Thousands of Miles and Many Centuries: Eastern Mysticism and Spiritual Possession in Twin Peaks
by Brett H. Butler
Abstract [page 120]: The concept of possession in Western culture is typically associated with Christian mythos, but numerous characters in Twin Peaks reflect non-Christian ideologies and the supernatural world of Twin Peaks cannot be accurately evaluated with Western, Christian myths. This article analyzes the amalgam of Eastern and Native American spiritualism and mysticism that the show employs to explain the paranormal occupation of and influence over characters in Twin Peaks to address why the White and Black Lodges exist, why their spirit inhabitants occupy certain characters in the series, and why only certain characters can see/interact with these spirits.
Keywords: dance, misakis, possession, Tibetan Book of the Dead
In 1990, Twin Peaks set a new standard for dramatic television, meshing the mid-century, rural detective fiction with elements of psychological thriller, postmodernism, and humor. Audience members labored not only to discover who killed Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) but also to figure out what all the extravagant imagery meant. As the show progressed, it became more obvious that the mystery of who killed Laura Palmer and the imagery were connected somehow, but the connection was and is often left to speculation. What is clear, however, is that from the outset, its creators David Lynch and Mark Frost have always been just as concerned with the town of Twin Peaks and its inhabitants as they have been with the mysteries surrounding Laura. In the early 2000s, when Lynch was asked in an interview whether or not he would ever write a Twin Peaks story again, he said (and has reiterated numerous times since), “I love Twin Peaks and its world” (“A Slice of Lynch”). This quote shows that Lynch himself thinks of Twin Peaks as more than just a murder scene; instead, he is concerned [page 121] with the actions and fates of its populace. Frost shows equal enthusiasm for the small town, penning its history in The Secret History of Twin Peaks. Unfortunately for the people of Twin Peaks, they live in a town steeped in mysticism and spiritual possession. Whereas many scholars and bloggers speculate as to what the imagery of spirit activity in Twin Peaks means and how it adds to the overall narrative, there is little application of non-Western religious beliefs to events and characters in the series and its accompanying literature, despite the numerous allusions that the series makes to elements of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Native American shamanism. This study fills this void by applying non-Western beliefs about spirit possession, demonic entities, and journeys through the afterlife to characters and events in Twin Peaks, helping to define the entities inhabiting Twin Peaks, to illuminate their purposes, and to explain how and why they coexist with the people of Twin Peaks.
Spirits and spiritual possession in Twin Peaks (both the series and the town) transcend images made famous in Western popular culture. Movies such as The Exorcist (1973), The Amityville Horror (1979), Stigmata (1999), and The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005) borrow heavily from Western, Judeo-Christian beliefs, but such beliefs fail to explain the events occurring in Twin Peaks because the previously mentioned movies apply a simple binary structure of good versus evil—the good being a priest, and the evil being the devil. In the world of Twin Peaks, though, there is not always a clear-cut line between good and evil or God and the devil. Instead, there is a community of entities that travel “between two worlds.” This community creates an often confusing and convoluted network that cannot be explained by a predominantly Western mythos. Thus, Eastern spiritual practices and their importance to the narrative reveal themselves throughout the original series (and all subsequent cinema and novels) after only a few episodes.
Despite the fact that the world of Twin Peaks has prequel material such as The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer (1991), Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992), The Secret History of Twin Peaks (2016), and [page 122] sections of Twin Peaks: The Return (2017), the two-hour pilot (1990) gave America its first introduction to the town. In it, one may note that the spirituality of the town is absent in this episode, replaced by more realistic, if not melodramatic, reactions of the townsfolk to the death of Laura Palmer. By rooting the premise in reality, the pilot keeps the audience unaware that there is anything supernatural or spiritual about Twin Peaks except for the ominous message from the killer: Fire, Walk with Me. Later, it is revealed that this slogan applies to the spirit BOB (Frank Silva) and other entities from the Black Lodge, but the audience has no evidence at this point in the series to suggest that these words are anything other than the ravings of a human serial killer. The spiritual aspect of Twin Peaks is not revealed until FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) arrives, almost a third of the way into the pilot episode. Obsessing over the sight and smell of Douglas firs, Cooper shows his eccentric, almost spiritual connection to nature. His interactions with Sheriff Harry S. Truman (Michael Ontkean) throughout the episode demonstrate the quirkiness of his personality as he jumps from the topic of a horrific murder to coffee and cherry pie, and back to crime. It is not until Cooper begins to interrogate Bobby Briggs (Dana Ashbrook) that he shows his Sherlock Holmes-like ability to read people (a comparison echoed in season 1, episode 2, “Traces of Nowhere,” when Sheriff Truman tells Agent Cooper, “I’m beginning to feel a bit like Doctor Watson”).1 As the plot develops, Cooper demonstrates that his ability transcends police intuition, touching something paranormal. Because of Cooper’s ability and offbeat approach to detective work, the spiritual underlining of Twin Peaks starts to be revealed, as do the roles of the characters in relation to this spirit world. In essence, Cooper reveals the spirit world of Twin Peaks to the audience as much as he does to the community. Some are shocked, others are apathetic, and still others have known all along.
