The Trouble with Twihard Tweens

How the Twilight saga is hazardous to your tween’s mental health.

Posted Nov 04, 2011

The impact of the Twilight book series and subsequent film franchise has been of significant proportions, making it a cult phenomenon. Although intended as a young adult novel, its legion of readers and fans ranges from pre-teens to adults. Websites such as TwilightDisorder.com attest to the near obsessive fascination with the books, films, and other associated paraphernalia. Allusions to Twilight are evident across various domains, from fashion (fans can now purchase parts of the female protagonist's outfits), to academics (one can now study for the SAT exam using a Twilight companion vocabulary book; Leaf, 2009), to dance (an episode of the television show "So You Think You Can Dance" featured a Twilight-inspired dance routine; Fuller, Lythgoe, & Adelman, 2009). These days, vampire references are simply everywhere.

While the "saga," as it is being touted by the brand, may be entertaining to a wide audience, there may also be cause for concern, particularly with respect to young females. According to the American Library Association, "young adult" refers to the 12-18 age category (Young Adult Library Services Association, 2009). Developmentally, there are ostensible differences between the maturity levels of such a broad age range. Given Twilight's branding as young adult, and thus inclusion of pre-teens into its readership, this series is unsuitable for this audience. The story touches on several themes that parents, educators, and other consumers should be ready to discuss with young readers, as such media can be catalysts for important discussions and learning opportunities (i.e., Rosser, 2007). In addition to mistaking lust for love, additional harmful themes intertwined in Twilight include suicide and aggression. Given the upcoming release of the first part of the two-part finale of the films, it is helpful to begin with an examination of the first story of the series which started it all.

History of Vampires, Film, and Mental Health

Research indicates that among the horror film genre, the number one favorite movie monster across all demographics is the vampire (Fischoff, Dimopoulos, Nguyen, & Gordon, 2002). It is unsurprising then that the legend of vampires has seeped into the fields of mental health and psychiatry. Some researchers have suggested a relationship between schizophrenia and vampirism, positing that the vampire theme may provide insight into such aspects of schizophrenia including delusions and nightmares (Kayton, 1972). Also, vampire films and television shows have been used for therapeutic purposes with adolescents (Priester, 2008; Scholzman, 2000). One such case study follows a 13-year old girl who had recently read Twilight and New Moon and uses the film, Interview with the Vampire (Geffen, Morris, & Woolley, 1994) metaphorically for counseling (Priester, 2008).

Aside from its use with a clinical population, vampire culture is a prevalent force in the mainstream. Given its mass appeal, the first book (Meyer, 2006a) and film (Mooridian, Morgan, & Godfrey, 2008) of this series are reviewed below with respect to harmful themes. As there is much overlap in content between the film and novel, attempts will be made to delineate which medium is being referred to in particular examples; however, the themes themselves are present in both sources.

Synopsis of Twilight

Stephenie Meyer's novel Twilight is told through the eyes of Bella Swan, a 17-year old girl who moves her junior year of high school from Phoenix, Arizona to Forks, Washington. It is there that she becomes enchanted with a vampire, Edward Cullen, who she repeatedly describes as seraphic, god-like, and an Adonis. Edward comes from a wealthy adoptive family made up of his father (who is also the local physician), mother, two sisters, and two brothers. They are all devastatingly beautiful, pale in color, and sit at a table segregated from the rest of the school.

Through a series of events, Bella and Edward's paths cross, and Edward ends up saving Bella's life several times; in one instance he pushes a speeding van away from her and saves her from being pinned against a car, and in a second instance, he saves her from a hoard of men in a dark alley at night. Bella comes to question Edward's superhuman strength and ability to appear in times of danger, and eventually learns he is a vampire. The two fall in love, despite the danger and impossibility of their romance. Though Edward appears 17, he is immortal and has lived for over 100 years. In order for their budding romance to work, Bella must convert to being a vampire, yet Edward desires her to have a normal human existence.

Love or Lust?

