Essay: What’s Up with the Twilight Phenomenon?

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I’m 43 years old, and I love vampires. I have always loved vampires.

When I was a child, I used to watch Hammer horror movies with my parents, and ask them why everyone hated the vampire. Admittedly, I was a strange child (as I am a strange adult), but I think the reason I rooted for the vampire was because I “got” the connection between sex and death that the vampire represents. Okay, at that age, it was love, not sex, but the connection between death and “sexual love” (if you will) still applies.

For me, the vampire was a far more compelling love interest than some callow young man who just wanted to marry the heroine and give her babies like everybody else. The vampire needed his paramour as much as life itself, and their love would last for centuries. Talk about romantic!

I read a review of Stephanie Meyer’s novel, “Twilight,” in Entertainment Weekly by one of my favorite writers, Stephen King. He said he could understand the appeal of the subject matter – chaste love for young teens – but he didn’t think Meyer could write. With all due love and respect, I think “Uncle Stevie” missed the boat on this one. That’s okay. Uncle Stevie (as he refers to himself when he address us, the “Constant Reader”) has written some damn good stuff about vampires, in “‘Salem’s Lot,” for example, and in the Dark Tower series.

The vampire is a very rich, fertile source of inspiration and association (especially for something that’s undead) for artists of all stripes. King himself is a very good writer, and his thematic exploration of how vampires prey on the living, especially their own living families, is darkly magical and unsettling.

I think, however, that for Uncle Stevie, vampires don’t resonate sexually, and for me they do. A vampire is like the hero in a Gothic novel: you’re not sure if he wants to rape the heroine, kill her, eat her, or all three, in no particular order.

Vampires conjure up almost Jungian associations of breast feeding: the simple, but all-consuming experience we assume newborn babies have when they suckle: the largely benevolent — but scarily omnipotent — power of the mother and the mother’s breast to feed and comfort or to withhold food and comfort, and the possibility of suffocation under the breasts of that much-larger body.

The unself-consciousness of nursing can become emotionally entangled later in life with the unself-consciousness of orgasm; the nurture from a mother’s breast can remind you of a lover’s emotional nurturing, and the sucking for dear life itself. . . best to leave that to your own imagination for now.

I have only read the first novel of Stephanie Meyers’s series, but I would venture to guess that she “gets” it. When I was a teenager — before I was sexually active — the light touch of a boy’s fingers running up and down my inner forearms would make me dreamy and aroused for days. My body felt exquisitely sensitive, which is how “Twilight’s” female protagonist, Bella, feels after the lightest physical contact with Edward, the vampire with whom she falls in love.

The setting of the book is high school, and the wish-fulfillment of “Bella the outcast” becoming “Bella the girl who doesn’t know she’s beautiful and popular” will surely appeal to most teenage girls. Many teenagers will also understand the connection between sex and death on a subconscious basis in the age of AIDS, Hep C and the still scary specter of teenage pregnancy. Even if we take the attraction of those elements as a given, however, there’s a whole other level of depth to the novel that may not be apparent to the casual reader.

I am one of many people around the world who finds the imagery of dominance and submission to be arousing. The typical feminist explanation of a woman’s rape fantasy is that the woman controls the fantasy, so everything that happens to her in the fantasy is of her own choosing, and that the lack of consent frees her from responsibility for her own immoral sexual desire so she can enjoy the fantasy sex without guilt.

Additionally, I find the idea of someone wanting me so much that he has to take me against my will (in exactly the way I want him to, of course) to be very hot. Just for the record, fantasy rape and real rape do not exist in the same universe, and that when a potential sexual partner says no, they really mean it (unless you are playing with safe words, which is a whole different blog entry).

Reading through “Twilight,” I could not help but notice that Edward’s relationship with Bella is often one of loving dominance. He commands her. He compels her. She does what he tells her to against her own judgement because she trusts him. He is as obsessed with her as she is with him, but he’s afraid of losing control because he is just that attracted to her. In addition, she is the only woman who has ever inspired those feelings in him. Pretty heady stuff.

Just when I was starting to find the love story just a tad sedate, however, a threat was introduced that threw all of the qualities of vampire / victim love and dominance dynamics into sharp relief. I’m not going to tell you what it was, in case you haven’t read the book yourself, but having two crazy sexy guys willing to fight to the death to possess you isn’t the worst predicament you could find yourself in, even if at least one of them does want to kill you.

No, “Twilight” has not taken over my life, nor have I bought any fan paraphernalia. However, I have signed up to read the next book in the “Twilight” series at the library, and am eagerly awaiting its arrival. It’s not the next coming, but it is pretty entertaining, and in today’s world, you could do a lot worse.