For the purposes of this article, some of the characters in Twin Peaks are omitted because they are not attuned to the spirit world of the town, they predominately serve as comic relief, or they are [page 123] corrupted by money and power rather than evil spirits.2 The following classifications explain why some characters from the world of Twin Peaks were chosen over others for this study. The population includes innocent bystanders, corrupt entrepreneurs, scientists, shamans, and the vessels. Although they all have a role that contributes to the spiritual underpinning of Twin Peaks, it is the bystanders, shamans, and vessels who hold the most relevance to this work.
The Innocent Bystanders
Despite the fact that promotion for Twin Peaks claims, “In a town like Twin Peaks, no one is innocent” (Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me poster a), there are innocent characters. These characters are neither victimized by the spirits in Twin Peaks nor influenced by them. For example, Pete Martel (Jack Nance), “Big” Ed Hurley (Everett McGill), both Sheriff Trumans (Ontkean and Robert Forster), and Norma Jennings (Peggy Lipton) all have jobs that get their hands dirty (some literally) and accept the drudgery of day to day work without complaining. Many of these characters are representative of the pleasant, working-class, rural culture that makes Twin Peaks so appealing to outsiders such as Cooper. Even though all of them are having affairs (except for the Trumans, who serve as a moral backbone of Twin Peaks), these affairs are forgivable because of the bad decisions that they have made in marrying their spouses when they were younger. With all of the quirky humor and phantasmagoric imagery throughout the movies and literature, these characters serve to ground the audience and make Twin Peaks feel genuine.
In the high school, there are other innocent bystanders as well. These characters show that the typical youthful bad decisions are being repeated in the next generation, complete with dating the wrong type of person and having affairs. These indiscretions, however, in a way, are innocent because of the characters’ ages. For example, despite the fact that Mike (Gary Hershberger) and Bobby (Dana Ashbrook) are drug dealers and hell-raisers, their actions are [page 124] ultimately benign because of their naïveté. When confronted with the reality of drug dealing and the unscrupulous people involved, they get scared and run away—literally. In reality, Bobby is a hopeless romantic who has convinced himself that he loved Laura Palmer while actually falling in love with Shelly (Mädchen Amick). The Return proves that he is innocent (of even trying to reconcile his misdeeds) by highlighting his continued love for Shelly and his choice to become a police officer, presumably because of Laura’s death.
Likewise, James (James Marshall) and Donna (Lara Flynn Boyle) embark on their own misadventures, but their capricious actions are inspired by their love for Laura and trying to find her killer. When faced with corrupt behavior, both get scared and run from or are pushed away from it, as evinced when James refuses to murder a woman’s husband in season 2 or when Donna tries to emulate Laura in the bar in Fire Walk with Me and in visiting James in jail. As with Bobby, The Return shows what has become of James. He is twenty-five years older and has a working-class job and a good heart. The fact that he has not changed from being a gentle soul is reaffirmed by Shelly in episode 2 of The Return when she states about James, “He’s still cool. He’s always been cool.” While Donna is not revisited in The Return, one can assume that her deviant actions are merely attempts to sympathize with her friend Laura and not evidence of her being possessed or influenced by the spirits or corrupted by the town of Twin Peaks.
The Corrupt Entrepreneurs
Another promotional poster from Twin Peaks states, “In a town where nothing is as it seems, everyone has something to hide” (Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me poster b). This statement holds true not only for those who have been touched by the spirits of Twin Peaks, but also for those who are just humanly corrupt, as opposed to being corrupted by supernatural forces. For example, Leo (Eric DaRe) is a trucker who makes money trafficking drugs and strong arming. He murders Bernard Renault (Clay Wilcox), tries to murder [page 125] Hank Jennings (Chris Mulkey), and burns down the mill with Shelly in it. Repeatedly, he demonstrates that he is a sociopath. Other corrupt individuals include Ben Horne (Richard Beymer), Josie Packert (Joan Chen), and Catherine Martel (Piper Laurie), all of whom use sex, violence, and even murder to maintain their fortune and/or accumulate more. Although these characters are unethical and reprehensible, the series provides no evidence that they are affected by the spirits roaming Twin Peaks in any way. In essence, they represent the corrupt aristocracy that serves as the financial backbone of the town. The Return shows that Ben Horne is trying to redeem himself after what happened to Laura and his own daughter, but it also provides evidence that he may still fall into his old ways if motivated.3
A small yet necessary subcategory of Twin Peaks is comprised of scientists. On the surface, characters such as Major Briggs (Don Davis), Doctor Jacoby (Russ Tamblyn), Special Agent Albert Rosenfield (Miguel Ferrer), and Agent Tammy Preston (Crysta Bell) represent logical, critical thinking. They are scientists by trade, but their purpose exceeds their understanding of—and even reliance on—science. As much as they contribute to the narrative, all of these characters are unable to incorporate a spiritual investigation with their scientific one. As a result, all three abandon science as a means of comprehensively understanding the events occurring in Twin Peaks and defer to the “shamans” described in the next section. Perhaps, the clearest evidence that science is inadequate to understanding the events of Twin Peaks comes from Albert Rosenfield.
