Escapism is nothing to be ashamed of

Vicki Notaro

Vampires are nothing new in pop culture, nor in movies. Since Nosferatu first bared his fangs, cinema has had an obsession with the undead. However, nowadays vampires aren't restricted to the horror genre. Nope, they've entered a new domain -- that of the romantic hero.

November 18 sees the release of The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part One, a film that teens and Twi-hards all over the world are anticipating with bated breath. The second-to-last big-screen adaptation of Stephenie Meyer's record-breaking series of novels, it's guaranteed to cause hysteria among the young and the young at heart.

A tale of forbidden love between a vampire and a mortal, the series has made superstars of its young cast, spawned unusual merchandise (from a range of, erm, unique sex toys to cosmetics and even a perfume) and brought in billions at the box office.

Marketed at young girls, but the guilty pleasure of many others, the books and films have become something of a modern phenomenon. However, on closer inspection, the story is one of abstinence, danger and obsession, and far less romantic than it seems -- and it's about to get a whole lot crazier with the latest offering.

The story so far: teenager Bella (played by queen of the eye-roll Kristen Stewart) moves to the gloomy town of Forks, Washington, to live with her father. There she encounters a mysterious guy named Edward (the deliciously bed-headed Robert Pattinson) and the two fall madly in love -- mad being the operative word. After a series of inexplicable incidents, Bella puts two and two together and comes up with the unthinkable: vampire.

Her 17-year-old fella is really a 110-year-old bloodsucker, but luckily for her he only feeds on animals. Despite this, he is incredibly drawn to Bella and her especially delicious scent and finds it difficult to control his bloodlust around her.

Because of her extraordinary scent, all sorts of scrapes ensue over the course of the subsequent two films, where Bella's life is threatened and it's Edward's job to protect her.

All the while Bella's mate Jacob (ab-tastic Taylor Lautner) lurks on the sidelines, waiting to snatch her away from his mortal enemy. Oh yeah, and he's a werewolf.

The crux of the tale is angst-ridden Bella's devotion to two dangerous men who both adore her, and which one she will choose. The most recent film, Eclipse, saw her pick Edward and agree to marry him in return for the one thing she wants most in the world -- to become a vampire in order to spend eternity with the one she loves. This sets the tone for Breaking Dawn, with the first order of business a wedding and, of course, a honeymoon.

With the books' romantic language and the high drama of the films, it can be pretty easy to overlook the subtext. Sure, Bella gets the gorgeous guy, but she intends to give up her humanity and get married at the age of 18 because her old-fashioned fella won't have it any other way.

The series is an advertisement for abstinence, something Meyer, a Mormon, strongly believes in. So why on earth are teens relating to something so unrelatable in this day and age? "Blissful escapism and almost-believable fantasy," explains Nathalie Marquez Courtney, editor of KISS Magazine. "Teens may have been the first to cotton on to the appeal of a romantic supernatural hero, but all the Twi-mums out there can prove that lots of grown-ups followed suit! Take Edward Cullen; to many teen girls he's basically the perfect guy.

All the appeal of a bad boy, all the devotion of a Jane Austen hero. Twilight has also tried to make chastity cool, and in a world filled with STIs and unwanted pregnancies, this isn't such a bad idea.

Edward is old school and respectful, and if that helps teach teens that they should wait then that can only be a good thing. Bella is the quintessential average girl and to have someone as mysterious and desirable as Edward fall head over heels for her is a modern-day fantasy realised. The fact that he's a vampire and isn't supposed to love her adds a splash of that forbidden, star-crossed lovers appeal.

Add in a romantic foil in the form of devoted Jacob and the love triangle simply increases the desire. Don't fancy brooding Edward? No bother, here's a young muscly stud.

All over the world, girls wear T-shirts declaring their stance as Team Edward or Team Jacob, and it's not just Twilight. The Vampire Diaries, upcoming adaptation (and another surefire smash hit) The Hunger Games and even Dawson's Creek all centre on competitive love. Why is the thought of two men pitted against one another for a girl's heart so damn thrilling?

"It's an intoxicating mix of both fantasy and reality," offers Marquez. "Teens can relate to the feelings of angst and confusion -- raging hormones often mean they can go from love to hate at the flip of a switch -- while also falling for the salvation fantasy of being whisked off by your one true love."

So it appears that even in the 21st century, girls still want to play the damsel in distress and have lads fight over them.

It might not be healthy to identify with Bella too closely, but it is easy to see why her story has enchanted millions. Strip away the supernatural and religious elements, and it's simply a tale of both forbidden and unrequited love, and who isn't a sucker for that?

Vicki Notaro is deputy editor of KISS Magazine