From the Archives: Nostalgia and the Twilight Phenomenon

Twilight
Author’s note: From 2011 to 2012, I collaborated with my peers on a project called Cultural Transmogrifier, an online magazine dedicated to pop culture. With the project now defunct, I’ve dredged up my old essays from the site to share with you here.

I am a reluctant fan of Twilight. I refused to watch the first two Twilight films when they were frist released. I scoffed as co-workers, friends, and strangers talked excitedly about the series and how much they loved it. Before last year’s release of the third installment, Eclipse, a friend convinced me to watch the first two films. And just like that, I had gone from being a Twilight denouncer to being a Twilight enthusiast.

I still have reservations about the series; hence, I deem myself a reluctant fan. I can’t help but recognize that the writing isn’t the best, in part because it’s inundated by the excessive melodrama usually reserved for soap operas. And yet I cannot help watching these films. Despite the fact that many people share my reservations about it, the series is, undoubtedly a phenomenon. According to a December 2011 issue of Entertainment WeeklyBreaking Dawn: Part I was the third top-grossing movie of the year at $259 million. Because the series has received so much contempt amidst its popularity, it’s worth examining why it has become a phenomenon.

People love a good love story

More than anything, I think Twilight enthralls so many people not because of its fantastical elements (although these elements do contribute to the series’ popularity) but because it’s a love story. Many people, including myself, who watch Twilight love love-stories. Yet, author Stephanie Meyer depicts an unhealthy kind of love—namely, an obsessive, all-consuming, and, at times, even debilitating kind of love. Take, for example, Edward consistently and adamantly insisting that he cannot live without Bella. In New Moon, he goes to the Vulturi (essentially, the Vampire government of the Twilight world) and pleads with them to kill him because he thinks Bella is dead.

For Bella’s part, she shuts down when Edward leaves her; she sits catatonically in her room for months on end. And once she breaks out of her catatonia, she repeatedly puts herself into life-threatening situations because doing so allows her to see Edward’s face.

And let’s not forget Jacob, whose own attitude toward love is arguably just as obsessive as Edward’s and Bella’s—remember the silver lining he found in the newest movie, Breaking Dawn: Part I, when he thought that Bella might die? At least he would finally get what he always wanted: to kill Edward.

Although I have scoffed at such melodramatic, unhealthy depictions of love, I still feel compelled to watch Twilight because a part of me longs for this kind of love. A part of me desperately wants that soul mate who would do anything for me, who would rather die than live without me. A part of me wants that all-consuming, obsessive love affair. A part of me wants Edward Cullen.1 Many other people also long for this kind of love, whether they are for Team Jacob or love Bella or don’t project their love onto the screen. Twilight fans must be romantics at heart.

To understand love in this way and to pursue this kind of love is unhealthy. And I try my best to employ this knowledge in my own relationships with other people. But given that some part of me wants this kind of love, it’s nice to watch movies like Twilight because I can temporarily suspend my better judgment and just become lost in this love affair. I am allowed to stop “knowing better” for a couple of hours, and that’s a relief.

Allowing yourself to stop “knowing better” from time to time can be incredibly important—to allow yourself time to let go of what you think you know, your inhibitions, reservations and judgments to engage in something you would enjoy if only you gave yourself permission. And maybe, harboring a desire for something like an all-consuming love needs to be acknowledged in one way or another so it doesn’t fester.2 Most of us have desires that we refuse to appease; maybe the best way to handle these desires is to experience them vicariously through film.

People love a good saga

Twilight Series

In addition to our fascination with love stories, Twilights popularity must also stem from our fervor for film series. The popularity of Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter (to name a few) lend evidence to that claim. Sure, aside from being a series, Star WarsThe Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and Twilight have fantasy in common. And a preoccupation with fantasy, magic, and science-fiction certainly has catapulted all of these series into mass popularity. But the popularity doesn’t just derive from the existence of a fantasy world. It also derives from the unraveling of a world over time.

