself, working in his studio while articulating his motives and views towards the art world.
In regard to surrealistic and uncanny art Lynch states “I don’t know why people expect art to make sense. They accept the fact that life doesn’t make sense” (Donlon, 2007 p. 37). While pursuing painting as a career path, Lynch had intended to spend three years in Europe studying with Austrian Expressionist painter Oskar Kokoschka at his school. However, after their arrival, Lynch and his best friend John Fisk were disappointed to learn that Kokoschka was not available and therefore, after riding the Orient Express to Athens, disillusioned and broke, the two returned to the United States after just 15 days (Lynch & Rodley, 2005). While Lynch continued to paint,, he began to explore new possibilities of visual expression in order to give his art a new dimension. In David Lynch: The Art Life, Lynch discloses what made him start experimenting with film:
I was painting a painting about four-foot square and it was mostly black but had some green plants and leaves coming out of the black, and I was sitting back probably taking a smoke, looking at it, and from the painting, I heard a wind, and the greens started moving, and I thought, ‘Oh, a moving painting, but with sound. And that idea stuck in my head. A moving painting (Lynch, 2016).
In 1966 Lynch began, once again with the help of his best friend, to work on his first film project Six Men Getting Sick (Six Times) (1967), representing the affirmation of his fixation with motion pictures. The film exemplifies a hybrid form of both painted sculpture and projected image, consisting of a large handmade screen and fitted with three illustrated heads with wide-open mouths onto which Lynch projected a one-minute animation of paintings he himself made, looped four times, and filmed with a 16 mm camera. As a siren wails loudly, the animation depicts the figures on the screen, stomachs filling up with red liquid, their hands over their eyes, then to their bellies, getting sick, catching fire in just the corner of the shot, and then finally, vomiting. The subject of sickness and vomiting can be interpreted as a metaphor for wellness and purification. The repetitive regurgitation of the figures can relate to Lynch’s fixation with that of the life and death cycle. Some of the vomited substance shown in the loop appears to form into a new figure, reflecting the dual nature of life. This visual duality created by Lynch would later become a trademark for a majority of his future works, including Twin Peaks.
The regurgitation and exposed bowels of Six Men Getting Sick (Six Times) (1967)remind the audience that the human form is the subject matter and that any ‘two can be indeed one’, meanwhile examining and revealing the inner workings of the human mind and subconscious. The film won an end of term award as part of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts contest in experimental painting and sculpture (Rodley, 1997 p.36). The recognition led Lynch to fund further film projects. After this success, Lynch received a grant from the American film institute for his next short film The Alphabet (1968), a film of about four minutes in length, combining both live action film and animation. The film can be identified today as a work demonstrating Lynch’s personal transition form painting to film, blending both mediums. Lynch’s attitude as a painter is prevalent in his work and is evident in his second short film.
“The Alphabet shows Lynch approaching film as he does a painting, following his moment to-moment sense of what feels right and balanced, using images and sounds like brushstrokes, building moods and emotions into a composition that exists as a metamorphosing sequence of time, rather than as a canvas hanging on a wall” (Olson 2011: 36).
The film begins with an animation, featuring “the alphabet poured into a cartoon representation of a human body…that oscillates between seeming masculine and seeming feminine, [then] hemorrhages” (Nochimson 1997, p.169). The Alphabet (1968) involves uninhibited autogenesis, illustrating a nightmarish interpretation of the children’s English Alphabet song. The film embodies the fear and abjection of an uncanny and lucid dream. The film begins with chanting of the of the ABC’s, transitioning to ink-blotted and stop-motion pictures with bloody visuals. The eerie imagery of the film was inspired by a nightmare that Lynch’s wife Peggy’s niece once had, which Lynch described as “a little nightmare about the fear connected with learning” (Olson, 2011 35).
According to an interview made by Lynch, the young niece was tormented, reciting the alphabet in her sleep, which is what spurred on the initial idea for The Alphabet (Rodley, 1997). The film begins with a woman, in this case, portraying a young girl, lying in a white bed surrounded by pitch-black darkness, asleep, as children are heard chanting the ABC’s. The scene shifts to a white screen presenting stop-motion cartoons of the alphabet as an operatic male voice sings “The alphabet you can bet is fun. All the letters in a row, in the sun. And you’ll know that you’re the one. The alphabet is surely fun.” The next scene shows the capital letter ‘A’ giving birth through what appears to be a bloody opening, to two small ‘a’ letters, as both hissing and the sounds of a baby crying are heard along with a mumbling woman’s voice, similar to that of a comforting mother.
An animation follows, displaying the metamorphosis of a figure with images much like a suited bust with a rectangular head, changing faces and materializing into a phallic head, again shifting, transforming into a feminine bust with a more abstract head, exposing a single human breast on it’s torso. A red square appears near the figure, following a budding flower or womb-like image that spews red drops onto the headed figure, later tossing the alphabetical letters into its mind. The abstract figure begins to spit out blood, crumbling downwards. A scene follows with an image of an upside-down and red-lipped mouth giving a verbal reminder to remember the delicate nature of the human form (Rodley, 1997). The children’s chanting begins again and the sleeping girl appears in bed, covered with accumulating black dots. The girl sings the Alphabet song with each individual white letter appearing around her in the dark blank space. The film comes to a close with the girl awakening and becoming sick, vomiting dark blood in slow motion all across her white sheets. The film’s images signify ejaculation, birth and blood flow. Like Six Men Getting Sick (Six Times),the girl’s vomiting can be seen as a symbol for purification.
The phallic symbolism represented in The Alphabet is a recurring theme in much of Lynch’s works. Themes of conception, sexuality, and eroticism are emphasized in a visual style that contrasts light and dark, delving into sexual abuse and violence, both returning themes of Lynch’s film noir television show Twin Peaks. With many of his works falling into this genre, particularly his films Blue Velvet (1986) and Mulholland Drive (2001), both of which shall be discussed in further detail later on, Lynch’s films often feature an investigative structure of narrative with “…plot devices such as voice-over or flashback, or frequently both; multiple points of view; frequent unstable characterization of the heroine; and an ‘expressionist’ visual style and photography that emphasizes the sexuality of women” (Gledhill, 1987 p. 34).
Lynch’s works often portray female characters as objects of sexual desire, repressed emotions, abuse and violence. There is often a duality to his female protagonists as well, with women embodying both light and dark characteristics, playing both the pure and tainted. In their book, The Cinema of David Lynch: American Dreams, Nightmare Visions, Annette Davison and Erica Sheen address Lynch’s works in amore feminist approach, including a collection of essays discussing Lynch’s films in regards to issues surrounding sexuality and violence upon women.
Like classical directors who brought European aesthetic traditions to studio-system working practices, he has a quality more pertinent to our understanding of his work than either narrative or genre: an intensely creative approach to the activity of production. […] Within the violent economy of a Lynchian femm(e)rotics feminity is not female as masculinity is to male. Its feminine force erodes the heteronormative aligning of sex/gender/desire, creating transgendered and transsexual spaces – nomadic ‘desire machines’ for the corporeal circulation of desire (Davidson & Sheen, 2004 p. 111).
However, throughout his expansive film career some critics have challenged Lynch’s portrayal of women in both his films and television show, referring to their merging of sexuality and violence (particularly in their representation of subjects such as rape, incest, and necrophilia). When pressed by an interviewer for Rolling Stone Magazine concerning the physical threats that often hang over Lynch’s female characters and whether or not he was ever afraid to appear as “blaming” victims of sexual violence and abuse, Lynch acknowledged the matter but refuted the universality of how he presented the female image, as Breskin (1990) explained,
Everyone can picture in their mind a situation where the girl — for one reason or another — went along with the situation; and everyone can picture in their minds where the girl said, “I’m not into this one little bit!” and got out. And then there’s a borderline where it’s right on the edge for a person: Where it’s interesting but it’s sickening, or it’s frightening, or it’s too much, or almost, or not quite. There’s every different combo in this world. When you start talking about “women” versus “a woman,” then you’re getting into this area of generalizations, and you can’t win. There is no generalization. There’s a billion different stories and possibilities (p. 63).
Now to return to the early onset of Lynch’s film career, it was the success of The Alphabet which played a pivotal role for his later films. With the award money from his art grant, Lynch was able to fund a longer and more extensive project The Grandmother (1970). The film is 34 minutes in length and portrays a man and a woman along with their young son who plants some extraordinary seeds which grow into a grandmother. This film presented a new challenge for Lynch, pushing the boundaries of cinema, immersing crude yet stylistic animations and macabre framing. It was the first film in which Lynch had full creative control over the filmmaking process, including the production of music and sound effects (also marking the beginning of Lynch’s long-lasting collaboration with sound designer Alan Splet). The main premise of the film deals with a dysfunctional family, depicting the idea of home as a place of unseen darkness, where a young boy is mistreated and harassed by both of his parents, all the while dreaming of love and security. Much like his other works prior, as well as afterward, the film elicits more questions than answers, following a more unconventional narrative design. As Alexander (1993) explained, “The Grandmother continues Lynch’s development from a young painter of ‘dark, somber pictures’ to ‘film painting’ to animation, pixilation and to ‘straightforward’ film drama. The film follows on from The Alphabet’s themes of creativity, abjection and childhood estrangement” (p. 38).
In The Grandmother, the film begins with a man and a woman wriggling up from the grassy dirt. The two cluster together like primitive animals and their son is born from the ground, very much in the same way as they were. The boy is dressed in a pristine suit and tie, depicting child innocence and purity. Whereas the two parents are characterized as barbaric and rough, like wild animals, showing no love or understanding towards their offspring. The two parents communicate through animalistic grunts, barks and whimpers, as if they were dogs. Throughout the film, they bark the boy’s name: Mutt! The boy is discontent and separated emotionally by his parents. In various scenes, it is suggested that the boy wakes each morning to discover that he has wet the bed for which he gets scolded and beat by his father, rubbing the desolate child’s face in the bright yellow stain on the sheets. Unhappy with his home environment, the boy discovers a large seed, plants it in a heaping pile of soil on his bed, waters it and waits.
The pile of soil grows into a dark form resembling that of a cactus, growing larger as the boy continues to water it. The dark form eventually splits, growling like a monstrous beast in the process, giving birth to a figure covered in brown slime. The figure materializes as an elderly woman. The boy greets the old woman with a gift of wildflowers. The woman takes on the role as the boy’s Grandmother, bestowing upon him love and tenderness. The interaction between the boy and his brutish parents remains detached and hostile throughout the film. At some point, the Grandmother begins to grow weak, unable to breathe, clutching her throat tightly as she calls out for the boy. The young child frantically tries to save her, begging for the help of his parents, only to be laughed at by them. The Grandmother figure dies, leaving the boy alone on his stained bed. The film ends with the crying boy looking up at the black ceiling above.
Lynch avows that his interest in film stems from the desire to see his paintings move and The Grandmother holds an abundance of painting qualities, specifically in its use of a reduced color palette (Sense of Cinema 2006). The use of color and the way in which the story is narrated bear a resemblance to early German Expressionist films in the ways that it fuses contrasting images with atmospheric sounds, such as animalistic and rhythmic noises, blended with melancholic German electronic music produced by a band referenced as Tractor in the film (Maloney, 2006). The images take that of the Francis Bacon painting, “Figure with Meat”, which like Lynch’s film, has a similar black background, defined with white.
Lynch painted the third floor of his own home completely black in order to create the “stylized and stripped down” atmosphere that addresses the mental state of the viewer (Hathaway, 2011). The film is shot in black-and-white footage, with as much color reduction as possible, incorporating splashes of red, green, and yellow, with a color contrast in scenes portraying a lively blue sky and yellow sun and moon. Already in this film, one can see the connections of Lynch’s personal influences and nostalgia, no matter how uncomfortable. The film can be analyzed as the portrayal of a family member’s unconditional love and support. As written in Chris Rodley’s book Lynch on Lynch, the director himself states:
“The plot of the Grandmother centers around a boy who, looking for an escape from his abusive parents, grows a grandmother to comfort him…There’s something about a grandmother…It came from this particular character’s need – a need that that prototype can provide. Grandmothers get playful. And they relax a little, and they have unconditional love. And that’s what this kid, you know, conjured up” (Rodley, 2005).
Appertaining to the subject of Lynch’s influences at the time that he created The Grandmother, it is important to mention his theoretical studies, particularly those aimed towards the analysis of film combined with the study of dreamlike sound and imagery of the subconscious. It was during this time that Lynch acquired a high interest in the concept of “metamorphosis”, as influenced by German-speaking novelist, Franz Kafka. The notion of metamorphosis is epitomized in The Grandmother as well as a great deal of Lynch’s other films. It was Kafka’s novella The Metamorphosis that both fascinated and gripped the attention of young Lynch, with its “surrealistic, quantum-leap transformation of a man into an insect, its lurking dread, black humor, and its expression of psychological states in physical forms” (Olson 2011 p. 54). Indeed, it was a dream project of Lynch’s to recreate Kafka’s famous short-story, setting the narrative in 1950’s America rather than in an Expressionist European and working-class neighborhood. However, the project was eventually dropped when Lynch realized that he could never top the source material and that the film would likely be both costly and fruitless in profit. As Lynch stated at the Rome Film Festival, “Once I finished writing the script for a feature film adaptation, I realized that Kafka’s beauty is in his words. That story is so full of words that when I was finished writing I realized it was better on paper than it could ever be on film” (Garrison, 2017).
Ironically, Lynch’s first feature film Eraserhead (1977) was infected with a similar curse: it was an expensive film to make and raising the funds for production was heavily placed on Lynch’s shoulders. At this time, Lynch was supporting himself, his wife and young daughter by working a nightly paper route for The Wall Street Journal (Rodly, 2005). The production, due to last six weeks, began in 1972 and took five years to make (Hughs 2001 p. 21). When finally released, the now considered “cult movie” was received with high negativity and disapproval. The film was rejected by both the Cannes and New York Film Festival (Rodely, 1997 p. 82). However, it was remarkably accepted at the Los Angeles Film Festival, where it was shown at midnight, later receiving a horrendous review in Variety magazine (Rodley, 2005). The film gained the attention of other directors at the time, such as underground rebel, John Waters, and Comedy filmmaker, Mel Brooks, who after seeing the obscure film, offered Lynch the opportunity to direct the film The Elephant Man, in which Brooks would serve as executive producer, essentially launching Lynch’s career in the filmmaking industry (Solomons, 2008).
Although Lynch’s Eraserhead didn’t make money, the finished and more polished product was so obscure and captivating that it gained a cult status through decades of midnight showings. To refer back to the irony mentioned earlier, Lynch had indeed made his own rendition of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, both stylistically and thematically. Lynch’s first three short films all resemble something out of a Francis Bacon painting, with black darkness insinuating splashes of vibrant and bloody reds. The influence and structure changes noticeably in Eraserhead, achieving qualities in common with Kafka’s Metamorphosis: a key plot element in Lynch’s 1977 film. The world of Eraserhead is eminently connected to Lynch’s personal experience and surroundings at the time. Lynch creates a black-and-white nightmare, reflecting the cold, gloomy and unsettling atmosphere that accompanied him in the dreary Philadelphian neighborhood where, “Industry has deformed this desolate urban dreamscape beyond recognition; the streets of the nameless city are empty; factories stand like monoliths on the horizon, their gargantuan chimneys spewing black smoke languorously into the sky; (and) piles of ash punctuate barren wastelands that lie between neighbourhoods” (How, 2014).
The film embraces an abundance of uncanny and bizarre elements brilliantly represented through Lynch’s command of horror techniques, generating not only a striking feeling of uncanniness but also anxiety and disgust (Hainge, 2004). The film begins with a side-shot of protagonist, Henry Spencer, played by actor Jack Nance, hovering over the image of a floating planet, surrounded by a dark galaxy. The camera then lowers slowly down towards a tin roof of a house with a large and dark hole in the middle. Inside the house, sits an unnerving figure of a man with charred skin, staring out the broken glass window. Henry appears again in a flipped side-shot, opening his jaw widely, as a strange umbilical creature leaves his mouth and hovers beside him.
Six minutes into the film, the protagonist is placed in a post-industrial wasteland setting, similar to the filmscapes constructed by German Expressionist filmmakers, such as Robert Weine and Fritz Lang (Hainge, 2004). Rather than describing Lynch’s film scene by scene, it is necessary that a clear and more straightforward synopsis of the film’s sequences be provided:
In the depths of The Planet, a Man pulls levers. Images implying conception and birth occur. We surface. On arriving home at his strange, squalid apartment in the midst of a desolate industrial landscape, Henry Spencer is told by a neighbor that his girlfriend Mary has invited him for dinner at her parents’ home. Once there, he discovers that he has fathered a premature ‘baby’, which is still at the hospital. Mary moves in with Henry but soon returns to her parents, unable to sleep through the ‘baby’s’ constant crying. Henry fantasises about a lady who appears on a stage inside his radiator. She sings about Heaven, while stamping on strange worm-like creatures. The ‘baby’ falls ill and, having been seduced by his neighbour, Henry fantasises about being on the radiator stage. His head is pushed off by the ‘baby’ growing inside him and is taken to a workshop to be process into pencil-top erasers. Henry finally kills the ‘baby’, causing a cosmic catastrophe. The Planet explodes, despite the efforts of The Man at its centre, pulling levers in vain. A blinding white flash. Henry meets The Lady in the Radiator in what might be the afterlife. They embrace tenderly (Rodley,m 1997 pp. 246-7).
It is in this feature film, that Lynch postulates the precedence of the audio-visual image, a quality that he emphasizes throughout his expansive career as a filmmaker. Surrealistic set-pieces are melded with eerie and subliminal music and sounds. This can be detected in the scene of The Lady in the Radiator, who is depicted as white and angelic, smiling sweetly while singing the words, “In heaven everything is fine, you’ve got your good things and I’ve got mine.” The scene is set on a stage surrounded by heavy drapery resembling the iconic velvet curtains from the Red Room in Twin Peaks, proving further evidence of Lynch’s reoccurring themes and motives within his expansive filmography. As in many of his other films, including his television show Twin Peaks, Lynch takes on great special-effect feats, which operate to construct a dream-like setting, disrupting the narrative continuity as well as encouraging viewers to connect with the life-like and nostalgic qualities while simultaneously acknowledging the many impossibilities (cinema of David lynch sheen p. 8). The interruption of a continuous narrative along with the influx of industrial sounds and hums creates an unsettling uncertainty throughout Lynch’s film. Such elements of the bizarre and irrational, mixed with that of the familiar and nostalgic, can be found in nearly all of Lynch’s works.
