Between the Living and the Dead
Among the Living Dead: Desire in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me and Get Out
There is a kind of desire that moves to consume, to control, to incorporate, to exterminate, to erase. This kind of desire is nothing like the desire for justice Avery Gordon describes, this kind of desire and way of desiring will never make anyone free. To be the object of this desire, to be caught in its cage, is to have the fullness of your life and living suspended. It may very well be the death of you. The characters in David Lynch’s 1992 Fire Walk With Me, the prequel to his massively popular television show, Twin Peaks, and in Jordan Peele’s 2017 enormously successful and Oscar-winning horror debut, Get Out, are caught in such a trap, the objects of such oppressive desires, forced into a state between life and death, neither fully present nor absent, living ghosts, socially dead.
White supremacist desire to consume and possess racialized and gendered bodies is central to both films—desire for the fantasy of the innocent white girl in the former, and desire for a sexualized, deeply corporeal Blackness in the latter. In writing about these films I will focus on the women at the center of both, fictional women who have continued to haunt me: Laura Palmer, the tragic dead white girl at the center of Twin Peaks; Rose Armitage, the weaponized white girl of white supremacy in Get Out; and Georgina, one of Rose’s victims, the young Black woman whose body has been colonized by an elderly white woman. I will first look to see what these characters can show us about desire and other liminal spaces, how it consumes, how it propels, how it destroys. I will then explore the scenes in both films that function as a type of emotional break or pivot—a scene of Laura Palmer weeping in a bar and a scene of Georgina weeping in a guest room—locating these images of women crying more in a tradition of 19th century sentimental art and literature than a tradition of horror. I will consider how both films represent the abject failure of the law (a standard trope of horror films) to save these women from the horrible deaths that await them, while also considering the love of their friends who attempt to fill that vacuum of care. I will then visit the otherworldly realms at the narrative center of each film, The Red Room and The Sunken Place, thinking of them as nightmare versions of Gloria Anzaldúa’s coatlicue state. Finally, I will imagine what Laura and Georgina might have desired, instead of what the white men and women who took their lives desired from them. I will turn to a number of feminist thinkers, to dream about what a feminist desire looks and feels like, what it might make possible.
There is so much pleasure to be found in horror films, such exhilaration, such a collective and temporary bond formed in the movie theater as we, the audience, scream and then laugh about screaming together. There is also so much to be learned from horror films. In her foundational text, Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, Carol J. Clover writes, quoting James Twitchell’s Dreadful Pleasures, “What makes horror ‘crucial enough to pass along’ is, for critics since Freud, what has made ghost stories and fairy tales crucial enough to pass along: its engagement of repressed fears and desires and its reenactment of the residual conflict surrounding those feelings” (11), going on to explain that when we watch horror, we are meant to have an uninterrupted experience of what she calls “knowing” but what I might also call “feeling,” alongside the victims and monsters and heroes and killers. We are meant to really go there, be there, with the narrative as it unfolds, but also we come to see that we were already there all along, the fears on the screen were already our fears, our desires, who we want to be and who we are afraid we might be. We are engaged, we can’t look away, until sometimes we have to, when the horror of it overwhelms us. In Barbara Creed’s essay on Julia Kristeva and women in horror films, “Horror and the Monstrous-Feminine: An Imaginary Abjection,” she writes, “The horror film puts the viewing subject’s sense of a unified self into crisis, specifically in those moments when the image on the screen becomes too threatening or horrific to watch, when the abject threatens to draw the viewing subject to the place ‘where meaning collapses,’ the place of death” (57). Against being “unwatchable,” even the most brutal scenes in Fire Walk With Me and Get Out are too devastating to look away from, rather than being too horrific to watch: as the viewer, I feel required to meet these characters in the depth of their suffering, in the agony of their effort to escape. I feel inescapably implicated. Through this implication, my own boundaries collapse, exposed as illusory, and my continuity or nondifferentiation with these characters is made perceptible, undeniable. In both these films, the “place of death” “where meaning collapses” becomes a potential site of new meaning-making, new communication, a place to fight against premature dying, a place beyond life and death, a place for another kind of living with a new way to value life. But to get there, we’ll need to go deeper into the films.
I WANT TO TASTE WITH YOUR MOUTH
I want to think about what happens through oppressive, voracious desires in Fire Walk With Me and Get Out, first thinking about the tragic white girl object of Laura Palmer, and then the weaponized white girl object of Rose Armitage. I will then turn to the Armitage family’s white supremacist fantasy of Blackness that first enslaves and then kills Georgina, and many others, more than we ever know, and almost does the same to the Get Out’s hero, Chris.
