How ‘Twin Peaks’ Bored Me To Tears
A Horse, A Murder, and the Loss of Boredom
The following essay was commissioned as part of The Twin Peaks Project, on ongoing series of reflections on the seminal 1990s TV series. The project is the brainchild of writer Shya Scanlon, whose book, The Guild of Saint Cooper, is out today from Dznac. Scanlon will be celebrating its launch tonight, at KGB.
I’m an adult and I have too much to do so I long for boredom. A boredom with silence. The expansive kind. The boredom of adolescents and teenagers, that catch of time, that repetitious unfamiliarity. All those hours to worry about Russian bombs and the return of the Zodiac Killer. An anticipatory boredom. It’s the kind of time you hear in all those ticking clocks and humming noises in David Lynch films—the uneasiness of silence, of nothing happening. The light flickers. You wait and wait.
Isn’t one of the most common and stirring parts of coming into adulthood the point when you realize somebody or something is a creature of common feeling? That shock of recognition while comparing notes with someone else on the first time you both heard, say, “When Doves Cry”? Before I realized that it belonged to everybody, that was a private song because it framed a strong, acute feeling of being alive in a moment, some kind of outside, catalytic force, framed and inflected an otherwise typical twilit evening in the Summer of 1984. You know the one. A freedom to move around in a moment—that’s how my old boredom looks to me now.
It wasn’t that I didn’t have friends or was an awkward kid. I didn’t seek out boredom. It just seemed that living was split between the private, shadow world of secrets and dreams, the world that reading and listening seemed to decorate with whispers and intimations, and the public world of talking, of speech, of parties, in which I seemed to act like a person I don’t think I’d recognize today. At the time, the shock of recognition was mostly private, between me and some book or some record or some movie. Later on, the fact that such shocks happen becomes kind of boring, but at the time surprises of recognition were a source of dizzying public wonder and shameful secret fear. They were delicious but also kind of ominous. You could stare at the wall for hours listening to Jane’s Addiction, thinking nobody’s thoughts and smelling teenage weird.
The first time I saw that private, secret boredom depicted in art was episode 14 of Twin Peaks, “Lonely Souls”—the one where we find out who killed Laura Palmer. It took the form of a white horse that appeared to Sarah Palmer in her living room, after she fell down the stairs, drunk or drugged. Sarah grunts. A record skips. It’s claustrophobic. Sarah is on the floor, looking up toward the middle of the living room. That humming—like air conditioning or a furnace. A spotlight, then a horse appears in the Palmer’s living room. It looks bored. Its eyes are rimmed with pink. It has an indolent splay to its legs. Does a little snort. Is it a Camarillo or an Appaloosa? Time starts to slow. It stands there for a few seconds and right before it disappears, the horse blinks. The blink is slow. And Sarah, whose face even in rest is a histrionic rictus of pain, source of the most otherworldly bleats, sighs, and oddly-timed screams, is quiet. She looks up at the horse and passes out. The scene cuts to Leland in the foyer, regarding himself in the mirror. In the mirror, Bob regards him back: it is happening again.
The white horse appears right before one of the most horrifying scenes ever aired on network TV: Leland’s murder of Maddy. It’s brutal, sickening: helpless guttural screaming, blood on teeth. Time slows and voices distort in a dreamlike aural haze, only to jolt back to “real” time with the thudding sound of Leland punching Maddy in the face. The killer morphs back and forth between Leland and Bob; and Bob licks Maddy’s face with leering relish. It’s a scene I’ve watched at least twenty times and it still stops my heart. I still look away.
When Twin Peaks was first on the air, in 1990 and 1991, we watched it as a family—a pretty Lynchian whitebread 1950s thing to do. In my family, like everybody else’s, there were all kinds of underlying mania and secretive, melodramatic craziness. Twin Peaks aired right around the time my stepdad must’ve started actively thinking about leaving the family, and just before my grandfather, a compulsive gambler, abruptly died of stomach cancer after a troubled, unfulfilled career as a preacher, a man of God. He pawned his wedding ring more than once. We had our share of unfulfilled, possessed, conflicted men—our Ben Hornes, our Lelands, our Coops.
