I was just fourteen when Twin Peaks premiered on ABC, but I see that show – my exposure to it and my eventual obsession with it – as defining. It was prime-time event television so profoundly scarring that it beckoned me to forevermore embark on journeys down symbolic narrow hallways that were too long and lined with too many doorways and crowded by the thickest of shadows that could still barely hide my increasing fondness for the wicked.
The earliest commercials for the show seemed longer than what was typical for TV back then, and I thought about that a bunch of years later when I heard Paramount was allowing Forrest Gump commercials to stretch for more seconds than was customary in order for the scope of the film to be properly communicated. Had ABC given that same approval for Twin Peaks, a show so surreal that selling it as a straight murder mystery could almost be considered an act of fraud? I have no idea, but what I do know is how strongly those initial images hooked me in, how I became a fan before even a second of the actual show flickered into the darkness of my bedroom. I became someone willing to accept stories about characters who wandered around town holding logs like babies, characters who danced away their sanities in a Red Room with moves so fitful and jerky, it was as though the show had veered briefly into the world of German Expressionism but nobody even thought of whispering this news to the viewer.
I read a lot about movies even when I was young and I’d heard of Eraserhead and The Elephant Man, but I’d never seen either. I didn’t know much about the guy responsible for making them, only that his decision to enter the arena of television after commandeering motion pictures was viewed as hugely surprising. (Remember, this was way before David Fincher directed the pilot of House of Cards and before Oscar winners landed starring roles on television series on purpose and not just because they needed to prove they could still be insured after some well-publicized rehab stint.) While back then I couldn’t list one stylistic tendency or common theme weaving through the opaque fabric of David Lynch’s work, the haunting score that blared through the commercials combined with sweeping pans of a fictional Northwest lumber town where the sexy girls wore saddle shoes managed to convert me into a devoted member of the Lynchian Cult before I knew what hit me. I’d not yet heard him proselytize a single word, but I would have gulped down his Kool-Aid through a fucking funnel.
The first episode slayed me and I wonder now: What exactly was it about that odd hour of television that gripped a barely teenaged girl in a vice-like hold of perverse fascination? The reaction surely had something to do with the dead-pale blonde, a former Homecoming Queen who, even as a corpse, would appear far more glamorous than the eventual Homecoming Queen from my own high school. Permanently cursed with corpse-blue lips, her fingernails were used to shroud a clue that was eventually extracted with a pair of super sharp tweezers that went inching down into the depths of her nail bed – low, lower, and (no fucking way are they showing this…) lowest. The nail-digging scene was shocking. While there was not a speck of blood, the extra-slow shot forced the viewer to look. The shot actually lasted for so long that even if you turned away to catch your breath, the image would still be there when you gathered yourself and turned back and that sort of visual dare turned out to be consistent with the rest of Lynch’s work, a fact I discovered after I consumed every film he’d ever made like it was candy laced with acid. He was a filmmaker who took his strychnine-sweet time in presenting something that looked more like torture than anything I’d ever seen and he shot torture with – dare I say it? – style. I ended up being one of those viewers who never turned away (I mean, sometimes I watched the action through a barrier made up of my fingers, but I still watched) and I didn’t miss any of it. I saw the scenes with the coroner and I marveled over the languid movements of some characters and the retro swagger of others. One character stopped moving long enough to tie a cherry stem using only her tongue, a mini skill I became a fucking master at. It’s a trick I show off at parties when I briefly feel like being fetishized and I want the attention to move upwards and away from my feet that have been bound into sky-high heels for over two decades.
Other kids my age had Madonna posters covering their bedroom walls or fading pictures of Luke Perry and his sexy scarred eyebrow, but I had torn-from-newspapers articles and photos of Kyle McLachlan holding mugs of damn fine cups of coffee. I used to explain to my friends that we had to wait until the show was over before we could meet up with everyone outside of Juniors, the pizza place on Main Street where we all used to converge. Some of my friends would sit beside me and for a while they’d watch a story about characters who had been dipped in a tangy sauce made out of liquefied surrealism and fried in mental nitrous oxide, but they eventually drifted away. I didn’t blame them – Lynch is an acquired taste – and when I recently went back to watch the original seasons in order to get ready for the return of the show, it was hard to believe the adolescent version of myself was drawn to something so batshit bizarre.
