On July 16, 1945, a New York Times journalist named William L. Laurence awaited the first light of the New Mexico morning in the final still moments before the break of dawn ushered in a luminous new age. At 5:30 AM, on a stretch of land sixteen miles southwest of Alamogordo, Laurence witnessed the birth of the Atomic Age, as the world’s first nuclear detonation— The Trinity Test— momentarily illuminated the skies above the silent desert plains. In an account of the test later published in his book, Dawn Over Zero: The Story of the Atomic Bomb (1946), Laurence recalls how, just as the faint flickers of dawn were kindled over the eastern hills, there “rose from the bowels of the earth a light not of this world, the light of many suns in one” (8). As the atomic explosion swelled [page 20] into an immense ball of fire, Laurence recounts how the iridescent conflagration changed color “from deep purple to orange, expanding, growing bigger, rising as it expanded, an elemental force freed from its bonds after being chained for billions of years” (8). Describing the nuclear blast as a pillar of fire ascending into the heavens, Laurence observed that he felt as though he were “present at the moment of creation when God said: ‘Let there be light’” (8). In this vision of nuclear apotheosis, Laurence conflates the seemingly disparate worlds of the spiritual and the scientific, the preternatural and the technological. As such, Laurence’s account, in drawing together the divine and the atomic, inaugurated a new language, a new way of thinking about the dawning Nuclear Age that inextricably merged the distinct realms of spirit and atom, a language that would define how people conceived of nuclear power in the ensuing decades. Over the course of some seventy years, atomic power would accrue a host of decidedly supernatural descriptors: it is transcendent, miraculous, uncanny, apocalyptic. The nuclear was, for much of the previous century, the place where human knowledge met preternatural power.
In part eight of the 2017 Twin Peaks revival, this historically potent melding of the technological and the supernatural manifests disturbingly and overtly during a poetic, monochrome re-enactment of the Trinity Test. As the world’s first nuclear detonation generates a massive, slow-motion explosion that blooms like a desert flower over the New Mexico plains, the fabric of reality appears to rupture. A brilliant flash of light illuminates the desert landscape and unleashes the malevolent, inhabiting spirit BOB along with a horde of sinister, scorched figures, whose shadowy forms crackle with radioactive menace. Here, at the dawn of the Atomic Age, the ostensibly divergent realms of the scientific and the supernatural unite to create a horror that traverses the boundary between the natural and the unnatural. However, while this may be the most overt fusion of the supernatural and the technological to appear in Twin Peaks, the unsettling nuclear genesis that forms the core of the revival series is not the first time that the [page 21] apparently distinct realms of the rational and the mystical have converged within the strange universe of Twin Peaks. Indeed, across the vast mythopoeia of Twin Peaks, the scientific and the supernatural constantly collide, intertwine, and merge.
From its inception, David Lynch’s and Mark Frost’s mystery series has blended the rational and irrational in creative and engaging ways. Indeed, the small pocket of Washington woodland in which the show’s original run (1990–1991) took place was constructed as an uncanny space where electrical currents appear to possess a spectral sentience and military surveillance systems captured otherworldly activity. As the show’s mythology expanded with the addition of the film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me in 1992 and Mark Frost’s 2016 novel The Secret History of Twin Peaks, this fusion of the scientific and the supernatural remained an enduring feature of its canon. The cumulative mythos of Twin Peaks is therefore defined by haunted machines and mystical overtones; it is a fictive universe where electricity transports extra-dimensional beings, security cameras capture images of uncanny doubles, and police work blends forensic science with Eastern mysticism. Moreover, if we enquire into the history of this fictive universe, we discover that the world of Twin Peaks was born out of such intersections of the preternatural and the technological. A cursory glance at Mark Frost’s exhaustive history of Twin Peaks introduces the reader to such historical intersections of science and supernaturalism as theosophy and Jack Parsons’ eclectic combination of occult magick and mid-century rocket technology.
Drawing together these myriad, diffuse combinations of science and the supernatural, this paper argues that the melding of the rational and the irrational, the technological and the otherworldly, is essential to the construction of the Twin Peaks universe and that the understanding of reality established in the show arises out of the conflation of these seemingly distinct realms. As such, Twin Peaks foregrounds an understanding of science that acknowledges the complex evolution of scientific knowledge and its relationship to epistemologies that have since been discredited [page 22] as mysticism or pseudo-science. In particular, the view of science that emerges in the world of Twin Peaks is one grounded in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century conceptualizations of the scientific, when the application of the scientific method to the exploration of such invisible mysteries as the subatomic universe and electromagnetism led many to believe that the spiritual world could be analyzed in a similar manner. Consequently, this period witnessed a host of new epistemological systems, including Spiritualism and psychical research, which sought to apply rational, scientific principles to the exploration of the supernatural. In a similar manner, this paper maintains that in Twin Peaks, science regularly becomes a means of investigating the supernatural, while technology, rather than discounting the mystical, serves instead to bridge the chasm between the otherworldly and the mundane. Thus, the fictional universe of Twin Peaks constructs science and the supernatural not as competing worldviews but rather as complementary systems of understanding.
