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Teenage Girls' Spirituality on Film: Fieldnotes from Twin Peaks and Dr. Sleep

Updated: Oct 21, 2023

There's a generational difference between David Lynch's Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) and Stephen King/Mike Flanagan's Dr. Sleep (2019) - and it shows. I'm a lady-of-a-certain-age, and so when Fire Walk with Me came out I too was a teenage girl. It was blaring on the TV late one night as I partied and poured ridiculously named and coloured drinks (as only teenagers can do) and I remember hearing it in the background. I turned to my boyfriend and I found myself saying, "this film is all screaming and crying", the mode by which Lynch established Laura Palmer's teenage angst and actual terror at the darkness pervading her life. I reckon if we'd matched each scream drink for drink, we'd have ended up drunk in no time. But despite all this noise and distraction, I caught the scene where the angel in Laura's twee little painting disappears in front of her eyes and the utter pain actress Cheryl Lee portrays Laura subsequently experiencing at this seemingly small detail. I made a mental note to watch this film properly later on. I wanted to know if the angel came back. I think a lot of teenage girls have the same question.

Angels are key in Lynch's/Laura's world. In another scene, when Laura's best friend asks: do you think if you were falling in space you'd slow down after awhile or go faster and faster and faster? Laura responds: Faster and faster. And for awhile you wouldn't feel anything. And then you'd burst into fire. And the angels wouldn't help you, because they've all gone away. This still gives me shivers (interestingly the angle of the shot from above does suggest that angel is hovering, and is actually us, the viewer). And I think it really hits something very urgent and very true when it comes to teen girls' experience of the thresholds they face that often seem otherworldly or beyond their human ability to deal with.

You can watch the clip here:

There's been a lot of speculation on whether Fire Walk with Me was Lynch's interest in the states of consciousness associated with Ancient Indian writings (such as The Upanisads) written large and in the language of film. The famous dream scene that shows Laura walking into a world between worlds after being beckoned by herself is suggestive here of how multiple layers of consciousness are envisioned in meditation traditions. In this scene, Lynch uses key imagery to explore the trope of a dark vs light battle. Here we see dark ancient forces preying upon human experience, leading Laura away from herself and into a world of pain and sorrow (which turns out to be the food these dark forces need to sustain themelves). When in a later scene the angel in her painting disappears, Laura resolves that enough is enough and that it us up to her and her alone to save her own soul and rescue the town of Twin Peaks from the dark spiritual forces that keep ‘possessing’ the people she knows. Lynch shows her doing this by finally taking a supernatural ring continually offered to her by the dark forces in her dreams, which will allow these forces ‘in’, something she has struggled against throughout the entire trajectory of the film. Where previously she has avoided taking the ring, we see her resolve to face her fears In a very brutal spiritual battle that she knows will likely cost her her life. As she puts the ring on and we hear her final assailant (her own possessed father) plead with her to take it off so he won’t have to kill her.

What's interesting is how Lynch frames this act of self sacrifice - martyrdom even - as the very thing that ushers her missing angel right to her. The angel isn’t simply restored to her painting, it’s right there with her in that moment - the scene of her murder, shining in the train car that will mark Laura's demise. The angel does nothing to save Laura herself, but instead saves her friend Ronette Pulaski (often analysed in film as Laura's alter ego and darkest side). As soon as the angel appears, Ronette's bonds mysteriously disappear as if by magic and she is able to exit the train car. It is Laura alone who shoulders the physical and spiritual violence of the Black Lodge, a place that penetrates our world but is also veiled away from our world; of Bob/Leyland (her father); and of all the townsfolk. And I often wonder if sometimes that's how teenage girls are left feeling about their own lives - left to shoulder a whole host of other people's projections, their own growing adult powers, a strange world they are at the mercy of, and their own relationship to their experience. A feeling that can be so overwhelming and so high-stakes that learning how to deal with it well is crucial for teen life.

Laura is the prom queen. Her body is graphically sexualised and then desexualised regularly throughout the film. One minute she is the long, wool, tartan skirt wearing awkward teenager, and the next we see her in adult lace and silk lingerie. In one scene she goes to a bar, sits down, cries her eyes out at a beautiful song (the singer Julee Cruise is lit to create a clear visual echo of Laura's missing angel), and then, tears still falling, accepts money from two johns to have sex with, seducing both in a weirdly violent moment of languid eyes mixed with asking aggressively 'so you want to fuck the prom queen?!' and then violently grabbing one's scrotum before gently kissing him.

