In Memoriam of Twilight


I was hunkered in my prison-cell-sized bedroom back at my parent’s house when Netflix brought the Twilight Saga back to its platform in mid-2021. I openly regressed into my adolescent angst and fell hook, line and sinker for the nostalgia trap. By choosing to watch it as a campy comedy rather than an earnest attempt at good filmmaking, I could cling to the saga for guilt-free comfort and entertainment. We have a cultural obsession with nostalgia that facilitates the ironic, self-distancing consumption that a Twilight re-watch requires, and the film’s resurgence in popularity didn’t feel at all out of place in the cultural landscape of the pandemic where many sought comfort in familiarity. I saw the words ‘Twilightcore’ and ‘Bella Swan core’ under many an overpriced Depop listing, decades-old Twilight discourse rehashed in dusty corners of Twitter, and then a resurgence in Vampire Diaries memes—cue the ‘Elena Gilbert core’ Depop listings.

However, even with this post-pandemic nostalgia lens, I’ve found it difficult to pin down the allure of vampires that keeps them relevant in pop culture. So, I took my questions to Sophie Dungan, author of ‘Vegetarian Vampires of the Anthropocene’, a research article published by Monash University on the eco-conscious subtext of the Twilight Saga. She attributes audiences’ enduring fascination to vampires always being the ‘other’ and that “this positionality enables them to reflect or mirror concerns about otherness in any given time.” And if vampires indeed often serve as personifications of their age, they must then be continually rewritten in light of contemporary issues—which Twilight does, Dungan argues in her paper, in its analogies of veganism and vegetarianism.

You might remember that what distinguishes Edward’s family, the Cullens, from other vampires in the saga is their refusal to feed on humans. “We call ourselves ‘vegetarians’, our little inside joke,” Edward tells Bella, “but I'd compare it to living on tofu and soy milk.” In her article, Dungan argues that we can read Stephanie Meyer’s choice of writing the Cullens’ diet to be analogous to human veganism as an inflection of our growing eco-consciousness, especially in light of (relatively) recent anthropogenic climate change. Dungan explains that the Cullens clearly feel the need “to act with greater ethical and moral care for species other-than-vampire,” and, in turn, the analogy “problematises how humans engage with, say, cows or sheep—if vampires can be ‘vegetarian’, why can’t we?!”

If you think vegan propaganda sounds a little too progressive for Stephanie Meyer to have consciously peddled, you might be right. This is Stephanie Meyer we’re talking about! Where Twilight was a lot of millennials’ first foray into fandom culture, it was also often baby’s first feminist critique: Bella is constantly infantilised by Edward and Jacob, who literally throw her around and make decisions about her future for her, and, along with the rest of the female characters in the saga, she finds her purpose in life as an extension of the male characters. While “vegetarianism can be understood as an analogy in Twilight,” Dungan says, “the novel is not concerned with human dietary ethics—it is more concerned with keeping women in the kitchen! Both literally and figuratively.”

Still, the ways Twilight manages to speak to the cultural nuances of our age are many and unexpected. Consider the Marxist flavour of the vampire and its functions: Marx himself was fascinated by the metaphor of capitalism as vampirism, such that he described capital as “vampire-like,” surviving purely extractively—through “sucking living labour”—and growing only more powerful over time. The Cullens’ abstinence from human blood—here analogous to ‘living labour’—would appear to absolve them of this, but in fact, they match the obscene wealth of other literary vampires. Where Bram Stoker’s Dracula hoarded gold, the Cullens hoard luxury sports cars, despite their ability to run over a hundred miles per hour. Where the vampires in Anne Rice’s The Vampire Lestat inhabit lavish estates, so too do the Cullens, who also probably keep the lights on 24/7 for their lack of sleep. And let’s not forget that for every weekday of the hundred-odd years the Cullen ‘children’ have been masquerading as teenagers in high schools around the country, they’ve been pretending to eat school lunches only to throw the food away and, in the process, likely amassing a small country’s worth of food waste between the five of them.

The moral high ground the Cullens enjoy for their ‘vegetarian vampirism’ next to the havoc they clearly wreak upon the environment is an incredibly apt reflection of modernity in which overconsumption and virtue signalling around environmentalism compete for the title of the most popular international pastime. I think of Kylie Jenner launching a vegan skincare line only to take heat for regularly catching flights as short as 17 minutes in her private jet, which emits a cool 2 metric tons of carbon dioxide per hour. I think of Twilight fans themselves, the newest wave of activists, who churned out dozens of $300 YesStyle and SHEIN hauls on TikTok in their fervour to capture the ‘Twilightcore’ look for cheap. At the trend’s peak, your ‘For You’ page could flit from lamentations of disaster capitalism à la Bo Burnham’s catchy critiques of Jeff Bezos to images of garbage bags brimming with dozens of dupes of 2009 camisoles and Henley-style, and empire tops Bella Swan wore in the movies—all impossibly cheap thanks to forced labour—and all destined to be thrown away when the micro-trend inevitably waned the following year.

Intentional or not, the ability that even the most low-brow vampire flicks have to capture cultural idiosyncrasies is uncanny and begs the question of what’s next for the genre. Sophie Dungan indicates that a more traditionally horror-coded vampire has come back in full swing, highlighting examples in films and television series such as Midnight Mass (2021), Firebite (2021) and Day Shift (2022). “After years of vegetarian vampires seemingly dominating the genre … thanks to the first Twilight film,” she says, “we are seeing a turn back to a more violent vampire, who is [perhaps] better able to capture the rather violent and uncertain times we are living in.”

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