Deemed by some as perhaps Lynch’s most conventional film, The Elephant Man (1980) still holdssome similarities to his earlier films, the most obvious being that like Eraserhead, The Elephant Man is filmed in black-and-white, giving the film a tinge of anxietz and dream-like uneasiness within its’ dark shadows. “I always thought of [The Elephant Man] as a black-and-white film,” Lynch would later state. “Black-and-white immediately takes you out of the real world” (McMillen, 2014). The main differences between both films are the overall themes and subject matter as The Elephant Man is actually based on a true story.
The film is a biopic of Joseph Cary Merrick, who was born on August 5th, 1862 in Leicester, England and at age five, began suffering from a strange condition that caused abnormal skin and bone growth. The disorder was thought to be a severe case of Neurofibromatosis, but it is more likely that his suffering was actually the result of an extremely rare disease called Proteus Syndrome (Britannica, 2019). The disease itself left Merrick completed deformed, with elephant-like physical features in the face, head, chest, and limbs. Lynch’s motion picture adaptation of Merrick’s life takes place in Victorian London. Lynch based his screenplay adaptation on two books, Ashley Montagu’s The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity (1971) and Frederick Treve’s The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences (1923).
Like much of his films prior, especially Eraserhead, The Elephant Man is an uncanny experience from beginning to end, with its’ mesmerizing and unsettling abstractions in a style that is now coined as “Lynchian”. There are many parallels between The Elephant Man and Eraserhead, particularly the sense of a vibrant industrial dream-space lying just barely beneath the surface of everyday reality. For The Elephant Man, Lynch was drawn towards the Victorian period element of the film, which he found to be one of the screenplay’s most appealing qualities:
I always loved smokestack industry, and I love towns or cities that have grown up around factories. So here is Victorian England, and I don’t know this land, but I know factories, I know this is the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, so that side of it resonated with me. Then one day I’m standing in East London Hospital. A derelict hospital, but it still had beds in the wards. Thousands of pigeons, broken windows, but long, glorious hallways, fireplaces, all the details. I’m there in the hall looking into a ward and a wind entered me, and I was back in time. I knew it: 100 per cent. Victorian England. And I said: ‘Now I know it. No one can take it away from me.’ It just came in (Huddeston, n.d.).
The Elephant Man was Lynch’s first film under mainstream production, therefore, this resulted in many differences regarding both the size and overall scope of the film project, with a budget of five million dollars (Kupfer, 2017). For the first time, Lynch was invited into the world of blockbuster filmmaking, but this also came with certain limitations, particularly concerning contract agreements, the script as well as cast and film crew. Lynch looks back on his first studio picture, as a “labor of love” so to speak. But he recollects how the production of the film proved to be quite the nightmare:
It was a very, very difficult film for me, because I was in a place where a lot of people thought I didn’t belong. I had made one feature no one had heard about, and here I am, born in Missoula, Montana, making a Victorian drama. I think a lot of people thought: Who is this nutcake? Who was I to be doing this? (Huddeston, n.d.).
Yet, according to Lynch, he never felt that his creative freedom as both an artist and director
would ever be compromised, with the exception of his film adaptation Dune (1984), a film widely believed to be Lynch’s only “failure” of a film both in the box-office and by critics, which Lynch accredits to his being heavily constricted both financially and creatively, having been denied full artistic control over the film as well as the right to the film’s final cut:
I started selling out on Dune. Looking back, it’s no one’s fault but my own. I probably shouldn’t have done that picture, but I saw tons and tons of possibilities for things I loved, and this was the structure to do them in. There was so much room to create a world. But I got strong indications from Raffaella and Dino De Laurentiis of what kind of film they expected, and I knew I didn’t have final cut. And little by little – and this is the danger, because it doesn’t happen in chunks, it happens in the tiniest little shavings, little sandings – little by little every decision was always made with them in mind and their sort of film. Things I felt I could get away with within their framework. So, it was destined to be a failure, to me (Breskin 1990 p. 71).
It would be this particular film that would eventually push Lynch to leave the world of blockbuster filmmaking altogether and never return.
Going back to the production of The Elephant Man, Lynch looks back on the film fondly due to the freedom and support that he was given by Mel Brooks. With this encouragement, Lynch was able to produce a critically acclaimed film, that would even inspire the Academy Awards to create a whole new award category the following year, the Academy Award for Best Makeup. As mentioned, prior, The Elephant Man is based on the life of Joseph Cary Merrick, altered to John Merrick in the 1980 film, who while being put on display as “The Elephant Man” in a local freak show, is discovered by a London Hospital surgeon, Frederick Treves. The surgeon requests for Merrick to be brought to his hospital for closer examination and after further interaction, finds Merrick to be both an intelligent and socially proficient individual. The two become close friends and Treves vows to help the deformed and outcast Merrick, but despite his efforts, “The Elephant Man” still faces ongoing judgment and aversion from the society around him:
In any language, John Merrick was a walking nightmare. Or, rather, a bent and hobbling one, for, in addition to his appearance and unwashed stench that caused people to shun and torment him, John had a painful hip disease that made his cane-assisted locomotion slow and tortuous. With no one to call family or friend, outcast and penniless, John Merrick, shrouded in a hood and cloak, was shunted back and forth between brief hospital stays and poorhouse lodgings (Olson, 2011 p. 103).
Despite the many kind and peaceful interactions depicted between Merrick and other individuals, it is made clear throughout the film that the majority of society refuses to accept Merrick as a human while also addressing him with complete and utter repulsion. Even Merrick is both aware and horrified by his deformities, regarding them with horrific and uncanny recognition.
The Elephant Man raises many questions, particularly regarding the inquiry of morality and of how society perceives those who are physically or mentally disabled. The film is a criticism of how society is constructed to be repelled by those who do not fit into the standard definition of what is “normal” and “acceptable”. Throughout many scenes of the film, Lynch addresses human prejudice in relation to how physical appearance causes disparities and even conflict between humans. There are several scenes that reflect how quickly people form an opinion about another individual solely based on physical appearances, then quickly jump to rejection and attack the person, whether it be physically or verbally.
This is portrayed in one of the first scenes in the film in which Mr. Bytes, an alcoholic showman and “owner” of Merrick, treats Merrick as if he were a circus animal or inhuman, considering him to be retarded, simply due to Merrick’s physical appearance. Throughout the film, when Merrick is not under the care and hospitality of Treves and a few other prominent members of Victorian society, he is treated as a slave or animal. In one of the final scenes, once Merrick has returned to London after having been kidnapped and forced to work in Mr. Bytes’ freakshow, he is soon harassed in a train station by a group of young boys. While wearing his burlap mask to cover his shocking appearance and quickly pacing with his cane in a panic, Merrick accidentally knocks down a little girl. The child’s scream gets the attention of others in the train station and soon an angry mob aggressively follows and surrounds Merrick.
The growing crowd cry in horror after someone removes Merrick’s mask off his head. Merrick runs, only to be cornered into a wall of the station toilets, by the belligerent group, with no possibility of escape. Merrick, terrified, cries out, “I am not an elephant! I am not an animal! I am a human being! I…am…a…man!” before collapsing to the ground. After the incident in the train station, some policemen return Merrick to Treves’ hospital. Although Merrick shows some signs of recovery, his health soon deteriorates. While staying at the hospital, Merrick thanks Treves for everything that he has done for him. In the final scene Merrick finishes a model of a chapel that he has been working on, then lays down flat on his bed, aware that such a sleeping position will likely cause him to suffocate. The camera moves to a portrait of Merrick’s mother next to his bedside table, transitioning to a shot of a starry galaxy as the voice of his mother is heard quoting British poet, Lord Tennyson:
“Never, oh! never, nothing will die;
The stream flows,
The wind blows,
The cloud fleets,
The heart beats,
Nothing will die” (The Elephant Man, 1980).
The film ends with a shot of Merrick’s mother appearing in a hovering halo bubble-like shape, very similar in appearance to the halos presented in Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return over 37 years later.
In 1985, despite the dreadful box office performance of Dune,Lynch was given funds to film Blue Velvet (1986). It is of the “Lynchian” quality for his films to produce a disquieting effect on the audience. It is possible that this effect is heightened by a separation between an initial homeliness and nostalgia. Blue Velvet is an essential example of the “Lynchian” effect, in its’ first few opening scenes, a picturesque and domestic idyll of suburbia is presented, resembling that of a postcard, with fresh white picket fences and blue skies in a seemingly Eisenhower-era America.
The shot transitions from the visual of a bright blue sky with a white picket fence and vibrant red roses in the foreground to a smiling man waving from an old American red fire truck, as he rides along with a Dalmatian at his side, with the Bobby Vinton song “Blue Velvet” playing. Children are seen crossing a school crosswalk, as an older woman guides traffic. The next scene presents a patriarch watering his green lawn as his wife watches television, soon enough, his watering hose gets tangled and as the man tries to untangle it, he clutches as his chest, keeling over to the ground as he has a near-fatal stroke. The camera zooms into the grass below the man, with the green blades resembling that of a jungle, growing darker as the camera sinks deeper into the forest of blades, with large beetles crawling loudly upon one another. Soon after this scene, the protagonist, Jeffrey Beaumont, as played by clachlan, discovers a severed and decomposing ear in the blades of grass, unfolding the very mystery of the film. Blue Velvet can be described as a coming-of-age film, only twisted. It tells the story of a young man’s discovery of the dark forces lying just beneath the surface of a seemingly pleasant and good-natured neighborhood.
After discovering the severed ear in the field of grass, Jeffrey takes it to the local police. There he meets police detective Williams and later reconnects with the detective’s wholesome daughter, Sandy, who eventually becomes Jeffrey’s girlfriend. Sandy tells him all about the ear case that her father is investigating, which involves a suspicious woman named Dorothy Vallens, a beautiful and seductive jazz club singer. Being the curious young man that he is, Jeffrey makes a plan to sneak into the woman’s apartment by pretending to be a bug exterminator and steals her spare house key. Eventually, after attending Dorothy’s nightclub act, Jeffrey sneaks into her apartment so he can snoop on any suspicious activity. Dorothy discovers him hiding in her closet and threatens to kill him with a knife that she holds in her hand. It is in this first interaction between the two characters that initiates an array of the film’s most pivotal events, particularly the encounter with Frank Booth, a sadomasochistic psychopathic thug who is addicted to inhaling a nameless drug from a gas canister and who is also responsible for the kidnapping of Dorothy’s husband and son. Jeffrey is both intimidated and frightened by Frank and yet, his developing lust and attraction for Dorothy keeps him involved in the bizarre situation (Blue Velvet, 1986).
From the 1980s up until the early 1990s, Lynch produced some of his most commercially successful films. It was during this time that Lynch also met American actor, Kyle McLachlan, who would end up playing the lead role in films such as Dune (1984), Blue Velvet (1986) and most considerably Twin Peaks (Twin Peaks, 1991; Fire Walk with Me, 1992; The Return, 2017). It was through this commercial success that Lynch was given the opportunity to move into cinematic television, which had never been done before (Lyons, 2017). Through this, Lynch was able to delve more deeply into the uncanny that he had explored within his earlier works, but this time with an hour each week, allowing him the ability to build a wider universe and keep his audience suspense over eight to twenty episodes per year.
While the undertaking was significantly different from his previous work, Lynch’s cinematic experience would allow him to reshape television as it was known in the early 1990s and create an entirely new experience that audiences would come to demand from television in the future (Lyons, 2014). Using a surrealist approach, mixed with a non-linear narrative, Lynch played on the uncanny and on nostalgia—both in terms of his previous films and the messages embedded in them, such as with Blue Velvet, and in terms of the collective American nostalgia for simpler times of the past. Through this, Lynch helped to establish the genre of American gothic, where he interlaced the supernatural, the familiar, and the unheimlich together to create a cult classic that would continue to intrigue audiences for the next 25 years (Lyons, 2014; Repa, 2016)
The uncanny in its simplest form can be described as an experience in which something feels strangely familiar. It may be an unsettling or eerie sensation as an unknown object, person, or experience is intertwined with an individual’s natural and comfortable surroundings. Psychologist Sigmund Freud is known for his discussions on the uncanny, largely due to his investigations of what he declared was an eerie quality among dolls and waxworks ( ).
Sigmund Freud originally developed psychoanalysis based on the premise that some psychological problems exist below the conscious surface. Freud asserted that therapy utilizing common sense reasoning is not practical if unconscious forces are the source of a person’s psychological troubles. Consequently, Freud developed psychoanalysis to enable patients to uncover and release repressed emotions and life experiences. As part of this psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud put forth an idea that when impulses and feelings that may not be fully acceptable to society arise from the shadows, then the result is unheimlich, the uncanny.
Jentsch’s Exploration of the Uncanny
Sigmund Freud was not the first researcher or psychological thinker to discuss the concept of the uncanny. Just 13 years prior to Freud’s first publication regarding the uncanny, Psychologist Ernst Jentsch wrote an essay in which he defined the uncanny as “intellectual uncertainty; so that the uncanny would always, as it were, be something one does not know one’s way about in. The better oriented in his environment a person is, the less readily will he get the impression of something uncanny in regard to the objects and events in it” (Jentsch, 1906, p. 6).
In Jentsch’s presentation of the uncanny, he calls upon the German term, unheimlich, explicating that it implies a person’s experience with the uncanny makes the not “at home” or “at ease,” since the definition of heimlich relates to being comfortable and “at home” (Jentsch, 1906, p. 2). However, Jentsch submits that while unheimlich implies being not at ease, there is a certain affective excitement that corresponds with uncanny sensations (Jentsch, 1906). It is human nature, according to Jentsch, that people have a certain amount of trepidation when they combine the new with the old and traditional. Not only will the subject feel a certain amount of unease, but they may even feel mistrust and hostility towards this newness interfering with their old, tried-and-true traditional constructs (Jentsch, 1906). There is a consequent disorientation, which the psychologist compares to a person of the wilderness encountering automation for the first time (Jentsch, 1906). Nevertheless, the apprehension is accompanied with wonderment and even excitement.
Ernst Jentsch explicates that the notion of the uncanny is particularly effective in storytelling. Just as children demonstrate their interest in ghost stories, humans of all ages have a preference for the thrill of horror (Jentsch, 1906). Jentsch suggests that one of the most effective ways to produce uncanny effects is to write a literary piece in which the reader cannot distinguish whether a subject in the story is actually human or an automation (Jentsch, 1906). Jentsch cites the story “Der Sandmann” by E.T.A. Hoffmann as an example of the uncanny in fiction as the story tells a narrative about a lifelike doll named Olympia (Jentsch, 1906). Jentsch explores the work of Hoffman in his essay, On the Psychology of the Uncanny, which was published in 1906, and this investigation into the uncanny is continued in the next decade by Sigmund Freud.
Freud’s Foundation for the Uncanny
In Sigmund Freud’s personality theory, he describes the human psyche as a tripartite, meaning there are three separate and distinct parts (Freud, 2018). Freud named these parts the id, ego, and superego. Freud purports that the id is the most primitive part of a person’s psyche, including their sexual and aggressive tendencies as well as hidden memories (Freud, 2018). The id is comprised of inherited characteristics, all of which are present since the time of birth, and serves as the unconscious facet of the human psyche (Freud, 2018). Moreover, the id does not develop or change over time, since it does not interact with the external world and consequently is not affected by reality (Freud, 2018). Instead, the id is focused solely on personal pleasure.
Meanwhile, the ego is the part of the human psyche that seeks to reconcile the primitive desires of the id with the parameters of the external world (Freud, 2018). The ego is often described as the part of a person’s mind that makes decisions. Reason reigns supreme with the ego, which seeks pleasure like the id, but does so in the most realistic manner (Freud, 2018). Freud presents an analogy describing the id as the horse and the ego as the rider, such that the rider (ego) has to restrain the power and strength of the horse (id). Within this construct, the superego is the segment of the human psyche that controls the impulses of the id, since the superego is fully in tune with societal morals and values (Freud, 2018). The superego includes both the human conscience and an ideal self, which is an image of what a person seeks to be (Freud, 2018).
It is within Freud’s personality theory of the human psyche that he presents the notion of the uncanny. According to Freud, the uncanny not only involves a fascination with the unknown meeting the known, but also a fear of what is hidden becoming revealed. In other words, the uncanny presents a risk of the id becoming known to the outside world.
Freud: Repetition Compulsion
In Sigmund Freud’s published essay, The Uncanny, he discusses the literary work of Hoffman but disagrees with Ernst Jentsch’s assertion that the lifelike doll is the highlight of the uncanny in “Der Sandmann.” While the doll, Olympia, certainly lends towards the uncanny in Hoffman’s story, Freud takes notice of Hoffman’s use of repetition and how this creates a “repetition compulsion” (Freud, 2001). According to Freud, this repetition is not only a literary device, but is reflective of real-life patterns. He references wandering around and returning to the same street repeatedly or colliding with the same objects of furniture in a dark room over and over again (Freud, 2001). This repetition is innately human to the point of compulsion.
Repetition compulsion is described by Freud as a psychological occurrence whereby an individual retraces their steps or repeats an event many times over (Freud, 2001). This compulsion may take place in a subject’s dreams or hallucinations, or the individual may even purposefully seek to re-live a particular event without consciously recognizing their attraction to the event (Freud, 2001). Such repetition compulsion may create actions in a person towards another that are rooted in repressed memories or trauma, but can be used for purposeful means of working through neuroses (Freud, 2001). As an example, Freud cites how a child may throw their favorite toy out of the crib, become agitated over the loss of the toy, but after retrieving the toy will repeat the action. According to Freud, this is the child’s willful attempt to gain mastery over feelings of loss (Freud, 2001).
Freud further assesses that the repetition compulsion involving unhappy experiences may be unpleasant for the ego while meeting a need for the id (Freud, 2001). In fact, Freud asserts that the uncanny serves the purpose of bringing the id – and an individual’s repressed impulses – to the subject’s attention (Freud, 2001).
