Under the Skin of the World: The Multiversal Spaces of Twin Peaks: The Return

by Adam Daniel

Note: Page numbers from the print version are indicated in brackets and should not be considered part of the text of the article.

Abstract: [page 49] This article assesses how David Lynch and Mark Frost employ location not only as a setting for action, but also as a way of interrogating the possibilities of parallel internal and external realities. Drawing on multiverse theory, it examines the metaphysical implications of the universe that Lynch and Frost have created and how the show questions the orthodoxy of singular space-time configurations. Taking Margaret Lanterman’s questions that introduce episodes in syndication to interrogate how the show literalizes and thematizes worlds behind worlds, it examines the possibility that the apartment above the convenience store is one of many junction points for these multiple realities, acting as a nexus of worlds. Twin Peaks: The Return engages with the affective capacities of the sound and image to open up this expanded conception of worlds that exist under the skin of our world.

Keywords: images, multiverse, parallel realities, space-time

A quintessential Twin Peaks image: a journey through the woods at night. We know the man making this journey as Deputy Sheriff Tommy ‘Hawk’ Hill (Michael Horse), of Native American heritage and a member of the Twin Peaks Sheriff’s Department. He traipses through the thicket, flashlight cutting through the black and illuminating the skeletal branches of the sycamore trees. Finally, he arrives at his destination: a grove of sycamore trees surrounding an unnatural looking pool of viscous dark liquid. Those who are familiar with the original series know this place as Glastonbury Grove. As Hawk’s flashlight traces a path across the trees, we hear an enigmatic, inhuman scratching noise, and then, another world swims into existence: shimmering red curtains, emerging behind the trees, seeming to softly sway. They fade and then disappear. Hawk waits, and watches. Again, the woods dissolve and the curtains coalesce. Hawk’s eyes widen with 50] recognition: only once before has he seen this other world behind our own, and the literal threshold that reveals it. Could he step through these curtains, as FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) once did? Would he dare?

This scene in part 2 of Twin Peaks: The Return (2017) is one of many in the series that proposes the concept of a hidden world or worlds below the surface of that which is conventionally understood as the one ‘true’ world. This article investigates the unique approach of show creators David Lynch and Mark Frost to dramatic television’s typical use of setting and location, exploring the various techniques that they have employed to establish location as a threshold and the progression that The Return makes on the original Twin Peaks in terms of heightening this potential liminality between worlds. The proposition of this liminality emerges from two questions that are of clear concern in Lynch and Frost’s re-entry to the world of Twin Peaks: what are the limitations of a conventional vision of the world, and how do those limitations potentially blind us to the possibilities of parallel realities or multiple universes?

Martha Nochimson contends that “the threshold” is a defining characteristic of the later Lynch cinematic works (2). The threshold, as she conceives it, is the space between our ordinary perceptions of space and time, and a “fuller apprehension of our mind/body realities,” a space that Lynch creatively investigates with particular focus (2). Nochimson examines, in detail, the instability of reality that arises in works such as Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, and Inland Empire and how this uncertainty can work to unveil the perceived limits of reality. This was clearly also of interest to Lynch and Frost at the conception of the original series and something they explicitly acknowledge through the rhetorical questions posed by Margaret Lanterman (Catherine Coulson) in the introduction sequences that were shown before U.S. syndication broadcast. For example, in her introduction to season 1, episode 8, she asks: “Can you see through a wall? Can you see through human skin? X-rays see through solid or so-called [page 51] solid objects. There are things in life that exist, and yet our eyes cannot see them. Have you ever seen something startling that others cannot see? Why are some things kept from our vision?” These questions continue to resonate through the new series, which both literalizes and thematizes the concept of truths that are obscured to human vision within the concept of worlds behind our world. The thresholds between these worlds manifest in various guises in The Return, and the viewer is prompted to examine not only the possibilities of multiple external worlds but also the potential for multiple internal worlds. This notion is suggested in Margaret Lanterman’s introduction to Episode 9 of the original series:

As above, so below. The human being finds himself, or herself, in the middle. There is as much space outside the human, proportionately, as inside. Stars, moons, and planets remind us of protons, neutrons, and electrons. Is there a bigger being walking with all the stars within? Does our thinking affect what goes on outside us, and what goes on inside us?

The Return attempts to open viewers’ eyes to the metaphysical possibilities raised above, not only through an overt consideration within the diegetic world (the fictional space where the action and events take place) but also through the destabilization of the cohesion of this fictional space, which is brought about by the specific aesthetics of sound and image employed by the show. Unlike the original series, there appears to be in The Return a concerted effort by Lynch and Frost to examine these radical concepts through both theme and form. While the original series integrated the supernatural into its narrative through the presence of the Lodges and entities such as BOB, the Giant, and the Arm, it did not extend this integration into the formal properties of sound and image as determinedly as the returning series does. [page 52]

