We Need to Talk about Johnny

Johnny Horne and a toothy teddy bear

Johnny Horne has been one of the most intriguing characters in Twin Peaks since the beginning for me. I always wanted to know more about his story as I feel there is so much more to him than meets the eye.

In Mark Frost’s The Final Dossier, it is confirmed that Johnny has severe autism. Back in the late ’80s, autism was nowhere near as understood as it is today, and diagnoses were much less common, so it is easy to see why this was not discussed early on. I have a son who also has autism and severe learning difficulties, so it’s perhaps obvious that I would take a particular interest in him.

the Horne family have dinner at the table

Johnny Horne was born into a somewhat dysfunctional family. His father had little interest in him, and I would imagine even less once his disability became more apparent as he grew up. Ben Horne is, or at least was, the kind of man who needed his son to take on the family business, and when it became apparent that this was never going to happen, I suspect this was the end of any real father and son relationship between them. He could not be proud of him; he was a blight on the family name.

His mother Sylvia was perhaps equally awful, though she did pay more attention to him. It appears she was left with sole responsibility for his care, which for her, being a woman of wealth meant that she paid other people to do it. She seemed pretty exasperated with the whole situation from very early on, and in no way am I defending her behaviour, but I do get how difficult it can be. Sylvia just could not deal with the cards she had been dealt in life, but perhaps she did the best she possibly could.

It’s easy to place the blame on others when something unexpected happens to your baby. It’s part and parcel of grieving for the child you imagined you’d have. In this particular case, Sylvia blamed Audrey for Johnny’s problems, for Audrey pushed him down the stairs. This was revealed in a deleted scene of the Definitive Gold Box Edition released in 2007. Audrey was a toddler when this happened, yet Sylvia could not distinguish that any malice shown by Audrey in those moments was the act of an undeveloped child, still learning her way in the world, not an adult making a rational or reasoned decision. Sylvia never forgave her daughter, it seems, as their relationship was considerably strained throughout their lives, and in the process, she lost not one but two of the children she imagined she’d have.

Johnny’s relationship with his sister is not greatly elaborated on in the series though Audrey comments that she loved Laura for taking care of her brother, something she perhaps felt she could not do herself, but was glad that Laura took the time for him. Audrey was well aware of her own ‘emotional problems, ’ telling Cooper on their first meet that they ‘run in the family’.

Johnny Horne bangs his head against a doll house

Johnny really did love Laura, and she really did love him. She wrote in her diary that she liked being there for him as he loved her no matter what she did — she must have told him of her escapades as he wouldn’t have experienced anything like them himself, and he must have listened intently and without judgement. Laura understood Johnny more than she did a lot of people. She would no doubt have treated him not like the child that most people did, but with kindness, a nurturing friendship, and with honesty. She saw in him something that perhaps no one else cared to look for. I totally get this, for it is not until you know someone with autism that you understand that there is way more going on in their world, you can only really get to see this if you’re lucky enough to be able to look into their eyes long enough to see their soul. They glisten like jewels.

Laura also brought something special out in Johnny Horne. In my mind, it was her pure white light that he could see.

Excerpt from the Secret Diary of Laura Palmer:

Before I could get up, Johnny took hold of my hands and smiled one of his biggest smiles ever. He closed his eyes, reopened them and said his very first sentence! He said, ‘I love you, Laura.’ I could go on and on about how wonderful that was, both as an incredible leap for him, as well as for me. It was the highest compliment I have ever been given”.

Dr Jacoby believed that Johnny chose to regress to childhood as a means to escape a trauma that happened to him as a child. We may never know what that trauma was, but I believe that Johnny may have seen something from ‘the other world’. Maybe he stepped into the Black Lodge and couldn’t handle what he saw there and shied away from growing up, bottling himself up in his own world.  Maybe his mind never left the Black Lodge — and perhaps he’s sending clues to us without anyone even realising.

Knowing now the fate of Annie Blackburn, her behaviour is not dissimilar to that of Johnny Horne’s, and we know she visited the Black Lodge with catastrophic effect on her psyche. She sends a message but once a year to tell the world she’s ‘fine’.

