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Twilight Zone

EVEN if you’ve never turned a page in a Twilight novel, the name Edward Cullen probably rings a bell.

Even if you’ve never seen Robert Pattinson on screen, you probably know he’s an actor, and a damn handsome one at that. More than likely, someone has inquired whether you’ve “read Twilight yet” in the conspiratorial tone favoured by fans that have been bitten by the best-selling vampire series.

Twilight is so much more than a book and film series. It’s a global phenomenon that has captured readers’ imaginations. Ostensibly, it’s an inexpertly penned young-adult fantasy series by a first-time author and full-time mother, Stephenie Meyer, who was inspired to write by a vivid dream. Culturally, it has become a worldwide cult with legions of ‘Twihard’ fans indoctrinated into the order.

A staggering success, the series has sold more than 100 million copies worldwide and has been translated into 38 languages. The fourth and final book in the series, Breaking Dawn, was launched Harry Potter-style in 2008. Highly anticipated and heavily embargoed, it sold 1.3 million copies in the US in the 24 hours after its midnight release. The first two films based on the series earned more than $1.1bn at the box office.

The second, Twilight: New Moon, was the biggest singleday opening in North America, grossing $72.7m (€58.8m). Although it will be preceded by paid previews this weekend (July 3 and 4), Twilight Saga: Eclipse, the third film in the series, opens in Ireland on July 9 and is expected to trounce all previous figures. The fourth book will be made into two films, no doubt to siphon every last cent out of fans.

The series has spearheaded countless other trends: Twilight tourism, Twilight conventions and concerts and a variety of Team Edward/Team Jacob (the heroine’s two romantic interests) merchandise, from T-shirts to water bottles. It’s even added an acronym to the common vernacular: OTD (Obsessive Twilight Disorder).

So how did a book about blood-sucking move from the esoteric to the mainstream and capture the imaginations of teenage girls en route? More to the point, how did a book about vampires spark a global trend that inspired a slew of spin-offs such as True Blood and The Vampire Diaries?

It has its foundations in heart-throb hysteria, according to John Gunning, a lecturer in Film and Media Studies at Dublin Business School. Even before Edward Cullen was personified by Robert Pattinson, his literary character left teenage girls weak at the knees. Dark and dangerous, yet utterly devoted and largely chaste — he represents a heady mix of confidence and innocence. “They are tapping into these pre-teen fantasies of what love might be. It’s almost like this is the boyband of vampire movies.”

The hysteria surrounding every move Pattinson makes is like that around a boyband. The actor describes the attention as “frightening”.

Dublin-based psychologist Dr Joanne Cooper says that this is all part of a bonding process for young women. “Teenage heart-throb hysteria is as much about sharing the emotional experience with other young females as about communicating the emotion to the male subject. If confronted alone by the object of her desires, a young female is unlikely to yell at him loudly or pull her own hair!”

The fact that the protagonists don’t consummate their passion until the final book appeals to another part of the young woman’s psyche, continues Dr Cooper.

“Rather than the notion of chastity per se, young females may find themselves attracted to the sexual tension, the build-up and the the allure associated with the vampire. Vampires aren’t like young boys who may seem ‘grabby’ and eager to explore their own sexuality. Vampires are cool, emotionally aloof — they can’t afford to give their emotions away as the object of their affection could easily end up their victim.

“In this way, the idea of the sexual, yet aloof, vampire is in stark contrast with the sexual urgency of the teenage male.”

Conversely, Gunning thinks the pro-chastity message is guided by the author’s Mormon background. “The vampires and werewolves in Twilight are almost castrated. They are almost androgynous. Her background clearly plays a massive role in the formation of her vampires.”

Twilight has also incurred the wrath of feminist groups who criticise the dependency of the female lead, Bella, on the men who surround her.

She is constantly threatened with violence and always rescued by men.

“The female subservience message becomes more dangerous in the final book when she emerges from her first night of passion with her beloved, covered in bruises,” says Gunning. “Buffy the Vampire Slayer is composed from a feminist perspective. Twilight really breaks from that and gives us a female character that is ultimately entirely dependent on the men around her. All her actions mirror the Lucy and Wilhelmina characters in Dracula, but even they had more power.”

“It may be the safety of the vampire’s physical strength and protectiveness yet the danger of his thirst and virility makes for an enticing and attractive combination,” adds Dr Cooper.

So, Twilight is a modern day bodice-ripper that appeals to women’s deep-seated Cinderella Complex: the desire to be saved by a man.

Bee Whelan, a 32-year-old housewife from Dublin, confounds the commonly held belief that Twilight is only for teenage girls. She has founded the blog, Irish Twilight Sisters, been tattooed with a quote from the book (“be safe”) and queued in line with 900 other fans to see Peter Facinelli (who plays Dr Carlisle Cullen in the film).

“This ‘tweens-only’ thing is a misconception. We ran a survey recently, trying to estimate the average age of a Twilight fan. Of the 300 people who took the survey, more than 80pc of them were over the age of 21.”

Whelan is not just an example of the older Twilight fan, but evidence of the ingenious wordof-mouth marketing that has evolved around the franchise. The publishers and producers have benefited from a network of fansites, forums and blogs. Likewise, they have embraced social media, from Twitter to Facebook. “The whole series has become a bit of a cult,” Pattinson once remarked. “People like being part of the club. They’re obsessed.” If the sense of community is part of Twilight’s appeal, then the online strategy reinforces it.

Author Stephenie Meyer regularly communicates with fans via her personal website. In fact, when the first 12 chapters of her manuscript for Midnight Sun, a companion book to the series, were leaked online, she responded by personally posting it on her website.

The move caused some quarters to speculate that it was a savvy marketing stunt. Likewise, the are they/aren’t they relationship between Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart, has also been deemed a publicity stunt by some critics.

The genius of the Twilight marketing department, though, was its decision to market the books to a left-of-centre bracket when the staggering amount first-time writer Meyer netted for a three-book deal (a reported $750,000) would tell another story entirely. “When the phenomenon started it was very cleverly marketed,” explains Gunning. “They pushed the underdog thing when it really wasn’t.”

Or perhaps it’s simpler than all that. At the most basic level, Twilight is selling one of the most popular themes in history: enduring love. According to Whelan: “Vampire obsession is cyclical. Twilight speaks to those who want that one true love and want it for eternity. Whether you're 13 or 70, everyone wants that.”

Dr Joanne Cooper is a psychologist specialising in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy with young people and adults. Further information available at www.rewindcounselling.ie