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Is Twilight sad? Sadomasochistic?

This essay (written in March 2011), explores paganism and death in the Twilight and Harry Potter series.  For those readers who are not a ‘fan of Twilight‘ you may (hopefully) be surprised by the depth and breadth of ‘pagan’ traditions within the series or how death and sadomasochism go hand in hand. Enjoy!

This essay will explore the importance of death and paganism in the Twilight saga (Meyer 2007a, 2007 & 2010) whilst acknowledging the Harry Potter series. Death will be analysed in two main areas: the portrayal of death (glamorously, positively and allegories) and the concepts death explores. The paganism analysis will identify and evaluate elements, beliefs, benefits and reasons for involvement, and how these components make the saga successful. The relationship between the Twilight saga vs. Christabel and Dorian Gray, (cited Paglia 1990) will be analysed (intertexts) and to ensure a contemporary analysis considering cultural factors, Twilight will consider the idea of ‘popular culture’ using Hall’s definition,

“What is essential to the definition of popular culture is the relations which define ‘popular culture’ in a continuing tension (relationship, influence and antagonism) to the dominant culture”

(1981 cited Calagione et al 1992). The analysis will also seek to determine the intentions behind Stephenie Meyer’s use of the themes: paganism and death.

In Twilight death is used to explain the history of vampires and “through popular images of horror take on different associations according to the period of their propagation, their trends and uses are fairly standard.” (Grixti 1989 p15). The origins of the ‘dead’ communicate beliefs about previous religious teachings, “the Greek Orthodox Church taught that heretics became Vampires after death” (Jones cited Grixti 1989). Jones’ connection with the “Black death and outbreaks of Vampirism”, (Grixti 1989, p16) suggests how death represented cultural debates within society. Meyer uses this historical knowledge of ‘death’ to create her vampires, “Sweet, delicious, the scent made my mouth water” (Meyer 2007a p230), by using the opposite associations with death and ‘plagues’ the Twilight saga reinforces the frame of reassurance, “modern audiences are so accustomed to tales which are obvious inventions that they fail to realize the extent to which their ancestors expected and believed their stories to be gospel truth” (Grixti 1989 p17) therefore death seeks to educate readers about the religious and historical elements behind the horror genre that perhaps have been forgotten.

Death is used as an allegory in Twilight to highlight the importance of social change in people’s lives,

“Death in popular culture often signifies not the end of the individual but the possibility of social change and renewal.” (p163)

As McCracken (1998) discusses death can be the opportunity for an individual to socially change, and through paganism (cyclical structure- nature) a person can be renewed. In Twilight Bella is trying to change her life by transforming into a vampire which offers beauty and eternal youth- renewed looks (Wisker 2005). Whilst offering social change, as Bakhtin discusses:

“death ‘ceases to be an aspect of life itself and becomes a phenomenon on the border between my life here-and-now and a potential other kind of life.’” (McCracken 1998).

Meyer uses the benefits of social change in Twilight to promote ‘death’ (vampirism) to Bella, and presents Bella’s life as two stages, as suggested by McCracken. Through Bella’s thoughts the two lives are presented, “It was too green- an alien planet” Bella feels like an outsider living slowly, in the here-and- now in Forks,  whilst the potential of the other kind of life, “ “I want to be Superman, too.” ” pleases Bella and she longs for a future as a vampire (Meyer 2007a p7 & p413). Bella believes death will help her achieve social change, “I want you, and I want you forever” (Meyer 2010 p25) throughout the saga she expresses she wants to be part of the vampire family and be equal to Edward (powers, strength .e.t.c.). Therefore death is portrayed to represent development and positive social change in life. Death is also used to emphasise Bella’s love for Edward, “It was easy to admit how much I needed him.” (Meyer 2007a p413) and provoke a shock reaction as she is willing to sacrifice her life for him. Therefore although death is portrayed positively, Meyer uses death to present love as irrational and drastic.

In the Twilight saga the main theme is death. In contrast, the Harry Potter series covers death but equally important are: moral dilemmas, friendship and love (Killinger 2008): “Death has been overcome by Love himself” (National Catholic 2004). Love is emphasised as more powerful than death in the Harry Potter series whereas in Twilight they are entwined suggesting a darker novel, exploring death in regard to nature’s law which involves sex and eroticism (Paglia 1990). Death is presented as a dark theme in Twilight:

“Death is indeed something which just happens; but by anticipating it one can let it put meaning in perspective,” (Eagleton 2003 p270).

