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Twin Peaks and the horror of the Lynchian smile

The announcement of David Lynch returning to Twin Peaks inspired a lot of wild speculation, but in me it inspired a single emotion: terror. This is not because I fear for its quality, although I do wonder how the fractured, aggressively ugly aesthetic Lynch has explored in his most recent works will translate to prestige TV. No, I responded with fear because of something much more specific: my long-simmering suspicion that I, like Leland Palmer, am possessed by an immortal demon named Killer Bob.


Bob, for the uninitiated, is the name of the grand malevolent force that carried the plot of Twin Peaks. He was an ancient demon from another dimension that possessed Laura Palmer’s father, leading him to murder her, along with a couple of other young women. How and when these plotlines were executed and ultimately resolved has been fodder for a quarter-century of debates, and, likely, at least a few more years of them. But no one has ever debated the power of Frank Silva’s performance as Bob. Originally caught accidentally in the mirror of a shot in the pilot, Silva’s wild-eyed, denim-jacketed gleam defined evil for a series at least nominally about evil. (That it also became a show about civil war reenactments and an adult woman joining a high school wrestling team is part of why it has remained so contentious all these years.)

The reveal that Laura’s dad was possessed by Bob comes in a three-shot sequence after a season full of misdirections. We know something is up in the episode: we’ve seen Laura’s mom struggling for help on her living room floor; we’ve seen a horse in said living room; and we’ve seen a giant man magically appear in a crowded bar. Even for Twin Peaks, this registers as fucked up. After the giant appears, we go to a shot of Leland, smiling serenely at himself in the mirror. It cuts to a head-on shot—same handsome old Ray Wise smile. He seems to take a deep breath, a sense of “first day of work” readiness passing over him. Then it cuts back to that original shot—Leland looking at himself in the mirror—but the reflection is now Silva as Bob, the vision of evil, eyes shadowed but with that same serene smile. It cuts back to Leland looking at us head-on, and Bob’s face fades in over his, laughing with delight.

This is the image I can’t shake, and the one I’ve anticipated every time I look in the mirror since first watching Twin Peaks. Fortunately, there have been zero emergences of a demon over my face thus far, knock on wood. But all the new talk of Twin Peaks has awoken this fear, when I’m flossing or checking my shirt for stains. It’s not the prolonged murder that takes place after Bob’s sudden appearance that’s so terrifying, although that certainly doesn’t help. It’s his smile, which defines Lynch’s twist on traditional horror filmmaking. The appearance of an unsettling stranger is a classic horror trope; that that stranger is smiling serenely, ear-to-ear, is distinctly Lynchian.

We see these unnatural smiles dotted throughout his films. Before Twin Peaks, they’re largely suggestions, popping up as unexpected off-notes in scenes otherwise designed to unsettle. In Eraserhead, a particularly non-fun meet-the-parents dinner date finds a juxtaposition between a weeping daughter, a sinister mother, and an idiotic, gleefully grinning father. Blue Velvet’s antagonist Frank Booth huffs laughing gas, providing a direct explanation for the smile on his face as he commingles sexuality with brutality. One of the few distinctly authored scenes in Dune is the floating Baron Harkonnen, covered in oil and writhing with faintly sexual pleasure over the body of a young man he just murdered. Sting looks on in self-same delight.


In all of these, the smile heightens a sense of terror coming from elsewhere. But after Twin Peaks, the smiles seemed to become the terror; the Lynchian smile becomes something almost structural, around which the rest of the movie pivots. The smile becomes conflated with the act of violence. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me follows Laura’s final days, in which she occasionally seems to fuse with Bob, grinning in an embrace of her fate. In Lost Highway, it’s a smiling, dark-eyed man at a party, who seems to know everything about Bill Pullman’s character and appears to be in two places at once. An old couple in Mulholland Drive bookends the movie, unsettlingly grinning at each other early on and reemerging at the film’s end, their smiles symbolizing all of Naomi Watts’ high hopes, shattered with finality. Watts puts a gun to her head and pulls the trigger in an attempt to escape them.

It’s hard to fault her. Lynch absolutely lays into these moments, building up to them meticulously and introducing the images, generally, at a haunting mid-point. We rarely see the smiles begin; they appear as if pasted across the actors’ faces permanently. You can’t shake them, but more importantly, you can’t quite parse them: they hint at information that the protagonist and the viewer can’t access. This sense of missing information works well within Lynch’s frequently puzzle-like films. In Mulholland Drive and Twin Peaks, in particular, there are straight-up correct answers to the question, “What is going on?” (Mulholland Drive’s DVD comes with an insert containing clues for figuring it out, and the movie itself features a narrative key; it is, literally, a key.) The Lynchian smile can seem like the director smugly anticipating our attempts to understand the film, or, as in Blue Velvet, delighted in foreknowledge of the depths we’ll plumb attempting to unravel the mystery.