Perhaps the most singular and intriguing feature of Twilight is Bella and Edward's intoxicating love story. In the book, as well as the film, Bella and Edward's attraction is heady, marked by a lack of caution, and teetering at the edge of connection and death. Indeed, on numerous occasions, Edward comes perilously close to ending Bella's life due to his exceptional thirst for her blood. Edward, for example, must summon all his strength to keep from draining Bella's veins dry when her scent precedes her imminent arrival at the lab table they share in biology class. Further, during two biology film lectures, when the lights are dimmed, Bella and Edward struggle, muscles taut with the electricity of attraction, to maintain control over their respective hormonal and appetitive urges. Indeed, while the novel and film have been billed a love story, Bella and Edward's relationship mirrors a passionate crush or lust with its attendant euphoria and obsession.

Bella and Edward's relationship reveals the first harmful theme of Twilight: mistaking lust for love. Such a phenomenon renders adolescent girls emotionally and physically vulnerable at a time when they may be least able to protect themselves. For example, Bartels and Zeki (2004), found that the brain activity of young adults in the first stages of passionate love share startling similarities with the brain activity of cocaine addicts given an intravenous injection of cocaine. In the novel and the film, Edward acknowledges that Bella, whose scent he finds deliciously unprecedented, is his own "personal brand of heroin." Likewise, Bella's reaction to Edward is visceral; she describes his eyes as mesmerizing and his scent as mouth watering.

Figuratively speaking, those bitten by the love bug are in a perpetual state of seeing the world and the objects of their attraction through rose-colored glasses. In addition to activating the reward centers of the brain, passionate love (as well as euphoria-inducing drugs, such as cocaine) deactivate the brain regions involved in critical thought, social judgment, and the ability to assess the intentions and emotions in others (Fisher, 2004). For example, the amygdala, a brain region which monitors the environment for fearful or dangerous stimuli, is far less active in those who are experiencing passionate love than in a control group of singles or among individuals in a long-term monogamous relationship (Fisher, 2000). As a result, violations of personal boundaries, aggression, and manipulations on the part of the beloved are unlikely to be viewed as a cause for concern or as a trigger for normal self-protective and self-preserving behaviors. Adolescent girls are additionally vulnerable when in the throws of passionate love because the frontal lobe, the region of the brain thought to control social cognition, executive control, and behavioral inhibition of context inappropriate behavior, may not be fully mature until a person is in their late 20's (Sowell et al., 2003).

Young female audiences, with little to no relationship experience, may internalize the message of the Twilight love story, experience similar physical attraction, and identify it as love. It is here that a candid discussion of the qualities and criteria of a healthy relationship and a healthy self is warranted. Loving, healthy, and enduring relationships include such aspects as mutual respect, non-violence, and equality—all of which are lacking in Bella and Edward's relationship. While Bella and Edward's mutual obsession can appear sweet and loving at times, the intensity of their addictive devotion lays a thoroughly solid foundation for other troubling themes; namely, suicide.

Suicide

Throughout the novel, allusions are made to the ill-fated tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. When discussing their future and whether or not Bella should be transformed into a vampire, Edward confesses that should he remain with Bella until she ages and dies, he would not want to live much longer and would find a way to end his own life. In New Moon (Meyer, 2006b), the second installment of the Twilight series, Bella's risky behaviors after Edward's departure are interpreted by some characters in the story as a suicide attempt, and subsequently Edward swiftly begins planning to end his own life. Although this takes place in the second book and film, and this review is primarily concerned with the first in the series, this implication is still very much extant in the first story. The notion of being together forever, and not being able to live without each other propels the notion of dealing with lost love through suicide and death, rather than coping in healthy, life-affirming manner.

Research has indicated that teenage suicide attempts are sometimes linked to romantic relationships (Shrier, 1981). A sequential model of suicide indicates several risk factors among teens; included in the list are interpersonal loss and the romaticization of suicide that is promulgated by the media (Shaffer, Gould, & Hicks, 2007). Further examples of precipitants include such factors as a breakup with one's boyfriend (Schaffer et al., 2007). Thus although fictional for Twilight, this issue of love and suicide may have very serious consequences and its implications should be discussed with young readers.

