Monday, November 2, 2009

The Religion of Twilight: By Hadassah Meadows

Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series has become an integral part of modern popular culture, and has the potential to become a ‘religion’ for devoted fans.

After capturing the imagination of people all over the world, the Twilight series has been recognised as a pillar of popular culture (Pennsylvania State University: 2009), uniting boys and girls, men and women in a love of the teenage love story between ‘plain Jane’ and an impossibly beautiful vampire. Within this essay I will examine some reasons why the Twilight series has captured the imagination of so many people, and it’s potential to replace mainstream religion with a ‘vampiric’ counterpart. The fascination with vampires will be explored, as well as other factors within Twilight’s appeal. The portrayal of vampires within film and popular culture will also be discussed in regard to the Twilight series.

Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight saga has taken the world by storm, creating a furore of media attention. The latest instalment in the Twilight ‘franchise’ is Summit Entertainment’s New Moon (IMDB: 2009), set to be released on the 20 November 2009. Meyer claims her inspiration for the series came to her in a dream, in which a beautifully pale and sparkly vampire spoke to a plain and ordinary girl in a meadow of his dilemma between love for her and the desire to drink her blood (Leitich Smith 1: 2006). Twilight was published in 2005, and quickly became a bestseller, making it to #5 on the New York Times Bestseller List only one month after the book’s release (New York Times: 2007). Twilight remained at number one for forty-two weeks, and the sequel, New Moon, remained at number one for forty-three weeks (New York Times: 2007). Twilight has reached an estimated thirty million readers and the film secured the number one spot on 2008 (Bell 1: 2009). Twilight’s popular attraction has many critics puzzled as the literature itself has been dubbed as quite poor (Cozzetto 1: 2009). It is Twilight’s content which holds the real pulling power, offering audiences an escape from their everyday lives, the hope of faithful, everlasting love, restrained desire, and the thrilling power of the supernatural. These elements of the series will be explored in further depth below.

Toted as a ‘tween’ and teen sensation, the statistics offer a differing perspective. published results of a survey of over 5000 Twilight viewers, with some startling results. Forty-two percent of respondents were over twenty-five years of age, twenty-five percent of respondents said they were going to view Twilight with their mother or daughter, and eighty-three percent planned to see the film a second time ( 2008). The reasons behind Twilight’s mass appeal must be explored to understand why it has captured the imagination of such a large audience.

Twilight’s basic plot is a typical Cinderella story – a plain and undeserving girl captures the heart of the popular and handsome prince whose love transforms her into something worthy of his devotion. The difference in this case is that instead of a rich and handsome prince Charming, the male protagonist is a rich and handsome vampire charming. Meyer’s use of the “vampire” has drawn in a ‘sub-cultural’ audience who devour anything in literature, film and popular culture related to vampires. Twilight’s vampire appeal may account for a large portion of its audiences according to Gelder, who answers the question ‘why vampires?’ by explaining that
“the answer lies primarily in their unfailing ability to fascinate. That is, they evoke a response that is not entirely “rational’ – a response that may sit somewhere in between disbelief and, in fact, a suspension of belief,” (2: 1994). Gelder continues by explaining that “vampires are both textual and extra-textual creatures; one can even ‘know’ about them (and irrationally wish to know more about them) without actually reading vampire fiction or watching vampire films. In this sense, they are ‘in’ culture; and they may well have (or be mobilised to have) ‘real’ affects,” (Gelder 2:1994).
Human fascination with vampires has been suggested to pander to the basest instincts within humanity, and vampires are what humanity could become if shed of all moral inhibitions (Locke 62: The Online Journal of Undergraduate Literary Criticism and Theory). Throughout history, the mythology of vampires has been twisted, inevitably, around religion. The old legends and folklore oft describe vampires as being demons and imply that their existence is a product of the Devil.

The image of Edward Cullen is another factor of Twilight’s appeal. Not only is Edward a perfect gentleman, who shows passion and restraint, but he is also described as “devastatingly, inhumanly beautiful,” (Twilight 19: 2005). Edward is musically talented, intelligent (demonstrated in Bella’s first encounter with him in the science lab), rich, kind, generous, self-sacrificial, romantic and relatively stable. He also possesses supernatural abilities such as impossible speed and strength, perfect balance, the ability to read minds and a heightened sense of empathy (Twilight: 2005). This image of Edward has become part of the Twilight ‘franchise.’ Posters, books, magazines, television advertisements, cinemas, and clothing all containing the image of Edward Cullen are readily available. Edward’s appeal is largely based in his supernatural abilities and his relationship with the supernatural, which is portrayed as something sinister, monstrous and undesirable within Twilight.

