Skip to Content

David Lynch and Surrealism in Twin Peaks, Mulholland Dr. and Lost Highway

David Lynch and Surrealism in Twin Peaks, Mulholland Dr. and Lost Highway


Ever fascinated by the American way of life, Lynch’s career is rooted in the American experience, be it small town life or the magical land of Hollywood. The contradiction of the sense of community, magic and folksiness with the underbelly of violence and perversion is at the heart of most of his projects. He explores this dichotomy through the subjectivity of his character’s mind, examining the dissolve between reality and nightmare. How this particular effect transforms space through juxtaposition, displacement and artificiality are essential to his style. Surrealism plays an important role in all of Lynch’s work.

Borne out of a legacy of fantasy art, Freudian psychology and Dada, an anti-art movement, Surrealism has no consistent style. It is often described as artwork produced by drawing on the subconscious. However, it is different from art that is merely fantastic as surrealists made a sincere attempt to create a new mythology while stressing the inner-compulsion to release their subconscious fears and desires (Hughes 212). Political and revolutionary, many surrealists purposefully tackle taboo ideas and institutions in their work, like sex, war and religion, believing that the mind cannot be free if certain topics are off limits. It is a movement that is often seen as rebellious and playful. They are often purposeful contradictory and purposefully upset the status quo through a variety of stylistic techniques.

Despite what many believe, the movement’s ultimate goal is not about making a complete break from reality, rather breaking the boundary between conscious and subconscious in order to achieve a new reality, a sur-REALITÉ.

Two Young Children are menaced by nightingale


Max Ernst was initially a member of the Dada movement. He became the first painter to join the Surrealist movement, and he saw this painting as the transition between Dada and surrealism (Hughes 222). “Two Children are Menaced by a Nightingale” still incorporates the mixed media message often found in Dada, and is painted on a door with an attached picket fence made of wood. It’s primitive but representational style is closer in spirit to the early intent of surrealism, which drew heavily on the artwork of children, mad-men and so-called “primitives”. The scene is rather idealistic, the house itself not all together different from the suburban homes that have come to have sinister connotations. This is juxtaposed with the sheer horror of the human figures who are wisps of grey paint, one has a knife, another figure which seems to be a parent is carrying away a younger child. The source of the horror is the afore-mentioned nightingale, which you can see in the upper left corner. Completely inocuous and mundane, barely noticeable…

The contradiction of emotions, tone and artificial simplicity all contribute to the overall sense of dread. The house as represented also seems to be a rather obviously an “image” of a home, which represents positive ideals like comfort, safety and family.

The presence of the nightingale as a mundane, essentially harmless sense of horror is important. As works of dreams, it becomes a stand-in for real horror/violence which is merely displaced on the mundane object. The connotation this alludes to is the omni-presence of things like violence (or sex), so that they can effectively be displaced onto something ordinary. The discomfort is not so much that the mundane is now horrific, but rather the idea that the horrific has become so mundane.

New American Mythology

David Lynch works to create this new reality by drawing heavily on conventions of the “mythology of the New America” by drawing on iconography and narrative modes found throughout Americana. The vision of the open road, diners, suburban home, cowboys, Hollywood, soap operas and television all come together to form an artificial view of american life. There is an important mixture of fascination and repulsion. I also think that Lynch’s love or interest is why his work is often quite funny, often darkly so. David Lynch’s use of interior space is most often expressed in the home. This familiar space is often twisted and maligned by the subjectivity of the characters. The mundane, often ordinary home life is transformed into the realm of the subconscious. The promise of comfort and safety is replaced by great desire and even greater fear.

Artificiality is very important to this world as well. There is very much a sense that these settings and characters are not quite real. The home in particular looks too much like a set, not that it looks plastic or fake, but it doesn’t look lived in and is not particular distinctive. It could very much have been the cheery setting of a 1950s era sitcom, if it were not for the subversion stylistic techniques at work. Using juxtaposition, sound and excess, our understanding of normality is skewed. Strangely enough, the artificiality suggests something quite real. Like the nightingale, there is the idea that the real is hiding in the illusion and the mundane. The construction is somehow more true than reality or dream on their own, combined we have a stronger image of the truth.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1991)


Lynch’s cinema takes many queues from this constructed mythology, especially in his tv-soap-drama Twin Peaks and follow-up movie, a prequel, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. The series is build almost entirely on the sinister qualities of the home. The facade of small-town life is initially disrupted by the murdered body of Laura Palmer being discovered. Technology is often the only thing it’s contemporary setting. The contradiction between the folksiness and the apparent violence that took place feels jarring, but is only the tip of the iceberg. The death of Laura Palmer seems to work against the setting, but as the series and film unfold, the artificiality reveals dark truths about this world.

In a scene about halfway through the film, Laura Palmer faces the horror of her suburban home: Laura arrives home. The ceiling fan spins threateningly above her. She appears terrified and twitchy.First and foremost, we see the home, it’s the afternoon, the sun is out and everything seems in order. Yet, immediately something sinister is suggested with the extreme low angle shot of the ceiling fan, whose noise seems to echo ominously throughout the scene. Laura’s subjectivity is established through POV shots and the excess of her performance, which sets up a sense of anxiety and paranoia.

Then, of course we have Bob. For those unaware, the town of Twin Peaks is similarly populated by a spirit lodge that travels or is somehow engaged by electricity. One of its members, perhaps its leader is Bob, who menaces Laura throughout her life. She claims that he has raped her since she was twelve and is similarly violent. In this scene he is not only a stark contrast to the pink-childlike bedroom, but he is searching for her hidden diary. The fact that he mirrors her reaction is another mode of doubling commonly found in surrealist work, it suggests a deep connection between them, however unwilling.

