Professional News
Tapping Unconscious Themes Underlies Twilight Popularity
Psychiatric News
Volume 47 Number 1 page 1a-27

Unless you have been vacationing in a remote mountainous region of the Andes, you may have noticed on a trip to the bookstore or multiplex that teenage girls and young women— and not a few older women as well—are flocking to a series of books and movies about vampires.

The book series, called Twilight, comprises four romance novels by American Stephanie Meyer about a teenage girl named Bella Swan who falls in love with a 104-year-old vampire named Edward Cullen. The books have sold over 100 million copies worldwide and have been turned into four movies grossing over $2 billion; the most recent, “Twilight: Breaking Dawn,” came to theaters in November 2011.

Anything that popular must be tapping into something really meaningful to the young people (or their parents) who are paying for it. In an article in Academic Psychiatry titled “Shedding Light on Women’s Response to Twilight,” Glen Gabbard, M.D., and Jennifer Milone, M.D., examined the psychodynamic themes that are attracting girls and women to the series and suggest that Twilight and other forms of popular culture can vividly illuminate the desires, hopes, and fears of patients in therapy.

The four novels and movies tell a classic fantasy romance story involving a more likable sort of vampire than older moviegoers may recall from the Bram Stoker days; vampires in Twilight have no fangs and drink animal blood as a substitute for killing humans (see Vampires 101 for a story synopsis).

In separate interviews with Psychiatric News, Gabbard and Milone expanded on the themes they highlighted in their article: identification with Bella, who embodies the insecurities of young women everywhere; the allure and the fear of sex; the fantasy of an idealized love and of being together in a perfect union with a soulmate forever; and the ubiquitous appeal of the “bad boy” and the fantasy that a woman might redeem or reform the bad boy.

Milone, a fellow in child and adolescent psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine, told Psychiatric News that the subject of Twilight and its enormous mass appeal came up during a lecture by Gabbard, who has made the analysis of psychodynamic themes in popular movies something of a professional hobby.

A small group of residents and faculty, including the two authors, gathered to discuss what they thought might be drawing young women by the millions to the story. They searched Web-based fan sites, such as twilightteens.com, twilight20somethings.com, and twilightmoms.com, for responses to the film.

“Each of us brought something different to the table,” Milone said. “For me it was the theme of a perfect relationship, a timeless love, the fantasy that many young women have of being the sole object of someone’s love. In Twilight, this is represented by the fact that Edward never sleeps and is sort of omnipotent. It’s the idea of soulmate meant just for you— Twilight taps into that, and most people can identify with it.”

Another prominent theme in the movie is the relationship between sex and death, and Gabbard and Milone said it is a goal of Twilight to promote adolescent abstinence. “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,” they wrote in Academic Psychiatry. “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.”

Milone emphasized that in Twilight, Edward and other vampires lack fangs, which have been viewed as phallic symbols. “A lot of adolescents can identify with the conflict of wanting to be sexual and at the same time being afraid of its potentially deadly consequences,” she said.

The abstinence message may seem like a welcome anomaly to parents who assume that popular culture is ubiquitously telling their children something entirely different. But Gabbard says that American cinema has always given a mixed message about sex.

“While we tend to think that the plethora of R-rated movies designed for teenagers is promoting sexual freedom in high schools everywhere, the message is far more complicated than that,” he said. “In the extraordinarily popular teen slasher movies—such as the ‘Halloween’ and ‘Friday the 13’ series—and even in mainstream Oscar winners like ‘Titanic,’ there is a clear theme: If you have sex, you will die. This same theme is in the Twilight books and films. The reason our two lovebirds cannot have sex is that Edward would become overwhelmed with impulses and make his beloved dead.”

Or rather, Gabbard added, undead. “After all, he is a vampire.”

Neither the novels nor the movies, Gabbard and Milone agreed, are extraordinary examples of technical or aesthetic craftsmanship, but they do represent timeless themes. “In general, cultural products that have mass appeal tap into themes and subjects that people deal with unconsciously,” Milone said. “When we are with our patients and they talk about how they were struck by a certain character or a certain scene, we can wonder with them what it is they responded to. In that way, previously unconscious material can be made accessible to be worked through in therapy.”

“It doesn’t matter that the story has nothing to do with the patient’s external life—it probably won’t—but it may be tapping into some internal problem or conflict,” she said.

Gabbard said that in American society, movies not only reflect the culture, they also create the culture. “In the 1950s, Marilyn Monroe taught women how to be women, and John Wayne taught men how to be men,” he said.

The movies can also create expectations—for good and ill—regarding what people should expect when they seek out psychiatric care. “Audiences go to movies with psychiatrists featured, and they learn what psychiatry is and how it works,” Gabbard said. “They want to be hypnotized to recover a repressed traumatic memory. They avoid ECT because they saw ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ and found it to be barbaric—even though the ECT depicted in the film in no way resembles modern treatments that we use today. They assume that a psychotherapist will be stone faced, silent, and unempathic.”

He added, “We need to study what our patients see and what fantasies about treatment they bring to our offices.”

An abstract of “Shedding Light on Women’s Response to ‘Twilight’ ”is posted at http://ap.psychiatryonline.org/article.aspx?articleID=180904. Gabbard is coauthor of Psychiatry and the Cinema (American Psychiatric Publishing), available at a discount to members at www.appi.org/SearchCenter/Pages/SearchDetail.aspx?ItemId=8964.inline-graphic-1.gif


For the uninitiated, a brief synopsis of the story line of Twilight, the first of the four novels and movies, may be in order: Isabella “Bella” Swan, a 17-year-old high school junior, moves from Phoenix, Ariz., to Forks, Wash., to live with her father. On her first day of school, she is assigned a seat next to Edward Cullen. Bella eventually discovers that Edward and his family are vampires; unlike other vampires, they drink animal blood to avoid killing humans. The vampires in Twilight sparkle in the sunlight, lack fangs, and are unable to sleep.

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.

In time, another vampire coven visits Forks seeking to kill Bella, but Edwin and his family arrive on the scene at the last minute, saving Bella. As the first novel concludes, Bella expresses her desire to become a vampire to be with Edward forever, but Edward refuses to end her human life and condemn her to life as a vampire.

The succeeding books and movies follow the adventures of Bella and Edward as their relationship matures; the most recent, Twilight: Breaking Dawn, chronicles their marriage and the birth of a half-human, half-vampire daughter named Renesmee.

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