Ghosts, Sympathy and Bearing Witness in Twin Peaks: The Return

*This is a special guest feature from one of our readers and Twitter friends, Hannah Searson. I really love her work and I hope you do as well!

This Summer was for me dominated by a single chain of thought, spread out over two seemingly disparate aspects of my life. The first part of my life was the writing (and eventual completion) of my MA thesis, the second was Twin Peaks. Or maybe they were the other way around – it doesn’t really matter. The point is, they came together in a surprising way.

 I spent my Summer brain-deep in the journals, poetry and plays of Lord Byron and John Clare, writing about how ghosts are infused into their work – obsessed as they are with nostalgia, penance, and an aching loss that itches at the edge of memory, even though you are never quite certain of its true source. It was work that I’m deeply passionate about, it felt vital and personal and timely.

 Timely, because I kept seeing resonances and echoes of my academic research in The Return. It was actually rather annoying – it felt like there was no gap between my research and my ‘leisure time’, it was all one great big mass of ghosts haunting woods. Throughout my notes, I repeatedly wrote “Who is the ghost?” as a prompt, so I didn’t get lost in the mire of rapidly changing poetic perspectives. So when Monica Bellucci, through Gordon Cole, asked “Who is the dreamer?”, I pretty much gave up trying to keep these two aspects of my life in any sense separate. They clearly wanted to exist in dialogue with each other.


Indeed, it opened up my reading of the show and eventually became the lens through which I interpreted it. The poetic ghosts that I was researching often existed in what wasn’t said – they were essentially defined by absence and void. They weren’t so much the fare of haunted houses, or even Gothic novels. Rather, they were represented by dashes at the end of a line, half-recalled memories of boyhood, incomplete poetic phrases and echoes of other works. Ghosts, as I figured them, exist in the silences.

 The ghostliness of Twin Peaks characters functions in a remarkably similar way. For example, throughout The Return, Cooper was a ghost. I’d stake my life on it.  His ghost existed every time his doppelgänger was on screen, being hard and cold in every way that Our Cooper wasn’t. It was there every time someone called the body that was once Dale Cooper, ‘Dougie’, every time Angelo Badalamenti’s score echoed in the background, every time Dougie said some form of ‘Cooperism’, through his obsession with coffee and cherry pie. That’s Cooper as a ghost – existing in the carved out empty space reserved for our protagonist. It’s why I, personally, was never frustrated with Dougie, or particularly missed Our Cooper, because I felt he was there in these silences and voids, just as Laura was in the original series. Because yes, Laura Palmer was a ghost too, and they even used the same techniques to show it: Maddy Ferguson, the homecoming portrait, the picture of her wrapped in plastic, in each and every contradictory testimonial of her life and character, and the aching, traumatic void she left at the heart of the town.

Laura Palmers funeral

It was so important to me that The Return spent most of its run establishing this deep, thematic and even spiritual connection between Cooper and Laura, defining them both by their absences and showing that neither of them could ever be silenced. As Donna said in my favourite scene of Season 2, it’s “like they didn’t bury [them] deep enough”.

 Usually, in folklore and popular culture, the ‘goal’ of a ghost story is to lay that ghost to rest – either through justice, or returning something sacred to the burial site, or other such act that breaks a cycle of vengeance and haunting. But Twin Peaks, just like Byron and Clare, was too wise for that. The Return, ironically, understood that you can never return to a place that you’ve already left behind. Moments of pure nostalgia in the show were fraught with danger – it’s why the first time we see ‘Cooper’, it’s in the form of Mr. C, why the gun goes off when Shelly and Bobby are having their Small Town Diner Drama, and why the other shoe drops for Audrey (and us) as she danced to her song. It’s because you’re trying to recreate something that’s already been lost.

 This is shown on a macro-scale in episode 8 – as has been said countless times before, the atom bomb test was an innocence-shattering event that can never be taken back, and it leads to the New Mexican girl getting infected with…Something, and the creation of a vessel for pain borne through innocence in Laura. I interpreted the New Mexico girl as a metaphor for the temptation to reclaim that innocence, not realizing that it’s far too late. You can draw a straight line from that episode right to episode 18 through these undercurrent; they’re both obsessed with the consequences of irrevocable actions.

 So how do you deal with a ghost if you can’t really stand on lost ground?

Good question. In my thesis, I argued that the ghosts were, for the poets, essential for experiencing a fully-felt life, and allow for the experience of an intensity of sympathy that could never otherwise be attained. Let me put it this way – you see a tragedy, and you’re overcome with sympathy for those experiencing it, to the point where you stop being a whole person for just a moment. Instead you’re pure sympathetic feeling, ready to be subsumed by the victim in whatever way they need.

Carl Rodd. I’m talking about our friend Carl Rodd. He understands how to truly lay a ghost to rest. You exist quietly and simply, and in an act of both ego and total self-effacement, you offer understanding and sympathy to a mother whose son was just murdered right before her eyes. It’s the same reason why Laura appears to Gordon Cole (as well as the obvious meta reasons, but I digress); as the leader of the Blue Rose Task Force, he was always a character of deep empathy and a strange centered-ness. It made total sense to me that Laura’s ghost understood that, and appeared to him to plead for that sympathy to be extended towards her.


That’s the purpose of ghosts – they teach you how to bear witness. It’s the only way to truly mediate their pain, and it’s ultimately what Cooper fails to do. He was a ghost for a time, before returning to the land of the living. He should have understood the pain of his fellow ghost in Laura, but he didn’t. So she screamed loud enough that reality shattered around her pain.

 So it goes.

 I think what The Return was saying is that nostalgia is both dangerous and potent. It encourages an overflow of feeling like few other experiences, and leads you to believe that you’re inhabiting the original space of the past, but you’re not. Instead, like Cooper and Laura, you can never experience true justice because you can’t undo what’s already been done. The Return’s argument is that your best option is to bear witness to the pain of others, and make sure it’s never forgotten. It’s the best way to memorialise the lost, the absent, and the ghosts.

 Or, as Byron would have it:

 “The absent are the dead — for they are cold,

And ne’er can be what once we did behold;

And they are changed, and cheerless, — or if yet

The unforgotten do not all forget.” – ‘A Fragment’, 1816

Written by Hannah Searson

Hannah Searson is a UK-based staff writer for 25 Years Later and occasional freelancer. Her main interests lie in ghosts, action films, sad people crying about their feelings, and reality television.

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