Fans The Mystery of the Woods: Twin Peaks and the Pacific Northwest
“Twin Peaks did much to define the image of the Pacific Northwest in the popular imagination.”
Twenty-six years after it went off the air, Twin Peaks is returning to television. Starting in May, an eighteen-episode limited series will air on Showtime. It feels like things are coming full circle, not only for the show, but for the whole genre. Many elements that have since become staples of the Golden Age of TV—ongoing storylines, jarring shifts in tone, mysteries that unravel instead of getting resolved—can trace their origins back to the surreal soap opera created by David Lynch and Mark Frost. The Red Room scene alone, with its backwards dialogue and dancing dwarf, set a bar for televisual dream sequences that still hasn’t been surpassed, even after countless imitators have tried their hardest.
For all of the show’s pioneering tropes, however, there’s one that gets mentioned less, perhaps because it’s more mundane. It has to do with place. Twin Peaks did much to define the image of the Pacific Northwest in the popular imagination, and it’s one that continues to resonate with creators and audiences to this day. If not for Dale Cooper and Laura Palmer, it’s safe to say that Twilight ’s Edward Cullen wouldn’t have been zipping through the branches of Douglas firs while Bella Swan brooded and swooned.
One of the first to notice the emphasis that the show placed on its moody rural setting was David Chase, creator of The Sopranos . The most immediate influence on Chase would’ve seemed to be the show’s surreal elements, which effectively laid the ground for Tony Soprano’s own tortured dreams, but initially what drew him to the show was its reality. In an interview with Matt Zoller Seitz, Chase says:
“ Well, I don’t know how to explain this, but as surreal as Twin Peaks could be, and as particular as it could be, as it was, it felt more like real life to me than the average hour-long television show. It has always been important to me to feel the geography of a place . . . I thought: I believe this town out in the woods, in lumber country, in Seattle. ”
The distinctive setting made the more fantastical aspects of the show believable. You might not have been able to locate the exact dimensional plane where the mysterious Black Lodge existed, but you knew just where to find the Double R Diner with its world-famous pie and coffee.
This commingling of the bizarre and the mundane, of malevolent spirits and timber mills, is the defining feature of the Lynch aesthetic. David Foster Wallace coined an adjective, “Lynchian,” to describe this effect, saying that it “refers to a particular kind of irony where the very macabre and the very mundane combine in such a way as to reveal the former’s perpetual containment within the latter.” It’s an approach that Lynch employed from the very beginning of his career, resulting in films like Eraserhead and Blue Velvet , but with Twin Peaks , it jumped beyond the show itself to shape the contours of the region where it took place. Afterward, anyone depicting the Pacific Northwest would, in effect, see the region in Lynchian terms.
This happened quickly. Just a couple years after Twin Peaks went off the air, another show that would dominate the pop cultural landscape premiered. Viewers hungry for FBI agents investigating strange goings-on were blessed in 1993 with The X-Files . Unlike Twin Peaks , which was a sensation right out of the blocks, The X-Files was a slow burn, taking a few seasons to find a wide audience. As the ’90s developed into a twitchy, nervous decade—the Cold War over, the War on Terror not yet begun—Mulder and Scully tracked the free-floating paranoia that seemed to lurk behind every door. Crucial to the show’s evocation of amorphous dread was its setting. Yes, the FBI agents traveled all across the country on the government’s dime in search of monsters and aliens, but the show itself was filmed in the Pacific Northwest—specifically, in Vancouver.
The X-Files had a modest budget, and producing the show in Canada rather than a Hollywood soundstage was a means of reducing costs. (Hardcore X-Philes will recall that the show moved to Los Angeles at the start of its sixth season to comply with star David Duchovny’s desire to live year-round with his wife Téa Leoni. This was also the point when the overall quality of the show began to dip, suggesting that the show’s Northwest setting was as integral to its success as the chemistry between the two leads.) This led to some comical inaccuracies, such as landscapes of rolling mountains and evergreen forests being identified as rural Iowa. But more often than not, it was effective. The mist emanating from those pine trees seemed to be hiding something.
But hiding what? Nameless dread is everywhere at the moment. What is unique about the Pacific Northwest’s vintage of the unknown?
Last year, a news story covered extensively in the media reminded me of the region’s mystery. A group of bored, anxious yahoos calling themselves a “militia” occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in rural Oregon, declaring that they were reclaiming land usurped by the federal government and putting it back in the hands of the working man. Their leader, a tax-evading small business owner named Ammon Bundy, declared that he and his movement were establishing a sovereign union, one that would be free of interference and taxation without representation. The effort fizzled out after just a few weeks. The militants quickly ran out of supplies, having done a poorer job of preparing for their glorious siege than a troop of Cub Scouts loading up on nothing but marshmallows for a camping trip.
The whole ordeal was a bizarre reboot of ’90s news cycles. That was the decade of David Koresh and Ruby Ridge, Michigan militias and Timothy McVeigh. Speaking of which, it is profoundly enervating to feel nostalgic for an era when white men could commit acts of terrorism and have the news media label them as such, rather than the empty appeals to “objectivity” endlessly spouted by news outlets during the Oregon standoff, among other journalistic failures. These stories of domestic terrorists and white supremacists were often incorporated into The X-Files . Indeed, the triggering event of The X-Files: Fight the Future , the movie from 1998, was an explosion at a federal building, clearly modeled on the Oklahoma City bombing.
Ammon Bundy himself looks like a character straight out of a David Lynch fever dream. With his designer Stetson and snap-button shirts, he appears to have copied his look from the mysterious Cowboy in Mulholland Drive . He has none of the Cowboy’s authority, however, his bumbling ineptitude closer to Bobby Briggs and his boneheaded get-rich-quick schemes. A further irony: One of Bundy’s institutional antagonists was the United States Forest Service, the same federal agency that David Lynch’s father worked for in the mid-twentieth century.
What, exactly, was Bundy’s plan for making Malheur sustainable? “True wealth comes from the land,” he said , apparently under the delusion that this was the eighteenth century and global capitalism hadn’t colonized every facet of human existence. Occupy territory, claim it as your own, and watch the dollar bills sprout from the soil. Bundy treated the land with the same blithe disrespect as Benjamin Horne, who saw the forests of surrounding Twin Peaks as nothing more than an investment opportunity. One of the ongoing storylines in Twin Peaks is Horne’s scheme to raze part of the forest and build Ghostwood Estates, transforming the logging town into the region’s premier tourism destination. Eventually, we learn that the Ghostwood site is home to the entrance of the Black Lodge, the interdimensional realm where Killer Bob comes from. Deputy Hawk, the Native American police officer, tells Agent Cooper about this place:
“ There is also a legend of a place called the Black Lodge . . . Legend says that every spirit must pass through there on the way to perfection. There, you will meet your own shadow self.”
Yes, it’s a little hokey, and probably not the most culturally sensitive sentiment to come from a show created by two white men. But it’s unmistakably an acknowledgment of the past and the power that it holds. This is what’s unique about the Pacific Northwest, what makes it such a fertile setting for stories of mystery and the surreal. The past there is palpable, the past of Native American civilizations that existed long before Europeans stumbled on the continent, the past of evergreen trees that were alive and growing before the Declaration of Independence was even drafted.
As in the show, the last word belongs to the Log Lady.
“There are many stories in Twin Peaks—some of them are sad, some funny . . . Yet they all have about them a sense of mystery—the mystery of life. Sometimes, the mystery of death. The mystery of the woods. The woods surrounding Twin Peaks.”