This is a repost to coincide with the cinema release of The Twilight Sage: Breaking Dawn (Part 1)
This article was first published on Culturewatch.org. © Tony Watkins, 2010.
Vampires are currently one of the biggest phenomena in popular culture. They are central to hit television series like True Blood, Being Human and The Vampire Diaries, but leading the pack are Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight books and their film adaptations. These are just the most obvious examples of a recent surge in interest after Buffy the Vampire Slayer a decade ago.
But of course the popularity of vampires in fiction goes back to John Polidori’s short story TheVampyre (1819) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). Since then the folk-tale origins of vampires have been overlaid with all kinds of newer traditions, including fangs, sensitivity to sunlight and having no reflection.
Meyer gives them some new twists. Her vampires are not afraid of being in the sunlight, except when humans are present, because the light reveals their ‘true nature’ – not ugly monsters but possessing a beautiful glittering skin. A more important variation is that Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), the vampire hero of these stories, comes from a family that has learned to control its lust for human blood. They call themselves ‘vegetarians’, meaning that they feed off animals, not humans.
This takes us to the heart of the tension that pervades The Twilight Saga: deep-seated physical urges are at odds with an ethical sense that they should be kept in check. Edward and his family struggle with instincts that could reduce them to the monstrous behaviour of other vampires.
Bella (Kristen Stewart), the saga’s human heroine, experiences similar inner conflict, although she doesn’t have the same strength of will to resist her longings. She is completely infatuated with Edward and will risk anything to be with him, despite how obvious it is that a human-vampire romance will have bad consequences.
Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer said we are driven to reproduce, so ‘ the lover shuts his eyes to all the qualities repugnant to him, overlooks everything, misjudges everything, and blinds himself for ever to the object of his passion.’ Bella certainly demonstrates exactly this in the first film, insisting that she doesn’t care that Edward is a monster who has killed people.
But although the films don’t make it very explicit, there must be more to their love than mere animal magnetism. If not, these movies would follow most others about teen love and make the relationship sexual (that’s coming, but not until the fourth film). Vampire stories have long been a metaphor for sexual desire and gratification, so the fact that Edward and Bella abstain from sex, and he from drinking her blood, is counter-cultural. It’s one of many ways in which Meyer’s Mormon background shapes her narrative.
Bella and Edward are each convinced that the other is their soul mate, that they could never love another person as truly and deeply. They want to be together forever, just like any young couple that has fallen madly in love. As far as Bella is concerned, the solution is easy: all Edward needs to do is bite her and make her like him. But he is reluctant to oblige, and with good cause: to do so would, he believes, destroy her soul and condemn her to hell. At the end of the second book, New Moon, he finally agrees to her request, but decides to wait for a few years.
The main attraction of The Twilight Saga may well be the brooding, unfulfilled longing for an idealised, apparently unobtainable lover. But why the wider preoccupation with vampires? Perhaps part of the answer is that when our instinctive longing to be connected with spiritual reality is obstructed by the prevailing secularism of our culture, it still comes creeping out of the shadows in some misshapen way. It seems that we can’t stop telling, or lapping up, stories about the supernatural or spiritual, and about humans becoming immortal, even if through terrible means.
The love that Edward and Bella yearn to share, once she sorts out the place of werewolf Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner) in her affections, is what we all long for: exclusive, intimate and forever. It’s how we feel true love should be because it echoes precisely what we were made for: an exclusive, intimate, eternal relationship with God himself.