Having been raised in the Mormon Church I couldn’t help but wonder what the whole Twilight thing was all about. After all, Stephanie Meyer is among the top three most famous Mormons out there right now (along with right-wing wacko Glenn Beck and moderate Republican Mitt Romney). Plus, about nine out of ten of my female high school English students have read these books, my wife is a huge fan, and the movie stars are all over the tabloids. So over the summer I picked up the first installment of the Twilight Saga and was more than a little disappointed at what I found.
Admittedly I am not the target market for this book. Perhaps if I were a teenage girl I would find Bella’s gushing, obsessive, all-consuming fascination with Edward endearing rather than pathetic. And perhaps I would find the idea of sparkly vampires intriguing rather than goofy. And hey, maybe if I was still in high school I would even understand why a one-hundred year old vampire would have even the slightest desire to sit through high school Algebra (let alone sit through it dozens of times as the movie absurdly suggests).
But that is not to say that I don’t see why it is so popular. Stephanie Meyer manages to tap into a primal and really quite fascinating human psychological phenomenon in her novel—the amalgamation of sex and death. Being familiar with the ideas of Sigmund Freud and Michel Foucault who have argued that sex and death are inextricably fused in the human psyche (Foucault’s native language—French—even refers to orgasms as petit mort or “little deaths”) it’s easy to find the psychological spasm that triggers an obsessive fascination in some Twilight fans which borders on lunacy.
My wife said it best, though, when I asked her about her fascination with Edward and Bella: “He can’t have sex with her because if he did he would lose control and kill her. That is so damn sexy.”
Indeed. Desire is fueled by denial. The forbidden fruit is one of the oldest concepts in literature, an idea as true today as it was thousands of years ago. We always want what we cannot have, and Edward is the ultimate unreachable aspiration. Combine that with his mysterious nature and the not-irrelevant fact that a quietly charismatic British guy with high cheekbones and a strong chin plays him on screen and you have all the makings of a pop culture sensation.
It is a bit surprising, though, that Stephanie Meyer barely even nods at her faith in the novel. There is an incident where Bella prays for help at a particularly rough juncture, but there’s no explicit mention of Christianity or its tenets anywhere to be found. I did see a bit of doctrine shining like a ray of sunlight through Edward’s keen metaphysical musings (A vampire who believes in Intelligent Design? Really?) But overall it’s clear that she went out of her way to make the book as secular as possible.
Think about it. Bella is definitely not a Mormon teenager. None of the trappings of Mormonism—the three hours of church each Sunday, family home evening each Monday, Seminary Bible classes every morning before school, temple trips on the weekends, mutual on Tuesday nights—none of the things that make Mormon culture work can be found anywhere in its pages.
Still, though, it’s often observed that the Twilight saga is surprisingly moral for a vampire story, even chaste in its way. I wonder if that’s really what’s going on here, though. By tying sexuality up with fear and fascination Stephanie Meyer is fueling the fire that makes pre-marital sex so attractive in the first place. And Bella wants it—she’s not chaste by choice, and that’s the really interesting thing about the story.
In a lot of ways I think it’s like any other brand of fundamentalism. On the surface it condemns premarital sex in favor of abstinence, but its real effect may be quite different. Study after study has shown that making kids take abstinence vows and teaching abstinence in schools doesn’t decrease rates of teenage sex. Plus, for the devoutly religious the condemnation, fear, and guilt makes a healthy sexuality almost impossible. Guilt and anxiety drive a morbid fascination that turns one of the most basic and essential acts of human life into a frighteningly compelling obsession.
It may be that the fixation on this sex = death equation drives many young people to rebellious promiscuity, early pregnancy, unconsidered marriage, or a long drawn out adolescence spent wavering between morbidly obsessive fascination and unmerciful self-loathing.
If there’s an alternative to these choices, I wish I knew what it was. But in the mean time I hear there’s a sequel to Twilight and the film adaptation is due in theatres any day now. Maybe Jacob will prove an easier lay than Edward. But I wouldn’t bet on it.