Ghostwood: Angry Nature Spirits in Twin Peaks

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Written by Eden H. Roquelaire for Twin Peaks Freaks.

“My people believe that the White Lodge is a place where the spirits that rule man and nature here reside.”

-Deputy Hawk

Throughout Twin Peaks the series and the film Fire Walk With Me, we repeatedly encounter the symbol of wood, and cutting through wood. The sawmill, the Log Lady, Josie being trapped in a drawer knob at the Great Northern, and, of course, the ever-present trees. Hidden in the plot is an environmental message: The preservation of Ghostwood, which is threatened by industrial development. In Fire Walk With Me, woodcutting tools like axes and chainsaws are recurring motifs. All of this suggests something: Could the Dugpas be some form of angry nature spirits, attacking the humans who threaten their home?

Twin Peaks‘ symbolism encourages us to connect spirits with nature, which is an element seen in every ancient culture’s lore. In Greek myth, Nymphs known as Dryads live in trees, and have been known to attack humans who attempt to cut down their home. In Egyptian mythology, two turquoise sycamores stand at the Eastern gate where the Sun God Ra rises each day. A key aspect of Native American cultures, whose symbols permeate Twin Peaks‘ mythos, is that every aspect of nature has a spirit, and is connected to the Earth Mother. The Cherokee tribe tells a tale of how humans and animals came to possess fire. It was granted to them by beings known as the Thunders, who sent down a bolt of lightning, which struck a hollow sycamore tree, causing it to catch on fire. From there, the animals were tasked with collecting the fire. Among the animals who attempted to retrieve it were three owls.

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This story is a fascinating read, considering how many key symbols it has in common with the mythology of Twin Peaks. As we all know, at Glastonbury Grove, the entrance to the Lodges is inside a circle of sycamore trees; very similar to the divine fire being lit inside a hollow sycamore tree. The Egyptians closely associated the sycamore with the Goddess Hathor, and it was seen as a symbol of both life and death. The tree was thought to grow in the underworld where its fruit was food for departed souls.

Some Native American tribes refer to the Sycamore Tree as “the Ghosts of the Forest,” and tell sinister tales about them, such as this example:

Probably the most notable Sycamore Indian lore stems from along the Little Kanawha River valley near Freeport. The Wyandotte’s spoke of twin Sycamore trees that stood along the old Indian trail near the Hughes River. As legends states, the great chief of the Evil Spirits became angry at two of his followers and cast them out along the water. These two evil spirits that had been cast across the water ended up colliding against two stately sycamore trees. All at once, the evilness spread into the trees causing them to become deformed with the limbs becoming grotesque. The Indians always believed these two trees were inhabited by the evil spirits and would be very careful when passing by. When settlers arrived and heard these tales, they would often laugh. That is until one of the settlers was found dead under one of the trees with the horrified look of having been scared to death frozen upon his face. Occasionally a defiant settler would scoff at the “haunted” trees and brag that he would cut them down for firewood. Usually after these threats were made…ill misfortune would occur to the unlucky boaster. One of the last known attempts to cut the evil trees down was made in 1840. This gentleman grabbed an axe to hack into one of the vexed trees and missed. The axe glanced off the tree and ended up lodged inside his leg. An artery was struck causing blood to spew at the base of the trunk where he promptly bled to death.

(Source: Fireside Folklore: Sycamore Trees

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Daphne transforms into a tree. Painting by Nicolas Poussin.

The idea of cast out evil spirits as seen in this tale is eerily similar to the backstory of BOB, and his Lucifer-like nature. It also plays along nicely with Twin Peaks‘ narrative of “evil in the woods.” But there isn’t just evil lurking in the woods: In fact, all kinds of spirits are dwelling in wood in Twin Peaks. The fact that Josie is trapped in the wood in the Great Northern Hotel, where she died, and the implication that the spirit of the Log Lady’s husband resides in the log she carries, is just another example of spirits in wood seen in the series. This idea is common in mythology, where we see cases of people dying and becoming flowers, or being transformed into trees to escape unwanted pursuit (such as in the case of Daphne).

From these myths, we can see the concurrent themes of spirits, nature, and the life and death cycle. With such evidence, it is not outrageous to believe that the forest of Twin Peaks, so aptly named the Ghostwood, would possess some manner of sentience.