You can watch the first half of the scene here:

Laura's sexuality and how pretty much everyone uses and misuses it (including herself) is at the heart of this strange tale of spiritual warfare. Laura is so much more than this. But it is through sexual abuse, sexual barter, and consentual sexual encounters that Lynch shapes Laura's deeply mystical journey. Why is it that so many portrayals of young women's spirituality are framed as a fight for sexual autonomy? There's a gender gap here in how young women's spirituality is written and it's been going on since - well forever. Young women's spiritual autonomy and sexual autonomy have been mysteriously wrapped up together in a wealth of spiritual writings across cultures. And it’s not quite the same in stories of spiritual or supernatural experiences in young men.

Laura is objectified, raped, and overly sexualised and it nearly consumes her. She has to carry the weight of everyone's sexual projection all by herself. To fight it and reclaim her inner angel she has to die to save yet another overly sexualised teenager. It's disturbing and it strums a few deep seated chords that lie at the heart of representations of the spiritual and how these emerge in and for the context of young women's experience.

Enter: Dr Sleep, originally written by Stephen King who has also been called America's dark theologian. Indeed Cowen (2018) discusses King's work as dealing directly with a kind of deep spiritual warfare pervading the lives of his human characters battling more than human forces. Here we can see a really interesting, potentially generational shift taking place in how teenage girls' spiritual experience is constructed in film. In Mike Flanagan's 2019 adaptation of King's Dr Sleep, Abra Stone is played by an African-American actress, which adds a whole extra layer of racial readings into the contextual mix. Like Laura, Abra also faces continual dark forces and entities that wish to eat her 'Shine' (her energy and power) much in the same way the creatures of the Black Lodge in Twin Peaks want to eat all the pain and sorrow they create in human experience. Also, like Fire Walk with Me, we see Rose the Hat orchestrate and take part in truly gruesome murder of a child. Here it is a young boy simply known as 'Baseball Boy' who is killed and drained of his life force, and much like Bob/Leyland's murder of Laura, there is a disturbing orgiastic sense to it. Sexualisation is thus still very much present and alive in its associations with spiritual warfare in a world that is represented as both painfully human and more than human at the same time.

Interestingly though, in Dr Sleep Abra does something very, very different to Laura. Whereas Laura is utterly alone in her spiritual warfare, Abra has learned that she can reach out for help. She contacts Danny, a man in his forties who also 'Shines' and who also battled dark forces as a child at the Overlook Hotel (The Shining, 1980), and together they forge a series of plans to wage spiritual and physical warfare on the entites known as the True Knot. It is easy to argue that the key difference between Laura and Abra is that Laura has experienced dark forces take possession of her family - her father - and at times her community, so what we are seeing is how psychological trauma presences differently and thus creates different kinds of spiritual experience and relationships (or lack of them) in teenage landscapes. In Laura's case, we can't just point out the 'bad guys' and fight them. But the Laura-type isn't far away in Dr Sleep either.

The character Snakebite Andi, abused as a child, is shown as having incredible psychic powers which she uses to lure older men, posing as a child for them to abuse on the internet and subsequently using her phenomenal psychic and suggestive abilities to rob, scar or stab them. Sexuality and representations of teenage girls' relationship to themselves and their power to influence behaviours are still linked here. Only, unlike Laura, Andi lost to the dark forces, becoming the newest member of the True Knot. Abra, by contrast comes from a relatively 'safe' family and community (until she encounters the True Knot which she goes seeking). No one is other than they seem in her circle, and so is she arguably portrayed as having less difficulty in trusting in the help and guidance of others. When Rose the Hat comes for Abra in an absolutely fantastic scene depicting meditative practices, realised by Flanagan's superbly researched imaginary regarding concentration, and the slowing heartbeat associated with Eastern traditions, Abra is waiting for her.

Abra has asked for help and learned how to battle her inner terror and thus, engage the dark forces that come for her. Abra's spiritual journey does not require her sexuality as a key territory through which she can claim her own growing powers, and this small but central fact breaks with a longstanding tradition haunting the representation of teenage girls' spirituality. Abra knows her own power and isn't afraid to use it. Her story is not one of sexualisation per se but of being in possession of the kind of vitality people would kill for. In Flanagan's adaption - the kind of vitality mostly white-presencing forces would kill a black girl for. Abra's journey is about breaking from the othering lonliness of being powerful, and reaching out to others. Of course it is to a white male that she does so, which conjures up all sorts of questions about how Flanagan explores what it means to claim purchase on power for a black teenage girl. In the back of the car when facing the entity Crow Daddy, Abra 'channels' Danny. In a sense she becomes a forty year old white male to defeat the entity out to attack her. Crow Daddy clocks this asking, 'who are you?' and then 'it's nice to meet you' when Danny/Abra responds. Flanagan does rectify this however. When the car crashes and Danny is thrown 'out of' Abra, Abra faces Rose the Hat's psychic form alone and simply walks straight through her. She has fully claimed her own power now and it has nothing to do with sexuality or sexualisation OR with becoming-white (being ‘possessed’ by a benevolent white male).

