“You’re the train that crashed my heart,
you’re the glitter in the dark.
Oh Laura you’re more than a Superstar.
You’ll be famous for longer than them
Your name is tattooed on every boy’s skin
Oh Laura you’re more than a superstar.”
-Bat For Lashes, Laura.
I was 20 years old when I first met Laura Palmer, the dead girl, wrapped in plastic. It was Halloween 2007 and I was at a Halloween party at the now defunct Castle nightclub. My boyfriend at the time was a charming young film student and while we were waiting on our drinks at the bar, he managed to strike up a conversation with a stranger wearing an interesting yet macabre looking t-shirt. They bonded instantly over this shirt and began chatting in the animated way that I can only associate with film students. After half an hour of standing politely at the sidelines of the conversation, I piped in
“so, is the dead girl on your shirt famous or something?”
Both of them looked at me speechless as if I had opened my mouth and spoken backwards.
Cut to 3 am in a tiny bedroom in the northern suburbs. After an evening of drinking and dancing, my tipsy beau played for me the pilot episode of Twin Peaks prefacing it with one phrase that resonates with me to this day “This will change your life”. As the infamous opening sequence drifted across the blue lit room, I began my journey deep into the sleepy town of Twin Peaks where I would become a ghost myself for a decade, lost among the trees and within the stories of its characters.
For those unfamiliar with Twin Peaks, let me give you the long and skinny. The series begins with the mystery of a brutally murdered homecoming queen from a small hamlet close to the Canadian border. The original series focuses on the investigation of this murder by a quirky FBI agent and his subsequent interactions with the townspeople, all of whom seem to be harbouring proverbial skeletons in their closets. The second season deals with the aftermath of the whodunnit, exploring the nature of the town itself and ends on a pretty amazing cliffhanger. If it had been anyone other than David Lynch and Mark Frost who had commandeered this project, it would have gone unnoticed- the storyline is one that had played out on numerous Tv soaps prior and continues to do so to this day (see: Netflix series like Dark, Stranger things, Riverdale). And yet, somehow after a 25 year hiatus, and despite the plethora of similar television series on offer by rival networks, Twin Peaks made a glorious comeback last year to the small screen in The Return. Sabrina Sutherland, the executive producer of season three accredited much of this Lazarus like resurrection to the power of fandom. 25 years later we still cared about the fate of Special Agent Dale Cooper stuck in the Black Lodge while his Doppleganger roamed freely on earth.
I am going to preface the next part of this post by stating the obvious: We are a strange bunch, us Twin Peak fans. On the surface, we are not remarkably different from Trekkies, Whovians and Star Wars fans. Much like our Sci Fi counterparts, we are consumed by the storylines, the character arcs and theories. Just like them we have dedicated online forums where we talk cannon, etsys where we buy handmade merch, and facebook groups where we create and share the dankest of memes. We have conferences and festivals attended by fans from all over the world, fans from pretty much every walk of life. Yet, the Twin Peaks fandom is unlike any other I have ever been part of. To me the Twin Peaks fandom is unique in that, we have so little and so much material to work from simultaneously while trying to unravel the mystery and meaning behind this cult classic. There are so many gaps to fill and we fans have spent the last 25 years or more filling in the plot holes that David Lynch and Mark Frost left behind at the end of season 2. On a personal level, you could say I am obsessed with understanding the series and have unapologetically been obsessed with it from the first time I was introduced to it nearly a decade ago. I collect Twin peaks memorabilia, I have Twin Peaks tattoos, I have watched the series including the third season multiple times. A glance at my Stitcher app would produce a growing list of Twin Peaks podcasts and my nightstand is littered with official and unofficial texts related to the series. When I am not lurking online forums dedicated to the show, I am busy arguing the merits of various plotline theories with other fans I meet through the tattoo parlour I reception at.
