From Film Noir to Teen Drama: The Films and TV Shows That Led to Twin Peaks.

Twin Peaks (1990-2017) created by David Lynch & Mark Frost.
Warning: Spoilers may follow for Twin Peaks.

Twin Peaks has been an influence on many films and tv shows, like Broadchurch (2013-2017), Bates Motel (2013-2017), The Killing (2011-2014), Mad Men (2007-2015), and recently Riverdale (2017-). Although Twin Peaks is unique, it has in its turn also been influenced by other films or TV shows. In this article, I will look into the many, but not all, influences that lead to Twin Peaks, like the film noir, the soap opera, and the films by Alfred Hitchcock.

Twin Peaks

Sherylin Fenn as Audrey Horne in Twin Peaks.

Film Noir

Twin Peaks is mostly a combination of film noir, murder mystery, and soap opera. This was the plan from the beginning: FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) is lured into Twin Peaks to solve the murder of Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), but David Lynch and Mark Frost wanted to slowly step away from that. It was supposed to be more and more about the inhabitants of Twin Peaks. David Lynch said about that:

“Closure, I keep hearing that word. It’s the theater of the absurd. Everybody knows that on television they’ll see the end of the story in the last 15 minutes of the thing. It’s like a drug. To me, that’s the beauty of Twin Peaks. We throw in some curve balls. As soon as a show has a sense of closure, it gives you an excuse to forget you’ve seen the damn thing.”

But, the producers wanted the killer to be identified, and therefore the closure came too soon.

The detective theme in Twin Peaks has strong hints of film noir, like many other of Lynch’s films. The name of Laura Palmer comes from the film 1944 film noir Laura, like the name Rita in Lynch’s 2001 film Mulholland Drive comes from actress Rita Hayward. Another character from Laura is named Waldo Lydecker. In Twin Peaks, a bird’s name is Waldo, and a veterinarian in season one is called Dr. Lydecker. David Lynch plays Gordon Cole, and is a reference to a character in Sunset Boulevard (1950), which would later be a huge influence on Mulholland Drive.

The detective, in this case FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper, is the one who arrives in Twin Peaks. The town is at first glance a nice place, with fun and quirky characters, but it’s also a town of mystery and threatening atmosphere. Film noir’s tendency to violence and sexual tension, while keeping its class is closely related to Twin Peaks. And don’t forget the neon lights that are everywhere.

Twin Peaks

Doc Hayward, Deputy Hawk, Sheriff Harry S. Truman and Special Agent Dale Cooper in Twin Peaks.

The Detective

But Twin Peaks’ detective story-line is not only inspired by film noir, it’s also a classic ‘whodunit’ or detective television drama. Mark Frost was a writer for the cop show Hillstreet Blues (1981-1987) before he made Twin Peaks, which was, according to Frost, inspired by film noir. It has influenced shows like ER (1994-2009), Law and Order (1990-2010) and NYPD Blue (1993-2005). Like the soap opera, it had multiple story-lines that could be spread out over multiple episodes or even seasons. No doubt Mark Frost kept this in mind when he wrote Twin Peaks.

There are other references to the detective film. Dale Cooper might remind someone of Sherlock Holmes. They both see connections and resolutions very quickly. However, Holmes uses logic and deduction to come to an answer, while Cooper also uses emotions, dreams, and his instinct. Also, Cooper is a very kind and warm person, while Holmes is a drug-using sociopath.

Other detective references are, of course, the donuts that can always be found at the sheriff’s department, or the catchphrase ‘Who killed Laura Palmer’, that was obviously a take on Dallas (1978-1991) ‘Who shot J.R.?’ It was parodied again, at the end of season one, when Dale Cooper has been shot by an unknown person. It then became: ‘Who shot Agent Cooper?’ According to Mark Frost, this was clearly a joke, because it was obvious that Cooper wasn’t dead because he had a bulletproof vest. The one armed man, Philip Gerard (Al Strobel), is an homage to The Fugitive (1963-1967), where a character is called Philip Gerard, and another is an one armed man.

