There are two kinds of great horror villains: the devil you know and the devil you don’t know. There’s the experience of watching the familiar turn fatal—a father in The Shining, a sugar and spice daughter in The Bad Seed or The Exorcist, your own home in Poltergeist. And then there’s the unknown. What’s down there, in the dark? wonders The Descent. Strangers can be very strange, warn Gremlins and Alien and Halloween. Don’t trust them, and don’t trust yourself, adds Nightmare on Elm Street, because your subconscious can kill you.
And then there’s Killer Bob, the snarling, body-jumping, salt-and-pepper specter that haunts David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. Killer Bob’s got all the above, because he is all of the above: a rapist, murderous father; a good cop; a drifter; an owl; the wind in the trees; and the hum of electricity. The familiar and the strange. He’s pleasure and pain. When he penetrates your body, you dance and sing. You long for his release and then long for his return. That desire, that pornographic appetite for sensation, forms a hole within his victims only he can fill. Killer Bob is the salaciousness of evil, and ABC put him on its schedule opposite Cheers.
Twin Peaks was a pop-culture juggernaut from its 1990 premiere and, over the course of two seasons and a movie prequel, Bob clawed his way into a top spot in the pantheon of Big Bads. He’s appeared on countless lists of the “best TV villains of all time.” To my mind, he is the scariest TV villain of all time. I personally can still barely look at a patch of windy trees, or a ceiling fan, without seeing his face. Bob has loomed over the cultural psyche since he entered our homes more than 25 years ago. What exactly makes him so terrifying?
Played with scene-chewing gusto by the show’s set dresser, Frank Silva, Bob wasn’t even among Twin Peaks’ original cast, never mind the keeper of its dark heart. As the legend goes (several versions of this origin story have circulated over the years), Lynch saw Silva out of the corner of his eye, trying to stay out of shot during the filming of a high-stakes scene, and decided to make that peripheral vision central to the show. Ostensibly a procedural about Special Agent Dale Cooper (played as pure and cold as Himalayan snow by Kyle MacLachlan) and his search for the killer of town darling Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), Twin Peaks expanded into wide, warping arcs as it explored the town’s nooks and crannies and the kooks within them. Sometimes it achieved a kind of Our Town via Freaks polyphonic grandeur; sometimes those concentric plot circles were just spinning wheels.
Always, crouching just in and out of sight, there was Bob. His first appearance in the second episode is the climax of an almost two-hour crescendo of sorrow that begins when Laura’s body washes ashore in the series premiere. Her death fissures a town trapped in amber, all twin sets and pie à la mode, and we watch the cracks form via shattering portraits of locals losing it: the aww-shucks cop who sobs like a child when he sees Laura’s corpse; the dawning horror on the face of Laura’s best friend Donna (Lara Flynn Boyle); Laura’s mother Sarah (Grace Zabriskie), whose grief slowly unclenches with a series of groans we overhear, like we’re eavesdropping, over a tortuously slow pan down an uncoiling telephone cord. Her banshee shriek stops everything cold. Then comes our meet-ugly with Bob.
Sarah’s pain is his portal: Laura’s dad Leland (Ray Wise) gives Sarah a sedative in order to calm her, she sees Laura’s face floating on Donna’s, and then, suddenly, there is a man in the house, in the corner, snarling and staring at her. Sarah screams again, and then Bob is gone. Zabriskie tells Bob’s origin story in Brad Dukes’ great oral history of the show, Reflections:
The shot was me, lying on a couch against the wall, grieving, drugged out. Frank was in the hall outside the room. He needed to cross the doorway to get what he needed, but the doorway, which was in the same wall that my couch was against, wasn’t in the shot, so there should have been no problem. But there was a mirror above the couch. Looking at the shot, David could see the mirror above me, and see that it was mirroring another mirror across the room … and that that mirror was bouncing back the image of Frank trying to sneak across the doorway. So that’s what David saw, in the mirror above me on the couch; Frank trying to sneak past the doorway.
Bob shouldn’t have been there, but he was. He appears in the frenzy of wild human misery, wet mouth and shining eyes; he’s what arrives when heartbreak knocks down all the doors. He tends to find his hosts, like a vampire who doesn’t ask for invitation, at home—the spaces, Dennis Lim, the author of the Lynch biography The Man from Another Place, told me, “that harbor the most potential for pain and brutality. The horror … can be thought of as a home invasion.” For Lynch, home is where the hurt is.