So imagine my surprise when a reboot of the series was announced for 2017 after nearly 25 years hiatus. At a risk of sounding cliche, it was happening again and like many other fans, I could not wait to find the resolution to the season 2 cliffhanger. When twin peaks returned to television 25 years later, it was almost as if a prophecy had been fulfilled for us fans. How great would it be for things to be resolved, for two ends of time to be neatly tied? But then we forgot we were dealing with the guy who directed Eraserhead. Suffice to say what was offered to the fans in the 18 hours of cinematic showmanship by Lynch and Co, while beautiful and strange, was less than the walk down memory lane we wanted. We were left with more questions than answers and a year on from the long awaited season 3 finale, I was no closer to resolving the mysteries of the original series, particularly questions I had surrounding Laura Palmer’s untimely death. However, last night, while attending Twin Peaks: A Conversation with the Stars at the beautiful Astor Theatre, I had the good fortune of witnessing an intimate moment between a fellow fan and Sheryl Lee, the actress who played Laura Palmer. To say it changed how I viewed Laura’s role in the series is an understatement and this is what I wanted to share today in lieu of answers or even a review of last nights event.
“When I got the first script, I was just the Dead Girl” quipped Sheryl Lee more than 2 decades on at Conversation with the Stars. And indeed that is true. My first interaction with the character was seeing a dead girl wrapped in plastic on some dudes shirt at a bar. The VHS set that I first viewed had a holographic dead Laura Palmer on the front. From the very beginning, Laura Palmer comes to us “dead, wrapped in plastic”. All we know about her character throughout the initial series is through secondhand accounts from the people around her. We saw her as people chose to remember her: The prom queen, the daughter, the love interest, a beloved member of the community. And no sooner is she buried, we learn more about her from the people closest to her. Her friends begin to divulge her secrets and their observations of the erratic behaviour leading to her last few hours on earth. A different Laura Palmer is presented to the audience. A Laura who did drugs, who engaged in “risky sexual behaviour”, a Laura who toyed with the hearts of men in her life. A Laura with secrets. And so, unwittingly, we create an age old dichotomy in our heads by the end of season 1. The Bad Girl Laura versus the wholesome prom queen from the photos. At 20, I saw Laura Palmer as a warning to young women like me. Laura is what happens when you drink to much, when you play with fire, when you engage in risky behaviour. Laura Palmer was a victim of violence and yet even in death she was not treated as one.
While I have a lot of love for the Twin Peaks fandom, I have to say the way we have addressed the death of Laura Palmer over the years has made me incredibly uncomfortable for a number of reasons. The latest in a series of discomforts has been this obsession within the fandom for Agent Cooper to “save Laura Palmer” somehow. So deep was this need that 25 years later, the expectation that Agent Cooper, who at this point had been in suspended animation for more than 2 decades, was still expected to somehow resurrect our beautiful dead prom Queen. And when this failed, there was an uproar across the forums.
“What a shit ending. I expected justice for Laura” wrote one user in a facebook group I am part of. The post received a huge number of upvotes while also attracting criticism.
“Laura isnt even the main character. She was just part of a larger plot arc about the duality of mans nature” piped another.
And on and on these conversations would go. Whenever conversations about Laura Palmer would emerge, there was always this idea of her death being reduced to a plot device that enabled Agent Cooper to “redeem and find himself”. Or a catalyst for change in another characters life. And it has always sat so uncomfortably with me how, even in 2018, we are still talking about women as a means for male identifying characters to discover themselves.
Laura Palmer is NOT your manic pixie Dead girl.
And let me tell you why.
