Skip to content


David Lynch and the art of trance

I was obsessed with Twin Peaks when it was first shown in 1990. We all were. Every Sunday after lunch at boarding school, we piled in to the TV room, pushed in the VHS cassette of that week’s episode, waited for the first note of Angelo Badalamenti’s tremolo guitar to sound next to the opening shot of the wren, and that was it, we were in heaven.

We were in love with the actresses, of course, particularly Sherilyn Fenn, but it was more than that. Twin Peaks stretched our teenage sense of reality, introducing us to the idea that there was something beyond ordinary consciousness – a spirit realm, populated by strange and terrifying beings. It was all far weirder, cooler, sexier and scarier than the stiff Victorian religion presented by the school chaplains.

If I had to say, now, why David Lynch’s creations mean so much to me, I’d say it’s because he is a master of trance. He creates out of trance, using Transcendental Meditation to ‘catch the big fish’ from his unconscious. He is peculiarly open and receptive to whatever strange creature comes out of the darkness, be it a giant, a cowboy, a lady in a radiator, even a frozen chicken.  And he is a master at taking the audience into trance states. That’s why we love him. He makes our pupils dilate.

What do I mean by trance states? A good brief definition comes from Dennis Wier, the founder of the Trance Research Foundation and the author of a weird book called The Way of Trance.

51tfjK2nfbL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Wier defines the trance state as an altered state of consciousness in which one’s critical faculties are disabled, one surrenders free will and becomes highly suggestible, one’s mind makes strange associations, and one can feel like one has gone beyond the ordinary self and ordinary reality. He says trance states are usually created by some sort of cognitive loop which works to disable ordinary reasoning, and that the trance is more powerful if it involves some sort of secret or taboo (thus mystic or occult practices are often secret, as one’s mantra is in Transcendental Meditation).

What’s the point of trance states? They feel good, they relax us, they bond us to others and – like dreams – they help us re-connect to aspects of our unconscious that might have become alienated, repressed or cut off. Traditionally, there’s been the idea that trance states connect us to the spirit world and we can draw power and healing from it – the placebo effect is basically healing through trance-suggestion. But trance states are also dangerous, because one’s critical faculties are disabled, one’s free will is surrendered, and violent or repressed parts of one’s unconscious are sometimes let loose.

The art of trance

Our primitive ancestors used to access trance states through magic and psychedelics, then in the West trance states become monopolized by monotheistic religions and priests (‘Thou shalt only trance in church’). Then, around the 17th century, the Enlightenment attempted to wake us up from the trance, to dispel the taboo, to empower our critical faculties. But those of a dreamy disposition – like David Lynch – resented this disenchantment, this loss of trance rituals, and tried to keep them alive in new forms.

Ted Hughes - creativity as self-mesmerism
Ted Hughes fishing the unconscious

Romanticism was one such rearguard action. The Romantic poet portrayed himself or herself as a sort of modern shaman, skillful at controlled dissociation, through meditation, reverie, absorption, drugs and magic. As Robert Graves put it, ‘all true poetry comes from the trance state’. Ted Hughes, like David Lynch, uses the metaphor of fishing for creating from trance: ‘the slightly mesmerized and quite involuntary concentration with which you make out the stirrings of a new poem in your mind’.

And poets were (or are) skilled at creating trance states in the audience, through rhythm, paradox, metaphor, symbolism, incantation, and the magical power of the word. Emily Dickinson said: ‘If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.’

But these days most of us don’t go to poetry to access trance states. Perhaps that’s a symptom of cultural decline – Ted Hughes thought we are losing the capacity for trance, for the intense concentration and absorption it requires.

Maybe. But a more positive way of looking at things is that we have found other, more intense ways of accessing trance states. One way of looking at the 1960s counter-culture , for example, is as a mass exploration of trance states through meditation, psychedelic drugs, and rock & roll. And I think movies in particular have been an important new path to deep trance states. And Twin Peaks also opened the door for mature dream-explorations on TV like The Sopranos, Six Feet Under and True Detective.