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Buffy the Vampire Slayer – Season Two: Lie to Me

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The theme of this episode is the relationship between growing up and telling the truth, especially to the people you love. The Scooby Gang, being young and idealistic, are of course in favor of the truth. As Cordelia puts it, “Tact is just not saying true stuff. I’ll pass.”

Spike and Drusilla, having been around the block a time or two, are a little more worldly. When Spike becomes annoyed with Dru because she’s spoken to Angel, he points out the cruel truth about the pet Dru’s been talking to.

Spike: The bird’s dead, Dru. You left it in a cage, and you didn’t feed it, and now it’s all dead, just like the last one.

Drusilla begins to whimper, and Spike regrets his blunt honesty. It’s much better to let Dru live in her fantasy world if it makes her happy, so he promptly apologizes.

Spike: I’m sorry, baby. I’m a bad, rude man.

Buffy, on the other hand, still believes that honesty is the best policy (except with her mom . . . and teachers . . . and the police. . . ). So when she sees Angel talking to an exotic, mysterious girl one night, she takes his omission in telling her about it to be a lie. She’s very disappointed in him; when you love someone, you should be truthful with them and tell them everything. The audience, however, already knows the girl was Drusilla, and that their conversation was anything but romantic.

Almost in relatiation, Buffy quickly latches onto a childhood sweetheart who just transferred to Sunnydale, Billy “Ford” Fordham (played by Jason Behr, lately of “Dawson’s Creek,” and next fall’s “Roswell”). Angel is suspicious of Ford, and although Willow attributes his feelings to jealousy, she agrees to research Ford on the Net.

When Angel confronts Buffy with the information Willow had dug up — that Ford is not a registered student at Sunnydale High — she is mad at Angel for being so suspicious and nosey, and also at Willow for not telling Buffy what she was doing. Oddly enough, Buffy is not mad at Ford, giving him the benefit of the doubt, despite the fact that the audience is pretty well convinced by now that he is the one who is really lying to her. Instead, she asks Angel point blank about the girl she saw him with. Since she insists on the painful truth, he tells her how he stalked Drusilla, killed her family, and made her a vampire. Happy now?

Meanwhile, Xander and Willow discover that Ford is the organizer of a club of “wanna-be” vampires. As Spike has said, “People still buy that Anne Rice crap? What a world!” These poor children lie to themselves about the real nature of vampires to comfort themselves in the dark. Ford has promised the wanna-be’s that he will make them vampires, which is another lie, since he intends to serve them up buffet-style to Spike & Co. When Buffy discovers the club, she tries to dissuade the wanna-be’s from their dangerous fantasies, they refuse to believe her. They would prefer to think she’s lying than believe the ugly truth.

It turns out that Ford is planning on turning the Slayer (and the assembled buffet) over to Spike in hopes that Spike will make him a vampire in return. With Buffy and everyone locked in a basement waiting for Spike, Ford finally confesses his plot to Buffy. She can’t understand *why* he would want to become a vampire, especially since he actually sees their true nature instead of a romantic fantasy. It seems that Ford is quickly dying of a terminal illness and sees immortality as a vampire as his only hope. Buffy tries to explain the grotesque truth about how vampires lose their souls and are actually “undead” rather than immortal, but Ford cannot afford to believe her at this point.

In the end, Buffy is able to save most of the wanna-be’s (notably Chanterelle, who becomes the runaway Shelly in the third season opener, “Anne”). Unfortunately, Ford is not among them.

The episode ends with Buffy and Giles at Ford’s grave, waiting for him to rise so Buffy can stake him. Buffy has been forced to grow up a little bit, and she’s lost at least one of her youthful illusions:

Buffy: Does it ever get easy?

Giles: You mean life?

Buffy: Yeah. Does it get easy?

Giles: What do you want me to say?

Buffy: Lie to me.

Giles: Yes. It’s terribly simple. The good guys are always stalwart and true. The bad guys are easily distinguished by their pointy horns or black hats, and we always defeat them and save the day. No one ever dies . . . and everyone lives happily ever after.

Buffy: Liar.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer – Season Two: “When She Was Bad”

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This is the first episode of the 2nd season, and the first time we’ve seen Buffy since she died, was revived, and killed the Master. She’s had all summer to come to terms with her experience, but she hasn’t. It’s almost like she spent her summer in LA with her dad in hibernation, and she only comes back to life when she returns to Sunnydale. Seeing the same people and places that were so intimately connected with her death prevent her from continuing to repress the wild array of emotions brought on by her trauma.

It’s taken me several viewings of this episode to really figure it out to my satisfaction. Why is Buffy being such a bitch to everyone? In a very provocative and sensual scene, she dances with Xander at the Bronze and teases him to within an inch of his life, then leaves him hanging. You can see by his face that her emotional tease was even worse than the physical tease. “Have I ever thanked you for saving my life? (Pause) Don’t you wish I would?” Well, yes, you’d think she’d be grateful instead of resentful. She punishes Willow and Angel with this display too, as they watch and become jealous.