Location as Threshold

The first conceptual approach to examine the appearance of thresholds in The Return is in a comparison between the use of location in both former and latter series. Critical approaches to the setting of Twin Peaks have often emphasized the importance of setting in relation to the narrative. John Thorne and Craig Miller argue that, unlike other mainstream television of the time, place was over-accentuated in the original Twin Peaks. Contending that “Twin Peaks wasn’t ‘about’ anything in particular,” they claim the show’s affect came from its unique location: it was a “landscape of mood, style and emotional resonance” (Thorne and Miller, Introduction). Nicholas Birns, in “Telling Inside from Outside, Or, Who Really killed Laura Palmer” similarly observes the connections between the use of place in the Gothic and romance literary tradition and their similarities to Twin Peaks, writing of how both engage with “the uncanniness of [the place’s] natural flora and fauna and the way in which their human counterparts seemed to mingle or even conflate their identities with them (for example the Log Lady), and the much-remarked-upon concealing of dark secrets beneath a serene pastoral tableau” (280-281). For David Lynch, the seeds of Twin Peaks began from a very particular location: the woods. In Lynch on Lynch, he tells Chris Rodley:

In my mind this was a place surrounded by woods. That’s important. For as long as anybody can remember, woods have been mysterious places. So they were a character in my mind. And then other characters came to our minds. And as you start peopling this place, one thing leads to another. And somewhere along the line you have a certain type of community. And because of the way the characters are, you have indications of what they might do and how they could get into trouble and how their past could come back to haunt them. (Rodley 162)

In “David Lynch’s Late Style,” Jonathan Foltz contends that in the first incarnation of the show, Twin Peaks was a “community in the heavy, nostalgic sense of the word.” He cites Cooper’s quote that [page 53] the town was a place “where a yellow light still means slow down, not speed up.” In the original series, this apparent cohesion of the community was established only for it to be revealed as illusory, as Laura’s murder brought to the surface the dark underbelly of the supposedly peaceful town. The show very quickly established the possibility of a world beyond the quaint surface of the Northwest town. In the third episode of the original series, also known as ‘Zen, or the Skill to Catch a Killer,’ Cooper has his first dream of the Red Room, a place that is later established as much more than simply a dreamscape; as the season progressed, the Red Room came to be understood as a real, albeit interdimensional, lobby to a numinous location known as the Black Lodge.1

Franck Boulègue contends that the liminality of the junction between the town and this otherworldly location is specific to Twin Peaks’ geographical location, and that the town acts as a “special gateway” to another level of reality, which he labels the Fourth Dimension (he also acknowledges that this gateway becomes an “entryway” for entities such as BOB to emerge from) (57). While this is no doubt true to the original series, these gateways appear to be more extensive in The Return: we find them in New York City (the glass box), rural Montana (the Dutchman’s, also known as “the place above the convenience store”), and Buckhorn, South Dakota (the portal above the dilapidated house at 2240 Sycamore), among other locations.

With the more diverse and explicitly acknowledged presence of the gateways in The Return comes another divergence from the original series. While the original series established Glastonbury Grove as the singular geographical portal to the Red Room, the new series reveals not only multiple portals but multiple domains beyond the Red Room. These portals provide a glimpse of manifold but disparate locations previously unseen. In doing so, they further the notion that Lynch and Frost are utilizing the new series to interrogate the presence and effects of a multiverse. [page 54]

Worlds Beyond

The potential for worlds to exist beyond our observable universe is supported by recent scientific theory, particularly in the realm of multiverse theory and the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. Multiverse theory posits that the universe that we know from our perspective may simply be one part of a vast and potentially infinite number of universes, or a ‘multiverse.’ Kevin Grazier and Stephen Cass note that, within the world of theoretical physics, the term ‘universe’ extends beyond the astronomer’s traditional definition of a “sphere of influence encircled by the effects of the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago”; new discoveries suggest the possibility of universes existing parallel to ours that cannot be observed through conventional imagery, such as that produced by telescopes (244).

Mary-Jane Rubenstein contends that the first “scientifically significant” appearance of multiverse theory was Hugh Everett’s positing of the many worlds interpretation (MWI) of quantum physics as an alternative to Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg’s “Copenhagen Interpretation” (7). In layman’s terms, Everett’s deployment of the MWI argued that there is perhaps an infinite number of universes and that, at a quantum level, each event leads to a divergence into two separate universes: one where the event occurred, and one where it did not. In the words of scientist Bryce DeWitt, under this model “every quantum transition taking place on every star, in every galaxy, in every remote corner of the universe is splitting our local world on earth into myriad copies of itself.”2