Freud: Heimlich & Unheimlich
Freud’s discussion on the uncanny is largely rooted in the etymology of the German word, unheimlich. In order to gain insight into unheimlich, Freud first focuses on the German word, heimlich, which can be defined as familiar, natural, and comfortable (Freud, 2001). While heimlich represents everything that is familiar to an individual, reassuring the person that what they know to be true is actually true, unheimlich then takes that familiar object, person, image, or event and makes it into an unsettling construct (Freud, 2001). In this sense, unheimlich is not truly the antonym of heimlich because the element of familiarity remains.
While a person finds great comfort in the heimlich, believing there is no greater ambiguity or unknown beyond their current understanding of truth and reality, the unheimlich now takes that normal construct and makes it uncomfortable (Freud, 2001). It is the familiarity of the original object or experience, however, that is key to unheimlich. Without this familiarity, then unheimlich would be monstrous or alien (Freud, 2001). The familiar nature to the object, person, or experience is what makes unheimlich – the uncanny – truly fascinating because there is a familiarity in the strangeness.
Although the power of the uncanny is largely due to its familiarity, there is also the element of the taboo. Heimlich encompasses all that is familiar and comfortable, but also includes that which is hidden and secret. Freud writes that, “the word ‘heimlich’ is not unambiguous, but belongs to two sets of ideas, which, without being contradictory, are yet very different: on the one hand it means what is familiar and agreeable, and on the other what is concealed and kept out of sight” (Freud, 2001, p. 933). With this statement, Freud claims that there are certain impulses or sensations that remain hidden from society because they are considered taboo, even abominations according to social constructs (Freud, 2001). Consequently, these impulses remain hidden within the id, but the uncanny is able to bring them to the surface.
Freud asserts that the concept of unheimlich brings everything which has been hidden out into the open despite the intention of a person’s superego to keep these thoughts and impulses hidden (Freud, 2001). Freud explicates that bringing these secrets and taboo impulses out of the darkness is what makes the uncanny so creepy as he writes that the uncanny “is undoubtedly related to what is frightening – to what arouses dread and horror” (Freud, 2001, p. 930).
Unheimlich and Oedipus
The unheimlich brings forth those ideas that society views as shameful. Thus, an individual may seek an alternative solution to ease their anxiety of their secrets becoming public. Freud asserts that the study of dreams presents multiple examples of how individuals seek to deal with such uncanny threats. For example, Freud connects the fear of blindness with a fear of castration as evidenced through the character Oedipus.
In his writings, Freud put forth an idea that psychoneuroses are the result of the Oedipus complex or Electra complex, whereby children have sexual attraction to their opposite-gender parent and hatred toward their same-sex parent (Freud, 2013). Freud’s essay, “The Oedipus Complex,” is written as an argumentative work in favor of this theory. In the essay, Freud offers the literary figures of Oedipus, from Oedipus Rex by Sophocles, and Hamlet, from Hamlet by William Shakespeare. Both of these young men have sexual attractions to their mothers, which inhibits their abilities to fulfill their destinies. Consequently, Freud suggests that the Oedipus Complex – or the Electra Complex in the case of females who are attracted to their fathers – creates a link between childhood experiences and psychoneuroses in adults (Freud, 2013). Freud also seeks to validate his theory with this writing by explaining how dreams reveal the uncensored Oedipus complex in humans (Freud, 2013).
Within his analysis of the character Oedpius, Freud asserts that the figure’s self-blinding is due to his fear of being castrated. Freud references the fear of blindness in Hoffman’s “Der Sandmann” as a symbol for the fear of castration. According to Freud, going blind is a substitute for being castrated (Freud, 2001). This fear may be expressed in the unheimlich – the uncanny – such as Hoffman demonstrates in his literary work, “Der Sandmann,” since the uncanny embodies all that one fears and places these fears within the context of what is familiar and natural to a person. The unspoken fear of castration can be spoken as a fear of going blind.
Lacan’s Mirror Stage
Jacques Lacan is a supporter of Freud’s revolutionary ideas in the field of mental health. Lacan even referenced a “return to Freud,” in which he advocated for reading Freud’s original texts (Lacan, 1988, p. 40). Lacan slightly diverts from Freud in his assertion that the unconscious is actually structured similarly to language and not so primitive after all (Lacan, 1988, p. 64). Additionally, Lacan builds upon Freud’s concept of the ego by suggesting the “mirror stage” as the formation of the ego (Lacan, 1988, p. 248). As a child moves beyond infancy, the mirror stage involves the individual seeing their own image, growing intrigued by their own image, and then developing the ego as a resolution to their perception of their visual appearance and their emotional experience. Throughout their formative years, a child seeks to make sense of their mirror image and develops confidence in the familiar. The interruption to this familiar comes in the form of the uncanny.
Jacques Lacan states that the uncanny presents subjects “in the field where we do not know how to distinguish bad and good, pleasure from displeasure” (Lacan, 1988, p. 249). From Lacan’s viewpoint, there will always be some essence of an object, event, or experience that is beyond what an individual is able to comprehend and articulate. Consequently, an individual may engage in cognitive dissonance, electing to reject the unknown rather than attempting to understand it (Lacan, 1988). Whether or not an individual chooses to reject the uncanny or seeks to comprehend it, Lacan offers insights that build upon Freud’s construct of the uncanny by suggesting that the uncanny creates a disruption in the mirror stage (Lacan, 1988). The heimlich that an individual has fashioned throughout their lifetime, what is familiar and known, is suddenly turned upside down through the unheimlich.
Cavell: Embracing Skepticism
During the latter half of the Twentieth Century, a new voice came on the horizon to express insights into the concept of the uncanny. American philosopher Stanley Cavell approaches the concept of the uncanny through the lens of skepticism. Cavell advocates for skepticism – and the confronting of skepticism – in all facets of life. According to Cavell, an individual may have doubts about the known versus the unknown, whether they are in a dream state or awake, but these skeptical feelings should be embraced and explored rather than diminished (Cavell, 2002).
Cavell’s exploration of the uncanny includes an intense study of language. Cavell submits that ambiguity will always prevail in the definition of a word or phrase, even suggesting that an individual should not only mean what they say, but also take responsibility for all potential meanings of their words (Cavell, 2002). In fact, Cavell suggests that when an individual has an unintentional slip in language allow that leads to misunderstandings, the mishap presents an opportunity for meaningful dialogue between humans (Cavell, 2002). Throughout the study of language and its multiple meanings, Cavell then returns to this notion of skepticism and that each person should always have a level of skepticism about who they are and their relationship to the world around them (Cavell, 2002).
As Cavell analyzes Freud’s presentation of the uncanny, he claims that the underpinnings of the uncanny are found in the ordinary. While other philosophers of his time – namely the logical positivists – attempt to create their own artificial certainty, Cavell seeks to explain the ordinary world from new viewpoints. He indicates that this “return of what we accept as the world” is also a “return of the familiar, which is to say… the uncanny” (Cavell, 2002).
As he presents his own theory of human development, Cavell declares that all human beings have a desire to make the world more present, but the impossibility of such an endeavor creates skepticism (Cavell, 2002). This skepticism, which has likely arisen from frustration with an inability to make the world present, leads to an inclination to solve the skepticism. But
Cavell asserts that the antidote for skepticism is not found in philosophy, rather it exists in daily words, objectives, activities, and environment (Cavell, 2002). This return to everyday life subsequently turns the ordinary into the uncanny (Cavell, 2002). Thus, humans no longer take the ordinary for granted and find a strange sense of comfort in the merging of worlds – the known and the unknown – as the familiar ordinary transforms into the uncanny. What Cavell fails to address, however, is the phenomenon of fear and panic that arises when the uncanny strikes too close to home.
The Uncanny Valley
In the modern era of character development, the concept of the uncanny has extended beyond the musings of philosophers, the pages of novels, and the screens of television or movies. In the field of robotics, the construction of human-like robots known as androids has resulted in a modern-day phenomenon related to the uncanny. As the robots are given human-like qualities in their appearance and movement, there is an appeal that elicits a positive response from the viewer. However, once the robot becomes too realistic then the appeal dissipates, a phenomenon that has been termed the “uncanny valley” (Young, Xin & Sharlin, 2007). First coined by the robotics expert Mori Masahiro in 1970, the uncanny valley theory acknowledges that realism can be achieved, but this realism is not wholly desirable among the general public.
“The uncanny valley is a theory that discusses the relationship between a robot’s visual resemblance to a human and our perception of the robot. As a robot becomes more human-like, there is a point when the robot appears human enough for us to believe on some level that it is human, only to (sometimes rudely) discover that it is not. At this point, such a robot is said to be perceived as uncanny and is not well accepted. This dropped region of believability is called the uncanny valley” (Young, Xin & Sharlin, 2007, p. 316).
Essentially, the uncanny valley theory assesses the relationship between a robot’s human-like qualities and the human perception of that robot’s humanity. While this theory applies most directly to the field of robotics and computer graphic animation, the theory has relevance for the concept of the uncanny as a whole. The realization of this uncanny valley by robotics designers demonstrates the human fascination with the intertwining of something foreign with something familiar, as well as human aversion to bringing such an alien object too close to home. As the unheimlich intertwines too closely with the heimlich, the natural human response appears to be a mix of uncomfortableness and fear.
The Role of Time
One of the fundamental tenets within the concept of the uncanny is an eerie familiarity, specifically a tension between familiarity and an otherness that exists between divergent points in time or location. The concept of the time-slip is a form of time travel within the uncanny in which a subject enters another time period without even being cognizant of the time shift. In fact, the subject many only recognize the time-slip after it ends. A time-slip occurs for a short period of time and is generally not a repeatable experience. According to Camilletti (2010), the time-slip brings a subject to a “present perfect,” such that there is a mutual cohabitation of the past and the present (p. 28).
In a time-slip the past is not accessed via technology, rather it is accessed through the mind of the individual, whether it be their imagination, the supernatural, or questionable sanity. Camilletti (2010) presents this time-slip as the existence of multiple concepts of time. First, Time 1 is the time into which an individual is born, ages, and dies. This is the time of a person’s physiological body, the “practical and economic time” (Camilletti, 2010, p. 29). Meanwhile, Time 2 is a time that exists without clocks or calendars. It encompasses an intersection of the past, present, and future, during which the individual becomes an observer apart from chronological time (Camilletti, 2010). With the simultaneous co-existence of Time 1 and Time 2, there is yet one more concept of time – Time 3 – whereby the potential and actual are either linked or discarded (Camilletti, 2010). Time 3 is deeply personal and entirely subjective, and it is the height of the uncanny.
Within the framework of the uncanny, a time-slip most often occurs when an individual feels a sense of alienation from their present life experience (Camilletti, 2010). The individual may be confused or disillusioned with the present chronological time, and thus they cultivate an empathy with the past. When the social conventions or expectations of the present chronological time do not coincide with a person’s authentic nature, then the subject engages in their own version of time travel.
The Mystery of the Uncanny
While a number of psychological minds have attempted to define and explain the uncanny, the underlying principle of this construct is that it cannot be wholly defined. The uncanny takes an object, symbol, or other entity that is “normal” to the general population and then completely unsettles it, such that the individual now questions their entire knowledge and understanding of that subject. Anneleen Masschelein (2002) explains this inherent uncertainty of the uncanny by declaring the uncanny to be an “unconcept,” such that it is able “to keep a kernel of indeterminacy, instability, and openness” (p. 25). In essence, it is the nature of being an “unconcept” that describes the uncanny as it cannot restrained to any singular conceptual definition (Masschelein, 2002).
When considering the mysterious nature of the uncanny and the human attraction and simultaneous fear of this great unknown, Freud provides additional insights regarding the human need for comfort and security. In his work, The Future of an Illusion, Freud writes that humans know that religion is ripe with imperfections, yet they willingly overlook these flaws because they would rather have their “illusion” that offers them comfort and security (Freud, 1961, p. 53). Religion’s attribute of fulfilling human wishes also represents humans’ state of helplessness in the world, because humans have to face the ultimate fate of death, the struggle of civilization, and the crushing cruelty of nature (Freud, 1961). Resulting from such a state of helplessness, as Freud explains, humans need God as a father-like figure, whose almighty and protective power can exorcise the terrors of nature, reconcile humankind to the cruelty of fate, and compensate humans for life sufferings (Freud, 1961). Additionally, Freud asserts that personifying nature into a deity is a primal act that fulfills humankind’s earliest psychosexual needs. “I believe rather than when man personifies the forces of nature he is again following an infantile model. He has learnt from the persons in his earliest environment that the way to influence them is to establish a relation with them” (Freud, 1961, p. 22). According to Freud, humans begin a practice at infancy of creating relationships with anything and anyone they seek to control. Humans do this with their mother at an infant age. As they grow older, human beings then personify supernatural forces into the being of God in order to obtain feelings of safety and security.
This desperate human need for comfort, safety, and security is part of the heimlich that Freud references in regards to the uncanny. When this heimlich is interrupted – or completely reconfigured and infiltrated with the unknown – then humans have trepidation by their very nature of this construct that exists outside of their framework of comprehension. Truth is no longer truth, absolutes cease to exist, and the security of home has been displaced with an alien being or foreign object injected into their familiar surroundings. There is nothing normal about the unheimlich, yet humans find fascination with the correlation between the known and the unknown.
The Uncanny: Undefinable yet Undeniable
In the end, the construct of the uncanny is inherently undefinable, yet the discussion of this topic among multiple scholars, philosophers, psychologists, as well as its use among fiction writers demonstrates that it may be undefinable, but it is undeniably present in both life and art. Perhaps Sigmund Freud offers the most concise description of the uncanny in his statement, “the uncanny is that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar” (Freud, 2001, p. 930). The exploration of this uncanny – the unheimlich – is the basis for subsequent discussion regarding David Lynch’s show, Twin Peaks.
What is nostalgia? The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as “the state of being homesick; a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition” (Merriam-Webster, 2019). The word “nostalgia” has its etymology in the Greek nostos, meaning “return home” and algos, translated as “pain” or “ache” (Boym, 2002). The Greek term nostos originally comes from Homer’s Odyssey a tale in which the character of Odysseus makes his ten-year journey home after the Trojan War (Boym, 2002).
Originally, the notion of being homesick was viewed as noble. Homer’s character, Odysseus, longed so intensely for home that nothing would keep him from his return. He battled life-threatening forces and resisted the temptation of a goddess because he desire to return home was so consuming (Batcho, 2013). This steadfast commitment of Odysseus to returning home designates a sense of loyalty to his family and his culture (Batcho, 2013). However, this viewpoint on homesickness would not last indefinitely. Throughout subsequent centuries, researchers would study nostalgia as an illness, a malady that needed correction. Yet, during the past 300 years, the idea of nostalgia has transitioned from being viewed as a mental illness to a psychological construct.
A Nostalgic History
During the 17th Century, approximately 900 years after Homer’s Odyssey is believed to have been penned, the word “nostalgia” was coined by medical student Johannes Hofer. In observing the homesickness among Swiss soldiers, Hofer took the ther original Greek terms, nostos and algos, and transformed them into his own linguistic creation. Hofer explains his choice to coin the term “nostalgia” in his dissertation, stating that the term is “composed of two sounds, the one of which is nostos, return to the native land; the other, algos, signifies suffering or grief; so that thus far it is possible from the force of the sound nostalgia to define the sad mood originating from the desire for the return to one’s native land” (Hofer, 1934, p. 381). Hofer compared his new term, nostalgia to the German word heimweh, which is defined as homesickness (Batcho, 2013). Nostalgia became a descriptor for a sweet sadness, a pain or ache for something familiar, even to the point of debilitating a person (Boym, 2002).
In his dissertation, Hofer describes nostalgic symptoms, such as fever, insomnia, fainting spells, indigestion, loss of appetite, weakness, heart palpitations, and even death (Hofer, 1934). Hofer conducted his studies on Swiss soldiers serving in France and Italy. His theory put forth that the ubiquitous memories of home created a surge in the brain of vital spirits and that the focus of these spirits on the vivid memories took away from the body’s ability to perform its necessary processes to stay alive (Hofer, 1934). As Swiss officials did not want for their soldiers to appear weak and compromise their military prowess, familiar folk songs were banned throughout military camps and battlefields (Hofer, 1934). Soldiers were punished if they sang the Kuhreihen, a traditional Swiss melody, as this tune was linked to nostalgia among the soldiers (Hofer, 1934).
Throughout subsequent centuries, scientific researchers focused their efforts on locating a singular locus of nostalgia. The results of such studies throughout the 19th and 20th Centuries concluded that nostalgia was a symptom of melancholia. Multiple studies were conducted with soldiers as the subjects, including soldiers who served in the United States Civil War during the 19th Century (Boym, 2002). During the first two years of the Civil War, Union medical personnel reported more than 2,500 cases of medical nostalgia, whereby the soldiers experienced extreme sadness and even derangement (Matt, 2007). With no clear physical abnormality presenting the cause for nostalgia, medical doctors began to document nostalgia as a mental illness that manifested itself through physical symptoms (Matt, 2007). Nostalgia was relegated to status as a form of melancholia as it was studied throughout the First World War and Second World War of the 20th Century (Boym, 2002).
Although Sigmund Freud never specified a study of nostalgia, his writings such as Screen Memories and Mourning and Melancholia provide a psychoanalytic context for nostalgia. Kaplan (1987) explicates Freud’s influence on present-day understanding of nostalgia as he states, “In a psychoanalytic context, the meaning of nostalgia changes to become a variant of depression, an acute yearning for a union with the preoedipal mother, a saddening farewell to childhood, a defense against mourning, or a longing for a past forever lost” (p. 466). As researchers have further investigated nostalgia from a psychoanalytic perspective, they have expanded the object of desire from the home to any time, location, event, relationship, or memory that is often held dear through a symbolic memory (Batcho, 2013).
In present-day society, most definitions of nostalgia involve a longing for a time, event, or object of the past, making reference to the “good ole days” (Sedikides, Wildschut, Arndt, & Routledge, 2008). Nostalgia is no longer equated solely with melancholy, rather it has taken on a more positive connotation, even being correlated with an improvement in mood. Although there may be both positive and negative repercussions from nostalgia, what most psychoanalysts have agreed upon in recent decades is that nostalgia incorporates a wistful desire for a foregone time and place (Sedikides et al., 2008). In addition, nostalgia is unique from homesickness and romantic sentimentality because nostalgia simultaneously brings about disappointment and fulfillment. There is a “peculiar combination of sadness and pleasant reminiscing” that exists within nostalgia (Kleiner, 1970, p. 15). While a homesick soldier feels pain and a hopeless romantic feels elation, the unique experience of nostalgia incorporates both of these feelings and more (Kleiner, 1970).