Bella is anticipating death and lives throughout the first novel in the ‘shadow of death’; “For I had no choices now but one: to go to the mirrored room and die” the knowledge of death allows her to have full control over her destiny (Meyer 2007a p375) and readers realise knowledge of death = power. Meyer uses Bella to explore popular culture, through her ‘antagonistic’ and nonchalant personality towards death.

This is emphasised through Bella’s dialogue, “ “So what if I was dead?” ” (Meyer 2007b). Bella’s blaze attitude towards death informs readers that she lives almost free from fear or worry of the finitude. It shows Meyer’s support of, “What is tragic fact for some can become moral values for others.” (Eagleton 2003 p270). Twilight encourages readers to view death as liberating, and creates Twilight’s ethos:

“ ‘the presence of death in life’ is ‘what is most resistantly and universally repressed’ because death reveals limitations of the ‘narcissistic’ self, which believes itself to be self-sufficient.” (McCracken 1998 p150).

The text is uncovering a social taboo whilst addressing the reader’s views about themselves.

Bella’s admiration of death is through the vampires, she views Rosalie as beautiful and divine, “her glorious immortal body” (Meyer 2007b p137). Bella is convinced by the glamorous appearance of the female vampires and the idea of ‘death’ distracts her from realising what she would lose from her human life as she already feels fulfilled and ‘self-sufficient’. Therefore Meyer’s saga overcomes the “resisted” subject, death, and encourages readers to explore morbidity, “let it be quick now” and mortality, “I hoped that meant I was still alive” (Meyer 2007a p393 & p399), which creates a masochistic experience for readers. This experience could be argued to help readers overcome the fear of death (Penczak 2008), and develop towards maturity (Davis 1994). This is seen in Harry Potter as well, Harry has to overcome the fear of death as it is always present in his life, for instance he has to accept that without the philosopher’s stone Nicholas Flamel and his wife have to die this is reassured by Dumbledore, that death is an adventure, (Spilsburg 2006).  Therefore Meyer’s portrayal of death can be seen as positive as it tries to tackle a social taboo and eliminate unnecessary fear of death in readers, and on a larger scale, society; death is a natural occurrence.

Meyer’s use of death is an allegory about modern day society. The saga offers a metaphorical representation of narcissism in our lives,

“ “I began to blame the beauty for what had happened to me…the curse of it” ”. (Meyer 2007b p145).

The use of Rosalie’s dialogue communicates to readers that the value of beauty achieved through death was only temporal. Rosalie’s storyline (death as a vampire) exposes the limitations of the ‘narcissistic self’. Therefore death is used in Twilight to encourage readers to unravel the mystery of eros (paganism) and by removing narcissism try to uncover the existential meaning of life (Ellis 1996).

Death emphasises the power of love and as Eagleton (2003) argues,

“It is love, not reason, he recognizes, which is stronger than death…. One must honour beauty and idealism, while knowing how much blood and suffering lie at their root.” (p273).

Meyer’s saga explores death through the relationship of Edward and Bella whilst recognising the admiration of “beauty and idealism” (paganism). However, the idea of death emphasises the inequality of love in the relationship, “ “I can’t win, Alice. You can’t guard everyone I know forever…” Bella is making the ultimate sacrifice with her life however Edward’s sacrifice is his emotions, happiness, “ “I would stay in Forks, Bella. Or somewhere like it…Someplace where I couldn’t hurt you anymore.”” (Meyer 2007a p370 & p409). The imbalance reflects a sadomasochistic relationship, “ “What a sick, masochistic lion” ” (Meyer 2007a p240), Edward endlessly gains pleasure from the relationship, “ “Yes, you are exactly my brand of heroin” ” whilst Bella is always threatened by the implication of death, “ “You don’t realise how breakable you are” ” (Meyer 2007a p235 & p271). Therefore death represents the dark sadomasochistic relationship.

Death is used to explore sadomasochistic themes:

“ ‘the fearful pleasure of playing with forces so great that to approach them is nearly destruction’ ” (Castorp cited Eagleton 2003).