It's easy to argue that in Flanagan's adaptation of Dr Sleep the sexualisation trope that does occur is taken on by the male characters: Baseball Boy (discussed above), and Danny himself. Here, Danny is the person we see caught in a trap of alcholism and sexual mistreatment. It is at his lowest ebb that he starts on his journey of spiritual and physical recovery. Danny discloses that he turned to alchol to block out his ‘spiritual powers‘ - namely the personal and unique ways in which he understands the world around him and which are depicted in the story metaphorically as ‘psychic’ or special abilities.

Spiritual experience and spiritual battle are depicted in all sorts of fascinating ways in contemporary film, but I'm eternally interested in how films handle the idea of these when they emerge in and for teen contexts - particularly teenage girls. What are we teaching teenage girls through metaphor and trope about their own very real power in the real world? What languages are we giving them (through film and media) to explore any questions of spirituality they may have? When the dangers of the world feel like a phenomenal power that is in fact so powerful that it can be described as 'evil' or as an 'evil entity' that we need to fight, what kinds of imaginaries are young people drawing on? As a teacher at FE and in pupil referal, I talked to so many teenagers who described their very real everyday struggles as being like battling a demon or a power so great it's stronger than human. And taking them at their word, it must really feel like just that. So many teens I worked with described themselves as needing to become or harness a supernatural force, a spiritual force, or a superhero-like force to help them face challenges that seemed beyond their capability to handle as teens. What kind of stories are we giving them? How are they relating to the concept of the more-than-human, the spiritual, or the powerful in and for their everyday lives?

Laura Palmer is the image of the frightened, suffering, gendered body taking on the evils of a world that constantly sexualises teenage girls who is simultaneously forced to take responsibility alone for the whole lot of it. Her struggle reminds me of theatre supremo Jerzy Grotowski's famous interview: if god exists then he can have a spiritual life for us. But if god doesn't exist... The second half of the sentence is left hanging in the air (...then we must have a spiritual for ourselves). Laura brings her own angel into being, battling the mingling of sex and violence in her experience on her own to claim her angel as herself. Abra's journey is different. She draws on her community. She uses her powers to reach out and find her kindred spirits, helping them as much as they help her. This is a story about lateral service and community rather than the lone spiritual warrior trope, beloved by so many mystical and spiritual traditions worldwide.

Interestingly, just as Laura died saving Ronette, Danny dies saving Abra. It seems blood must be spilled in our spiritual stories. Only here, Abra is the one to survive in the 'real' world, which offers an interesting lesson on how young people orient themselves around their relationship to their own power when it comes to beneficient adults. In Dr Sleep, just as Danny saves Abra, she saves him. By calling out for help, she gives Danny the opportunity to reconcile with the demons of his own childhood by helping her face hers. As we learn from his encounter with his own mentor, there is a cycle to a spiritual life, and helping others is a central part of that cycle.

Just as O'Halloran helped Danny, Danny needs to help Abra, and soon generationally, Abra will need to help someone else to continue to grow. Service is conceptualised very much in the 'pay it forward' model. (It is of note in the context of this analysis, that Danny's childhood spiritual mentor, Dick O'Halarann was cast as a Black male in Kubrick's original The Shining. O'Flanagan stays faithful to this in Dr Sleep). In the scope of Fire Walk With Me, Laura doesn't get that opportunity (at least not outside of the Lodge). She dies to the real world, living in another.

These are fascinating and tumultuous modern day stories dealing with the very real issues that teenagers face: sexual violence, alchoholism; destructive and downright terrifying experiences that they are barely equipped to deal with, as they grow up. What new popular generational representations of these kinds of inner journeys and support systems can we imagine beyond the solitary claiming of sexual autonomy or benevolent white mentorship alone? What stories can we re/write to address the challenges of growing up in the 21st century and to affect new, wise changes for teenagers and young people trying to claim their powers and find their voices in a very real and very confusing world?


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