The Twilight Saga and The Redemptive Power of Love
I used to be baffled by the hype about Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Saga. I assumed the movies and books were designed for adolescent girls and as someone in middle-age, there seemed not one good reason to read about vampires and those who love them. After prodding from several (albeit younger) Twilight fans, I read the series and understood that this particular vampire story has a lot to offer regarding the power of love to ward off anxiety about death and aging.
In my view, the Twilight stories remind us that all we have is the here-and-now. Without love life is pretty meaningless, even if you are a vampire and can live forever.
The following is an excerpt from my chapter, Transcendence and Twilight: The Faith in Love, in the recently published The Psychology of Twilight, Smart Pop Books/Benbella (2011).
The Twilight Saga appeals to different readers and viewers for a variety of reasons; adolescents love the way they can identify with the main character’s burgeoning sexuality and its subsequent awkwardness, young people raised by less-than-attentive parents can connect with feelings of being left on one’s own, and adults are often captivated by the creative storylines and seemingly endless plot turns and surprises. But what I’d argue makes Twilight an international phenomenon is the way we can all psychologically relate to Bella and her desire for immortality.
Her love for Edward, though genuine, also serves as an escape from all of the trappings of normal human existence. Through him, she hopes to be saved from the limits of mortality, to find refuge from feeling tortured regarding her bodily and psychological shortcomings, and to be able to live forever, in the comfort of the one she loves. Bella’s love for Edward and her desire for transformation shields her from death anxiety.
The way Twilight represents love—as a vehicle for transcending death—is nearly religious, which might explain the way Twilight gets under our skin and stays with us. Both religion and Twilight offer a way of transcending mortal death and achieving immortality, and when we compare the two in this way, we end up with a completely different way of understanding the supernatural beings in both. The salient aspects of both religion and the vampire story are not dogma or fangs, but the power of love. Through this lens, vampires don’t damn the soul to hell, but rather facilitate entrance to immortal life.
Bella is the foundation of Twilight. It is her brooding yet compelling voice and point of view that frame our perspective. There is a lot to like about Bella. She is attractive, but self-effacing. She starts out the saga as the underdog at a new school, but quickly makes friends. She is overly guilty and self-conscious about her influence on others. And like a lot of us, she is looking for an escape from the dreary yet anxiety-ridden trappings of life.
As she says in the first book, Twilight, regarding her new home in Forks, “You could never see the sky here; it was like a cage.” Clearly Bella feels trapped and is looking for a way out. Such feelings are common in adolescents, who want to escape limits imposed by parental authority and the subsequent confinement of their families. We all revisit this feeling from time to time in adulthood, as well, when the routine and unexciting aspects of daily life harbor questionable meaning— wouldn’t be wonderful if we could find someone to “save” us?
Enter the attractive and mysterious Edward. He possesses unearthly good looks, is wealthy, and is seemingly as brooding, irritable, and disappointed in his existence. He is Bella’s soul mate. Bella’s eventual realization that Edward is a vampire, although initially excitingly terrifying, leads to the desirable possibility of transformation and everlasting life at his side.
This romance is one of the most exciting aspects of the Twilight story; the burgeoning passion between Bella and Edward captures the urgent and fervent desire of young love. The couple reminds many of us of the feelings we had when we initially fell in love: the feeling seems so unique and special that it’s hard to imagine that anyone else has ever felt this way, and the unique chemistry between Edward and Bella allows us to feel that mystical, exuberant thrill once again. And most importantly, as with all (especially young) couples in love, it seems that these feelings can last forever. It is as if love itself can ward off death.
Death anxiety is a basic human fear. Since we all experience ourselves as alive, with a sense of our bodies and our consciousness as we know it, many of us can’t imagine what death is like. Death anxiety, in the most basic sense, relates to this idea; we don’t actually know what death is or entails. Although we may have religious ideas (or not) about what death and the afterlife involves, we don’t really know for sure. So in the absence of factual data about what happens after death (and especially in the absence of religious ideas), we have the philosophy of psychology and psychoanalysis, which helps those of us who experience fears regarding death to understand and come to terms with the finality of life.
A psychoanalytic view on the fear of death connects it to the fear of losing a loved one: fear of death can be seen as equal to the fear of losing those we love. Jerry Piven, in his article, “Birth, Death, Dread, and Religion” in Psychoanalysis and Contemporary Thought (2003), notes that because we as young children are terrified of losing our caretakers, we come to “experience love and being loved as the boundary between life and death.” As children, we are dependent on others, and losing our caretakers makes us vulnerable to death in both a symbolic and a real way.
The reality of death is the single most troubling and confusing aspect of human existence. As human beings we attach deeply (more so than other animals) and it is the attachments we have with other people and the meaning we give them that makes the reality of the human condition an even bigger blow. The awareness of death makes our attachments to others all the more complicated. From birth, we are aware of the terror of separation from those we need and love, because separation not only means the loss of those we long for, but also reminds us that we are ultimately alone in death.
In a way, Twilight eases our worries about death. The bite of the vampire does not damn the soul to hell, but rather can provide everlasting life with a loved one. It is moving and transcendent.
Greenberg, T. (2011). The Twilight Saga and The Redemptive Power of Love. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 29, 2016, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/aging/2011/10/the-twilight-saga-and-the-redemptive-power-of-love/