Aggression

Intrinsic to powerful nature of the Twilight romance is the frequent aggressive, threatening, and short-tempered manner in which Edward addresses Bella. Throughout the novel and film, he is easily angered. His exceptional strength makes him a danger to Bella. He warns her about this, claiming he is a threat to her, prompting the famous line, "and so the lion fell in love with the lamb." (p. 274) Not only does this implicate a clear power differential, but he consistently tells her that he is not sure that he will be able to leave her unharmed. In one scene in the film, Edward zips around the meadow, uprooting and smashing trees, while running with blinding speed. He does this to demonstrate just how threatening he is, and to ascertain whether or not Bella still desires him. In some ways this scene provides audiences with a conundrum as well-should they fear Edward's life-threatening abilities, or feel empathy at Edward's status as a pariah?

Further frustrating for Bella, and likewise audiences, is Edward's moodiness. At times, he oscillates between being exceptionally loving and bitterly scathing. While this may be attributed to Edward's internal conflict to either stay in Bella's life or attempt to keep her safe by leaving her, his behavior is reminiscent of character profiles of batters and, therefore, manipulative and disrespectful of the person he professes to love. Indeed, Bella sarcastically noting Edward's mood swings asks him, "do you have multiple personality disorder?". (p.82) In addition, some of the themes apparent in the couple's love are lightly reminiscent of Stockholm's syndrome, the occurrence of a victim bonding with its captor. Ironically, just as Edward and his family hunt and prey on animals, so too Edward hunts and preys on Bella. For example, before Edward fully knows whether his adoration for Bella is requited, he slips into Bella's room at night to watch her sleep and monitors her whereabouts by reading the thoughts of her friends and family.

In their therapy guide, Escaping Love Captivity, Sally Coleman and Susan Steibe-Pasalich (1996) use the idea of Stockholm's syndrome to identify maladaptive relationship patterns. Among the themes involved in such relationships they include: isolation/imprisonment; verbal and/or physical dominance; over-focus on the captor; entrapment; and required secrecy. It is imperative to note here that in authentic domestic abuse situations these themes are very harmful and prevalent with a high degree of severity. Bella and Edward's relationship share many of these elements, though possibly to a lesser degree. Exclusive, and highly passion-driven romances have the potential for harm, especially for young adults and teenagers who lack maturity, social skills, and judgment to adequately assess dangerous relationships. If allowed to continue so tumultuously, there is the risk of such a relationship becoming dangerous. In Twilight, the secrecy and physical dominance of Edward is intended as thrilling and alluring. Yet, for young readers, this is a dangerous message. Dominance and violence when confused for love often have devastating psychological consequence for all adults, but most especially for impressionable teenagers and young adults.

Conclusion

The story of Twilight is entertaining at best, destructive at worst. Inherent in the writing style of Meyer is a soap opera-esque ability to lure in the reader with timeless themes of attraction, danger, and mystery. However, soap operas are intended for adult audiences. As much as Twilight can be a vehicle for educating young females about engaging in healthy relationships, it also runs the risk of misleading young girls when left unexplored with parental or other guiding figures. It may indeed prove fruitful for therapeutic uses as done with previous vampire stories (Priester, 2008; Scholzman, 2000). However, given many of the harmful themes discussed above, it appears the risk necessitated may not outweigh the benefits of introducing this book as a story with positive messages to be gained. Yet, for young readers already entrenched in this saga, discussions regarding healthy relationships must take place.

The stories are appropriate for older populations; it is for the readership of younger audiences that there should be caution. On her website, the author states that the original sequel of the story was leading into a tale unintended for a young adult population (Meyer, n.d.). Thus there is some indication that the first story was in some ways prefacing the more mature themes that the author states were in the original sequel. Later books in the four-part series go on to openly discuss infidelity, sex, and pregnancy. Thus this article should also serve to admonish publishing companies and media franchises that seek to advance their own economic interests above those of adolescent girls, as the series is not appropriate for 12-year olds. Twilight is a culturally relevant topic today, much as Harry Potter was a few years ago, and another exciting story will supercede all of them. What these stories will always share, though, is the power to fuel discussions and illustrate life scenarios. But the merits of Twilight, can be summarized in the aptly named poem, Eternal Twilight, and it's resounding conclusive exclamations:


"something needs to be said
in the morning, in the shivering moment
wherein space mixes
suddenly with something vague
like the flooding feelings of puberty
my heart wants to give
into the flood
my heart wants to burst
into rain
into rain from that great cloud
my heart wants to say:
no! no! no! no!"
(Farrokhzaad, 1997, p. 49)

References
Bartels, A., & Zeki, S. (2000). The neural correlates of maternal and romantic love. Neuroreport, 11, 3829-3834.

