In the last two decades, there has been a growing recognition that popular culture may be a rich source of educational material for medical students, psychiatric residents, and other mental health professionals (1–3). Films, in particular, have become the storehouse for the psychological images of our time (4). They serve many of the same functions for today's audiences that tragedy once served for 5th-century Greeks (5).
Popular works of literature and film often owe their appeal to the portrayal of universal psychodynamic themes. Bettelheim (6) analyzed classic fairy tales and suggested that characters in these stories"personify and illustrate inner conflicts" of their readers. He observed that a story need not be realistic to resonate with readers, because it is the internal struggles of the characters that are of principal concern, rather than external events. Moreover, filmmakers may also articulate the underlying cultural mythology of the era, specifically, Levi-Strauss's (7) notion that myths are transformations of fundamental conflicts or contradictions that, in reality, cannot be resolved.
Students in the mental health disciplines can sometimes learn as much about what it means to be human from studying popular films and novels as they can from sitting with a patient. In this article, we will explore what can be learned from the extraordinary success of the 2008 film Twilight. Based on Stephenie Meyer's cult classic vampire-romance novel of the same name, the film grossed more than $350 million (8). The novel was published in 2005, and, in 2008, was the best-selling book of the year, reportedly selling 22 million copies (9). In 2009, first-time author Meyer was ranked Number 26 in the Forbes Celebrity 100, a list of the world's most powerful celebrities, based on earnings estimates and fame (10). The success of this film (and the novel) suggests that it taps into universal psychological themes, many of which may be unconscious, involving love, desire, sexuality, and womanhood, which resonate powerfully with women of various ages. In order to better understand these underlying psychodynamic themes, we perused various fan web-based discussion forums, including twilightteens.com, twilight20somethings.com, and twilightmoms.com. We also watched and discussed the film with colleagues of varying ages and experience levels to expand our understanding of the movie's appeal.
Vampire folklore has been postulated to provide a vehicle for projection of negative or anxiety-provoking unconscious sadistic drives onto an external, evil object (11). This view seems more appropriate for historic vampire portrayals such as F.W. Murnau's 1922 classic Nosferatu, in which the title character is horrific, alien, and deadly. However, more recently, vampires have been portrayed as loving companions to humans—for example, in movies such as Underworld or TV series like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The new direction that vampire mythology has taken merits a reappraisal of the relevant underlying psychological themes.
The following is a brief summary of the plot of Twilight (12). The story begins as Isabella "Bella" Swan, a 17-year-old high school junior, moves from Phoenix, Arizona, to Forks, Washington, to live with her father. Bella is shy and clumsy and appears dismayed by the attention she receives from several boys at her new school. On her first day of school, Bella notices and is intrigued by the Cullen family, a group of five extraordinarily attractive students who, she is told, were adopted by a local physician and his wife. In class, she is assigned a seat next to Edward Cullen, who initially appears to be repulsed by Bella. Shortly thereafter, Bella is nearly run over in the school parking lot as a fellow student loses control of his vehicle. Edward manages to save Bella by stopping the van with his bare hands. Bella eventually discovers that Edward and his family are vampires, but, unlike other vampires, they drink animal blood in order to avoid killing humans. The vampires in Twilight sparkle in the sunlight, lack fangs, and are unable to sleep. Edward reveals that he is able to read the minds of everyone except Bella. He confesses that he finds her blood more tempting than all other human blood and that he struggles to control his impulse to drink her blood. Gradually, Edward and Bella fall in love, although they are unable to consummate their relationship because of Edward's concern that he might unintentionally kill Bella were he to lose control over his impulses. The story climaxes when another vampire coven visits Forks. The leader of the group, James, tries to hunt and kill Bella. She is nearly killed by James, but the Cullens arrive at the last minute, saving Bella and killing James. The novel concludes as Bella and Edward attend their school prom. Bella expresses her desire to become a vampire in order to be with Edward forever, but Edward refuses to end her human life and condemn her to life as a vampire.
