Northwest Passage: Liminal Spaces and Alternate Worlds in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks


“Even the ones who laugh are sometimes caught without an answer: these creatures who introduce themselves but we swear we have met them somewhere before. Yes, look in the mirror. What do you see? Is it a dream, or a nightmare? Are we being introduced against our will? Are they mirrors?”
— The Log Lady, episode 5: The One-Armed Man

David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, known for its 80s charm, its quirky characters, and an ending that left millions of fans dissatisfied, could be said to have left a lasting impression on American supernatural fantasy. Before the X-files, before Lost, it is a prime example not only of Lynch’s surreal logic made manifest, but of an American Gothic mystery.

“Television, the most domestic of all mediums, is a natural venue for the Gothic, the most disturbed of domestic fictions.” So says Lenora Ledwon in Twin Peaks and the Television Gothic (Ledwon, 1993). In the show, our main cast navigate a variety of “underworlds” or alternate worlds, criminal and supernatural alike. Many different locations explored within the show serve as “liminal spaces”: areas that function as transitions between our world and others. Between us and the Black Lodge is a space of dreams in the form of the Red Room, and a patch of woods untouched by those who do not seek it out. The Roadhouse serves as a transitional point, a meeting place, where characters act out forbidden interactions, such as Donna and James or Ed and Norma. The perfume counter at Horne’s Department Store is a literal transitive space between the small-town domesticity of Twin Peaks itself and the hellish underworld that constitutes One Eyed Jack’s.

In fiction, liminal spaces are often used to introduce an audience to unfamiliar concepts, places, and plot threads. They break in an audience to concepts that have not yet been brought forth by the premise of the media. While Twin Peaks draws on references to the spiritual and supernatural in the first few episodes, with Dale Cooper’s off-beat talks of dreams and Tibetans, it’s much farther into the series when we get a real idea of what dwells in the surrounding woods— that is, when Lynch begins to suggest that this show is anything other than a slightly quirky whodunit.

Image result for tibet twin peaks
From “Zen, or The Skill To Catch A Killer” – Twin Peaks, David Lynch, 1990.

As the world of Twin Peaks grows more and more complicated, we begin to see many worlds playing out on the sidelines. We have the Black and White Lodges, and the criminal underpinnings of the town, but there are others— doubles, or doppelgangers, as the Man From Another Place warns Cooper in a dream sequence. Laura Palmer can be said to be the source of many of these doubles— she was, after all, living a multiple life, branched into many different faces that she chose to show various members of our cast of characters. When Maddy, Laura’s seemingly identical cousin (also played by Sheryl Lee), arrives from out of state, we see one of these faces. Encounters with the keeper of her diary, the unhinged but at first pleasant Harold Smith, we see another. Laura is the transition, the doorway to these characters, but her murder is also the locus of the entire show’s structure— she is the doorway to Twin Peaks, the town, and all of its residents, but she is also the doorway to Twin Peaks, the TV show.


“There’s a sort of evil out there, something very, very strange in these old woods. Call it what you want. A darkness; a presence. It takes many forms, but… it’s been out there for as long as anyone can remember, and we’ve always been here to fight it.”
— Sheriff Truman, episode 4: Rest In Pain

Throughout the course of the series, Lynch commits in part to the ages-old literary convention of pitting good against evil, or dark against light. Several themes of the show come together to support this juxtaposition of ideals— repeating leitmotifs in music between lighthearted and serious scenes, using camera framing and dialogue to frame Cooper as morally superior to some other characters (Engel, 2017), but the clearest definition is in the physical locations explored within the town of Twin Peaks: the White Lodge vs. the Black Lodge, the Bookhouse vs. One Eyed Jack’s, Ghostwood vs. the Packard Sawmill. In Tracing the Nowhere: Heterotopian Incursions in Twin Peaks, Parezanovic and Lukic assert that “Lynch’s architecture presents viewers with a number of different spaces and locations, each crucial for the setting and later development of the narrative, while simultaneously positioning them— visually, functionally, and symbolically— as opposites.” The White Lodge is a place of pure goodness, of courage, of purity, while its counterpart is a place of despair, a proving ground for those of pure courage. This juxtaposition of locations and ideals, hereafter referred to as the “binary dimensions” (Parezanovic & Lukic, 2018), stands on either side of the town of Twin Peaks.

From “Beyond Life and Death” – Twin Peaks, David Lynch, 1990.

The emissaries of the binary dimensions take many forms throughout the story. Major Briggs and the Log Lady both serve as messengers from the White Lodge, seers of a kind, able to see a wider perspective than their traditionally human characteristics would allow them. Meanwhile, Leland Palmer carries Killer BOB in his consciousness, and owls are used by BOB as a familiar or a form of transportation. To return to “doubles”, at one point in the series, Deputy Hawk expresses that the Black Lodge holds an entity known as the “dweller on the threshold”, a sort of latent astral doppelganger, skulking around the cusp of the material plane until such point as it can inhabit a human body (“Cagliostro”, 2017). We see this doppelganger manifest in Cooper at the end of the series, when this “dweller” takes over him, but we’re warned of its presence earlier in the series as well: Mike, a former companion of Bob’s, had to sever his arm in order to remove the influence of the Black Lodge.

Lynch’s vision of the binary dimensions, this careful arrangement of setting, music, cinematography and dialogue, cements Twin Peaks as a classic and enduring example of American Gothic television, as well as bringing an otherworldly touch to a familiar space, bringing the liminality of this small town into our everyday lives via a TV screen. As Lenora Ledwon eloquently puts it, “Lynch taps into our need to turn common life into the stuff of nightmares so that we can call it unreal. Better the Gothic, than the horror of everyday life.” (Ledwon, 1993). By exploring the dimensions, figurative and literal, that frame Twin Peaks’ narrative, we can understand the spiritual endeavor of the show’s creators to plant unreality in the familiar, and make something truly unique.


“Cagliostro the Younger” (alias). “Black Lodge Meditations: 13 Theses on the Darkness of Twin Peaks.” (Accessed 3/10/19)

Engel, Adam J. “Something’s Fishy in Twin Peaks.” in Between Two Worlds: The Functions of Liminal Space in Twentieth-Century Literature. Ed. 1. North Carolina: Chapel Hill, 2017.

Ledwon, Lenora. “”Twin Peaks” and the Television Gothic.” Literature/Film Quarterly 21, no. 4 (1993): 260-70.

Parezanović, T., & Lukić, M. “Tracing the Nowhere: Heterotopian Incursions in Twin Peaks.” The Journal of Popular Culture 51, no. 1 (2018): 109–128.


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