How Twilight Offers Fans the Magic Missing from Organized Religion
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.
At a recent screening of Eclipse, a man proposed to his girlfriend on bended knee in front of the theatre audience, and then they rejoined the cheering crowd to watch the film.
Currently, a replica of Bella’s engagement ring, which Edward bestows upon her in Eclipse, is one of the most popular items for fans to purchase, providing another way for the romantic narrative of the film to cross into regular life. The vision of romance offered by Eclipse and encapsulated by the ring is almost supernatural and otherworldly to most girls and women who encounter the failure of marriage as a romantic institution and the schizophrenia of messages about sexuality from “Girls Gone Wild” to “True Love Waits.” Into this bewildering mix, Twilight offers a fictional mirage of romance and enchantment. First, there are the scenes in Eclipse where Edward insists on preserving Bella’s virtue before marriage. Bella is assured of eternity with the person she loves because unlike humans, vampires’ emotions are not fickle and transient. She will remain in the form of a lithe teenage girl without the creeping malaise of middle-age, disillusionment, and financial strain that accompanies marriage over time. Edward explains how in his time, he would have asked permission to court Bella, stealing kisses with her while drinking lemonade on the front porch. It’s a vision of romance and relationships far removed from the daily life of most fans, but in the immediacy of watching the film, it seems anything might be possible. You might even receive a marriage proposal in the movie theatre.
Unlike most fans, I prefer the Twilight films to the books, and Eclipse presents the archaic version of romance offered by the novels in a more palatable form. Like the other films, the excruciating detail with which Bella recounts the meals she cooks for her father are eliminated. The Bella who mopes and pines for Edward when he’s away for mere hours in the novels is replaced in the film by a character with somewhat more pluck and humor. In the first scene, she curtails her embrace with Edward and leaves him looking pinched and brooding in the meadow as she heads home for curfew. When Edward explains that marriage may seem old-fashioned but it makes sense in his world, Bella quips that the only reason people in her world get married at age eighteen is because they’re knocked up (she consents to marry him later on, but it’s still an improvement). Her constant self-torment over hurting Jacob and Edward in the book, which can be exhausting to read, is significantly edited. The tension is certainly present in Eclipse, but at least we are treated to some banter and jokes. Jacob says to Edward: “Let’s face it — I’m hotter than you.” At the end, Bella makes a speech that is utterly absent from the book. Here she claims that she chose Edward not simply because of her obsessive love for him, but because she always felt she was stumbling through the world, and the realm of vampires and werewolves is the only place she’s ever felt comfortable. “So, it’s not just about me?” he asks.
What if the ways fans enact ritual, spirituality and belonging in relation to Twilight were built on a more robust vision of enchantment and romance? While Eclipse hews faithfully to the narrative of the books, it offers another interpretation upon which fans might envision forms of spirituality and transcendence. The enchantment of Twilight doesn’t reside in Edward’s proclamations of love but the other dazzling possibilities in the text: the vampires don’t eat actual food so Bella is liberated from ever having to cook a meal once she becomes immortal. She eventually lives as part of an extended clan of Cullen vampires who are always on call to babysit and provide free daycare. Sex is always awesome. And then there is immortality itself. I imagine a new “Twilight Oath” where fans promise not to base their entire lives on a man, where marriage isn’t the pinnacle of relationships, where we don’t expect love to be a matter of fate, where sex doesn’t necessarily lead to pregnancy or near-death, where men can cook for themselves, and where everyone gets communal childcare and the benefits of extended, non-biological families. That would certainly be a form of enchantment.