In 1990, the question "Who killed Laura Palmer?" was on the lips of television viewers across America. Twin Peaks uncovered the horror in small-town America for two seasons before going off the air. After a disturbing prequel film, Fire Walk with Me, co-creators David Lynch and Mark Frost brought the show back to television in 2017 for a mind-boggling 18-episode run.
Twin Peaks has always been a surreal blend of genres, with comedy and melodrama at the forefront, but the series fits best in the horror genre. Is Twin Peaks scary? Very much so, most often when it's not attempting a "gotcha" moment. Everything in Twin Peaks - the show and the town - is a nightmare, whether we're in the Black Lodge or One Eyed Jacks. Monsters, madness, and the unknown - it's all here in Twin Peaks.
For the most part, the opening episode of Twin Peaks is a straightforward crime drama - or at least as straightforward as David Lynch can get. It's not until Laura Palmer's mother, Sarah Palmer, has a vision of BOB staring straight into the camera that it gets genuinely upsetting.
It’s not just that he’s a creepy-looking guy at the foot of her late daughter's bed. That image, paired with the bloodcurdling scream Sarah lets out, is absolutely horrific to hear because it feels so real. Sarah’s scream is both over the top and so emotionally affecting that the scene is still hard to watch.
Twin Peaks doesn't rely on hitting viewers with jump scares, but instead overwhelms them under the weight of its multiple genres. Each storyline has its own mixture of comedy and melodrama that works together to create a surreal tone that's meant to unnerve and make its audience uncomfortable.
A viewer who's new to Lynch may think the jagged mixture of tones playing against one another is accidental, but Lynch has always enjoyed moving from mood to mood. In the first season of the series, he follows Laura’s father, Leland Palmer, as the character has a nervous breakdown following the slaying of his daughter. Leland starts dancing at odd times and freaks out so much on the dance floor of the Black Lodge that a group of Icelandic people begin mimicking his pained movements. It's initially funny, but then the scene goes on and on, and it's clear something is genuinely wrong with this man.
Lynch takes his genre mashup to the extreme in 2017's The Return when he introduces Dougie Jones, a version of Agent Cooper who's finally worked his way out of the lodge, only to be stripped of the qualities that make him such a heroic protagonist. Depending on who you are, the scenes of Dougie slowly going through life like a newborn are either hilarious, horrific, or excruciating.
Rather than use horror tropes that genre fans are used to (i.e., jump scares or someone running around with an ax), Twin Peaks is full of scenes - and even entire episodes - that create a lasting sense of dread. One of the scariest moments of the second season (although somehow not the scariest moment) comes when Killer BOB creeps up on Maddy (the deceased Laura's cousin, played by the same actress who portrays Laura, Sheryl Lee).
He slowly creeps into the living room and crawls over a couch until he's looking right at the camera. Lynch forces the audience to stare the show's monster right in the face. Nothing happens at the end of the scene, but the audience is left feeling out of sorts and unsettled.
Lynch cranks this up in The Return, most memorably in episode 3, "Call for Help." This episode opens with a 16-minute wordless sequence that follows Agent Cooper as he tries to get out of a strange purple dimension. The audience is never clued into what any of this means, which is what makes it so unnerving.
Season 2's Lovecraftian storytelling centers around the Black Lodge. It's a place that cannot, and should not, exist - but does. There are no large, tentacled monsters or rats with human faces, but this is the kind of place that can make someone lose their mind.
It's this kind of geographic confusion that creates discomfort. It makes the audience ask how something can be so big. The only thing that's clear about the Black Lodge is that, no matter how good someone is, if they walk the halls long enough, they’ll find the parts of themselves they thought were long gone and buried.
The final moments of Season 2 are a gut punch to fans who stuck with the show for every confounding episode. While it's freaky enough to see Agent Cooper smash his own head into a mirror after he’s taken over by BOB, the real horror comes from the mind-bending depths of the Black Lodge.
For the most part, Season 2 gives the audience only peeks into the lodge, but in the finale, Agent Cooper follows Windom Earle - a former FBI man himself - into the lodge. He gets lost in the endless curtained hallways - hallways that are longer than humanly possible. (Then again, the lodge isn’t built of human hands.)