Two of the most well-known advocates for multiverse theory are Brian Greene and Max Tegmark, who devised the commonly-accepted classification schemes for the array of approaches to the concept. Greene, a theoretical physicist and mathematician, published perhaps the most notable monograph on the concept in “The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos” and classified nine types of potential multiverses. Tegmark, a cosmologist, produced a four-level taxonomy [page 55] of universes beyond the observable universe, some of which correspond to Greene’s model. There are three common conceptual models currently used to describe the possibilities of multiverses that are regularly explored in science fiction narratives (Grazier and Cass 243-254). The first is the quilted model, otherwise known as Greene’s Quilted Universe (analogous to Tegmark’s Level-I Universe). This model proposes that simply because we cannot see beyond the cosmic horizon of the observable universe (the Hubble sphere) does not negate the potential for there to have been a multitude of Big Bangs separate to our own, each of which has its own spacetime and matter. Under the Quilted Universe model, Grazier rhetorically proposes that “if all of these local Big Bangs are immersed within an infinite volume, and if the matter in each universe is distributed in, more or less, the same way as the others, then there is only a finite number of ways matter can be arranged. In that event, every possible arrangement of matter, every event, every you, will be repeated an infinite number of times. It is the speed of light, and the sheer distance of these other universes, that prevent us from being aware of our other ‘selves’” (247). The second model Grazier addresses is that known as Greene’s Quantum Multiverse (analogous to Tegmark’s Level-III Universe). This model is an outcome of the MWI proposed by Everett, as discussed earlier. The third model examined by Grazier is that of Hybrid Parallel Universes, or Greene’s Ultimate Ensemble (analogous to Tegmark’s Level-IV Universe). Under this model, the multiverse may be “a hybrid of all possible parallel universes.” This “modal” multiverse, in Rubenstein’s understanding, means that all possible worlds are actual but that they remain physically isolated from each other (6). She notes that most multiverse theorists hesitate to go as far as endorsing the modal multiverse; it is far more common that they would support one or more model than affirming all of them, which strains the central tenets of scientific practice such as “observability, testability and simplicity” (7).

The relevance of these concepts to the work of David Lynch [page 56] has been previously investigated by scholars such as Nochimson, who argues for a convergence between Lynch’s cinema, quantum mechanics, and Vedic literature (5).3 The inclusion of Vedic mysticism is important, as it contends that Lynch is less concerned with purely reproducing understandings of modern physics than he is with also investigating the Vedic conception of the physical world as a veil for greater spiritual realities fundamental to our understanding of the universe. While Nochimson examines Lynch’s most recent cinema, there is still the question of how The Return may offer its own unique consideration and illustration of the space-time implications of multiverse theory: how is location in the series not only a setting for action but a way of interrogating the radical possibilities of multiple realities? There are four distinct ways to approach this question. The first is to analyze how the show integrates these concepts into the diegesis. As previously mentioned, the Red Room has been understood by scholars such as Franck Boulègue as a place not entirely physical or mental, which leads us to ask: where do Lynch and Frost propose the Red Room exists? This extra-dimensional location clearly draws on Frost’s noted interest in theosophy and the works of Helena Blavatsky, a Russian-German occultist and the founder of the Theosophical society. Based on the understanding that hidden knowledge on the nature of divinity and the origin and purpose of universe can be obtained through mystical and occultist philosophies, theosophy accepts the proposition that there are worlds beyond our own that are largely inaccessible to humans without the assistance of “ascended masters,” disembodied spirits that have transcended their physical bodies.4 Theosophy was also a source of inspiration for Frost’s 1993 novel, The List of Seven, wherein Blavatsky plays a pivotal narrative role. While neither of the co-creators has explicitly stated their understanding of the extra-dimensional location of the Red Room and the lodges, we can nonetheless see the influence of theosophist understandings of extra-dimensionality.

As previously acknowledged, the diegetic appearance of extra-dimensional [page 57] locations was limited to the Red Room in the original series, and The Return expands the number of these locations. Indeed, the first shot of the series presents us with a previously unseen space, wherein a much older Agent Cooper is found seated and in conversation with a man who looks like the Giant of the original series (played by the same actor, Carel Struycken). In The Return, Struycken is identified in the series credits as The Fireman, creating ambiguity about the relation between the two. The space in which Cooper and The Fireman sit is similar in décor to the Red Room but presented entirely in black and white. We later see this same location in part 8, when we are shown a journey across an immense purple ocean to a rocky island and the castle-like building that sits upon its peak. The residents of this building are The Fireman and a woman, identified in the credits as Señorita Dido (Joy Nash). Inside the building is a movie theater of sorts, and it is on this screen that The Fireman watches the White Sands nuclear tests; the screen becomes a portal of sorts back to the ‘real world’ of New Mexico in 1945. Later, Deputy Sheriff Andy Brennan (Harry Goaz) also transports to this location through the portal at Jack Rabbit’s Palace.

Another new location introduced in The Return is that to which Cooper travels in part 3 after being ejected from his captivity in the Red Room. Dropping through a chute, Cooper lands on the terrace of what first appears to be the same building on the edge of the purple sea described above. He enters through a doorway and finds a shadowy, red-tinged, seemingly electrically-charged living room, home to a woman in a red velvet dress whose eyes are obscured by folds of skin. Further complicating the geographical logistics, Cooper and the woman later leave this space through a ladder through the roof, emerging atop a metal box with a thimble-shaped silo. The box appears to be floating in space. When the woman pulls a lever attached to the silo, she is jolted with electricity and discharged into the ether. Cooper returns through the hole in the roof, finding the same room now occupied by a new woman.

These spaces may further extend the concept of the White and [page 58] Black Lodges introduced in the original series, and may well be literally connected to them (some online commentary has argued The Fireman’s residence is the White Lodge, while some have proposed these new spaces are more rooms in the Black Lodge). Regardless of interpretation, their place in the narrative furthers what appears to be an endorsement by Lynch and Frost of the possibility of manifold extra-dimensional spaces: other worlds behind that which we can see, touch, or measure. However, while these locations are integrated into the diegesis in the form of Cooper’s escape from the Red Room, and his later merging with the tulpa of Dougie Jones (also played by Kyle MacLachlan), there are other fissures in time and space that indicate the presence of extra-dimensional locations, without explicitly revealing them.