In Fire Walk With Me, Sheryl Lee delivers a fevered performance as the doomed teenage hero, Laura Palmer, moving through her own Stations of the Cross in the final days of her life, already hovering somehow between the living and the unliving. But while the story may begin with Laura, the movie doesn’t. Instead we first enter at the scene of another murder of another teenage girl, Teresa Banks. In the world of this film, as with the world we all share, to be a teenage girl is to be in some degree of danger all the time, in danger because of the desire directed towards you, in danger because of the power you don’t have, and in Laura and Teresa’s cases, in danger because of the marginal, outlawed spaces they move inside because of their queerness, their drug use, and their roles as sex workers. Because of her class background and more obvious queerness, Teresa is rendered even more vulnerable in life than Laura. In the universe of the show, her death goes unmourned, and in the universe of ABC and the show’s creators, her death could not become the central mystery of a primetime network television show, because it is not mysterious when a working class, queer, sex worker is murdered, her whiteness too far from the normative standard to save her, whereas it is mysterious when Laura Palmer, so often described as “the homecoming queen,” which is to say, someone whose perceived heteronormative whiteness should have saved her, is murdered.
This specter of the innocent who should be protected, who should be mourned, is crucial here. The mystery of Laura Palmer’s fate—a question sufficiently intriguing to make the television show it’s own pop culture phenomenon—is propelled by the troubling sense that “all is not what it seems.” Laura Palmer’s murder inspires fascination because of its incongruity with who she was otherwise assumed to be: a prom queen with prodigious extracurriculars, an innocent, a white girl. The tension of the narrative that pulls the audience in so tightly is unsettlingly like the tension that attracts a demon (BOB) to Laura in the story—that which exists between the fantasy of her innocence and the fantasy of her defilement.
These opposing poles have long been an animating, constitutive part of the fantasy of whiteness generally, and the white girl specifically. One of the things that constitutes the category of whiteness in the United States is a fantasy of purity, of innocence, tied to the fantasy of the transcendent Christian nation that, in spite of a history of enslavement and genocide, maintains its self-understanding as innocent in order to justify and forget that violence, and the ongoing violence the nation, in its history and presence, makes possible. One of the things white supremacy depends on is a vision of white innocence that can be extended to all people who qualify as white, who want to understand themselves as superior, more moral, more civilized, and guiltless. The death, destruction, and torment whiteness has systematically visited upon all non-white people could not be understood as criminal or as morally wrong for the fantasy of whiteness to be powerful enough to inspire the kind of patriotism of religious, identity-defining proportion it has for so many white people. It’s a violently enforced nationalist fantasy that, transformed through the notion of a Christian nation willed by God, becomes free of any moral blame. As Regina Schwartz explains in The Curse of Cain: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism, “Once sovereign power is legitimated by transcendence, it is elusive (and unlike human sovereignty) inviolate. There is no check upon the will of a nation-God… Mystically produced and miraculously inviolate, the sovereignty of the divinely legitimated nation is, unlike its human counterpart, ultimately unimpeachable” (13). And as Jon Pahl adds to Schwartz’s point in Empire of Sacrifice: The Religious Origins of American Violence, “The transcendent nation depends on an innocent people… To say that a nation is ‘inviolate’ and ‘unimpeachable’ is another way to say that it represents itself as innocent” (32). Innocence becomes a constituent, defining element of whiteness, not connected to any one element of white behavior, but the very nature and possibility of whiteness. To be white is to be superior, to be white is to be innocent, and to be innocent without being white becomes impossible, unthinkable. The closest possible approximation is to be subservient to whiteness, non-threatening to its supremacy, a dying “noble savage,” or a laboring “good slave.”
As whiteness is fundamentally innocent, the white girl is particularly innocent. As Hari Ziyad writes in his article for AFROPUNK, “How The Narrative Around White Women’s Innocence Taught Me To Let Them Get Away With Violence,” “White women have been positioned as the epitome of vulnerability and virtuosity to the point where they can hardly do any wrong, despite having done so much already.” The angel of the home, only safe when she stays close to the domestic sphere, the need to “protect” her anywhere outside of that has been mobilized to violent, murderous ends thousands of times. She can have no desires save the maintenance of her own purity, no knowledge beyond the knowledge of her own vulnerability, her dependence. She is innocent because she is helpless, powerless, and her innocence makes her a sacred object, a white girl. Laura Palmer is doomed because of this destructive desire of whiteness, and everyone watches as if there were no other way it could be.