In contrast to the perception of nostalgia among military soldiers as a sickness to be treated throughout the 18th and 19th Centuries, psychoanalysts of the 20th Century have taken a different approach, even seeing nostalgia “as the therapy rather than the problem” (Batcho, 2013, p. 6). The prevailing belief among psychoanalysts in the current time is that nostalgia is a bittersweet emotion (Batcho, 2013). Yet, in Freud’s psychoanalysis, nostalgia is not only viewed as a bittersweet yearning for the past, but also a yearning for an idealized past that may not have even existed in actuality. Freud calls this idealized past the “screen memory” (Freud, 1899).
The Screen Memory
While Sigmund Freud never wrote explicitly about nostalgia, the premise for modern-day understanding of nostalgia is found in his work, Screen Memories. Freud asserts that a “screen memory” encompasses multiple memories, both real and imaginary. An individual may recall their high school days with tremendous fondness as they hear a song from that era or view a photo of their former extracurricular activities. That memory will likely neglect to include negative episodes endured during high school, rather the memory will idealize the high school experience. The individual will recollect everything pleasant, edit out everything traumatic, and the consequential biased memory is a screen memory.
When human beings think about, discuss, hear, taste, or smell something that elicits a screen memory, it is a deeply emotional experience in which feelings reign supreme over veracity. Although humans may consider a given memory to be embedded in their hearts and minds, the truth is that nostalgia often involves fictionalized or highly edited versions of the past. Freud writes that such screen memories involve “the operation of memory and its distortions, the importance and raison d’etre of phantasies, the amnesia covering our early years” (Freud, 1899, p. 301). The amnesia to which Freud refers involves anything unpleasant to the human psyche that an individual unconsciously eliminates from their mind.
One of the earliest forms of nostalgia, according to Freud, is a desire for solidarity that a person originally enjoyed with their mother. This oneness with the mother in the womb and during the instant stage of life establishes a symbiotic relationship between mother and child that is never duplicated in any other relationship (Freud, 1899). As children grow older and experience separation from their mothers, then they undergo their first experiences of nostalgia. Since Freud’s work asserts that nostalgia is inextricably connected with an idealized past, then this perceived connection to one’s mother is termed an internalized idealization (Freud, 1899). But again, these memories are not factually accurate.
It may indeed be questioned whether we have any memories at all from our childhood: memories relating to our childhood may be all that we possess. Our childhood memories show us our earliest years not as they were but as they appeared at the later periods when the memories were aroused. In these periods of arousal, the childhood memories did not, as people are accustomed to say, emerge; they were formed at that time. And a number of motives, with no concern for historical accuracy, had a part in forming them, as well as in the selection of the memories themselves (Freud, 1899, p. 322).
Freud’s theory is that the human psyche has an agenda when selecting what to store as memory and what to discard. As a result, the human memory is not entirely factual, and this is a key factor in nostalgia.
Based upon the premise of screen memory set forth by Freud, subsequent researchers have studied the construct of nostalgia and the accuracy – or lack of accuracy – in memories recalled by individuals. For example, individuals with differing life experiences will view the same historical events from completely different lenses and this translates into their nostalgic memories. Hook (2012) reports that nostalgia for the history of apartheid in South Africa appears in two conflicting forms. Some South Africans experience “restorative nostalgia,” such that they long to return to the past, whereas others have feelings of “reflective nostalgia,” which is characterized by a more judicious recollection (Hook, 2012).
The Role of Symbols
Nostalgia is not only triggered by an emotion or event, but also through symbols. Symbols represent something familiar and safe, cementing the screen memory in a figurative form. According to Hirsch (1992), an “idealized emotional state is framed within a past era, and the yearning for the idealized emotional state manifests as an attempt to recreate that past era by reproducing activities performed then and by using symbolic representations of the past. Idealized past emotions become displaced on to inanimate objects, sounds, smells and tastes that were experienced concurrently with the emotions” (p. 390). As explicated by Hirsch, human beings have idealized memories and emotions, which form into symbols. These symbols that solicit nostalgia become an attempt to reclaim the past.
There are a variety of symbols that may lead to feelings of nostalgia within an individual. A portrait of the Madonna and child may produce strong sentiments of remembrance for one’s own time as an infant or as a mother. Images of team mascots also evoke nostalgic responses from sports aficionados or former athletes. Even a picture on the Internet of 1980’s video games may bring some adults back to their adolescent days spent playing Ms. Pac-Man or Frogger at the local arcade. There are countless examples of pictorial depictions or symbolic references towards childhood or adolescent memories. As previously elucidated, these memories are typically idealized, which makes them all the more dearly held by their beholder (Freud, 1899; Hirsch, 1992).
As symbols evoke these feelings of nostalgia, an individual’s mood can actually improve. Research findings throughout the past two decades have demonstrated the positive aspect of nostalgia, such that it can bring about a more positive self-esteem, better mood, and increased connectedness with others (Sedikides et al., 2008). One group of researchers even submit findings that nostalgia can increase an individual’s sense of purpose. In fact, findings from this study show not only that nostalgia correlates with a person’s sense of meaning, but also that a person who feels their meaning in life has been threatened will turn to nostalgia as a coping mechanism. The very threat towards one’s life meaning triggers the nostalgia, and the nostalgia subsequently minimizes the threat that the individual feels towards their existential meaning (Routledge, Arndt, Wildschut, Sedikides, & Hart, 2011).
There are a variety of triggers that can elicit the onset of nostalgia. Smell is believed to be one of the strongest triggers of nostalgia. An adult may experience a moment of nostalgia upon smelling a distinct aroma that they connect with their childhood, such as the odor of Play-Doh or Crayola crayons. The smell of freshly baked holiday cookies, macaroni and cheese, or a favorite dish from childhood may bring about an idealized version of events from yesteryear. Scents that are holiday-specific, such as pumpkin, cranberry, or spruce, pine, or fir trees can elicit powerful nostalgic screen memories.
Why are smells so powerful? The scholarly journal, Cerebral Cortex, published a study last year that links aromas with nostalgia due to findings that the segment of the brain that logs scents is the same part of the brain that creates and sustains long-term memories (Strauch & Manahan-Vaughan, 2018). According to the researchers of this study, the piriform cortex, located near the brainstem, encodes long-term memories along with their corresponding odor (Strauch & Manahan-Vaughan, 2018). The researchers report findings that adults of all ages were twice as likely to recall a memory if the recollection was connected to a scent (Strauch & Manahan-Vaughan, 2018). The authors refer to this phenomenon as an odor-evoked autobiographical memory (Strauch & Manahan-Vaughan, 2018). Present-day marketing tactics take advantage of this odor-induced nostalgia, diffusing certain aromas into the air in retail stores to induce shoppers to buy their products.
Music can also evoke nostalgia. Most adults fondly remember tunes from their childhood or adolescent years. When a tunes of the 1960’s, 1970’s, and 1980’s plays on the radio or at a special event, feelings of nostalgia arise among the listeners. Research conducted by Schulkind, Hennis, and Rubin (1999) sheds light on this connection between music and nostalgia. As the researchers played popular songs from different periods of history for college students as well as older adults, they found that the songs brought about memories in their study participants (Schulkind, Hennis, & Rubin, 1999). These memories were generally about people, places, and events. The newer tunes triggered memories among the college students, whereas older tunes were responsible for nostalgia among older adults (Schulkind, Hennis, & Rubin, 1999). This finding suggests that feelings of nostalgia are often tied to the days of a person’s youth, including childhood and adolescence. Moreover, for adults of all ages, research reveals that memories were more likely to be triggered with more emotional songs (Schulkind, Hennis, & Rubin, 1999). In other words, the greater the emotion in the music, the higher the probability that it would bring about nostalgia in the listener.
Beyond scents and sounds, weather serves as another trigger for nostalgia. Many adults can identify with the vivid memories that arise to the surface on a rainy day. These screen memories may involve a positive childhood experience during which the individual felt safe from a brewing storm in the comfort of home and family. Researchers van Tilburg, Sedikides, and Wildschut (2018) conducted a study to specifically assess the connection between adverse weather conditions and feelings of nostalgia among adults. The research findings present that nostalgia is brought on in response to heavy wind, thunder, or rain (van Tilburg, Sedikides, and Wildschut, 2018).
What is particularly intriguing about these research findings is that the memories are wholly positive, with nostalgia actually serving as a buffer between adverse weather conditions and feelings of distress due to the inclement weather rain (van Tilburg, Sedikides, and Wildschut, 2018). In addition, the nostalgia brought on through this inclement weather produced a more positive affect and self-esteem among the participants as well as greater feelings of social connectedness and optimism rain (van Tilburg, Sedikides, and Wildschut, 2018). This finding lends credence to Freud’s assertion of the screen memory. Even during adverse weather conditions, during which fearful memories could arise, the nostalgia that is brought about involves idealized versions of the past. Consequently, the nostalgia not only allows the individual to enjoy a moment of blissful recollection, but also serves as coping mechanism for any present fears. Indeed, nostalgia has been suggested as a psychological defense construct, another idea originally purported by Freud.
Nostalgia as a Psychological Defense
According to Freud, the memory has an emotional agenda and therefore distorts how a person remembers their past. In this sense, screen memories and nostalgia are a form of psychological defense. This defense may be in response to a loss of many forms. In his essay entitled Mourning and Melancholia, Freud writes that “the occasions that give rise to the illness extend for the most part beyond the clear case of a loss by death, and include all those situations of being slighted, neglected or disappointed…” (Freud, 1899, p. 251). With this statement, Freud indicates that the melancholia is not merely a deluded state in which an individual fails to acknowledge the death of another person, but extends it to encompass all losses and disappointments of the past.
Although Freud categorizes melancholia as a pathology, he does not submit that all forms of nostalgia are problematic. In fact, Freud presents nostalgia as a coping mechanism that provides clarity for the individual psyche. In regards to self-understanding, Freud writes that a melancholic person “has a keener eye for the truth than other people who are not melancholic” (Freud, 1899, p. 249). Freud acknowledges that nostalgia – or melancholy in his terminology –can lead to a positive result whereby the individual copes with their feelings of loss and simultaneously gains a greater understanding of self.
Nostalgia becomes a psychological defense when an individual faces loss or goes through a time of transition. As children transition into adolescence, they may experience strong nostalgic feelings as they mourn the end of their childhood (Kaplan, 1987). The inability to go back in time and replicate any of the favorite pastimes or occurrences of childhood may bring about feelings of grief that may present to the world as depressive moods (Kaplan, 1987). In order to cope, the teenager may engage in nostalgia, relishing in their most treasured childhood objects or events (Kaplan, 1987). In this sense, nostalgia “takes the sting out of the sense of loss” (Kaplan, 1987, p. 151). Through nostalgia, an individual keeps the spirit of the loss alive to the present day.
Perhaps the greatest test of nostalgia as a psychological defense involves a study by Hertz (1990) and a later study by Hirsch and Spitzer (2002) in using nostalgia to help Holocaust survivors cope with their past trauma. As Hertz worked with a group of aging Holocaust survivors, he found that their positive memories increased over time as they engaged in nostalgic remembrances (Hertz, 2002). Meanwhile, Hirsch and Spitzer (2002) documented the benefits of nostalgia for one couple who brought their daughter on a trip to their homeland. As the couple reminisced about their past and told their daughter about these events, they found a greater connection to the pleasant aspects of their past and a greater peace about the traumatic aspects of their past (Hirsch & Spitzer, 2002).
In distinct contrast to the concept of nostalgia put forth by Hofer, which presented nostalgia as an ailment among soldiers that required treatment, modern-day psychoanalysts have ventured into the therapeutic benefits of nostalgia. There are concerns, such that nostalgia leads towards narcissism. Nevertheless, nostalgia is no longer seen as a medical problem. Nostalgia is now viewed as a construct, albeit comprised of highly edited memories, that enables an individual to cope with loss, trauma, and major life transitions.
Nostalgia in Fiction
As the second oldest Western literary work, The Odyssey presents the first use of nostalgia in a literary work. As previously mentioned, Homer’s hero, Odysseus, is viewed as heroic for his faithful commitment to return home. In more recent centuries, nostalgia has been utilized by numerous authors and filmmakers for narrative purposes. While this paper will assess the use of nostalgia in-depth in David Lynch’s show Twin Peaks, both the original and revival seasons, it is appropriate to ascertain how other creators have implemented the concept of nostalgia into their works.
Marcel Proust’s In Search of Time Lost is perhaps the most well-known literary work that features the construct of nostalgia. The seven-volume novel, originally published in French between the years 1913-1927, tells of the narrator’s memories from childhood through adulthood in 19th-20th Century France (Proust, 2013). At first, the narrator remembers his childhood with wonderment (Proust, 2013). Then, he agonizes over time that has been lost and subsequently fears that the world is meaningless (Proust, 2013). In the end, the narrator finds that his memory is the window to access the time lost and concludes his life in peace (Proust, 2013). Nostalgia is clearly present throughout the literary work, including the idealized childhood memories and the bittersweet juxtaposition of feelings of remembering a time fondly, yet recognizing that the time has passed.
Meanwhile, in American literature, F. Scott Fitzgerald weaves nostalgia throughout his famous work, The Great Gatsby. Throughout the entirety of the novel, the title character relentlessly pursues the past as symbolized by Daisy (Fitzgerald, 1993). Narrator Nick Carraway declares that Gatsby, “wanted to recover something, some idea of himself perhaps that had gone into loving Daisy” (Fitzgerald, 1993, p. 110). Throughout the novel, Jay Gatsby continues to accumulate money and possessions, yet he finds no value in them because he is stuck in the past (Fitzgerald, 1993). He longs for his past life with Daisy. Ironically, Gatsby’s yearning for the past destroys him, yet simultaneously sets him apart as “great” (Fitzgerald, 1993). In addition, The Great Gatsby presents a challenging question the reader: Can the past be repeated? Gatsby makes an attempt to repeat the past, but ultimately learns that he has changed(Fitzgerald, 1993). Since he is not the same person as he was before, then the past is never fully accessible to him (Fitzgerald, 1993).
In addition to written literary works, feature films and television series utilize nostalgia for narrative purposes. Classic films like It’s a Wonderful Life and Casablanca are filled with nostalgia as are modern films such as Blue Valentine. Meanwhile, television shows set in times gone by transport viewers to a different life, often triggering nostalgia. The Wonder Years and Mad Men, for example, are both set in the 1960’s and remind viewers of a time when typewriters and rotary telephones were used for correspondence instead of SmartPhones and social media sites.
The Essence of Nostalgia
Based on two Greek root words nostos (return home) and algos (pain, ache), the concept of nostalgia was first introduced in the late 8th Century with Homer’s Odyssey. Although nostalgia would not yet be addressed again until the 17th Century when Hofer officially coined the term to describe the melancholy among Swiss soldiers, the construct of nostalgia has been a central concept in psychoanalysis and fictional narratives for the past century. In the subsequent chapters of this thesis, the use of nostalgia is investigated within the Twin Peaks universe. Creator David Lynch makes frequent use of nostalgia in the 2017 revival of his series with multiple references to the 1991 original series. However, nostalgia is not only present in the revival and its references to the original Twin Peaks series, rather nostalgia has served as a cornerstone of the Twin Peaks universe from day one. With a blurred time narrative and directional ambiguities, Twin Peaks is ripe with nostalgia, bringing nostros and algos into the 21st Century.
Chapter 5: Twin Peaks Universe
Lynch’s Twin Peaks is firmly rooted in the American Gothic tradition, exploring uncomfortable social extremes that can range from “dread, anxiety, greed, sexual disgrace and humiliation, the Puritan legacy, savage nature, political delusions or irony, and can go as far as occultism, obscenity, incest, [and] the ever-present supernatural phenomena” (Repa, 2016 p. 22). Within the Twin Peaks universe, Lynch takes a broad approach towards these themes, tying together numerous characters and storylines to explore the depths of these topics within “a remote, deeply forested mountainous countryside, where the characters deal with murder, sex, molestation, with the presence of undefined supernatural evil powers [and] Tibetan spiritualism” (Repa, 2016 p. 22). The Twin Peaks universe was established within the two seasons of the original television series, where the primary plot line of the show was centered around the murder of a high school student, Laura Palmer, whose body was found washed up on the shore near the mill during the opening scenes of the Pilot episode (Twin Peaks, 1990).
At first, the Twin Peaks universe appeared to be set in a small, American town, where a murder had the ability to shock the entire community down to its core (Twin Peaks, 1990). As the pilot episode progressed, however, the introduction of Agent Dale Cooper plays a significant role in the shift from the perspective of Twin Peaks as a normal, small American town to a place far more surreal and unencumbered by normal social restrictions or natural occurrences. Cooper’s arrival functions as the mechanism which allows for an outsider to enter into the Twin Peaks universe where a sense of umheimlich, or uncanniness, is able to emerge (Twin Peaks, 1990). Through this, the audience uses Cooper himself as a vehicle for discovery, following his investigation of Laura Cooper’s murder with the same sense of open-mindedness that Cooper himself employs.
Eccentricities in the Twin Peaks Universe
The entrance of Cooper marks a turning point within the pilot episode that allow for the uncanny to be explored and identified throughout the progression of the Palmer case. As Comfort (2009) explain, “Cooper was shown to be an offbeat, non-traditional detective with more than a few personal quirks that set him off as unusual… Cooper is an eccentric, and as an eccentric, he turns things upside down and contemplates the world from a reverse angle” (p. 1). It is this eccentric view point taken by the primary character of the series that allows the audience themselves to dispel disbelief while the oddities of Twin Peaks are explored through the eyes of a newcomer. Each of the characters introduced throughout the first season of the show express either oddities, secrets, or both, all of which further compounds the mystery of the town and Laura Palmer’s murder (Twin Peaks, 1990). Within the universe, Comfort (2009) explain,
Eccentrics… illuminate some of the fundamental paradoxes of American culture: the tension between individuality and community and between conformity and nonconformit. Twin Peaks skillfully employed eccentrics and ideas of eccentricity to confound viewer’s expectations and force the audience to question conventions: those of genre as well as those of gender. Through appealing qualities of eccentric characters, these challenges to conventions were humanized and viewers’ emotional attachment to them was thereby increased. Eccentric characters are lovable, confounding, interesting, confusing, enlightening and frustrating, and Twin Peaks offered a picture of them that encompassed their many traits and investigated how they operate in culture (p. 2).