The Dream-Factory

Now you might say that if Hollywood is the ‘dream-factory’, most of the time the dreams it gives us are pretty shallow. There are big dreams and little dreams. Little dreams are just wish-fulfillment: you win the race, defeat the terrorists, get laid. Little dreams reflect back your ego-fantasies and never really take you beyond them. That’s what most movies do too, and most computer games too for that matter.

Big dreams, by contrast, take you beyond the domination and control fantasies of the ego, and confront you with what is weak, wounded, dark, destructive, shameful and threatening in your self, and help you to confront it rather than run from it or project it onto others. Big dreams are much more disconcerting, destabilizing. But they can also be healing and transformative, because they create a safe place in which we can see this darkness, not be overwhelmed by it, and perhaps re-integrate it into a more mature and realized whole.

under-the-skin.27563The great directors, I would argue, give us big dreams. They are masters of trance, masters at exploring the dream-world. There is a tradition of them, who have learned from each other about how to access the dream-world: Chaplin, the Surrealists, Fellini, Hitchcock, Herzog, Tarkovsky, Kubrick, Spielberg, the Coen Brothers, Miyazaki, and contemporary directors like Darren Aronofsky, Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Glazer.

Lynch is very much in this tradition. I want to look at four directors who particularly influenced his dream-language: the Surrealists (we’ll cover them as a group), Fellini, Hitchcock and Kubrick.

The Surrealists

Back in 1987, the BBC managed to get Lynch to make a mini-history of surrealist film, in which he talked about how cinema “allows the subconscious to speak”, and looked at some of the ways surrealist directors like Man Ray, Cocteau and Hans Richter (Bunuel was noticeably absent) create trance-states in the audience.

The Surrealists were obviously very influenced by Freud’s theory of the unconscious, and their explorations in film are perhaps particularly influenced by his 1919 essay, ‘The Uncanny’, where Freud discusses how Gothic literature creates a dream-like state of unease in the reader, partly through particular devices – phrases that don’t quite make sense, dopplegangers, time-slips, mirrors, inanimate objects like mannequins that seem to become animate, numbers and patterns that seem to have a hidden or occult significance which we can’t quite work out rationally.

These techniques disable our rationality and take us into a waking dream. And Freud thought they have a religious function too – they re-connect us to our animist past, before the spirit-world was disenchanted and expelled to the margins by rationalist modernity.

peaks2Lynch loves how the Surrealists made inanimate objects come eerily to life. Ordinary objects like a mannequin, a curtain, a statue, a telephone, suddenly seem magically animate and capable of transporting us. We see that very much in Lynch’s work too – think of the magical radiators in Eraserhead, or the telephone as occult object in Mulholland Drive, or the curtains and statue of the Black Lodge in Twin Peaks. Even very ordinary objects – coffee, cherry pie – become imbued with a magical significance through the repetition of ritual.

The Surrealists used the grotesque, and sexual violence, as a sort of transgression of the ordinary order, to increase the trance – the famous example is the sliced eyeball at the start of Bunuel and Dali’s Chien Andalou. Lynch is also a master of the grotesque – think of the severed ear in Blue Velvet, or the severed hand in Wild At Heart (this is a pretty full on clip…)

But the Surrealists balance the grotesque violence with humour, often within the same scene, just as Lynch does so skillfully. He says in the BBC documentary: ‘when you work with humour, it’s very tricky because the humour could rip you out of the dream, so this kind of humour is very tender…it really gets in to the subconscious. And because it’s so abstract, it starts triggering things in the unconscious.’

Twin Peaks is full of this type of weird humour – the Log Lady, the decrepit room-service valet, the moment Leland Palmer throws himself on his daughter’s coffin, or the moment when Andy brains himself with a loose plank – and it’s so skillfully done, it usually doesn’t break the spell, it deepens it.


Lynch has said Fellini is one of his favourite directors, he particularly rates 8 1/2 and Roma. In some ways, their worlds are very different – you never feel particularly threatened or uneasy in Fellini’s films – but they are both very skillful at blending the interior / dream-world with the exterior / real-world. There’s never a clunky change of gear. The viewer never feels ‘oh, now we’re in a dream sequence’ – rather, everything is dreamy.