Haunted Cameras and Unseen Forces: Historical Intersections of Science and the Supernatural
In the middle decades of the nineteenth century, uncanny doppelgängers began to appear in framed pictures on the walls and mantelpieces of middle-class homes. Like Agent Cooper’s double, caught momentarily on security footage in Fire Walk with Me, these doubles resisted the laws of time and space and appeared trapped in frozen, monochrome moments. Unlike Cooper’s double, however, these Victorian doppelgängers were not inherently supernatural in nature. Nevertheless, they did succeed in igniting a distinctly supernatural craze. When the daguerreotype, the ancestor of modern photography, first emerged in the late 1830s, its inventor, Jacques Louis Mandé Daguerre, described the images captured by the new process as “spontaneous reproduction[s] from nature” (qtd. in Heilbrun 16). Immediately following the popularization of photographic technology, this capacity to reproduce faithfully the natural world was transmuted into a [page 25] broader cultural preoccupation with portraiture, as “all middle-class individuals wanted a record of their own image, previously only viewed in a mirror” (Heilbrun 104). Throughout the nineteenth century, photographic doubles of this type proliferated exponentially, as individuals and families sought to capture their images for posterity.
By the mid-nineteenth century, the technology had progressed beyond portraiture, as “photography was recording occurrences in the laboratory which the human eye could not see, and its evidence was increasingly relied on” (Warner 222). This led many Victorians to believe that if photography could capture things in nature that were ordinarily imperceptible to the human eye, it could also be deployed as a means of recording supernatural occurrences. As such, the nineteenth century witnessed the inauguration of a popular craze for spirit photography. As Marina Warner notes, in these images “the spirit of the unseen person summoned by the sitter appears shrouded yet insubstantial, or hovers in the air, like a wisp of smoke” (224). Despite the prevalence of innumerable high-profile frauds,1 opportunists and phonies, many ordinary people and amateur psychical researchers viewed spirit photography as a legitimate, almost scientific, method of proving the existence of ghosts.
However, spirit photography was not the only example of individuals attempting to utilize scientific or empirical techniques to prove the veracity of the otherworldly. In 1882, following a conference in London, an organization known as the Society for Psychical Research was founded in order to carry out scientific research into the supernatural (“Our History”). At a time when scientists were puzzling over the intricacies of potent but invisible forces such as magnetism, light and sound waves, gravity, and electromagnetic waves, organizations such as the Society for Psychical Research did not believe that there was any contradiction in utilizing scientific methods to probe the invisible realm of the supernatural (Warner 221). As the one-time president of the SPR William James noted, psychic experiments such as automatic [page 24] writing were “instruments of research, reagents like litmus paper or the galvanometer, for revealing what would otherwise remain hidden” (qtd. in Warner 237). In this way, the broader culture of the nineteenth century was defined by a fusion of the supernatural and the scientific, the spiritual and the technical. As Barbara Weisberg observes, in the nineteenth century, “men and women [were] struggling to reconcile religion with science at a time when geologists were questioning the very age and origins of the earth and its creatures.” Thus, in an era when new scientific disciplines were transforming the human understanding of the world, it appeared entirely logical that the supernatural realm could be studied, probed, and categorized in much the same way as the physical world had been portioned off into species, phylum, and genus.
Indeed, in the mid-nineteenth century, this burgeoning relationship between the scientific and the supernatural crystallized into a distinct philosophical and theological system with the birth of the religious movement known as Spiritualism. Materializing amidst the immense cultural and technological upheaval of the median years of the nineteenth century, Spiritualism was born in 1848 when a pair of teenage girls, the Fox Sisters, reported that they had contacted a spirit residing in their upstate New York home (Weisberg). Rather than a thoroughly mystical event, however, this act of spiritual communication came to be seen by many of the neighbors and friends who flocked to witness the event as empirical, scientifically verifiable evidence of the supernatural.2 Indeed, one neighbor, Isaac Post, was “beguiled by the possibility of establishing a bridge to the Other World, and it was his idea to allow the spirits to rap their response to questions while the alphabet was slowly recited in séances with the sisters” (Melechi 162). This concept of a methodical system whereby spiritual raps would correspond to the English alphabet seemed to many nineteenth-century observers like a legitimate, pragmatic scientific exercise, a process of organizing and recording data derived from the spirit world. Indeed, as Anne Braude has argued, [page 25] “Spiritualism believed that contact with spirits of the dead provided empirical proof of life after death” (4; emphasis added). As the movement expanded beyond the small town of Hydesville, New York, it adopted a whole range of techniques and methodologies intended to collect proof of the supernatural, carefully gathered from the beyond. These included the use of instruments as simple as the Ouija board, patented in 1891, as well as more complex devices such as the “spiritoscope,” an elaborate contraption comprised of rigs and pulleys connected to an alphabetical disk that was hidden from the eyes of the medium in order to guarantee the impartiality and legitimacy of spirit communication (Natale 57-8).