Maddy’s murder and Leland’s morphing into Bob was just the sort of heavy-handed symbol that should’ve mapped perfectly onto the family: the whole overblown Freudianism of the scene, its festering, Pine-Sol scented morass of creepy ambivalence: the murder happened right there in the living room, unwitnessed by the passed-out Sarah. Maddy’s helplessness, the terrible revelation of incest and murder.
It must’ve made me shudder with terror, too—the dread word “depth” has to be the right one to use—but what I remember most from that episode was the strange, bored-looking horse, appearing in the glare of a spotlight in the living room. Why? Laura’s killer was the focus of the whole series: TV Guides near grocery checkouts across the nation demanded that we ask, “Who killed Laura Palmer?” So why was I so focused on that calm, phlegmatic horse? The revelation of Laura’s killer seemed inevitable. Solved. But the murder was only one secret among many, and most of Twin Peaks’ secrets were not to be revealed. Watching the show induced a curious boredom: the interesting secrets were the peripheral ones, not the central dramas, which were heavy on the soap opera cheese. The voyeurs could have the crime; I wanted the hums, the clicks, the wind in the pines.
In other words, I identified with that horse. In its brief appearance among the Palmer’s furniture, anti-maccassars, and knick-knacks, I saw myself. I too was bewildered, tentative and bored in the midst of a calmly distorted confusion. My mom had a habit of abandoning weird, unread novels on the shelf behind the sofa: novels she would read about, buy, and after reading a few pages, shut for good. I found myself standing around the living room with The Satanic Verses, Vineland, Anne Sexton’s suicidal acrostics, Poe’s Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, and, I swear, Sons and Lovers.
The privacy of claiming Mom’s unread books stood in contrast to the semi-public ways both of our parents would break our music cassettes if they didn’t like the lyrics and the titles. My brother and I love to tell the story of Mom unspooling one of his Dead Kennedys tapes. Our friend Jeff was there. As she pulled at the magnetic tape she read, with disgust, the song titles on the tape itself: “Too Drunk to Fuck!? Kill the Poor?!” Hearing her actually say the titles made them sound even funnier, sarcastic, anti-jock and anti-Reagan than they were on their own. She’s smashing the tapes, and I’m reading Vineland, practically have it open on the table. Jeff used to do a good impression of my mom: “Jared! Tell your friend to go home!”
They didn’t like the music we were listening to—too weird, too aggressive; but then there were all these even stranger books laying around the house. The music and the books were hyper-verbal—The Geto Boys’ violent, antisocial wit, that spiraling, conspiratorial syntax of Pynchon. But nothing on The Geto Boys or in Vineland came close to the muteness of the horse, and we all saw that together. In the horse’s silence there was no talking, no drama, morality, or politics: it was stark, standing in the glare of a spotlight. Cross-legged on the living room floor, listening to my mom chewing on her ice water ice, I wanted the horse to mean, to do something. But that moment went another way: the horse’s aspect was blasé, it’s goofy frankness too open. Its innocence wouldn’t mean anything. It just stood there.
Because Lynch decided to suppress the melodrama in this moment, this hushed, tense, silent moment before the murder, he cleared a space for a different, blander kind of terror. Nothing about the Twin Peaks horse seems menacing; it kind of bows to the camera, which regards it from the floor, from Sarah Palmer’s point of view. It regards us as if we are Sarah. Instead of a death, we see a horse standing in a living room.
But what if the horse is a red herring, nothing more, something I’ve wasted a lot of my days thinking about? Lynch and Frost famously never wanted to reveal the killer, and did so only under pressure from the network. And whatever trail we’re supposed to be on is muddy, or foggy. Red herrings, I think, are at the core of Twin Peaks: they say, “You live in a world, a world full of stuff.” Some of it seems meaningful, some of it seems like it wants to seem meaningful, but most of it is bric-a-brac. The plot, as in life, is incidental: moments and details are what count. The horse is one. The fish in the percolator is one. Dr. Jacoby’s first walk-on is another: he lewdly strokes the Hula Girl on his tie as Cooper peppers him with questions. He’s a freak and his little tic freaks us out; we’re suspicious of this oddball with the elastic eyebrows. What’s he hiding? What isn’t a red herring?
