Wrapped in Plastic: On Courtenay Stallings’s “Laura’s Ghost”
By Sophia StewartNovember 3, 2020
Laura’s Ghost by Courtenay Stallings
Juliette and I agreed: Twin Peaks would do. I readied my laptop, she climbed onto my twin bed, and we positioned ourselves crisscross applesauce. We were enthralled by the velvety opening credits, which seemed to go on forever. Then cut to: A plastic-wrapped corpse, discovered on a rocky shoreline. Small-town sheriffs arrive on the scene. And exactly eight minutes into the pilot, we meet Laura Palmer, dead. Her face is like porcelain, speckled with debris; a hint of pink around the eyelids, blue across the lips. Her hair is damp from lake water, but still arranged in a perfect wave atop her forehead.
Laura Palmer was television’s first, and still its most indelible, Dead Girl. In her seminal essay “The Oldest Story: Toward a Theory of a Dead Girl Show” (published in this very magazine), Alice Bolin argues that the principal question of Twin Peaks — “Who killed Laura Palmer?” — spawned an entire genre, which she calls “the Dead Girl Show.” While Dead Girl Shows can be tonally diverse — Bolin lists Veronica Mars, The Killing, Pretty Little Liars, Top of the Lake, and True Detective among them — they all share the same catalyst: “the discovery of the murdered body of a young woman.” That young woman (the nominal Dead Girl) hovers like a specter over the rest of the show, a passive memory rather than an active character — so predictably, in fact, that she’s become something of a cultural punch line.
Ultimately, the Dead Girl Show turns an individual murder into a narrative device or symbol. In Twin Peaks, Laura’s brutal killing becomes a portal to metaphysical mysteries and existential questions; her death unlocks secrets about the town of Twin Peaks as well as the very nature of good and evil. But by subjecting violence against women to, in Sontag’s words, such metaphoric thinking, that violence can become trivialized and aestheticized.
In many shows and movies I’ve seen, and even some of the ones I love, it feels like men get to do things and women get things done to them. Some of Bolin’s Dead Girl Shows — True Detective, Top of the Lake, and sometimes even Twin Peaks — apply this kind of gendered agency. In the first season of True Detective, two male detectives solve the mysterious murder of a prostitute (played by an uncredited actress); one of the detectives is haunted by the death of his young daughter, while the other juggles a wife and a mistress. Even the first season of Top of the Lake, masterfully helmed by Jane Campion and Garth Davis, prefers its women traumatized: it isn’t long after a competent female detective starts investigating the rape of a 12-year-old girl that we learn the detective herself is a rape survivor. And over the course of its three seasons and a movie, Twin Peaks subjects its female characters to sexual, physical, and emotional violence, while the heroic Detective Dale Cooper — himself scarred by the murder of a woman he loved — gets to the bottom of things and learns about himself in the process.
I think of Juliette and me, huddled in our dorm room on that tiny mattress, far from home and living alone for the first time, primed to begin our lives. We were 18 years old, just one year older than Laura was when she was murdered. And here we were, watching a promising young woman like ourselves wash up dead and naked on a craggy beach. Over the next two seasons, we saw Cooper valiantly unravel Laura’s murder, while, in flashbacks and VHS-tape interludes, Laura remained beautiful and oblivious. We eventually learn Laura was not as innocent as she presented, and she made many of her own choices, but she wasn’t exactly multidimensional. Her waywardness was never explored as a consequence of a broken home or a backward town or patriarchal pressures, but rather a ticket into sexy, sordid underworlds. While I love Twin Peaks, to me Laura will always feel like more of a sexualized object of violence than a flawed and dynamic character, like the many Dead Girls strewn in her wake.
If you need a refresher: Laura Palmer features prominently into the Twin Peaks series and the 1992 follow-up film, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, which details the final days of her life. Like most of Lynch’s filmography, Twin Peaks attempts to expose the shadow worlds and seedy underbellies that lurk beneath American idylls. Laura Palmer embodies this discrepancy: while she was volunteering for Meals on Wheels and relishing her title of Homecoming Queen, Laura was employed at a brothel, involved in drug trafficking, exploited by town elders, and sexually abused — and ultimately murdered — by her own father. Laura’s murder is solved in the series and further explicated in film: Laura’s father killed her while possessed by the evil interdimensional spirit BOB. (Though in his corporeal form BOB has a regular human body, my roommate insisted he’s “the scariest thing I’ve ever seen in my entire life.”) Bob is terrifying, yes, but there is also something unsatisfying about the revelation that behind Laura’s murder is an otherworldly demon. Even scarier and far more poignant is having to face the reality that a father can rape and kill his own daughter.
