After 25 Years, the Twin Peaks Festival Is Still Wonderful, Still Strange
An event-jammed weekend in the real-life Twin Peaks with 300 of the soon-to-be-resurrected show's biggest superfans.
North Bend, Washington, in 2015. Photo by Jeremy DK Sell
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On the first night of the 2015 Twin Peaks Festival in North Bend, Washington, I sit in the exaggeratedly beige banquet hall of the Snoqualmie Golf Course, surrounded by a couple dozen Log Ladies and Audrey Hornes. It's July in the Pacific Northwest, and this utterly normal event space is filled with friendly Midwestern-looking couples, long-haired guys in black, grouchy girls with bangs from Portland, Oregon, and the occasional tall, blonde woman whose leggy hotness is puzzling in this land of drizzle and sweaters. The dinner buffet is over, and so is the part of the night where everybody lines up for hours to get memorabilia signed by genuine Twin Peaks celebrities like Catherine Coulson, who played the Log Lady and was therefore asked to autograph a lot of sticks gathered from the surrounding woods.
Now it's time for the costume contest: I watch a convincing Man From Another Place in red pants and tailcoat dance across the front of this utterly normal room, pausing for a moment in front of the celebrity judges. A Log Lady stalks past, squeezing a soft, stuffed fabric log. Then a cardboard box, painted to look like a handheld voice recorder, walks to the center of the room on long legs clad in garters and fishnet stockings.
"And who are you?" asks the host holding a microphone to a small dark hole in the side of the box.
"Diane," comes the muffled reply, "I'm holding in my hand a small box of chocolate bunnies." The room erupts in cheers and applause.
For 25 years now, the Twin Peaks Festival has brought hundreds of fans to the mountainous, small-town region where David Lynch's critically-acclaimed series was filmed—overrunning the motels of North Bend and Snoqualmie, filling its diners with photo-snapping customers who order pie and bottomless coffee, and carving Twin Peaks graffiti into the area's many filming landmarks. This year there are fans from all over the country, and many from England, Norway, Italy, Germany, Sweden. Turnout is remarkable for a show that went off the air 25 years ago, and in the last few years attendance has only grown: The past four years have sold out, and this year's festival sold all of its 300 tickets in just ten days, almost a year in advance.
I'm one of those people who bought tickets the day they went on sale—and I've been wondering why ever since. What did I think I'd find at this gathering of fans and superfans? A living, breathing horde of David Lynch characters, each one unsettling and entertaining to watch? A portal into something strange, dark, and unordinary?
All of those things, but also some sort of resolution. Watching Twin Peaks is simultaneously one of the most rewarding and least satisfying experiences in television: It's a show that revels in the inclusion of trenchantly anti-narrative scenes that undercut the gravity of Laura Palmer's murder, a show where solving the murder and capturing the killer happens in the middle of the second season and not only fails to resolve the danger but ultimately points to a much larger, unapprehendable threat. Even though the show slackens in the second season, fans seem unable to detach from the series emotionally, to let their love for it die: They watch with attentive displeasure, complaining on message boards about how the Evelyn Marsh or Windom Earle or Evil Donna subplot is ruining what used to be the best show on television.
With the 1992 release of Fire Walk With Me, the critically maligned feature film prequel that follows Laura Palmer's life in the week leading up to her murder, David Lynch managed to depict nearly every one of the nightmarish off-screen events alluded to in the series without offering up any answers or insight about them. At the same time, the sudden appearance of Annie (special agent Dale Cooper's love interest from the last episodes of the TV series) in Laura Palmer's bed—covered in blood and warning her about Cooper's possession in the series finale—gestures toward a new set of mysteries and reasserts the show's cyclical, unsolvable structure. Amid all the speculation about the new season of Twin Peaks that was recently commissioned by Showtime, helmed once again by Lynch after his brief departure from the project due to disagreements over the show's budget, what seems certain is that this new season will be just as willfully uncathartic, another installment of narrative blue-balling.
In this light, it makes a sort of sense that hundreds of people would make the pilgrimage to North Bend every year to dress up like your favorite Twin Peaks character and eat a lot of themed food. Freud would call it a repetition compulsion: the urge to reenact and relive scenes of trauma, in hopes of attaining a feeling of mastery over the material.
I know that I'm actually here in a real place called Snoqualmie Falls, but it's so much like the TV show—it feels like I'm nowhere at all.