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An intriguing subplot in Twin Peaks which was never properly explored was the Ghostwood Development Project, originally conceived of by Ben Horne, and later spearheaded by Catherine Martell. Had this plot continued, it might have revealed an intriguing, environmental message: Nature spirits angered by the imminent destruction of their home, as more and more incursions are made upon the woods, by the townsfolk, the sawmill, and the looming Ghostwood Development Project. This would provide greater meaning for  the latter two within the story, and elaborate on the backstory of the Dugpas.

Native American teachings emphasize the importance of nature; that plants and animals have spirits just as human beings do, and thus we should treat nature with love and respect. These spirits, if not treated respectfully, can turn on people, and cause them varying degrees of trouble. This message, when applied to Twin Peaks, provides the Dugpas with another, deeper motive, rather than just doing evil for evil’s sake, to feed off the suffering of humans. What makes a nature spirit angry? When its home is threatened. Certainly, that sawmill must cause the Lodge spirits some grievances… Perhaps they only decided to interfere with humans once their home began being trespassed upon? This would provide a compelling motivation for these supernatural villains, making them more complex and almost sympathetic.

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The portrayal of Dugpas as Nature Spirits is further supported by their shapeshifting abilities; an attribute commonly associated with nature spirits such as the Norse Vættir or the Horned God Cernunnos. Furthermore, Hawk describes the White Lodge as being occupied by spirits that control nature. This by itself is a fairly vague statement, however, if we provide this statement with the proper context, it becomes reasonable evidence for the “angry nature spirit” idea. Of course, this is referring to the White Lodge, but the Black Lodge being the “shadow-self” of the White Lodge, it is not illogical to believe that it possesses an equatable concept. From this, we can infer that the Black Lodge contains the spirits of the darker side of nature: Those associated with death and decay, which are both necessary for the existence of nature, but are cause of much grief for those living in it.

This reminds us that nature is amoral, and dualistic. Alongside great beauty is terrible ugliness. However, it is only the human mind that provides this context. Nature by itself is neither ugly nor beautiful, neither kind nor cruel. Much like entering the Lodges, what you see depends on your own mind, and your own spiritual well-being. An animal carcass is sorrow for its kin, but bounty for those who will feed on its meat. In this way, the Lodges reflect Nature in its purest form: To Annie Blackburn, the Black Lodge is a place of horrors, but to Windom Earle, it appears as a place of bountiful power, until, of course, those powers of death and decay claims him, as well.

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Whether or not you subscribe to this theory, it is undeniable that the forces of nature pose as a powerful presence in Twin Peaks, from the eerie wind blowing through the Douglas Firs, to the ominous hooting of the owls in the night. The powers of Earth, Air, Water, Fire, and Spirit are all prominent, and play a role in this story. And in the town of Twin Peaks, there may very well be a war between the forces of nature and human development.

“There is only one way to save a forest, an idea, or anything of value: and that is by refusing to stand by and watch it die. There is a law of nature which is more fundamental to life than the laws of man. And when something you care about is in danger, you must act to save it, or lose it forever.”

-Audrey Horne

The Owls Are Not What They Seem

Written by Eden H. Roquelaire for Twin Peaks Freaks.

THE GIANT: I will tell you three things. If I tell them to you and they come true, then will you believe me?

COOPER: Who’s that?

THE GIANT: Think of me as a friend.

COOPER: Where do you come from?

THE GIANT: The question is, where have you gone? The first thing I will tell you is: There’s a man in a smiling bag.

COOPER: A man in a smiling bag…

THE GIANT: The second thing is: The owls are not what they seem. The third thing is: Without chemicals, he points.

COOPER: What do these things mean?

THE GIANT: This is all I am permitted to say.

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The phrase, “The owls are not what they seem,” is one of the most notorious and highly debated taglines of the Twin Peaks series. While most theorists are able to come to some general consensus about the meaning behind it, not everyone is able to agree on a deeper meaning. So, the owls are not what they seem… but what exactly are they? Dugpas? Demons? Angels? Aliens? Spies? Or something else? In this article, I will delve into the various theories and examine the evidence for each one.

After the Giant relays the ominous message to Cooper, it turns up again when Major Briggs arrives at Coop’s hotel room, bearing a piece of paper containing code. The code was read by “deep space monitors,” which we later learn are actually pointed at the woods in Twin Peaks. Most of the code is “radio waves and gibberish,” except for the phrase, “The owls are not what they seem,” and Cooper’s name repeated. This message was received at roughly the same time Cooper was shot, perhaps right as he was being visited by the Giant, who also relays the message. At first, we are sort of tricked into thinking this message came from aliens in outer space. We only later on learn that these monitors were actually pointed towards Ghostwood, which some branch of the government has apparently been researching as part of Project Blue Book. This last bit of information, of course, is revealed to us during the most hectic days for the Twin Peaks writing staff, about midway through season 2, when both David Lynch and Mark Frost were interested in other projects and the remaining writers were left to patch together the rest of the path based on rough drafts, guesswork, and their own ideas. This has caused certain fans to write it off, though it remains, in fact, canonical.

