I’m sitting in the darkened theater as the featured film begins. The crowd in the stuffed studio cheers wildly. New Moon has opened with its beautiful and shining vampire boyfriend, muscular werewolf, and fragile, helpless young heroine. The crowd is mostly composed of girls and their chaperone moms. Both groups moan when the young werewolf’s shirt is removed and gasp when the vampire boyfriend attempts to sacrifice himself for his true love. Surrounded by fans of both ages, I try to contain my laughter as the film rolls on. (I value my life after all.) However, I do laugh out loud at the romantic drivel written for the actors to mouth. Clearly, I am not the intended audience for this film.
I am part of a group of enthusiasts and scholars of vampire literature. Our ranks include experts on Dracula, gothic specialists, folklorists, historians, writers, publishers, and some intelligent and well-read vampire role-players–an eclectic group of people connected via listserv by our interest in the vampire as archetype, As a Christian teacher-scholar, I am most surprised by my first-year college students who adore Twilight–even my very religious students. Spying the Nosferatu poster in my office, they twitter excitedly with “vampire talk.” as literary figure, as historical oddity, as sociological influence, as expression of the dark underbelly of political, social, and religious oppression. Virtual conversations among the group have explored why the Twilight series* has so fascinated young girls. Most of us think that the two films to date have been less than artful, and the books are judged generally as far less interesting and not nearly as well-written as other young adult entries in the gothic genre such as M. T. Anderson’s Thirsty or the delightful Coraline by Neil Gaiman.
What we often don’t agree upon is the root cause of the current trend. Is the Twilight craze a fascination with vampires or something else? To complicate matters, many of us have friends and acquaintances who rarely crack open a book, but the allure of this series has lit the flame of their reading desires. As a Christian teacher-scholar, I am most surprised by my first-year college students who adore Twilight, listing it as their favorite book–even my very religious students. In the morning, I can have a conversation with a senior who is disturbed by the sex and language in the reading assigned for his modern American literature class (and none too easy in my office decorated with the Nosferatu poster), and later in the afternoon, the group of Christian girls visiting my office see the poster and twitter excitedly with “vampire talk.” Add to this the increasing popularity of dark romance and fantasy generally (series upon series, including the Anita Blake novels, the Sookie Stackhouse novels…), and one might be inclined to label the trend a social movement.
Questioning my students led me to remember how I came to vampire literature– via the classic gothic soap-opera, Dark Shadows. Every summer afternoon at 3:30 in my pre-teen youth, I religiously watched Dark Shadows. During the school year, I had sick, home-bound friends write out the plot of the show that day for my reading pleasure once they returned to school. I bought Dark Shadows comics, Dark Shadows cards and trinkets, and all the Dark Shadows paperbacks by Marilyn Ross (also not particularly artful books). I wrote plays using the characters of the show and staged my own productions of Dark Shadows in a friend’s backyard. I will confess here that I am still a fan of the show and have followed the acting careers of both Jon Frid (Barnabas Collins) and David Selby (Quentin Collins). I even named my son Quentin.
From there I found my way very quickly to Dracula, and all through high school I visited the library to read scholarship and popular articles about Bram Stoker and his remarkable text. In fact, I would say that my interest in vampire narrative and mythology led to a love of research and library reading. I realize now that I started seeking out gothic novels and found the Brontë sisters, Dickens, Hawthorne, and a large quantity of vampire novels. My students are overwhelming not interested in reading Victorian prose. Or if they say they are, for some reason they never seem to get around to really reading Dracula or the other texts I recommend. Nor are they interested in the classic gothic novels I suggest.
What I now appreciate about Dark Shadows is that the show wasn’t mere romanticized soap-opera plotting. It was an exploration of the underside, the hidden histories, of upper-class family life in this country, about wealthy families whose power to disburse philanthropy derives from unsavory business dealings, about family pasts which, rather than staying closeted and buried as they ought, come to life as vampiric memories stalking us, even sucking the life blood from us. As a child I saw none of this. Barnabas (the vampire) and Quentin (the werewolf ), both tortured souls seeking to live out their lives in their own ways, served as my romantic fantasy life. The book I next devoured, reading five times, was Wuthering Heights. Barnabas, Quentin, Heathcliff, and now Edward from Twilight–all are romantic, brooding, tortured Byronesque characters who make women swoon. They love fiercely, honestly, and completely, but they are dangerous…even deadly.