In this way, nineteenth century Spiritualist and psychical researchers adhered to a unique epistemology that fused the scientific and the supernatural. For them, the scientific and the spiritual were not opposing or competing existential poles but instead both disciplines were a means of “pursuing related enquiries into the nature of reality” (Natale 57). From attempts to capture images of spectral figures using new photographic technology to the utilization of ostensibly empirical techniques, such as spirit boards or table turning, to study the spirit world, the nineteenth century was a period when, for many, the supernatural and the scientific were thoroughly interpenetrated.
“It was like what, electricity”: Natural and Preternatural Forces in Twin Peaks
Within the fictive world of Twin Peaks, a similar fusion of supernatural and natural emerges as a core thematic and aesthetic motif. Twin Peaks depicts a space in which the otherworldly regularly impinges upon mundane reality. Throughout both the original series and the 2017 revival, numerous characters journey back and forth between the everyday world and the preternatural Black Lodge, either through dreams, portals, or the use of mystical talismans. However, while the methods used by humans to enter the Lodge are often mystical in nature, the supernatural beings who inhabit the Lodge use an altogether more ordinary mode of [page 26] conveyance: electrical or telephone wires. Over the course of the series, the presence of Lodge inhabitants is often presaged by the sinister crackle of electricity or the hum of a telephone wire. As Franck Boulègue has observed, Fire Walk with Me “establishes that the Lodge entities can travel via telephone wires as they are associated with electricity” (“The Singing Wires”). Indeed, the 1992 film opens with an eruption of static and an explosion of electrical sparks as a television set is brutally destroyed, split open by repeated blows from a blunt object. In this moment, a powerful discharge of electrical energy is released, and with it, the film implies, the otherworldly threat that destroys first Teresa Banks and later Laura Palmer. Moreover, throughout the film, the connection between the supernatural and the electrical is repeatedly underscored by shots of telephone poles and seemingly nonsensical allusions to substances such as “Formica,” a laminate containing a form of electrical insulation called mica (Boulègue, Twin Peaks: Unwrapping the Plastic 62).
Indeed, Formica is a conspicuous presence in the film, as a large Formica table appears to be the centerpiece dominating the mysterious, otherworldly room described as the meeting place of the sinister inhabiting spirits BOB and MIKE. Ostensibly located above a “convenience store,” the room is, in reality, an intangible space, a dimensional anomaly connected to or part of the Black Lodge and inhabited by strange, ephemeral entities. Like much of the supernaturally inflected space in the world of Twin Peaks, the extra-dimensional room vibrates with electrical menace. Not only does the room feature the conspicuous Formica table at its center, but its inhabitants too appear possessed of an equally-potent electrical spark. As H. Perry Horton notes, of all the strange figures occupying the space, one of the most intriguing is “the bearded man who is sometimes referred to as The Electrician for the way electricity crackles around him.” In this way, supernatural space is not portrayed as nebulous or ethereal, but rather as animated by the natural force of electricity.
Likewise, over the course of the series to which Fire Walk with [page 27] Me serves as a prequel, the sinister forces of the Black Lodge are frequently linked to uncanny movements or fluctuations of electrical appliances such as fans or light bulbs. One of the earliest indications that the town of Twin Peaks exists on the perimeter between the natural and the preternatural appears in the first episode of the show when Agent Cooper’s examination of Laura Palmer’s body is punctuated by the sinister flickering of a fluorescent light. The unsettling movements and vacillations of electrical currents thus signify an intersection of the natural and the supernatural, as changes in or eruptions of electrical energy herald the intrusion of the otherworldly onto the earthly plain. Across the mythos of Twin Peaks, electricity appears to occupy a liminal space, existing between the safe, comprehensible world of human scientific knowledge—that which is rational—and the terrifying, irrational world of the supernatural.
This construction of the electrical as a quasi-spectral force is, however, by no means unique to the feverishly imaginative world of Twin Peaks. Electricity crackles with supernatural potency in a wide range of literary texts, from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), which was heavily influenced by contemporary experiments in galvanism, to H. Rider Haggard’s 1886 novel She, in which the eponymous She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed possesses the power to blast enemies “into death by some mysterious electric agency” (Alderman). In contemporary fiction, such unsettling visions of the supernatural potential residing within electrical currents can also be found in works like Stephen King’s 2014 novel Revival. Moreover, Twin Peaks’ construction of the electrical as preternatural has a long and complex history in general human thought. Although electricity has provoked wonder and generated speculation about its uncanny potential from the Ancient Greeks through to Early Modern Period, the intensity of speculation about this force accelerated in the later part of the eighteenth century and on into the nineteenth century, In the early eighteenth century, static electricity was the only electrical force that was really understood and could be produced on demand (Harkup 18). By the 1750s, [page 28] Benjamin Franklin was proposing that electricity could be captured during a lightning storm, while the 1740s had already witnessed the harnessing of electricity with the invention of the Leyden jar: a device that was capable of storing an electrical charge (Harkup 18). The general fascination with the containment of this immensely powerful natural force accelerated over the course of the nineteenth century, as electricity was channeled into familiar, everyday technologies. Yet, rather than becoming mundane, electrical technology remained for many miraculous and wondrous, even as it entered people’s homes and lives. Indeed, the historian Anne Braude describes how in the mid-nineteenth century, when scientists were contemplating the feasibility of connecting the expanding American nation via a telegraph network, the inventor Samuel Morse appealed to congress for $30,000 to construct an experimental line between Washington and Baltimore (4). According to Braude, the scientist “found little understanding of the principles of electricity amongst the nation’s governing body. A Tennessee congressman sarcastically suggested that if Congress wished to further the cause of science that half the appropriation should support experiments in Mesmerism” (4). Indeed, the Congressional chairman emphasized that it would, in fact, “require a scientific analysis to determine how far the magnetism of mesmerism was analogous to the magnetism to be employed in telegraphs” (5). From this exchange it is clear that to many nineteenth-century observers electricity, once yoked to human will and subjugated to the desires of an advancing civilization, seemed to resemble a form of magic, a harnessing of forces once thought beyond the parameters of human understanding.
