Dream or nightmare? Twin Peaks & Stranger Things tear Apart our notions of small-town America

“We grow good people in our small towns”. So spoke governor Sarah Palin when, in 2008, she ran for the office of Vice President. Palin drew freely on the myth of small-town America, as the breeding ground of upstanding, hardworking, and morally balanced citizens. It is a myth, built on nostalgia, which animates popular culture and political rhetoric even in 2017. Donald Trump’s own nostalgic vision of a once great America, one that was lost but might be made “great again”, appears to rest upon the notion of the small-town. How refreshing, then — and how telling — that this year we will welcome to our tv screens two cult horror series that use nostalgia not to build on the myth of the small town, but to tear it apart.

The first is Mark Frost and David Lynch’s classic Twin Peaks, returning on May 21st for its long-awaited third season. Despite originally airing in the ‘90s, Twin Peaks is a show that models itself on an America of the past. There are jukeboxes and cherry pies, gas pumped by hand and hair-dos that defy gravity, smartly besuited men and beautiful women. You could even mistake Twin Peaks for a vintage soap opera, were it not for the intensity of the overarching story: FBI agent Dale Cooper is called to the town to investigate the brutal murder of a high school student, Laura Palmer; it quickly appears that there is a terrifying supernatural force at play in the town.

Stranger Things, which returns this year for a second series after last year’s runaway success, is in many ways a show in the mould of Twin Peaks. Right down to the fact that both shows use fonts by the acclaimed typographer Ed Benguiat in their title sequences, the tone of both is one of mystery and horror. Stranger Things — the story of a missing boy, a telepathic girl, and a monster-ridden alternative dimension called the “Upside Down” — peers back in time to a small town in the 1980’s. The fictional Hawkins, IN, overflows with knowing references to ‘80s horror films, Stephen King novels, cult movie posters, and Chopper bicycles. In both shows, it is because the nostalgic frameworks are so explicit, so overwrought, that it is hard to take them entirely seriously — and it is precisely this lack of seriousness that allows them to take potshots at the good old days of America past.

Despite being set in quintessentially small-town America — the lawns are green, the streets are grey, the citizens are for the most part white — both shows set about gleefully tearing those towns apart. This is not simply to say that they unleash strange monsters into the streets of the towns — which might figure as a sort of xenophobic fear of outsiders — no, they infuse horror and monstrosity within the towns’ very structures. If “small-town America” is a dreamlike version of the past, then Twin Peaks is a collective nightmare, a misfiring of nostalgia where good becomes bad. David Lynch is an expert in rooting out the malice in domestic situations — the adjective “Lynchian” signals uncanny horrors, and everyday evil. Fans of Twin Peaks will know that even a streetlight or a ceiling fan can take on an aspect of terror. And, as the show’s investigation unfolds, it becomes clear that all is not well amidst the townsfolk. There are dark spirits at work in the town, and the final, shocking revelation as to the identity of Laura Palmer’s killer confirms the fact that the town itself, and its people, are vessels for sinister and supernatural forces.

Stranger Things also sets about from the word go ripping holes in the fabric of the town — in trees, through the walls of houses — through which its monster can snatch at residents, and at the odd unfortunate deer. But it is only as the series progresses that the very closeness of the “Upside Down” world becomes apparent. It lines the reality of the town; and, worryingly, there are exact replicas of Hawkins’ homes and buildings therein — do nightmarish versions of the locals live there, too? The “Upside Down” is less of a sideways step into another dimension as it is a different aspect of small-town Hawkins, and the show even provides its own warped and parodic small-town morality: a young female character is made to feel guilt for the death of her best friend, who vanishes after the girl heads off to drink, party, and lose her virginity. The horror of the show stems not from the fear of something external, but from something that’s always lying beneath the surface of the small town, waiting to break out. Hawkins, like Twin Peaks, is a sort of dark fantasy version of small-town nostalgia, a misremembering of the past. The monster first appears in the female lead’s mind before it is brought into reality — does she dream it into existence?

It makes a kind of sense that these shows, so similar in tone and in their representation of small towns, should be reappearing this year. Their careful use of nostalgic lenses allows for a playful, warped representation of the small-town ideal, to suggest that there might be darkness in anything and everything. The idea that America can be made “great again” relies on the myth that it was in fact once “great” in a very particular sense, and shows like this are an assault on such purity of thought. In its twentieth season last year, the gleefully politically incorrect show South Park —another fictional small town — captured a sense of the link between nostalgia and a certain strain of conservatism with its “member berries”. Essentially edible nostalgia trips, the berries lead directly from pop cultural tidbits into conservative politics (“Member feeling safe? Member no ISIS? Member Reagan?”). This falsely comforting nostalgia ends up influencing an in-show presidential election. Both Stranger Things and Twin Peaks play with nostalgia in such a way that they are able to be critical of such retrospection, without simply fuelling our desire for the “way things were” — or the way we imagine they might have been. It would be foolish to try to map these shows too exactly onto contemporary politics, or to look for concrete answers in their forthcoming instalments. What they do do, though, is challenge such easy myths about small-town life. They ask us to look beneath the surface always, to explore all sides of something before reaching conclusions. There is no binary thinking available to these shows, in which even good might be underscored by evil, and everyone is potentially corruptible. If there is an appetite for these twisted takes on nostalgia in 2017, it might be because we are tired of being sold overly simplistic stories. They remind us: life is never just black and white.