Spatial and Temporal Fractures

While the original Twin Peaks undoubtedly pushed the limits in terms of the abstract natures of some of its mysteries, with the novel appearance of dancing dwarves, enigmatic giants, and incongruous white horses in domestic living rooms, it was still constrained by the exigencies of commercial television production in terms of narrative clarity. Each episode occurred in chronological order, and, while the incidents above remained for the large part inscrutable, they were relatively less difficult to reconcile in comparison to the abstractions of Lynch’s cinematic oeuvre. In “Actions Have Consequences,” Thomas Elsaesser notes how in many of Lynch’s films “the narratives are fragmented, people can be in two places at once, a story begins halfway through, characters split or double, scenes are taken out of any conceivable chronological sequence and presented to the viewer often in non-linear fashion” (5). The Return operates in the territory between these two approaches, in that it pushes the limits of television narrative conventions further than ever before while stopping short of the full-scale transgressions of temporal coherence and sequentiality that Elsaesser identifies in Lynch’s cinema works. [page 59]

When it does contravene the rules of temporal coherence, it commonly does so by altering the rhythms of the scene and by extending their duration in ways that do not seem to immediately further our understanding of plot of character. We erratically meet characters we do not know, only to have them play no further role in the narrative: a girl in a car vomits green slime as her mother honks the horn and shrieks at Deputy Briggs (Dana Ashbrook), “we’re late!”; a young girl (Charlyne Yi) crawls unacknowledged on the floor of the Roadhouse until she begins to scream; Abbie (Elizabeth Anweis) and Natalie (Ana de la Reguera) gossip about “Angela,” “Clark,” and “Mary,” none of whom we meet. In the original series, these scenes would be integrated into the larger story and have consequential relevance to the outcome of one or more of the plotlines. In The Return, they exist to provoke, torment, and perhaps infuriate, but also to create a constant sense of unease, as the viewer seeks to make sense of the senseless. Foltz describes it as “[a] world we know, but the names and the faces are wrong. More strangely, this feeling of something being wrong is the only compass, the only coordinates we have.”

The production of this unease prompts an examination beyond the surface of the image to that which lies beneath; by questioning the superficiality of the seemingly finite images with which we are presented, we are also forced to acknowledge what Nochimson calls “the poetry of . . . hidden realities of matter” (xv). She writes that Lynch’s creative engagement with the paradigms of quantum mechanics enables “him to talk about the fear, anger, instability and violence of the modern world” (3). Importantly, they do so in a way that is not didactic but which capitalizes on the affective power of sound and image, and on our expectations regarding the conventions of narrative storytelling.

The Return integrates the evidence of a multiverse into its narrative in ways that even the most eagle-eyed viewer may fail to notice. There are a variety of surreptitious clues that indicate that the space-time cohesion of Twin Peaks has been destabilized. This destabilization is echoed in the show’s narrative acknowledgment [page 60] of a growing sickness in the quaint Northwest town, through what appears to be a burgeoning drug culture (referred to as ‘sparkle’ by the criminal element of the town) and the constant threat of violence that accompanies it. Three scenes provide evidence that the world we are presented with may not be a cohesive representation of a single timeline or universe. The first takes place at the end of part 7 and occurs at the Double R Diner. On a surface level, we appear to be shown the innocuous events of the evening service, interrupted by a young man entering and shouting, “hey, anyone seen Billy?” When no one responds, he exits, and, as the end credits roll, we watch the quotidian events of a few minutes in the Double R. The scene runs for almost two minutes and contains six cuts (two of the shots are of Norma [Peggy Lipton], the Double R’s owner, doing the evening accounts). It is only on closer examination of the scene that we realize that the other four shots occur in at least two, and possibly four, different timelines. In each shot, the position and physical characteristics of the patrons and staff change, although the shots are edited to give the illusion of a cohesive space and time.

In Stephen Heath’s chapter “Narrative Space,” place is understood as the conversion of a specific location in the world into a conceptual unit of narration (37). Spatial coherence underpins cinematic narrative in an act of self-effacement, rendering location as a geographical constant for the purposes of the actions ‘taking place.’ In the example described above, space is instrumentalized for a different purpose: even though it is somewhat obscured by the rhythms of the edit and indistinguishable qualities of some of the patrons, the observant viewer will be led to question the internal unity of the world they are presented with. Foltz concurs with this notion, arguing that narrative space in The Return is “continually being warped, interrupted, bent in the suggestion that what we see has its real significance somewhere else, in its connection to another scene, in a buried echo of someone else’s story. Images and gestures, sounds and intonations are detached from the narrative flow.” [page 61]

Part 14 presents a similar example. During the trip to Jack Rabbit’s Palace by Hawk, Andy, Sheriff Frank Truman (Robert Forster) and Deputy Bobby Briggs, Andy is transported through a portal to his aforementioned meeting with The Fireman. While the others wait for his return, we are presented with a static shot of Jack Rabbit’s Palace in which multiple transparent figures of Truman, Briggs, and Hawk walk around the base of the old tree. Their various passages through the space are not echoes of their initial arrival but new configurations of spatial location, speed, and movement. Within a single shot, they finally coalesce into three solid figures, at which point Andy fades in to view, carrying the body of the young woman named Naido (Nae). The composition and rhythms of this shot indicate alternative timelines transposed on top of a primary timeline: it hints that we are seeing only one of many journeys to Jack Rabbit’s Palace by the intrepid foursome and, in turn, throughout the series, that we are often only privy to one of many instances of the multiverse.