Moreover, this conflation of the electrical and the mystical was also reflected in the iconography and language of the Spiritualism, a movement wherein mediums were sometimes described as the “spiritual telegraph” and electricity was referred to by one adherent as “the God principles at work” (qtd. in Braude 5). In this way, Twin Peaks, by linking manifestations of the supernatural to the movements and vacillations of electrical energy, draws on a [page 29] rhetoric that stretches back to humankind’s earliest forays into the science of electricity. The show situates its understanding of electricity within a much older discourse that bound together ostensibly rational natural forces—such as magnetism, gravity and, of course, electricity itself—with the preternatural energies of mediumship and spirit communication. Indeed, it was this understanding of the supernatural as merely another intangible force, analogous to magnetism or electricity, that engendered the nineteenth-century preoccupation with the scientific study of the mystical. Within the mythology of Twin Peaks, it is this same conflation of natural and supernatural forces that constructs electricity as both an energy that transcends the divide between natural and supernatural, and, ultimately, as a channel between these seemingly distinct realms.
In Twin Peaks: The Return electricity is a ubiquitous force; its blue glow flickers ominously at key moments, and its sinister crackle infuses the soundtrack. Indeed, both the image of the electrical and the word “electricity” are conspicuous presences in new series. From Bradley Mitchum’s question about Dougie’s accident—”It was like what, electricity?”—to MIKE ominously intoning “electricity” in the closing moments of part 17, visual and spoken references to the electrical dominate the revival. At once natural and supernatural, electricity appears to be the animating force within the show’s universe, the mystical essence that underpins all existence and links the physical world to the spiritual. In part 10, the Log Lady alludes to the omnipresence of this electrical energy: “Electricity is humming. You hear it in the mountains and rivers. You see it dance among the seas and stars and glowing around the moon.” Omnipresent and numinous, electricity bridges the natural and the supernatural, imbuing the mundane with a mystical energy and connecting our reality with other planes of existence.
As a bridge between worlds, electricity connects realities not merely by acting as an emblem of the intersection of the natural and the mystical; it also serves as a means of conveyance, a physical [page 30] doorway between worlds. In part 11, when Gordon Cole and his FBI colleagues investigate the site where Hastings encountered Major Briggs, the trans-dimensional nature of their meeting is underscored when an immense portal buzzing with electrical energy opens in the sky. Electricity, it seems, is not merely a force that exists in the liminal space between natural and supernatural; instead, it is the conduit that facilitates travel between these distinct realms. Providing a glimpse of the uncanny space above the convenience store, the electrified portal appears to offer a path from our world to the Black Lodge. Similarly, as Franck Boulègue discusses in his analysis of part 18 of the revival, Diane and Cooper use the power of electricity generated by immense desert pylons to cross from our dimension into another (“Sex Magick & the Scarlet Woman”). Like the nineteenth-century vision of the medium as a spiritual telegraph, the connective, transmitting power of electrical currents and cables offers a means of transcending the earthly world and entering a less tangible realm. Indeed, throughout the series, electricity and travel appear intimately connected. In a number of episodes, the recurring image of night-time highways illuminated by headlights gives way to shots of power lines, suggesting that, like the darkened roads, electrical wires are also a means of conveyance, a pathway that can be traversed or a bridge that can be crossed.
However, while electricity appears numerous times as a conduit connecting the mundane and the preternatural, it also manifests repeatedly as a generative force, capable of creating life, or at least conjuring the illusion of existence. As the revival series draws to a close, and Cooper emerges from his suburban stupor, MIKE combines a seed, a lock of hair and a spark of electricity to create the Dougie who is returned to Janey-E. Thus, electricity is not merely the channel through which malevolent, supernatural entities enter the world; it is also creative and life-giving. As a form of energy, it embodies notions of duality and dichotomy; it brings forth evil, but it also engenders life. Moreover, it is this dual nature that connects electricity—the omnipresent vital force that pervades [page 31] the world of Twin Peaks—to the startling image of nuclear conflagration that not only defines part eight of the revival but ultimately becomes the apocalyptic centerpiece of the entire series. Indeed, both the atom itself and the Nuclear Age that was born amidst the urgency of war in the skies above New Mexico embody potent notions of creation and destruction. In the years following the Trinity Test, the American popular imagination was seized by a tense, conflicted discourse that alternately conceived of the atom as both the herald of a glorious new age and also a harbinger of global destruction.
