The Twilight Saga and Immortality Striving
How humans and vampires stirred an existential, evolutionary appetite.
Posted Aug 30, 2017
“Did you ever have the feeling that you wanted to go, but you still had the feeling that you wanted to stay.” –Jimmy Durante (The Man Who Came to Dinner)
The immortality tale among the characters in the Twilight saga is really an evolutionary appetite—a fantastical and symbolic hodge-podge of our basic fundamental quests for identity, purpose, and meaning. It doesn’t come without trials and tribulations, however, as the fear of death typically overshadows our attempts at such greatness. From Bella Swan’s quest to seek eternal love, Edward Cullen’s plight to save Bella's soul, and to Jacob Black’s transcendence into a world of werewolf packs and treaties, the series illustrates many unpleasant "awakenings" in helping us to recognize the value of our own existence. German philosopher Martin Heidegger expressed that people achieve a glimpse of authenticity in the face of their death and, in doing so, are awakened to the horizon of their possibilities beyond the present.
So what does authenticity look like and which direction do we point ourselves in finding that horizon? For one, authenticity is intentional. Yes, we grudgingly accept life when it seems to do what it wants with us, but how we respond and what we do with it is more important than the circumstances that got us there. To come to Forks, Washington, from Arizona without a tan, hanging out with the weird guy who mysteriously leaves for days at a time, and finding friendships in new and strange places, Bella's potential for both receiving love and giving of herself often remains dormant until acknowledged and nurtured.
We, too, can be put in touch with both a sense of reality and purpose. If we skip confronting death and deny the dread that accompanies our life, we also miss out on the chance to experience many different kinds of transcendence—beyond just what we know to be an afterlife. Authenticity, then, makes Bella’s life a series of decisions, one precipitating her into an unknown future and one pushing her back into a predictable past. The first creates a fear of the unknown and the latter guilt for a sense of missed opportunities. Bella must accept such a painful state of affairs and find the courage to make the best choices.
While Bella and Edward share complicity over existing in two different worlds, they meander in the figurative and literal, propelled by a goodness of purpose that seeks the best course of action to be together. In Eclipse, Bella clearly understands that, without Edward, her identity would be lost as a mortal. Is dying such a bad thing, then, when we never really "live?" It’s one thing to live foolishly and another to have lived, consciously, with and for something—and we all must die to that one way or another.
Regardless of the compelling, strange, and exciting cultures Bella moves from, within, or toward, she uncovers deep emotions within herself born out of the anxiety of losing people in her life. She also acknowledges the emotions of other people and recognizes loving souls in Edward, his family, Jacob, and even her father and mother. Doesn’t everyone have a soul to both give and receive? In particular, Bella’s refusal to accept Edward’s claim that immortality is without a soul suggests that she must confront her own mortality and test death to a point where she becomes aware of the absolute value of her existence.
The Cullens were not always vampires and the psychological traits they had at the time of their death are brought to the table in a new domain. For Bella to confront her own mortality, she conditions herself to understand transcendence through a self-reflection that raises her consciousness to a new level. Who am I responsible for and who am I responsible to? Only through that investigation, is Bella able to come to terms with her absolute value.
Existential psychology is one that recognizes Abraham Maslow’s “need to know” with George Bernard Shaw’s “appetite for a high quality of existence.” A solution for Bella is to gain a sense of purpose through a deepening of her consciousness, achieved by managing a human paradox of death through mortality salience. In other words, when we recognize our impending doom, we become re-educated on the finer things in life and take conscious steps to modify our behavior. If you’ve ever known a cancer survivor, skydiver, or soldier, you know what this means.
Throughout the series, Bella accepts the fragile and futile condition of her humanity through both risk-taking and self-sacrifice. As a psychological condition, people generally create socially approved, symbolic interaction systems that serve a death-denying function. We don’t want to die and instead of acknowledging that finality, we build a world where clocks and trains run on time. Whether it hits us with a gnashing bite to the wrist or as a distant threat covered in fiery-red hair and curls, it increases affection and altruistic behavior toward those who share a similar culture. If not checked, however, it creates anxiety, tension, and aggression in protecting that culture from those who oppose and threaten it. Throughout the series, Bella comes face-to-face with a number of experiences which allow her to face death as a transcendent application for love.
The Human Paradox
In his most famous works, The Birth and Death of Meaning, Escape from Evil, and The Denial of Death, cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker argued that humans are in quite the dilemma. We have the cognitive ability and means to contemplate the cosmos, create life, or think inwardly. We own the powerful capacity to modify our thoughts and behaviors to function and thrive in our relationships. Ironically, we are also the only creatures who are uniquely aware of our death and possess little to no control of that event despite our best efforts to prolong it. It doesn’t matter how many new tires Charlie Swan puts on his daughter's ugly truck or what new curfews he imposes on her. When he says, “Drive safely” what he is really saying is “I couldn’t handle it if something happened to you.” We all participate in this mortality check. Pay now or pay later, but we are all going to pay.
This can be a terrifying dilemma when standing outside of school immersed in life—visiting with your friends about prom and science lab then suddenly staring, wide-eyed, as an erratic vehicle screeches around the corner about to sandwich you between two cars! For most of us, we don’t have the benefit of a lightning-fast vampire who pulls a Superman routine to save us from an uncomfortable unknown.
