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The Allure of the Supernatural: Twin Peaks and the Transformation of the Detective Story

The goal of this paper is to trace elements of detective fiction in the TV series Twin Peaks. In order to learn about the reconfigured narrative coordinates of detective fiction in Twin Peaks, a brief discussion of what Samuel Taylor Coleridge (181)
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  The Allure of the Supernatural: Twin Peaks and the Transformation of the Detective Story Marcel Hartwig 1. The Supernatural on Screen In current academic discourses on seriality and narrative complexity in theAmerican TV-series, media theorists, literary critics, and film scholars alike haverepeatedly located their argumentative linchpin in “the changing perception of the medium’s legitimacy and its appeal to creators” (Mittell 30). In suchreasoning, Twin Peaks has become a well accepted historical starting point in thedevelopment of innovative television programs and a precursor to what mediastudies now call ‘television’s second golden age’ (Thompson xvii). In May 1990, Newsweek  celebrated such a new found interest in television programmes andnamed Twin Peaks as sole cause for this development: “Thanks to Twin Peaks  ‘trendiness’ had become as simple as turning on the TV each Thursday evening –and then at work the next day, pretending you understood what the hell wasgoing on” (qtd. in Lavery 3-4). Ever since then, the tagline ‘Who killed LauraPalmer’ has become commonplace in media studies and TV history. Washed upon a beach in Twin Peaks, a fictional town in Washington State, both the deadbody of Laura Palmer – ‘wrapped in plastic’ – and the search for her killerensured the TV show an ever growing audience in its first season. But solving themurder mystery was not the sole agenda of  Twin Peaks . From cocaine abuse toCanadian whorehouses, from Zen Buddhism to somnambulism, and from incest to domestic violence the TV series broached a wide range of social issues andthus “opened the door to other programs that took creative liberties withstorytelling form in the early 1990s” (Mittell 33).Roughly twenty years ago, such an enthusiasm was missing on the other end.Even though the ABC primetime show achieved high ratings in the beginning, andsoon sparked a ‘Peakmania’, viewing rates declined drastically during the secondseason and the show was eventually terminated. Despite its cancellation after twoseasons, the TV show quickly became a cult phenomenon. In the last twentyyears, the TV series has experienced several revivals. Next to reruns and two DVDreleases of the collected first and second seasons, further TV shows of the 1990sadapted the Twin Peaks iconography. A closer look at the various spoofs of the TVshow reveal that particularly the improvised dialogues, the narrative device of dream sequences in the 'red room', and the supernatural characters of  Twin Peaks appear as the most characteristic features of the series to be trivialized in a whole  Marcel Hartwig2series of parodies. 1 Moreover, what was once an eerie attraction on the TV screenis now commonplace in screenwriting: Today viewers of  Lost  accept an islandthat has a mind of its own, they engross in a Medium’s deduction technique in theTV series Medium , or accept that the fictional California Bureau of Investigationemploys a Mentalist  to solve their crimes. On the TV screen, mysteries anddetection, it seems, can no longer exist without a supernatural element.The goal of this paper is to trace elements of detective fiction in the TV series Twin Peaks . The manipulation of these is thereby of main interest. In order tolearn about the reconfigured narrative coordinates of detective fiction in TwinPeaks, a brief discussion of what Samuel Taylor Coleridge (181) coined “thewilling suspension of disbelief” is necessary with regard to viewer expectationson one side and a closer look at supernatural elements in the series on the other.This paper proceeds from the assumption that  Twin Peaks reverses the classicaldetective-as-reader analogy by teaching the viewer to become a reader, a creatorof meaning, to begin with. This view is supported by media studies’s interest indiscussing Twin Peaks with regard to narrative complexity and features of ‘qualityTV.’ Both elements thus have to be included in this brief study. As will be shown,David Lynch’s and Mark Frost’s cooperative production introduces genericconventions of classic detective fiction in the beginning of the series and thenproceeds to manipulate the latter on the level of the TV series’s narrative form.This paper then will proceed to study the ways Twin Peaks aims at establishing asecondary belief system within the semiotic coordinates of its narrative and willidentify the TV series’s various narrative excursions into both classical detectivefiction and the American literary tradition of hardboiled fiction. The mainobjective of this paper, then, is to explore the transition of detective fiction intowhat this paper identifies as ‘incipient detection’ for the narrative device of  TwinPeaks . In order to study the value of this transformation of detective fiction then,this paper aims at determining the correlation between classic narrative norms,their transformed elements, and the form of the TV series. It argues that both thenarrative device of ‘incipient detection’ and the recurrent focus on supernaturalelements in particular elevated the TV series to a forerunner of the abovementioned narrative strategems of contemporary mysteries and crime narrativeson the TV screen. 