As the cold shock of the Second World War, Hiroshima, and the Holocaust gave way to bright vistas of 1950s optimism, America began to dream of a brilliant, gloriously technological future in which the atom, harnessed to human scientific endeavor, could be employed to build a world of plenitude and promise. This dream of a better tomorrow, born out of responsibly deployed nuclear energy, was an omnipresent facet of mid-twentieth century cultural discourse, representing what David O. Woodbury calls “the Utopian Promise of the Peacetime Atom.” At the same time, however, these hopeful panoramas were often tinged by an anxious unease about the destructive potential of the atom, its capacity for violence and death should it fall into the wrong hands. Occupying a central position in the Twin Peaks revival, the atom is a dichotomous force: it contains within it the potential for creation and destruction, much like the electrical energy that pulsates throughout the series. Indeed, the dual nature of the electrical—and by extension the atomic—is given explicit verbal expression in part 11 of The Return when Deputy Sheriff Hawk explains the iconography on a map to Sheriff Frank Truman. Hawk describes one symbol on that map as a type of black fire, a preternatural flame rather like modern electricity. When Truman asks if the fire is good or bad, Hawk tells him that it depends on the intention. In this moment, the fire, embodying both the scientific (electricity) and the supernatural (the black flame), fully evokes the intersection between the natural and the preternatural that defines the world of [page 32] Twin Peaks. Moreover, like the popular cultural discourse of the mid-twentieth century that located both the destructive and creative potential of the atom in the intentions of those who wield its power, electricity—the black fire—is a generative force equally capable of devastation and creation.
The slow-motion explosion of the Trinity Test in part 8 of the 2017 revival is perhaps the series’ most overt drawing together of the supernatural and the scientific. In the detonation sequence, the sky over White Sands, New Mexico, is transformed into a phantasmagoric series of blossoming and withering explosions, an immense mushroom cloud that appears as a pillar of static and color, bursting with life. Like the ubiquitous electrical currents that ripple and eddy through the air in countless other scenes, the cloud unleashed by humanity’s first forays into atomic weaponry serves to bridge the realms of the supernatural and the everyday; it too is a creative force and a conduit. As the mushroom cloud envelops the desert skies, its cumulus body is animated by the crackling of electricity and the frenzied ticks of what sounds like a Geiger counter. When the scene shifts to a desolate convenience store—an aspect of the Black Lodge—and the multitudinous scorched figures that teem outside the building, this succession of images suggests that the newly unleashed power of the atomic bomb either creates these sinister beings or, at the very least, summons them from some extra-dimensional space. Indeed, alongside these shuffling, burnt interlopers, the bomb—or the experiment at its core—also appears to give life to the demonic spirit BOB as it emits a stream of fluid and a globe bearing his now-iconic visage. Of course, if BOB is, as we are told repeatedly throughout both the original and the revival series, simply a manifestation of human evil, then the Trinity Test—the birth of the ultimate weapon and the culmination of human violence—may simply have given form to the dark impulses of mankind.
Yet, just as the atom itself accrued associations with both destruction and creation, apocalypticism and the promise of a better tomorrow, so too do we encounter the brighter side of this [page 33] generative force. In the moments following the detonation of the atom bomb and the manifestation of BOB amidst its swelling clouds, we also witness the creation of something bright and hopeful. Following the atomic conflagration and the evil it has unleashed, those incomprehensible forces aligned with the powers of good, the White Lodge that stands in opposition to the dark machinations of the Black Lodge, to create a counterpoint to the evil that is BOB: a glowing orb containing the smiling face of Laura Palmer. In this moment, a distillation of goodness and purity has been manufactured to counteract the evil that has risen from the ashes of the Trinity Test. However, while the evil of BOB is closely associated with the dawn of nuclear weaponry, the purity and golden light that serves to combat this evil is also linked to the scientific. The building in which the emissaries of good (or, potentially, members of the White Lodge) reside resembles a power station on the exterior, while the interior space is dominated by what appears to be an electrical pylon. As such, they are visually aligned with the iconography of power, energy, and electricity. Yet, while BOB is linked to the destructive apocalyptic power of the atom bomb, the White Lodge is tied to generative forms of power, energy (whether electrical or atomic) that is harnessed and used for light and heat. Consequently, just as evil is connected with the destructive potential of the atomic bomb, so too is good associated with iconography of the so-called “peacetime atom,” the mid-century belief in the utopian potential of atomic power. Indeed, even the oft-repeated chant uttered by the scorched figures—sometimes referred to as the woodsmen—who emerge alongside the detonation appears to signal the dual nature of the atom. As they shuffle stiffly into the world, the woodsmen repeatedly intone, “Gotta light?” This phrase, although ostensibly referring to the lighting of a cigarette, strongly echoes the dichotomous nature of both the atomic and the electrical; it signals fire and destruction, but it also evokes notions of illumination, warmth and promise. In this way, not only does Twin Peaks link the scientific to the supernatural—imbuing both electrical and atomic energy with [page 34] mystical potency—so too does the series draw an equivalency between the divided nature of earthly energies and the dichotomous power of the preternatural, its capacity for good and evil, light and dark.