One postulated reason for Twilight's popularity is the ease with which women can identify with the central character. The film and the novel both unfold from an adolescent girl's perspective that has an authentic feel to it. One feels that she is there in Forks with Bella, experiencing the painful vicissitudes of adolescence all over again. Bella is the "every-girl," and many women find her insecurities, self-reproaches, and feelings of being an outsider all-too-familiar. As one fan wrote on the twilight20somethings.com webpage, "the emotions displayed ring true for all women. There is always something we feel insecure about; there are always times we feel out of place" Erikson (13) described adolescence as a period of development in which identity is formed, and one's place in society is explored. Bella's struggle with issues of self-esteem and her feeling of being an outsider prototypically depict the internal conflicts of the developing adolescent. For the audience, Bella becomes a figure of identification for the working-through of this developmental task. For the young-adult audience, whom Erikson understood to be facing the developmental task of navigating intimate relationships, Bella and Edward's struggle to form and maintain a loving relationship may parallel their own internal conflicts. Schlozman (14) has noted a similar theme in the popular TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. While identifying with Bella, the audience contemplates elements in the story that correspond with their own inner conflicts. For the adolescent, Bella's response to conflicts or internal struggles may suggest solutions to the everyday problems of the average teenager. For the more mature audience, Bella is a vehicle for projection through which the female reader can rework adolescence in a romanticized way. This revisited adolescence need not have all of the original angst and narcissistic injuries. This time around, one gets to be a popular girl who falls in love with the most attractive boy in school. Instead of envying the other girls, she is now the object of envy. As Bella overcomes her internal struggles, the adolescent and post-adolescent audience finds their own capacity to navigate maturation successfully (14).
The struggle to control newly-experienced sexual impulses is a major developmental theme in adolescence. In contemporary movies marketed to teenagers, from "slasher" films to Titanic, there is a recurrent message: if you have sex, you will die. The pairing of sex and death dates back to the writings of William Shakespeare and John Donne, who linked death to sexual climax and forbidden love (e.g., Romeo and Juliet). In keeping with this theme, the promotion of abstinence is at the core of Twilight and may appeal to mature female audience members who observe with apprehension the blossoming sexuality of their children. Women of all ages appear to be able to identify with the struggle to harness the sex drive in a constructive way. As one psychiatry resident commented,"I identify with Edward in some ways because he has this part of himself that is pure drive, but he has to show restraint and self-control." For the vampire, sexual and aggressive impulses are both tied to the symbolic act of biting and sucking blood. One can see the vampire bite as symbolic of phallic penetration (11), with the fangs as the obvious symbol. It is of note in this regard that the vampires of Twilight are de-fanged, making them less of a sexual threat. Indeed, many viewers of the film noted the androgynous nature of Edward with his"pretty" features and make-up. In Twilight, Edward cautions Bella that were he to bite or have sexual intercourse with her, he would run the risk of involuntarily killing her. The audience can relate to the desire to fulfill sexual urges being at odds with the fear of consequences, such as contracting a deadly sexually-transmitted disease. In fact, in the early days of the AIDS epidemic, film critics frequently viewed vampire films as having a subtext involving HIV infection. Meyer promotes abstinence by creating an idealized, nonsexual romance and well-intentioned vampires who lack the fangs to penetrate their victims.
The Forbidden and Dangerous Object
Twilight also depicts the allure of the forbidden love object. Stephenie Meyer's allusion to the appeal of forbidden romance is evident before one opens the book. The image on the cover of the novel is a red apple held by two pale, presumably"vampiric," hands. In the movie, this image is replicated when Edward offers Bella an apple in the school cafeteria. The theme continues into the first pages of the book, where Meyer quotes the Book of Genesis,"But, of the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die." In Twilight, a romance with Edward represents partaking of forbidden fruit that is deadly. Freud (15) noted that an obstacle to attaining one's desire heightens sexual excitement, and he suggested that incestuous undercurrents in love relationships may be involved in making someone forbidden and unattainable. In this regard, we must take into account the oedipal theme in Twilight. Edward is nearly 100 years old; he brings the wisdom of experience to the relationship with Bella; and, in that sense, has a fatherly component to his character.