After Teresa Banks’s murder in the opening scene, so sudden and violent we hardly have time to realize the intro credits are over, the FBI is mobilized, led in this fictional universe by director David Lynch’s character, Gordon Cole. But thanks to the special dramatic irony of the prequel, we already know they will fail, we know other girls will die, and we know Laura is next. We as the viewers are subjected to a gruesome autopsy scene, Teresa’s unseeing stare, Teresa’s blue skin, Teresa unmoving on the table, Teresa’s access to her own story foreclosed upon as it becomes the story of frustrated FBI agents unable to save anyone from anything, including themselves. After the autopsy, the agents go to the diner where Teresa briefly worked. When asked about Teresa, the waitress behind the counter—perhaps truly indifferent, perhaps feigning indifference—replies, “I’ve been giving it a lot of thought. And I believe her death was what you’d call a freak accident.” To her, perhaps, Teresa’s death is just one of those things that can’t be questioned, but we know already this was no vagary of fate nor random stroke of misfortune. We know that she had agency and plans that were deliberately taken from her, along with everything else. We understand the systematic devaluing and dehumanizing that left her vulnerable to her death. We know this about the secret lives of teenage girls even before we arrive in Twin Peaks, even before we meet the doomed Laura Palmer.
In one of the central scenes of the film, Laura and her best friend Donna lie on the couch after school and talk about love, a familiar image of teenage suburban girlhood, undercut all the while by Sheryl Lee’s visible impatience with Donna’s naiveté, the distance she maintains from the conversation with everything we the audience know her to be hiding. Something about the topic inspires Donna to ask, “Do you think that if you were falling in space that you would slow down after a while, or go faster and faster?” A question to which Laura has the answer, because she has already been tumbling through her life with no guide and no support, no end but what has long been and felt inevitable, and so she replies, “Faster and faster. And for a long time you wouldn’t feel anything. And then you’d burst into fire. Forever. And the angels wouldn’t help you. Because they’ve all gone away.” Laura already knows there will be no salvation for her, she knows her role is to remain unsaved, propelled forward by an uncaring wind until she meets her fate in a burst of flame. The image of the “angel” appears throughout Fire Walk With Me, in a painting in Laura’s room and later at the climax of the film, but the angel is never more than a visual sign, neither part nor player of this world, powerless, just a picture of a beautiful white woman who looks kind but will not save you.
This is the same dark mood we see Laura in again a few days later, when she goes to work for her friend/pimp Jacques at his bar. As she approaches the doorway, she’s stopped by a mysterious woman, the Log Lady, a character with access to otherworldly knowledge. She takes Laura’s hands and says to her, “When this kind of fire starts, it is very hard to put out. The tender boughs of innocence burn first, and the wind rises, and then all goodness is in jeopardy.” And then, like everyone else, she leaves Laura to her fate.
After this exchange, Laura enters the bar and finds another mysterious woman, dressed as if from another time, a mythic American 1950’s that never ends, singing an eerie song from the stage, so out of place in this dive bar catering to laborers in the local logging industry. She sings as if directly to Laura, asking Laura as if she had a choice, “Why did you go? Was it me? Was it you? Questions in a world of blue.” Perhaps it was the Log Lady’s words, perhaps it is the song, but Laura takes her seat at a table and weeps as if she now knows for certain all is lost, there will be no escape. It is horrible to watch. Soon after, two men approach her table, two future clients, and she asks them, “You gonna fuck me, huh? You want to fuck the prom queen?” They don’t care that she’s obviously upset. No one does, except Donna, who followed her there, but will also fail to save her. A few days later, Laura’s dead, with no help from the angels.
When Laura weeps in that bar, trapped somewhere between life and death but much closer to the latter, it reminds me of another woman’s rolling tears—Georgina in Get Out, played with devastating precision by Betty Gabriel. We’ll return to those tears soon, but first I want to spend some time with the consuming desires that animate Get Out. As Fire Walk With Me doesn’t start with Laura Palmer, neither does Get Out begin with Georgina, but with another woman, who doesn’t cry, but instead wears the horribly satisfied smirk of a white woman who feels certain in her safety and power and the ultimate success of all her sinister endeavours, Rose Armitage, played by Allison Williams.