1 Examples are numerous. Here are the most popular ones: In “Who Killed Mr. Burns, Pt. 2”(7x01), the creators of  The Simpsons send Lisa Simpson and Chief Wiggum into the myste-rious 'Red Room' in which key scenes of  Twin Peaks take place; in Twin Beaks (1x44)Disney’s Darkwing Duck  encounters mutated cabbages that try to conquer the world in asetting highly reminiscent of the srcinal Twin Peaks; also Sesame Street  (Episode 2822)spoofs Agent Dale Cooper as Agent Cookie who is in the city of 'Twin Beaks' to meet theLog-Bird and David Finch, the parodied versions of the ‘Log-Lady’ and David Lynch.  Twin Peaks and the Transformation of the Detective Story3 1.1 Narrative Conventions of Detective Fiction in Twin Peaks   Admittedly, the basic set-up of the TV series Twin Peaks does not pose aformidable challenge to any common detective story: In the eponymousWashington State small town a dead girl, Laura Palmer, is found wrapped inplastic. In order to solve the murder, FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper is called in tolead the local police authority’s investigation. Surprisingly, Dale Cooper, havingspent barely one week in town, meets Laura Palmer in his dreams and thereafterappears to have solved the mystery surrounding her death. Episode 1x04 “Rest inPain” tests the limits of inductive reasoning, when Cooper calls in Sheriff Harry S.Truman, head of the local law enforcement, and explains to him the rules of theirfuture investigations, the conclusion of which he took from his dream: Truman: Who killed Laura Palmer?Cooper: Harry let me tell you about the dream I had last night. […M]y dream is a codewaiting to be broken. Break the code, solve the crime. In my dream, Sarah Palmer has avision of her daughter’s killer. Deputy Hawks sketched his picture. I got a phone call from aone-armed man named Mike. The killer’s name was BOB. […] They lived above aconvenient store. They had a tattoo: ‘Fire Walk With Me’. Mike couldn’t stand the killinganymore, so he cut off his arm. BOB vowed to kill again, so Mike shot him. […]Truman: So what was the end of this dream?Cooper: Suddenly, it was 25 years later. I was old, sitting in a red room. There was amidget in a red suit and a beautiful woman. The little man told me that my favorite gumwas coming back into style and didn’t his cousin look exactly like Laura Palmer, which shedid. […] She’s filled with secrets. Sometimes her arms bend back. Where she’s from thebirds sing a pretty song and there is always music in the air. The midget did a dance. Laurakissed me and she whispered the name of the killer in my ear.Truman: Who was it?Cooper: I don’t remember. Harry our job is simple: break the code, solve the crime. Like the narrators of classic detective fiction, Dale Cooper in this sequenceintroduces the mystery with the rationale rhetoric of a crime investigator. Hisreport further suggests several possible suspects yet unknown both to theaudience and the crime investigators. Such an approach discloses a narrativemode that counters investigative detection: It is a dream and not an evidence-based rationale that offers the names, faces, and motives of the possible killers. Twin Peaks thereby introduces a psychological element uncalled for in classicdetection. 2 As a consequence, both the audience and the investigators need tomake the connection between what happens in Detective Cooper’s head, in BOB’sand Mike’s appartment, and the red room Dale Cooper was in at the end of hisdream. Subsequently, the dream is to be perceived as a code to be read and 2 Moreover, riddles like these sparked a widely felt desire to find a key to crack the codewithout abandoning rational dedection: Eventually, “ TV Guide […] asked detective writersto offer solutions to the Palmer murder based on generic conventions” (Jenkins 64).  Marcel Hartwig4deciphered – it replaces the common clues a detective would have to find, read,and understand to solve a crime.By the same token, the code presented in the above conversation does not necessarily demand a Freudian oneirologist for decryption. Rather the sequenceallows both the investigators on screen and the audience off screen to witness aforeshadowing of future plot elements, thus triggering a crossing of the dividebetween the readers/ viewers and the investigators of the show. In offeringCooper’s account and conclusions not only to Sheriff Truman, but by also havingthe audience witness the images Cooper saw in his dream via flashbacks, TwinPeaks in this sequence establishes the viewer/ reader as both a confidant and aninvestigator. It is of note here that by this – even though the above sequencedeviates from the rational stance of detective fiction – Twin Peaks nonethelesscomplies with the genre’s dogmatic structure according to S.S. Van Dine. 3 In orderto willingly enter this game of detection, the audience has to assent thenarrative’s demand both for the acceptance of irrational elements (i.e. the dream)and for the viewer to become a reader of symbols and thus a creator of meaning.Playing along these rules of the game then enables the reader to trace the killer.Van Dine’s analogy, the initiation of the reader as the detective on the level of thegiven text, is identified by Keitel (15) as a common narrative device of the ‘who-dunit’: [D]ie Rezipienten [sind] dazu aufgefordert, mit dem Detektiv in einen intellektuellenWettbewerb zu treten. Dazu müssen sie Spuren lesen, verstehen und richtiginterpretieren. Die Lösung des Falles gestaltet sich wie ein Puzzle-Spiel, denn der Fallbesteht aus scheinbar nicht zusammengehörenden Bausteinen. Die disparaten Elementemüssen so lange neu zusammengefügt werden, bis sich ein Bild ergibt, in dem sich dieGestalt des Täters abzeichnet. Aus dieser Aktivität leitet sich der Spitzname der GoldenAge-Romane her: whodunit (‘who has done it?’). 