A series allows us to become further immersed in its world so much more than a stand-alone movie (or book) can. We become so much more invested in the characters. Maybe they begin to feel like family because we get to know them so well and spend so much time with them. And perhaps more significantly, a series gives us something to which we can look forward. Many people love the anticipation of waiting for the next film in a series to be released. The first Twilight film and New Moon were all ready out when I began watching the series. But after watching both films, I eagerly awaited the release of Eclipse and after that, spent the next year looking forward to Breaking Dawn: Part I. And now, I’m looking forward to the release of Breaking Dawn: Part II next year.3

It’s exhilarating to get caught up in the whirlwind that so often surrounds a series. It’s fun and perhaps comforting to become excited and even obsessive with other people, to feel part of an exuberant community. In some ways, the fervor that often surrounds a series like Twilight allows us to feel a kind of excitement that has been difficult to experience since childhood. Maybe we miss experiencing that kind of excitement and seize it any chance we get.

People love a good fantasy

Of course, as I have all ready conceded, we can attribute part of the hype surrounding Twilight to its vampires and werewolves. In particular, Meyer’s unique depiction of vampires and werewolves has allured fans. In Meyer’s world, vampires can walk around during the day because the sun does not incinerate them. Instead, it makes them shimmer like ethereal, perhaps even angelic, beings. And although we’ve seen glimpses of this before, Meyer more than others (though I cannot claim this with authority) has expounded upon the idea of tempered vampires. The Cullen family has managed to subdue their appetite for humans and feed on animals instead. They are an altruistic, kind, supportive family who willingly help humans (excluding the surly Rosalie, who helps others only reluctantly). Vampires are no longer monsters or cursed miserable creatures but rather, superhumans capable of leading happy lives. They have superhuman strength, superhuman speed, immortality, and, depending on the individual, a unique power, such as the ability to read minds or foresee the future.

Similarly, Meyer eliminates the major pitfalls of being a werewolf. In Twilight, werewolves are not subjected to the full moon. Rather, their transformations occur at will. And they also possess superhuman strength, as well as the ability to telecommunicate with their pack. Like vampires, werewolves are not condemned to a miserable existence but can lead relatively normal, perhaps even extraordinary, lives. I would love to be a vampire or even a werewolf in Meyer’s world. And a lot of Twilight fans probably feel the same way.

Perhaps even more intriguing than her portrayal of fantastical creatures, Meyer—much like J.K. Rowling does in the Harry Potter series—allows fantasy to exist in our world as we know it. Often, fantasy/sci-fi films depict worlds that are completely separate from our own (Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings). But within the world of Twilight, Meyer accounts for the fact that most people do not believe in vampires and werewolves. Most of her characters are oblivious to the existence of these creatures. By placing vampires and werewolves in a world that bears a striking resemblance to our own, Meyer has left room for us to imagine that these creatures could exist alongside of us—perhaps even that we could become one of them. While we obviously know that to be preposterous, the fact that Meyer has made room for the possibility of extant fantasy in our real lives allows us to suspend disbelief on another level.

Of course it would be exciting if vampires and werewolves really existed. And perhaps there’s something nostalgic about this. These are creatures many of us believed in as children. Maybe we never wanted to stop believing in them because they make life more exciting, mysterious, dangerous, and adventurous.

In the end, it seems that the obsession with Twilight (at least among adult) stems from nostalgia—nostalgia for the love we imagined and desired as adolescents, for the excitement we used to feel so readily as kids, and for the belief in fantasy.

Notes

  1. Four years after writing this post, I can say I’ve at last grown out this desire for an obsessive, all-consuming love affair. I’ve grown out of Edward Cullen. This means for me, Twilight now only resonates because I enjoy a good saga and a good fantasy. Another reason unaccounted for by the original article—I revel in cinematic ridiculousness. I enjoy watching films of Twilight’s caliber to mock them.
  1. Related to footnote 1, perhaps I grew out of my desire for an all-consuming love affair because I indulged it by watching Twilight, allowing it to play out on its own.
  1. Obviously, Breaking Dawn: Part II has been out for a while now and my review is coming soon.
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