After BOB kills Maddy (Sheryl Lee) and her body is discovered, Albert speaks to Cooper in what may be his most heartfelt moment in the series. Up until this point, he has been curt with local law enforcement officers, criticizing their antiquated methods of police work and postmortem examinations. In this scene with Cooper, however, Albert seems to have lost his faith [page 126] that science will solve Laura’s or Maddy’s murder. He tells Cooper, “I don’t know where this is headed, but the only one with the coordinates for this destination in his hardware is you. Go on whatever vision quest you require; stand on the rim of a volcano; stand alone and do your dance. Just find this beast before he takes another bite” (season 2, episode 9, “Arbitrary Law”). Even though his words such as “coordinates” and “hardware” reflect the scientist in him, his sentiment reveals that he has doubts about the results that science can yield. Albert, who is arguably the most devout scientist from this category, resigns himself to the fact that science will not lead him to the murderer. Although he is quick to ridicule others prior to this scene, especially those whom he believes to have inferior intelligence and cognitive skills, Albert concedes to Cooper’s “intuition,” which he previously mocks in Fire Walk with Me.4
Scientists in Twin Peaks have the responsibility of showing the audience what is tangible in the investigations, i.e. evidence, motives, and physical manifestations. Their confusion and doubt in science allows the series to maintain a certain suspension of disbelief, almost assuring audience members that they are allowed to be confused because even the most logical characters in the show fail to understand the strange occurrences in a world filled with already strange people.
In many Eastern, African, and Native American cultures, shamans hold a prominent role in conversing with and channeling spirits. According to Todd Gibson, a shaman is a person recognized by his society as having direct contact with the divine or extrahuman (Gibson’s language) “by virtue of demonstration of unique capabilities” (Gibson 44). This work further develops the roles of shamans and how those roles pertain to Twin Peaks, but in this section, it is sufficient to designate that the following characters do demonstrate unique capabilities that link them to some inexplicable or paranormal force. [page 127]
Characters such as Margaret “the Log Lady” Lanterman (Catherine Coulson) and Deputy Hawk (Michael Horse) seem to have an understanding of the spirit world in Twin Peaks and accept it superficially without being affected by it. Their connection to the land and each other is evident in The Return, where Hawk and Margaret speak on the phone what seems to be a few times a week.5 Contrary to the scientists, these characters provide a window for the audience and Agent Cooper into the spiritual underbelly of Twin Peaks but do not reveal its inherent danger. Sarah Palmer (Grace Zabriskie), similarly, is attuned to the spirit world though she does not realize it. Her unique ability manifests in clairvoyant visions, especially when BOB is near her.
The hero of seasons 1 and 2, and, eventually, The Return, Agent Cooper, comes in as an outsider, but true to his role as an investigator, he reveals the secrets of Twin Peaks, both physically and spiritually. More than his quirkiness, Cooper shows the audience that the mysticism and spirituality of Twin Peaks is inspired by Eastern beliefs and practices. His unique ability manifests in the form of seemingly absurd investigative techniques and encoded dreams. His fascination with Eastern philosophy, specifically Tibetan, alerts the audience that Western notions of good and evil do not apply to the spirit realm occupying Twin Peaks. This juxtaposition is often made obvious against the backdrop of predominantly white, American/Canadian characters whose Christian beliefs are evident in Doc Hayward attending church, Bobby standing in front of a cross with a cigarette, and Laura’s Christian funeral. The irony exists, though, that Cooper must rely on his own Eastern-inspired philosophies and beliefs to explain the incorporeal side of the town.
Vessels are arguably the foundation of the Twin Peaks’ mythos. These are characters who are susceptible to being possessed by spirits from the Black Lodge. The most obvious of these characters is Leland Palmer (Ray Wise), who admits that he let BOB in when [page 128] he was a child after being abused by BOB for years (season 2, episode 9, “Arbitrary Law”). Other vessels include Phillip Gerard (Al Strobel), the old waiter (Hank Worden), William Hastings (Matt Lillard), and Mrs. Tremond (Mae Williams). It is important here to recognize, for the purposes of this article, that vessels do not seek out the spirits but are possessed by them because they are susceptible. This distinction eliminates characters such as Agent Cooper, who becomes possessed while seeking the spirit realm, i.e. the Black Lodge/White Lodge.
