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Tanya Erzen: The Religion of Twilight


By Tanya ErzenReposted from The Revealer, a daily review of religion and media.

Last November, I sat in a theatre in South Jordan, Utah with 4,000 Twilight Moms who had gathered for the weekend to celebrate the release of New Moon after two days of raucous pre-film festivities.  As I sat watching Eclipse, the newest film adaptation of Stephenie Meyer’s blockbuster Twilight series (in the six days since it opened, Eclipse has grossed $176.4 million), it wasn’t the wolves, newborn vampire army, fight sequences, love triangle or brief appearance by the Volturi that I found mesmerizing.  It was the fans seated around me.   They had come to watch the film after holding their own red carpet events at home, sharing Eclipse-theme dinners, exchanging flowers with one another, reciting lines from the book, donning golden vampire contact lenses, holding sleepovers, and wearing t-shirts bearing slogans with variations on favorite quotes: “Edward Cullen, I Promise to Love You Every Moment of Forever.”   The women and girls in Ohio were just part of the millions in the fanpire worldwide who have built imaginative social worlds around the film premiere and the series in general.

Writers like Jana Riess have astutely noted the Mormon religious themes embedded in the books.  However, an overlooked aspect of the series is the way fans worldwide have created a Twilight-inspired universe that encompasses all aspects of their lives: from using the texts as spiritual guides, to Edward addiction groups to twi-rock music to Cullenism, a religion based on the values of Edward’s family of vegetarian vampires.  Gary Laderman notes in his compelling book, Sacred Matters that popular culture functions as “a rich wellspring for inspiring the religious imagination and possibly even an alternate source of sacred authority in the lives of fans.”   In the extensive social worlds of fans,  Twilight is a text with multiple interpretations, an array of meaningful practices associated with it, and an audience that considers it a rich source of inspiration and collective identity.  The “ Twilight Oath” is only one example of the ways fans imaginatively reproduce the Twilight series as a guide in their everyday lives.

At a midnight screening, surrounded by hundreds of other Twilight devotees, a fan might temporarily transcend the world they know and enter into one more fully felt than their own.  After the premiere of New Moon, a 17-year old girl in Michigan emerged from the theatre and alerted police that a man had bitten her on the neck.  Her story later proved to be a hoax, but it bespeaks the desire to traverse the space between ordinary life and the story, even if there isn’t any neck-biting in New Moon or Eclipse.   One woman constructed what she calls her Twilight shrines: two eight-foot long glass display cabinets overflowing with a jumble of Twilight tschotkes where she communes regularly.  There are vampire wine bottles, feathers, masks, a white chess piece, a frayed bumper sticker that reads “Smitten”, shot glasses, beads, wolf figurines and even Tampons.

In my interviews and survey of 3,000 fans, the majority express sometimes contradictory beliefs in the supernatural while asserting adherence to traditional religious institutions.   Yet, while Twilight won’t replace organized religion, it reflects a longing for sacred and extraordinary experiences in everyday life that are perhaps missing in traditional religious venues.   In pilgrimages to Forks, Washington, the setting for the books (in July 2009 alone, 16,000 fans trekked to Forks like supplicants at a holy site, more than the total number of visitors in 2008), fans indulge the fantasy that a supernatural world exists alongside our own, searching for vampires in the woods and lingering outside the re-imagined home of Bella.  Rather than fueling interest in vampirism, a concern among some Christian critics of the books, the series provides what Laderman calls “myths that provide profound and practical fulfillment in a chaotic and unfulfilling world.”   It’s also impossible to separate these moments of spiritual enchantment from the Twilight franchise, which ceaselessly offers consumption to women and girls as a way to retain the feelings of belonging, romance and enchantment.   There are Edward and Bella Barbie dolls, lip venom, calendars, video games, graphic novels, and fangs cleverly promoted and eagerly purchased at conventions and online stores.  Yet, the shrines attest to the way fans also transform these objects into something personally vital within the messy entanglements of commerce and enchantment.

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