Donna Freita, noted Twilight expert, is one of several people who note the similarities between Wuthering Heights and the Twilight series. She suggests (in “Penguin on Air” at penguin.com) that Heathcliff, as a human who acts demonic, is redeemed in Twilight‘s Edward, the demon who seeks to be fully human. But my old Dark Shadows figures Barnabas and Quentin were also human characters who were turned into demons against their will and sought redemption; so does Louis in Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire. The list could go on. I’m not sure it’s the redemptive factor that draws the audience for Twilight. Freita also notices that Twilight mimics Wuthering Heights in focusing on the love triangle. I would agree. Certainly in that darkened theater, the audience for Twilight seemed most delighted at the romance, just as the audience for Dark Shadows tuned in for their daily dark romance fix. Go to any Borders or Barnes and Noble some day and saunter inconspicuously through the romance section. You’ll find the shelves bulging with gothic-looking tomes decorated in lurid pictures that often feature strong dark men, dripping blood, frightened women, and yes, vampires.
Some authorities define the Romantic Age as beginning with the publication of Lyrical Ballads by Wordsworth and Coleridge in 1798, and ending with the coronation of Victoria in the late 1830s. More often scholars treat a “longer Romantic Period” of 1770-1870 so as to include the works of Blake and Rousseau. Whatever its era, Romanticism’s stream has never really died. The dark hidden desires that we all keep buried are as much a part of us as the light-filled hopes, dreams, and efforts to be holy. The Brontës, a friend reminds me, were the offspring of a clergyman, “all grounded in the Bible and Bunyan.” Living side by side with all the manifestations and changes in literary taste down to the present time, Romanticism continues to be alive and doing well at the bookstore and the box office. And though scholars might say that the Romantic had little to do with “romance,” the reading and viewing public has never lost its taste for the elements defined by this movement–the weird as well as the sublime, the exotic and the dangerous, wondrous nature and Frankensteinian warpings of nature, depictions of awesome power and terrifying beauty, the suggestiveness of myth and legend, and the romantic hero who defies the norm and is often outside of the community.
Perhaps Twilight‘s channeling of the Romantics’ spirit explains much of its popularity. Certainly, Edward Cullen, the hero of the Twilight series, is Byronic enough–forced into living outside the community, denying his love for the sake of his true human love, and fleeing to self-sacrifice. Part of the fascination with him is deciphering the mythos behind the vampiric family and community. Thus, try as he might to live in the world of humans, Edward continually finds his way into the woods where his family’s house is located; for its part the werewolf community in the Twilight series gets particularly associated with Native American legend. All vampires have a sparkling allure that entrances humans, and Edward exudes the force, on the page and on the screen. The dark, hidden desires, the fears and loathing that we all keep buried are as much a part of us as the light-filled hopes, dreams, and efforts to be good and holy. The Brontës, as one Victorianist friend reminds me, were the offspring of a clergyman, “all grounded in the Bible and Bunyan.”
My guess is that fans of Twilight will continue to read. But what will they read? Not vampire fiction; as a sub-set of horror literature, this genre is not for the faint of heart. Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot kept me aware at night, and even in the daytime it unnerved me. Anne Rice’s vampire series, though indeed filled with Romantic elements–the dark suffering individualistic hero, exotic locations and people–has elements of horror, history, and the questioning of religious identity that keep it from being classified as simply genre fiction. Artistically, Rice’s descriptive, well-plotted narratives are artistically far above most of the reading in the romance genre. Though Twilight fans might be drawn to Rice, I suspect they will find their ways to those romance aisles filled with novels where they can find narratives driven by the love interest in rather formulaic patterns that create a familiar, comfortable world to be enjoyed.
By contrast, the best of vampire novels have themes and motifs running deep within them that arouse an interest in their readers which has nothing to do with the main characters’ love interests. Dan Simmons’ Children of the Night uses the vampire image as a way to expose the horrors of the reign of Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania. The 2003 movie Underworld uses a war between vampires and werewolves to project a class-driven world where one ethnic group is forced into bondage by another. Dracula itself, published in 1897, airs the threat that the old aristocratic European world will squelch the rising tide in modern English society of “new women” and men who had come to power not through inherited land but by professional accomplishment. The acclaimed Russian novel Nightwatch (2003) has deep socio-political and religious themes running alongside the narrative. Of course, slash-and-gore vampire novels have appeared aplenty, but the novels that capture critical attention are thematically and artistically rich. Twilight does not belong in this category.
Edward or Buffy?
While fans adore and rave about the books in the series, Twilight is taking some severe hits from critics. One of the most discussed issues is its portrayal of women. Jonathan McIntosh’s video remix of Twilight with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, spliced directly from the respective films and television episodes, has been a particular web hit (www.wimnonline.org/WIMNsVoicesBlog/?p=1272). In his accompanying commentary, McIntosh claims that viewers seemed ready for his feminist heroine Buffy to put an end to Twilight‘s vampire boyfriend.
My re-imagined story was specifically constructed as a response to Edward and what his behavior represents in our larger social context for both men and women. More than just a showdown between The Slayer and the Sparkly Vampire, it’s also a humorous visualization of the metaphorical battle between two opposing visions of gender roles in the 21st century.