Spiritual Possession in the West and Africa
This article uses Hastings’ Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics’ definition of “possession” as a “temporary embodiment of an influence or spirit alien to the subject” (Fallaize 122). In “Spirit Possession in Native America,” Kenneth Stewart distinguishes different types of spiritual influence:
A distinction must be made at the outset between two fundamental types of possession—possession, or spirit intrusion, as a cause of disease, and the inspirational form of possession. . . . The essential concept of inspirational possession is the belief that a spirit or other supernatural power has entered the body of the person, and controls, to a greater or lesser degree, the actions of the host. The existence of the person is temporarily dominated by the spirit, and the words and actions are believed to be those of the intrusive power. (324-25)
He adds that a possessing spirit can cause temporary illness or make the possessed act violently. In “Conceptualizing Spirit Possession: Ethnographic and Experimental Evidence,” Cohen and Barrett support these ideas of possession, but add the idea of agency and displacement. Their theory implies that what is considered spiritual possession means not only that an outside entity takes control of a person, but that that person’s self is displaced during this occurrence. These theories of possession are widely accepted and applicable to this work, as is T.K. [page 129] Oesterreich’s notion in Possession, Demoniacal and Other that possession may not be temporary, but may continue indefinitely. Although this work does apply Oesterreich’s notion of long-term possession to Twin Peaks, the problem exists that many of his ideas expressed in this article are rooted in a Judeo-Christian ideal of spiritual possession. Because this work focuses on Twin Peaks creating an amalgam of Eastern and Western spirituality, leaning heavily on the former, perhaps the best definition comes from Erika Bourguignon, whose definition of spiritual possession is derived from studying Eastern and Western philosophies and religions. Bourguignon states that a “person is changed in some way through the presence in him or on him of a spirit entity or power, other than his own personality, soul, self or the like” (8).
As Twin Peaks debuted in North America, it can be assumed that much of its original audience was most familiar with spiritual possession in the way that popular horror movies have presented it, but one must note distinct differences between these hackneyed images of possession and the ones in Twin Peaks. First, in most Hollywood portrayals of spirit possession, the plot involves a clear-cut line of good versus evil. The exorcist or religious figure is good, and the possessing spirit is evil or demonic. However, in Twin Peaks, Agent Cooper is prompted and guided by spirits who aim to help him because they are afraid of BOB. Other spirits, such as the one possessing Mrs. Tremond, seem innocuous or neutral. Still others, such as MIKE and the Arm, seem to help sometimes but hinder at others, especially when Cooper is trapped in the White Lodge and the Black Lodge.
Second, often, the possessed individual in Hollywood is a pubescent child who is taken over by a demonic spirit from hell. His or (usually) her only hope to be saved comes from a brave but damaged priest who fights for the child’s soul. In Twin Peaks, however, the young woman begins the series dead, her soul already attempting to transition (as discussed later in this work), and the most prominent possessed individuals are men ranging from middle-aged to octogenarian, whether they are family men such as [page 130] Leland Palmer and William Hastings or elderly people such as Mrs. Tremond and the Great Northern waiter. Rather than a brave but damaged priest, the series offers Cooper, with ties to the spiritual plane yet an inability to exorcise demons or even navigate those spiritual planes confidently. Instead, he follows the trail of the possessed to solve the “Blue Rose” case and prevent more murders, ultimately falling victim to possession himself.
Still, one must be skeptical of unproblematically applying Eastern beliefs of spiritual possession to Twin Peaks. For example, numerous studies show that people who become possessed in Africa and Muslim cultures tend to be individuals who are socially beneath others; for example, women and the poor. It is theorized that these individuals use their possession to gain a voice or create demands that their status would otherwise deny (Freed and Freed 168; Wilson 366). The problem when applying these theories of African and Muslim possession to Twin Peaks involves the people who are possessed. Both Leland Palmer and William Hastings are middle- to upper-middle-class white men in America. Both are educated and have good jobs; thus, their status does not prohibit them from having a voice or making demands.
Spirituality and Tibetan Buddhism
As evidenced in this section and throughout the show, Tibetan Buddhism seems to have a large influence in Lynch and Frost’s creation of Twin Peaks. By the end of the first episode of the first season, “Traces of Nowhere,” Twin Peaks intimates through a dream sequence that Laura Palmer’s killer is in some way tied to mysticism. The next episode reveals that the killer, now identified as “BOB,” is part of a group of entities that travel “between two worlds.” In that dream sequence, Cooper meets an older “version” of Laura Palmer, who whispers the name of her killer in Cooper’s ear.6 When Cooper awakens, he has forgotten the name but knows how to jog his memory, a process which starts with a bizarre rock-throwing exercise. At this point, Cooper reveals that he is sympathetic to the plight of the Tibetan people. One can assume [page 131] from this scene that Cooper has also adopted Tibetan Buddhist philosophy of the supernatural (a concept supported by his statement to Diane in season 2, episode 4, “Laura’s Secret Diary,” that he practices yoga every day). Cooper’s speech also hints to the audience that Twin Peaks does not follow conventional Western philosophies; instead, beliefs such as Tibetan Buddhism more aptly apply. In The Return, Agent Preston reiterates this influence of Tibetan Buddhism by saying the word tulpa, which is a sort of projected self in Buddhism. The influence of Tibetan Buddhism, and Buddhism as a whole, is apparent throughout Twin Peaks, so in addition to spirit possession, this section focuses primarily on applying concepts such as tulpas and bardos to Twin Peaks.