Bella’s obsession with Edward is closely followed by her obsession with his lifestyle, and from a very early point in the saga Bella decides she wants to partake in Edward’s lifestyle, essentially becoming ‘undead.’ Within the series, Edward expresses on many occasions his disgust with himself, and experiences a strong sense of self-loathing for the creature that he is (Twilight: 2005). This is evidenced in Edward’s statement to Bella, as he incredulously asks Bella, ''you don't care if I'm a monster? If I'm not human?'' (Twilight 187: 2005). Edward’s disgust for himself epitomises the ideology of the supernatural as ‘bad’ within the Twilight series. Despite Meyer creating the main plotlines around supernatural happenings, there is a definite sense of humanity being precious and almost sacred, and any deviations from normal humanity – such as vampires, and later in the series, werewolves – are reviled as unnatural and the characters otherworldliness is a ‘burden that must be borne.’ Unlike many other supernatural stories, the characters in Twilight live in a type of denial of their ‘unhumanity.’ The Cullen family shun their vampiric tendencies and live only on the blood of animals, maintaining the preciousness of human life. They inhibit their natural abilities to move faster and think quickly, to blend in with the humans around them. This shunning of the supernatural contrasted with Bella’s morbid fascination of it is held in tension within the saga, and is a central complication between Edward and Bella, as Edward refuses to give Bella her wish of becoming a vampire. The power the vampires possess could be unlimited and used for their own advantage and even to dominate humanity, yet they show moral restraint and seem to have a higher moral code than Bella or even other humans. This dichotomy between the vampire’s high moral ethic and the negative portrayal of their supernatural existence is another aspect of Meyer’s character development within the series.

Twilight provides a popular cultural alternative to mainstream religion, and has quickly become a replacement to some of its audience. A religion based around Twilight has cropped up recently and is being called ‘Cullenism.’ Cullenists believe that “just like any other religion, there is some spirituality to be had out of the Twilight series,” (Bell 1: 2009). The basic set of beliefs in Cullenism is the belief that “Edward and the rest of the Twilight characters are real,” that “the Twilight series should be worshipped," and that "if you are good in life, you will be blessed with eternity with the Cullens." Cullenists are also expected to read some of the books on a daily basis, "like the Bible" and make a pilgrimage to Forks,” (Bell 1: 2009). The deities are the Cullens, and should be worshipped. The religion of Twilight provides a community (often online) of like-minded individuals who share similar beliefs, opinions and values, for both the devout fan and the firm adherent to Cullenism. As a religion, Twilight successfully offers an alternative to sexually hungry, and often aimless teenagers who often desire a more ‘attractive’ appeal to their religion (Schofield Clark 78: 2000).

The portrayal of vampires within film and pop culture is not a new portrayal in any way. Peter Dendle, an associate professor of English at Penn State Mont Alto who studies early medieval demonology and folklore, says “vampires have been around for quite some time, but go through phases of popularity, much like fashion trends. Vampire-like creatures are known from as early as the earliest recorded writings. In Greek literature, there is not a Dracula or Twilight character, but the idea of a soul-sapping, life-drawing creature in human or animal form is very old,” (Pennsylvania State University 1: 2009).

Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, published in 1872, was one of the first vampire novellas, predating Bram Stoker’s Dracula by twenty-five years. Film creations of vampire tales came swiftly after, with The Vampire released in 1913 (IMDB: 2009) and then Nosferatu in 1922 directed by Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau in Germany (IMDB: 2009). Since then, there have been many and varied portrayals of vampires within film and popular culture, often associated with being sexually predatory or sexually alluring. “In the 19th century, Bram Stoker's gothic novel, "Dracula," discreetly sexualized the vampire with a male predator drawing life out of a maidenly woman. Dendle says ‘Stoker used metaphors for sexuality, in a century when it was difficult to write about it explicitly,’” (Pennsylvania State University 1: 2009).
Film is only a small aspect of the media within popular culture, and Twilight has effectively transcended the divide between Hollywood and popular media. In his book, Mass-Mediated Culture, Michael Real provides an example of how popular culture shapes individuals and society as a whole. He argues that “Mass-mediated culture primarily serves the interests of the relatively small political-economic power elite that sits atop the social pyramid. It does so by programming mass consciousness....For example, while allegedly ‘giving people what they want,’ commercial television maximises private corporate profit, restricts choices, fragments consciousness, and masks alienation,” (Cited in Forbes 6: 2005). Twilight has successfully seeped into Western popular culture, much like any other cult following or money-making venture peddled by the media’s elite. The difference with the Twilight series is that was initially overlooked by conventional media, and passed via word of mouth and the internet (Miller 1: 2008). The lag in time for MTV to pick up on the vampire craze is something Miller points out as supporting the initial media lag in support of Twilight.

The success of Twilight’s transition from book, to film, to franchise is what has made it a pillar of popular culture and youth popular culture. Twilight’s permeation through every type of media is what makes it successful, according to Laura Miller (1: 2008). The cultish tendencies of Twilight fanatics who religiously dedicate themselves to the ideologies and concepts within Twilight take it out of the realm of popular culture and media, and into the realm of religion. Twilight provides an alternative to mainstream religion, which is often considered boring and mundane. The Twilight series offers a religion with a little more ‘bite.’

Reference List
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