Coleman, S., & Steibe-Pasalich, S. (1996). Escaping Love Captivity. Notre Dame, IN: Authors.
Farrokhzaad, F. (1997). A Rebirth. Costa Mesa, CA: Mazda Publishers.

Fisher, H. E., Aron, A., Mashek, D., & Brown, L. L. (2002). Defining the brain systems of lust, romantic attraction, and attachment. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 31, 413-419.

Fischoff, S., Dimopoulos, A., Nguyen, F., & Gordon, R. (2002). Psychological appeal of movie monsters. Journal of Media Psychology, 10. Retrieved June 24, 2009 from http://www.calstatela.edu/faculty/sfischo/

Fuller, S., Lythgoe, N., & Adelman, B. (Executive Producers). (2009). So you think you can dance [Television series]. United States: Fox Broadcasting Company.

Geffen, D., Morris, R., & Woolley (Producers), & Jordan, N. (Director). (1994). Interview With the Vampire [Motion picture]. United States: Geffen Pictures.

Kayton, L. (1972). The relationship of the vampire legend to schizophrenia. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 1, 303-314.

Leaf, B. (2009). Defining Twilight: Vocabulary Workbook for Unlocking the SAT, ACT, GED,
and SSAT. San Francisco: Wiley, John, and Sons, Inc.

Meyer, S. (2006a). Twilight. Lebanon, IN: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.

Meyer, S. (2006b). New Moon. Lebanon, IN: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.

Meyer, S. (n.d.). The story behind the writing of New Moon. Retrieved June 24, 2009 from http://www.stepheniemeyer.com/nm_thestory.html

Mooridian, G., Morgan, M., & Godfrey, W. (Producers), & Hardwicke, C. (Director). (2008). Twilight [Motion picture]. United States: Summit Entertainment, LLC.

Priester, P.E. (2008). The metaphorical use of vampire films in counseling. Journal of Creativity in Mental Health, 3, 68-77.

Rosser, M.H. (2007). The magic of leadership: An exploration of Harry Potter and the Goblet
of Fire. Advances in Developing Human Resources, 9, 236-250.

Schlozman, S.C. (2000). Vampires and those who slay them: Using the television program Buffy the Vampire Slayer in adolescent therapy and psychodynamic education. Academic Psychiatry, 24, 49-54.

Shaffer, D., Gould, M., & Hicks, R. (2007). Teen suicide fact sheet. Department of Child Psychiatry, New York State Psychiatric Institute, Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons. Retrieved June 24, 2009 from: http://www.ohiospf.org/files/Depression_Suicide.pdf

Shrier, D.K. (1981). Teenage suicide. Developmental and behavioral pediatrics, 2, 155-159.

Sowell, E.R., Peterson, B.S., Thompson, P.M., Welcome, S.E., Henkenius, A.L., & Toga, A.W. (2003). Mapping cortical change across the lifespan. Nature Neuroscience, 6, 309-315.

Walters, G.D. (2004). Understanding the popular appeal of horror cinema: An integrated-
interactive model. Journal of Media Psychology, 9. Retrieved June 24, 2009 from http://www.calstatela.edu/faculty/sfischo/

Young Adult Library Services Association. (2009). Retrieved July 6, 2009 from

http://www.ala.org/ala/mgrps/divs/yalsa/aboutyalsab/aboutyalsa.cfm.

* this article was previously published under the following citation with co-author, Ms. Elizabeth Hendriks

Saedi, G & Hendriks, EA. (2010). "And so the lion fell in love with the lamb": An examination of potentially harmful psychological themes for adolescent females in Twilight. The School Psychologist, 63, 19-24.

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