by Alicia Rudnicki, Library Mix
It casts dark shadows, but it also casts light on the dreams and emotions of its readers. Like moths to lamplight, girls and women of all ages are drawn to the pages of vampire fiction.
There is no one reason why. However, many of these novels—particularly the Twilight Series—focus on improbable but alluring romances that create adventure in the otherwise humdrum lives of their central characters.
Being pretty for all eternity
“I have read vamp fiction since I was in middle school, and there is just some kinda pull towards the dark side,” writes Nicci, commenting on my request last May for information about why teens love vampire books so much. “The idea of living forever and being pretty for all of eternity that seems to draw me in. Also the idea of seeing the next 100 centuries and what will become of us. I think also it’s that draw to the dark and mysterious sexy boys.”
This comment reminds me about how very concerned I was as a teenager about growing old. I remember being fascinated by Oscar Wilde’s novel Picture of Dorian Gray in which the vain central character stays youthful and handsome while his portrait ages horribly. I also remember writing a short story in which the central character makes a pact with her younger brother to commit suicide by the age of 50 to avoid the problems of aging.
Nicci is much braver than I ever was or will be about wanting to see so far into the future. However, I do remember being attracted to movies, such as The Time Machine, that allowed my imagination to tag along with characters who, after being catapulted into the past or future, decided to stay and change the course of history for the better.
As to “mysterious sexy boys,” I think back on the many vampire movies I watched as a child as well as one lazy summer sojourn reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula and I can say with certainty, “Mysterious, yes. Sexy, no.”
It is difficult to imagine wanting to kiss the sinister Count Dracula, especially as portrayed by Bela Lugosi. However, Edward Cullen, the main heartthrob of the Twilight Series is another matter as is the Native American character Jacob Black and his “wolf pack” brothers.
It doesn’t matter whether you’ve seen the movie trailers of Twilight and New Moon or whether you rely only on your imagination to conjure images of these characters. It also doesn’t matter how young or old you are when reading Meyer’s books, because these characters are definitely hot.
Walking on the wild side
Librarians and teachers love it when they can see that young people not only are reading without the provocation of school assignments but also are thinking about why they do or don’t like what they read.
One of the best people on earth—that’s right, a reference librarian—provided the following opinion in response to my question: “Twilight, like some of its precursors in teen literature, such as The Silver Kiss and Blood and Chocolate by Annette Curtis Klause and Owl in Love by Patrice Kindl, is a love story.” Julia wrote. “That is part of the draw for teens. While Blood and Chocolate features werewolves instead of vampires and the subject of Owl in Love is a schoolgirl’s infatuation with a teacher, in a broad sense, the lure is the same.”
Julia added that “[t]hese books and others like them, such as Anne Rice’s novels for adults, The Vampire Chronicles, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, allow the reader from a safe vantage point to walk on the wild side and experience emotions, ideas, philosophies, characters, and situations thought dangerous, forbidden, or socially tabu in our culture. The opportunity to vicariously experience and learn from what the reader could not, would not, should not engage in in real life is, and has always been, one of the liberating powers of literature.”
According to many sources, including readers who responded to my question, characters such as Edward Cullen—Bella Swan’s devoted vampire boyfriend in Twilight—offer the opportunity to imagine perfect love.
An alternate reality
Writing online for Psychology Today about why “smart teens love Twilight?” Gina Barraca, a University of Connecticutt professor of English, confessed that she didn’t like the book. So Barraca asked Rebecca. the “smartest, wittiest, prettiest and…one of the most perceptive 17-year-old girls on the planet,” to offer an opinion.
Rebecca said that when her sister dared her to read the first hundred pages of Twilight, Rebecca was certain that she would dislike it.
“Unfortunately for my pride and self-esteem, I made it far past the first hundred pages. In fact, I finished more than half of the 500-page book that night—and I didn’t start reading until 11:30.” Rebecca found that it drew her into an “alternate reality” in which common sense is easily abandoned.
After all, what young woman in her right mind wouldn’t like to stop worrying about preparing for college entrance exams, completing homework or finding a job. Perhaps she might imagine preferring the problems of loving a vampire.
Slipping into the role of Bella
Rebecca also discovered she identified so closely with the central character, Bella Swan, that she almost felt like she herself was there inside the story playing the part of Bella.
This is a comment echoed by other teens such as Christina who was quoted in an article titled “Teens sink their teeth into books about vampires” the October 24, 2008 Orange County Register. Christina said that “when you read the book, you feel like you are in the book.”