Finally, a third example which covertly acknowledges a decoherence between time and space occurs at the conclusion of part 13: Ed Hurley (Everett McGill) sits alone inside Big Ed’s Gas Farm, sipping a soup from the Double R diner. The scene overtly plays as a rumination on loneliness, as Ed ponders his inability to be with the love of his life, Norma. He sips from his cup and lowers it to the counter. The shot cuts to an over-the-shoulder of traffic passing by the gas station. This seemingly innocuous shot comes to be filled with portentous significance as an instance of mise-en-abîme: looking very carefully at the reflection in the glass, a viewer can see the reflected Ed Hurley still sipping his coffee and then, as though on delay, lowering it the counter. Time, as Hamlet would say, is out of joint in The Return.5

“What story is that, Charlie?”

Nowhere is this disconnect more evident than in the return of Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn) and the disquieting scenes that reintroduce her. Audrey does not appear in the new series until part [page 62] 12. Gone is the precocious behavior of the teenage Audrey Horne of the original; her first appearance in The Return reveals Audrey to be trembling with rage but also seemingly devoid of agency. Although she is standing in the scene, and significantly taller than the diminutive figure of the man we later learn to be her husband Charlie (Clark Middleton), it is he who is endowed with authority in the scene despite Audrey’s vicious verbal criticisms of him. His cold temperament is a counterpoint to her fiery gesticulations. Importantly, Audrey does not move from a static position in the scene; despite her protestations about wanting to leave to search for her lover Billy, she appears to be rooted to the position where she stands.

In part 13, we return to this scene between Audrey and Charlie, only now her vim and vigor has dissipated and she appears timid and frightened. Charlie has acquiesced to leaving their home to go searching for Billy, yet Audrey now seems hesitant and confused. Although the scene appears to take place chronologically moments after the scene from the previous episode, the tone is incongruous. Audrey speaks to this incongruity when she says to Charlie: “I feel like I’m somewhere else. Have you ever had that feeling, Charlie?” When he answers in the negative, she continues: “Like I’m somewhere else and I’m somebody else.” This hinted dichotomy between Audrey’s subjective and objective reality may be a result of her tragic circumstances in the diegetic world of the The Return; in Mark Frost’s companion book, Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier, it is revealed that Audrey is sequestered in a mental care facility called Ghostwood. In Audrey’s final on-screen moments, staring into a mirror in an all-white room, she appears to grasp the reality of her confinement with sorrowful agitation. However, it may also be possible that this split is not only the outcome of psychological estrangement but also a fracturing of identity that accompanies the destabilization of the boundaries between these worlds. The impenetrable and interminable nature of Charlie and Audrey’s conversations across episodes contributes to this comprehension, with their jarring tonal shifts and obscure [page 63] emphasis on characters that are unreconciled by the narrative.

In a sense, the new series of Twin Peaks is haunted by the possibility of unfathomable dimensions behind that which we take to be reality. Disconnection and incongruity of time and space is elemental to narratives of haunting. Michael Dylan Foster argues that “the phenomenon of simultaneously being physically present in one time but affectively connected to another time can cause the cognitive and contextual disorientation of haunting. In other words, haunting articulates an impossible copresence; it is the bewilderment a subject feels when two times are simultaneously experienced in the same place” (16). This is an apt description in some ways of Audrey Horne’s experience but also of that of the viewer, who becomes aware of Lynch and Frost’s play with the spatial and temporal dimensions of scenes such as those described above. In The Return, their manipulation is interconnected; as much as Lynch and Frost want to destabilize a concrete conception of place, they also want to make the most of what Julia Eckel argues is film’s distinct capacities for “temporal disorientation” (278). Drawing on Flusser, Eckel contends that an editor or filmmaker can open our eyes to radical conceptions of time. Flusser writes that this emerges from the filmmaker’s ability

to split historical time, in its linearity, into different dimensions—not to make a circle out of the line, but different extensive forms (triangles, spirals, labyrinths). . . . He is capable of doing something that the transcendent God of history was not capable of: to throw the historical time out of its linear joints and project it on a surface. That is an unprecedented gesture. The time is out of joint, not only because past and future lose every meaning through this gesture and the whole time becomes present. It is out of joint because one can handle it without participating in it. (192)

Flusser here defines film as a medium able to transgress temporal borders—not only metaphorically through the creation of nonlinear narratives, but concretely, too, by challenging our [page 64] prevalent understanding of how time operates in the moment of perception. Lynch and Frost comprehend both capacities and use each to undermine a singular conception of the diegetic world of Twin Peaks.