On the second day of the festival, I pile into a gigantic bus with dozens of other fans for a tour of the show's Washington-state filming locations. This involves unloading ourselves in an orderly way, getting ourselves in position to take photos from the angle that will most closely resemble the exterior shots used in the show, and then loading ourselves rapidly back onto the bus. We visit the field where James Hurley filmed Laura and Donna picnicking shortly before Laura was killed; we visit the remnants of Big Ed's Gas Farm and Ed and Nadine's house, now painted a different color and looking basically like any other house. When the owner comes out to greet us, someone asks her to stand on the lawn and pretend to yell at us the way Nadine does in the pilot, and she makes a good-natured attempt, shaking a small fist at us while we take photos from many angles. We visit the bridge where Ronette Pulaski was found wandering comatose and bruised the day after Laura's body washed ashore. We visit the Sheriff's Station, now a school where they teach people how to drive racecars.
Because it's my first year at the Twin Peaks Fest, it's also my first bus tour. But for some of the regulars, who've been coming since the 2000s, it's their third or fifth or even tenth time. I recognize one of the fans on the tour from last night's celebrity meet-and-greet line, a middle-aged woman with drastically curly hair who's been to the fest for the past eight years in a row. She's scampering around ahead of me, asking the tour guide lots of questions that I'm pretty sure she already knows the answer to. Last night she was explaining her theory that David Lynch himself was going to make a surprise appearance at the festival on movie night, an appearance even the festival organizers didn't know about. The only reason she knew, she confessed, was because there were clues hidden in Kyle MacLachlan's Twitter account that only she knew how to decipher, in the time-stamps. She added that when she was younger, she had dated Charlie Sheen for a while and they had done "tons of blow."
At the exterior shooting location for the Roadhouse, our tour guide holds up a screenshot from the show, and we crowd around, taking photos of her arm holding the photograph, the still image and the real thing superimposed on one another. The building used for the Roadhouse exterior, now a combination inn and restaurant, is next to the smaller building used for the Bookhouse. We're allowed to stand in the parking lot behind the Roadhouse to take our photos, but we can't get too close—a couple years ago, our guide tells us, fans came too close to the house and ended up having to flee from a meth-head inhabitant with a shotgun who had gotten spooked by all the strangers taking photos. I take a few dozen photos of the Roadhouse and the Bookhouse, which is smaller than I had imagined, and unimpressive in dull-gray plastic siding. Visiting many of these filming locations is subtly disappointing: Before I visited the Roadhouse I had one clear, iconic image in my mind, of a motorcycle peeling out of the parking lot in the pilot episode, taking Donna to find James so she can tell him the police are after him for Laura's murder. Now I've seen too much: I know that the front of Lynch's Roadhouse is actually the back of this building. I know there's no neon sign around back, no motorcycles. There's no singular iconic image here: There are dumpsters out back, like a normal restaurant, and the whole place has been painted hunter green.
By contrast, the Salish Lodge and Spa, which served as the exterior of the Great Northern Hotel, looks exactly the way you hope it would. Perched at the edge of a 268-foot waterfall whose twin jets seem to tumble down to the water below in slow motion, looking at the Salish feels like you're back at home, sitting in front of a television and watching the opening credits while the Twin Peaks theme plays. The sensation is disorienting: I know that I'm actually here in a real place called Snoqualmie Falls, but it's so much like the TV show—it feels like I'm nowhere at all. To cope, I go to the gift shop and buy several postcards and some local honey. "It's so cool to see these places," says a young-looking guy with graying hair as we get back onto the bus. "I really feel Laura's spirit out here, so sad and beautiful. It's like this town is alive with her."
If it sounds nutty to imagine that a fictional person's spirit can haunt a real space, it doesn't change the fact that North Bend really has something of the spooky, uneasy atmosphere of Twin Peaks. The trees are dark and majestic, shrouded by mists that move with unsettling speed. At night, neon signs flicker outside of the local bars and cast weird, too-bright colors on the wet asphalt. This is a town where places still look the way they should: both the filming and non-filming locations have a stuck-in-time quality, with sparkly red vinyl in the diner booths and long trucks full of freshly-cut logs parked in the lots outside buildings. I stayed in the Sunset Motel, a one-star motel that snakes around a cramped parking lot. There was a dusty Sprite vending machine outside the office, and a one-inch gap at the base of the door to my room, through which light poured in all night long. One of the online reviews for the Sunset reads: "After I paid for my room I noticed a really strange man staring at me from his first floor window during the time I parked my car and the whole time I unpacked my car... Things started out uncomfortable."