Similarly, the few scenes of Johnny Horne tell a tale. It’s almost as if he’s trying to give the people around him clues or reenacting important moments from the past. As a younger man, he dressed in a Native American headdress/war bonnet. Yes, of course, it would be typical for a child to play dress up, ‘Cowboys and Indians’, and especially so in Twin Peaks, a town with such ripe Native American history. He would have absorbed the imagery splashed around the town, but maybe he did link into that history more than we can understand. Could he tap into the time when the Nez Perce tribe lived where Twin Peaks, the town, now stands, at the time when evil first started to rear its ugly head?

Johnny Horne playing Native American

Johnny was distraught when Laura did not turn up for his regular tutoring session.  While it was explained away as him not dealing with the change to his routine, I firmly believe he knew she was gone. He spent the day banging his head against the doll’s house, staring in through the miniature window as if he knew that something had gone on in Laura’s house, her childhood snatched from her too by the man under the ceiling fan.

In all fairness to Dr Jacoby, he was one of the few people who did treat Johnny with kindness and affection; he knew that he needed comforting, though he gave up on trying to help him, deciding he just chose to be that way. He might be right about that, and I don’t think it’s any coincidence that “Charmaine” by the Mantovani Orchestra is played during the disturbing scene of Richard Horne assaulting and robbing his grandmother in Series 3. This track is synonymous with the film One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest, in which the narrator, the schizophrenic Native American Chief Bromden, is incarcerated in a mental institution, assumed to be deaf and mute, but turns out to be neither. People’s assumptions of him put him in a position of power. As a non-cooperative player, he gets to observe and absorb the secrets spoken in his presence. Was Lynch/Frost trying to tell us something about Johnny with this choice of music?

Jacoby managed to prise the headdress off him so that he could attend Laura’s funeral. Johnny clutched an antique copy of the book Peter Pan, which hints that he was a child trapped in a man’s body, never wanting to grow up. Johnny never spoke, but like many people with autism — he can but just choose not to. My son included. The one word Johnny uttered throughout all 3 Series’ was “Amen!” at the end of the service. He meant that he wanted her to be at peace. He wanted her trauma to be over.

Johnny Horne Peter Pan book

In later years Johnny’s condition does not appear to have improved at all. Without the nurture, care and attention that Laura gave him, it is unlikely he ever will. In series 3, we first saw him running throughout the massive wood adorned home he shared with his mother. They no longer reside with his father Ben, post-divorce. It appears his nurse Mary has taken her eye off the ball, and he has escaped his room. At a hundred miles per hour, he runs through the house and headfirst into a wall, knocking off a framed picture of the Great Falls that his father’s hotel overlooks.

The second I saw this scene, I thought that he was trying to tell us something, and not just that he wanted to escape his private prison in whatever way he could. Dressed in the same shade of blue as the pyjamas Doppelcooper wore upon his escape from the Black Lodge, in the infamous “How’s Annie?” scene, it’s as if he plays out the moment his head smashed against the mirror.  Unfortunately, he doesn’t understand his own strength.  Did he aim for that picture? In hindsight, we know that there was ‘something’ at the Great Northern, a sound lingering in the air that they couldn’t quite place. In the basement was the entrance to The Dutchman’s that Cooper would take to meet Jeffries and ultimately save Laura, something Johnny would have wanted more than anything in the world.  Even after all this time. For whether Johnny has a foot in the other world or not, there’s one thing I know, he won’t forget a thing, he’ll be meticulous and his love for the people who genuinely cared for him will stay with him forever.

Johnny quite possibly never had another relationship, a friend even, like Laura. He was contained within four walls, and after his self-imposed head injury, he was imprisoned further, for ‘his own safety’ by being tied to a chair, his jaw wired shut and forced to stare at what is, without doubt, the most frightening teddy bear even created. I have tried to see a good intention for what Sylvia did to him here, but I just can’t. The bear questions him, “Hello Johnny, how are you today?” over and over again, its mouth filled with god only knows what, definitely some human teeth stuck in there (quite probably Johnny’s own), and a glowing orb blinks as it speaks.

Scary bear with bulb head and teeth

I couldn’t help but think that this was a dig at the manufacturers of educational toys made for people with special needs; I have seen enough utter trash in my years as a mother that is supposed to help my son’s progress, invented by quacks for a quick buck with no evidence to back up their claims. When all Johnny ever really needed was someone to sit down with him and converse, to not yell at him. To look into his eyes, see his soul, understand that there is a real person in there, he’s not a nuisance or a burden, his life matters.