One of the most notable oddities within the universe, which went on to assist in establishing the world of Twin Peaks, was that the eccentricities that were exhibited by Cooper and the townspeople were not vilified or questioned, but rather accepted as part of daily life within the small community. There were recognitions of the eccentricities among characters, but these oddities were generally embraced. These oddities were also not “medicalized or criminalized” and those who exhibited oddities within the town were not suspects in the murder of Laura Palmer (Comfort, 2006 p. 2; Twin Peaks, 1990). This approach to the Twin Peaks universe often caused unsettling feelings, or uncanniness, as eccentricities as seen in the characters in Twin Peaks allowed the characters to give into their impulses, despite those impulses going against social norms as they were understood by the audience (Twin Peaks, 1990).
The eccentricities of individual characters contrast against the normalcy and familiarity of others within the universe. Notable characters who exhibited eccentric qualities included Audrey Horne, who showed high levels of emotional instability that moved beyond simple teenage angst as she interacted more frequently with Agent Cooper, showing a hyper sexuality beyond her years, and a desire to help Cooper solve the murder of Laura Palmer, despite having mixed emotions for her former classmate (Twin Peaks, 1991). Nadine Hurley, Big Ed’s wife, whose eyepatch immediately marked her as different from the others and showed childlike tendencies and extreme focus on creating silent drape runners in the initial season of the show, where her inability to obtain a patent led to her attempted suicide and consequential amnesia, along with the development of super strength (Twin Peaks, 1991). Doctor Jacoby, who emerged as a suspect in Laura Palmer’s murder in Season One, showed odd proclivities not only in his speech, manner, and affectations, and who self-reportedly did not care about anyone in the town, despite being the town psychiatrist. There is also the Log Lady, introduced early in Season One, who cradles a log of wood with her and takes it everywhere she goes, and translating messages from the log to other characters (Twin Peaks, 1991).
These secondary characters within the show offer up significant insights into the Twin Peaks universe, not only through their ability to move the plot forward, but in the way that the uncanny is represented and interacted with in the universe itself. In terms of primary characters, Cooper’s eccentricities allow him to overcome the oddities he encounters or to outright accept the oddities as the natural order of things within the Twin Peaks world, though he does initially question the eccentricities of others before filing the information away as he develops a deeper understanding of the town (Twin Peaks, 1991). It is through the acceptance of these oddities, however—on the part of the audience and the other characters within the universe—that the darker truth is obscured regarding Leland Palmer, Laura Palmer’s father. Due to eccentricities exhibited by other characters, Leland Palmer’s transformation over the two seasons of the television show may mistakenly be viewed as a decline in Leland’s mental health due to the death of his daughter (Twin Peaks, 1991).
Throughout the first season and the first half of the second season, Leland’s peculiar behavior is shown in brief moments on screen, but not fully explored until later in the second season following the murder of Jacques Renault, a suspect in the Laura Palmer’s murder case. The murder of Jacques Renault, committed by Leland, was a turning point for Leland’s character, and it came to light that Leland had been possessed as a young boy by a demonic entity named Bob (Twin Peaks, 1991). Following Jacques’ murder, Leland was no longer able to remain in control of his body. What appeared to be a psychotic, manic break in Leland emerged as a full demonic possession, which was a pivotal turning point in the series finale as Cooper performs the last rites for Leland and becomes the new host for the demonic entity (Twin Peaks, 1991).
Bob was symbolic reflection of society, as were the majority of the elements within the Twin Peaks universe, and the demonic entity represented the patriarchy as “a mobile and fluid force rather than isolatable and locatable… shown to be a ubiquitous simulation of power” (Geller, 1992 p. 68). As Geller (1992) went on to explain, the symbolism of Bob went beyond Leland being his daughter’s rapist and murderer, or beyond the representation as men being the ones responsible for uncovering and ending the oppression of women, rather than giving women the responsibility of uncovering and ending it for themselves. Bob symbolized the patriarchy by symbolizing the truth and reality of the patriarchy by showing that it was not “a monolithic Other lurking ‘outside’ but… [a] shifting and ever-elusive patriarchal violence behind the façade of the most benevolent men” (Geller, 1992 p. 68). The female characters in the show live and function within the patriarchy, each deeply affected by the actions of the men in their lives.
Laura, who was raped and murdered by her father, who had ties to a wide number of men in the town, secret boyfriends, and a secret life that was written in a diary that was kept hidden by another man; Donna Hayward, Laura’s best friend, who left her domineering boyfriend for Laura’s secret lover, James, after her death; Josie Packard, the wealthy widow who was reliant first on her husband until he died and left her his fortune, but who was still commanded by her family in Hong Kong, had a secret relationship with the sheriff, and was then reliant on her brother-in-law to agree to let her sell the mill to Ben Horne; Audrey Horne, who showed the most independence from her father, did not have a boyfriend or lover to control her, and who sought to help solve the crime by going undercover at One Eyed Jacks pretending to be a prostitute (Twin Peaks, 1991). Despite Audrey’s attempts to be independent, she was still forced to wait for Cooper to save her and for her father to pay her ransom (Twin Peaks, 1991). The only woman in the show who showed complete independence from the patriarchy was Log Lady, though she was highly eccentric, and her eccentricities not only kept her independent from the control of men but left her largely isolated and outcast within the town (Twin Peaks, 1991).
Duality in the Twin Peaks Universe
The Twin Peaks universe was built on duality, presenting “highly complex worlds within worlds, which overlap and collide, containing dichotomies both obvious and subtle, within a constant flux of dualistic themes” (Burden, 2017 p. 1). The predominant message of the series was focused on “the unification of the dualities within, finding balance in nature and the constructs of alternate realities… [with] the necessary process of integration and merging of dualities… personified within Agent Cooper and his investigation” (Burden, 2017 p. 1). Within the universe, there is also an ongoing symbolism of light and dark, with “the quirky and humorous townspeople representing light and the demons of the Black Lodge representing darkness” (Boyd, 2014 p. x). The darkness and the light, however, seemed to cohabitate comfortably within the world, which may be due to the moral ambiguity represented within every character. Within the Twin Peaks universe, there are very few townspeople who could be considered “wholly good or wholly evil” (Boyd, 2014 p. x). This duality was represented best in the character of Laura Palmer, whose lived two separate lives—one light and one dark—which had to be explored in order to solve her murder (Boyd, 2014).
The Black Lodge is an important component of Twin Peaks, as it represents “a parallel universe [that] lies adjacent to our world, and the beings that inhabit the Black Lodge can pass back and forth from their realm to ours, taking possession of human beings and using them to carry out their will” (Boyd, 2014 p. x). The spirits of those who had died make appearances within the Black Lodge as well, though they are “are reflected as evil and twisted doppelgängers” (Boyd, 2014 p. x). Red curtains are used in the series to signal the transition from the real world to the parallel universe, which shows that while there is a barrier in place, some, such as Cooper, are able to move through it (Boyd, 2014). Throughout the course of the show, hints are given regarding the evil in the forest around the town, and it is not until later in the second season that the audience learns the truth about the Twin Peaks universe: that there are spirits, demonic or otherworldly, that have come through the barriers between parallel universes and walk among the townspeople (Boyd, 2014). The audience learns that the Black Lodge is not the only parallel universe within the world, but that there are two that have portals in Twin Peaks: “One, a place of goodness and peace, called the White Lodge, and the other its evil counterpart, the Black Lodge” (Boyd, 2014 p. 28). The spirits that exist in the White Lodge and Black Lodge are able to move out of their realms and into the ‘real’ world, where they can enter human hosts and take control of their bodies to serve their own purposes (Boyd, 2014).
The Twin Peaks universe is one that is difficult for audiences to become completely familiar with—and even difficult for characters like Cooper to become familiar with—since each time it is believed that the world is understood, more information comes to light that causes the audience and Cooper to reevaluate what they know of the town and the people who live in it. As Pedler and Walton (2004) explain, “Twin Peaks is a determinedly kaleidoscopic universe, thrown into sharp focus only by the viewer’s own search for meaning. The very title of the series should have ‘clued’ us into its double meaning—to the point where places and faces replicate each other with dreamlike abandon” (p. 123). The universe is all at once familiar, yet uncanny, nostalgic, and yet providing audiences and characters with a sense of novelty, which allows for the oddities expressed throughout the show—both through the peculiarities of the eccentric characters and the events that take place—to be accepted, allowing the plot unfold in unimaginable ways throughout the series. Along with these elements, the focus on symbolism within the Twin Peaks universe compels audiences and characters alike to seek out meaning in the esoteric, finding links between language, physical symbols, and dreams, in ways that promote the blending of a quintessential American town with the supernatural, by way of the American Gothic tradition (Burden, 2017; Repa, 2016). While Bob was not revealed until the end of season two, his existence is an important aspect of the universe further explored in Fire Walk with Me and Twin Peaks: The Return.
5.1 Fire Walk with Me: Late Prequel
Critical Reception of the Film
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, released one year following the show’s cancellation, delved into a much darker side of the Twin Peaks universe, largely due to the reduced constraints that were placed on Lynch with the original show being aired on cable television (Jones, 2011). It is important to note that the film, though highly anticipated by fans of the show, received predominately negative reactions both from critics and fans alike, due to several different factors. The first factor that played a role in the reception of the film was the labeling of the time period as a ‘prequel’ to the original television, show, which “contributed to the belief that Fire was insufficiently divorced from the series to stand as a worthwhile film in its own right” (Jones, 2011 p. 115). The second factor that played a role in the film’s reception was the inability for audiences to disconnect Agent Dale Cooper’s storyline from the film’s plot, despite the fact that Fire was set prior to Cooper’s arrival in the Twin Peaks universe. Lynch did seek to clearly separate Cooper’s storyline from Fire Walk with Me, though audiences continued to view the film “as a botched continuation of the adventures of Dale Cooper” (Nochimson, 1997, as cited in Jones, 2011 p. 115). The third factor that caused significant resentment among fans of the original show was the exclusion of key characters who played pivotal roles within the two seasons of Twin Peaks. These included Sheriff Truman, Dr. Jacoby, and Benjamin Horne (Jones, 2011).
One speculation regarding these character omissions was that the Lynch was severely limited due to “standard theatrical restrictions. As with all of his projects, Lynch shot so much footage on Fire Walk with Me that the first edit was nearly five hours long. When the film was released, it had been trimmed considerably, a process which has left out such key regulars as Harry Goaz, who played the slightly slow-witted Deputy Andy (Ferrante, 1992, as cited in Jones, 2011 pp. 115-116). Due to these omissions of key characters in the Twin Peaks universe, critics and audiences alike questioned the overall validity of the film, both in terms of it being a functional prequel that would provide more insights into the Twin Peaks universe, or as a meaningful contribution that further developed the characters or universe (Jones, 2011). The final criticism, which stands out as being the most frequently cited issue with the film among critics and audiences, was that Fire Walk with Me was unjustifiably peculiar (Jones, 2011).
Lynch, however, set about to distance the original series from the film and chose to symbolize this to the audience in the “very beginning, with footage of an axe plunging into a snowy television screen signifying… the death of television” (Lyons, 2017 p. 11). While Fire Walk with Me was labelled as a prequel, the film actually functioned simultaneously as a prequel and a sequel—showing not only the events in the week leading up to Laura Palmer’s death, but also giving insights into how the series ended for specific characters in the Twin Peaks universe (Lyons, 2017). While the film arguably may have tried to tackle too much, looking back on the film’s reception twenty-some years later, it is difficult to understand the “hostility that initially greeted it… because on a simply technical level, the film is really well made… [and] it easily straddles the divide between suburban and surreal” (Kemode, 2012, as cited by Lyons, 2017 p. 12). The negative reception, however, left fans of the show enraged, as the film did not deliver on their expectations. Despite Lynch’s attempt to clearly break from Cooper’s storyline and focus on Laura’s, fans were unable to accept the film for what it was (Lyons, 2017).
Fans of the original series were accustomed to the occasional oddities in the Twin Peaks universe, even though those moments were baffling and went unexplained (Jones, 2011). Fire Walk with Me, however, scaled up those odd moments considerably, in a way that had audiences questioning the gratuitous use of the peculiar. According to Jones (2011), “this undetermined weirdness was seen as an affectation, something forced and artificial that encouraged and validated the perception that there was nothing positive to be achieved by continuing the tired quirks of Twin Peaks into a film” (Jones, 2011 p. 116). Ultimately, fans of the television series who had become conditioned to accept the occasional, unexplained oddities within the Twin Peaks universe were unable to separate the film from their understanding of the series (Jones, 2011).
In Fire Walk with Me, Lynch sought to “show Laura as a subject, and as such she is the protagonist of the film” (Boyd, 2014, p. 41). In the original series, Laura was an objet petit a, an unattainable object of desire, which she still represents within the film—though through the prequel, Laura’s life is further explored and experienced by the audience so that the “impossible object [becomes] subject” (Boyd, 2014, p. 41). Rather than piecing together Laura’s life in a non-linear, often clinical way, through the original series’ investigation into her murder, “Lynch rescues Laura from objectification, giving her life, personhood, where before she was merely a symbol, a dream, an enigmatic memory in the collective mind of her deluded, corrupt small town” (Boyd, 2014 p. 41). The representation of Laura as a subject, rather than an object, is important to the expansion of the Twin Peaks universe, as she represents a character who does not have a place in the town, despite the inner duality that she possesses. As Boyd (2014) explains,
Because Laura cannot easily fit into any of the categories of identity provided for her by the town, she acts as a disruptive force. By refusing to be boxed in to either of the oppositional identities of the virgin and the whore, she represents a threat to the dominant patriarchal forces that… oppress and silence women. Laura is not a virgin, and Laura is not a whore—she is a woman, a subject, but one whose core subjectivity has been destroyed by external forces. As such, she can only shift fluidly between all the categories of femininity available to her… destabilizing the binary that holds both [virgin and whore] categories of identity in opposition (Boyd, 2014 p. 42).
In the original series, the audience comes to learn that Laura is a cocaine addict, that she has worked as a prostitute at One Eyed Jacks, that she has endless secrets and lovers, and in Fire Walk with Me, it is revealed that Bob seeks to possess Laura, not merely to abuse her. Laura makes the choice to die, which further adds to the understanding of the earlier series and Laura’s last days alive (Boyd, 2014). As the objet petit a of the series and film, Laura’s choice to die takes away Bob’s ability to attain “an ultimate degree of possession” (Boyd, 2014 p. 49). Through this decision, death becomes the sole method of escape from the patriarchy, symbolizing for Laura a sense of freedom that ultimately is inescapable, even in death, as shown in the original series where Laura becomes even more of a desired object whose memories—such as her necklace, her audio tapes, her diary, and even her body when it is time for her burial—are fought over by others as they seek to obtain pieces of what she had left behind (Twin Peaks, 1991; Fire Walk with Me, 1992).
5.2 The Return: 25 Years Later
Twin Peaks: The Return, is set 25 years after the original series and follows Dale Cooper’s return to Twin Peaks after being trapped for the past 25 years within the Red Room. Though 25 years has passed, the Twin Peaks that Cooper left is not the one he will return to, which seems “unrecognizable, disorienting or even incomprehensible in its new incarnation” (Halskov, 2017 p. 2). The reflections, patterns and repetitions that were evident in the original series continue on in The Return, though it becomes clear that there is something “off” about these patterns and repetitions that disrupts the feelings of familiarity to the original Twin Peaks universe (Haskalov, 2017). This presents a feeling of uncanny—where there are “familiar places and familiar faces” introduced in The Return, but there is something inexplicably different about the universe from where it left of 25 years earlier (Haskalov, 2017 p. 10).
One point of departure from the original series is the use of darkness that surrounds Cooper throughout a number of scenes in The Return, which appear to be “iconically Lynchian, pointing to a dark story of Cooper, but also hinting at blurred boundaries between different places and different realms” (Haskalov, 2017 p. 14). While there were blurred boundaries that were represented in the original series when Cooper entered or exited the Black Lodge, or when he was approached by the Giant as he lay recovering on his bed in his hotel room and the lights dimmed down to darkness before illuminating the giant, Cooper was never enveloped by total darkness as he was in scenes in The Return (Twin Peaks, 1991). The use of complete darkness surrounding Cooper creates “an uncanny sense of uncertainty or danger” for the character (Deming, n.d., as cited by Haskalov, 2017 p. 14).
Another point of departure from the original series and the film was that The Return is not set solely in the town of Twin Peaks. This departure, however, directly benefited the character development of Cooper as he struggled not only to come to terms with his identity 25 years later, but to literally embark on an odyssey to get back to the place that he once called “heaven”, despite discovering the darker underside of the town of Twin Peaks through his murder investigation of Laura Palmer (Haskalov, 2017). Through his journey, Cooper sought “to recover the fullness of his unique identity—or not—in an alien landscape filled with people who confuse him for being someone else or want him to be something else”, which was an extremely compelling aspect for audiences due to feelings of nostalgia for the original series (Haskalov, 2017 p. 21). Cooper’s character represented the conflicts faced by Lynch and the series’ creators as they struggled with the identity of The Return, the need to satisfy their own creative desires and the desires of fans, and choosing between diverging radically from the original series or mimicking Twin Peaks by leaning heavily on a need for nostalgia (Haskalov, 2017).
The Return expanded significantly on the Twin Peaks universe, not only in allowing for the White Lodge and the Black Lodge to be explored with more depth, but because of the use of place and time that helped to create a deeper understanding of the world itself (The Return, 2017). It should be noted, however, that much in the way that Fire Walk with Me brought about a darker side to the universe through the cinematic versus televised nature of the original series, The Return also showed a much darker and sexualized side of Twin Peaks that was only possible due to being aired on Showtime, rather than a traditional cable channel. As Haskalov (2017) explains,
The new Twin Peaks seems less soapy, as it were, and while it thrives on the kind of ‘competing moods’ that… [were] experienced in the original… the different genre elements have been largely separated in the first four parts (where Part 2 exploits a horror-like use of suspense and shock, where Part 3 is a surrealist voyage into another world, echoing Dune  and Inland Empire, and where Part 4 looks almost like an absurd comedy, only to shift town and mood at the very end) (p. 18).