She’s smiling as she surveys an array of baked goods at a coffee shop, carefully selecting which to bring to her boyfriend Chris’s house before they head away for a quiet weekend where she’ll introduce him to her parents at their beautiful family home by a tranquil lake in a generic wealthy suburb. Or that’s what we think at the beginning of the film. Later we learn what that smile really means, the fate it rests assured in. If Laura Palmer is the tragic white-girl object, trapped by others’ fantasies of her innocence, Rose Armitage is the complicit and weaponized white-girl object, the fantasy of her innocence used to trap others, in this case her Black boyfriend, Chris, reminding the viewer of the long and terrible history of other Black men similarly trapped and condemned to lynchings justified by the symbolic innocence of white women. In her article, “The Most Terrifying Villain in Get Out Is White Womanhood,” Aisha Harris explains, “Chris joins a long historical line of black people, both real and fictional, who have had their lives threatened or complicated by white women’s lies and/or the cultural perception of white womanhood as unfailingly virtuous and true.” The evil of Rose Armitage is so well-hidden behind her white smile it becomes essentially invisible, despite the interminable history of that smile and the blood it has spilled, laughing as it does so.
Rose smiles because she thinks she’s already won, in the same way that her mother, Missy Armitage, played by Catherine Keener, smiles when she invites Chris over to sit with her, an invitation that is really a white woman’s self-assured demand, the first time she hypnotizes him, the first step in stealing his Black body to sell to the highest white bidder the next day at the auction disguised as a family party. The next step, as we learn after the auction is complete and Chris is tied to a chair in the basement, is for the white buyer’s consciousness to be surgically removed from his own body, and transplanted inside Chris’s skull so that Chris’s body might become his body, the most complete enslavement imaginable, with no hope of escape, without the possibility of even a temporary relief away from the enslaver’s gaze. As the horrifying buyer explains, “So you won’t be gone, a sliver of you will be in there, you’ll be able to see and hear what your body is doing, a passenger, audience.” This fantasy division leading to the most sick union—Black body, white mind or spirit—aligns with the foundational United States system of racial classification, as Coco Fusco explains, “Whereas systems of racial classification from the eighteenth century onward reduced people of color to the corporeal, whiteness was understood as a spirit that manifests itself in a dynamic relation to the physical world” (“Racial Time, Racial Marks, Racial Metaphors” 37). The white supremacist Armitage family and their client-friends have found a way to achieve their perfect fantasy of control and possession of the Black body without sacrificing their fantasy of a superior white mind and spirit.
This, we realize, is what has happened to Georgina. We first meet her on Chris’s guided tour of the Armitage home, when he and we as the audience still think this is just another awkward family-meeting made more awkward by a white liberal response to being around Black people. When Chris and Dean, Rose’s father, played by Bradley Whitford, find Georgina in the kitchen, Dean explains, “My mother loves her kitchen, so we keep a piece of her in here,” later clarifying, “We hired them [Georgina the maid and Walter the groundskeeper] to take care of my parents, and when they died, we couldn’t bear to let them go.” As the surgery/possession is later explained to Chris, we understand that Dean literally meant what he said: Walter is the body and partial consciousness of a Black man controlled by the consciousness of Rose’s grandfather, and Georgina is the body and partial consciousness of a Black woman controlled by the consciousness of Rose’s grandmother. And although we never even learn their true names, those two Black people aren’t really gone, they’re right there, trapped in their own bodies, objectified and possessed in the worst and most literal sense.
Get Out offers many examples of what white people desire to take from or get out of Black people. At the party that is a ploy for putting Chris on display for possible buyers, some of the white guests are interested in him for their fantasies of Black male sexuality, or for perceptions of his cultural “coolness,” or for his “genetic makeup” that could make him “a fucking beast.” In the end, his appalling buyer explains that it was none of these desires that motivated him to live inside Chris, to live between Chris and himself, but instead it was his eyes, “those things you see with.” We don’t know exactly what reasons the Armitage grandparents would have given for for why they wanted to live in the Black bodies they steal, but when we see Walter running at night with his singular focus on virility, finally possessing the unbeatable physical strength of an Olympic medalist he had longed for in the white body he found insufficient, or when we see Georgina staring at her reflection in the window, marvelling at her beauty, touching her hair, we see them both revelling in their achievement of the long held white dream to be Black in body without really being Black in mind.
This desire, corporeal, sexual, is necessarily destructive and violent, as the desire is to dominate, to destroy. In her article “White Sexuality is a Breeding Ground for White Violence,” Sherronda J. Brown writes, “When the very system of whiteness that you have been indoctrinated into since birth is a sexual fantasy in and of itself, it follows that white supremacy would manifest itself through sexual violence. When anti-Blackness is central to this system, sexual desire for Black people has to be coded as hatred, dehumanization, and violence.” She goes on to explain, “People’s desire to dominate whomever they hate extends to sexual proclivities, but in sexual violence there also exists a need to both possess and destroy that which they are ashamed of desiring.” The desires of the Armitage family and their friends, the desires of white supremacy, are poisonous, vampiric, a plague on all the Black people who have the misfortune of sharing a world with them. As Carlyle Van Thompson explains in Eating the Black Body: Miscegenation as Sexual Consumption in African American Literature and Culture, “the sexualized racial violence that Black people experienced during the enslavement period and beyond constructs the trope of eating, which links the violence to vampirism—a human being becomes the source of another’s sustenance. Just as the forced labor and the extra-legal violence consumed Black bodies and provided economic sustenance through intimidation, rape and other forms of sexual violence had a similar physical and psychological effect” (18). The Armitage family and their friends literally want to consume the Black body and to be consumed by it, to disappear inside it while maintaining an ever more perfect control of it. It is a desire to interminably dominate, to endlessly torture, to exterminate over and over again. But they don’t see it that way. As white people, they still see themselves as innocent.
