Twin Peaks season 3 decoder: The Black Dahlia

An infamous 70-year-old true crime case continues to bleed into David Lynch’s work.


Martyn Conterio


This article contains spoilers for Twin Peaks season 3 part 11. For maximum enjoyment, we recommend reading after you’ve watched the show.

On 15 January, 1947, the mutilated body of 22-year-old Elizabeth Short was found on a vacant lot in the Leimert Park neighbourhood of Los Angeles. Bisected, drained of blood, her mouth slashed from ear to ear, giving the victim a hideous Joker-like grin, Miss Short became a true crime icon. The murderer was never captured.

Twin Peaks co-creator David Lynch has long been fascinated by this unsolved murder case and even provided a blurb for what is considered to be the best book on the subject, John Gilmore’s ‘Severed’. “The most satisfying and disturbing conclusion to the Black Dahlia case. After reading ‘Severed’, I feel as if I truly know Elizabeth Short and her killer,” reads the quote emblazoned on the front cover boasted. ‘Severed’, it turns out, is mostly fried baloney, but like James Ellroy’s acclaimed 1987 novel on the subject, it makes for a cracking story.

Short’s desperate life in LA (both real and fictionalised) provided Lynch with inspiration for several of his films as well as Twin Peaks. Sometimes the references are oblique, such as the scene in Blue Velvet, where Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle McLachlan) takes a shortcut in his neighbourhood and finds a human ear in scrubland.

In Mulholland Drive, Lynch draws certain parallels between doomed Diane Sawyer/Betty Elms (Naomi Watts) and Miss Short. He named Watts’ alter-ego in her honour (Elizabeth was known to friends and family as ‘Betty’). In Short, Diane/Betty arrives in Hollywood looking for the stars but finds only the gutter. Mulholland Drive is one of the great films about the savage nature of the American movie-making business and the Black Dahlia is the poster girl for Hollywood’s ‘chew ‘em up, spit ‘em out’ callousness. She is a cautionary tale.

Enigmatic Laura Palmer, a mystery girl full of secrets, is an Dahlia-like figure: beautiful and troubled. There are strong hints of the Dahlia in Ronette Pulaski (Phoebe Augustine), too. Laura’s high-school acquaintance, like Short a working-class girl, also got caught up in the shadier side of the Pacific Northwest mountain town. Ronette lived through the encounter in the train car with Leland (Ray Wise), freed by an angel, who vanished the bindings tied by Mr Palmer. Laura did not receive the same divine intervention.

Part of Short’s biography (the line between fiction and reality is very blurred) involved a supposed prostitution ring and making porno films for sleazebags with studio associations (producers or agents). The infamous casting couch was a place where corn-fed Iowa girls and Miss Alabamas could be plucked for whoredom. Movie-obsessed Short might well have fallen victim to such lies and broken promises. In Twin Peaks, Emory Battis (Don Amendola) used Horne’s department store’s perfume counter (Laura and Ronette worked there) to procure teenagers for the One Eyed Jacks casino.

Another grotesque avenue for male depravity in Twin Peaks is Flesh World, a wank mag which featured advertisements for the girls’ services. It is ultimately unknown how steeped in the LA underbelly Short actually was, but the mythology painted her as a bright-eyed dreamer and pleasant girl with a dual life involved in vice and criminality (just like Laura and Ronette). Duality is a major Lynchian trope and recurring theme.

In season three part 11, Lynch again pays homage to Short, this time with the discovery of Ruth Davenport’s body in the vacant lot where Bill Hastings (Matthew Lillard) and Ruth met Major Garland Briggs. After Gordon Cole (Lynch) is stopped from entering a vortex in the sky by Albert Rosenfield (Miguel Ferrer), Ruth’s decapitated remains are found, partially obscured by long grass, rotting and in bizarre pose (like the Dahlia, but less extreme).

In part one, Bill’s lover’s head is placed next to Major Briggs’ corpse, in bed, stinking up the apartment. Whereas that surreal image hints at the Black Dahlia in a super-obscure way, part 11’s reference is practically screaming Short’s name in neon lights. Short died 70 years ago, but her cultural legacy lives on Twin Peaks and work of David Lynch.

Published 25 Jul 2017

Tags: David Lynch Twin Peaks

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