Monday, November 16, 2009
Why do teenagers eat the Twilight novels? Why do they follow the adventures of young Bella and her vampire lover Edward? What do they think they see? Last night, I encountered some fans. "You are attracted to it because it is dangerous," says Camila, 13. "There is something that sucks you in." "I have Twilight written on my hand right now," says Morag, 11, whispering down the telephone (with her parents' permission). "Once you are gripped you cannot get ungripped. I am completely obsessed."
They do not know why they are entranced. They only know how. So I spoke to literary critics and psychologists and I now know what the teenage victim does not. When she reads Twilight, she is sucking up a complex maelstrom of psychosexual metaphor, and all before lunch. Goodbye Famous Five and Timmy, you horrid little dog. Goodbye Harry Potter and your dull suburban wand. You are a 20th-century, one-dimensional metaphor of a character. We have outgrown you.
Edward Cullen is the lover the young girl desires and fears. The reader wants to be devoured by him; she wants to be eaten, even if she is being very expensively educated and playing the viola reluctantly. "The vampire is a metaphor for the predatory yet alluring boy," explains the psychotherapist and sometime spin doctor Derek Draper. "The young girl wants to be chased and she wants to be caught. Coarsely put, the bite stands in for penetration." The fang, he says, is a penis.
But the young girl also wants to save the vampire; to rescue him from his lonely eternity. He is a photogenic monster with good hygiene. "To be a vampire is a very sad fate," says the psychologist Dr Cecilia d' Felice, "and this brings out the desire to nurture and protect him. They just want to suck on our blood. This is a metaphor for how much we need love and how much we need to be needed. We see our own vulnerabilities in them."
So Edward Cullen is Edward Rochester, with fangs. He is rich, too. This appeals to the readers of Teenage Vogue.
"Who would want to get close to Frankenstein's monster?" D'Felice asks me. You mean to play with his bolts? "The vampire is elegant and beautiful," she says. "They are Vanity Fair monsters, high-end, aspirational monsters." With great shoes. It is true – Edward Cullen, as played by Robert Pattinson, is on the front of Vanity Fair this month and, even if he really were a vampire, he would probably be there anyway.
The metaphorical puddle goes on; it swamps us. According to Dr Sara Lodge, a lecturer at the University of St Andrews and an expert on Victorian literature, the teenage girl identifies with the vampire, as well as with his victim. It isn't just a suck-me thing. It's a suck-you thing.
In the fourth Twilight novel, Breaking Dawn, Bella becomes a powerful vampire; she finds her fangs and loves them. This happens in Bram Stoker's Dracula, too, to Lucy Westenra. "Lucy is initially a tender virgin but once she has been bitten, she becomes a violent virago stalking cemeteries looking for children to sink her fangs into," says Lodge. When reading vampire fiction, Lodge believes, the teenager is "confronting an image of her own inadmissible desires. She is staring into a dark mirror."
Draper agrees: "The vampire is also a metaphor for a teenage girl, because teenage girls are outsiders. They feel unformed and sickened by cravings they struggle to satisfy." Who knew? It is hard to say to your parents "I want to devour and be devoured", even if you live in north London.
In the end, becoming a vampire allows the teenager to experience power. Mina Harker, the other female heroine in Dracula, is bitten but survives. (While Dracula is fried like an egg and toasted like a bit of toast.) So the vampire genre, Lodge says "allows the protagonist to be both the author of her own destiny and the victim of forces beyond her control. It allows women to have it both ways – strong and vulnerable to the darker forces."
So there you have it – Twilight. No wonder they love it and are longing for more. As Bibi, 14, says: "It has more emotional depth than Harry Potter."