In this way it can seem malicious, but the smiles themselves are purer than that, which hints at a strange, dense cosmos of personal and supernatural justifications. Lynch has professed himself to be agnostic, and is a dogged advocate of transcendental meditation, but the implications of his smiling characters are surprisingly moralistic. The filmmaker has said that Twin Peaks is about “the evil that men do,” but the story excuses evil as something that originates in an alternate dimension which then inhabits men. (Leland turns sympathetic, in his final moments; the devil made him do it.) This dualistic vision of evil has popped up throughout history, in Manichaeism, voodooism, fundamentalist Christianity, and some New Age belief structures: that evil actively haunts and befalls those who invite it into their lives. So the smile of someone like Bob, the Baron Harkonnen, or Frank Booth, connects with a diabolical idea of evil, one that derives a very pure pleasure in seeing and enacting torment. This explains that “first day of work” sigh before Leland kills his niece: This, he seems to be saying, is what I do.

That idiotic grin on the father in Eraserhead, on the other hand, suggests something closer to purgatory, that state in between life and death and heaven and hell in which Catholics wait to be cleansed of their sin. Neither of these suggestions—of hell nor of purgatory—are unique to Lynch, of course. We see the embodiment of evil, the “I’m going to enjoy this” smile, in everything from schlocky horror movies to kids’ films. And the state of sustained, purgatorial life, in which consciousness continues but is somehow subjugated as the body dies or is transformed, pops up in pretty much every body horror movie ever, and can be traced back to the ululations of Frankenstein’s monster. Lynch’s uniquely unsettling twist is not just presenting these notions as a smile but as a serene one. The dominant impression is one of almost corporeal pleasure.


In what was starting to seem like Lynch’s final proper directorial work, 2006’s Inland Empire, almost all of these elements—the smile, the puzzle, the fantastical interpretation of evil—are subverted and warped. The film stars Laura Dern as an actress phasing imperceptibly between realities, but unlike other Lynch films, there is no readily accepted correct answer as to which reality is valid. It’s a difficult, ugly movie, filmed in garish digital and stretching on for three uncomfortable hours; it’s probably his best movie and his worst in equal measure. I do not enjoy it, but I watch it once a year.

Part of this is the way it builds on Mulholland Drive’s ecstatic structural use of the Lynchian smile, appearing almost burned into the film in two passages. It first appears midway through; the plot has already veered pretty wildly off course, and in spectral slow-motion we see a flash-lit Dern running down a staircase. There’s an eerie hint of the smile on her face that we glimpse from afar, but then Lynch plays it for a jump-scare, speeding abruptly into a close-up of the actress: giddy, eager, almost pleading for release in her eyes even as the mouth expresses joy. At the film’s climax, again, that same smile returns, this time projected onto the face of an otherworldly evil known as the Phantom, whom Dern herself has just shot. The projected smile seems to hang there for a minute, melting on the screen, clown-like and grotesque.


I’d be trolling Lynchologists everywhere to judge the meaning of this image absolutely, but the obvious implication is one of merging and then overcoming, or purging, evil. If the first smile, on the staircase, evoked a lost, disassociated state of purgatory, the final one represents the last gasp of the evil Phantom on Dern’s many-named character. When it seemed like this might be the final statement in Lynch’s final work, it felt like a fitting one: a puzzle with no solution, writ with one of the most indelible images in a career full of them.

But it’s not Lynch’s final statement. That career arc that seemed tied up so tidily has burst back open for at least nine more hours of television. Part of liking David Lynch’s work is discussing through-lines, whether it’s red curtains, the color blue, or Harry Dean Stanton’s archaeologically weathered face. I wouldn’t mind seeing none of those in Twin Peaks, when it comes back; Lynch took a decade off, I think, because he’d said what he needed to say. It would be strange and probably unsatisfying to see these hallmarks return, like fan service from an artist who seems to exist outside of that spectrum. But no matter what form the series takes—digital or celluloid, formal or experimental, direct in its sequel-ness or more abstract—at some point in those nine episodes the forces of darkness will marshall forth to shrieking Angelo Badalamenti synths, and it will be smiling ear to ear, like it never left. The smile will say that the evil was always waiting—it was always ready—and that it knows something you don’t.


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