Twin Peaks

Alfred Hitchcock in Alfred Hitchcock Presents…

Alfred Hitchcock

Although most of Alfred Hitchcock’s films are murder mysteries, he deserves a separate section, because Twin Peaks is hugely influenced by him. Hitchcock and Lynch and Frost love birds. The Birds (1963) and Psycho (1960) are examples of Hitchcock’s birdly fascination, the owls and Waldo can be seen in Twin Peaks. Voyeurism is a trademark of Hitchcock, which is used in extend in Rear Window (1954). We can see Audrey among other characters snooping and spying on her father. But most importantly is the use of the double. It’s clear Lynch and Frost used Vertigo (1958) as an inspiration. In this Hitchcock film, Kim Novak plays two characters: a blonde and a brunette. One of them is supposed to be dead and John Ferguson (James Stewart) investigates this mysterious case. In Twin Peaks, Sheryl Lee plays the blonde Laura Palmer, and the brunette Madeline Ferguson, a direct reference to the main characters of Vertigo.

But Laura and Maddy aren’t the only doubles. Audrey (Sherilyn Fenn) and Donna (Lara Flynn Boyle) look similar to each other, the good Dale Cooper is opposed to his friend turned bad Windom Earl (Kenneth Welsh), Shelly (Mädchen Amick) and Norma (Peggy Lipton) are like twins, Ben (Richard Beymer) and Jerry (David Patrick Kelly) are brothers, and then there’s multiple Bob’s and Mike’s. The teenage Bobby (Dana Ashbrook) and Mike (Gary Hershberger), and of course Killer Bob (Frank Silva) and the one armed man Mike. Killer Bob is an evil spirit from the black lodge, the supernatural and mysterious space that’s entered via the woods of Twin Peaks. It’s to represent hell, and the white lodge is supped to be heaven. Those lodges are the home of doppelgängers, of which at least Leland Palmer (Ray Wise) (father of Laura), Cooper and Laura herself have one. The doppelgängers represent good and bad. It’s a contrast that has been made popular in the book Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and states that every person has a good and bade side.

The double is seen in many other of Lynch’s films, like Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway (1997). Mulholland Drive was influenced by Vertigo. That’s not crazy, since Lynch originally wanted to make a Twin Peaks-spin off about Audrey. That never happened, but he made a film with a character that was inspired by Audrey, which became Diane in Mulholland Drive. And Diane is of course the name of Cooper’s secretary which he addresses on his tapes.

Something used frequently in Hitchcock’s films is the McGuffin. This was intended to be used in Twin Peaks by David Lynch and Mark Frost. They wanted to lead Dale Cooper to Twin Peaks to look into the murder of Laura Palmer, but they never wanted to reveal the killer. Laura Palmer’s death was supposed to be a McGuffin. Another thing is the director as ‘auteur’. He appeared in his own tv show Alfred Hitchcock Presents… (1955-1962) where he introduced all kinds of stories. He was shown as a maker, which wasn’t seen much, until Mark Frost and David Lynch made Twin Peaks. It wasn’t just a show, it was a show by Frost and Lynch. The short introductions The Log Lady made in a new release of Twin Peaks can be seen as an ode to the Hitchcock introductions.

Twin Peaks

Invitation to Love on TV in Twin Peaks.

Soap Opera

As I said, Twin Peaks is a mix of film noir, the detective and the soap opera. The soap opera focuses on a town and its inhabitants, exactly like Twin Peaks does. Lynch and Frost mocked the soap opera, but at the same time embraced it, to tell different stories about a lot of characters. The soap opera is literally referenced in the ‘soap within Twin Peaks’ that characters watch: Invitation to Love. The many and bizarre plot-lines you’ll only expect to happen in a soap, are accepted because it comes from the minds of David Lynch and Mark Frost. People who are dead are coming back to life, people are disguised as someone else, there are many romances and love affairs, and the characters become like a family. And, of course, typical to the soap opera and to Twin Peaks: the many cliffhangers. Cooper getting shot in season one was one, but also Cooper being possessed by Bob (‘How’s Annie?’), the bomb explosion at the bank where Pete (Jack Nance) and Audrey are at and Ben being attacked by Dr. Hayward (Warren Frost).