Finally, we have the end of the scene where Laura’s father exits the house. Having already entered that space we are fairly certain that he wasn’t there before. Is Laura’s father and Bob one and the same?

“La Condition Humaine” Rene Magritte, 1933


This is one of the most important works in surrealism by one of its most important painters. Though not abstract, it is a very 2-dimensional work with little depth. We can see the paint-strokes and even the canvas underneath.

“The fidelity of the painting on the easel to what we suppose is behind it turns out to be more disturbing than reassuring” (Whitfield 200).

This acts to create a sense of de-familiarization, “we think we know something but at the same time it feels strange” (Falsetto). This speaks very much to our dual relationship with Bob and the Father. We have come to understand that somehow the subconscious or supernatural is hiding the truth, and we have a pretty good idea what this truth is yet we are pretty unwilling to accept it. In many ways, the film would be more palatable if Bob were real. Lynch himself divorced himself from the second season of the series when Bob and other lodge members became more obviously real, suggesting they were the cause of violent sexual acts present in the show, not the men themselves.

Construction of a New Reality

As mentioned earlier, surrealism is very much about creating a new reality where dream and reality co-exist. The key to understanding how this is done is the acceptance that the dream and artificial are as real as our waking life. This is exemplified throughout Mulholland Dr., which is very much breaking down the walls between illusion and reality with Hollywood and cinema as its backdrop. Not only do we have several scenes of “acting” which are powerful and “authentic”, but we have actors from classic Hollywood, like Ann Miller, who suggest allusions to the dream factory of the past. Then we have one of the best scenes in Lynch’s filmography, the Silencio club. This sequence is essential because it establishes very clearly that it is fake. “This is a recording, this is all on tape”. When the trumpet player comes on stage, he is very clearly NOT playing. And then we have Rebecca Del Rio come on stage and give a heart-wrenching performance of “Silencio”, which is again fake. Do we feel cheated as an audience? I don’t think so. Lynch effectively suggests that though obviously constructed and artificial, this is real.

Introduction to Lost Highway


Gripped by paranoia and suspicion, Fred (Bill Pullman) believes he has been framed for the murder of his wife (Patricia Arquette). In prison he suffers from insomnia and headaches and he inexplicably morphs into a young mechanic and begins leading a new life.

Lynch has publicly called his film a “psychogenic fugue,” a term that in this
context refers to a mental state in which a person is delusional although
seemingly fully aware, a state from which he emerges with no memory of his
actions” (Rhodes)

Lost Highway is an interesting exception in Lynch’s work, because the subjective structure is not from the POV of a victim or innocent. Fred’s subjectivity seems immediately haunted, it is aggressive, dark and frightening. His interior space reflects that, and his home is cold, detached and even during the day lacks the spark of life. Fred is also very much locked into his own world view, which is why his fears and desires cripple him completely. When he invites two detectives to investigate a strange break-in, they ask why he doesn’t like photos or videos, he answers, “I like to remember things my own way…. How I remembered them. Not necessarily the way they happened.” The appearance of the mysterious man (Robert Blake) at a party serves to suggest that we are entering very much a state of dreams and hallucination, one which will dominate the film, in particular the second half. The mysterious man has not only invaded the interior space, the home, but Fred’s mind. Notice how he says, “I don’t go where I’m not wanted”. He very much becomes the expression of Fred’s violent undertones and the obscure justification for his acts.

I haven’t explored the notion too much, but the idea of doubles and mirrors play an important role in surrealism. This is almost over-stated in the film and nearly every character either has an alter-ego or a “twin” of some kind. This is particularly interesting in how it works with the double of Arquette, especially as seen through the subjectivity of Fred. Both of her incarnations seem to be stock characters from film noir, the first version of her the frigid, dark and passive femme fatale, while the other represents a sexual bombshell always in action. They seem to be mirror opposites but the male characters seem to suggest that she brings upon both of their doom. The artifice of their construction as “characters” creates an expectation of violence. If we look at the legacy of film noir and a lot of powerful woman, the narratives and characters seem to justify their death or violence against them. In Lost Highway, the oneiric vision suggests very much a troubled interior life and these conclusions are troubling. Using sound and space, especially that dark hallway Lynch is able to highlights Fred’s delusion. Though Fred forgets his crimes, he is aware of why and how he did them, which is why he is doomed to repeat them.

The surrealist aesthetic often reveals a truth hidden in plain sight. In this case, Fred’s search for identity and responsibility points to himself as the source of horror and brutality. This moment of realization expressed through premonitions of the burning house and the mysterious man, moments existing outside of regular time and space. They become moments suspended in time, anticipating the reveal of the true self. It suggests that he is doomed to repeat his actions; he seems on some level aware that he is guilty though he continues to deny it. In the film quarterly article, Lost Highway is described as a mobius strip, which means that it is in many ways internal (Rhodes). We are forever trapped in this violent and horrific psychology.

– Justine Smith

Works Cited

Falsetto, Mario. “There is no Band at Club Silencio”. Synoptique. Dec 6 2004. Web. Nov 12 2011.

Hughes, Robert. “The Shock of the New: Art and the Century of Change.” London: British

Broadcasting Corporation, 1980. Print.

Rhodes, Eric Bryant. “Lost Highway”. Film Quarterly, Spring 1998. Web. Nov 21,


Whitfeld, Sarah. “Rene Magritte, La Condition Humaine.” The Folio Society’s 100 Greatest Paintings.

Ed. Martin Bailey. London: The Folio Society, 2001. Print.

* this is from a re-purposed essay for a school assignment for Concordia University, Fall 2011