A girl treats the Twilight series as a holy book, emulates the behavior of the vampire family at its center, and makes a pilgrimage to Forks, WA, the setting of the books. This could just be a run-of-the-mill Twilight fan. After all, Twilight, a young adult romance between the exceptionally clumsy 16-year old human Bella Swan, and a vampire named Edward Cullen who has been seventeen since 1918, is beloved by millions of women and girls. Thirteen million copies of the books have been sold in the United States; 116 million copies, worldwide, with translations into thirty-seven languages. The film adaptations are some of the highest-grossing movies of all time.
In Twilight, religion and popular culture are commingled and multivalent. For fans, it is a sacred text with multiple interpretations and a host of meaningful, fulfilling practices connected with it, and an audience that considers it a timeless and vital source of inspiration. One group has riled up fans and detractors alike by declaring themselves devotees of something resembling a religion called Cullenism. As one member explained in a forum on Twifans, where you log in for church on Sunday, “Let’s face it, when many of us reread the books, go onto sites such as (reading) fan fiction, it’s kinda like you’re worshipping the book.” Fans seek to emulate the Cullens, the vegetarian vampire family in the series, as exemplars of morality, family bonds and loyalty. In communities like the Cullenists, fans transform the ideas, insignia, and gratification found in their reading into modes of being and sociality that extend into and sustain them in their everyday lives.
Stephenie Meyer, the author of the books, is a lifelong member of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, as are many prominent members of the fandom, including the founder of TwilightMoms. Mormon theological ideas about celestial marriage, sexual purity and abstinence, immortality and eternal families emerge in the books. In the LDS Church, marriage is ordained by God, and once a couple is joined in a sealing ceremony in a temple by a priest, the marriage bonds extend beyond the husband and wife’s earthly lives into the celestial realm for eternity. The idea is that the entire family endures throughout this life and into the hereafter for all time. Cullenist and other fans are drawn to the idea that vampires and werewolves in Twilight are devoted monogamists who never fall out of love and never waver in their fidelity to one another.
Christian writers, in particular, have weighed in on the series, deeming it gospel, satanic lure, and Christian blueprint. The “Hogwarts Professor,” otherwise known as John Granger, claims that Edward is God, transcendent, and Twilight is a retelling of the story of Adam and Eve. As Eve, Bella offers to God (Edward) herself, her life, and her love. She also carries God’s baby in a second annunciation. Beth Felker Jones, a professor at Wheaton College, argues that Twilight dangerously advertises all-consuming romance when nothing should be all-consuming except one’s love for God. “We can let go of our glittering Edwards and our other glittering idols and find freedom in Christ to passionately love this life as it’s meant to be loved—for the glory and love of God.”
Whether endorsing or condemning, these writers and fans imply that Twilight has something of theological and religious import to relay to readers. However, these interpretations leave many of the retrograde ideas about romance, relationships, gender roles and sexuality already present in the books unchallenged, and in the case of Bella as Eve, only reaffirms them. Bella is a passive vessel who is only rendered fully alive by the love of a vampire and who must sacrifice her friends, family, education and bodily well-being for the sake of love and romance.
Twilight offers a bewildering mix of inverted fantasies for fans: Edward is both devastatingly romantic and a creepy stalker. Bella is heroic and a quavering damsel in distress. The sex or lack thereof harkens back to an era of gentlemanly chivalry, and yet it is potentially violent and can kill you. The idea that it’s daring and commendable for Bella to sacrifice college, friends, family, and even her human life in order to devote herself to mercurial Edward, all the while asserting that it is her choice to do so, is an exemplar of postfeminist fantasy.
Yet, for millions of women and girls who are captivated by these books, the theological ideas of the series are inseparable from its ideas of true love. The pleasure of the books is in the way it lends itself to so many interpretations: religious blueprint or guilty romantic pleasure. At a nondenominational Bible church in Washington State, a woman led a Twilight study group for adults and teenagers, searching for “biblical intent” in the text. The attendees were all women and girls, many of whom clearly relished a religion-sanctioned opportunity to discuss the books each week. The book group leader admonished the women that they should fantasize about eternity with the presence of God rather than Edward. “Can’t we fantasize about both?” asked a twenty-something woman to gales of laughter.
Tanya Erzen Erzen is currently the Catherine Gould Chism Scholar in the Department of Religion at the University of Puget Sound and was formerly an associate professor of religion and comparative studies at Ohio State University. She is a founder and co-president of the Freedom Education Project Puget Sound, a non-profit that works to increase access to educational opportunity through higher education programs in prisons. Her new book, Fanpire: The Twilight Saga and the Women Who Love It, is available from Beacon Press. You can read more about the book here. She is also the author of Straight to Jesus, a history and ethnography of the ex-gay movement and co-editor of Zero Tolerance: Quality of Life and the New Police Brutality in New York City.