Sylvia does show concern for him when he hurts himself, and there is love in there for him, it’s just she cannot direct it properly. It’s like the natural instinct to scold your child when they do something dangerous, like run out into the street without looking. The fear of losing them creates such a storm of emotion that fear is misplaced with anger. This is what Sylvia did to Johnny after his self-harming episode, but with an element of callous cruelty — putting a plate of colourful and enticing cookies that he couldn’t possibly eat right under his nose.

It doesn’t stop him from loving her though. When Richard turns up at the house and carries out the horrific attack on his grandmother Johnny does everything in his power to break free — I feel he wanted to protect his mother, he wasn’t scared of Richard, was not concerned for his personal safety, he just wanted to keep her safe.  When Richard finally leaves, Sylvia’s first concern is Johnny.

And so the story repeats itself as many do in the world of Twin Peaks, especially those of mothers and their children. Like Shelly followed in her mother’s footsteps, and Becky continued the trend of choosing the absolute worst men, Audrey Horne continues Sylvia’s theme.  A mother herself now to a wayward son of a totally different kind, perhaps unable to cope with his behavioural issues and driven to breakdown. Richard too appears to hold his mother dear, following the dangerous man he had seen only in a picture kept by his mother, intrigue taking over and perhaps the need to have his father in his life (that is, assuming that Audrey told him what happened to her and assuming she knew herself).

Many people will scoff at the idea that Johnny had anything more going on than what was shown on the surface, but I’d like to tell those people that maybe they should go and meet someone like him. They may just end up learning more about life, how the mind really works, what the soul looks like. It’s a beautiful thing to witness and is not something to be feared. In the end, we all just need the same thing in life — to be loved.

  1. This is so good. I feel that every character in Twin Peaks serves some greater purpose to the overall narrative than seen at first glance. In the original run, I think Johnny’s character helped the viewer better understand the shallowness of the entire Horne clan, who only speak of Johnny as a burden or a passing thought. One thing that struck me in the Return was when Sylvia calls Ben to describe Richard’s attack, and Ben asks if Johnny is okay. This infuriates Sylvia even more, and she accuses Ben of only caring about Johnny and not caring about whether or not SHE was okay. Poor Johnny has probably been used as a weapon in many of Ben and Sylvia’s arguments through the years.

  2. Ive have learned that in many shamanic cultures those with what some call Autism usually grow up to become the healers (medicine men/women) of the community. I think of what Mike said of those that can see BOB. The gifted and the damned. Blessed and the cursed. After reading the secret diary of Laura Palmer and watching the deleted scene based of him Johnny has become very reverent to me. His final scene shared with Sylvia and Richard is hauntingly powerful.

  3. Noting the flash of electricity that occurred when Johnny collided with the wall. An electrocution from the broken lamp could have potential significance, either as an under-discussed event in the larger plot, or simply as a symbolic reference to the electric draw Dougie is also experiencing in that same episode.

    Also interesting to note Sylvia’s reference to “Mary” in that scene. It could just be an exclamation, but since she’s referring to other people in the house (“who let him out?”), I wonder if there is more to this reference. Other references to Mary include the ex-girlfriend of 50’s boy, the actual owner of Palmer house, and of course, Sarah’s favorite libation.

    Thanks for the interesting article, as I feel there’s more to Johnny as well!

  4. Just throwing this thought into the mix. Lynch refers to ‘electric gold’ in ‘Catching The Big Fish’ (p99) when he talks about TM and the Unified Field. I think this might be what is (a) in the pool in the forest near Jack Rabbit’s Palace where Naido is found and (b) moreover, what is in the ‘goldfish bowl’ head of Johnny’s ‘teddy’ – along with something that looks like a light bulb which illuminates its interior … What is more, the phrase “Hello Johnny, how are you today?” repeated over and over in the relevant Part of TP:TR, is, in some ways, like a (TM or other) ‘mantra’ … can we take it from this that, despite his injuries and disabilities – or perhaps because of them – Johnny is nearer to some kind of ‘awakening’ or ‘enlightenment’ than many of the other folk that populate not only TP but the world in general? For me, this fits well with my perception that ‘ordinary folk’, like Andy, Lucy and Freddie, are actually the ‘superheroes’ of the series (and correspondingly, ‘ordinary folk’ like them are also the everyday ‘superheroes’ of the world in general). Any views?

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