The most Lynchian moments occurred when I was by myself in town, far from the festival. Standing across from Twede's Café (the original filming location for the Double-R diner where Norma and Shelley serve coffee and pie to half the town), I see a very old woman leaning against the building and beckoning me over. I start to walk away, but she's so urgent it makes me hesitate. I cross the street and walk toward her. She's dressed in several different shades of beige, with hot pink blush across her cheekbones. When I reach her, she stops beckoning. "Are you OK?" I ask her. "Did you want to talk to me?" She just looks at me, opening and closing her mouth like she's about to say something, but nothing comes out. She is an extremely spooky old lady. I duck into Twede's and grab a seat at the counter. A large guy with two eyes that seem to be looking in entirely different directions notices me and asks me if I'm part of that Twin Peaks crowd. I admit that I am, and he starts asking me question after question about the show. "So the show's about a girl who got killed?" he asks. I nod. "Who killed her?" he asks. I tell him. "What, you mean he raped her" he asks, "In her own bedroom?" I nod. "That ain't right," he says, four or five times. "That ain't right, that ain't right."
When I look out the window, the beige woman has vanished into the mist.
The photos turn out looking gruesome, but they're having such a great time taking them, laughing and cheering and reciting the lines: "She's dead... wrapped in plastic!"
On Monday, the last day of the festival, we drive nearly two hours in our separate vehicles to get to the Kiana Lodge on Bainbridge Island, the building that serves as the interior of the Great Northern Hotel and the exterior filming location for the Blue Pine Lodge, Josie Packard and Pete Martell's home. I'm tired from rushing to make it to events—the David Lynch movie night at the North Bend Theater, the celebrity picnic at Olallie State Park, the Sunday buffet at the Roadhouse—but I'm sad to say goodbye. For all their fascination with the sites of morbid fictional events, Twin Peaks fans appear to be a friendly, earnest, and unexpectedly normal bunch of people. They're smart and good-natured, and only one of them gave me the creeps—a pretty good-looking middle-aged man dressed like Leland Palmer in a tight turtleneck and blazer, who kept winking at me all through the banquet dinner even though his wife was sitting right next to him. They're welcoming and fun and they can answer complicated trivia questions like, "Where did Ed and Nadine go for their honeymoon?" (Answer: Eagle Pass, Montana) and "What special feature is found in the issue of Flesh World that the letter B from under Ronette's fingernail comes from?" (Answer: "Swingers club for standard poodle enthusiasts").
It's like the Log Lady says in a video message to David Lynch that was screened earlier in the festival: "They're big fans of your work. They're lovely people, sweet and naïve. They're not weird."
At the Kiana Lodge, festivalgoers eat boxed lunches and take photos of the interior of the lodge from every angle. Josh Eisenstadt, a filmmaker and superfan who claims to have a photographic memory of the entirety of the series, leads us on a tour of the grounds, pointing out all the places where different characters sat or stood during specific scenes. He walks over to each location and delivers their lines, playing Audrey Horne and then Ben Horne, and then the receptionist in order, as dozens of fans applaud and take photographs.
Josh stops in front of a pine tree by the edge of the water. "Does anybody recognize this tree?" he asks, pointing at a gnarled pine tree whose dark branches bend toward the water. "How about this branch," he continues, "does anybody recognize this branch? It's the branch from the opening scene of the intro. This is the exact branch that the bird is on." We take hundreds of photos of the bird branch. There are so many people taking photos that every one of my shots has at least two other sets of hands in it, hands taking pictures of the exact same thing.
By the edge of the water, behind the lodge, is a pebbly shore where the massive, bleached trunk of an old conifer rests. This is, in fact, the exact location where Laura's body is found in the first scene of the entire series: washed up on the pebbly banks, wrapped in thick plastic. For this, our last day here, the fans are taking photos of each other wrapped in plastic film, laid out on the shore like dead, blue-lipped Laura Palmer's corpse. They dampen their hair, they arrange each other on the ground so that it looks more real. The photos turn out looking gruesome, but they're having such a great time taking them, laughing and cheering and reciting the lines: "She's dead... wrapped in plastic!"
As I watch, I begin to see that the obsession with locations, photos, reenactments is not just a way of managing or neutering the raw horror of the scenes. Twin Peaks told us that the world we knew, which looked so ordinary on the surface, was stranger than we had ever imagined: Malevolent spirits might dwell above the convenience store down the street, a housewife could become possessed by a grotesque and supernatural strength, a murdered girl could live on in some other place connected to our own—but only in the same way that a face is connected to its reflection in the mirror. It's not surprising that we'd want to bring the strangeness of that world to our own, forcing it to happen again and again before our eyes, if only for the duration of a photograph.
Alexandra Kleeman is the author of the forthcoming debut novel You Too Can Have A Body Like Mine (Harper, 2015) and Intimations (Harper, 2016), a short story collection. Follow her on Twitter.