There’s a sort of boyish innocence that both Lynch and Fellini have, an absolute openness to the contents of their unconscious, particularly the sexual contents. Both are, in a way, dirty old men – the same is true of Hitchcock – going over their fantasies, fetishizing certain actresses.

Both Fellini and Lynch are drawn to circuses and burlesques as dream-zones –  they feature in Mulholland Drive and Blue Velvet (indeed, Lynch recently launched his own burlesque club in Paris). And at the centre of these burlesque shows is often a slightly grotesque woman dancing in a weird way.  In just about every Fellini film you get a curvaceous dream-woman dancing and writhing –  these figures remind me of the girl in Frank’s crew (in Blue Velvet) who dances on the car bonnet while Jeffrey is being beaten up.

Are these big dancing women just a weird fetish of Fellini’s? Maybe. But I think it also relates to what Freud said about the Uncanny as a reactivation of ancient animist myths. What you get in his films is an archeology, an exploration of layers – he strips off the surface Catholicism of Rome and discovers all these weird cults beneath it. And the big archetypal women are like earth-goddesses from this past – the same is true perhaps of Isabella Rosselini’s character in Blue Velvet.




Hitchcock is another of Lynch’s favourite directors – he particularly likes Rear Window, how it creates a whole world from the little tenement-block. Like Lynch, Hitchcock managed to take the Surrealists’ exploration of the unconscious into the mainstream of mass cinema. He’s much more interested in narrative and suspense that Lynch, who sees narrative really as just a way to keep the conscious mind distracted while the director pulls weird stunts with his other hand.

tumblr_mz2h66y1pU1s5tjego1_1280Hitchcock’s Vertigo (about which I wrote at length here) is particularly skilled at creating a sense of the Uncanny – with its use of dopplegangers, and the way it messes with time to create a sense of repetition, of things ‘happening again’, of ancient curses being repeated over and over ad infinitum. We remember what Wier said – trance is created by loops. Vertigo creates a sense of an infinite loop, as The Shining does, as Twin Peaks does (Laura tells Dale ‘I’ll see you again in 25 years’ – and now, 25 years later, we will have a new series of the show. It is happening again).

And both Hitchcock and Lynch have a sense that, while the outdoors can be scary and threatening, the real darkness, the real evil, exists in the family-home. Hitchcock managed to make the familiar – the 1950s home – utterly unfamiliar, strange and threatening, particularly in Psycho and Shadow of a Doubt, both of which used dream-like shots of the stairs in a family home to unsettle the viewer and give a sense of hidden and incestuous family dynamics – a shot Lynch would repeat in Twin Peaks.




Finally, Lynch has a huge respect for Stanley Kubrick (“most of his films would be in my top ten”), and the respect was mutual – Kubrick showed his crew Eraserhead before making The Shining, to give a sense of the sort of mood he wanted to create. Both of them talked of cinema as a way of going beyond the audience’s rationality and connecting with their pre-rational imagination. Both of them were fascinated by trance states, both their potential for destruction and self-transcendence. Both of them understood the power of music working in combination with moving images to create trance – Kubrick used experimental 20th century classical music (as did Hitchcock, via Bernard Hermann), while Lynch prefers the dreaminess of early 1960s Americana.

mirrors+xThe Shining in particular is a skillful exploration of the Uncanny – it has the weird patterned carpets one finds in Lynch-land (what do the patterns mean?), the mirrors revealing hidden worlds (as mirrors reveal BOB in Twin Peaks), and a father possessed by demons at its centre. It creates a self-contained dream-world, like Twin Peaks or Mulholland Drive, which draws the audience in and, as it were, possesses them. These works possess the audience because they hint at hidden and secret meanings but never explain them. To explain them would dispel the trance. Instead, they create semantic uncertainty which keeps people coming back, over and over, to the Overlook Hotel and the Black Lodge.

Finally, both Kubrick and Lynch have ambivalent imaginations – they are ambivalent about the project of art, and its power to exorcise demons and release us from our destructive trances.