The Secret History and the Mandela Effect

The possibility of a multiplicity of worlds or timelines in The Return is also recognized in the extra-textual elements of the show. Mark Frost’s two companion books to The Return, The Secret History of Twin Peaks and Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier, are epistolary novels that examine not only the history of the geographic region where Twin Peaks resides but also the histories of a wide array of the town’s denizens. Upon the release of the first book, a series of complaints arose from dedicated fans and scholars about inconsistencies between the original series and the book’s detailed ‘history’: instances such as the origins of the Ed/Norma/Hank love triangle, the Palmer family history, even the appearance of Margaret Lanterman’s tattoo were categorically identified as different in the book’s retelling of the first series. These errors and inconsistencies begin to make more sense if we understand them as the intentional inclusion of a ‘Mandela effect.’ Coined by self-described ‘paranormal consultant’ Fiona Broome, the Mandela effect describes a ‘false’ memory that is shared by others; in Broome’s case, she contends she had a memory of South African civil rights activist Nelson Mandela dying in prison in the 1980s, a memory that she discovered others shared. Broome’s explanation for this discrepancy in so-called objective reality returns to the multiverse interpretation of quantum mechanics: that her memories are only false in this reality and that in another parallel reality Mandela actually died as she remembered. Various online forums have proposed other large-scale instances of the Mandela effect; however, scientists like Caitlin Aamodt offer several more prosaic explanations for this occurrence without relying on multiverse theories. In her article “Can Neuroscience Explain the Mandela Effect?,” Aamodt explains how recalling a memory reactivates the [page 65] network of neurons in which the original memory was stored (known as an ‘engram’ or ‘memory trace’). In the process of recalling this memory, these neural networks become “labile” until they are recomposed again in the process of “reconsolidation.” However, during reconsolidation, new associations can connect to the original memory, and these new associations can be reinforced through repetition, rendering the engram “vulnerable to losing its fidelity.”

Rather than identifying the inconsistencies posited in the Frost books as genuine errors, an alternative suggestion is that Frost is intentionally utilizing symptoms of the Mandela effect to underscore the fragile nature of the timeline of The Return. This is further exemplified by the connections between the conclusion to The Return and The Final Dossier. Both deal with Cooper’s attempt to save the life of Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) by preventing her death in the original timeline; in the television show, this rescue leads Cooper and Diane (Laura Dern)—or perhaps Richard and Linda, as their identities become intentionally muddled—on an abortive journey to attempt to return the modern-day ‘Laura’ to her home in Twin Peaks (leading Cooper to ask, in the series’ haunting final moments: “what year is this?”). In The Final Dossier, FBI Agent Tamara Preston observes the overlap in timelines as she is compiling the dossier—the contents of the first book, the work of archivist Major Briggs, become invalidated while Preston completes her report:

I went back to look up the occasion of the first Cooper disappearance from Twin Peaks. Sure enough, the intrepid Post reporting staff, expertly trained by their late editor Douglas Milford, featured his sudden and unexplained departure on their front page, along with pained and puzzled quotes from Cooper’s pal Sheriff Harry Truman, about how strange and confusing the whole business was. You know what else I discovered, Chief, in that same article, a few sentences later? This: ‘Agent Cooper had come to town a few months earlier, to aid in the [page 66] investigation into the disappearance, still unsolved, of local teenage beauty queen, Laura Palmer.’ Let me repeat that phrase for you: ‘still unsolved.’ No mention of ‘murder,’ ‘wrapped in plastic,’ or ‘father arrested for shocking crime eventually dies in police custody of self-inflicted wounds.’ It’s right there on the front page: Laura Palmer did not die. So, fairly certain I’ve not misplaced my own mind, I go back and check the corresponding police records. They tell me this: Laura Palmer disappeared from Twin Peaks without a trace—on the very same night when, in the world we thought we knew, it used to be said she’d died—but the police never found the girl or, if she had been killed elsewhere, her body or made a single arrest. In every subsequent mention in an edition of the Post, the case is still listed as an open and pending investigation. And when I spoke to our good friends at the sheriff’s office about this, they all got a slightly dazed and confused expression on their faces when I brought it up, as if they were lost in a fog, having trouble recalling, unable to fully wrap their minds around something that happened so very long ago. Until finally they said, each and every one of them, ‘Yeah, that sounds right. That’s how I remember it.’ (131-132)

This incongruity between Preston’s recollection of the Briggs’ archive and the archival records at the time of the Blue Rose Task Force’s visit to Twin Peaks in part 17 is the result of Cooper’s attempts to save Laura by creating a divergent timeline at the conclusion of that episode. However, what this truly demonstrates is the permeability of the barriers between the worlds. Unlike the many worlds interpretation, in which each event leads to a distinct separate universe, there is an infiltration in The Return of events from one universe to the other (or perhaps between many parallel universes). Frost’s book explicitly interrogates this concept in ways that the series illustrates with greater nuance, such as the examples discussed earlier. [page 67]

A Collage of Space and Time

The subtle proposition of a liminality between multiple worlds also emerges from Lynch’s masterful deployment of sound and image. Lynch’s sound design has been previously interrogated by scholars such as Michel Chion, who sees a precision in the manner with which Lynch utilizes discontinuity between sound and image. In his own scholarship, Chion has insisted that the use of polyphony (multilayered audio tracks) in modern film and tele-vision means that “the visual image is just one more layer and not necessarily the primary one” (119). Chion uses the term “rendering” to articulate how, in the complex intertwining of all of the senses in the articulation of a film’s auditory and visual texture, sensations are conveyed that are effective regardless of their fidelity to an actual reproduction of the scene’s reality. For Chion, this explains how the interrelation of sound and image can “give us a vast array of luminous, spatial, thermal and tactile sensations that extend far beyond realist reproduction” (240). In The Return, Lynch and sound designer Dean Hurley employ recurrent ambient sounds that are almost industrial in nature: electrical hums, drones, and static on a distant radio. Chion uses the term “acousmatic” to describe an auditory situation in which we hear sounds without seeing their cause or source (466). Acousmatic sounds recur throughout The Return and indicate a source that is obscured or hidden from view, amplifying the sense that there is something hidden behind the objects and spaces we are being shown.