Although there is evidence to suggest that Eastern religions, namely Buddhism, support the idea of spirit possession, and they most certainly list a pantheon of demons, these concepts differ from Judeo-Christian beliefs. In Christianity, for example, one soul occupies one body, and the two are bound together. Tibetan and Tantric Buddhism, however, teach that the true self is undefined and constantly in flux. It can leave the body both at death and before to gain self-awareness and “deify.” Furthermore, death is not the end of life according to Buddhism; it is a transition to the next life. According to the Tibetan Book of the Dead, this transition can only occur when the soul goes through the Bardo Thodol.
According to Tibetan Buddhism, spiritual possession can occur with benevolent or wrathful spirits, the latter of which would describe BOB.7 The former help in healing while the latter can inflict disease. In some cases, they give their host superhuman abilities to make crops grow and heal people or to lash out violently and cause death. In Japanese Buddhism, these spirits are called masaki, and are usually tied to rivers and mountains. Both definitions fit the spirits inhabiting Twin Peaks, named because of its two mountains. In Twin Peaks, BOB may not only be a wrathful demon, but given his ties to the mountains of Twin Peaks and Deer Meadow, where he commits his murders, he could also be seen as a vengeful mountain masaki. Clearly, though, he is so [page 132] powerful and violent that all the other spirits fear him. Because of this fear, the more benevolent spirits seem apprehensive about helping Cooper for fear that BOB will discover them. They speak in riddles, often looking around and appearing in Cooper’s dreams when BOB is possessing someone on Earth.
BOB and other spirits possessing people represent the most common understanding of possession in Western culture. This is only one type of possession. Others can take the form of tulpas, or thought projections. These tulpas are typically seen as projections of the mind that can materialize as sentient corporeal beings. Other times, these tulpas can occupy bodies. Such would be the case of a strong tulpamancer that can coexist in a person’s body along with his or her own conscience (Veissière). In the case of a powerful shaman, his consciousness can be transferred in to another body, taking it over, as Knauft explains: “In some advanced forms of practice, as developed in the Six Yogas of Naropa, the adept is believed to be able to transfer consciousness directly, displacing the consciousness of another person who is already alive” (Knauft 5). It should be noted that this transfer can occur during the shaman’s life or after his death.
As stated previously, some characters in Twin Peaks act as shamans, but this begs the question, what makes them shamans? According to Sidky, shamans act as “mediums between the natural and spiritual realm” (232). He further explains that a shaman may just have the ability to see into the spirit realm without having the ability to invoke spirits. Using this definition, Margaret “the Log Lady,” Sarah Palmer, and Agent Cooper qualify as shamans. Whereas Margaret seems to channel the spirits through her log, Cooper has direct contact with them. He can even seek out their realms (the Lodges) and enter them. After twenty-five years have passed on earth, Cooper demonstrates that he is a powerful shaman, leaving the spirit realm and replacing Dougie Jones (Kyle MacLachlan) so that he can battle his doppelgänger/wrathful demon Mr. C. (also Kyle MacLachlan). Although Cooper does replace Dougie, it takes him a long time to awaken. This difficulty [page 133] awakening provides insight as to what the White Lodge and Black Lodge are.
The Black Lodge and White Lodge Bardo
The Tibetan Book of the Dead is highly influential in Tibetan Buddhism. Believed to be written by Padmasambhava, a pilgrim who came to Tibet and defeated hordes of demons, The Tibetan Book of the Dead provides guidance for a soul to transition to the next life. It is such an integral part of the religion that monks chant it to the dead and dying to assist them on their journey. In this transition, the soul must go through three levels of the Bardo Thodol. The first (chikhai bardo) occurs at the moment of death, the second (chonyid bardo) involves a long journey, and the third (sidpa bardo) directly precedes awakening in the next life. Because Twin Peaks does not show souls in the chikhai bardo or in the sidpa bardo, this work focuses on the chonyid bardo, where souls encounter seductive spirits that welcome them and entice them. The Tibetan Book of the Dead warns that a soul should not be enticed by these spirits because they prohibit the soul from moving forward. If enticed, these spirits can transform into wrathful spirits or demons, some of which come in horrific forms and are terrifying to behold. Taking the White Lodge and the Black lodge into consideration, one can see that they are two sides of the same coin—one enticing, the other wrathful, but both a part of the chonyid bardo.