I was always a big TV watcher – I think that’s what happens when your parents are divorced and both of them work and nobody’s there when the you get home from school – and watching too much TV is kind of the least serious of the problems I could have acquired back then. I was also a repeat watcher of things. I watched most movies more than once and I’d go through the TV Guide that came with the Sunday paper and circle shows and films I needed to tape that week. Very little made me feel more proud than the movie library I was building for myself. I’d watch those films carefully and sometimes I’d go to sleep with them still playing and eventually I would know every frame of every film like a lyric from my favorite song. By the time Twin Peaks came into my life, I’d already started my delicious and deranged descent into the kind of film canon my sister would deem “disturbing,” and I can’t say she’s entirely wrong, not when the most frequently rented titles on my video store account when I was thirteen turned out to be a tie between Sid & Nancy and River’s Edge, a sweet little movie with Crispin Glover (who gave me nightmares even before he appeared in a movie starring a fleet of rats), Dennis Hopper, and a Muppet Baby version of Keanu Reeves. The story revolves around a guy who murders his girlfriend, leaves her corpse to rot along the shoreline, and then invites his friends to come see his handiwork and I watched it about sixty times when I was a prepubescent and it made my eventual proclivity for Twin Peaks seem positively benign in comparison.
I think now that I became drawn to the darkest of stories because they fed something inside of me that was ravenous. I spent my days smiling so widely that my dimples began hurting around dinnertime and I’d walk down hallways with my ponytail bouncing behind me. I was constantly the person at the table keeping the conversation going so none of us had to confront reality just because of a silly thing like a beat of silence. I’m like that still. I recently had dinner with two people and I knew beforehand that there was some tension between them and so I appeared on the scene like a buffer with straightened hair whose goal it was to keep everyone smiling clear through the main course. Exhausted from a performance I should have charged for, I eschewed dessert, drove out of there like a bat out of fake-harmony-hell, came home, turned on Netflix, and selected the episode of House of Cards where Frank Underwood flings Zoe Barnes onto the tracks with no hesitation whatsoever. And you know what? I felt better after watching that scene twice. Because here’s the thing about darkness: at its core, darkness is about the secrets we keep. And while the secrets we keep from one another are probably nothing compared to the secrets we attempt to keep from ourselves, all of it involves hiding and misdirection and some sweet soothing lies now and then.
I want to know you, I would think sometimes while I looked at a man I cared about as he slept beside me and I was still awake. I’d come to know his breathing patterns by then and I’d marvel at how teeny his pores were and I’d smile whenever he briefly broke into a full-on snore because it seemed such an unrestrained act from someone who craved control more than anyone I’ve ever known. I used to tell him that I wanted to figure out his origin story, that he was like my very own superhero whose tale I needed to solve like a mystery. I never completed that investigation – and those secrets haunt me, particularly on the nights when the sky and my head seem murkier than usual.
There has to be an answer for why Who killed Laura Palmer? eventually led to What’s in the hatch? on my television screen while Who are you really? questions hovered dangerously in my heart. There must be some explanation for why I sat on my sister’s pink plush carpet at the age of eleven and listened carefully as she spun the Purple Rain album backwards with her index finger for over an hour and how we finally heard the voice at the end of Darling Nikki: “How are you? I’m fine because I know the Lord is coming soon.” There’s got to be some way to justify all those books I read about Jonestown and David Koresh and Scientology and Charles Manson, the way I attempted to understand the choreographed cunning of leaders who incited people with all those messy questions to crawl into the most potent form of darkness where they wouldn’t even think of asking about secrets anymore.
That human need to simply understand may be what accounts for the lure I feel for the sinister. Ratchet up the stakes and the buried emotion will be released into the emotional stratosphere in a way that makes everything scatter, but it also makes everything feel interesting. I suppose it’s actually not all that surprising that someone like me – someone who learned early on that we all have a dark side and it’s the degree of the darkness that will define what will happen next – wants to feast on the external bleakness so I don’t really have to swallow anything real and I can keep from becoming mentally bloated. So while very little of the rebooted Twin Peaks makes any sort of sense, it’s so much nicer to wonder why Major Briggs doesn’t have a head and if Good Cooper will make a return and why there was a three-minute sequence of a man sweeping a floor instead of considering if there is any sort of precise reason that the fragmented memories from my childhood have led to my adult predilection for visual ominousness. It’s so much nicer to search for a character’s buried secrets, even if those secrets are shoved into a nail bed or lodged like an engraved wedding ring inside of a new corpse’s esophagus. And it’s so much easier to slowly and deliberately wind a cherry stem into a tight knot with just my tongue than admit that I will never know the proper size of that maybe-superhero’s cape.
Nell Kalter teaches Film and Media at a school in New York. She is the author of the books THAT YEAR and STUDENT, both available on amazon.com in paperback and for your Kindle. Her Twitter is @nell_kalter