bell hooks traces this desire for Blackness, for the “Other,” back to this fantasy of white innocence. In “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance,” she describes a group of white men she overheard discussing “prime target” sexual partners from across different racial categories, writing, “To these young males and their buddies, fucking was a way to confront the Other, as well as a way to make themselves over, to leave behind white ‘innocence’ and enter the world of ‘experience,’” going on to explain, “The direct objective was not simply to sexually possess the Other; it was to be changed in some way by the encounter. ‘Naturally,’ the presence of the Other, the body of the Other, was seen as existing to serve the ends of white male desires” (368). The Armitages and their friends want to change in the sense that they want to leave their insufficient white shells like evil crabs and take on Black bodies. But it’s not a transformation they seek, not an escape from their whiteness, it’s rather a more complete functioning of their white supremacist desire to consume and to control.
After gaining the knowledge of what is really happening at the Armitage home, we are able to understand an exchange between Chris and Georgina from earlier in the film that before had seemed strange but relatively innocuous. After being accused of unplugging Chris’s phone (which we now understand she did, but not for the reasons we thought), Georgina comes dutifully to apologize and explain herself to Chris. Uncomfortable in their positions as he understands them, Chris tries to connect with her, or perhaps to test her, sensing something is wrong. He says, “All I know is sometimes, when there’s too many white people, I get nervous, you know?” Her face in response doesn’t make sense in the way we expect human faces to make sense—her mouth is split in a grin, but tears are pouring from her eyes, which are lit with the strangest inner light. She shakes her head over and over and then she starts to speak, “Oh no, no. No. No no no no no no,” she says, “Aren’t you something? That’s not my experience. Not at all. The Armitages are so good to us. They treat us like family.” In the moment, the scene is disquieting, but on later reflection, it’s agonizing, as you realize the tears are from the Black woman whose body and life have been stolen from her, they are erupting outside the control of the white woman who did the stealing, a trace of what is left of her, and the smile is that white woman, wresting back her control in order to utter the phrase “like family.” It is a nightmare to watch. Now, let’s talk about the tears.
Each time I watch these films, the scenes of crying, Laura at the bar and Georgina in Chris’s room, make me cry too. It embarrasses me to watch these movies with other people, as there doesn’t tend to be a lot of crying in horror audiences. They haunt me, they undo me, I can’t look away. When they cry, I cry. Why?
Locating these images of tears rolling down a woman’s faces in a tradition of sentimental literature is one way to approach their affective power. In her essay “What Is Sentimentality?” June Howard explains:
Most broadly — when we call an artifact or gesture sentimental, we are pointing to its use of some established convention to evoke emotion; we mark a moment when the discursive processes that construct emotion become visible. Most commonly — we are recognizing that a trope from the immense repertory of sympathy and domesticity has been deployed; we recognize the presence of at least some fragmentary element of an intellectual and literary tradition… But that does not undermine the importance of the recognition that sentimental works consistently engage us in the intricate impasse of the public and private, proclaiming their separation and at the same time demonstrating their inseparability. As emotion, embodied thought that animates cognition with the recognition of the self's engagement; as sympathy, firmly based in the observer's body and imaginatively linking it to another's; as domestic culture, in the peculiar intimacy of the print commodity; sentimentality at the same time locates us in our embodied and particular selves and takes us out of them. (76)
They cry because their lives have been and are being taken from them. Their private pain, held so deeply inside, in Georgina’s trapped Black consciousness, in Laura’s self-medicated haze, their private pain that begins with the public problems of white supremacy and misogyny, is physically transmitted to me through the sentimental image of their tears, public again, shared again. Our boundaries collapse. I have said in horror there is not a lot of crying. Creed might explain that this is because in horror, while boundaries around the self may blur, they are always reconstituted, writing, “This process of reconstitution of the self is reaffirmed by the conventional ending of the horror film in which the monster is usually ‘named’ and destroyed,” going on to explain, “Fear of losing oneself and one’s boundaries is made more acute in a society which values boundaries over continuity and separateness over sameness. Given that death is represented in the horror film as a threat to the self’s boundaries, symbolized by the threat of the monster, death images are most likely to cause the spectator to look away, to not-look” (58). These images, while death images of a sort—Laura cries in part because she knows how soon she will be dead, and Georgina cries because she think she knows how soon Chris will be almost-dead, as she is almost-dead, socially dead—I find impossible to look away from, all boundaries impossible to maintain. As Howard explains of sentimentality, in the moment of viewing these scenes, I am located in my particular and embodied self, and I am also taken out of myself, I am undone. The monsters in these horror films—the murderous violence of white supremacy and misogyny—are not destroyed at the films’ conclusions, as Creed rightly points out is so often the case in horror, and so potentially the process of reconstituting the self is never completed; I am still with them, they still haunt me.