Between Two Worlds: Earthly Technologies and Unearthly Spaces
Twin Peaks presents a vision of reality closely aligned with the popular nineteenth-century understanding of supernaturalism as indistinct from the more conventional scientific perspectives. It echoes a now lost epistemology that often conceived of the invisible forces of electromagnetism, gravity, and sound waves as analogous to the imperceptible matter of spirit and the invisible motions of the spectral. Just as nineteenth-century Spiritualists viewed electricity as a supernatural force, “the God principles at work,” so too does Twin Peaks collapse the boundaries between natural and supernatural energies, constructing the mysterious forces of the electrical and the atomic as the domain of the spirit. At the same time, however, the relationship between the technological and the otherworldly is also apparent in how numerous characters in both the original and the revival series attempt to utilize technology as a means to comprehend or harness the supernatural. Just as the intrepid paranormal investigators of the nineteenth century employed new photographic technologies and the empirical methodologies of the Ouija board or the “spiritoscope” to record proof of an active spiritual realm, so too do the investigators probing the mysteries of Twin Peaks employ forensic and military technologies in their efforts. Indeed, over the course of the series careful attention is paid to the minutiae of forensic work, autopsies, and the careful analysis of microscopic details embedded in skin and fingernails. Yet, these physiological and rational investigations do not remain in the realm of the natural, as they frequently uncover evidence, traces, and fragments of supernatural influence. Most notably, it is this kind of forensic work that locates microscopic letters alluding to the name of BOB [page 35] embedded in the fingernails of his victims.
More significantly, however, the scientific investigation of the preternatural is perhaps most apparent in the case of Project Blue Book, a government initiative whose military technology deciphers strange, otherworldly transmissions and thus plays a central role in locating the Black Lodge. According to H. Perry Horton, Project Blue Book and their technological probes of the otherworldly are strongly rooted in reality, as “between 1952 and 1970, Project Blue Book served as a systematic study by the Air Force with two guiding objectives: 1) determine if Unidentified Flying Objects were a threat to U.S. national security, and 2) scientifically analyze UFO-related data.” The fictional version of Project Blue Book, represented in the series by Major Garland Briggs, deploys military satellites and communications systems to search for alien in life, and they ultimately uncover evidence not of extraterrestrial life, but rather of extra-dimensional life. In the woods surrounding the mountain town, Project Blue Book detects communications emanating not from the far-reaches of space but from the uncanny terrestrial space of the Lodge. While military technology is unlikely ever to fully comprehend this sinister realm, the technological forces of the U.S. military do succeed in uncovering the coordinates of the Lodge’s entry point and identifying the place where dimensions intersect, and the mundane realm gives way to the fantastic space of the supernatural. As such, the scientific, while incapable of fully subduing the supernatural, appears to possess the capacity to probe the spectral depths that lie hidden beneath our everyday, rational reality. In her study of quantum theory in the films of David Lynch, Martha P. Nochimson notes how, even in contemporary scientific theory, there exists a sense that perceivable reality is underpinned by something numinous: “According to modern physics, there is much more to objects and bodies than the finite images we seem to see clearly around us. On a particle level, there is another truth, the essential, limitless interactions among the building blocks of matter, and an uncertainty that is not visible on the surfaces of material forms.” It is this uncertainty lurking [page 36] beneath the façade of the rational that suggests a supernatural aspect present amidst the minutiae of the everyday, an ethereal truth that can be grasped through careful study and investigation. The scientific, therefore, becomes a tool for explicating the spiritual underpinnings of reality.
Within the world of Twin Peaks, this conception of utilizing the scientific to uncover occult knowledge is not just limited to the investigations of Project Blue Book. Mark Frost’s 2016 novel The Secret History of Twin Peaks further explores the intersection of the mystical and the scientific, as it unravels such historical entanglements of science and supernaturalism as theosophy and Jack Parsons’ eccentric fusion of occult mysticism and mid-century rocket technology. Developing a somewhat byzantine mythology to explain the uncanny aura that clings to the small, northwestern town, Frost connects the extra-terrestrial investigations of Project Blue Book to the experiments conducted by the American rocket scientist Jack Parsons. A brilliant pioneer in the field of aerospace and a key figure in the development of Jet Assisted Take Off (JATO) technology (Irwin), Parsons supplemented the scientific endeavors of his Jet Propulsion Laboratory with hedonistic excursions into the mystical carried out under the auspices of Thelema, an eclectic philosophy devised by the English occultist and self-proclaimed “Great Beast,” Aleister Crowley (Frost 243). Parsons was an eccentric figure in the conservative climate of post-war America. He was responsible for advances in rocket technology and certainly exerted a palpable influence over the burgeoning Space Age. At the same time, however, he was infamous for conducting archaic magickal rituals in his Pasadena home, the Parsonage. On the surface, then, Parsons appears to represent something of a contradiction: he was at once a pioneer of the technological revolution that would ultimately send men into space and a devotee of occult mysticism. Yet, for Parsons himself, there was no inherent contradiction in combining the mystical and the technological. In The Secret History of Twin Peaks, Frost’s fictionalized version of Parsons muses: “Rockets and magick: Ask [page 37] yourself, what do they share? They’re about transcending all limits. Acts of rebellion against the limits of gravity and inertia, and the limits of human existence” (249). According to Frost’s version of Parsons, rocket technology and occult ritual are united by their capacity to pierce the veil of the perceivable and surpass the limitations of conventional, human knowledge: “Rockets and magick are both about breaking through the animal boundaries of space and time that hold us back from realizing our potential. . . . Magick is just the name we’ve always had for things we don’t yet understand” (249-50).
