Twin Peaks is full of neon. We might even call the show Neon-noir. Red and blue fluorescent lights flicker everywhere, and Lynch seems to exploit neon deliberately, sometimes lighting actors or rooms up so that they appear to embody the noble gas itself. Surrounded by darkness, a shovel, an arm, or a face glows just like a neon sign.
“The medium is the message.” More than just mood lighting, neon communicates tons of information very quickly, long before we even read the text. Neon is associated with sex-workers, vice, convenience, consumption, and other-worldly beings, and because the technology was unleashed the same year as atomic energy (1898), it is a perfect metaphor for illuminating major themes in Twin Peaks.
It is a light meant to be seen in the dark. Electrocuted, buzzing, neon is not like the glow of a lamp, fire, or moon. Those lights are natural, and neon is unnatural, fluorescent, toxic, dangerous. The buzzing is linked with dysfunction. Neon also lights up science fiction stories. We see neon lightsabers, superhero suits, alien spacecraft, alien landscapes; we see it in creatures at the bottom of the sea. Neon signals other-worlds, but it also signals alcohol, drugs, sex, and the “dark side” of any city. Open. Exit. Neon signs grab our attention because they don’t belong. Those colors look radioactive, and they’re kind of ugly, like that neon green font in the show’s opening credits. That green introduces an other-worldly light to the browns and earth tones of the Twin Peaks landscape.
Neon signs were modern and exciting in the 1930s and 40s, developing right alongside atomic bombs, but by the 1950s neon began to signal not progress but decline, as well as social and moral degradation. Ordinances were passed like those of a Bel-Air suburb of Los Angeles, to ban all neon signage. The Los Angeles Times (1949) reported: “The esthetic atmosphere of exclusive Bel-Air district will not be tainted by crass commercialism of a neon sign.”
It’s true that in what is currently known as the United States, neon became “a calling card for sexual consumption.” Kristine Davis speaks about its importance in her essay Neon Light Fetish: “I have worked in areas of the sex industry that embrace the light as an ideal form of marketing for sexual activities, as well as, environments that (due to illegality) avoid neon signage for the exact same reasons.”
Neon plays an important role in the capitalization of the night, although it’s rarely acknowledged as an actor. Neon gets our attention, and it makes some of us feel at home. “A home in the neon” is how Dave Hickey puts it in Air Guitar, and by neon he means Las Vegas. For Hickey, neon and Vegas both signify opportunity and the unpretentiousness of everyday life. Vegas is a place where people became freer spirits, a place where anyone, even Douglas Jones, can find work. Also, people don’t feel alienated in a place like Vegas. Anyone can hit the jackpot, and around neon lights we can meet “colorful characters” and have sexual adventures. This isn’t only true in Vegas, of course. Hickey jokes that, in truth, people need only drive a few blocks to meet “colorful characters.” Neon signs light the way for us to transgress the rigid stratifications that “stack the classes like liqueurs in a desert drink.” Neon means life, community, modernity, and therefore, Hickey says, “…Las Vegas is a wonderful lens through which to view America.”
Neon is a wonderful lens through which to view Twin Peaks. From the Greek word for new, neo; atomic number 10, the number of completion. Although neon gas is the fourth most abundant element in the universe, only 0.0018% of the earth’s atmosphere is neon, making it a rare, magical substance. It’s used to make helium-neon lasers, advertising signs, pop art, and plasma television screens. It is “highly inert and forms no known compounds.” Liquid neon is apparently a good refrigerant.
“Glass bending” and light bulb technology have been known since the early 19th century (just trap the strange gas in glass tubing and electrocute it), but it wasn’t until Scottish scientists liquefied air in 1898 that they learned how to trap neon. This is the same year the Curies uncovered atomic energy. Morris M. Travers, a scientist involved in the discovery of neon and two other elements, wrote, “the blaze of crimson light from the tube told its own story and was a sight to dwell upon and never forget.” The people bowed and prayed to the neon gods they made.
“Americans transformed neon into a popular icon. In its first years in Paris, neon lights were luxurious, decorative objects or flourishes of techno-artistry, which the Futurists used from the early days. However, in my view, the United States in the 20th century was about the standardization of everything, including the standardization of the mind.” ~Luis de Miranda, Author of Being and Neonness.
Luis de Miranda says neon unsettles us because, in a sense, we too are tubes of electrocuted chaos held in place by man-made shapes. We are Rilke’s “intensified skies” trapped like the Gnostic soul in a body. Mystics all over the world describe the soul as a ray of light, crackling with energy. “Artists reveal mystic truths.” Let’s recall the neon masterpieces of Iván Navarr, Joseph Kosuth, Dan Flavin, Bruce Nauman, James Turrell, Gran Fury (SILENCE=DEATH), and Tracy Emin. Like Twin Peaks, neon art draws attention to issues that matter, and reflects on the light, darkness and “neonness” inside each of us.
“It’s a kind of fire”