In the remix Edward comes off as a dangerous stalker of young women; Buffy, as a strong and self-determined woman who has little patience for his wimpy lines: “I feel very protective of you,” “I don’t have the strength to stay away from you.” She responds as we would like all young women to treat a creep–very directly. She tells him to stop calling her, stop watching her, and to stop considering her his friend: being “stalked isn’t really a big turn-on for girls.” At another point she asks him, “Are you twelve?” The remix ends with Buffy loading up on wooden stakes, literally chasing Edward down, beating the stuffing out of him, and “dusting” him with a stake through the heart. At this moment, we finally see her in the heat of passion–not over the overtures of the stalker, but from the exhilaration of the chase and the kill.
I wonder how the swooning audience in the theater would react to that scene. And I wonder if they catch any part of McIntosh’s valid exposé of the gender casting in Twilight. He notes:
Teenage protagonist Bella Swan is written as passive, co-dependent and perpetually the damsel in distress. Edward Cullen… [is] over-protective, domineering and possessive… . He spies on Bella, he stalks her (for “her own good”), he sneaks into her room to watch her sleep (without her consent), and even confesses to a deep, overpowering desire to kill her. We marveled at how the film attempted to present this behavior as sweet and deeply romantic–and how the larger pop culture discussion continued that framing for millions of young Twilight fans.
McIntosh expects his video remix to be watched by over a million viewers by the time it has been passed around the internet.
Other web sources such as The Oatmeal.com in its special “How Twilight Works” poke fun at the lack of artistry in the series, especially the flat depiction of Bella compared to the over-the-top descriptions of Edward’s face, skin, body, etc. TheOatmeal.com writer also notes a lack of growth in the characters’ development. Christian critics seem to run the gamut of disapprovals–finding too much sexual innuendo (christiananswers.net), finding the romantic stalker boyfriend a bad example for young Christian women (crosswalk.com), and even being conflicted about the message of abstinence for young people next to the presence of the occult in the film (www.cbn.com/entertainment/screen/goodwyn_twilight.aspx). This brings up the much discussed question of how author Stephanie Meyer’s Mormon beliefs influenced her writing. For a Latter Day Saint, the theme of abstinence as opposed to the lust for life in the vampire myth (“The blood is the life, Mr. Harker.”) seemed a perfect fit.
I find it hard, however, to explain to my young college students why I don’t appreciate the abstinence-touting Twilight from a religious writer and why I do love Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire and The Vampire Lestat. Rice’s world is filled with love and passion, quite explicit sexual scenes, and characters not nearly as “noble” as Stephanie Meyer’s. In a memorable novel, the characters must change and grow, question and err, seek redemption and grace. And sometimes, like the main character of Paul Schrader’s 1979 film Hardcore, we as readers must descend to explore the dark underbelly of our own selves and society to be able to understand our complicity in the evil of the world. We have to hear how our pat spiritual answers rehearsed for a lifetime fail to reach ears not attuned to that rhetoric. Even though Rice has proclaimed to the world that she had lost and now has returned to her faith, all of her books are full of the journey of faith and doubt, as are most artful novels.
Rice’s Louis, forced to take on vampiric nature, is distraught and torn from his faith, to the point of being fearful of even entering a church. In his long journey he attempts to find ways to survive without feeding on humans–an interesting metaphor for the realization of how so much of what we consume in our lives feeds off the oppression of others. Understanding Louis’s character forces me to wonder how I can live without buying clothes, for example, made at the expense of others’ health and freedoms. Rice’s character Lestat climbs his way to heaven in his attempt to ask the question of whether there is a God.
Novels should challenge us. They ought to make us uncomfortable, just as the Bible makes us uncomfortable: Tamar turning herself out as a prostitute, the slaughter of the taunting children by a bear, the lethal contest on Mount Carmel, and of course, the Resurrection story, the most disturbing narrative I’ve ever read. If you are comfortable in the world of a novel, then something is wrong with the story. We as readers need that goading stick, and we need it often. Otherwise, we might find ourselves absorbing mere romance and turning off our minds. And hearts.
Honestly, I see nothing wrong with recreational reading, and I’ve certainly done my share of it. But the books I love, the books and films I want to share with others, I hope engage my mind and heart. A colleague of mine showed the Edward-Buffy remix to his Twilight-crazed young daughter. She understood how Edward might be seen as a stalker, but her comment back to her father was, “Oh, but it’s okay, Dad, because it’s Edward!”
Where is that goading stick anyway?
*The Twilight Series by Stephenie Meyer now numbers four novels–Twilight, New Moon, Eclipse, and Breaking Dawn–with cumulative global sales of over 85 million in 38 languages. The first two books have been made into motion pictures; the film version of Eclipse is scheduled for release this summer.
Joonna Smitherman Trapp is chair of English and foreign languages at Waynesburg University in Waynesburg, Pennsylvania.