But in her new book Laura’s Ghost: Women Speak about Twin Peaks, Courtenay Stallings takes a different approach to decoding Laura Palmer. While Bolin argues that the Dead Girl trope makes a spectacle of gender-based violence, Stallings enlists a chorus of voices to enshrine Laura Palmer as a beacon of strength and hope for the countless women who have endured traumas like hers. Where Bolin sees Laura as the first of many objectified and traumatized Dead Girls, Stallings argues that Laura in fact “empowered so many with the ability to speak about their abuse.” Though she doesn’t go as far as to associate the character with any kind of feminism, she presents Laura as an example of “resistance and defiance” for other women to follow.
Laura’s Ghost features an array of Twin Peaks fans and collaborators to share their interpretations of and appreciation for Mark Frost and David Lynch’s franchise and Laura Palmer’s place in it. In its collected interviews and essays, the book centers on women’s experiences, as opposed to the male showrunners’ visions, to explore the legacy of Laura Palmer. Among the featured interviewees and essayists are four women professionally involved in the making of Twin Peaks: Sheryl Lee, who played Laura; Grace Zabriskie, who played Laura’s mother; Sabrina S. Sutherland, David Lynch’s trusted producer; and Jennifer Lynch, who authored The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer. Stallings herself only contributes a couple of bookend essays; really, her purpose is ethnographic, with the book consisting mostly of firsthand accounts from Lee, Zabriskie, Sutherland, Lynch, and dozens of female fans.
Lee and Zabriskie share interesting insights into their creative processes, particularly with regard to the challenge of embodying such visceral pain, as Twin Peaks required them to do. On top of being an actor, Zabriskie also reveals herself to be a talented woodworker, as well as a generally awesome person — “I was a nasty little bitch way back,” she tells Stallings. Zabriskie’s interview is also especially moving, as it takes place in the wake of the loss of both of her daughters to cancer; at their meeting, Stallings gives Zabriskie a piece of obsidian “to promote healing, advocate truth, and absorb negative energy,” a touching gesture that momentarily turns Stallings into a more active participant in the book.
The actors also spill fun behind-the-scenes knowledge: Lee, for instance, recalls that David Lynch had no furniture in his office on the set of Twin Peaks, so at meetings, she had to sit on the floor; Zabriskie remembers that Lynch told her that her Inland Empire character had an Eastern European accent only four days before shooting began. Stallings’s conversations with Sutherland and Jennifer Lynch, on the other hand, reveal patriarchy at work in the entertainment industry. Sutherland admits that “there are a lot of men who are not very happy that I’m in a position that I’m in,” while Jennifer Lynch laments that she “do[es] not know many women who have not been assaulted or abused.”
The rest of the book is dedicated to Q-and-As and essays from fans. While fans all tell varied stories about how they first encountered and now relate to the franchise, there is admittedly little diversity of opinion among them when it comes to their interpretations of the Twin Peaks. There is one compelling moment of tension when Stallings interviews fan and performer Francine “The Lucid Dream” who hosts and performs in burlesque shows “dedicated to David Lynch.” Francine’s shows have depicted characters and scenes from the Twin Peaks show and film, including instances of sexual abuse. “[P]arts of [the show] are sexy, because even if you’ve been through an experience like that, that doesn’t mean that you can no longer be sexy or sexual,” Francine says. Later in the book, another fan, Anita Rehn, admits, “I think I’m not of the majority, but I’m not a big fan of some of the burlesque things with Twin Peaks, specifically Laura.” There is a rich conversation to be had here about performance and consent, but Stallings prefers to focus more where female fans’ experiences converge.
The overarching consensus of the contributors that Stallings features in Laura’s Ghost is that Laura’s story has given visibility to women who have endured sexual abuse and assault. For many, their understanding of Laura as an inspirational figure is rooted in their own encounters with gender-based violence. “When I interviewed women for this book, I didn’t set out looking for stories of trauma,” writes Stallings. But in interviews with fans and discussions of Laura’s story, real-life traumatic experiences inevitably surface.
In Fire Walk with Me, Lynch retains the show’s idiosyncrasy but ditches its charm, opting instead for anguished avant-garde storytelling. It’s a “difficult film,” says one fan, in both form and content, as it depicts Laura’s maltreatment at the hands of her father Leland through the visual language of the horror genre. In his book Lynch on Lynch, Chris Rodley argues that the film “reminded people that at the center of Twin Peaks was a story of incest and filicide,” and therefore alienated many fans of the show. Of course, the fundamental story of Twin Peaks has always been dark; the series’s idiosyncratic charm — the cherry pie and jukeboxes and saddleshoes — just diverts your attention.
Stallings cites scholar Lindsay Hallam’s argument that there are four different ways to watch Fire Walk with Me — “as a Twin Peaks film, as a horror film, as a film about trauma, and as a David Lynch film” — and Stallings’s interviewees agree that the film is most effective when viewed through the lens of trauma. Stallings herself makes this case in the book’s epilogue: “When Fire Walk With Me premiered in 1992, I witnessed the horror of what Laura Palmer’s character endures, and I saw my own horror in her story,” she writes. “I needed to see this abuse as evil because it was. It is. When I saw Laura’s story, I knew that I wasn’t alone.”