Edward also functions in the narrative of the film as the proverbial "bad boy." The depiction of a"bad boy"; is ubiquitous in film and romance novels and is notable in the early work of Marlon Brando and James Dean. It represents a pervasive myth in our culture that a rowdy young man can be settled down and transformed by the love of a good woman (16). This idea is not confined to fiction and can be further evidenced by the numerous marriage proposals that serial killers receive while in prison. As one fan remarked on the twilight20somethings.com website,"I think there is also the appeal of the guy that might be a little bit bad"Edward is"dangerous in that he is a vampire that at, any time, could put Bella in danger because of his very nature. Girls often want the "bad guy’ because it is potentially more exciting than going for the safe-but-nice guy."
The Fantasy of Being Together in a Perfect Relationship Forever
The depiction of a never-ending, ideal, and timeless love may be another factor contributing to Twilight's popularity. Edward is singularly devoted to Bella and will never die or leave her. As one woman wrote on the twilightmoms.com webpage,"Whether any woman wants to admit it or not, we all want to feel protected and like we are the only ones a man wants. We get to experience the love and devotion between Edward and Bella, and when we put ourselves in Bella's place, it almost feels like Edward loves us." The desire to be taken care of and to be the sole object of a person's affection has its origin in infancy, when a child is completely dependent upon a parent for survival. The ideal nature of Edward as the perfect protector and caretaker is enhanced by juxtaposing him with Bella's father, Charlie, as Bella's other protector and caretaker. Charlie is portrayed as a cold and unemotional parent, with whom Bella has difficulty relating. For much of the movie, we see him either leaving Bella alone for long stretches of time or sitting around the house drinking beer. On the contrary, Edward is like an idealized parent, who never leaves Bella, watches over her as she sleeps, protects her from danger, and proclaims,"You are my life now (12)." Henderson (11) postulates that the vampire myth represents the wish for a new beginning, or rebirth, to a more perfect primary love-object. Schlozman (14) stresses that the perpetual hunger of the vampire may be viewed as a symbol for the intense longing for intimacy that has its beginnings in an infant's fear of being left alone without care.
Bella's wish to be bitten, and thereby joined forever with Edward, is counterbalanced by her fear of pain and death. This dialectic symbolizes the ambivalence that people commonly experience between a desire for intimacy and a fear of injury or abandonment. Furthermore, Bella's discovery that she is the only person whose thoughts Edward is unable to read represents a woman's desire to be special and unique to her romantic partner. While identifying with Bella, the audience is able to experience a romantic love that is idealized and eternal, and they may work through developmental conflicts related to dissatisfaction with primary love-objects.
Splitting in the Service of Maintaining Idealization
The threat that the"bad boy" image will impinge on the idealized, protective, caretaking image is neatly handled by Meyer. She creates a split between the"all-good" vampire, Edward, who is in control of his impulses, and the"all-bad" vampire, James, who is psychopathic and predatory—an impulse-ridden monster. This splitting maneuver is also necessary for both Bella and the audience to maintain the view that Edward is the ideal romantic partner. At one point in the film, Bella says that in the midst of her confusion, there are three things of which she is certain (12):"First, Edward was a vampire. Second, there was a part of him—and I didn't know how potent that part might be—that thirsted for my blood. And, third, I was unconditionally and irrevocably in love with him." Maintaining these three precepts in one's consciousness can only be achieved by compartmentalizing and splitting off the dangerous, life-threatening parts of Edward from the romantic, appealing, and caretaking features. This type of vertical splitting is highly prevalent in women who fall for the charming but irresponsible and dangerous suitor.
The widespread popularity of Twilight can be understood in terms of its portrayal of common psychodynamic themes. The movie appeals to women, who can identify with the central character and with the internal conflicts displayed on the screen. Identification with Bella may provide a means for the postadolescent audience to work through unresolved conflicts related to love-objects. Furthermore, the audience may vicariously experience an idealized adolescence and love that has been denied to them in reality. Understanding the allure of Twilight can help mental health professionals to better understand patients with whom the movie resonates. Furthermore, this movie can be a useful and interesting teaching tool to illustrate psychodynamic developmental models and defense mechanisms to students of psychoanalysis.