He’s somewhat less scary in other places. As Matthew J.X. Malady has noted for the Awl, he’s in about 40 seconds total of the first season: in Sarah’s vision and then again in a vision of Cooper’s, in which he glowers across a wrecked landscape and snarls, “You may think I’ve gone insane, but I promise, I will kill again.” It’s a little … on the nose, but it provides Bob with the Devil You Know bona fides to reassure you that Cooper will catch him.
In some ways, Season 2 was when the show really figured out what to do with him. The better half of the season was all about Bob. With a pace so glacially cool it could have frozen those local waterfalls, the premiere lays Cooper on the floor, bloodied, nothing but visions of giants and jewelry dancing in his head. Lynch luxuriates in the atmospherics, in the ambiguity of it all. And then, just when it threatens to sour, when the intense sense of disorientation threatens to become just sort of basic provocation, here comes Bob again.
There’s a long track shot of a hallway (not so much a nod as a pilgrimage to The Shining), and almost-murdered Ronette Pulaski raises her arms like a zombie in her hospital bed, launching into a PTSD phantasmagoria. These horror tropes are reassuring: We know what’s coming and how to handle it. Bob lunges toward the camera in slow motion, all Texas Chainsaw Massacre; he butchers Laura with a shadowed implement; he howls at the moon with a voice detuned. It’s scary but silly: Like the best genre horror, it demonstrates the thinness of the line between giggling and gasping in terror.
But Bob is no laughing matter. He gets more extensive screen time in two pivotal moments: First, we watch Laura’s doppelgänger Maddy watch Bob slowly enter Donna’s living room. He slips behind a column, almost gone, and in a flash he’s staring at you. In another flash, he’s climbing over the couch. Another flash: He’s moving toward the camera as if to climb into the lens itself, a leg thrusting through your screen. As an anxious teenager, I remember tearing fabric off my parents’ couch when I watched this episode live.
Part of what made Bob so scary is the way he is at once creaturely and alien and also familiar. Not long after Maddy’s vision of Bob, Leland finds himself at a mirror by his front door, preening. And look who’s been there in the mirror all this time: Hi, Bob. Hi, Dad.
It’s a fairy-tale moment (who’s the scariest of them all?) with a particularly depraved twist: The father unmasked as an incestuous, rapacious serial killer. Soon, the cameras spin again and Bob/Dad murders Maddy. Time hastens and slows. A spotlight trains itself upon the violence. Bob/Dad lands a punch into Maddy with a thump that is utterly unmetaphorical.
Rewatching the scene now makes me think about how much of the next 25 years of TV depends upon such violence against women—all the routine atrocities of CSI and Law & Order: SVU—and how numb we’ve become to it. But Twin Peaks took this kind of violence and made it so sumptuous, so shocking and strange, that it achieved a kind of terrible glamour. In the thrillingly nihilistic (ostensible) series finale in 1991, not even Cooper could resist him.
Bob’s shadow is long and dark: It has reached New Jersey, where The Sopranos repurposed the Bad Dad and focused Lynch’s loopy surrealism into a more straightforward inquiry on the relationship between violence and masculinity; New Mexico, where Breaking Bad created a terrifying new patriarch but turned capitalism into the scariest demon of all; even to the Grand Guignol nefariousness of villains on shows like American Horror Story and Hannibal.
And so it’s a particular shame that when Lynch returns to town this May, along with a cast of old favorites including MacLachlan, Lee, Zabriskie, and Wise, the original Bob won’t be there; Silva died in 1995 from AIDS. His absence will surely weigh on the reboot, and who knows what could possibly replace him. But David Lynch tends to be at his best when he has some kind of problem to solve—Mulholland Drive, for instance, was originally supposed to be a TV show, but Lynch turned it into a movie after the pilot was rejected by ABC—and Silva’s absence could present him with a classic Lynchian challenge. The new season also arrives at a moment in which, thanks to real-life monsters like Bill O’Reilly, Roger Ailes, and their ilk, sexual violence against women is a live current in the cultural imagination. It’s a moment haunted by, as a Twin Peaks character once put it, “the evil that men do,” which could make the specter of Bob more chilling than ever.