Today, Lynch is a total cheerleader for Transcendental Meditation – it works the first time, it changes everything, all you have to do is say the mantra and you’ll be free of all your demons. But his imagination is much more interesting, ambivalent and pessimistic. Love and goodness do not always win. Dale – the meditating, yoga-practicing bodhisattva – ends up possessed by the demons he tracks down.

Blue Velvet ends with a bird eating an insect –  a symbol of art conquering evil. It’s a symbol referenced at the start of every Twin Peaks episode. But in Blue Velvet, the bird is mechanical, artificial, fake. Is that the only sort of resolution art can offer?

What Act of Killing tells us about our powers of self-denial

Imagine if the Nazi regime was still in power – perhaps with the leadership changed, perhaps slightly less murderous and more pragmatic – but with no reconciliation or recognition of former crimes. Imagine if the Holocaust was celebrated, with aging veterans of Auschwitz wheeled out for public adulation, to show their medals and tell stories of the killings.

That is the Indonesia that Joshua Oppenheimer shows in the remarkable documentary, Act of Killing, which will hopefully win the Oscar for Best Documentary this March.

In 1965, the Indonesian army and various paramilitary organizations reacted to a failed coup attempt by the Indonesian Communist Party by embarking on a massacre of suspected communists. It’s estimated that, in under two years, between 500,000 and 2 million Indonesian and Chinese suspected communists were murdered.

The massacre and reign of terror helped bring President Suharto and his New Order to power. And while Suharto may have died, that regime is still in power in Indonesia. There has never been any attempt to bring the perpetrators of the massacre to justice, or to achieve ‘reconciliation’ with the families of the deceased.

Oppenheimer lived in Indonesia, where he was working on a documentary about some workers’ struggles to put together a union. Many of them had lost relatives in the 1965 killings, and they would point out people in their villages who had taken part in the massacre. Oppenheimer went to interview the murderers, and discovered that they were only too happy to talk about the murders, and even to act them out. They were proud of them.

Eventually, his research brought him to an elderly and dapper gentleman called Anwar Congo, who was a gangster in the 1960s in North Sumatra, and who took part in the murders of perhaps 1000 suspected communists, in partnership with a paramilitary organization called Pancasila Youth.

Anwar was more than happy to talk to Oppenheimer about the murders. Early on in the film, he showed him a rooftop in Medan (a town in North Sumatra) where he and his mates carried out many murders. He shows how they wrapped chicken-wire around their victims’ throats and pulled, for a quick and easy kill, then dumped the bodies in a river. Then, he tells Josh, he would go out, take drugs and dance. He even performs a little cha-cha-cha for the camera there on the rooftop. ‘This is a happy man’, says a friend of his.

Anwar is feted for his heroic part in the genocide by the Pancasila Youth, which still has around three million members today. He’s invited on their TV show to talk about it, and congratulated for developing such efficient methods of killing. And yet, at night, he is haunted by nightmares, and as the documentary goes on, he begins to wonder if what he did was wrong.

The state as organized violence

Act of Killing is one of the most interesting and disturbing films I’ve ever seen. Two things particularly struck me when I watched it.

Firstly, it’s a brilliant picture of a modern gangster-state, of which there are many around the world (I lived in one, Russia, for several years – it’s also failed to address the mass genocides of Stalin). You get a picture of the hierarchy of thuggery, from street gangsters like Anwar, to paramilitary organizations like Pancasila Youth, run by a horrific little goon called Yapto Soerjosoemarno, to the businessmen who profit from their connections to the thugs, all the way up to the biggest thugs of all, the government.

The gangsters’ narcissism is so overwhelming, they have no idea quite how awful they appear. They display a casual sexism, for example, treating the women who run around them as sex objects, and one Pancasila elder even boasting of having raped 14-year-old ‘communist’ girls. ‘I would tell them: this will be hell for you, but heaven for me’, he cackles. In one scene, Yapto Soerjosoemarno visits a museum full of stuffed animals, including a display of a lion pouncing on a terrified gazelle. ‘Imagine that is a man and a woman’, he leers.

