Twin Peaks turns 30 on April 8, as full of secrets as it was on the Sunday night it debuted on ABC opposite Murder, She Wrote and a Married... With Children rerun. It’s a show that was subject to intense scrutiny (and hype) even before the world became gripped by the mystery of who killed Laura Palmer. And while the show did eventually answer that core question, the identity of Laura’s murderer is only the shiny surface of a much deeper enigma—as was proven in nearly every second of David Lynch’s uncompromising third season of the show, especially in the boldly experimental hour of television that was “Part 8.”
That’s due in large part to the show’s creators. Lynch was the visionary, guided by intuition and Jungian archetype, and Mark Frost was the architect, laying a foundation of occult philosophy and conspiracy theory for Lynch to build upon. It’s Frost who has taken it upon himself to expand upon the mythology of Twin Peaks in his novels The Secret History Of Twin Peaks and Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier, where the series’ connections to occult figures like Jack Parsons and Aleister Crowley are explicitly laid out. (He also explains the ending of the series in the latter book.)
These books join a mountain of Twin Peaks-themed reading material that’s been accumulating since the show’s debut, beginning with The Secret Diary Of Laura Palmer, ghostwritten by Lynch’s daughter Jennifer and published in September of 1990. Since then, everything from oral histories to cookbooks to fictional travel guides—some official, some not—have come onto the market. And there’s more still to come: Blonde, Beautiful, And Dead, an exploration of the 1908 murder that partially inspired the show’s Laura Palmer storyline from noted Peaks obsessives David Bushman and Mark Givens, has yet to hit bookstores.
We’re not here to break down those books, which you’re perfectly capable of finding on your own. Nor are we here to definitively “explain” what the show means; David Lynch doesn’t like to explain his work, so why should we presume to do so? (That being said, there have been a number of enlightening analyses published online over the years that are fun to read and think about.) Instead, consider this an invitation to deepen the mystery even further by diving into the creative processes and mystical traditions that informed the creation of the series, heady subjects that will either distract you from the state of the world or push you off the ledge entirely. If the second one happens, we recommend watching these Twin Peaks-themed Japanese coffee commercials until the fog clears.*
*Effectiveness of Japanese coffee commercials not guaranteed.
David Lynch is famously reluctant to discuss the meaning of his work. In recent years, he’s opened up a little more, but asking Lynch what, say, “the owls are not what they seem” is all about is still a non-starter. (That’s more Frost’s department anyway, as we will see.) Part of this comes from Lynch’s background as a visual artist, which has led him to question the usefulness of language itself in terms of art and creativity. And part of it comes from his devotion to the practice of transcendental meditation, which he promotes through his David Lynch Foundation. As he puts it in a 2018 book excerpt published in The New York Times:
Everybody has theories about what the show is about, which is great, and it wouldn’t matter if I explained my theory. Things have harmonics, and if you’re true to an idea as much as you can be, then the harmonics will be there and they’ll be truthful even though they may be abstract. You could come back in ten years and see it in a completely different way, and you may see more in it—that potential is there if you’ve been true to that original idea.
Room To Dream by David Lynch and Kristine McKenna
When we say Lynch has “opened up,” we’re mostly referring to this book, which alternates interviews with one of Lynch’s closest creative (and life) partners and the director’s own reminiscing about events in his life that went on to inspire his work. It also makes clear how little Lynch cares about ratings and box office, given that he’s more enthusiastic in the book about Dune being a flop than he is Twin Peaks becoming a global phenomenon.
On the other hand, his 2007 book breaking down his meditation practice and how it helps him “dive within” his subconscious is about the closest to an explanation of his creative process as you’re ever going to get out of Lynch. The chapters are short, almost like koans, and the advice deceptively simple. But the book does an excellent job of illuminating that there really is no “why”—at least not a conscious one—when it comes to Lynch’s ideas. They just are. Just reach in, grab whatever swims by, and for Christ’s sake, quit asking so many questions.
The Hero With A Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell
In terms of mythology, Twin Peaks draws most directly from Native American folklore, particularly the Lakota tradition of the heyoka, a “sacred clown” who blends the roles of shaman and trickster and expresses their nature by performing ordinary actions—like, say, talking—backwards. The trickster archetype is explored in the work of Joseph Campbell, one of the 20th century’s most influential thinkers, whose examination of the Jungian idea of a collective subconscious is relevant to Lynch’s work in general, as well as Twin Peaks specifically.
Dead Girls: Essays On Surviving An American Obsession by Alice Bolin
Twin Peaks was far from the first piece of pop culture to draw from the trope of the unreachable, eternally beautiful “dead girl,” a figure whose absence hovers over a narrative and whose tragic, and usually violent, death becomes the locus for fetishistic obsession for those (usually men) investigating her demise. But it is an influential one, which is why an exploration of the theme in Lynch and Frost’s creation kicks off author Alice Bolin’s blend of critical essay and memoir.