If it is all just red herrings, intricacies and details, then we have to take care with them, notice as they pass, feel their flickering or dread or humor brush up against us. I think of my grandfather again, dying around the time Twin Peaks was on, sitting in a hot tub, hair gone from chemo, a colostomy bag floating atop the bubbles. He’d laugh at that bag one moment, then burst into full force keening about it the next, complete with helpless drool. I try to forget about it, and I’m pretty ashamed to even write it because it feels like I’m exploiting his memory in a glib way. But I noticed, and tried to look bored.
My youthful boredom, like the horse’s indolent staring, seemed adjacent to other people’s tragedies. My grandfather was dying, my grandmother and my mother were grieving, my step-dad was hiding pot in his penny loafers, my brother was bleeding on his drum set, and a lot of our friends had crazy parents or were getting really into meth. One friend put his truck in reverse and drove it into a Miller’s Outpost. And I think I was just kind of a jerk. I did a lot of laughing it off, a lot of standing apart.
Before my grandfather died, he and I played a lot of guitar together—he would try to teach me Hank Williams songs and Marty Robbins songs; he’d yodel and I’d kind of yowl. His yodel would inevitably crack and tears would stream down his face. I was grateful to have this time with him, but there was something repulsive about it too. I kept thinking to myself, “Why is he sad? If he’s right and he has faith, he’s going to heaven, and we’re all going to heaven, why is he crying? And if he doesn’t believe it, did he lie to his congregation all these years?” I knew better. His faith couldn’t have been as complete as his sermons implied—otherwise, his secret gambling wouldn’t have held such sway over him. He would’ve been a complete, upstanding member of the community. I mean that I loved him, and I loved his fallibility, but his weakness also made me furious, made me afraid. It was the same stupid attitude that made me walk around my high school calling myself a libertarian. I didn’t cry at his funeral. It felt like a secret between his immortal soul and my incarnate one. I looked up and whispered an explanation.
Everything in my family was (and still is) about crying, about using a position of vulnerability to try to get other people to love you. That was hard enough to figure out. But how to feel when someone was actually dying, had every reason to cry? I could feel something when I heard music, but something shriveled up in me when I heard crying. There was this controlled metamorphosis that gave the different emotional registers of, say Nina Simone’s voice or Brian Eno’s voice a way of flooding my heart. I loved their passionate control. I hated Janis Joplin.
Maybe the horse wasn’t bored, exactly. Maybe the horse was just the opposite of Sarah Palmer; a symbol, not a screeching person drugged by her incestuous murderer husband. The horse stood outside the action. And that’s not merely boredom; that’s aloofness. So when I thought I saw a creature that, like me, was out of place and bored, surprised to be where it was, in actual fact I saw something uglier: an image of a placid, unmoved spectator, peripheral to suffering. A horse in a living room was an incredible, bizarre thing to see, and that made it great on its face, but I made a mistake feeling something for a creature which was there to be out of place, when what I thought I saw was a way to be in control; in order to escape the family’s crying, I used the horse’s blank expression without knowing what that expression really meant.
Instead of that pose of indifference, maybe I’m looking for the thing that that boredom was really about—having the time to feel anything, horror or radiance. How do I say it without sounding ridiculous? You get older, people assume you’re making peace with your world, and most of the things you might conventionally do—buy a house, have a baby—proceed apace. But maybe you’re just too busy to feel, and that looks, oddly, like peace.
At the beginning of this essay I said I longed for boredom, but maybe the less flattering truth is that I long to stand apart. Even now, relatively comfortable with the bourgeois trappings of my particular life, things feel less whole, more fragile, than they did when I was young, and to be involved in the world as an adult is frightening. There’s the Sixth Extinction, something I want to feel more than I want to read about, there’s our permanent, abstracted war; and to remember to be in a life, to be of it, is not cool or calm. And to think of my daughter’s life inside the meanings of such a world, has moored me to things I can’t ignore or talk of in a callow way anymore. The poet George Stanley writes “He hoped to have his eyes / where the stars were, outside” and, though I often feel like that kind of slow being within and as part of the universe is the actual, proper, retiring way to be alive, there’s a competing sense of hereness I have to live—I don’t want to be a horse that blinks at murder.