The gangsters take pride in their violence, their status as ‘big men’, their ability to extort money from little people. They take pride in being a gangster, which they insist comes from the English for ‘free man’. Words, and morals, seem to have slipped from their moorings. There is no longer any moral law, except the strong do what they want. ‘I feel like we’re at the end of the world’, says Anwar at one point, looking out on a black night lit up by lightning.

A scene from the Pancasila Youth’s TV station, celebrating the genocide

One former murderer, Adil, has a particularly Nietzschean view of things. He says he has no shame or qualms or regret about the 1000-or-so people he killed. We see him going round a shopping mall with his wife and daughter, looking slightly bored. Josh asks him if he is worried he might one day be tried for his crimes. Perhaps, he replies, the Geneva conventions won’t last anyway, perhaps they will be replaced by the Jakarta conventions.

I sometimes felt a revulsion at the moral climate of Indonesia, and wondered (no doubt xenophobically) what an Asia-dominated world will look like. But the fact is, the West conspired to bring Suharto to power, turned a blind eye to the massacres, profited from his regime, and still profits from it. We depend on gangster-states like Indonesia for cheap goods.

Art as a mirror

The second thing that struck me about Act of Killing is what it says about the imagination, and the stories we tell ourselves.

Oppenheimer says the film is a new kind of documentary, which he calls a ‘documentary of the imagination’. It strives not for historical accuracy, but instead lets the participants act out their impression of events however they want. This, after all, is how our memories work through impressions and narratives and vivid scenes, the recreation of which is its own kind of reality.

And the ‘heroes’ of Act of Killing are well versed in the language of cinema – they were known, in the 1960s, as ‘cinema gangsters’, because they’d hang out outside cinemas selling black-market tickets, and modeled themselves on American stars. Anwar recounts how he’d come out of an Elvis movie feeling happy, and then happily go about his bloody work. They recreate moments from the massacres in various movie genres – there are cowboy sequences, film noir scenes, war movie scenes and even musical numbers. One of the gangsters, fat Herman, dresses up in drag (it’s normal in Indonesian theatre apparently), lending the scenes a particularly surreal quality.

The film gets across how we tell ourselves stories to aggrandize ourselves and deny our ‘shadow-side’. We are highly selective in where we point the camera and how we edit reality. And we’re always the heroes of our movies. The film even celebrates the exuberance and – dare I say it – surreal beauty of Anwar’s imagination. There’s one particularly batshit crazy scene, on a waterfall, where dancing girls sing ‘Born Free’, and two actors playing victims of the genocide present Anwar with a medal for his services to the state and for sending them to heaven. Is the film, then, simply offering a mass-murderer the chance to aggrandize themselves and increase their legend? ‘I never thought this would look so stupendous, Josh’, Anwar tells the director while watching the rushes.

Yet the film also shows how we’re not entirely in control of our imagination. The shadow returns, into our dreams, into our narratives. Banquo’s ghost appears at the feast.

Fellini explores this idea in 8 1/2, which is also about our imagination and its powers of self-denial. In one scene, the hero is being confronted for being a philander by his miserable wife. ‘How can you live with yourself?’ she asks. He smiles, and slips into a reverie, in which he imagines all his girlfriends living together in a harem, welcoming him home and pampering him. He lives with himself because he can weave a version of reality where he’s the hero. And yet his dream gets away from him – the girls start to bicker and accuse him, and he has to beat them back with a whip.

In Act of Killing, Anwar is haunted by nightmares, in which his victims return and accuse him. He says he is haunted by their eyes, staring at him. They recreate some of nightmares – hellish scenes where his head is cut off and a demon (played by fat Herman in drag) feeds him his own intestines.

He seems to have a troubled conscience. But his co-murderer, Adil, says he is weak for being thus troubled. ‘Go to a psychiatrist’, he advises. ‘They’re like nerve-doctors. They will give you vitamins for your nerves’. He takes refuge in a materialist amoral view of sin.