The late Irish painter Francis Bacon was a formative influence on Lynch as an art student in the late ’60s, and Bacon’s preferred themes of grotesque mutilation, screaming voids, and figures split into multiples of themselves show up throughout Lynch’s work. Like Lynch, Bacon wasn’t terribly fond of analyzing his ideas as they came to him, or of conventional narrative in general. Instead, Bacon tried to break through the restrictions of form in his work and tap directly into his subconscious. Sound familiar?
Lynch’s Twin Peaks co-creator is more forthright about his influences, going so far as to tell a perceptive interviewer, “That’s right, that’s exactly where I got the Black Lodge from,” in a 1992 interview with The Independent. In that interview, Frost is referring to a book called Psychic Self-Defense. Written by Dion Fortune in 1930, the book describes a war between positive and negative psychic forces who make their homes in a “White Lodge” and a “Black Lodge,” respectively.
Fortune was part of a lineage of women in the late 19th and early 20th century involved in an esoteric belief system called Theosophy, which combined Eastern religions with Western philosophy in books that are, frankly, dense and difficult blobs of unreadable gobbledygook. (Helena Blavatsky, founder of the Theosophical Society, is especially notorious for this.) Lucky for us, Frost adapts many of the Theosophist’s more intriguing ideas into digestible nuggets in Twin Peaks. Take Alice Bailey, a student of Blavatsky’s and a favorite of Frost’s. Bailey said her esoteric works were communicated to her telepathically by a “master of the wisdom” in Tibet—thus explaining Agent Dale Cooper’s affinity for the place. Parallels like these run throughout Twin Peaks, both occult and extraterrestrial in nature; these are some of the more readable source texts.
Moonchild by Aleister Crowley
If you’re looking for something to read with explicit parallels to Twin Peaks, why not go straight to the Great Beast 666 himself? Frost devotes an entire chapter of The Secret History Of Twin Peaks to the famous magician and enfant terrible, a towering figure in the history of Western occultism whose 1917 novel, The Moonchild, also describes a war between spiritual forces divided into a Black Lodge and a White Lodge. In Crowley’s book, however, they’re competing to impregnate a young woman with a child that will either save mankind or destroy it—depending on who wins.
Crowley’s shadow also looms over the story of “Jack” Parsons, another major player in The Secret History Of Twin Peaks who brings together the show’s occult threads with the nuclear themes of “Part 8.” Parsons was a polyamorous occultist, rocket scientist, and good friend of L. Ron Hubbard who teamed up with the Scientology founder in 1946 for a two-week sex magick ritual called the Babalon Working in hopes of conjuring Crowley’s Moonchild into existence. (Hubbard stole Parsons’ girlfriend and most of his money and took off shortly after the ritual was complete.) Crowley, for his part, was not impressed, and told Parsons the ritual would make him into a“living flame”—a prophecy that came to pass in 1952, when Parsons died after an explosion in his lab blew off his right arm. It’s all true, and all in the book.
The Men Who Stare At Goats by Jon Ronson
Twin Peaks pivots from the occult to secret military operations through the character of Major Garland Briggs, who Frost links to the U.S. Air Force’s Project Blue Book investigation in The Secret History Of Twin Peaks. Jon Ronson’s 2004 nonfiction book doesn’t deal with aliens specifically, but it does detail some of the American military’s more out-there initiatives in the ’70s and ’80s, when New Age grooviness and belief in the supernatural invaded even this most staid of establishment institutions. The 2009 movie with George Clooney isn’t as good as the book, but it’ll do.
The Mothman Prophecies by John A. Keel
West Virginia’s favorite homegrown cryptid only plays a small role in journalist John A. Keel’s 1975 first-person account, which begins with Keel’s trip to Point Pleasant, West Virginia to investigate reports of a 7-foot-tall creature with glowing red eyes before evolving into an interrogation of “high strangeness,” a term for the inexplicable eeriness and unexplainable coincidences that tend to occur around UFO sightings and the like. (It also sums up the tone of a lot of David Lynch projects.) Also of interest to Twin Peaks fans is the book’s description of the “Men In Black,” a much more sinister entity here than in the Will Smith movies, with supernatural powers that evoke the mysterious case of Agent Phillip Jeffries in Fire Walk With Me.
If transcendental meditation isn’t really your style, there’s no better way to tap into your intuitive capabilities than learning how to read tarot cards. (It’s also a fun party trick.) The Smith-Waite deck is the archetypical tarot deck, recently renamed from the Rider-Waite deck in honor of illustrator Pamela “Pixie” Colman-Smith, a member of Crowley’s Order Of The Golden Dawn who was approached to redesign the divination tool—and then denied credit for her work—by English occultist Arthur Edward Waite. One Eyed Jack’s madame Blackie can be seen laying out tarot cards in season two (do a classic Celtic cross for maximum screen accuracy). Artist Benjamin Mackey also designed a Twin Peaks-themed tarot deck a few years back, but unfortunately it’s no longer for sale.