Many of Stallings’s interviewees use this same idea of visibility to explicitly combat claims of Lynch’s misogyny. Not only do they see their own trauma reflected in many of Lynch’s female characters (from Laura to Wild at Heart’s Lula to Blue Velvet’s Dorothy), but the very fact of feeling seen in that way can be one way to combat misogyny. “In his dark way,” declares one fan, “[Lynch] does like to shine a light on this mistreatment of women.”
Stallings concludes that though “[s]ome have accused” Lynch of misogyny, it is precisely because of his “frank and aesthetic portrayal” of gender-based violence that many of his biggest fans are women. “There is a perception by some that Lynch is misogynistic, but I don’t think that’s accurate,” says fan Marya E. Gates, now an editorial manager at Netflix. “The thing about Lynch is not that he hates women. I think he’s acutely aware of the violence that women face, both emotional and physical. I think he’s not afraid to show that. I think he does it out of reverence for women.” This sentiment is echoed throughout the book. “In years past, David Lynch has been criticized for being sexist or creating sexist characters,” says Francine “The Lucid Dream.” “That always troubled me, because his characters are complex. He’s had some female characters who are twisted — they’re a lot of things. But I think women can be a lot of things.”
Many women express their appreciation for the depiction of teenaged Laura’s sexuality, with one fan calling Twin Peaks the first show on television to create space for “honest discussion about a young teenage girl’s sexuality.” Others admire Laura’s confidence in her burgeoning sexuality. At the same time, the ways in which her sexuality was exploited — trafficked and maltreated by older, more powerful men — speak to many fans, sometimes even helping them to recognize their own abuse retroactively.
Sezín Koehler — a writer, Twin Peaks fan, and one of the few women of color featured in Laura’s Ghost — gives one of the most affecting and insightful interviews in the book. Koehler, who is a survivor of intimate partner violence, recalls the impression Fire Walk with Me made on her: “We knew that movie was for us,” she says. “It was a love letter to all of us survivors.” The film’s impact on her changed once she viewed it again after surviving her assault. “When I watched [Fire Walk with Me] after having survived that relationship, I remember crying through the whole thing,” she says.
It was the first time I had ever seen anything like that put on screen. We didn’t talk about rape. We didn’t talk about partner abuse. […] For a lot of women that is one of the biggest gifts [Twin Peaks] gave us. We could talk about Laura as a character, and through Laura we could talk about our own experiences and find solidarity among other women. It was like a light switch went on.
Laura’s Ghost reveals how much of the momentum behind Twin Peaks’s fandom is generated by women, and particularly white women, the vast majority of interviewed fans being white. From podcasts and zines to conventions and burlesque shows, Stallings makes clear that women are the driving force behind Lynchian fan culture.
“Twin Peaks has inspired many of us to share our stories of trauma and survival,” Stallings writes. “It’s also given so many women, including myself, an opportunity to explore their own complex and creative nature.” Of course, this doesn’t preclude the possibility of misogyny in Lynch’s work — but are women just so used to seeing our pain turned into entertainment that when it is done artfully, it feels like a revelation?
For the most part, Laura’s Ghost is not a rigorous work of original criticism, so it doesn’t spend much time considering these questions. That said, the women that Stallings interviews are clearly moved and emboldened by Lynch’s portrayals of Laura and the violence she endures. While I don’t believe Lynch’s frequent depictions of rape and gender-based violence necessarily warrant accusations of misogyny, they demand thoughtful assessment, and, in fairness, this kind of assessment just isn’t the objective of Laura’s Ghost. But it doesn’t have to be. Instead, Laura’s Ghost is a loving tribute and well-researched reflection, and it celebrates the women — many of them survivors — who have created an entire culture and community around a narrative that inspired them. That, in itself, is a worthy endeavor.
This year Juliette and I turned 22, the same age that Sheryl Lee was when she first played Laura Palmer and created the iconic and enduring image that still haunts her career. Lee recalls her initial performance as Laura, for which she had been hired for only one day. The shoot, she tells Stallings, “began with her having to lie perfectly still, barely clothed, and wrapped in plastic for hours on a cold and rocky beach off the Puget Sound, surrounded by a mostly male crew.” It was a grueling start to what Lee admits was a difficult role. But Lee insists the challenges of the role were all worth it “because she meets so many survivors who have found meaning in Laura Palmer’s journey.”
When it came time to choose a picture for the cover of Laura’s Ghost, Stallings had only one request: it would not be Laura dead, wrapped in plastic. In the final cover photo, a rare still from the series, Laura is alive and radiant, hair whipping in the wind. Her eyes are bright and brows arched, and she casts an inquisitive but doleful sidelong gaze. Pink lips and rosy cheeks suggest health and vitality. This is Laura as she was, and as Stallings urges us to remember her: awake to the world and acutely aware of its failings.
Sophia Stewart is a writer, editor, and cultural critic from Los Angeles. You can find her writing here and follow her on Twitter @smswrites.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!