Breaking through

I find this sculpture by Yoshitoshi Kanemaki very evocative.  There are any number of stories that could grow out of this image, from the symbolic shedding of one’s former life to the more literal notion of a human/reptile hybrid shedding his skin, a human butterfly breaking free of its chrysalis.  Click the image for more.  Hat tip Beautiful/Decay.

Exploring the Uncanny Valley Between the Peaks

[Note: This is an expansion of an earlier post, and part of The Twin Peaks Project.  Go check out the site!  There’s tons of awesome stuff for Twin Peaks enthusiasts and novices alike.]

I missed Twin Peaks when it first aired. On one hand, I was 12 at the time, so all the implied kinky sex, more-than-implied violence, and backward-talking dwarfs may have been too much for my young, vulnerable mind. On the other hand, my parents let me watch The Shining when I was five, so my mind was already pretty twisty, and the intense scenes in Twin Peaks are not that bad in comparison. I didn’t need to watch the show to become familiar with the basic idea and iconic images, though, mostly because everyone and their mother parodied it.


There are benefits to watching Twin Peaks for the first time via the magic of Netflix. As an adult I’m better able to deal with the scene in episode 8 where Audrey barely manages to avoid being raped by her father, or Maddy’s violent end at the hands of her possessed uncle in episode 14. More importantly, I’m better able to appreciate the divine weirdness that runs counterpoint to the scenes, that takes the world of that sleepy little town and twists it in ways that make my skin crawl (in a totally good way). What’s most intriguing is that sometimes I have the most visceral response to the scenes where the oddity is relatively minor. For example, the giant that only Cooper can see is bizarre, but the younger Hayward sisters’ dark tribute to Laura in episode 8 is much more disturbing. I think this phenomenon can be explained by comparing it to the theory of the uncanny valley.

The uncanny valley was first described in 1970 by robotics professor Masahiro Mori. Put simply, the theory is that as a robot is increasingly human-like, human empathy for it also increases. A factory robot with an arm garners more empathy than one with no discernible limbs, and a little robot with cute little eyes gets even more. There comes a point, though, where a robot is very human-like … but there’s something wrong, some relatively small detail in how it looks, how it moves, even how it sounds. At that point empathy drops sharply into repulsion.


There are tons of examples of this on YouTube, if you want to spend some time being seriously creeped out.

This effect isn’t limited to robotics. Any artificial human figure can reside in the valley. Dolls. Mannequins. Computer animated characters with jerky movements or “dead eyes.” And as you can see on the graph above, there are lots of human subjects within the uncanny valley. Corpses. Zombies. Identical twins that trigger the fear of doppelgangers.

Now, Twin Peaks has a ton of examples of this sort of uncanny valley. Everything that happens in The Black Lodge (an extradimensional location that Cooper enters twice, first in a dream and then later through a portal in the forest) is right there at the bottom: jerky movements, backwards voices, inhuman howling, doppelgangers galore, and god, the dwarf, how freaky is he? Even outside the Lodge, there are plenty of examples of humans in the uncanny valley. Audrey’s strange dangling dancing. Dale Cooper’s robotic manner, monotone delivery, and unflappable cheer. Every single damn thing about BOB.

However, I think the uncanny valley between the Peaks is wider. While the theory traditionally focuses on the appearance, movement and sound of people, our human experience is broader than that, because we also have recognition and expectations of reality in general. We accept a realistic show because we can get comfortably lost in the story. We also accept things that are just plain weird because we recognize the weird as “other,” and therefore maintain a safe distance. What really triggers unease is a more slight subversion of our expectations. These are the moments that make us blink and say, “WHAT?

Twin Peak’s bizarre or non-sequitur details are memorable. Sometimes they’re openly (and, therefore, safely) absurd. For instance, who doesn’t remember the fish in the percolator? As bizarre as that is, the reactions of the characters take it to the next level. Cooper and Truman are disgusted, and Pete Martell is bewildered, but none of them ask the obvious question: what the heck was a fish doing in the percolator? (We know from Pete Martell’s later comment that the fish was actually alive. How did a live fish get into the percolator?)