Parallels between the chonyid bardo and the White Lodge/Black Lodge become apparent. One notes that when Cooper sees a version of Laura in the Lodge, she entices him with a flirty smile and a kiss (season 1, episode 1, “Traces to Nowhere”). Her soul is gentle and soft-spoken. For all intents, she is a benevolent spirit. When Cooper encounters her again in the Lodge, she has bloodshot eyes and looks angry. Cooper is obviously so confused by these different versions of Laura’s soul that he asks her in The Return, “Are you Laura Palmer?.” Laura is not the only spirit that Cooper encounters in the spirit realm that Lynch and Frost have created. In The Return, elsewhere, he is chased by wrathful demons [page 134] and a mysterious banging on doors. There are flashes of BOB and the other Cooper laughing maniacally. The Arm, which was previously helpful and benign, has grown into a multi-limbed creature with violent tendencies. As Cooper wanders through different rooms, he encounters both enticing and wrathful spirits; thus, it can be assumed that the White Lodge and the Black Lodge are the same place. The problem that Cooper has here, and the reason that he is trapped in the Lodge for so long, is that he himself does not know how to navigate through the Bardo Thodol (the transition between lives). The reason that he cannot navigate is rooted in the fact that although Cooper admires Tibet and practices yoga, he is untrained. In the first season, he states that he would like to visit Tibet, implying that he has not been there. Thus, he believes in the philosophy of the Tibetan people but does not know their culture entirely. For this reason, he does not have monks chanting to guide him through the Bardo Thodol. Moreover, his knowledge of the Tibetan Book of the Dead is superficial, and he is left confused. If one accepts that the Lodges are the chonyid bardo, then Cooper’s lack of immersion in Tibetan Buddhism explains why he has such difficulties escaping. He is left lost to fend for himself. Even when Cooper does eventually escape the Lodge, it is through unconventional methods.
When Cooper escapes, he inhabits the body of Dougie Jones, but the transfer seems flawed. One explanation for this can best be summed up by Pete in season 1 of Twin Peaks. He shows Harry a fish that he had just mounted and laments that it was bigger when he pulled it out of the water. He says, “I guess by the time they take the innards out and put the stuffing in, it loses something in the translation” (episode 7, “The Last Evening”). Pete is not completely wrong with his observation, which can be applied to Cooper’s occupying Dougie Jones—something was lost in the translation. However, a better explanation comes from applying philosophies of Tibetan Buddhism.
If one accepts that the Lodges are the chonyid bardo, then it is inhabited by peaceful and wrathful spirits. Because of his [page 135] connection to the spirit realm, Cooper, then, is a shaman who has the ability to inhabit Dougie Jones. However, he does this unconventionally, escaping through an outlet rather than passing the sidpa bardo. This means that he is, in fact, reborn; however, his rebirth is premature. Rather than entering the body of a baby, he occupies the body of an adult. The result is a grown man (Dougie Jones) with Cooper’s newly born, infantile conscious. This infantile state is reflected in his inability to talk, his fascination with loud noises and flashing lights, and his childlike mannerisms, such as holding his crotch when he needs to urinate. Still, Cooper’s consciousness is apparent, albeit subverted, in his love for coffee, his attraction to the statue of a lawman, and his interest in police officers’ badges. Ultimately, he does emerge as a mature Cooper, and his transference is complete.
Cooper, however, is not the only one trapped in the chonyid bardo. The Return suggests that Laura is struggling to pass through it as well. According to the Tibetan Book of the Dead, transitioning souls are confronted by wrathful demons. Once they have passed these demons, they encounter a dark demon who weighs their karma by making piles of white stones (good deeds) and black stones (bad deeds). The Tibetan Book of the Dead warns people that these wrathful demons and the demon of judgment are merely manifestations of the soul’s guilt and shame. Essentially, souls are torturing and judging themselves with these manifestations.8 This idea is echoed in Theresa Geller’s “Deconstructing Postmodern Television in Twin Peaks,” where she highlights Albert Rosenfield’s revelation, “Maybe that’s all BOB is—the evil that men do. Maybe it doesn’t matter what we call it” (season 2, episode 9, “Arbitrary Law”). Whereas Geller reads the word “men” in this quote to represent hegemonic masculinity, it can also be interpreted as referring to humankind as a whole. Thus, BOB would be a wrathful demon reflecting the evils that a person has done in his/her life. Having identified that wrathful demons are manifestations of guilt and shame, The Tibetan Book of the Dead states that souls can move past the demons. Most of the characters in the Lodges, however, cannot [page 136] transition through them.
It can be argued that Laura has created her own torture and punishment. She seems unable to leave the chonyid bardo on her own, perhaps because of all her wrongdoings in life or because her psyche has been fractured from being being molested and abused by her father, as David Bushman points out in “Bond on Bond: Agent Cooper and Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks” (89). Further evidence of her fractured psyche appears when she demonstrates that she does not even know who she is. She is confined to an existence where she has ostensibly murdered someone and fears what one can assume are wrathful demons attacking her, as demonstrated in her eagerness to leave her home. In this moment, Cooper remains true to his promise of saving Laura’s soul by attempting to guide her, just as he does Leland (season 2, episode 9, “Arbitrary Law”). In essence, he is also fulfilling his role as a shaman, whose chants and readings lead souls through the Bardo Thodol. To reassemble her soul/psyche, Cooper takes her back to her family home in Twin Peaks. There, Cooper is shocked that the house is occupied by a version of Ms. Tremond whom he has not encountered previously. Cooper and Laura walk back to the street, and Cooper asks, “What year is it?,” suggesting that this setting is something that she has somehow inadvertently constructed. This question indicates that he does not feel that she is reconciling her death; thus, she is still manifesting her wrathful demons and unable to escape the chonyid bardo. The climax occurs when Laura seems to recall her death and roars a blood-curdling scream that echoes her death scene in Fire Walk with Me. The lights then flicker in the house (a consistent sign of spirit activity in the series). Her soul has reformed, but her memory just incurs more wrathful demons, her scream suggests.