The implied sexual tension always involves the threat of death, “ “I have to mind my actions every moment that we’re together so that I don’t hurt you. I could kill you quite easily, Bella, simply by accident.”” (Meyer 2007a 271) death emphasises the danger in the relationship. Playfully Meyer uses this to explain the horror genre, Bella is “susceptible to the seductive forces of vampires”, (Davis 1994 p161), which is traditional for women in horror. Bella represents the “forces of life and attraction” and death defines her traditional role as a woman in a horror novel.

Death is glamorised to attract the popular culture audience, “Death as a collision between time and eternity, has a transfiguring glamour”, (Paglia 1990 p663). The Twilight saga presents death glamorously and seductively through the vampires “sculpted, incandescent chest…thousands of tiny diamonds” (Meyer 2007a). The glamorisation makes the ‘image of death’ attractive and appealing to readers,

“a contemporary portrait of sexual gender and diversity and a sophisticated eroticism…flexibility and eternal appeal of the horror genre”, (Browne and Browne 2001 p407).

Twilight uses eroticism in a subtle manner, “ “I have human instincts- they may be buried deep, but they’re there” ” (Meyer 2007a p244), appealing to the mass audience as sex sells (Krzywinska 2006).

The use of death in the Twilight saga could be argued to assisting to the decline in religion, as previously reported in our UK society over the years (BBC 2000) and promoting the return to pagan traditions of nature, sex and renewal (Jenkins 2006). Expanding  further the Twilight saga could represent the downwards decline in society as discussed by Fiske (2001), down is represented through the devil, hell and death and all three feature prominently in the Twilight saga. This suggests the saga represents encouragement to a society away from religion and towards (‘down’) paganism. Medved (cited Cooper 2010) argues “the power of the entertainment industry to influence our actions flows from its ability to redefine what constitutes normal behaviour in this society”, (p164). Therefore it can be argued Meyer’s subtle use of death and paganism is an attempt to change the norms of society, explore taboo subjects and promote paganism.

The main beliefs of contemporary paganism view the female form as divine whilst appreciating animism, pantheism and polytheism (Lewis 1996). The process of becoming involved in paganism is explored in Twilight’s narrative, which reflects polytheism. Twilight is set in a high school and this is where the curiosity about ‘magical religion’ (paganism) begins. As Lewis (1996) notes “32 per cent heard about it in a school setting”, therefore Meyer uses this fundamental location as it is realistic- proven by the statistics, familiar to readers and reflects pagan experience, (p393) “these events merely confirm some original, private experience…” Bella’s discovery is personal yet in a public setting thus showing readers it is possible to learn about paganism as an individual and encourages curiosity at a young age. “Sixty per cent of Lynch’s subjects reported that they belonged to no other social, political, or cultural groups” which is precisely how Bella feels in Twilight without any friendship groups, “Relief that I wasn’t the only newcomer here” (Meyer 2007a p19). Readers that may feel isolated may therefore feel encouraged to become involved in paganism, to feel like they’ve “come home” due to the narrative offering guidance in society, which relates previously to the theme of death helping social change.

Societies are explored through paganism in the Twilight saga: vampires and werewolves. The BBC Paganism website (2011) discusses paganisms belief, causing minimal harm to the environment whilst emphasising divine contact with the world and worship of nature and festivals. The vampires celebrate “Saint Marcus Day”, (Meyer 2007a p388), similar to the pagan festival spring equinox. Equinox celebrates the renewal of life which is an important concept in paganism (O’Hara 1997). The St Marcus festival in Twilight features Edward nearly exposing himself as a vampire to human beings in which the penalty would be death; however Bella saves his ‘life’. In the pagan festival the powers of “Gods and Goddess’” are increased. Meyer’s ‘saving’ of Edward is ironic as it resembles the Christian tradition when the dead are celebrated (O’Riordan 2010). This ironic storyline about ‘death’ reflects the postmodern gothic era,

“The vampire figure breaks through solid selves…is androgynous in nature and encourages; and draws out of others their own transgressive natures, their own sexual natures….vampire can be seen by some as the figure of a dangerous challenge…” (Wisker 2005 p198).