This separation of genres is a strong departure from the original series, which sought to combine genres together under the American or Suburban Gothic (Repa, 2016). There were also scenes featuring graphic nudity which were not part of the original series, where the darkly sexual aspects of the show were covered up with elements of camp, such as when Audrey was trying to get away from her father in One Eyed Jacks by hiding behind a comical mask and an outrageous outfit styled in the manner of the Queen of Diamonds (Twin Peaks, 1990).
The show’s departure from the original, however, would have been more appealing to modern audiences who have almost come to expect over the top violence or sexually explicit content from Showtime or HBO. Where the extreme violence and explicit sexual content of Fire Walk with Me was off-putting, audiences 25 years later have come to expect a much darker side to television, which in turn keeps them engaged. While nostalgia is of importance in the new episodes, the audience also desires something novel that they can experience for the first time. In this way, Lynch was able to deliver on the desires of the fanbase by not only exploring Cooper’s character further, but by finding links between the old and the new that still relied on the use of the uncanny and references to the traditional that would keep viewers engaged.
5.3 Uncanny and Nostalgia
Uncanny and nostalgia are deeply ingrained within the Twin Peaks universe, both for the audience and for the characters themselves. In the original series, Fire Walk with Me, and The Return, the Uncanny finds endless representation in the Twin Peaks universe as audiences are unable to ever feel as though they truly are familiar with the universe itself. Even when they begin to feel a level of comfort or understanding of the Twin Peaks world, there is a significant twist or shift in the plots that unfold, or new elements of the supernatural or uncanny that emerge to jolt them out of any feelings of comfort. As for the experiences of nostalgia, the Twin Peaks universe is set outside of any particular time frame and has the feel of traditional Americana, representing the quintessential small, American town that could be located anywhere in the country.
The uncanny is a theme commonly found in the Lynchian universe, which audiences have come to expect from a Lynch production. As actress Chrysta Bell, who played Agent Preston in The Return explains,
When watching a David Lynch production, you’re forced into something that is so far away from your realm of experience, but at the same time so familiar. It’s so familiar, yet so uncomfortable. It’s discomforting, yet we’re putting ourselves through it on purpose. We’re drawn to it, we’re looking for it, and I think it is a testament to his art… You’re drawn to his art, curious about your own discomfort, and then you’re drawn to the characters, the music and the mood. It’s… addictive (Bell, n.d., as cited by Haskalov, 2017 p. 17).
Lynch uses the uncanny as a way to divide fantasy and reality from one another, in order to heighten the duality of two and show that the divide between them can be penetrated (Boyd, 2014). Within the Twin Peaks universe, Lynch toys with the uncanny and creates feelings of unsettlement among his audiences “through the use of mise en scene, sound design, acting, and other cinematic tropes, all of which culminate in the pervading sense of atmospheric dread” (Boyd, 2014 p. v). The use of the uncanny is not simply to unsettle his audience or to leave them wanting more, but to shine a light on key social issues that benefit from the introspective nature of the uncanny as an audience seeks to identify the reasons behind feelings of unsettlement (Boyd, 2014). Since the uncanny exists when what is familiar is presented in a slightly different, or unfamiliar second form, with the division between the familiar and the unfamiliar creating the sense of unheimlich, Lynch’s use of uncanny within the Twin Peaks universe, as with many of his other works, focus on the dichotomy between good and evil within individuals and within entire communities (Boyd, 2014).
The town of Twin Peaks itself particularly lends itself to the uncanny in the form of domestic American life, which is somehow overwhelmingly familiar and yet—with the oddities and eccentricities of the townspeople—far more unfamiliar than familiar. While the uncanny exists for the characters of the series, the use of uncanny as a mechanism was more for the benefit of the audience. The reality that Lynch created in the Twin Peaks universe blurred the lines between “the world on the screen and the audience members” (Delvin & Biderman, 2011 p. 2). No matter how familiar an audience member becomes with the universe, there is always still more to discover, to piece together and connect, and to understand, as Lynch relies deeply on the use of symbolism and the esoteric. As Delvin and Biderman (2011) explain,
Our world is not inherently logical—we impose logic on it to make sense of the random and absurd happenings all around us and to create a sense of order out of chaos. The beauty of… [Lynch’s work] is that he not only recognizes the basic truth about the absurdity of human existence, he celebrates it to create his own unique worldview (p. 7).
Lynch makes frequent use of manipulating and distorting reality, which can in turn “be off-putting” for many audience members (Delvin & Biderman, 2011 p. 7). He also tends to focus on the darker aspects of the human condition—such as violence, sex, or subjects considered taboo within society. Due to the “unusual narrative structure” he employs in his work and the heavy use of symbolism, “repeated viewings [of his work] may be necessary to grasp the many layers of meaning he builds in to the structure. As in the work of the Dutch surrealist Mauritius Escher… the logic of Lynch’s world at first appears twisted and chaotic. But for those existing within it, everything makes perfect sense” (Delvin & Biderman, 2011 p. 7). The Twin Peaks universe is no exception to this, as the nuances of the original series, Fire Walk with Me, and The Return all require multiple viewings to understand the use of symbolism and the links between the series and the film.
Through repeat viewings, however, audiences will remain unsettled by the universe, as it still remains remarkably different from the social norms of the real world, whether through the accepted eccentricities of the characters, the use of the supernatural, the unknown space in time that the universe belongs in, and the hints that the Twin Peaks universe is set in a reality not our own. This inability to become completely familiar with the universe may be due to the juxtaposition between the visibly familiar elements within the universe and the use of American gothic elements layered within the symbolism of Lynch’s world. As Repa (2016) explains, “Twin Peaks interlaces all the known gothic elements, including the motives of wild surroundings, oppressive men, heroines, sexual abuse, rape, doppelgängers, murder, slavery, hidden passages, dark hallways, savage nature, disfigured people, dreamlike states, double lives, unsolved mysteries and unclear family ties”, which are complexly woven together to provide endless puzzles for audience members to decode before these elements that elicit the uncanny can become familiar (p. 39).
It should also be noted that the uncanniness between the different installments of the Twin Peaks universe are also set apart from one another. Audiences and critics have largely been unsure how to view the prequel and The Return (Haskalov, 2017; Jones, 2011). In Fire Walk with Me, there is an increased sense of familiarity simply because of the relationship that audience members had with the original series, which gave them the chance to become more familiar with the world, with the nuances of life in the town, and with the relationships and secrets that existed between the people who lived there (Jones, 2011). This familiarity, however, was ultimately what led audiences to miss the point of the film—to explore Laura’s life and move her from being solely an object of desire to a subject in her own right—due to the expectations that the audiences placed on the film (Jones, 2011). As Jones (2011) explains,
The sense of disorientation and even surprise engendered in viewers of the pilot episode of Twin Peaks, as they failed to encounter the conventional soap opera or tame miniseries they may have expected… could not possibly have been produced, at least not in the same way, in a cinema audience that had grown accustomed to the more unconventional characteristics of the series. While the uncanniness of Fire is not dependent on it, familiarity with the series would understandably affect the experience of the spectator, irrespective of the notable differences between the two texts (pp. 117-118).
In terms of the original series and the reception of Fire Walk with Me and The Return, the audience may have been affected by unheimlich as explained by Jentsch (1906), where the audience members themselves were not at ease with the changes the Twin Peaks universe, despite experiencing a high level of affective excitement about the being able to again experience the sense of uncanny brought about in the original series. As Jentsch (1906) explained, there is a certain amount of trepidation when something older or traditional is combined with something new—it can illicit feelings of unease, mistrust, and even hostility when the new elements being introduced interfere with what is known (Jentsch, 1906). The notable differences that were introduced to the universe in both Fire Walk with Me and The Return disrupted the familiarity of the universe in the original series, drastically departing from the audience’s expectations and reinforcing the uncanny in new ways that were unexpected.
Nostalgia Among Audiences
Nostalgia plays a significant role in terms of how audience members received The Return, which reinforced the cult-like following of the original series prior to its decline in viewership in the middle of season two (Jones, 2011). Freud’s theory of screen memories plays a significant role in the nostalgia introduced in the release of The Return, through both real and imagined memories of the original series. With 25 years between the cancellation of Twin Peaks and the premiere of The Return, audience members had enough time to crystallize their memories of the original show based on positive recollections rather than negative ones—blocking out, for example, the negative reception of Fire Walk with Me, or the reasons behind the drop in viewership of the original series which culminated in the finale in the second season. The memories audiences had with the original series may have been heavily edited within their minds, fictionalized, or distorted, recalling the original series as being cancelled before its time, despite drops in ratings that indicated a loss of interest among audiences in the second year (Freud, 1899; Jones, 2011).
Part of this nostalgia may have been rooted not in the show itself, but in the viewer’s own experience of the show and their quest to understand the mysteries presented in the original Twin Peaks. As Garner (2016) explains, “nostalgia would be stimulated amongst audiences by inviting them to recall their own initial viewing experiences of Twin Peaks” especially given the 25th anniversary of the original show which had allowed enough time to lapse where the show’s initial high ratings and audience interest became layered with the audience’s desire to invoke the nostalgia of their own experiences (p. 46). Along with this sense of nostalgia, however, was the remaining enigmas presented in the original series, many of which remained unresolved in the minds of audience members. By recalling these enigmas, demand for The Return was heightened—not only did the audience members want to relive their past experiences with the show, but they wanted to experience other audience members’ first experiences with being introduced to the Twin Peaks universe.
In this way, the nostalgia of Twin Peaks became a commercialized marketing tool that played on the audience’s longing to recreate the memories and experiences in the original series (Albanese, 2012; Garner, 2016). As interest grew through the marketing of nostalgia, the nostalgia itself was manufactured by being “deeply rooted in presenting and enforcing certain cultural values” (Albanese, 2012 p. 12). Nostalgia for television shows and other forms of media have become much more common as technology continues to advance, whereas past generations would have had nostalgia for more community experiences. As television and films have become culturally ingrained within the American narrative, however, individuals associate nostalgia with “iconic stories or concepts” that contribute to the collective culture (Albanese, 2012 p. 12). Garner (2016) touched briefly on how audience members who had experienced the original series felt an urge to share their experiences with the next generation, but as Albanese (2012) explains, “when one feels an emotion or experiences nostalgia for something that they did not personally experience, then this nostalgia has been manufactured” (p. 12). The use of manufactured nostalgia has significant implications among modern society, where individuals can find themselves longing for something they never had or experienced in the first place. Among wider communities, that sense of manufactured longing can induce a cult following among audiences, as is the case with Twin Peaks.
Nostalgia Represented in the Twin Peaks Universe
Nostalgia within the Twin Peaks universe, however, also plays a role on the screen, not just in the minds of the audience. It is the nostalgia and seemingly timelessness of the universe itself that invokes nostalgia for simpler times, idyllic environments, and close communities—though Lynch scratches the surface of these communities to show that life was far from perfect (Albanese, 2012). As Albanese (2012) states, “Lynch’s postmodern authorship is nostalgic in nature because of themes his work has been associated with. This would include pointing out the reality and flaws of the suburbs, in which the characters pine for the idyllic nature of these communities, rooted in familiarity and the past… A postmodern sense of nostalgia is the primary factor responsible for a cult following of the show” (pp. 12-13). Nostalgic elements within the Twin Peaks universe span from prefabricated elements in the sets, props, locations, or images, which creates familiarity for the viewer to offset the feelings of the uncanny, while simultaneously invoking an idealized past (Albanese, 2012).
The use of prefabricated elements within the show, which have been repeated endlessly in literature, television, or films, create a sense of fetish for specific images or objects that can instantly symbolize something larger. In the Twin Peaks universe, “there are an abundance of fetishized images and objects… Food that exemplifies long-established views of American small town life, particularly cherry pie, [donuts] and coffee, as well as photographs of Laura Palmer… are the most frequently shown prefabricated matter of Twin Peaks” (Albanese, 2012 p. 20). There are also layers of nostalgia within the universe that may be more difficult for the average viewer to discern. These layered elements of nostalgia are found through intertexuality, which further strengthens the cult following of Twin Peaks (Albanese, 2012). Viewers who have higher levels of education can be considered ‘high culture’, and when these viewers come together in a cult community around a work, or works, of pop culture, these viewers appreciate being able to obtain a higher awareness of the work through levels of formal engagement, from which they receive feelings of pleasure or satisfaction when they are able to recognize hidden nostalgic elements or when the are able to ‘one-up’ other viewers by discovering something that others have not (Albanese, 2012).
High culture audience members pick up on the nuanced messages and hidden meanings within the Twin Peaks universe, whether through dialogue or through images and objects that provide them with greater insights into the world itself (Albanese, 2012). As Albanese (2012) explains, these intertextual nostalgic elements create a heightened level of excitement for the viewer when the elements are recognized, and through this emotional response, the audience remains actively engaged with the show itself. This is an incredibly important aspect of the Twin Peaks universe, because having an actively engaged audience is crucial to the show’s success. Due to the numerous storylines and “the unaccustomed and disorienting effects of the postmodern aspects of the show”, audiences would otherwise lose focus and be less engaged in the content if they were not actively seeking out clues and links in the references made within the world (Albanese, 2012 p. 22).
Nostalgic emotions are also fragmented within the universe, in both the audience members’ responses to the intertextual clues or within the characters (Albanese, 2012). A strong example of this is “when Agent Cooper is lying on the floor of his hotel room after just being shot three times in his bullet-proof vest, [and] the viewer does not know whether to laugh or feel desperate over the events that transpire” as Cooper attempts to ask the senile waiter to call the doctor, and the old man instead hangs up the phone and slowly makes his way out of the room while giving Cooper a repeated thumbs up on his way out the door (Albanese, 2012 p. 25; Twin Peaks, 1990). These fragmented emotions are considered a manufactured sense of nostalgia, as that the incident is not something the audience would have directly experienced, but instead one that they “could imagine having…. in a hotel, as this type of character is familiar in the collective consciousness of the culture” (Albanese, 2012 p. 25). Through this cultural collective understanding, the viewer is then emotionally connected to the experiences of Cooper as he attempts to uphold social niceties with the senile old man, in the midst of extreme pain. There is an additional layer of nostalgia as well, because while the senile waiter is focused on completing his specific job of delivering milk, rather than recognizing Cooper’s need for medical assistance or coming to his aid (Albanese, 2012). The use of fragmented emotions plays a key role in confusing the audience “on a psychological level, creating a sense of disequilibrium. This heightens the importance of nostalgia in the scenes… as it becomes the one factor that may relieve the tension” (Albanese, 2012 p. 26). Additionally, the creation of “fragmented nostalgic emotions… can serve to alter reality”, which also plays a pivotal role in being able to effectively create a sense of unheimlich among audience members as the fragmented nostalgia distances the from what is familiar (Albanese, 2012 p. 26).
5.4 Uncannies of Time/Place/Ecology
Uncanny of Time
The uncanny of time in the Twin Peaks universe plays a significant role in creating a sense of unheimlich for the audience. In the original series, Lynch toys with time in a number of ways: First, in the physical town itself and the physicality of the townspeople. The opening sequence alone sets the stage for a quiet, backwater town that is focused on industry (e.g. the mill) and nature, creating an idyllic sense of timelessness that resides in the collective American consciousness (Twin Peaks, 1991). The visual use of color and style, the slower pace of life led by the townspeople, and the feeling of community are far different from the faster-paced modern life in the 1990s, especially compared to other detective-driven shows that were on the air at the same time. One of the most jarring differences that immediately placed the Twin Peaks universe in a different time period was the lack of forensics used by the doctor and the sheriff when first discovering Laura Palmer’s body (Twin Peaks, 1990).
While the deputy did take photos of the crime scene, neither the sheriff or the doctor wore gloves during the initial investigation, and it was not until the arrival of Albert Rosenfeld, the FBI forensic expert from Seattle, that a forensic investigation took place to provide further clues into Laura’s murder (Twin Peaks, 1990). Even then, however, there was more importance placed on providing closure for the community by delivering Laura’s body for the funeral, rather than to gain more information about who her murderer was (Twin Peaks, 1990). The murder investigation conducted by the sheriff and Agent Dale Cooper took on more of a gumshoe approach that centered around following thin leads, taking the law into their own hands and working outside of the FBI and sheriff department’s jurisdiction, through the investigations of the Bookhouse Boys that required undercover work using a mix of both members of the sheriff’s department and civilians in the town (Twin Peaks, 1991). The use of this method of detective work brought up feelings of manufactured nostalgia, while simultaneously creating a split between the modern day and the time period of the universe.
More than that, however, was the town itself, which had a sense of timelessness that could not be directly pinpointed. Aside from the occasional coffeemaker, medical equipment, or older television set, there was little in the way of technology that allowed for the timeline of the universe to be established (Twin Peaks, 1991). As for gender roles, men took on positions of power—Major Briggs, the doctor, the sheriff and the men of the sheriff’s department, Agent Cooper, the Horne brothers representing wealthy businessmen, Big Ed who owned his own gas station, etc.—all represented traditional male gender roles, while the women were housewives, waitresses, perfume counter salesgirls, or in the case of Blackie O’Reilly, the madam of One Eyed Jacks who still had to report to her boss, Ben Horne (Twin Peaks, 1991). Josie Packard, who had control of the mill, was on the only non-white resident of the town, brought over by her late husband from Hong Kong to be his wife (Twin Peaks, 1991). The strictly adhered to traditional gender roles, the white townspeople, the idyllic setting, and the lack of technology in the town, all were reminiscent of the manufactured nostalgia for the 1950s, which Lynch used as a mechanism to create a sense of unheimlich in the audience as the darker sides to the town were explored—including underage sex, spousal abuse, incest, murder, cocaine addictions and drug smuggling, adultery, prostitution, and the supernatural (Twin Peaks, 1991).