The Bang Bang Bar, Music, and Dancing
It is worth noting that the Bang Bang Bar is central to Twin Peaks’ overall narrative. Characters congregate there for drinks after work or on the weekends. What is strange about this bar is how it [page 137] has no specific customer demographics. Everyone from the middle-aged men to high school girls frequent it. Moreover, the events that occur there span from the mundane to the truly fantastic. For example, in the pilot, the Bookhouse Boys engage in a stereotypical bar fight with Bobby and Mike, while in the second season, the Giant tells Cooper in a vision that “It is happening again.” A few episodes later, Laura Palmer’s killer is revealed to Cooper through a phantasmagoric display where the bar freezes in time and Cooper has a waking dream involving a (literal) giant spirit. More than any other location in Twin Peaks, the bar is a focal point, primarily because of the music and dancing performed there.
In order to understand the importance of the Bang Bang Bar throughout the series, one must look at its settings and how the bar reflects the increased spirit activity slowly consuming Twin Peaks. In the beginning of the series, the Bang Bang Bar is primarily a watering hole for locals of all ages, sporadically hosting one performer, Julee Cruise. In the first and second seasons, whenever Cruise’s band is playing, the audience can be assured that someone in Twin Peaks is being possessed, whether it is Leland killing Maddy or the Giant appearing to Cooper. This music, coupled with spirit possession, coincides with what the Arm tells Cooper in Cooper’s first dream, “Where we come from … there is always music in the air.”9 Cooper eventually interprets this quote to mean the cabin that Laura visited where a record is skipping, replaying the same song. However, that same music is also played at the Bang Bang Bar.
The concept of music and dance being linked to spiritual possession is common across many religions. The works of Gilbert Rouget (1985), Janice Boddy (1994), and Richard Jankowsky (2007) link music and dancing with spiritual influence, possession, and trances in African, Native American, and Asian cultures. As has been established, Twin Peaks reflects non-Western philosophies, so it can be assumed that there is a similar link between music/ dancing and spiritual activity. The following evidence shows how [page 138] the music and dancing in Twin Peaks reflect increased spirit activity in the town, culminating in The Return, in which nearly every episode has a scene at the Bang Bang Bar where people are dancing to live music.
Dancing, in itself, reflects spiritual activity in Twin Peaks. Many times before Leland is possessed by BOB, he dances maniacally, struggling to stay on beat with music, whether he is snapping his fingers too quickly at the Great Northern before he begs people to dance with him or singing “Get Happy” at the Hayward house so quickly that Doc Hayward’s daughter, who is a musical prodigy, has difficulty keeping up with him on piano. It is only when Leland is fully possessed that he calms down, as evidenced when he kills Maddy as he slow-dances with her and, afterwards, when he sings “Getting To Know You” at the Great Northern.
Although most of Twin Peaks is comprised of innocent bystanders, these bystanders are still influenced by the spirit world. Through mimesis, members of the community begin dancing when spirit activity occurs.10 The first and most prominent example occurs with a single high school student, Audrey Horne. While Audrey is mischievous, she is also chaste and caring (as demonstrated by her love for her brother Johnny, Agent Cooper, and, in her own way, Laura).11 Her father is corrupt, but she is not; she does not show any signs that she is being tormented by spirits nor that she has any ties with the spirit world. Still, like a community member joining in a religious ritual to conjure spirits, she dances just before the first major spiritual revelation in the series: Cooper’s confusing dream with MIKE and the Arm (season 1, episode 3, “Zen, or the Skill to Catch a Killer”). Similarly to Leland, who tends to dance inappropriately, Audrey stands up in the middle of the Double R Diner and dances as Donna and her family watch uncomfortably. Unlike Leland, her moves are sultry, but her mannerisms seem as though she is not fully in control of herself or that she is in some sort of trance. Although Audrey does not have the spiritual insight that would qualify her as a shaman, her actions show how people in Twin Peaks can be influenced by [page 139] or reflect spirit activity. Audrey, in small part, reflects the average innocent bystander who is unaware of spiritual activity but whose actions reflect manifestations, similar to how members of a community join in music and dancing despite the belief that they are not entering a trance of summoning spirits.
By season 2, the Bang Bang Bar hosts a cluster of people dancing. At this time, Cooper sees the Giant, who tells him that another murder is occurring. Later, in this same location, the Giant helps him recall his dream and discover who killed Laura Palmer. In The Return, the Bang Bang Bar is highlighted more than in previous seasons. Rather than having Julee Cruise play sporadically on weekends, this season has a different band playing every night. It is always crowded, and the dance floor is full of people dancing. Equating the bystanders to a spiritual community participating in a spiritual incantation, it becomes obvious that Twin Peaks has been overwhelmed by the spirit realm, as evident with all the new spirits that this season introduces, i.e. the woodsmen, Mr. C. and, the evolved Arm. The increased number of spirits is reflected in the increased number of musical acts and, especially, number of dancers in The Return. This increase suggests that the spirits have consumed the town and are branching out to other towns, as symbolized by the Arm, who, by The Return, is no longer a little man who dances and provides clues. He is a tall tree-like entity with numerous branches.