While we are confused and amused by the fish in the percolator, it’s pretty solidly to the left of the uncanny valley. It might have gotten over the crest, but it’s not that deep into distressing territory. More effective, I think, are the details that are within the realm of possibility. They don’t have the blatant absurdity that acts as a buffer between the weird and our sensibilities. One good example of this is in the pilot; Dale Cooper and Sheriff Truman walk into the bank’s safe deposit box room and discover a deer head on the table. The explanation the attendant gives (“It fell down”) is really no explanation at all. The head doesn’t belong there, and so pushes what should be a realistic scene into surrealism, distressing us in the process.


Another purpose that the deer’s head and similar details serve is to tickle our sense of pattern recognition. Human figures in the uncanny valley disturb us in part because we as a species automatically try to make meaning out of what we see. For instance, we want to take the visual information provided by a robot and see a human being, and when there’s something that just doesn’t add up, our brains can’t process it. The deer’s head is presented as somehow significant, yet there is no significance. Many things in Twin Peaks invite us to find meaning where there is none. In episode 2 we learn of a one-armed man named Mike, companion to another man named BOB. We already know a pair of high schoolers named Mike and a Bob (or Bobby) by the time we get this information, so our brains want there to be a connection. There isn’t any, and as a result we feel deeply uneasy without necessarily knowing why.


What I find even more delightfully disturbing is how Lynch and Frost blur the line between story and storytelling. Much like objects easily identified as absurd, that boundary allows us to maintain a feeling of detached safety as spectators. Deliberately crossing that line is often very effective: consider the Netflix TV series House of Cards, where the central character Frank Underwood constantly breaks the fourth wall to hold an intimate conversation with the audience, thus making us complicit in his immoral actions. That is a clear transgression of the story/storytelling separation, but because of that clarity, we are able to accept it. We know what the rules are, even though they’ve changed. In Twin Peaks, however, the line is never entirely crossed. Cooper never turns to the camera and addresses us directly. Our world and his world remain separate.

Except when his world starts to bleed through.

The transgression is never anything as blatant as breaking the fourth wall, and yet it is more unsettling because it isn’t blatant. A lot of the bleed-through has to do with music, and since our awareness of the music is typically subconscious, we can be weirded out without quite understanding why. Movies and TV shows have two levels of music: diegetic and non-diegetic. Diegetic music occurs within the world of the story, and is audible by the characters. Non-diegetic music is external to the story, the “soundtrack” if you will, and is typically inaudible to the characters. Non-diegetic music is supposed to enhance scenes by heightening our emotions and helping us to better understand and empathize with the characters.

One way that Twin Peaks subverts our expectations is with non-diegetic music that is inappropriately jolly or sappy. For example, sweet soap opera style music accompanies Nadine’s suicide attempt in episode 7. The music suggests that the scene is attractive, even positive, when it’s actually horrifying, and the mismatch triggers cognitive dissonance.

Twin Peaks also frequently blurs the line between diegetic and non-diegetic. When Agent Cooper wakes up from his dream about the Red Room in episode 1, he starts snapping his fingers in time with the soundtrack, even though there’s no way any music is playing in his room. There are also times when the soundtrack music is actually coming from inside the story! In the second half of season two we often hear flute music as part of the soundtrack, eventually to discover that the flute is actually being played by Windom Earle.

Lynch and Frost recently announced that there will be a new Twin Peaks miniseries. I’m excited, but I’m also a little apprehensive. One of the things that made Twin Peaks great was that violin string of tension between the real and the surreal that would sing when plucked by the experiences of the uncanny. That tension started to dissipate in the second half of season two, because the weirdness that was subtext was rapidly becoming text, altering our expectations and thus our experience. It will be very interesting to see if they can restring that violin and have us all dancing, dwarf-like, to the tune of the weird.