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Owl-like aliens seen on the cover of Whitley Strieber’s Communion

One popular theory, and the one that fits the best with the Project Blue Book storyline, is that the owls are aliens, as is written by Whitley Strieber in his novel Communion. In this novel, the author says he struggled with suppressed memories of alien abduction, and that, before he unlocked these memories clearly, all he could remember was the image of owls staring at him through his window. He later finds that the owls are a disguise used by the aliens, ergo, they are not what they seem.

If the owls are aliens (of some sort), then the involvement of Major Briggs and Project Blue Book amidst Native American mythology and Tibetan Buddhist spirituality seems a little less inexplicable.

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Another theory is that the owls are possessed by BOB and/or other Dugpas. This theory fits the infamous image of BOB, crouched behind Laura’s bed, with an overlay of an owl face. It also nicely explains how BOB is able to learn some secrets of the townsfolk, as he would be able to spy on them in disguise. Some further supporting points can be discovered by delving into mythology and folklore, which may have been drawn upon by Mark Frost, who would commonly weave such symbols into the mythos of Twin Peaks.

At one point, MIKE refers to BOB as his “familiar.” In black magic lore, a familiar is a demon that takes the form of an animal. In this case, the demon is BOB, and the animal is an owl. Owls have commonly been associated with witches and demons, especially through the entity Lilith, who is a patroness of witches and often said to take the form of an owl, or as being a woman with legs and wings of and owl. This would make the animal a natural choice for a familiar. They seem to be BOB’s personal favorite animal to take the form of, or perhaps the only animal he can take the form of, since owls, and no other animal, are repeatedly warned against by multiple knowing sources.

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Wood cut by Hans Wechtlin

Almost every ancient culture has seen the owl as heralding misfortune and even death. They are associated with witches, graveyards and demons that lurk in the night. In Chinese folklore, owls are seen as an omen of death (as their “hoo” call sounds like the Chinese word “hu,” which means “dig,” i.e., “dig a grave”), and associated with ghosts. The Chinese also linked owls with thunder and lightning. This is significant to Twin Peaks‘s owls, due to the symbolism of electricity, heyoka, and thunderbirds of Native American folklore.

This supports the idea that the owls of Twin Peaks are spirits that spy on the townsfolk, either inhabited by BOB, other Dugpas, or being separate entities of their own. Evidence indicates that BOB utilizes the owls, or is taking the form of the owls, which also ties into the idea of him being MIKE’s familiar. One area of confusion for this theory, however, is when the Log Lady brings Cooper to the Roadhouse, telling him “we [my Log and I] don’t know what will happen or when, but there are owls in the Roadhouse.” However, BOB is not present: He is at the Palmer residence, murdering Maddy Ferguson. It should be noted that the Elderly Bellhop (one and the same with the Giant) is present, which lends credence to the idea that the owls are commonly used vessels for all Lodge spirits; not just BOB.

 

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If the owls are aliens, or if the owls are spirits, or vessels for the Dugpas, it is necessary at some point to question the distinction between each of these. According to writer Bob Engels, there were some rough ideas for Season 3 that involved the Dugpas being from a planet of creamed corn, which would make them aliens, and reinforce the Project Blue Book storyline. However, this would seem like some odd back-tracking, after the revelation that the message received from the deep space monitors came not from space, but from the woods. If this storyline is to be taken into consideration, though, it blurs the distinction between spirit and alien.

There is yet another theory that the owls are agents separate from the beings that we know, perhaps spirits of nature simply observing these events that pass through their woods. I would argue that this does little if anything for the story, and is contradicted by evidence that BOB is connected to the owls. Besides, most signs support the notion that the Dugpas are nature spirits of a kind, even if it is a darker side of nature.

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It’s most likely that no definitive answer will ever be given on the nature of Twin Peaks‘s owls, as final answers are so rarely given in Lynch’s surrealist world. There are so many theories to consider, each with their own set of compelling evidence. Which do you find to be the most convincing theory? Or do you have your own interpretation? What other mysteries from Twin Peaks still have you stumped? Let me know in the comments section below!