Further evidence that Twin Peaks has been spiritually consumed is provided in the pestilence spreading throughout the town. In Freed and Freed’s “Spirit Possession and Illness in a North Indian Village.” the authors show a connection between physical ailments and individuals affected by spirits.12 Many scenes in The Return show vignettes of community members who suffer from ailments that could be seen as effects of spiritual involvement: to a lesser degree, the girl with the rash and to a greater degree, the zombie-like child in the car (Priya Diane Niehaus). These characters come from different walks of Twin Peaks and do not know why they have their ailments or how they [page 140] contracted them. Even though Twin Peaks has always housed eccentric and odd characters, these characters transcend the typical populace of the community, who are usually socially or psychologically awkward (e.g. Harold Smith, Dr. Jacoby, or even Bobby Briggs). Instead, these affected (or infected) characters display physical ailments that show sickness in the mind and body. Further evidence can be found in how tulpas and/or spirit beings are accepted at face value in the physical world, whether it is Mr. C., whom people seem to realize immediately is not Agent Cooper, or Naido, whom Andy pulls from the spirit realm. Like a plague, the spirits of the Black Lodge are filtering into Twin Peaks and its community, some as tulpas, and the community is showing signs of physical illness as the spirits spread.
Early in the series, the Arm tells Agent Cooper that Laura Palmer is “filled with secrets,” but she is not the only one. It seems that almost everyone in the town has a secret, and some are worse than others. The most benign secrets occur when people (usually teenagers) attempt to reconcile their feelings for their dead friend and for each other. Twin Peak does have its corrupt residents, though. Some will do anything to make money and keep their power in town, whether they are trying to kill each other for a business deal or kill each other over cocaine trafficking. The worst ones, though, perform horrific acts unconsciously, possessed or influenced by a wrathful demon named BOB. By turning to Tibetan Buddhism, the role that BOB and the other spirits from the White and Black Lodges play becomes clearer. Even though they predate the Twin Peaks community, they exist as manifestations of the atrocities done by the people. Over the years, they influence some members and take over their consciousnesses. Those who die an untimely death see these spirits again in the Bardo Thodol, and are seduced and frightened by them, unable to escape. What is special about Twin Peaks is that the town is becoming consumed by these spirits, which, as demonstrated throughout the series, are encroaching on the town steadily, making Twin Peaks their own chonyid bardo on Earth. For those who do not accept that [page 141] theory, perhaps Agent Cooper summed it up more succinctly: “Is it easier to believe a man would rape and murder his own daughter? Any more comforting?”
1. See also Martha Nochimson, “Desire under the Douglas Firs Entering the Body of Reality ‘Twin Peaks.’” Film Quarterly, vol. 46, no. 2,1992/1993, pp. 22-34.
2. For example, characters such as Nadine (Wendy Robie), Lucy (Kimmy Robertson), and Andy (Harry Goaz) serve as comic relief and are not relevant to this study.
3. The Return hosts many corrupt teenagers, including Rebecca (Amanda Seyfried) and Richard (Eamon Farren).
4. This refers to a scene where Cooper tells Albert that he has had a premonition that the next Blue Rose murder victim will be a teenaged girl with a drug problem crying out for help, to which Albert replies, “Well damn, Cooper, you’ve just identified half the teenagers in America.” In The Return episode 4, “Call for Help”, Gordon (David Lynch), another scientist, after seeing Mr. C, says to Albert, “I hate to admit this, but I don’t understand this situation at all.” The two agree that it is a “Blue Rose” as though this is a catch-all to explain everything beyond logical reasoning.
5. Margaret is odd, but there is no evidence to suggest that her oddness is spirit-induced. Instead, she seems to be a spinster who has not coped well with her husband’s death the day after her wedding or who has a pre-existing psychological or social disorder.
6. In The Return, it could be argued that this Laura is a doppelgänger, as Cooper asks her numerous times, “Are you Laura Palmer?.”
7. David Lynch makes this connection clear in Lynch on Lynch when he states that BOB is “an abstraction with human form” (Rodley 180).
8. See also Timothy Leary and Ralph Metzner, The Psychedelic Experience: A Manuel Based on Tibetan Book of the Dead (Kensington, 2017).
9. The notion that the spirits are from another place is supported by Milford’s testimony in The Secret History of Twin Peaks (Frost 283-4).
10. See Gerald Groemer and his concept of “‘masters of sacred dance’” (32).
11. See Audrey’s final note to her father, in which she rejects being a “bitch” and shows her intention to do good (Frost 228-29).
12. This can also be associated with casting demons on people by means of witchcraft, but such a designation does not negate this evidence. [page 142]
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MLA citation (print):
Butler, Brett H. "Thousands of Miles and Many Centuries: Eastern Mysticism and Spiritual Possession in Twin Peaks ." Supernatural Studies, vol. 5, no. 2, 2019, pp. 120-144.