On Sunday, September 3rd, David Lynch and Mark Frost’s iconic series Twin Peaks comes to an end. In anticipation, Consequence of Sound will be reporting live from The Great Northern Hotel with some damn fine features all week. Today, we celebrate the 25th anniversary of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me by revisiting Sarah Kurchak’s haunting personal essay about the eerie parallels between the landmark series and the deaths of Leslie Mahaffy and Kristen French.
In the summer of 1992, girls in the Niagara Region went everywhere two by two, our parents pairing us up like Noah in the hopes that we’d survive the oncoming doom. Whether we were going to the park, one aisle over at the grocery store, or our own back yards, we always had to take a friend or family member.
As a 10-year-old who was only half-aware of what was happening, I divided my time between indulging in fatalistic daydreams and tagging along with my aunt, uncle, and cousin when they went to the local drive-in. My cousin spent much of that time having to pee, so accompanying her to the snack bar’s bathroom became a regular part of my routine. If I didn’t have to go as well, I’d check for any feet that might belong to a bad man under the other stall doors. When it was clear, I’d wait for her in the lobby, killing time by staring at the Coming Soon posters plastered along the back wall.
My favorite poster had a bright red background with a few rows of black and white chevrons lining the bottom. Half a locket burned in the foreground and, in the middle of that broken heart, a strange but beautiful blonde girl stared back at me. “Meet Laura Palmer,” the text on the right hand side read. “In a town where nothing is as it seems… and everyone has something to hide.”
I was, like so many misfits before and after me, hooked.
“Who is Laura Palmer?” I asked my mom when my uncle dropped me off at the end of a double feature I’ve long forgotten. Mom had been waiting for me in the doorway, as she always did, making sure that I made it from her brother’s car door in our driveway safely back to her.
My usually precise and forthcoming mother muddled her way through something vaguely resembling an answer. Laura was a character from a TV show and now they had a movie or something. I think I remember something about a small town and a mystery coming up. I’m pretty sure the word “weird” did. What was clear, though, was that I wasn’t allowed to watch any of it any time soon.
While they drew the line at anything too age-inappropriate when it came to violence and sex, my parents were fairly permissive when it came to my viewing habits. Fire Walk With Me wouldn’t even have been my first Lynch film at that point. They’d inadvertently let me watch Dune when I was six and then supported my burgeoning Atreides fandom to the point of buying me the movie’s coloring book tie-ins. But they’d occasionally put their feet down over television shows and movies that seemed comparatively innocent.
It took me years to figure out the pattern: My parents shied away from letting me watch anything that preyed on their fears. The Wicker Man remained verboten for years because the thought of Sergeant Howie’s fate leaves my father trembling. We could only speak of The Vanishing in the most hushed tones, because my mother has a lifelong phobia of what happens to the main character in the film’s final moments.
It took me even longer to calculate just how physically, emotionally, and chronologically close I was to their worst fear of all when I started asking about Twin Peaks that summer. The Can-View Drive-In, where I first discovered Laura Palmer dead, wrapped in plastic in July, 1992 is a five-minute drive from Lake Gibson, where 15-year-old Leslie Mahaffy’s body was found dismembered and encased in concrete on June 29, 1991.
While the rest of the world was falling under the spell of David Lynch and Mark Frost’s bizarre soap opera about the murder of a school girl that shakes a small town, a much more sinister force was starting to descend over my sleepy and mostly forgotten corner of southern Ontario, Canada. Over the years, I’ve sketched a timeline – rough, because I still can’t bear the details – of how truth and fiction intertwined for us in those years:
It was during the hiatus between seasons one and two when Paul Bernardo – the man we’d come to know as The Scarborough Rapist and The Schoolgirl Killer – and Karla Homolka – the woman whose name we’ll start to use as a synonym for pure evil – first drugged and assaulted her teenage sister, Tammy. Between episodes 2.19 and 2.20, they drugged her again and raped her. Tammy died as the result of the attack, in what was originally ruled an accident.
Four days after the season two finale, on June 14, 1991, Bernardo kidnapped Leslie Mahaffy from her home in Burlington, Ontario. The couple raped her, tortured her, and murdered her. We’d later learn that Mahaffy’s body was discovered on their wedding day. On April 16, 1992, Bernardo and Homolka kidnapped their next and final victim, Kristin French, from a parking lot in St. Catharines. Her body was found in a ditch in Burlington on April 30. Just over a week later, Fire Walk With Me premiered at Cannes.
We didn’t need Twin Peaks. Our real lives were tragic and scary enough. If you happened to be old enough to know that you were in danger but too young to truly understand what was happening, it was also more surreal than anything David Lynch could have conjured up.
Even by 10-year-old standards, my classmates and I were naive bunch. We’d mostly grown up in Welland, Niagara, Ontario, back when the city still had an industry and hope. Few of us had known violence, real fear, or even undue financial hardship. And our parents were hardly more worldly than we were. Some had never left the region. Others, like my parents, had returned home with their infants in tow because they wanted to raise their children somewhere quieter, smaller, somewhere safer than wherever else they’d been. Somewhere where predominantly white and borderline middle class people assured each other “it can’t happen here” like an incantation.