To Parsons, the supernatural and the scientific are irrevocably intertwined; they are twin epistemological systems, parallel methods of connecting the mundane and the wondrous. The magician and the scientist are one in the same: both seek to bridge the chasm between the transcendent and the everyday. As such, the scientist occupies the role of the magician as described in the strange chant that echoes throughout the Twin Peaks mythos: he “cries out between two worlds” and seeks to unite the earthly realm with the mystical space beyond. Indeed, Parsons as the embodiment of the magician-scientist is explicitly connected by a fictionalized L. Ron Hubbard to the magician who “longs to see” (Frost 250). It is he who walks between the worlds of the material and the spiritual. The magician can, therefore, be connected to the numerous transcendent technological forces that proliferate throughout Twin Peaks. He is intimately linked to the transgressive powers of both electricity and the atom, for, like these elemental forces, he too traverses the divide between the natural and the supernatural. Indeed, Parsons’ magick rituals and their capacity to disturb the boundary between the material and the spiritual realms is overtly associated with the awesome power of the atom bomb when Douglas Milford (a minor character in the show who plays a crucial role in Frost’s novel) alludes to occult rituals conducted in the desert: “The desert’s a perfect medium for summoning . . . an empty canvas, a beaker into which, under certain circumstance and with fearless rigor, you can create an elixir that will call forth . . . [page 38] call them what you will . . . messengers of the gods” (Frost 254-55). Here Milford suggests that the vast, empty space of the desert, a bleached stretch of purgatorial land that appears to hang in liminal eternity, is the ideal setting in which to summon supernatural forces. This mystically-inflected description of the desert as the vessel into which divine energy might be poured recalls America’s historical use of desert test sites for nuclear detonations as well as William L. Laurence’s description of the Trinity Test as analogous to an act of biblical creation. Moreover, this association of the desert with the summoning of mystical forces anticipates the infamous eighth part of the Twin Peaks revival when scientific experiments conducted in the stark environs of the White Sands testing ground unleash the inhabiting spirit BOB, as well as a horde of otherworldly woodsmen crackling with radioactive potency.
Foregrounding the uncanny power of ostensibly earthly, scientifically-explicable forces such as electricity and atomic power while also casting the scientist as both rational technologist and transgressive occultist, Twin Peaks posits a vision of reality where the mundane and the preternatural constantly collide, conflate, and intertwine. In this world, the supernatural and the natural are not distinct entities but instead exist alongside, and as part of, one another. Mystical energy flows through electrical sparks, and the spiritual is contained within the atomic; unseen forces govern human life, and the invisible hand of the spectral is just as palpable an influence as gravitational pull or electromagnetic fluctuations. It is unsurprising, therefore, that within such a universe the methods and technologies of the scientific can be employed to probe the spiritual realm. Indeed, the epistemological system posited by Twin Peaks appears to suggest that it is only through a combination of the scientific and the occult that one can arrive at a true understanding of the world. This is an understanding of interrelated technological and spiritual realms that echoes the intermingling of the supernatural and the scientific that defined much popular nineteenth-century discourse, as evidenced by Victorian writers such as Catherine Crowe, who in The Night-Side of [page 39] Nature (1848) predicts a day when “the sciences will be no longer isolated; when we shall no longer deny, but be able to account for, phenomena apparently prodigious, or have the modesty, if we cannot explain them, to admit that the difficulty arises solely from our own incapacity” (Chapter One). Moreover, it is this same conception of an interpenetrated science and supernaturalism that defined movements such as Spiritualism (as discussed above) as well as more esoteric systems such as Theosophy, an occult philosophy established in 1875 by Russian émigré Helena Blavatsky (Boulègue, Twin Peaks: Unwrapping the Plastic 41). Centered around a document entitled The Secret Doctrine: the Synthesis of Science, Religion and Philosophy (1888), Theosophy is a pseudo-scientific creed that promises its adherents access to an occult realm of wisdom hidden behind the veil of perceivable reality (Boulègue, Twin Peaks: Unwrapping the Plastic 60). In Twin Peaks, scientific methods, such as forensics or the employment of military radar, are regularly deployed to penetrate the veil separating worlds. Like the scientist-magician Parsons’ claim that rockets and technology are united in their capacity to transcend the everyday, so too does the scientific serve in Twin Peaks to unite the natural and the supernatural, bridging these distinct realms and unveiling the mystical presence that exists behind the ordinary.