Time is also difficult to judge within the universe as it pertains to the supernatural and the relationship between dimensions. While the original series showed Cooper entering into the Black Lodge or the Red Room in his sleep, the length of time he spent there is undetermined, as is the length of time he spent conversing with the giant after being shot (Twin Peaks, 1991). Additionally, Fire Walk with Me introduced discrepancies in time through the Bob’s possession of Leland, showing “the porous nature of subdivisions… within the category of mental doubles. Both selves seem to occupy the same space… [but] neither can the selves be said to occupy separate points in time” (Jones, 2011 p. 135). Leland and Bob shift between one another without any indication of a trigger or transformational change taking place (Jones, 2011). The use of dreams and supernatural interactions within the Twin Peaks universe create a sense of “unfolding back and forth through time and across different domains of reality”, which further compound the sense of time as a unfamiliar aspect of the universe that the audience must puzzle over if they are to become familiar with the world itself (Skoptsov, 2015 p. 40).
Through this, the notion of time is deeply linked to the uncanny, as time is a concept that is heavily “anchored in subjectivity” (Camilletti, 2010 p. 29). Within the first series, the slow pace of the show is also disorienting to the viewer, as it is unclear how much time has passed since Cooper’s arrival and how long the murder investigation has gone on. While time is elusive for the audience, however, there is a clear that time runs similarly to the real world and that the world is set in the modern day. In the pilot episode of season one, Cooper announces that it is February 24th into his tape recorder, giving the audience a month and a date to orient themselves to the time period, while the medical charts that are shown later in the eighth episode list the year as 1989 (Twin Peaks, 1990). The time period of Fire Walk with Me is much more concrete, as it is clear at the outset of the film that the period of time that the film takes place is in the seven days leading up to Laura Palmer’s death (Fire Walk with Me, 1992). The time period of The Return, while the exact year is unknown, is 25 years following the last time the audience saw Agent Dale Cooper, which helps to establish the point of time that The Return took place in, though by entering in and out of alternate realities, the time period becomes much more fluid and untethered to the events taking place within the universe, creating a deeper sense of the uncanny within the audience that continuously functions as a method of creating manufactured nostalgia and a sense of the unfamiliar in the familiar (Albanese, 2012; The Return, 2017).
The Uncanny of Place
Place plays a pivotal role in establishing the Twin Peaks universe, especially as it relates to both uncanny and nostalgia, which will be explored further later in the chapter. Along with helping to establish these two themes within the universe, however, the use of place creates a strong juxtaposition against the eccentricities of the townspeople and the darker, seedier underbelly of Twin Peaks that becomes apparent as the series progresses. On the surface, the town of Twin Peaks represents any quintessential American town, where “the locations shown after Laura’s first appearance are archetypal settings for suburban American family life, in keeping with… [an] increased sense of domesticity: Laura’s school, Twin Peaks High, the local diner, and Laura’s home and bedroom” (Jones, 2011 p. 122). Throughout the original series, it is difficult to determine the distance between key places within the town in relation to one another—the mill, the diner, the sheriff’s department, school, and other areas of town, as the interactions between characters typically take place within residences or buildings, or just outside them, giving no indication of where they are situated in relation to one another (Twin Peaks, 1991). According to Jones (2011),
Although it has been ‘mapped’… at least in principle—fixing the size of the town of Twin Peaks and the location of its various buildings, [the] spatial cues… are sufficiently ambiguous to facilitate the sense that the town has familiar qualities, at times seeming like a quiet, rural area and at others busy and [urbanized]. It is this ambiguity that enables Twin Peaks to be universally (un)heimlich, relying on the viewer to construct the idea of the town that will naturally be drawn from previous experiences (p. 30).
Through this presentation of space within the town, Twin Peaks seems all at once suburban and rural, set somewhere in the Pacific Northwest near Seattle, yet far enough away that there are little outsiders in the town and very few of the characters leave the town on a regular basis (Twin Peaks, 1991; Fire Walk with Me, 1992). Despite the rural feel of the town, however, it is truly suburban. While it may feel like a small rural place, “and though the houses may seem miles apart—the audience never does see two houses in uncomfortably close lots—there is no sprawl. There are no pastures that we know of, only the lumber mill… which is major industry for the town” (Perry, 2014 p. 18). The Northern Lodge, where Cooper stays, is filled with domestic and international tourists who come and go, there is a large hospital, though its technology and aesthetics make it humbler and slightly outdated than state of the art. The local diner is quaint, serving cherry pie which is constantly ordered by customers, which symbolizes the American dream of living in the suburbs, and there are community programs, such as Meals-on-Wheels, indicating a larger population rather than a smaller, rural one where the service would not be as needed (Perry, 2014).
These nostalgic and familiar places help to orient the audience to the universe itself, creating a starting point for the uncanny to enter in and cause feelings of disorientation and unsettlement as a complete picture of the town must be created in the minds of the audience, which is further confused by the inclusion of the supernatural realms and alternate universes (Jones, 2011; Perry, 2014). The use of place and its contribution to the uncanny is also represented through the alternate universes that are explored throughout Twin Peaks, Fire Walk with Me, and The Return. As Jones (2011) explains, “the Lodges are doubled spaced in which covert meanings are imparted; their relationship to the Red Room is ambiguous and all three appear to be interchangeable” (p. 135). Each of the three locations is stylistically similar as well, which creates a sense of the familiar in terms of the physical space itself, and yet unfamiliar in that what occurs in each space is remarkably different from what may occur in another. Therefore, textual clues must be relied upon in order to determine the space itself, and “any distinction is made largely through emotional impression—i.e. whether the inhabitants are aggressive and threatening or not separates the Black Lodge from its more benevolent counterpart” (Jones, 2011 p. 135). Through the inclusion of supernatural places and the effects on the town and the townspeople, Lynch created a suburban dream and then throughout the course of the original series, film, and The Return, continued to strip away everything desirable about a quiet, quintessential suburban life and instead showed the darker side to the suburban dream through the American Gothic tradition (Perry, 2014). Place, in the Twin Peaks universe was key for the development of the uncanny, which allowed the audience to fluctuate back and forth between feelings of nostalgia and the familiar to a growing sense of unheimlich as the universe expanded to show the supernatural influences on the town.
The Uncanniness of Ecology
Ecology, or the interconnection that exists between individuals and the environments that they inhabit, also has a significant role to play in the establishment of the uncanny within the Twin Peaks universe. Not only are characters linked through interactions and experiences to one another, but they are linked directly back to the environment within the town of Twin Peaks that reinforces the unfamiliar through the supernatural. As with other Lyncian works, the uncanny ecology that exists in the Twin Peaks universe tends to show how the boundaries between dreams, reality and fantasy tend to bleed into one another, bringing to the surface those repressed desires or emotions, and allowing the individual to interact with their dreams, reality and fantasies across multiple places in time and space (Hageman, 2014). One of the primary interconnections that emerges in the ecology of the universe is that, on the initial surface, each character seems to be as wholesome and good as the town itself. As Cooper’s investigation in the original series continues, however, it becomes apparent that there are dual sides to each character, which, as the show progresses, are found to be reflective of the Twin Peaks environment itself, with both its light and dark qualities that affect everyone who lives there (Twin Peaks, 1991).
It can also be said that the environment directly affects those that come into contact with it. At the time of Cooper’s arrival in the town, he shows excitement for the natural environment of Twin Peaks, wanting to learn more about the world around him—what type of trees surround the town, the quality of the coffee, the relationships between townspeople. He is clever and astute, though seemingly simplistic in his focus to solve the murder of Laura Palmer (Twin Peaks, 1991). As the series progresses, however, Cooper’s character begins to shift as well. He explains his deep spirituality and ability to recover information through dreams, which makes him more open to the effects of the supernatural environment (Twin Peaks, 1991). Through Cooper’s character, Lynch is able “to explore layers of reality, the exterior zones and the interior realms of both environments and people (their surface and secret selves” (Suter, 2011 p. 176). The more that Cooper is drawn into the environment of twin peaks, however, the more he himself begins to change to develop a dual nature of his own—such as the transformation in “Bad Dale” and the subsequent possession of Cooper by Bob (Suter, 2011; Twin Peaks, 1991). The sense of uncanniness that exists throughout the Twin Peaks universe is familiar in the way that the audience relates to the ecology that exists between themselves and their environments, but presents the feelings of unheimlich in that the environment plays such a direct role in the duality within individuals—both their surface personalities that appear to be simple and easy to understand, and the darker secrets that are both surprising and unsettling throughout the original series, the prequel, and The Return.
5.5 Narrative Complexity
While Twin Peaks appeared to be revolutionary for television when it initially aired, it does closely follow the narrative template for televisions shows set within the genre of Suburban Gothic. As Perry (2014) explains, this template includes “expository deaths, substitution of perception for Suburban aesthetic, and the embrace of things that most would deem unusual… [which] are all crucial to the genre” (p. 23). The narrative of the Twin Peaks universe is deeply complex, ultimately taking place across “multiple story planes simultaneously, often fragmented, defying classical narrative ways by going back and forth from the real to the surreal and creating the feeling of heterogeneity” (Repa, 2016 p. 41). This use of narrative created a divergence not only in terms of space and time, but between the storylines of the characters themselves—creating a sense of nonlinear experiences and lack of logical direction that the characters move forward in (Repa, 2016).
This form of narrative disrupted traditional forms of integrated storytelling and as new information comes to light throughout the universe, the narrative itself “is literally shattered to pieces to be repeatedly put together and taken apart again, leaving the viewers [to] experience complete uncertainty of anything they are presented” (Repa, 2016 p. 41). Additional complexities are added to the narrative through the use of multiple storylines throughout the universe that do not have a clear relationship to the primary storyline of discovering who murdered Laura Palmer. Laura herself, despite being an objet petit a, has her own narrative that is told in a disjointed manner throughout the series (Boyd, 2014).
At first, Laura’s narrative is focused on being a typical teenager—well loved by her family, peers, and community, homecoming queen, volunteer with Meals on Wheels, and who has a steady boyfriend whom, at first, is projected as dedicated jock (Twin Peaks, 1991). After scratching the surface of Laura’s life, however, her narrative begins to change—she records herself daily, and sees the town psychiatrist, though it is not clear why. Her friends admit that she is addicted to cocaine, she has a secret lover, and even deeper than that, she has a secret life entirely as a prostitute at One Eyed Jack’s. As Cooper, the sheriff, and her friends continue to uncover her secrets, they come to learn that she has been sexually abused by Bob, inhabiting her father’s body, and has been abused since the age of 12 (Twin Peaks, 1990; Twin Peaks, 1991; Fire Walk with Me, 1992).
The primary narrative, seen through the eyes of the “knowledge seekers” (i.e. Cooper, the sheriff, the Bookhouse boys, Audrey, and Laura’s friends), is constantly tangled and jumped, told in a nonlinear fashion through the use of dreams, visits by Cooper to the Red Room and the Black Lodge, through supernatural messages, and information collected through various sources in the town (Skoptsov, 2015, p. 40; Twin Peaks, 1991). Cooper, while seeking knowledge like the others, gathers information outside of relying solely on investigative techniques, which makes him a pivotal aspect of the skewed narrative style explored by Lynch throughout the Twin Peaks universe. As Skoptsov (2015) explains, while Cooper “uses some logical methods in the course of crime solving, such as analyzing forensic evidence, he also openly applies intuition and dreaming” (p. 40). This open use of dreams and intuition make him more receptive to the otherworldly elements at play within the town, and creates a deliberate blurring of real life, the dream world, and the alternate realities that inform the ongoing investigation (Skoptsov, 2015).
The narrative that Lynch employs is also heavily reliant on a visio-narrative, which has “three interconnected components: the vision, the visionary and the source” (Skoptsov, 2015 p. 40). Throughout this form of narrative, the vision represents the message itself, while the visionary is the character receiving the message, and the source is representative of where the message originated from, often stemming from an omnipotent being (Skoptsov, 2015). Each of these three components interact with one another in a way that suggests that the events that occur throughout the narrative are all part of a larger plan or destiny, which the characters have to fulfill. In this manner, nothing about the events that occur or the messages that are received are considered incidental, and instead deliberately occur within a specific order (Skoptsov, 2015).
Cooper’s role within the visio-narrative of Twin Peaks is key, where he “appears to have the ability by the time the series begins and makes no attempt to define when or how he gained it” (Skoptsov, 2015 p. 41). This acceptance of the visio-narrative makes it easier for the audience to buy-in to the method of messages being delivered from supernatural sources, while simultaneously creating a more active level of engagement among viewers as they work to determine who is sending the messages and the role that these sources play in the Twin Peaks universe. Cooper receives messages in a variety of methods as well, from indeterminable sources. While he initially received the messages from dreams or his own intuition, the messages begin to come in different forms as well through the Giant who visits him after he has been shot (Skoptsov, 2015). The messages, however, are vague and not easily discernable and only provide clues that Cooper must follow, creating more of a puzzle for audiences and Cooper to work through in the course of the investigation (Skoptsov, 2015).
The visions that Cooper receive are connotative in nature. As Skoptsov (2015) explains, “the connotative vision, whether about the past of the future, evokes viewer curiosity by inviting active speculation in the present about its literal meaning, while the past-oriented denotive vision accomplishes this by specifically raising questions about the past” (p. 42). In both cases, however, the messages that are received are vague and withholding of key information, which causes the viewer to feel compelled to continue watching in order to receive answers. These messages also allow the audience to be surprised, as connotative messages will help to decipher the symbolism that was previously hidden from the audience and characters or allow for questions about the past to be answered, which provides more context for the present (Skopstov, 2015). These connotative messages also serve to disrupt the linear narrative and create a more disorienting storyline that the audience has to piece together over time, rather than following a series of specific events that would allow them to become more familiar with the universe as the visions may occur at any time and provide more narrative insights into the world (Skopstov, 2015).
The seemingly disjointed narrative chosen by Lynch is often common among the American Gothic genre, where the narrative is seemingly developed by piecing together bits of information at a time from multiple storylines, which often give the audience the feeling that the narrative itself can crumble due to the fragmented approach that draws away from the central point (Springer, 2007). One might expect that the narrative throughout the original series, the film, and The Return would allow for some form of resolution to be had, or a deeper understanding of the universe itself to be gained, where the narrative would “essentially circle back on itself, with the world… returning to the state of things as it existed before such conflict arose” (Springer, 2007 p. 83). Lynch, however, does not seek to restore the original order or solve the dilemmas raised by multiple realities, and instead ends The Return with yet another cliffhanger, leaving audiences to continue to puzzle out meaning and symbolism within the Twin Peaks universe in order to come to some sort of closure (The Return, 2017).
One potential benefit to a cliffhanger ending, however, is that The Return does not provide closure to the audience in the way that they would have liked. Instead, it remains just as unsettling and puzzling as before. As Lavery (2016) explains, “The ending of a beloved fan object, especially a television series that offers ongoing opportunities to ‘get to know’ characters, can be a difficult and traumatic experience for fans”, ultimately leaving an emotional void in the lives of the audience who are unwillingly forced to detach from the world that they have attached themselves to (p. 144). The fans themselves have created a sense of ritual surrounding the show itself—where it returns at the same time each week, for the same length of time, and the viewers give up their own lives to step into the world of the show (Perry, 2014). The use of a cliffhanger ending, however, may leave a sense of hope with the fans themselves, along with a deep sense of frustration, and less threat to the fans’ sense of self and their own self-narrative (Lavery, 2016). By not providing closure or tying up loose ends within the Twin Peaks universe, there is a sense that the universe will continue on, which allows fans to trust that the environment of Twin Peaks can continue (Lavery, 2016).
5.6 Uncannies of Sound/Music
Sound and music have the ability to magnify the sense of uncanny, and within the Twin Peaks universe, the use of sound to create uncomfortable juxtapositions between the familiar and the unfamiliar is no exception. The use of sound within just the opening sequence of the series alone allows the viewer to put themselves into Lynch’s universe and orient themselves—as much as possible—for the small, suburban town they are about to encounter. As Perry (2014) explains, “the title sequence, with its panoramic shots of the Pacific-Northwest landscapes… [and] the twang of bluesy, sad, rockabilly guitars humming soft and slow over Korg sounds” allows the viewer to become immersed in the surface images of the Twin Peaks universe before delving into the multiple storylines and narratives that seek to uncover the darkness below the idyllic town (p. 1).
Within the pilot episode, sound plays a crucial role in establishing the world of Twin Peaks, particularly in the first blood-curdling scream given by Laura Palmer’s mother, Sarah, which establishes the level of drama and horror that the show aims to reach (Twin Peaks, 1990). There are the sounds of landline phones ringing, of water lapping on the shore, of footsteps on the beach. The sounds of Cooper’s voice as he leaves a rambling voice message for his secretary explaining his day and letting his inner thoughts be shared with the audience through the mechanism of self-recording (Twin Peaks, 1990). The original show was one of the first instances of film director moving into a television series, making it “the first instance of cinematic television… Lynch’s distinctive cinematic style helped propel the medium of television forward into a new realm of entertainment and experience… [through] ‘the cinematic use of filters, long takes, low-angle shots, expressive sounds and music” (Lyons, 2017 p. 2). Through the use of sound, paired with Lynchian aesthetics, the sense of the uncanny became more pronounced and far more unsettling due to the layered sensory experience that was created for audiences of the show.
Throughout his career, Lynch has sought to push cinematic boundaries, particularly in the realm of sound design. This has allowed him to successfully experiment with “mixing mechanical clanks, distorted wails, whistling winds and pretty music into evocative landscapes” that further enhance the experience of the uncanny and nostalgia among viewers (Murray, 2017). As Lynch explains in an interview, sound was created first by starting with the dialogue,
…and then behind the dialogue there’s sometimes background sounds. Then there are the sounds that are in between music and effects. Mood things. You can have three or four or five or a hundred things running together. Sometimes hundreds of tracks are going into the mix, and for the mix you try to get everything balanced out. Stuff coming in the right way and going at the right volume. Going up and down in volume. It’s a tricky, tricky business, to get it to feel correct all the way through (Murray, 2017).
To Lynch, sound is a way of expanding on the visual experiences of a film, allowing for greater depths of mood and emotion to be captured and conveyed to the viewer (Murray, 2017). In the original series, one of the most iconic sounds took place in the first scene where Cooper visited the Red Room and encountered the dancing dwarf and Laura’s doppelgänger. The voices of the dwarf and the doppelgänger were heavily distorted, clearly creating a divide between reality and the Red Room and providing the first foray into alternate realities that would later become pivotal to the Twin Peaks universe (Twin Peaks, 1990). The music itself followed Cooper out of the dream, showing the blurred lines between the real world and the alternate universes and creating clues that would be locked in Cooper’s subconscious which would need to be puzzled out in his waking states (Boyd, 2014). The verbal cues, though distorted within the Red Room, not only heavily use sound and music to create an alternate universe for Cooper to subconsciously explore, but music itself is given as a clue to solving Laura’s murder when Cooper is told that “there’s always music in the air” (Delvin & Biderman, 2011 p. 40).