Later Angel comes to Buffy’s bedroom to visit her and she is bitter and sarcastic. He finally tells her that he missed her, and she starts to reply, but he’s gone by the time she gets the words out of her mouth.

I think the key to Buffy’s inappropriate hostility is revealed in her super-realistic nightmare. It starts out normally enough, with Buffy sitting down to chat with Willow and Xander. In fact, the scene is so realistic, that we don’t realize it’s a dream until after it’s over. Still in the dream, Giles comes up and starts off with dire warnings as usual, but suddenly begins to attack Buffy, saying, “I killed you before and I’m sure I can do it again.” Willow and Xander take no notice of what’s happening, but continue their activities calmly.

This dream represents how Buffy *felt* subconsciously about her experience with the Master, regardless of whether or not it is logical or fair, similarly to how we might feel angry at a loved one for dying when anger is obviously not the proper reaction. Giles didn’t warn Buffy about the prophecy that the Master would kill her, and he did nothing to save her. In her subconscious, that’s as bad as if he had killed her himself. Willow and Angel also cared about Buffy, but stood by helplessly while she went through her ordeal. She’s even mad at Xander, even though he saved her, presumably because he wasn’t able to prevent her death in the first place. Buffy can’t consciously face her anger and disappointment in her friends because she loves and depends on them so much, so her feelings surface in passive-aggressive ways.

When the Master’s minions attempt to revive him by spilling the blood of those who were near him when he was killed onto his bones, Buffy comes to her senses and acts rationally to save her friends. She finally exorcises her fear and rage when she pulverizes the Master’s bones to prevent the possibility of his ever rising again. Fortunately, the Scooby Gang is sympathetic and understanding, right down to Xander’s sarcastic, but affectionate, quip, “What should we do tonight? We could grind our enemies into talcum powder with a sledge hammer, but gosh, we did that *last* night.” Great start to a great season.

Brief Takes: The Outlaw Demon Wails (The Hollows, Book 6), by Kim Harrison

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Another well-written novel that takes place in an alternative universe in which supernatural beings like demons, vampires and witches have come out of the closet, and exist side-by-side with humans. This is as much fun – and maybe more – than the Anita Blake books used to be.  The red-headed protagonist, Rachel Morgan, is one of my favorite characters.  The novelist reveals the character’s flaws even as she writes from the unsuspecting protagonist’s viewpoint.  Plus, the demons are rockin’.

Brief Takes: Twilight (The Twilight Saga, Book 1), by Stephenie Meyer

In this exceedingly popular novel, Stephanie Meyer has re-invented the idiom of the vampire to suit that of her protagonist, a bored, almost loveless teenage girl. Bella finds herself becoming increasingly obsessed with one of her classmates, who turns out to be a godlike, dominant, romantic vampire, whose obsession with her matches her own. This coming of age story in our STD times is more concerned with love than lust, but openly acknowledges the potentially fatal outcome of losing control of one’s appetites.

Brief Takes: New Moon (The Twilight Saga, Book 2), by Stephenie Meyer

This is probably my favorite book of the series, although the beginning is horribly depressing. The author really captures Bella’s despair and apathy in a way that resonated all too familiarly with me, then charms the reader by having her Native American friend, Jacob Black, fall in love with her.  It’s deja vu all over again (as Yogi Berra said), however, when she finds Jacob beginning to pull away from her too.  His reason for doing so, however, is the last thing Bella expects.

Brief Takes: Eclipse (The Twilight Saga, Book 3), by Stephenie Meyer

More action than in the first two novels of this series. This book also showcases Jacob’s character, as he comes to empathize with others who are completely different from himself.

Brief Takes: Breaking Dawn (The Twilight Saga, Book 4), by Stephenie Meyer

Some people think the end novel of this series jumps the shark in asking the reader to suspend disbelief, but I believe if we’ve gone for sparkly vampires that can go out in the day and werewolves the size of ponies who can control their transformations, I think we’re gonna buy Bella’s strange pregnancy and her eerie daughter.

Brief Takes: Dead Until Dark, by Charlaine Harris

This is the first of the “True Blood” / Sookie Stackhouse / Southern Mysteries series. As such, it spends more time than I’d like establishing the setting and some characters who ultimately don’t turn out to be very important. The delightful Sookie “voice” in the narrative is not always fully formed, but even with this… first book, you can see the charm of this character and her way of demystifying the supernatural (her boyfriend is named “Bill the Vampire;” not Vladimir, not Drogo, not Nikolai — “Bill.”)

The tone is very different from the HBO series “True Blood,” but the Sookie character remains largely the same.