The tears, too, are like ghosts, this reminder of what always remains, what can never be completely consumed, erased, or buried, no matter how deep the shovel goes. As Colin Dayan writes in The Law is a White Dog: How Legal Rituals Make and Unmake Persons, “Ghosts are never proof of vacancy but evidence of plenitude. They return chock full of memories and longing. For them, nothing is ever past, and sometimes they appear to test the limits of death or its meaning in a world of terror. The many forms of the dead in the twenty-first century ask us to look again at the way ghosts invade the precincts of the normal” (9). The ghosts in these tears, the shadow lives of these women, are clues to how much more there is—how much more is hidden, how much more is possible, just below the surface or outside the frame. The tears show me something that cannot be stolen or killed, a type of strength existing outside of even the most complete systems of control and domination, a living that can’t be extinguished. In their humanity, the inhumanity of all oppressors and destroyers is made plain.
AND THE LAW WILL NOT PROTECT YOU BUT YOUR BEST FRIEND MIGHT
I want to stay with Dayan and Creed a bit longer in order to think about the law in both of these films. In The Law is a White Dog, Dayan explains, “If, as I argue, the law creates persons much as the supernatural creates spirits, then such newly invented entities are not what we assume. A series of metamorphoses, both legal and magical, transform persons into ghosts, into things and into animals. But these terms—person, ghost, animal, thing—which we assume to have definite boundaries, lose these demarcations. Categories lost their distinctiveness” (xvii). The law, while appearing to reflect that which exists prior to it, in fact creates persons and ghosts and objects and, further, can transform a person into any one of these things. These boundaries are not stable; sometimes they waiver, like bad specters. We watch them waiver in these films. The law is fragile, and it will not save you if it does not want to.
In addition to the abject that tempts the viewer to turn away from rather than face the collapse of their boundaries, Creed describes another manifestation of the abject, writing, “abject things are those which highlight the ‘fragility of the law’ and which exist on the other side of the border that separates out the living subject from that which threatens its extinction” (39). The fragility of the law is visible in both Fire Walk With Me and Get Out as law enforcement officers either fail to save the victims from their fates, or in fact present yet another threat against their survival.
As previously mentioned, a number of white male FBI agents feature prominently in Fire Walk With Me, but we know from the start of the film that they will fail, that they will die themselves, or disappear, or be possessed by their own demonic forces. The law cannot protect Laura Palmer, the law can barely figure out who killed her. Even a joint task force of police and FBI, presented in Lynchian fashion as spiritually guided and pacifist, does no good whatsoever for Laura Palmer. This is one of the lessons the final girl of horror genre films teaches us—if a man comes to save you, he will surely fail—but it’s also more than that.
In Get Out, when Chris’s best friend Rod realizes something is wrong, he goes to the police for help. The police, unsurprisingly, laugh in his face, unbelieving and unmoved, and leave Chris to his gruesome fate. In the final scene of the film, after his heroic escape from the Armitage laboratory where he killed the people who wanted to do much worse to him, while Rose is bleeding on the sidewalk, having lost the strength to continue pursuing Chris, sirens appear in the distance and she smiles while Chris, and us the audience with him, groans. We know if the police arrive after all he has endured, Chris will end up in jail, a Black man necessarily rendered the criminal just as Rose is a white woman who will necessarily be read as the innocent victim. If this were another type of horror film, Rose would be the typical final girl—white skin, brown hair, a surprising capacity for violence. Even as he narrowly avoided an enslavement made more complete by nightmarish medical technology, the appearance of police lights in the distance remind anyone who may have forgotten that Chris is still not fully recognized as a person, not seen as fully alive. As Lisa Maria Cacho writes in Social Death: Racialized Rightlessness and the Criminalization of the Unprotected, “Engendered by corporate capital and the neoliberal state, ineligibility to personhood refers to the state of being legally recognized as rightless, located in the spaces of social death where demands for humanity are ultimately disempowering because they can be interpreted only as asking to be given something sacred in return for nothing at all” (7). Having narrowly avoided the total social death of his possession—of being completely “without power except through another,” a “nonperson” (5) as Orlando Patterson explains in Slavery and Social Death—the specter of his “ineligibility to personhood” again threatens his survival when we hear the sirens. Instead of rescue, Chris would be swept up by the law, condemned again, a Black man accused of the crime of harming a white woman.