4  3 Todorov (142) abstracts S.S. Van Dine’s famous twenty rules: “1. The novel must have at most one detective and one criminal, and at least one victim (a corpse). 2. The culprit must not be a professional criminal, must not be the detective, must kill for personal reasons. 3.Love has no place in detective fiction. 4. The culprit must have a certain importance: (a) inlife: not be a butler or a chambermaid, (b) in the book: must be one of the main characters.5. Everything must be explained rationally; the fantastic is not admitted. 6. There is noplace for descriptions nor for psychological analyses. 7. With regard to information about the story, the following homology must be observed: author : reader = criminal : detective.8. Banal situations and solutions must be avoided (Van Dine lists ten).”4 Readers are asked to enter an intellectual challenge with the detective. Therefore, theyhave to read, understand, and correctly interpret clues. While the case seems to consist of incompatible clues, solving the crime comes close to solving a puzzle. Disparate elementshave to be recombined until the culprit is found and proven guilty. That is why thedetective novel of the ‘Golden Age' carries the nickname ‘whodunit’ (who has done it?).(own translation)  Twin Peaks and the Transformation of the Detective Story5In the same manner then, the viewer as reader can enter Twin Peaks and chooseto join the investigators in solving Laura Palmer’s murder.As every genre can only be identifed when its norms are broken, it may come as arule by thumb that such a strict structure as Van Dine’s cannot recur in everyexample of detective fiction. Todorov argues accordingly (138): “Detective fictionhas its norms; to ‘develop’ them is also to disappoint them: to ‘improve upon’detective fiction is to write ‘literature’, not detective fiction.” If a writer, or in thecase of  Twin Peaks the creator, decides to break with the pregiven pattern, he/shethen can only try to bend the rules within two prescribed story-lines. These result from what Todorov observes as the ‘duality’ of the ‘whodunit’: “the story of thecrime and the story of the investigation” (139). Following this, both have to becombined in the plot of the narrative. While sketching the story, the author thenis assumed to hold the key to solve the crime for his/her work of fiction. Thereader then joins this game with the intention of being surprised and satisifed bythe author’s scheme. Such logic can work successfully if there is only one author.On the level of production then, Twin Peaks has to deviate from such a pattern.Being written for the screen, the   TV series may have one creator, but is written byseveral authors (screenwriters) and directed by various directors. Although ageneral focus may be maintained, these writers and directors shape the text individually and alter aspects of the mystery according to their own interests. Inaddition to this, the murder mystery is already solved after fifteen of thirtyepisodes. 5 As the successful investigation shows, Leland Palmer, Laura’s naturalfather, killed his daughter while being possessed by BOB. BOB is a dark force that has the ability to enter and leave the bodies of his victims at will. When inpossession of a body it can direct his/her actions without being recognized as theactual culprit. Finding and running BOB down then is the key plot element of theseries’ remaining episodes.On a content level, the TV series resists the adoption of the purely geometricarchitecture of the ‘whodunit’. The above mentioned dream hints at theproduction’s significant focus on suspenseful curiosities: Twin Peaks gains itsmaximum effect when red rooms, backward talking dwarfs, and dreams comeinto play. In the search for answers, prospection rather than the retrospectivereading of clues is at the heart of the series’s narrative. Moreover, clues that arefound in the context of  Twin Peak’s diegetic world repeatedly turn out to be redherrings. On the contrary, the crime’s solution is restricted to Dale Cooper’svisions, hallucinations and dreams. In the last episode, he even turns himself intothe mystery: While Cooper is looking into the mirror the audience as thedetective sees the image of BOB reflected back. Diane Stevenson (71) regards thisclose as bold as it “[…n]ot only does […] leave the mystery entrenched rather than 5 Creator David Lynch comments on the plumetting interest in the show after the killer wasrevealed and stresses his “big regret” to have solved the mystery (Wetzker 59).
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