The question, then, is the one asked repeatedly by Plato: do we have an inner conscience, a daemon, which haunts our imagination and gives us an intimation of our fate in a moral universe? Or are morals merely conventions set by power, so we can do whatever we want as long as we’re in power?

And what is the role of art in this world-view? In Act of Killing, art initially seems to be a mirror in a narcissistic sense, in which the gangsters preen themselves. Yet when they see their past crimes reenacted, they are often struck not by their heroism but their ugliness and brutality.

In one recreation of a village massacre, a deputy minister comes along to lead the Pancasila Youth in a chant of ‘kill the communists!’ He stops the scene, saying it seems a bit bloodthirsty. But then he insists the scene go in the film, as he doesn’t want to admit their acts were in any way less than heroic. The gangsters’ own children act in the massacre, and one child continues to bawl after the cameras finish rolling. ‘Stop crying’, her father tells her. ‘It’s just a movie.’

We rarely get to see the other side of the story – what it was like to be a victim of these gangsters’ delusions of heroism. Just once, an actor admits that his stepfather was one of the victims, and he had to find and bury his body. He then plays a communist in a scene, being tortured, and the line between reality and art becomes blurred – he breaks down in tears, begs for mercy. The gangsters look on uncomfortably at this intrusion of genuine suffering in their epic.

In one scene, Anwar plays the victim rather than the murderer. He is roughed up, threatened, and the old man (Anwar must be 70 or so) has to stop filming, he is so frightened and disturbed. He tells Josh that, for a second, he knew what it was like to be a victim. ‘It was much worse for them’, Josh says, ‘because they knew they really would be killed’. Anwar thinks. ‘It’s coming back to me’, he says. ‘I really don’t want it to, Josh.’

Perhaps, then, art can be a mirror in a less narcissistic sense, showing us and our societies not just as we would like to be shown (Rambo, Die Hard, all the Bond movies) but as we really are. Or perhaps our powers of self-denial and self-aggrandizement are simply too strong for genuine awareness. How many ‘gritty’ gangster movies merely ended up inspiring more gangsters? Will Act of Killing only further increase the legend of its stars?


Lots of good links this week:

Here is a video from the Stoicism for Everyday Life event from last year:

Here is a New Scientist piece on epileptic seizures and how they apparently trigger religious experiences.

Here is a Radio 4 show by Andrew Brown that argues the Church of England is facing extinction for its failure to adapt to our country’s liberalism on issues like homosexuality. I suggested to Brown the Church should reform its attitude to homosexuality, but out of a sense of love rather than simple expediency to polling data (which is unlikely to persuade the faithful). Meanwhile, last Sunday Nicky Gumbel of HTB (one of the growing bits of the CofE) warned that churches can indeed disappear and that the church should become ‘famous for love’. But note (12 minutes in) he only refers to homosexuality obliquely as a ‘lifestyle choice’. It’s not. Who would choose to be gay in a country like Uganda, where it can cost you your life?

Here is a little interview I did with Harper’s Bazaar.

This week I read the astronomer Carl Sagan’s Gifford lectures on natural theology, called Varieties of Scientific Experience. The best and most persuasive book I’ve read by an atheist – his death was a big loss to the atheist movement, and to all of us.

The New Yorker writes up a new study from Ed Diener and others, which finds rich secular societies have higher levels of happiness, but poor religious societies have higher levels of meaning.

Daniel Dennett writes an intelligent disagreement with Sam Harris on the question of whether we have any free will.

Alain de Botton has launched a new book on the News, including a new online paper called ‘The Philosopher’s Mail‘, trying to use celebrity stories as vehicles for wisdom. Part of his broader campaign to bring more moral paternalism into free market liberal capitalism. Not sure it quite works, this time…

Here’s a review of Joanna Moncrieff’s new book on the chequered history of anti-psychotics.

This is old but awesome – two people on a canoeing trip happened to see an amazing ‘murmuration’ of starlings over a lake. I like how one of the girls says ‘shit!’ at 1.11. Probably what I’d say too.

That’s all for this week. If you want to donate to help support the blog, here’s the button below.