This same process is replicated in a visual sense through the process of superimposition and lap dissolves. As asserted above, Lynch and Frost have integrated into the narrative an idea of location that intentionally destabilizes a viewer’s understanding of the space and place presented, often through simultaneity: a grove of sycamore trees is also an extradimensional antechamber, a convenience store is also a roadside motel, the sky above a dilapidated house and vacant lot is also an unseen vortex. These locations no longer operate as separate entities but as worlds in constant flux. Lynch and Frost often emphasize this simultaneity [page 68] through the use of superimposition and lap dissolves.

Superimposition, in which one image is placed on top of another so that both are still evident, has been approached by film scholars from a variety of perspectives. Perhaps most famously, André Bazin examined superimposition in relation to its earliest use in the representation of supernatural entities on film and questioned its logic in relation to diegetic coherence. Bazin writes, “superimposition on the screen signals: ‘Attention: unreal world, imaginary characters’; it doesn’t portray in any way what hallucinations or dreams are really like, or for that matter how a ghost would look” (74). For Bazin, superimposition fails to integrate two levels of reality and thus fails to truly evoke the supernatural. Germaine Dulac approached superimposition from another perspective, as a device specific to cinema that can radically alter our understanding of the world and produce new thought; in this way superimposition could produce a type of thought that was unique to the cinema. Alternatively, Daniel Morgan argues that Jean-Luc Godard’s use of superimposition reverses Bazin’s judgment on its use and that Godard’s use of the technique creates a particular type of “image,” wherein said image is not born from a comparison but from “‘a juxtaposition of two more or less distant realities. The more the relationship between the two juxtaposed realities is distant and true, the stronger the image will be’” (Morgan 138).

Gene Youngblood makes the argument that superimposition produces a “synaesthetic cinema” through its fusion of the “endotopic” (inside) and “exotopic” (outside) elements of the picture plane (85). For Youngblood, the resulting depth of field of the image becomes a “nonfocused multiplicity.” Importantly, Youngblood observes the shift in temporal qualities of such images, contending that the conventional sense of time promoted by the cut of montage becomes destabilized by the “collage” of superimposition (85).

Lynch has a long history of creatively using superimposition in his cinema works; however, its emphasis in The Return arguably has [page 69] a different purpose: to further the production of a liminality between what is taken for the ‘real’ world and the obscured world behind it. The opening credits feature two prominent examples of superimposition. The first involves a glowing iris in a nebulous mist, which is superimposed by the iconic image of Laura Palmer’s Homecoming Queen photograph and then dissolves into a reveal of the forests surrounding Twin Peaks. This superimposition symbolizes the enduring presence of Laura’s death in the new series, while also establishing a connection between her death and the mysterious woods surrounding the town. The second superimposition in the opening credits is that of the billowing curtains of the Red Room over an aerial shot of the waterfall outside the Great Northern, the undulating movement of the curtains similar to the surging of the water. This image of the waterfall fades, and the curtains are then superimposed with a hypnotic rotation of the chevron floor of the Red Room. In this image we see the more common bridging between worlds that occurs through Lynch’s use of superimposition.

Further examples abound in The Return, including those previously mentioned, such as Andy’s return to Jack Rabbit’s Palace. When Mr. C, the Cooper doppelgänger (also played by Kyle MacLachlan) succeeds in his mission to locate The Dutchman’s Lodge, it appears to the viewer as a derelict convenience store. Mr. C follows a waiting Woodsman up the external staircase, and their bodies begin to flicker, like the aural static that pervades the soundtrack, until both men disappear. The next shot is a slow push into darkened forest, which dissolves into the interior walls of the Dutchman’s. When Mr. C next appears, inside this room at the Dutchman’s, his superimposed body recondenses into solid form. These transitional effects clearly represent some form of interdimensional travel by Mr. C, but it is the interstitial shots of the forest and the Dutchman’s, and their melding through the process of the lap dissolve, that further establish the porousness of the membrane between these worlds.

Perhaps the most noted superimposition in the new series is [page 70] that of Agent Cooper’s face over the moments that occur immediately after the confrontation with Mr. C and the BOB death orb in part 17. Cooper seems momentarily stunned by the appearance of Naido, and it is his awestruck face that remains transposed over the subsequent scenes (which include Cooper’s reunion with Gordon Cole and his joyous reaction when Naido is revealed to be Diane). The conventional approach to this type of imagery is to interpret it as a representation of the mental action of the superimposed figure. However, because The Return has established superimpositions and lap dissolves as a way of demonstrating spatial and temporal liminality, this scene is more likely to be read as an indication that the two Coopers shown on screen, foreground and background, are existing simultaneously in separate spatial or temporal zones.