But that’s not what happens. Chris is saved by Rod, his best friend, who cares for him and protects him and watches his dog when he’s away and looks for him when he doesn’t come home. The law, in the business of bestowing and stripping rights only to strengthen its own control and oppression, cannot save you, but an industrious and devoted friend who cares about you can. Or, at least, can try. I think also of Laura’s best friend, Donna, who shows up at the bar where we see Laura crying. She wants to save her, she follows her down into a nightmare to try and bring her back. She fails, perhaps because she’s too late, or perhaps because Laura won’t let Donna put herself in danger, but Donna’s attempt, her love, counts for something nonetheless. It isn’t enough, but it isn’t nothing—it shows Laura that her life meant something to someone, and that her death will be mourned, and she will be remembered, even if never avenged.
WAITING FOR A CROSSING / COATLICUE STATE
Where Georgina is, where Chris is meant by the Armitages to go, is called The Sunken Place. The view from The Sunken Place is of a grainy television screen getting further away, the sound of The Sunken Place is muffled as if passing through water. Once inside, you are still aware of the world moving around you, of yourself moving through it (the “limited consciousness” explained by the horrendous buyer), but you remain distanced from that life. A person trapped in The Sunken Place is like a ghost who everyone can see but no one recognizes as such, their body a puppet with hidden strings, their Blackness finally the powerless commodity that the Armitage family and their friends have so longed to consume.
The Sunken Place, this world in-between life and death, a living purgatory, is depicted in the movie in a way strikingly similar to the vision of falling through space described by Laura Palmer, but more slowly, something between burning and sinking or drowning. Fire Walk With Me presents its own liminal realm between life and death to which external, perhaps supernatural, forces aspire to send Laura. It’s a home for demons and their victims, only accessible through two mysterious portals, one an unseen pathway deep in the woods, the other a framed picture an old woman gives to Laura, a picture of a door ajar. The iconography of this place is famous amongst Twin Peaks fans, who refer to it as “The Red Room,” with its red curtains, its black-and-white zig-zag floor pattern, its operating room lights. After her violent death, while her body floats “wrapped in plastic,” another part of Laura finds herself in the room. The missing angel she’s been looking for the whole movie is there too, and when she sees her, Laura laughs. The angel’s longed-for arrival is far too late. Perhaps the angel still provides comfort, but we know now it’s no salvation, or at least not the kind of salvation Laura would have chosen. She’s still dead, she’s still trapped, even as she escaped the demon’s desire to possess her all her life.
Twenty-five years later, in Twin Peaks: The Return, when we first see Laura in Episode 2 (“The Stars Turn and a Time Presents Itself”), she’s still there, recreating her famous scene with would-be hero, Special Agent Dale Cooper. Her movements and speech are recorded backwards and played forwards—she blinks backwards, her steps echo backwards, and her words spoken backwards require subtitles to be understood. In one exchange, Cooper asks her, “Who are you,” to which she replies, something we already know, “I am Laura Palmer.” But Cooper doesn’t understand the rules of the strange purgatory in which this meeting takes place, and so asks, “But she’s dead?” Laura, understanding the rules of this reality all too well, explains “I am dead. And yet I live.” Like those in The Sunken Place, like Schrödinger’s tortured cat, she is neither, and she is both.
The Sunken Place and The Red Room to me can both be understand as their own nightmare versions of Gloria Anzaldúa’s Coatlicue state. Anzaldúa writes, “ Coatlicue is a rupture in our everyday world. As the Earth, she opens and swallows us, plunging us into the underworld where the soul resides, allowing us to dwell in the darkness… Simultaneously, depending on the person, she represents: duality in life, a synthesis of duality, and a third perspective—something more than mere duality or a synthesis of duality” (68). Although itself already a dark and dangerous place, the spaces we’ve been exploring are nightmare inversions of Coatlicue because, while what makes the Coatlicue state so important is that it “Is A Prelude To Crossing” (70), The Sunken Place and The Red Room are both meant to be inescapable traps into which one is ensnared by forces far beyond their own control, condemned to dwell inside forever, not fully alive, but without the hoped for peace of the dead, and without the chance of a crossing or transformation.
