Known by No One
Loved By Many
Born July 22 1972
Died February 23rd 1989
16 Years Old
CBS Photo Archive/CBS/Getty Images
Twin Peaks Laura Palmer
CBS Photo Archive/CBS/Getty Images
The Life and Death of Laura Palmer
Poem of the Black Lodge
Through the darkness
of future past
The magician longs to see
One chants out
between two worlds
Fire walk with me
Donna Hayward at Laura's grave
"As much as I love you, Laura, most of the time we were
trying to solve your problems. And you know what? We still are.
Not mine or James' or Maddy's. Yours. You're dead Laura,
but your problems keep hanging around!"
Sexual violence has formed a popular component in cinema, TV and books since the rise of mass media. Most of the time the inclusion of such material in a story is to either add an element of horror or to create a scenario that allows a character to put aside the requirements of society and embark on a mission of retribution that would otherwise be frowned upon. Many of the early western novels relied upon womenfolk being kidnapped thus allowing the aggrieved husband or sometimes father to redress the balance with a Colt .45. Later came action films and crime novels that relied on the presence of a sexual abuse victim to provide a backdrop for various heroes to respond in ways that invoked sympathy in the audience. Simply put the presence of the violated one would allow some heroes to respond in a manner that would normally be considered very anti social. The presence of the victim allows the hero to act in such a way but retain their connection to society. Other heroes such as those on crime drama shows would gain the required sense of urgency and motivation in their pursuit of the criminal.
These tried and true formulas has left the victim on the periphery of the story in many cases. It is enough for the audience to know the victim exists thus allowing the rise of the hero and the acceptable vendetta that forms the heroes rationale. To my mind the best example of one artist's ability to turn this cliché on its head is TV series Twin Peaks and its depiction of Laura Palmer.
I recall the moment in 1991 when I saw the billboards in Auckland showing a girl in a body bag with the legend "Who killed Laura Palmer?" underneath it. The effect the billboards had was far reaching. TV 3 was promoting a edgy new series called Twin Peaks and the management wanted to market the show for all it was worth. This resulted in two things. One was a wide ranging audience and the other was a raft of complaints by people who were offended by the billboards image. Even before the show was broadcast it seemed Laura's death was having an impact. The irony was that the true impact was to be felt later when the focus was on Laura's life.
The complaints diminished as the show took hold with its core audience and the billboards came down. The questioned remained though. Who had killed Laura Palmer? Two series took place and the question was answered. I will not issue a spoiler here for those who are not in the know. The fact remained however that Laura remained a peripheral figure that supported the story lines for those Laura left behind. Twin Peaks depicted an array of delightfully dysfunctional characters who proved interesting but not particularly threatening.
Viewers were given glimpses of Laura's life and it was evident that Laura was a girl of many secrets. A few of these were dragged out into the open through the eyes of the people pursuing her killer and others were hinted at. The violence on the show was often implied and sexual content was light on the ground considering the subject matter. In the series Laura was more curiosity than threat to the sensibilities of the fans. In other words people did not have to see her as anything more than a prop.
Real world intrusion was to lay the foundations for change. Financial considerations began to impact. The artistic vision of Director David Lynch was becoming increasingly at odds with the financial imperative of the TV network's bottom lines. The networks wanted Laura's killer revealed thus effectively killing the golden goose. Once Laura's story ended the dark edgy element was lost. The series ended abruptly in Season Two leaving fans hungry for more. They were to get it but not in the way they expected. David Lynch clearly had unfinished business with Twin Peaks and the result was the 1992 movie Fire Walk with Me, the last seven days of Laura Palmer. The film was screened at the 1992 Cannes Film Festival and the audience revolted with boos and jeers in the cinema. Reviews of the movie were negative and the movie flopped in the US. Of interest is that the movie was a commercial success in Japan. So what happened? How did David Lynch get things so wrong? Laura's story teetered on the brink of destruction. The answer is that David Lynch got everything extremely right. The movie has been historically rehabilitated and now is seen as the work of a genius. Time was the factor required to allow society to catch up the reality of Laura's life.
In the TV series Laura was beautiful and mysterious, a little bit naughty and risqué but tragic and always just ahead on the edge of sight, beckoning us onwards but never revealing who she really is. There is a diary in the series that does much the same thing. We see it there but we can never read it. It holds who Laura is but it also holds its secrets well. Secret Laura, alluring Laura who presents to all who knew her and to us as an audience a mirror reflection of whoever we perceive her to be, her reality shaped by our world view, our secret fears and desires. How Laura would have hated that truth and cried out as the perceptions and needs of the many tore her inner world apart. A world with its own rules had Laura firmly in its grip while others burdened her with their cloying grasping needs. It is my belief that David Lynch saw this truth and so suddenly and without warning or apology he hurled the reality of Laura's life, raw, naked and screaming into his adoring fans faces.
To my mind the truth is that initial audience reaction is based on the fact that Laura Palmer was no longer a peripheral component in the story but rather the central unifying component of Fire Walk With Me that bought us the reality of her life. Audiences watched in horror as their perceptions of Laura and their accompanying intrusion into her reality were taken away from them. People watched as Laura Palmer Home Coming Queen and the darling of Twin Peaks was revealed as a slave to darkness who's corruption and destruction played out like a cry in the night, poignant and unanswered. People had arrived for what the TV series prepared them for. But in the TV series Laura was dead and that cold truth acted as a filter that protected the audience from having to go to places they were ill prepared to visit. Laura as an abstract was far different from the Laura everyone saw in her agonized dying and history seems to indicate that time was required to reconcile those facts. Whether he intended to or not David Lynch said to hell with the audience and gave his creation what she always wanted but never had, recognition of who she really was. Fortunately over time the fans grew to love this new disturbing Laura and her influence lives on.