As a child who grew up in a home that loved horror, some of my earliest memories include vampires.
After all, I was born the same year The Lost Boys came out, and I remember seeing it on VHS when I was very young. In third grade I got a troubled call home from my teacher because I’d turned in a book report on Interview with the Vampire. We saw Buffy the Vampire Slayer in theaters and my mom used to tell this embarrassing but funny anecdote about when I was very young and my bed was against my room’s window; she would say that I slept with my head cocked to the side and my arms across my chest, "just in case" a vampire happened by and decided they wanted to bite me. She swore that I wanted to be Claudia and I have pictures of myself, fanged mouth dripping with blood, when I’m hardly old enough to write my name in cursive.
So by all accounts, I should hate the Twilight franchise that, since 2006, has redefined how most of mainstream pop culture sees vampires. Vampires are no longer bloody-mouthed, fanged, feral-eyed beasts that can fly or turn into bats or hiss and cringe away from crosses and garlic. They are trendy, fashionable, impossibly beautiful creatures that feed on animals and fall in love with awkward high school students. The vampires don’t burst into ashes in sunlight; they don’t do anything except look like they just received an enthusiastic lap dance from a glitter-doused stripper, honestly. They’re hardly ‘vampires’ at all by traditional standards. And yet the franchise, penned by first-time novelist Stephenie Meyer, has completely swept the globe. Even my grandmother, who still thinks Nicole Kidman is married to Tom Cruise, asked me at dinner to explain the plot to her because she’d seen the first movie on cable and wanted to know more about it. The films have taken mediocre and unknown actors and shot them to mega-stardom, and I can’t even begin to imagine exactly how much money the series has raked in if you count all of the merchandising and licensing along with the films and books themselves.
What’s the appeal, then?
As an avid horror fan and someone who attends conventions, I’ve taken my share of lumps for admitting to liking the franchise. Granted, I’m a long way from the girls who own Edward Cullen cardboard stand-ups or have Taylor Lautner’s face on their pillowcases. I’m at best a ‘casual fan’, someone who works in a bookstore by day and was so inundated by customers saying “Have you read Twilight? It’s the best, I’ve read it eight times already” that I had to finally take a copy home. I was appalled by the grammar and the weak, watery plot; okay, we get it, Bella is an awkward misanthrope who can’t tie her shoes without breaking an ankle, and Edward is basically the most perfect man on earth despite needing a diet of blood. Jacob is the sweet best friend who constantly gets dropped like a hot potato the minute something better comes along for Bella. And yet… these books were like eating potato chips. You know they’re awful for you, but you find yourself reaching reluctantly for the can to have another handful. And then another. And then another, all the while thinking "I should find something with more substance," until you feel like shit and you’re holding an empty bag with only greasy fingers and chest pains to show for your lack of self-control. I found myself interested after the quintessential bad guys showed up; James was actually quite cool in the book, a barefoot wildman sort who was a vampire that was world-renowned for his tracking and hunting skills, and his crazy redheaded girlfriend Victoria who always had murder and vengeance on the mind. Finally the book wasn’t just about Bella mooning over how beautiful Edward was and him lamenting how he’d waited a hundred years for a woman as perfect as her!
So I read the next three in the series, and then I started in on the movies. Now the movies are… bad, to say the least. The first one is a two-hour exercise of close-ups of expressionless faces. Robert Pattinson has actually shown that he has some acting depth (check him out in Water for Elephants, Cosmopolis or Little Ashes if you don’t believe me), but Kristen Stewart has never been anything but atrocious (don’t mention her turn as Joan Jett in The Runaways to me, because she was basically playing herself. In any movie where she has to ACT, she’s been awful). The original Twilight film is shot entirely through a blue filter and everyone is airbrushed and so oversaturated that it looks like a mid-90s alt rock music video. The second one hardly has Edward in it at all; Bella is left to put her life back together when he abandons her "for her own good" and her friendship with Jacob grows into something bigger than either of them could’ve expected. Oh, and he’s a werewolf. The third movie is when it really starts to pick up; Victoria has recruited an ambitious young vampire, Riley Biers, to construct an army of extremely powerful, bloodthirsty newborn vampires to destroy Edward and his family for vengeance since they killed her love James. There are several interesting back stories given for key characters, flashback sequences, and a great fight scene. There’s also plot intrigue when it’s hinted at that the nobility of the vampire world, the Volturi, may be allowing the newborn army to thrive because they too want the Cullens dead for personal reasons. The fourth movie opens with the marriage of Edward and Bella, followed by their honeymoon sequence and Bella’s consequent pregnancy. Since it’s supposed to be impossible for a vampire-human hybrid, all main cast members freak out over this development and the fetus begins to drain Bella until she dies in childbirth (a bloody and intense scene involving Edward having to literally gnaw the baby from her womb and then plunging a needle of vampire venom Pulp Fiction-style into her heart to try and resuscitate her. In the very last shot of the film, Bella opens her eyes to reveal that they are blood-red; the change took hold and she is indeed a vampire.