Prefabricated sounds are also heavily relied on within the Twin Peaks universe to create a sense of nostalgia, or manufactured nostalgia, among viewers by drawing on the shared collective culture (Albanese, 2012). These sounds can be identified when they are “overexaggerated or more temporarily foregrounded”, thus grabbing the audience’s attention and creating deeper emotional connections to what is happening on the screen (Albanese, 2012 p. 18). The use of song to show grief or heartbreak among characters occurs throughout the universe, such as when James Hurley goes to hide out in a bar and turns on the jukebox, or when Leland begins to sing following the murder of Jacques, which culminates in his collapse on the floor in grief (Albanese, 2012).
Music is also used within the Lynchian universe as a method of showing the passage of time, as explained by Roche (2011). In Fire Walk with Me, for example, music creates a distinct atmosphere for the audience to relate to. In one scene in the Deer Meadow Sherriff’s department, for example:
…the music stops the second [the scene] starts… a guitar chord is strummed, followed by a couple of beats of hit-hat which quickly fades out, leaving only the sound of the wind. The music breaks and contrasts with the mid-tempo binary jazz tune and its time-keeping hit-hat, which has been playing ever since the first shot with Gordon Cole. The music thus emphasizes the passing of time, which is exactly what the scene portrays (Roche, 2011 p. 4).
Lynch’s ability to facilitate the feelings of the uncanny and to manufacture nostalgia within the Twin Peaks universe is purely cinematic, creating deep emotions in the viewer, escalating feelings of suspense, or creating a recognition of the familiar within an otherwise entirely unheimlich scene that the audience would struggle to connect to what they know of the world itself. These sounds, or sound-signs, allow the audience to rely on what they are hearing rather than the images that appear on the screen, which ultimately allow for the uncanny to be held together in a way that retains continuity with what is familiar about the universe (Roche, 2011).
“Is it Past or is it Present?”: Nostalgia and Time in Twin Peaks
While the relationship between nostalgia and time was briefly touched upon in Chapter Five, it is important to explore the relationship between the two to gain a deeper understanding of the Twin Peaks universe. There are, throughout the original series, Fire Walk with Me, and The Return, textual clues that establish a loose, or generalized time frame, but these clues are often challenged in the mind of the viewer due to the heavy sense of nostalgia, manufactured or otherwise, that are slipped into the images, objects, and sounds within the universe itself. Within modern societies, nostalgia serves as a longing for something that was experienced in the past, which the individual seeks to again relive, despite the fact that the memory of the time itself may be colored due to screen memory so that what is remembered is not entirely an accurate depiction of the event, object, or time that is yearned for (Freud, 1899; Sedikides et al., 2008). While manufactured nostalgia was used as a commercial vehicle and marketing tactic among fans to increase ratings and viewership of The Return, nostalgia also played a role within the Twin Peaks universe as a way to fully explore the hidden aspects of Suburban America and the patriarchy (Albanese, 2012; Geller, 1992).
Nostalgia within Twin Peaks is conveyed through symbolism hidden in the dialogue and images throughout the original series, the film, and The Return, building upon one another to create a nostalgia for the show itself—through the return of key characters, such as Laura, Cooper, and the Log Lady, or in key places, such as the diner, the Red Room and the Black Lodge (Bainbridge, 2018). These nostalgic points, however, do not help to tie the Twin Peaks universe to a particular time period, which creates considerable controversy among fans seeking to determine whether the show was based in the past, or whether it takes place in the present. Even specific elements of the show, such as the heavy exploitation of the patriarchy and the use of normative gender roles, do not indicate whether the time is past or present. When reviewing the original series and Fire Walk with Me, Lynch’s heavy-handed social commentary on patriarchal society may not have been referencing suburban America of the 1950s, but instead may have been a commentary on the continuing existence of normative gender roles as they were found in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Rather than referencing shared cultural nostalgia by showing images and objects that created a sense of longing for the past, Lynch could have been making a reference to the lack of social progress and the easy acceptance of the normative gender roles that were expressed throughout the original series and Fire Walk with Me. As Blake (2016) writes, the initial release of the original series was something audiences rejoiced in, especially in terms of the “dark supernaturalism, its transgressive sexualities, and its sense of impending doom. Here was a program that treated us like the adults we knew ourselves to be” (p. 229). The focus on the patriarchy within the literature on Twin Peaks was not explored until long after the show had initially been cancelled, and it is not until the original series was relieved 25 years later that fans, like Blake (2016), became “considerably more troubled by the program’s regressive class and gender politics… [and] less seduced by its bedazzling epistemological indeterminacy, generic hybridity, and often-absurdist pastiche of available styles” (p. 230). When considering whether the universe of Twin Peaks is set in the past or the present, nostalgia should be viewed through Freud’s assumption that nostalgia is a psychological defense (Freud, 1899).
When looking at nostalgia as a psychological defense mechanism, it is important to remember that melancholia experienced with nostalgia can encompass the disappointments and losses that the individual has dealt with in the past (Freud, 1899). In terms of the show’s heavy reliance on nostalgia among the characters—both in the town itself and in the objects they surround themselves with—the characters themselves are relying on nostalgia of simpler times, which may explain the heavy use of objects and images related to the 1950s, when suburbia itself was remembered as being idyllic and harmonious within the American subconscious. This would be indicative of restorative nostalgia, as defined by Hook (2012), where the members of the town may be seeking to return to a manufactured past where the supernatural did not affect them so readily and there was not murder, incest, explicit sexuality, or drug smuggling within the town.
This sense of restorative nostalgia among the townspeople may be supported by key elements outlined within the original series of Twin Peaks, where members of the community, such as Bob Horne and Catherine Martell are seeking to push the town forward by selling the mill and bringing in international investors (Twin Peaks, 1991). The process of doing this remains somewhat secretive, only known to a select few within Horne’s company and Catherine Martell, who seek out subversive methods of acquiring the mill by doctoring the financial accounts and creating a second ledger, and through creating a plan to burn the mill down (Twin Peaks, 1991). This would indicate that the push to modernize and bring in more international business would be looked on unfavorably by others in the town, creating yet another secret that becomes part of the ongoing narrative within Twin Peaks.
Another example of restorative nostalgia among the townspeople is the refusal to acknowledge the town’s problems, and instead behave as though everything in the town is as it seems on the surface. The drug smuggling, prostitution rings, addiction, adultery and abuse is well known among the townspeople, but rather than bringing those secrets to the surface and seeking to address them in positive ways, the Bookhouse Boys take it upon themselves to work outside of the jurisdiction of the law and bust the smuggling ring by sending a civilian undercover, though the other known ‘secrets’ in the town are somewhat common knowledge that go unaddressed (Twin Peaks, 1991). Even with the case of the murder of Laura Palmer, there is very little attempt on the part of the townspeople to catch the murderer. Instead, there is a desire among the townspeople, Laura’s mother included, to move on in their grief and leave the issue alone. It is only the efforts of Laura’s close friends, the sheriff’s department, and Agent Cooper that lead to the eventual solving of the case (Twin Peaks, 1991).
This attempt to hide information pertaining to Laura’s murder is significant throughout the course of the original series, where James Hurley, Donna Hayward, Bobby Briggs, Dr. Macoby, and Harold Smith all seek to hide key evidence that would have led to a deeper understanding of Laura’s secret life (Twin Peaks, 1991). James Hurley hides the necklace given to him by Laura by burying it at Donna’s urging, while Bobby Briggs hides the fact that Laura is holding onto $10,000 in her safety deposit box, a clear indication that she was involved in the drug smuggling operation (Twin Peaks, 1991). Dr. Macoby, rather than turn over Laura’s last tape recording, keeps it to himself and listens to it at night, before tucking it into his magic coconut with her necklace that he dug up after James and Donna buried it, despite having no involvement in Laura’s murder, and the fact that he, as the others, should have been interested in helping to apprehend the man, or men, who killed her (Twin Peaks, 1991). Harold Smith, a recluse, was discovered to have Laura’s secret diary that outlined her abuse at the hands of her father and Bob, which would have furthered the investigation before Laura’s cousin Maddy was murdered by Leland (Twin Peaks, 1991). The majority of these acts by Laura’s closest friends showed a desire to remain in the past, relying on these artifacts as a way to indulge in restorative nostalgia, rather than moving forward and trying to catch Laura’s killer.
While the supernatural does play a role in the Twin Peaks universe and blurs the lines between time and space by nature, it does not necessarily mean that the ‘real’ world itself is not situated firmly in the present. There are textual clues in the dates given in the original series, the film, and the new series, all of which place the universe within the present day, starting on February 24, 1989 in season one and ending in March 1989 with the season finale of season two (Twin Peaks, 1991). Through this, it can be understood that the prequel is set sometime in after mid-February and before the 24th that year, while The Return takes place 25 years later, placing the miniseries in 2015 (The Return, 2017). While The Return expands on the alternate universes first introduced in the original series, it does not necessarily mean that these universes operated in the past, just that they operated on different timelines, with a different series of events.
Costumes also showed that the original series was set in the present, featuring the high schoolers wearing fashion popularized in the late 1980s and 1990s, most notably in the scene where Bobby was in jail and was wearing a white t-shirt, jeans, and a flannel long-sleeved shirt tied low around his waist (Twin Peaks, 1990). Other characters, such as James, wore outfits that could be found in the decades between the 1950s and the 1990s, such as his leather jacket and jeans, while the younger women in the show alternated between oversized sweaters common in the 1980s and 1990s, and more conservative dresses and skirts (Twin Peaks, 1991). Additionally, jeans were the common choice for male characters of the lower economic class in the town, which did not become commonly worn on a daily basis until the 1970s, placing the timeline of the ‘real’ world of Twin Peaks at least two decades after the 1950s. It also wasn’t until the late 1960s that women in America began adopting more unisex clothing, including cardigans, t-shirts, or jeans, or collared, button-down shirts (Clemente, 2015). The casual style of dress shown in the Twin Peaks universe may often blur the lines between decades, but the styles predominantly pointed to the 1980s and 1990s, where a more relaxed and casual attitude towards clothing was adopted across mainstream America. Given the fact that the town of Twin Peaks was not a major metropolis, and that fashion or style would have traveled slower to a smaller town, it would make sense that the styles were still a decade or so behind the present day, rather than being set in the past where the characters showed an aptitude for adopting trends that would not be seen for another thirty to forty years.
As a collective, the townspeople of Twin Peaks may have yearned or longed for simpler times, where there were clearly defined social structures, legitimate industry—such as the mill—and when there was less crime below the surface of their quaint town. Seeking to live in an environment that elicited a sense of nostalgia may have been reinforced by nostalgic triggers throughout the town as well, such as the smell or taste of cherry pie from the diner, the perfect cup of coffee from the lodge, the smell of the Douglas firs, or of the natural environment around them, specific types of music or sounds, etc. (Strauch & Manahan-Vaughan, 2018). By continuing to seek out these sensory triggers on a daily basis, the townspeople might have been able to overlook the negative aspects of their town and focus solely on the positive, nostalgic feelings that would allow them to continue avoiding the negative aspects of life that caused them harm, distress, grief, or feelings of loss (van Tilburg et al., 2018). By living in the past from a theoretical sense, and not a literal one, the townspeople of Twin Peaks were able to continue on with their daily lives, without ever really needing to delve below the surface to the problems that lay below.
This explanation of the present, mixed with a single-minded drive among the townspeople to revert to a simpler time rather than to address the threats that the town was facing—both internal and external—would explain the desire for the townspeople to seek out instant closure of Laura’s murder, and move on as though nothing had changed. Those who were affected to a degree that they were unable to shake, however, were forced to begin seeking answers to Laura’s murder that ultimately would lead them to change themselves. Cooper, who became possessed by Bob and transformed into ‘Bad Dale’, Donna Hayward, who’s quest for answers led her to become more like Laura each day, or Audrey, who found herself held hostage and ransomed in a brothel, and who’s intensive search for answers led her to be blown up in a bank (Twin Peaks, 1991). The townspeople may have lived in the past and remained nostalgic for what once was, because it was the safer alternative that kept the darker side of the town hidden from the rest of the world. Rather than fight the influences of the Black Lodge, the townspeople elected to simply pretend as though it was never there, except in vague hints towards Cooper about the evils lurking in the forest (Twin Peaks, 1991). By doing so, however, the town of Twin Peaks was left in the past, unable to move forward until they were able to acknowledge both the dark and the light.
. The Twin Peaks universe would not have been as commercially successful as it was had the use of uncanny and nostalgia not been so thoroughly engrained in both the text of the show and within the audience’s emotions. It is these two elements that have created a worldwide, multi-generational fandom and created a deep, emotional attachment to the universe itself and the characters throughout the world, particularly Agent Dale Cooper, who functions as the vehicle for the audience to dispel disbelief and openly embrace the uncanny and the eccentric nature of the town of Twin Peaks. Through Cooper’s unquestioning acceptance of the supernatural, of hidden messages within dreams, and his acceptance of Tibetan schools of thought that leave him open to following his intuition, the audience is equally encouraged to do the same, puzzling out the clues that have been spread throughout the world and making sense of them as more information is added throughout the non-linear narrative that blurs the past and present.
While the uncanny and nostalgia cannot be ignored within the universe, time and place play equally important roles in both the delivery of the uncanny and nostalgic elements that Lynch employs. Through the blurred boundaries of alternate universes comes the elements of the supernatural that starkly show the interplay of dark and light on the townspeople of Twin Peaks. The cinematic elements introduced by Lynch, especially in terms of the uncanny use of sound and music, serve as vehicles to merge the familiar and the unfamiliar, and provide bridges between what is recognizable and what is difficult to comprehend (Jones, 2011). The reliance on the framework of the American Gothic also serves as a way for audiences to prepare themselves for the darkly fantastical within the Lynchian universe, allowing them to engage with uncomfortable themes that can shed light—through the use of heavy symbolism—on the problems that exist not only within the imagined universe but within the real world on the other side of the screen. These gothic elements allow Lynch a vehicle to dive into the oppressive patriarchy, the darker sides of humanity, into secrets, and into the supernatural, all within the context of the collective American cultural understanding of the suburban environment (Perry, 2014; Repa, 2016).
One of the aspects that may appeal to the audience the most is the need to revisit past episodes in order to make sense of what has been learned later on. Lynch is consistently building on the obscure messages introduced in earlier scenes, layering symbolism and mysticism in a way that requires ongoing, active participation on the part of the audience and the very human desire to make sense of the seemingly nonsensical. As the audience matures as a collective, so too, does the universe mature over time. While the original series was more camp than chilling, Fire Walk with Me took a much darker turn into Laura Palmer’s life leading up to her death, unveiling the ongoing interactions with evil that shaped her into a young woman whose life was made up by more darkness than light. This maturity and sexually explicit content was further expanded on 25 years later in The Return, delivering a more graphic and darker universe than before, as shown through Cooper’s odyssey as he traveled back to Twin Peaks, only to find that, like any sense of nostalgia, one can never really go home or have the same experiences twice.
Time within the universe is one of the most difficult elements to understand, as the world Lynch introduces is both familiar and unfamiliar, linear in the passing of days, but nonlinear in the narrative, which blurs the past and the present together until it is difficult to discern which is which. Time in this universe appears fluid, with little to indicate the order of events or to show when characters begin to undergo deep transformational changes. It appears instead to be incremental—to move slowly, and then too quickly to comprehend. To make sense in one moment where the audience orients themselves to what appears to be concrete information, only to discover a secret in the next moment, or discover a new link, which causes disorientation to set in once again.
In this way, the dreams that are used as a vehicle for messages to be passed are almost more familiar than the ‘real world’ where nothing is as it seems. While the messages that Cooper receives are vague and always ambiguous, there is also an understanding that these messages will be deciphered with time, leading the audience to anticipate the answers and seek out links in the real world based on snippets of truth that come from the supernatural. This creates an endless loop of active participation, of decoding and analyzing, and of puzzling over information or clues in an attempt to finally understand the unfamiliar. That human drive, explained by Freud (1899), to find some mastery of the uncanny, to overcome the feelings of unsettlement and to make the unfamiliar familiar, is a major reason for the ongoing interest in the Twin Peaks universe, which has created an even deeper connection among the collective fan base, as audience members exchange theories and insights with one another to solve the elusive puzzle of the Lynchian universe.
The exploration of the uncanny and nostalgia in this thesis paved the way for questions of “Past or Present” to be answered. Drawing on the contextual evidence presented throughout the Twin Peaks universe, it can be said that one potential answer to this question is that nostalgia and the uncanny play just as significant a role for the characters as they do for the audience—where there is a need to hide away the darkness behind a thin veneer, trying to keep the past alive by refusing to acknowledge the truth of the present. By employing restorative nostalgia and trying to keep the past alive, the townspeople openly refuse to confront their own demons, even if it means having to continue to live among them. While there are some in the town who seek to move forward and let go of the past, the majority attempt to continue upholding idealized values and ways of life that only serve to prolong the underlying damage being done to individuals in their town—allowing spousal abuse to go unchallenged, acknowledging adultery casually, without passing any judgement, accepting the eccentric, without question, and continuing to live life day by day, only derailed when there is an event so emotionally jarring to the community that a select few wake up from the suburban dream and recognize the nightmare for what it is.
As we have seen with Lynch’s other works, the use of the uncanny and nostalgia is a strong vehicle for drawing on the collective culture of the American experience. Whether Lynch’s objectives are based on shedding light on the darker aspects of human nature as a way to get audiences to confront that darkness in themselves, or whether he simply wants to create an experience for the audience that keeps them engaged and entertained all at once, Lynch’s Twin Peaks universe shows that he is able to utilize the uncanny and nostalgia throughout hour-long episodes, and keep audiences interested for over a quarter of a century while he does it. Whether one considers the Twin Peaks universe to be in the past or in the present, the use of the uncanny and nostalgia, along with the interrelationship of the themes with time, place, and ecology, allow for a unique narrative style to draw people in and keep them guessing long after the series has concluded.
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