Therefore the concept of ‘death’ in the saga is used to appeal to the modern day audience of gothic horrors and death and question the relation of this world with the other (Hallab 2009). The use of paganism (pre-Christian religion) and death in Twilight can therefore be argued as beneficial in allowing “natural or typical ways for the human mind to function” when considering about death and the afterlife (Hallab 2009 p69).

The female form is divine in paganism (Davy 2007). The female vampires, “beautiful feature…heart-shaped face…It was like meeting a fairy tale…graceful” (Meyer 2007a p282) portray females as visually attractive which adheres to pagan values and contemporary society where females have been scrutinized and reduced to the ‘male gaze’. However, the idolisation of prominent females leads to embodiment within society, thus a positive and progressive movement for women, (Sheffield 2002). Meyer therefore uses paganism to promote females as equal and worthy in society.

Nature equips females with latent vampirism where biologically a female is restricted (her body- menstruation, vagina…) and the sexual fear a male may feel towards this is suppressed by love. In the Twilight saga this inferiority is shown through males such as Charlie (Bella’s dad) reluctant to talk about menstruation and sexual intercourse, and Edward’s ‘fear’ displayed as aggression and lust, “He reached…effortlessly ripped a two-foot-thick brand…” (Meyer 2007 p231). Edward uses these emotions to counteract the inferiority he feels towards pagan females (Bella), “They are men’s tools of survival in the pagan vastness of female nature.” (Paglia 1990 p26) in an attempt to survive. Paganism can therefore be liberating for females, “with a celebration of the body, of blood, beauty, eternal youth, passion, and, above all, the erotic”, (Wisker 2005 p203). As Wisker discusses paganism pleases feminists and empowers women with vampirism (death) being an important metaphor for the 21st century. Therefore it can be argued that Meyer uses paganism to appeal to female readers and celebrate femininity.

Death is presented in sadomasochism, “double standard…Sex is not the pleasure principle but the Dionysian bondage of pleasure-pain.” (Paglia 1990 p27). In Twilight the double standard notion is addressed in the narrative: Bella (virgin) is reserving herself for Edward however, sexual intercourse, with Edward in Breaking Dawn nearly results in Bella’s death. The “overcoming resistance” is Edward’s continuous battle, “large purplish bruises were beginning to blossom…” (Meyer 2010 p81). The physical damage on Bella reflects the pagan focus which is “eye-intense” (Paglia 1990 p33). The use of description used by Meyer in the saga suggests promotion of the sex and sadomasochism in paganism. Until recently “The power of the eye in Western culture has not been fully appreciated or analyzed.” (Paglia 1990 p32). However Meyer’s use suggests bringing the eye, “pictures” and visualisation of paganism into the 21st century. Meyer’s use of “dark mirror art” shows support for pure pagan imagism.

Pure pagan imagism is the theme in Breaking dawn when Bella falls pregnant, “For a fetus is a benign tumor, a vampire who steals in order to live.” (Paglia 1990 p11). The pregnancy of Bella suggests the horror of ‘rape’ and this dark storyline by Meyer opens up discussion about “sexual arousal” (Paglia 1990 p 35). Meyer’s narrative suggests emotions and sex are combined and embraced, however Christianity has continuously tried to separate these two elements (again suggesting promotion towards society away from religion, ‘down’). This shows Meyer supporting the dark side of sex in pagan nature and almost (again) taking a stance against religion.

Meyer’s use of paganism could be similar to Paglia’s thoughts, (1994) “A pagan education would sharpen the mind, steel the will, and seduce the senses.” (p94). By confronting the “beasts of passion” in the Twilight saga the dark laws of nature and sexuality can be understood, including bisexuality, a “great pagan ideal” (Paglia 1994 p94) which Meyer encourages through erotic description of females and males in Twilight. Meyer’s dark insight into paganism offers readers new understandings and subsequently reveals support of progressive feminism, discussed by Paglia (1994), where all historical depictions of women are embraced and valued, and through paganism these images can be offered, even including the most luridly pornographic images. Meyer’s use of paganism shows support for female sexuality in society.

Death and paganism are expressed through Edward Cullen,

“Men who kill the women they love have reverted to a pagan cult…without her, he cannot exist…to harass, upset, and even kill her is to perpetuate his relationship with her.” (Paglia 1994 p 45).