Peyton Place was the soap and film that was a huge influence to Mark Frost and David Lynch. Peyton Place was a book by Grace Metalouis, and was turned into a film in 1957. It then became a soap and ran from 1964 to 1969. The soap aired prime time, which was uncommon before then. The story took place in 1940 in a fictional town with secrets and sex. More than the soap, the film was an inspiration. Frost and Lynch screened the film before they started writing. In line with Peyton Place, they came up with the town first. They drew a map and knew which character would be located where. It was also Russ Tamblyn, who had a role in the film Peyton Place, and later performed the role of Dr. Jacoby in Twin Peaks.

Peyton Place, the soap opera, and the film noir are products of the 40s and 50s. Those decades are strongly resembled in the fashion and decors of Twin Peaks, like the neon signs, the Double R diner, the waitress suits of Norma and Shelly and the clothes of Audrey and Donna. The 40s and 50s were also the time in which David Lynch and Mark Frost grew up.

Twin Peaks

Lara Flynn Boyle as Donna Hayward & Lenny Von Dohlen as Harold Smith in Twin Peaks.

Teen Drama

The teenagers of Twin Peaks, like Donna, Audrey, Bobby, Mike, James (James Marshall) and Laura play a huge role in Twin Peaks. This high school drama can also originally be found in soap operas, but there are a few films, like 80s teen films or James Dean movies that have played a part in this. While Lynch and Frost never said they were inspired by the 1988 film Heathers starring Winona Ryder and Christian Slater, it shows huge resemblances. Heathers changed the high school films that became popular in the 80s, like The Breakfast Club (1985) and Sixteen Candles (1984), like Twin Peaks did two years later. Heathers was dark, twisted and about murder. The clothes Winona wears in the film, also show similarities with the clothes of Donna and Audrey.

The romance of James and Donna in Twin Peaks is inspired by the relationship of Judy (Natalie Wood) and Jim (James Dean) in Rebel Without A Cause (1955). James Dean plays Jim. David Lynch wanted someone who looked like Dean and chose James Marshall to play him. The character Bobby is more of a rebel than James, so it might be that they both are inspired by James Dean.

Twin Peaks

Kyle McLachlan as Dale Cooper in Twin Peaks.

Science Fiction

Twin Peaks started out as a mix of a soap opera, a teen show and a mystery thriller, but by the end of season two it had become full blown science fiction. With its black and white lodges and supernatural spirits, Twin Peaks brought science fiction to prime time drama. Other shows had already brought science fiction to the small screen, like The Twilight Zone (1959-64). It had all kinds of science fiction stories and inspired Lynch and Frost to bring horror and science fiction to the small screen. Mark Frost was even more inspired by The British television series The Prisoner (1967). The show had all kinds of genres, including science fiction. It’s about a British secret agent being held prisoner in a mysterious place. This might have inspired Frost and Lynch to create the black and white lodge and Dale Cooper being trapped there at the end of season 2. Also, the arrival of an FBI agent in a mysterious town might already be an influence.

Anything Else?

But there’s more. Dale Cooper’s middle name is Bartholomew, which makes him D.B. Cooper: a reference to the famous skyjacker by the same name. The brothers Ben and Jerry share a name with the ice cream. Sheriff Harry S. Truman (Michael Ontkean) shares his name with the U.S. president who dropped the atomic bomb. There are also references to other Lynch films. The floor pattern in the red room is also used in Eraserhead (1977) and the red curtains were blue in Blue Velvet (1986). Dreams, which are a huge part of Lynch’ oeuvre, are inspired by one of Lynch’s favorite films The Wizard of Oz (1939). The red rooms and black and white lodges might be a direct reference to the film, with the black and white floor pattern instead of a yellow brick road.

This Essay article was published in May 2017