As I sat there tonight watching the banter between the fans and the characters, with the photo of Laura Palmer behind them, I thought to myself, how strange it was that we were are all there talking so passionately and deeply about a series that hits so close to home. They say reality is stranger than fiction. Laura Palmer was a highschool girl, who was being sexually assaulted by her own father and had no one to confide in. Laura Palmer was a girl who coped with the horrors of sexual assault and incest in the only ways she knew how. Laura Palmer was brutally murdered by someone she knew, she trusted and loved. And tragically, Laura Palmer’s story is not unique. In Australia it has been estimated that 17% of women and 4% of men experienced sexual assault since the age of 15 (Australian Bureau of Statistics – Personal Safety Survey, 2012). In fact a university study found 20.6% of women and 10.5% of men reported non-penetrative childhood sexual abuse by the age of 16 and that 7.9% of women and 7.5% of men reported penetrative childhood sexual abuse by the age 16 years. In 2016, it was reported that one in three victims of sexual assault reported to Police in Australia were assaulted by a family member. Stories like Laura Palmer’s are all too commonplace in our society and odds are that we all know a Laura Palmer. In the words of Bobby Briggs “If you wanna know who killed Laura Palmer, You did! We all did!”
At the end of Conversation with the Stars, our host asked the cast and crew what their most valued and cherished fan gifts had been over the years. Some mentioned art, others mentioned tribute tattoos and letters. Sheryl Lee was the last to speak to this question and addressed the elephant in the room. She mentioned that her character was one who had endured a great deal of hardship, suffering and betrayal at the hands of a loved one and while she was merely an actress playing a role, she was grateful to all the people who felt like they could share their stories with her over the years. Stories not unlike Laura Palmer’s, stories of betrayal and survival. And these stories reminded her how important her character was and how important it was to allow survivors to tell their stories and dictate their own narratives. At the end of the evening as we all said our goodbyes to the cast and crew, I saw a woman meekly make her way to Sheryl Lee. She was trembling and shaking as she leant in to hug her and whisper in her ear. I was reminded of the famous scene where Laura Palmer leaned in to Dale Cooper in the red room to whisper a secret into his ear. I am not sure what they spoke about nor do I wish to speculate, but suffice to say it was clear that a very transcended, very real Laura Palmer was very much with us in that room right then hugging this fan and telling us all how much she loved us. Shortly after she turned to me and my friend and asked us how we were, and literally all we could do was say thank you.
It has been a decade since the first time i viewed the pilot episode in that tiny bedroom in Woodvale. It’s been a decade since i heard Jack Nance wail “She’s dead, wrapped in plastic”. And no matter how many years passed, what steps were taken, what gaps in the space time continuum were broached by Agent Dale Cooper, Laura was always going to die at the hands of someone she loved. There was no saving Laura Palmer, simply sending Agent cooper after her 25 years on was not going to change anything.
I have always wondered if Catholics found it weird praying to the image of an unwed teenage mother who probably never knew she was going to be shouldering the burdens of the world by virtue of a role she was cast in. And then I realised meeting Sheryl Lee was probably the closest I was going to get to a real life Madonna. Since being cast as Laura Palmer all those years ago she must have talked to countless women, heard countless stories, across every country, every continent she had visited as Laura Palmer.
To view Sheryl Lee’s character simply as a tool of redemption, or a fair maiden for a white knight to rescue, misses the point I feel Laura’s character serves us. It has taken me the better part of a decade to feel brave enough to unravel the plastic, to bear witness to Laura Palmer herself. Trauma, particularly the trauma experienced by women at the hands of those they love and trust, may be television fodder for some but to this Twin Peaks fan and to the many others I met last night at Conversation with the Stars, Laura Palmer’s character was more than that. We see you, Laura Palmer, 25 years on, as more than a girl wrapped in plastic. You are symbolic of our shared pain and fear living as women in a violent and male dominated world but also a symbol of our resilience and determination to fight back against it. I hope that no matter where Sheryl Lee is at this moment, that she knows what I was trying to tell her despite being less than articulate as she held my trembling hands. That she knows how grateful I am that she has carried the heavy mantle of Laura Palmer for all these years wherever she has gone so that we as a culture and society can bear witness to the victims of the evil that men do.
“And in this old horror show, I’ve got to let you know ,
Oh Laura you’re more than a super star….more than a superstar.”