As a prelude to a crossing, the Coatlicue state is more like a birth than a death, much closer to a gift than a curse. It tends toward transformation, and hopefully, an eventual liberation. The Sunken Place and The Red Room are meant to liberate no one, but instead to maintain ever more perfect systems of control that oppress the most vulnerable under a white supremacist heteropatriarchy. These places are built on oppressive desires, desires to control, to limit and to end life. But that is not the only desire we can imagine.
CONCLUSION: OTHER DESIRE
What if we consider, instead of the desires of others to consume them, the desires of Laura and of Georgina? What if we follow Avery Gordon again as she urges us to consider what it is a ghostly visitor wants? She writes, following Spivak:
There is no question that when a ghost haunts, that haunting is real. The ghost has an agency on the people it is haunting and we can call that agency desire, motivation, or standpoint. And so its desires must be broached and we have to talk to it. The ghost’s desire, even if it is nothing more than a potent and conjectural fiction, must be recognized (and we may be able to do no more than simply feel its haunting impact) if we are to admit that the ghost, particularly as it functions as a figure for that which is invisible but not necessarily not there, is capable ‘of strategy towards us.’ (177)
What might Laura and Georgina desire? What might their “unfinished business” be? I think we can see, through their pain and through their great displays of strength and courage, that one thing they long for is escape, liberation from the bonds that limit their living, freedom from others’ desires to consume them. I think, rather than the traps they find themselves in, wherein they are violently defined and violently contained or detained by the forces that dominate their worlds, they would desire Coatlicue like the one Gloria Anzaldúa describes, writing, “My soul makes itself through the creative act. It is constantly remaking and giving birth to itself through my body. It is this learning to live with la Coatlicue that transforms living in the Borderlands from a nightmare into a numinous experience. It is always a path/state to something else” (95). They want something else, to be on that path out. I think theirs would be a feminist desire. Remembering Laura in The Red Room, beautiful and laughing, tears transformed, I think of Hélène Cixous when she writes, “this is what nourishes life—a love that has no commerce with the apprehensive desire that provides against the lack and stultifies the strange; a love that rejoices in the exchange that multiplies. Wherever history still unfolds as the history of death, she does not tread” (“The Laugh of the Medusa” 264). Against this history of death, Laura and Georgina weep for the strange, the multiple, the uncontainable, in motion, to nourish life.
I see another guide for their liberatory desire in Denise Ferreira Da Silva and her vision in “Toward a Black Feminist Poethics: The Quest(ion) of Blackness Toward the End of the World.” Following her, we can imagine how Laura and Georgina might “halt the Play of Desire, the ontological rendering of efficient causality[.] Because without Desire, the object, the other, and the commodity dissolve; thus released from the grips of the Subjectum, the World is emancipated from universal reason, and other possible ways of knowing and doing can be contemplated without the charge of irrationality, mysticism, or idle fantasy” (90). Against universal reason, for fantasy and irrationality, which is to say the end of this world built on oppression and dying, the entrance of another world built on something else, so otherworldly.
Against the sexual violence that preyed on these women all their lives, we can imagine a very different erotic, following Audre Lorde who writes in “The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic As Power,” “When I speak of the erotic, then, I speak of it as an assertion of the lifeforce of women; of that creative energy empowered, the knowledge and use of which we are now reclaiming in our language, our history, our dancing, our loving, our work, our lives” (55). This lifeforce is the opposite of the shadow life, the half life Laura and Georgina were subjected to, this lifeforce is so vast, it is so free. It presents an erotic energy of connection instead of alienation, a desire for liberation instead of consumption. Through it, Laura and Georgina might create instead of being destroyed, they might reclaim themselves with all their wisdom and strength. They might share that wisdom and strength such that it could be valued for its potential to transform, instead of being degraded and objectified.
To consider the desires of Laura and Georgina, which is to say feminist desires for liberation, instead of the desires for them, opens up new ways to understand desire and possibility—irrational ways, strange ways, fantastic ways. It shows life and power where otherwise there was only death and pain. It’s a way to value life differently, outside of desires of white colonial heteropatriarchy and capital accumulation, for liberation, for love and friends. As Lisa Maria Cacho writes in Social Death, “To make the unthinkable not just plausible but necessary, we have to reckon with restless ghosts and living people who share the status of ‘dead-to-others’ and demand from us nothing less than transformation” (168). We are all asked to pass through the Coatlicue state and return transformed, not just in ourselves but in our relationships to all the living and all the dead.
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Copyright © 2020 Laura Henriksen