In season 2, Hawk refers to the shadow selves that inhabit the Black Lodge as the “Dweller[s] on the Threshold.” In The Return, Lynch and Frost expand the possibilities of these thresholds beyond the Red Room. While some of these locations are explored explicitly through the narrative, it is the fusion of disjunctive narrative and aesthetic techniques that are at the root of The Return’s particular affective impact on a viewer. Lynch and Frost place the viewer on the threshold by emphasizing the instability of the borders separating the multiple worlds that exist within the diegetic world of Twin Peaks. In doing so, they perhaps offer an answer to two of the rhetorical questions posed by Margaret Lanterman above: when we are allowed to see “something startling that others cannot see,” we may also come to understand why “some things are kept from our vision.”


1. Hawk describes the Black Lodge in season 2, episode 11.

2. While multiverse theory has had its detractors, it also has had a wide number of proponents, including scientific luminaries such as Stephen Hawking, Alan Guth, and Andrei Linde (Rubenstein 2-3).

3. Nochimson describes two specific spatial circumstances of quantum mechanics that she argues are particularly pertinent to [page 71] Lynch: “entanglement” and “superposition.” She writes: “First there is entanglement, a phenomenon observed in the laboratory on the particle level of matter, in which multiple particles respond to stimuli as if they were one as well as many—whether or not they are within direct spatial reach of the stimuli or each other. In terms of everyday reality, if we try to envision entanglement on a more complex particle level, the millions of particles that go into making up human beings, we would have the following scenario: physically touching a person standing within reach of one’s hand would simultaneously mean touching any number of people with whom that “touchee” was entangled—no matter how distantly located in time and space. The physicality of entangled people would be so completely merged that in some sense they would each no longer have a completely distinct separateness, nor would the connection require any instrumentality for the connection to assert itself […] Conversely, continuing to imagine a quantum circumstance on the complex particle level of human beings, one can become many. This eerie subatomic phenomenon, called superposition, allows for one particle to be in two places at exactly the same time” (8-9).

4. Bulwer Lytton is credited as creating the term, while Blavatsky further defined them as “maleficent astral Doubles of defunct persons.”

5. In part 17, we literally see a clock with a minute hand that undulates forward and backward.

Works Cited

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Birns, Nicholas. “Telling Inside from Outside, Or, Who Really Killed Laura Palmer.” Literature/Film Quarterly, vol. 21, no. 4, 1993, pp. 277-286.

Boulègue, Franck. Twin Peaks: Unwrapping the Plastic. Intellect, 2017.

Broome, Fiona. Mandela Effect. mandelaeffect.com/about/. Accessed 15 Jan. 2018.

Chion, Michel. Film, a Sound Art. Columbia UP, 2009. [page 72]

DeWitt, Bryce, “Quantum Mechanics and Reality.” Physics Today, vol. 23, no. 9, 1970, pp. 155-165.

Dulac, Germaine. “The Expressive Techniques of the Cinema.” French Film Theory and Criticism, 1907-1939: Volume I, 1907-1929. Edited by Richard Abel, Princeton UP, 1988.

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Flusser, Vilém. Kommunikologie. Fischer-Taschenbuch, 1998.

Foltz, Jonathan. “David Lynch’s Late Style.” Los Angeles Review of Books, 12 Nov. 2017, lareviewofbooks.org/article/david-lynchs-late-style/.

Foster, Michael. “Haunting Modernity: Tanuki, Trains, and Transformation in Japan.” Asian Ethnology, vol. 71, no. 1, 2012, pp. 3–29.

Frost, Mark. The Secret History of Twin Peaks. Flatiron Books, 2016.

---. Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier. Flatiron Books, 2017.

Grazier, Kevin R., and Stephen Cass. Hollyweird Science: From Quantum Quirks to the Multiverse. Springer International, 2015.

Heath, Stephen. Questions of Cinema. Indiana UP, 1981.

Morgan, Daniel. “The Afterlife of Superimposition.” Opening Bazin, edited by Dudley Andrew and Hervé Joubert-Laurencin, Oxford UP, 2011, pp. 127-141.

Nochimson, Martha P. David Lynch Swerves: Uncertainty from Lost Highway to Inland Empire. U of Texas P, 2013.

Rodley, Chris, editor. Lynch on Lynch. Faber & Faber, 1997.

Rubenstein, Mary-Jane. Worlds without End: The Many Lives of the Multiverse. Columbia UP, 2014.

Thorne, John, Craig Miller and David Lavery. Twin Peaks in the Rearview Mirror: Appraisals and Reappraisals of the Show that Was Supposed to Change TV. Kindle ed., Amazon, 2012.

Twin Peaks. Created by David Lynch and Mark Frost, ABC Broadcasting, 1990-1991.

Twin Peaks: The Return. Created by David Lynch and Mark Frost, Showtime, 2017.

Youngblood, Gene. Expanded Cinema. P. Dutton & Co., 1970.

MLA Citation (print):

Daniel, Adam. "Under the Skin of the World: The Multiversal Spaces of Twin Peaks: The Return." Supernatural Studies, vol. 5, no. 2, 2019, pp. 49-72.