The premiere of Breaking Dawn: Part 2 signaled the end of an era for Twilight fans, or Twi-hards as they call themselves. Much like the final installment of the Harry Potter franchise, fans who had followed the series with ardor and loyalty now found themselves facing the end of the road and they were both anticipating it and dreading it. People camped out a week ahead of time to glimpse the red carpet for the LA premiere. Blogs blew up with speculations when the stars did an interview in which Robert Pattinson revealed that the script for this film deviated from the book’s canon a bit and said that the cast members freaked when they read the new ending.
Theaters across the country offered a Twilight Saga Marathon experience; for $25 fans could see all four movies on the big screen leading up to the premiere of the fifth and final film, which would debut at 10 PM instead of the usual midnight showings. These fans would also have the chance to buy a marathon-only commemorative t-shirt, collector’s cups with the characters on them, and other perks. A ticket found its way to my hands, and I set the date. I’m a sucker for fan-friendly events like this, and, honestly, the energy and enthusiasm of the crowd pumps me for the project more than the film itself. I love going to Disney movies on opening weekends to hear the kids’ reactions. If I want to focus on the film, I go in the middle of the afternoon on a weekday, but if I want to enjoy the audience I go to things like this.
When I arrived at eleven, I was handed a lanyard made of sparkling nylon imprinted with the Twilight logo, a huge All-Access pass hanging from it. “Wear this all day,” the booth operator told me with a knowing smile. The theater I went into was only half-full, but the variety of people there was staggering. There was a young woman with a very young child, maybe seven, who had obviously been pulled from school for the day. There were teenage girls in pajama pants, armed with blankets and pillows for the twelve-hour marathon. There was a small group of elderly women tittering behind me. One solitary man was in attendance with his girlfriend, who was fawning over him as he good-naturedly held their array of snacks. The only thing these people had in common was a love for the films; they animatedly discussed which ‘team’ they were on, and how we thought this movie would diverge from the book. When the films began, they were supplemented by special featurettes filmed for the marathon only, mini-interviews with the film’s stars Nikki Reed, Elizabeth Reaser and Jackson Rathbone. As the movies came on, I was surprised; sure, they were the same cheesy movies I’d seen on DVD at home, but the audience was rapt. It was as if they hadn’t seen these a thousand times before. People cheered for the good guys and booed the bad ones; they shouted callback lines, wolf-whistled when someone took their shirt off or there was a good on-screen kiss, and hissed when the Volturi showed up. One lady whooped every time Billy Burke (who plays Bella’s dad) came onscreen. Between movies, during the fifteen-minute pee-and-food breaks, we stood in the lobby and chattered.
I was amazed at how accepting and friendly the fans were. I wasn’t wearing a scrap of pro-Twilight gear other than my lanyard, and when someone asked me who I rooted for I said “I honestly don’t know, neither one is my type” and didn’t get heckled or jeered for it. One girl offered to let me sit with their group since I’d attended the screening alone. All in all, despite feeling like I’d married into the family or something, I felt completely welcomed and embraced by this fandom even after I explained that I wasn’t a huge fan and was just here to take a day off and do something besides sit home and cruise Facebook.
When the time came for the final film to start, the friendly chatter and good-natured audience participation stopped; there was a collective inhale as the lights dimmed, and then for two and a half hours everyone held their breath. I heard cries during particularly dramatic scenes, soft cheers under bated breaths, and the woman behind me was in full-blown sobbing mode at one part. The end credits of the film are shot in retrospective, showing clips of the characters from the previous films; there wasn’t a dry eye in the house by the time the lights came up. I sat there, stunned--- it was a good movie, surprising the hell out of me since I disliked the book, but more than that. I had been a part of an ending, a closure to an era. A film series that meant the world to some people, that had a theater full of people in tears of happiness and contentment and sorrow and loss and nostalgia all at once; I knew that I had witnessed something profound, even if many people wouldn’t see it that way. Maybe it’s because I’m a creator, and I write both stories and scripts; if anything I ever wrote could reduce even ONE person to the kind of breathless, helpless sobbing I heard from some of the audience in this theater, I would feel validated as an artist. I would know that my work had meant something to someone, and that is all the encouragement a creator should ever need. Your work made a difference. You made people happy. You allowed them to escape their real lives and gave them entertaining fluff to lose themselves in.