The Evolution of the Arm: New Forms of Supernaturalism
Representing a clear change in tone from the mist-shrouded, uncanny atmosphere of the original series, both the 2017 revival of Twin Peaks and Mark Frost’s Secret History have been controversial for their reliance on science fiction tropes and, in the case of The Secret History, a tendency for overly-detailed explanations of the original series’ myriad mysteries (Miller). However, the preoccupation with the scientific that defines both the novel and the revival do not necessarily represent a departure from the original series and its more overtly supernatural themes; rather, I would argue, this proliferation of scientific motifs is an extension, [page 40] an elaboration of themes and ideas alluded to in the first two seasons.
In numerous parts of the revival, we encounter Philip Gerard’s severed arm. Yet, while the arm originally manifested as the Man from Another Place, a diminutive dancer clad in a red suit, in the new series the arm appears as a monstrous globule of flesh attached to crackling, electrified branches. A towering, unsettling apparition, this new form identifies itself as “The Evolution of the Arm.” It has transformed from an eerie, uncanny humanoid presence into a being whose electrified tendrils are a crude mirror of the human nervous system, of flesh animated by electrical influences. In Twin Peaks—where electricity is at once grounded in the scientific and evocative of supernatural forces—The Evolution of the Arm represents the evolution of the show itself.3 At once scientifically-oriented and transcendent, the Arm embodies a progression of the show’s engagement with the supernatural. While both the original series and Fire Walk with Me hint at a concordance of the scientific and the mystical, portray electricity as a conduit between worlds, and link military technology to the exploration of spiritual dimensions, it is in the revival series that this connection is rendered fully explicit. It is here in the new world of Las Vegas casinos, eerie Manhattan lofts, and immense stretches of middle-American highways that these two forces fully merge. Science in The Return is portrayed as a means to bridge the gap between worlds, to solder the mystical to the mundane. In its electrical form it harkens back to ideas that have existed throughout history, as humankind gazed in wonder at lightning and electrical storms—ideas that became more pervasive during humanity’s earliest attempts to harness the power of electricity, when the ability to convey messages via telegraph was likened to mediumship and clairvoyant communication. Electricity bridges worlds, creates and destroys life, crosses the divide between dimensions. Atomic science splits apart the divide between the earthly realm and the abode of the supernatural and draws the numinous into our prosaic reality. In this schema the scientist and the magician are, as [page 41] evidenced by Frost’s version of Jack Parsons, one in the same; they stand between the worlds of the natural and the preternatural, uniting the two in an attempt to break the bounds of the ordinary.
In this way, Twin Peaks in its various incarnations draws upon a historical paradigm in which science is not inimical to the existence of supernatural forces. Rather, the interpenetration of the spiritual and the scientific presented over the course of the series recalls an older mode of human thought wherein these two realms were intimately connected, with one used to explore or further the ends of the other. Indeed, the relationship between science and the supernatural depicted in Twin Peaks recalls how, as Simone Natale has observed, “[m]agic and science in the nineteenth century were not contrasted but rather intimately allied” (4). Then, faith in the supernatural was not threatened but rather supported by science, as “[b]elief in spirit communication required the constant confirmation of empirical evidence: only the accumulation of facts and phenomena made it possible to profess and believe” (Natale 4). This was, after all, the era in which new photographic technologies were deployed to capture evidence of spectral activity and mediumship attempted to incorporate scientific, empirically verifiable techniques into its exploration of the spiritual realm. In Twin Peaks, this vision of the supernatural as scientifically discoverable, of haunted machinery and spirits residing in electrical wires, did not vanish as humanity accelerated towards the manifold technological transformations of the Atomic Age. Instead, the series and its attendant literary mythologies construct a vision of reality in which the technological disruptions of the modern age accrue a mystical potency, summoning the preternatural into the mundane space of the natural or acting as a conduit between spiritual realms. By delineating a world in which the force of the atomic bomb can draw forth spiritual entities and electricity can create portals between worlds, Twin Peaks unveils the nebulous, occult forces that inhere within the ordinary. As such, the series creates a haunted, mystically-inflected reality wherein science and the supernatural are not competing worldviews but instead serve as [page 42] complementary systems of understanding and exploration. Ultimately, this fusion of the natural and the supernatural speaks to the overarching philosophy of Twin Peaks. The series and its various literary spinoffs depict a reality in which mundane human existence is not distinct or separate from the supernatural. Instead, in Twin Peaks these two diverse realms are bound together, interpenetrate. In this world, the rational and the irrational exist together, each impinging on the other, infusing the ordinary with the mythic and connecting the preternatural to the everyday.
Parts of this article have appeared in a short post on Diabolique.com entitled “Science and the Supernatural.”
1. The most well-known fraud of this period was William H. Mumler, a popular spirit photographer who produced an iconic image of Mary Todd Lincoln with her husband’s ghost. During his trial for fraud in 1869, he was accused of “deceiving the public, and of extorting money from the credulous by what was in reality only a gross fraud and cheat” (qtd. in West 189).
2. Although the Fox Sisters would ultimately confess to falsifying this evidence of spirit communication, the popular belief in séances as means of contacting the dead would endure for decades after their 1888 confession.
3. While the Arm’s new form also stemmed from a more practical necessity—actor Michael J. Anderson refused to appear in The Return—the decision to show the Arm in evolved form rather than writing it out of the show completely echoes the broader themes of evolution and progress explored in the show.
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