So, when teen girls started to go missing and we started finding their bodies – when it did happen there – our parents were no more capable of shielding us from the truth than they were of protecting us from the threat itself. Their explanations were riddled with with redaction-like pauses and euphemisms that didn’t so much paint a portrait of the terror that was unfolding in our backyard as sketch a paint-by-numbers template. There was a bad man on the loose who was kidnapping and hurting girls. He was driving around in cream-colored Camaro. We weren’t to talk to strangers and we had to pair up. Any details beyond that became increasingly hazy. Being a little twisted, in the way that most slightly coddled children are, we filled in the blanks with our lurid young imaginations.
We were already good at thrilling and scaring the shit out of each other by that point. In the spring of 1991, we’d become obsessed with an abandoned Tudor hall that crumbled across the street from our schoolyard and started crafting our own urban legends in its image. Dana had seen an old lady – or maybe a ghost! – slip through the side door one day during recess. Jessica knew someone who had gone to a Halloween party there once and she said the punch had been spiked with human eyeballs. When we were presented with new information, we simply replaced the hall with the bad man, his car, and snatched girls from the street and we ran with it.
Few of us knew what a Camaro was, so every off-white car became a monster and every driver a villain. We’d hold our breath as each one drove past us and then run to tell the others, in furtive whispers, about our incredible escapes, almost as excited as we were terrified.
Perhaps most perversely of all, we then shaped Leslie Mahaffy and Kristen French into heroines, bordering on idols. Where our parents saw their youth, and ached for the lives that had been cut so terribly short with such unthinkable brutality, we saw aspiration. We saw their beautiful faces – smiling mysteriously in three quarter profile, so much like all of those iconic shots of Laura – in every paper and on every screen. They were presented to us the same way celebrities were, and we idolized them as such. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that we reimagined them as princesses in the ugly fairytale we were making of our lives. When we were told that they’d discovered Kristen’s body in a ditch, my friend Robin spent days waiting for someone to wake her up.
We stopped telling those stories when Bernardo and Homolka were caught. For some, the urgency and the fear we’d felt faded then and there. For others, the nightmare ended when the pair were convicted, although the mishandling of the case that allowed Homolka to make an unfathomably easy plea bargain– and gain her current freedom – remains an open wound. The girls I knew then stayed in Welland, rebuilt their parents’ dreams of the perfectly safe small town, and bought into them wholeheartedly. When I moved to Toronto, they balked at how I could dare to go to such a scary, big city.
“Don’t you remember what we survived?” I wanted to scream at my former confidants and mutual bodyguards. “Don’t you remember what they didn’t?”
But there was little point. They’d already told themselves it wouldn’t happen again.
It was in a Toronto HMV the next time I found myself face to face with Laura Palmer, as she stared at me from a season one boxset on the shelf, and found the old fascination creeping back into my bones. Even though I wasn’t a little girl anymore, even though I’d walked there by myself and felt relatively safe doing so, even though I’d watched countless other fictional white girls tortured, murdered, and occasionally avenged in the name of entertainment on every acronymed procedural imaginable, I still called my mom to get her blessing before I finally watched Twin Peaks.
My mother, who had watched me grow older than Tammy, Leslie and Kristen would ever be, had little to fear from Laura Palmer at that point. She wouldn’t go so far as to agree to watch it with me, but she encouraged me to give it a try.
It took me a few days to unwrap the boxset. It took a few more to slide the first disc into the DVD player and press play. As the opening credits started and that famous theme kicked in, I realized that I was sucking in my breath exactly the way I used to in front of cream-colored cars. Within seconds, though, I’d released it. Within a matter of scenes, my tense shoulders started to drift down from my ears.
I have no idea what I expected to see in Twin Peaks when I sat down that day, but what I found was something that bordered on escapism.
The eerily sense of unreality that lingers over the series feels eerily similar to what I experienced in my childhood, but everything strikes me as so much kinder and more innocent. The show is funny, first of all, which is a welcome change from the complete lack of levity we faced in Niagara in the early ‘90s. And the older and weirder I get, the more I find myself appreciating that Twin Peaks is the kind of place where women can invent silent drape runners and talk to logs and remain (relatively) contributing members of their community.
But even the show’s darker elements still feel bizarrely heartwarming to me. Girls are murdered there, but the community rallies around these tragedies and they’re never forgotten. The last time I heard Tammy, Leslie, and Kristen’s names come up outside of Niagara, they were as Lena Dunham’s punchline. The villain is pant-shittingly scary, but Bob is also an outsider, and a supernatural outsider at that. Laura’s killer is possessed. He’s not members of your own community who decided to commit unspeakable acts of evil of their own free will.
Years and countless viewings later, a band that I interviewed for a feature on the show’s influence on popular music described Twin Peaks as “Lynch, but Lynch you can actually handle without throwing yourself off a cliff.” For me, Twin Peaks had become my hometown, but one that I can visit without fear or anger. That poster that I spent so much time staring at as I stood 20 miles east south-east of the American border, wasn’t a mirror to our real life terror after all, but a portal to another world that was haunting and creepy and scary… but in a good way. A little secret. A present I could give myself each day.