The thing is, people’s problems with the series usually involve one of two complains. Either “VAMPIRES DON’T SPARKLE” or people who want to harp about the many bad messages Meyer sends through the characters of her novels. I’ll break it down this way: so you say vampires don’t sparkle. That’s fine. The fact is, vampires are mythical beings and they’ve changed with every major incarnation in pop culture. Bela Lugosi’s Dracula is a long way from Keifer Sutherland’s David, and even further still from Rutger Hauer’s Lothos. The Buffy vampires on TV had Star Trek foreheads and a mouth full of crooked fangs. Some vampires grow fangs when they feed, others have them permanently, and still others, like Orlock, have huge bucktoothed maws. Some, like David Bowie in The Hunger, age and die even after being turned immortal. Some sleep in coffins while others laugh at the myth. So what are ‘real’ vampires? The vampires in the Twilight series can walk in sunlight, but they don’t sleep in coffins; they don’t sleep at all, actually. They sparkle in the sunlight because their skin is made of a diamond-like substance; when they die, they shatter like ceramic statues, a bloodless and rather interesting death in my opinion. They don’t have fangs and their bodies are filled with a venom instead of blood, venom which preserves them and keeps them immortal but also burns like agonizing acid when it’s injected into a human being through a bite wound. Each vampire has a special ability, much like in Anne Rice’s novels where she discusses how the Dark Gift manifests itself differently for each immortal. Some vampires in Twilight can read minds or see the future or control the elements. Why aren’t they ‘real’ vampires, then? They live forever and drink blood. Some myths apply while others are shunned.
As for the second argument, about the bad messages that Twilight sends to girls: Twilight was never written as a horror novel, or with any kind of deep intent. It has a lot of symbolism and touches on topics like abstinence, fidelity/the sanctity of marriage, our immortal souls, self-sacrifice, co-dependency, depression and obsession. Many of the characters exhibit signs of severe disorders, but these are glamorized and made romantic. Absolutely. I agree 100% with the series’ critics who say this. But I will throw romance novels into the argument, or romantic comedies. How many of them feature a woman waking up to find her lover intently watching her sleep, and he says something along the lines of “I love watching you wake up” (AKA something many of us women would find creepy in the real world)? What about movies where there’s a love triangle and the best friend gets strung along before finally dumped for the sleek, rich bad boy (hello, Pretty in Pink)? Or movies where one character is so completely in love with the other that they’d do anything to keep them safe and happy, even if it puts other people in danger or misery (every Nicholas Sparks movie ever made)? Reality is cold and harsh and cynical. Fantasy doesn’t have to be. Of course, there are certainly fans who take this crap way too seriously and demand that their men be ‘perfect’ like Edward, but that’s the crazy fans, I don’t speak for them. I speak for the rest of us--- Twilight-shaming is all the rage right now, and I’ve certainly been guilty of it in the past before I gave it an open-minded try. But it’s trendy to make people feel like shit about the guilty pleasures they indulge in; they’re called ‘guilty pleasures’ because other people make you feel ashamed for enjoying yourself. Fuck that. Life’s too short. You shouldn’t have to hide your Harlequin novel in your purse when someone walks by, or stuff the last cookie in your mouth so that your crush won’t see you holding a bag of them. Fuck it, just fly your freak flag, or your Team Edward flag, and shake off what other people say about it. The franchise doesn’t have to be everyone’s cup of tea, but it doesn’t have to polarize people quite as much as it does either. Someone wearing a Twilight shirt doesn’t automatically mean they have no taste, just like someone listening to black metal doesn’t mean they sacrifice kittens in forests.
Are the the Twilight films good? That’s subjective. Are they fun? Again, up to the viewer to decide. But for me, I was shocked to realize that by the end of the marathon I was considering myself a fan. I won’t be buying that Cullen family crest coffee mug any time soon, but I can say with a smile on my face that I cried when Jacob professed his love for Bella, that I was among those cheering when Victoria got her comeuppance, and that when those house lights came up for the last time on a Twilight film, I was one of the ones dabbing at my eyes and smiling.
All in all, I’ve done a lot of things in my life, and I have to admit that spending twelve hours with sparkly vampires and wildly exaggerated declarations of love is not the worst of them. My lanyard’s hanging from the headboard of my bed, and I don’t care anymore who sees it.
I actually wrote something like this a while back that was sort of from the opposite point-of-view (http://www.planetfury.com/content/twilight-outsiders-perspective). I've since seen the 4th movie and will probably see the last one too (might as well). I liked the first movie the best basically for the same reasons you mentioned; the blue filtered 90's flannel mopiness. It's almost like a sloppily written vampire episode of My So-called Life. Well, not quite.
TWILIGHT is a pox on the vampire genre. The sooner the whole unfortunate business is over with the better.
Your whole statement is the exact thing I'm trying to refute with this article... how exactly is it a 'pox'? Because it's a romance? Because the vampires don't have fangs? Why, exactly? They're just a new take on the genre and they aren't supposed to appeal to 'horror' fans.
Bravo Amanda; I'm not a Twihard either, but I have been known to attend the movie's showings with a gaggle of galpals and just enjoy it. It's fantasy, it's escapism, it's a chance to escape this frequently troubled world and just stare at beautiful men, get lost in a fanciful story and have fun.
I also loved your points about vampires; in all of the vamp stories that I've written, I've depicted only one bloody vampire kill--in Song of the Vamp, the vampire dispatches an attempted rapist. Otherwise my vamps are incubus, meaning that they draw their sustenance from the sensual energies of women. Vampires are fantasy figures, we as authors can do what we want with them.