Earlier this week, I was in a park with my stepfather. It wasn’t a familiar park, which is rare enough; most of the time I find myself in known surroundings, even if they date back to childhood. I’m not sure what we were doing, or why we were there. The overall feeling was pleasant, but pleasant in that ominous way you often see at the start of horror movies, when the tinkle of muted laugher and a low ambient drone tell us that something terrible is about to happen. And indeed, in the corner of the park, my stepfather collapsed with what looked like a heart attack. He gasped and looked up at me, and closed his eyes. I couldn’t tell if he was dead or not, so I ran to get help. But you know how it is—my shouts were muffled, nobody spoke my language, my legs couldn’t move fast enough, and I couldn’t seem to dial 9-1-1 on my cell phone.
I ended up at a condominium style beach hotel with outside corridors, banging on doors, pleading for help, and trying to avoid some evil element that could appear from anywhere—the elevator bay, the next room, the far corner. Along with my desperation to save my stepfather, and the realization that I was failing, came a sense of impending doom. I was in danger too. Somehow I found my way back to the park, but all that remained of my stepfather was his legs. Just two legs, with gray pants and no torso. No sign of blood or other violence, either. Cops and medics were everywhere, but they were acting oddly casual, as though nothing serious had occurred. When I finally shouted and insisted my way to the front, they brought me to a small black bag. A man unzipped it, and inside, with both eyes open, was my stepfather’s head. I turned away, and my only thought as I looked back into the street was, “how can I continue, having seen that?”
That whole episode, as you’ve guessed, was a dream. The imagery was disturbing, or maybe slightly funny if you’ve got a dark bent, but I bet you recognized some of the themes from your own nightmares. The sudden change from pleasant revelry to sheer panic, the logical disconnects between cause and effect, the constant feeling of insecurity and looming disaster, the drugged inability to act decisively, the absence of friends, the awful desperation and the tragic ending. These are the active ingredients in most nightmares, though like they say about snowflakes, no two are exactly the same. Yet they all feel the same; there’s something apocalyptic at work designed to make us feel that everything we’ve always counted on is now unreliable. For me, my nocturnal brain seeks horror in a systematic collapse. I’ve recognized the feeling of a nightmare while reading about the Nazis, or the Stalinist paranoia of Russia, or the gruesome details of African genocide. Horror to me is not being stalked by a deranged, sadistic killer on a moonless night. That’s just bad luck. Horror is when the sadists are in charge, and they know your name.
Artistically, nobody captures this sensation quite like the director David Lynch. He’s an unmistakable auteur, and there’s no disguising his fingerprint. I’m in the midst of watching Twin Peaks, the 1990-91 television series about the mysterious murder of a teenage girl named Laura Palmer in a small town in the Pacific Northwest (available on Netflix Instant). It’s a detective story on the surface, with FBI agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) at the narrative center. But it’s also a soap opera, a horror film, a morality tale, a black comedy and more. Lynch defies genre-based descriptions, but here’s my best attempt: Lynchian art is an absurdist nightmare with a happy ending.
All the nightmare elements are present. He’s the master of discordant visuals—in one scene, a friend of Laura’s named Donna (Lara Flynn Boyle) takes over her meals-on-wheels route in order to hunt for clues. At her first stop, she finds a mysterious old woman and her eerie grandson, a boy who wears a tuxedo, sits on a chair and makes the creamed corn on the woman’s plate vanish and then reappear in his hands. He deadpans a French aphorism and tells Donna to visit a neighbor. The whole thing is undeniably creepy, even more when she returns to the house later and it turns out nobody knows the woman or the boy, and they’ve never lived there at all. But—and here’s where Lynch is unique—Donna’s reaction was also freakish. While most of us would have fled in terror at the boy’s powers, she smiles benignly, like an adult patiently enduring a child’s amateur card trick. This is the frustrating and engrossing aspect of Lynch—he refuses to let human beings, even the good guys, behave normally. You see this element in many horror movies, where the people ignore obvious clues, but with Lynch it’s ramped up to insane degrees. When a man clearly in the throes of some mania dances by himself in the middle of a crowded hotel lobby, singing an old song and laughing as he climbs the furniture, the people laugh tolerantly, as though there’s no mental illness at play. Messages go undelivered, obvious clues are ignored, and disasters are allowed to manifest themselves when simple common sense could have prevented them in the early stages.
Lynch stubbornly refuses to quench our thirst for fairness and justices, and that’s why his work is so enthralling and terrifying. There’s a lunacy even among the men and women trying to maintain order, and his universe is a parallel one, devoid of the human insistence on following procedure. Nothing is secure in Twin Peaks, or Blue Velvet, or Mulholland Drive, and any attempt at explanation is thwarted by the next bizarre turn. Lynch has a fondness for human deformity—he employs giants, midgets and amputees in Twin Peaks alone—and the late David Foster Wallace even accused him of indulging an odd voyeuristic sadism. But to me, it feels less like cruelty and more like adherence to the visual content of nightmares, where everything is twisted and malevolent. Who better to act out the waking fantasies than human beings whose genetic flaws give them a look of twisted malevolence?
Those who analyze the message behind Lynch’s symbolism point to his desire to expose the gap between the veneer of society, with its polite and friendly proceedings, and the dark underbelly of corruption. Even closer to the mark is the distinction between the face an individual presents to the world and the psychological desires churning beneath the surface. And while most of his work comes with token relief in the form of a happy conclusion, the residual feeling for the viewer is one of existential unease. The moral triumphs feel awfully thin when compared to the great emotional and visual disturbance Lynch has wrought. He has recreated the brooding fantasies that we only encounter at night, and, like a nightmare, his work can prove hard to shake.