Edward demonstrates the above with Bella: leaving her, harassing her, upsetting her and he constantly refers to his ability to kill her, “ “As if you could fight me off,” ” (Meyer 2007a p231) thus sustaining the role of males in a pagan cult. The divine female obsession discussed by Paglia is explored through the relationship of Bella and Edward, with Edward always feeling, “He would rather be hated than ignored” (Paglia 1994 p45) whilst death always remains the threat in the relationship. The use of death with paganism in Edward is to show the conflict of males in a female dominated pagan world (Paglia 1990).

The Twilight saga is influenced from other texts (intertexts). Christabel explores the notion of “fascination, capture, possession, transfiguration.” (Paglia 1990 p341). The Twilight saga uses these in the stages of paganism and mirrors the ideology, “Christabel is a ritual of surrender to pagan corruption.” The pain felt in Christabel’s marriage is explored in Breaking Dawn, “spasms of pain and ecstasy” (Paglia1990 p343) with Bella suffering from the pregnancy (‘rape’) and the realisation that “man lies in chains of sex and nature” (p343) displayed through Edward’s reluctance, “if I hurt you, you must tell me at once.” (Meyer 2010 p78). Twilight explores sexual repression, latent vampirism and the belief of females as divine to create an informative saga about paganism.

Paglia (1990 p 346) discusses the triumph of pagan imagism as a parable of “western sex and power”. Using the same approach as Christabel, Meyer produces a saga (pornographic parable) exploring death and paganism. The exploration of a taboo subject suggests Meyer’s attempt to force paganism further into the limelight in popular culture. As Paglia (1990 p33) discusses, pagan flaunting in cinema is “sexual showing”. The adapted films of the Twilight saga are viewed like an “exhibition” displaying death and paganism: “Spectacle is a pagan cult of the eye.” Therefore the saga successfully enters the “age of Hollywood” (French 1996), where the mass media revel in sex and violence as it is visually provocative using “sign language of images” (Paglia 1990 p34). As Paglia discusses depriving society of death and sex only increases pleasure and in order for it to be controlled it must be presented in ritual binding. In Meyer’s novel it is evident that her portrayal of death and paganism is an attempt at representing capitalism (Paglia 1990 p37) whilst presenting these ideas glamorously.

Dorian Gray can be viewed as influential in Twilight saga. Dorian is able to paralyze people with his glamorous appearance much like Edward, “some forgotten pagan god of beauty”, (Meyer 2007a p7). “The Picture of Dorian Gray ends in a spectacle of perverse animism” (Paglia 1990 p527), this idea of animism is a key concept in popular culture and both novels use this to attract the horror genre audience. Christabel and Dorian Gray portray a “dark vision of sex and power” (p527) and this is used in Twilight with the reoccurring theme of sadomasochism and death.

In conclusion death in Twilight provides readers with a historical understanding of paganism, explains the importance of change (Bakhtin), the power of death and relationship with love and the glamour it offers. Paganism on the other hand can be considered an inclusive cult, promoting equality with nature and offering females’ divinity with high sexuality and presence in society. The two themes combined as discussed by Kelly (cited Lewis 1996) help meet religious needs by the creation of a ‘new religion’. Lewis recognises there is “tremendous upsurge of interest in Native spirituality and shamanism, Neo-paganism…” (p243). Therefore the use of paganism meets the demand for death and paganism in popular culture which has led to “a growing reality in our post-Christian world.” (Jenkins 2006 p202-203).and as analysed throughout reflects Meyer’s support and belief in the cult.  Paganism also favours females, treating them as divine which promotes the cult as an alternative option to some religions that people feel scrutinize women, (Maguire and Shaikh 2007). The death and paganism within Twilight reflects the shift of sexual representation due to “commodity culture”, (Raymond 1990) and Meyer’s use of information about paganism informs readers about the history and beliefs of ancestors (‘frame of reference’).

Overall the Twilight saga successfully uses death and paganism to appeal to the mass market and the “age of Hollywood”, and through forming ‘relationships’ (with readers), ‘influencing’ readers about paganism, and provoking ‘antagonism’, the saga appeals to the popular culture.

 

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  1. May 24, 2011 at 9:01 PM

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