Love bites

- December 4, 2008

Kristen Stewart is Bella Swan and Robert Pattinson is Edward in the movie Twilight.  

The Twilight saga, by Stephanie Meyer, is officially everywhere. There’s a movie, there’s an author-certified playlist, and folks at the local Chapters partied well into the night when Breaking Dawn (Meyer’s most recent instalment) was released.

At a party recently, I confessed to picking up the books to see what the fuss was about.

Twilight?” A friend scoffed. “Isn’t that the book about the vampires who sparkle?” The line of conversation was quickly dropped.

There’s a strange stigma attached to being a Twilight fan; everyone seems to deem it necessary to immediately avow that they haven’t seen it/haven’t read it/don’t know what it is, but isn’t Edward hot? A blogger friend of mine read the whole thing voraciously, but doggedly uploaded regular journal entries ridiculing the plot. For those of you who really haven’t heard of the books, the story goes a little like this – girl moves to new town, girl meets boy, girl is impossibly gorgeous, boy is a tortured vampire. Naturally they’re made for each other.

Swoony Isabella Swan and broody Edward Cullen aren’t the world’s most original lovers, but obviously, the rinse-and-repeat formula still works like a charm. Bella might not be so head-over-heels if she knew how many other girls wanted to sink their teeth into Edward.

“Gothic is perpetually – maybe even more so now – a popular genre,” says Dal English professor Judith Thompson, who will teach Gothic Literature this winter. The genre is in fact now so popular among young readers that sales of the Twilight saga eclipsed the number of Harry Potter books sold at Indigo bookstores in Canada last year—and that's when the final Harry Potter book was released.

As high school girls devour Meyer’s angst/love/angst saga, their Hamlet-hawking teachers despair, asking that universal question, What is the appeal? Prof. Thompson has a few theories.

“I was thinking about it… in terms of high school youth. What’s vampirism about? It’s about both the fear and the desire of being consumed, of being possessed, of going over to the dark side—it plays out fantasies of power… what’s high school? Well, it’s exactly the same thing, right?”

(This actually does not sound very much like my high school experience.) Prof.Thompson elucidates. “That’s the time in one’s life when (one) both fears and desires breaking through the rules, going over to the dark side… probably for adolescent girls in particular, these are really important issues. Whether to give oneself over in a relationship… all these things, which is what the whole vampire thing is about, these are really a major part of one’s life in adolescence.”

“I read it all in one sitting,” says Leslie Appleton. A first-year theatre student at Dalhousie, Leslie is an avowed Twilight fan. A friend working at a bookstore recommended the books. “She said all the 12-year-old girls were coming into Coles, buying Twilight.”

So, again, what’s the appeal? Apparently, it’s not protagonist Bella Swan. “I hated the main character, oh yes,” Leslie laughs. “It’s going to sound very teenage-girlish of me, but Edward’s too good for her.”

Prof. Thompson, however, identifies Bella’s cluelessness as necessary to the novel’s Gothic format. “A classic Gothic novel has… a virtuous, usually female, character put in a situation of great peril and threat which is usually explicitly sexual in nature.”

Some of Twilight’s strength may come from the virginal maiden trope, but to Leslie, Bella’s still your stereotypical ‘Mary Sue.’ “Mary Sue down to the point where she’s clumsy, but everything works her way. She’s miserable, but everything around her is absolutely perfect. And everyone loves her. In the first book, the first three guys she meets fall in love with her, and she just couldn’t care less.” (Maybe Bella is a Mary Sue, but suddenly, I’m sort of jealous.)

Another classic Gothic character, says Professor Thompson, is the “dark, threatening figure of power… a figure of threat (who) is also, on some level, an attractive figure.”

This is not how Leslie describes Edward. “He’s kind of a dork, I must say.”

Leslie and I decided we’d go to a screening of Twilight and see how the movie measured up to the book. It wasn’t bad. The soundtrack was indulgently moody, and I appreciated the irony in Bella driving a pickup truck. Unfortunately, I couldn’t truly appreciate Twilight’s performances. Every time Edward wandered onscreen, high-pitched shrieks issued from the crowd around us, drowning out the movie.

Eventually, the “social experiment” novelty of the experience wore off. Leslie and I left to return our tickets and grab a coffee instead. “I might have been giggly as a teenage girl,” Leslie marvelled while I sipped my eggnog latte, “but nowhere near those decibels.” Leslie buys an orange Jones soda and decides to catch Twilight on DVD. “I wasn’t sure we were going to get our money back. I mean – ‘Can I get my money back? I was driven out by teenage girls.’” It does sound like a paltry excuse, but at the ticket desk, we had no problem – all we had to say was “Twilight” and they rang our refunds through.

Far be it from me to saddle the Fab Four with fangs, but the atmosphere in the theatre reminded me of Beatlemania – young girls squealing with such unbridled enthusiasm that the target didn’t really matter. Row of teenagers catcalling recordings of vampires who don’t exist played by actors who can’t hear them – it’s anthropological dream material.

Maybe ‘dream material’ is the secret. “I had this revelation while brushing my teeth,” muses Professor Thompson, “It’s kind of wacky… Romance compensates for sleep deprivation. I was thinking about Twilight, and about why it appeals to youth… This is the most sleep-deprived generation. The double-cappuccino, Red Bull generation. Right? One could theorize that romance is a surrogate for not having enough dreams.” Prof. Thompson smiles. “Today’s generation, they don’t spend enough time dreaming.”

You mean that to cut down on Twilight, I’ll have to exorcise my eggnog lattes? Forget it. Edward Cullen can stay. I’m getting used to him, anyway.


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