"Keep Watching the Woods": The Folkloric Forest in Twin Peaks

Curator's Note

In my article for the In Focus section, I analyse the meanings arising from the representation of the forest and woodlands as folkloric within Twin Peaks (ABC, 1990–1991). I argue that these settings are a crucial constant throughout the series which bring aesthetic and narrative coherence to the two series by generating, sustaining and developing the programme’s ongoing themes and oppositions. Ultimately it seems that, in Twin Peaks, the answer to the mysteries concerning who really killed Laura Palmer, what Agent Cooper’s true purpose is, and whether or not good can triumph over evil, can be found in the forest. The accompanying video demonstrates how, from the pilot episode of Twin Peaks onwards, the importance of the trees is present. In many of the establishing shots, the buildings are dwarfed by the forest in the background or the forest overruns in the shot. This connects the series’ representation of the forest with the folkloric as it is ever present and impacts upon all characters within the diegesis, irrespective of identity markers such as gender or socio-economic status. More than this, though, the folkloric forest intrudes in every frame, sometimes generating threat via how it either dominates or alludes to the darkness lying within.

Read from a structuralist perspective, the programme’s depiction of the forest generates recurring tensions which reconfigure and expand as Twin Peaks progresses. These oppositions are nevertheless established from the outset. The opening credits establish the show’s themes of forest versus town, wildness versus industry, savagery versus civilization. The pilot episode then quickly sets about reaffirming such meanings by presenting the forest as a place where bad things happen. For example, when Ronette Pulaski appears on the railroad tracks, escaping the forests and heading into town, the shot is more light than dark with the forest framing the bottom of the shot, indicating that while the darkness that harmed her still exists, she is literally moving towards safety. Then, if we retrospectively examine the scene where Laura Palmer’s body is found we notice that the negative space and forest as frame function in the same way. This is also true of when we are first introduced to Agent Cooper: we see him foregrounded in his car but the negative space which frames Cooper is dominated by the forest in the background. It thus becomes a character within the show, signalling darkness, secrets, and mysteries. “Keep watching the woods” we are told, for good reason.

Comments

Ross P Garner's picture

Have you seen the new poster?

Thanks for this, Karra. The video works well to bring the points that you’ve made to life. Have you seen the new official poster that Showtime has released over the last 24 hours? Seems that the iconography of the woods and forest will remain as important to the new episodes as well.

Rebecca Williams's picture

Enduring images

I think the association between the series and the woods/trees is one of the most enduring things I remember. The scenes of the wind blowing through the trees always seemed really creepy and I think also leads back to the horror genre and its use of the woods as a place of potential danger although TP always managed to subvert those more obvious expectations and associations really well.

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