Similar to Rebecca, Bella is smart and perceptive. But Bella has no sense of being attractive or of why anyone would find her interesting. She is also essentially a loner who puts on a good performance of being social. It may be that this is the way that many girls feel.
Early in Twilight, Bella reflects on this loner characteristic: “I didn’t relate well to people my age. Maybe the truth was that I didn’t relate well to people, period. Even my mother, who I was closer to than anyone else on the planet, was never in harmony with me….”
This kind of thinking was reflected by 12-year-old Ravith, who in answering my initial question about the popularity of vampire books, said that “I’ve liked vampires for a year and I guess it’s because I don’t care for people.”
No matter how pretty she is, underneath the mask that a girl presents to the world is a person who doubts herself and often feels that no one understands her. Perhaps this is true for Rebecca as well as the legion of female Twilight fans.
Edward the angel vampire and professional listener
But what really caused Rebecca (and probably a zillion other females) to become “invested” in Twilight was Edward Cullen, who the author describes as being stunningly handsome, astoundingly strong, and having intoxicatingly sweet breath.
But if Bella were more truthful with herself, she might admit that it is even more exciting that Edward, a “vegetarian vampire” who only drinks the blood of wild animals, is driven wild by the fragrance of her blood. Furthermore, he finds her mysterious, because she is the only human he has ever met whose mind he can’t read.
Edward, Rebecca said “exists solely for the needs and desires of Bella….He is rarely preoccupied with his own problems, which you’d think, as he’s a vampire, would be plentiful, and devotes himself entirely to her….Oh, and he loves her unconditionally.”
Although he is tormented by thoughts that he is a demon without a soul, Edward is more of a guardian angel, repeatedly rescuing Bella from harm’s way. He is also her number one fan. When Bella is puzzled as to why he is attracted to her, he replies, “You don’t see yourself very clearly, you know….Trust me just this once—you are the opposite of ordinary.” As their relationship develops, Edward becomes more fascinated with Bella. He is sincerely interested in everything from her favorite color to what she thinks of as “every insignificant detail of my existence.”
Bella’s best friend and boyfriend wannabe, Jacob, is equally polite and focused on her needs. “How do you know me so well, Jacob?” she asks. “Sometimes it’s like you can read my mind.”
“Naw,” he replies. “I just pay attention.”
What girl doesn’t want a lover who truly likes her as well as finding her irresistible. What kind of girl doesn’t want a guy who pays attention to how she feels about matters large and small?
And what guy wouldn’t fear having to measure up to such eros and excellent attentiveness? Kaleb Nation, better known as the Twilight Guy, suggests that men can become more successful with the opposite sex by studying Edward’s “professional listener” style. It seems to me that it would also be useful to study Jacob.
Life, death, and spirituality
I am not an expert on teen vampire lit. It takes a lot of time to become familiar with the vast array of titles available let alone to read many of them. So I am going to make an educated guess that few are bodice rippers. Certainly, the books in the Twilight Series are not. Otherwise, teachers from elementary school through high school would not be comfortable with letting students choose them for book report projects and literature discussion groups.
Keep in mind that I have only read Twilight and New Moon so far. They contain a lot of hand-holding and all-night hugging, while at the same time acknowledging teen urges for a more powerful intimacy. But Edward is a model of restraint, an old fashioned kind of guy born in 1901 who fears hurting Bella with his superhuman strength and vampire urges.
Some writers have found a spiritual side to vampire lit. For example, the writer of an advice column in the online publication Christianity Today, while not approving of vampire romance novels, said that “the whole vampire mythology comes packed with spiritual ideas about God, demons, life and death.”
The author, Mark Matlock, obviously struggled to avoid sending either a yes or no message about whether the Twilight novels are acceptable choices. However, he noted that “vampire fiction tends to come with some respect for a supernatural world that includes God and eternal human souls….Just because Edward is made for evil, he tells Bella, doesn’t mean he must give in to the dark side. That sounds a lot like the Christian life doesn’t it? We are born sinful but try to resist our urges….”
To quote Bella in New Moon, sometimes being with Edward is “heaven right smack in the middle of hell.”
Vampires and teenagers like to stay out all night
Finally, here is some wisdom from a mother who is also a literature professor. In her essay “Vampire Love” for the online publication Literary Mama, Libby Gruner writes, “Vampire stories are, of course, perfect for teenagers. Vampires stay out all night, scare the respectable citizens, take crazy risks, and live, seemingly, forever. And they’re both sexy and dangerous. … [T]hey’ve been particularly popular among teenagers, it seems to me, during the age of AIDS: they titillate with their suggestion of a sweet fatality borne in the blood, but they also—in the Twilight series especially—carry a strong message of abstinence.