“She’s dead. Wrapped in plastic” utters a shaken Pete Martell, played by David Lynch staple Jack Nance. This is one of the first lines in David Lynch’s seminal television show ‘Twin Peaks’. From the outset, the ambiguity around the deceased functions as an intriguing invitation into the show. When the body is found to be Laura Palmer’s, it is impossible to ignore the tragic nature of her fate: a young woman killed and wrapped up like a sick present. Yet, Laura Palmer is so much more than a tragic figure. She is the ultimate horror icon.
For those who are unfamiliar with Twin Peaks, the cult classic originally aired in 1990 on the television network ABC. It follows the small lumber town of Twin Peaks which is thrown into disarray when the body of prom queen Laura Palmer is found dead, wrapped in plastic. Laura’s death was the goose that laid golden eggs. Both David Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost harvested as much narrative potential as possible from Laura’s death. The dynamic combination of Lynch and Frost made Twin Peaks into one of the most ground-breaking, genre-defying television shows of all time. The fact that cherry pie and ancient evil share equal screen time tells audiences all they need to know.
However, it is Season Three and ‘Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me’ that are true horror sensations. This is due to Laura Palmer. What is it about Laura Palmer, a murder victim, that makes her so scary? She is a tragic pinnacle of woe. Yet, the image of her is undeniably terrifying. The horror of Laura can be explained in three points.
Sheryl Lee is hugely responsible for bringing the fear factor into Twin Peaks. Her performance of Laura Palmer, one that spans 25 years, transcends binary emotions. She can mix one emotion into the next with ease. This is particularly evident in the prequel film ‘Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me’ where she gives a heavyweight, operatic performance. Every line of dialogue is enough to drown any viewer in intense sadness. The performance partly stems from Lynch’s famously obscure direction. Many actors who have worked with Lynch claim they are clueless to the project's plot. I refer you to the many videos of Lynch refusing to explain his work with a glint in his eye. For Lynch, it is all about the emotion. He asks actors to let go of the plot and focus entirely on feeling. Lee takes this advice and sprints with it. There is an unstoppable chaos in her performance, a spiralling storm inside, which is both tragic and terrifying. There is a reason that Lynch chose to end Season Three with a bloodcurdling Palmer scream. No sound is louder.
As an audience we can also empathise with Laura. While she is more of an image than a character in the original series, the film fleshes out who Laura is in graphic detail. Here, we are forced to watch her cataclysmic home life where domesticity is replaced with pure dread. The dinner table scene, for example, featuring the sinister Leland Palmer (Ray Wise), scars the viewer’s mind. Combined with the terrifying image of Laura, her story makes for a truly scary figure. The strange miasma of fear and sympathy that she often incites can sit uneasily in audiences’ stomachs; whenever Laura smiles, a smile overflowing with intense pain, our stomach curdles and our brain scrambles. We are unfamiliar with this emotion; it certainly isn’t pleasant.
Lastly, I want to address a vital phrase repeated throughout the series. “Laura is the One.” This phrase is uttered multiple times throughout Twin Peaks. It seems to have a strong reverence with all who hear it, and though there is no clear meaning to it, as a viewer, one understands it. Just the sight of Laura gets your blood pumping. Yet, we also feel pain, anguish, sadness and a deep sense of horror. There is a scene in Season Three where Bobby, played by Dana Ashbrook, Laura’s high school ex turned local cop, sees a photo of Laura. Despite not thinking of Laura for 25 years, seeing the image sends Bobby into hysterics. It is almost as if he cannot explain why. Laura, in her life, death and image, represents an innumerable amount of pain and suffering.