Breaking down the blood-pumping allure of Twilight

Interviewing a Queen's professor to get to the bottom of the pop culture craze

A Queen's prof explains the cultural phenomenon of vampire fiction.
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This month marks the anniversary of the film Twilight’s release more than 10 years ago, which sent the world into a frenzy.

As the first of the saga’s eventual five blockbusters, Twilight marked the beginning of the book-to-movie franchise’s pop culture domination. In the fall of 2008, its girl-meets-vampire love story swept across the globe like wildfire, garnering more than its share of critics and, more impressively, an army of enormously dedicated fans: Twihards. 

By bringing Stephanie Meyer’s young adult book series to life onscreen, Twilight launched a new kind of vampire into the mainstream. The film introduced the world to the cold and sparkly Edward Cullen, who became the star of every viewer’s wildest fantasies.

Well, except for those more inclined toward the saga’s shirtless werewolves.   

As former Twilight-watching, Abercrombie & Fitch-clad preteens ourselves, we wanted to get to the bottom of why the film became as popular as it once did. One of us also needed insight into why their older sister’s cardboard cutout of Edward Cullen lived with their family for three years. 

To figure this out, we reached out to Brooke Cameron, an assistant professor of English at Queen’s who currently teaches a fourth-year class on Victorian vampires. Over email, she answered our vampire questions in an effort to help us navigate the wonderfully wacky world of Twilight.

Through our email correspondence with Cameron, we learned that vampires have always been alluring to audiences, just as they’ve always been a point of contention. Twilight isn’t the first vampire story to gain widespread popularity while simultaneously ruffling some feathers.

Twilight also didn’t start the sexy vampire trend. For those who’ve read modern vampire literature or watched Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt sulk around in 1994’s Interview with the Vampire, this may come as no surprise. In fact, the sexy vampire can be traced as far back as the Victorian era. 

It’s true that the original vampires of folklore (and the ones that come to mind when we think about horror) were corpse-like and decrepit, but as early as the 1800s, they were often portrayed as sexual seducers. 

Cameron believes this is a contributing factor to Twilight’s massive appeal for younger audiences.

“The seductive vampire is, by definition, a source of irresistible fascination,” she wrote in an email to The Journal. “But rewrite this figure as an outsider or bad boy in a movie made for teenagers and you have an instant recipe for success.”  

Edward Cullen’s bad boy mystique and initial aloofness make him an undeniably intriguing character. The fact that he seems to want nothing to do with the protagonist, Bella, at first makes him all the more appealing. He’s not interested in social conventions or what’s considered popular and this satisfies the teenage desire to rebel at all costs.

“Twilight knows its audience and delivers the goods,” Cameron wrote. “It taps into teenage feelings of alienation and sexual frustration. Its love story facilitates the teenage need for rebellion and some kind of expression of unconventional desire.”

In the first film, Edward literally catches an apple and holds it out to Bella. If that doesn’t say forbidden fruit (and desires), we don’t know what does. Combine this allure with all the secrets surrounding the Cullen family, and it’s no surprise young audiences wanted to stick around to learn more.

Perhaps there’s nothing inherently sexy about a vegetarian who sparkles in the sun, but these attributes (which are Meyer’s contributions to the classic vampire archetype) also add to Edward’s appeal.

According to Cameron, these features have a lot to do with the emergence of a sympathetic vampire in the 20th and 21st century. In other words, when Edward’s vampirism is revealed to Bella—and audiences—we aren’t horrified because he still has enough redeeming qualities to make him likeable.

His unwillingness to submit to his desires by resisting feeding on humans makes it easier for an audience to justify their affection for him. He’s not a typical villain because he’s trying so hard to maintain his humanity. Plus, in the immortal words of Bella, his sparkly body is beautiful “like diamonds.” 

Presented this way, the mass appeal for Twilight makes sense, but its historical context doesn’t do much to shield it from the extreme amount of criticism and hate it continues to get.

Cameron says this isn’t anything new for vampire fiction. Throughout history, it’s consistently been the target of criticism, seen as uncultured entertainment despite its often-poignant societal commentary.

“Vampire fiction and horror more broadly have absolutely been the target of derisive comments and dismissed as not serious literature for centuries,” she wrote.

“This has a lot to do with horror’s mass appeal. Horror works because it taps into and exploits dominant cultural desires, but because of that same mass appeal, it is often dismissed as unsophisticated or ‘low-brow.’”

It’s also worth noting that pop culture phenomenon and films that attract female followings are often not considered serious entertainment—see chick flicks for proof. Even something as simple as an Internet trend can be mocked because of its link with teenage girls. 

Although Cameron suggests films like Let the Right One In, Only Lovers Left Alive, and 1931’s Dracula for people who want to sink their teeth into more vampire fiction, she also believes people should accept their love for Twilight.

No matter how you felt about Twilight when it first came out, or how you feel about it today, it made an impact on a massive scale for many pubescent teens.

“I say embrace films like Twilight that played a pivotal role in your coming-of-age,” Cameron wrote. “Even if your attitude toward the film is different now, it’s okay to acknowledge it as a formative text in your own personal cultural narrative.”

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