Interestingly, other creatures are spared this contradiction. That cricket we step on or spider we crush doesn't contemplate its eventual extinction. They don't know death is happening. While the spider instinctively comes from behind our house gutter in the evening to spin its web, it doesn't consider that young, gawking blonde child with a popsicle yelling, "Mommy, mommy, look at that huge spider!" (followed, then, by a huge broom and the crushing weight of a shoe). With death, then, at the core of human anticipation, we can be haunted by it—even on our best days!
Ties That Bind
“I don’t want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen. I want to live on in my apartment.” –Woody Allen
According to Becker, our cultural belief systems (what we socially hold to be true, comfortable, and conforming), are collective realities shared by individuals in that group. It helps to get rid of the overwhelming anxiety associated by death awareness. Such awareness leads to borrowed pain and suffering from the potential of leaving behind people we love and the relationships that created a place for us in that domain.
In addition to her own attempts and experiences with death, many characters in the Twilight series help to make mortality salient for Bella. From the cat-like and provocative stalking by Victoria and Laurent of James’ Coven, Alice Cullen’s mind-reading, Jacob and Edward’s bodyguard feats, to Charlie Swan’s constant tire rotations, the prospect of death is recognizable and she finds herself at the mercy of their savagery or protection. For the protectors, an obsessive control of daily life through strict boundaries creates a safe barrier to the other side.
Is there really a safe haven? Even for vampires, immortality does not exist. They, too, are subject to both an awareness of death and a physical one which creates angst and personal reflection, modifying their behaviors in the process. Other vampire families, newborns, the Quileute Tribe, or Volturi provide a continuous saliency for them, too, through a long history of food chains and survival of the fittest. It’s checks and balances at its best and no one is free from the chains of finality. It is up to us to either face death and accept it as a way to extend ourselves to another (transcendence) or to deny it, creating symbolic gestures that reduce our anxiety so that we may function normally in our day-to-day activities. Which has the highest value in terms of our intentional “freedom”?
To conceptualize this theory, if we can’t win our battles in the physical then we will in the symbolic. In Sigmund Freud: The Exploration into the Mind of Men, psychoanalyst Gregory Zilboorg explained that we move about never believing in our own death, but rather in our corporeal immortality. As such, we create an orderly universe through a vicarious immortality system. Our purpose and meaning are now psychologically in line with others in the same system. We increase social solidarity making us eligible for security through culturally derived ideologies and institutions that allow us to live well in the present or to live an eternity.
As we deny a physical death, we transcend it through self-perpetuation: having babies, writing that last book, composing a piece of music, taking a photograph, winning an award, or encasing that trophy. It’s not surprising that a great number of people have family heirlooms adorning their home walls, a specific book on their shelf, or a picture with a guy wearing blaze orange and holding up the carcass of a 10-point buck. “Boy, Uncle Joe sure was a great hunter.”
In the case of the Cullens, vegetarianism—not human blood—is their source of sustenance. Edward remarks that abstinence creates civility and forms bonds based on love rather than survival or convenience. Although Edward and Carlisle Cullen share a belief of being soulless monsters, Carlisle hopes to find merit and credit in living a lifestyle where he has helped to save people. He is a model whereby his family can share similar values and attributes. It sets them apart from other vampire families who are more aggressive yet are still possessive and loving of their own clan. The Cullens prescribe to an ethical and moral ethos in contrast to newborn vampires who, as evidenced in Eclipse, are divided and sloppy, bathing in a prominence of greed and selfishness without appropriate guides, mentors, and role models.
Similarly, the Quileute Tribe exists in strange and obscure ways that are equally unifying. For a long time, Jacob is on the outside looking in—intimidated by Sam and the others—until he meets a similar destiny, finding his identity in the process. They observe tactics and respect an ancient heritage that sustains them as a species—not unlike piranhas, that flick their tales among each other, but sink their fangs into anything and everything else.
Bella’s human world, the Cullen appetite (or lack thereof), and Jacob’s "wolf pack,” all share in the same defensive psychological function: equanimity in the face of extinction. Otherwise, the guy rocking out in front of you wearing an Iron Maiden t-shirt at a Metallica concert stands to have his rear kicked—lighter or no lighter! A symbolic gesture to mortality does not create a solution for death, but simply reduces the anxiety and fear associated with it rearing its head from time to time and simply shifts our awareness of it to a higher level of cultural interaction.
Risks and Sacrifice
“I wanted to be stupid and reckless, and I wanted to break promises. Why stop at one?" –Bella, New Moon
In Motivation and Personality, Abraham Maslow’s examinations of psychologically healthy people showed that they are positively attracted to the mysterious, the puzzling, and the unexplained. On the other hand, it suggests that the psychologically sick person is threatened by the unfamiliar—using preconceived notions (often false) for self-protection. This dichotomy is evident as Bella learns about the secrets of Edward and Jacob, always running toward them and never away. While we understand Bella, especially in Twilight, as the quintessential teenager, we typically expect her to have similar experiences in that whole, knee-jerk response to life consumed by care-free and inexperienced relationships. A certain naiveté surrounds an adolescent as they crawl out of the water and try to breathe with their gills.
With Bella, however, there is something more. She comes to the series with a certain posturing and maturity that takes us beyond the adolescent mantra of “No fear.” While her peers are interested in popularity over character, we see Bella live, even dangerously, in order to have some semblance of meaning and affirmation in what she loves by becoming immersed in those relationships. Edward provides a nurturing counterpoint because he’s not the typical adolescent either. A 17-year-old from 1918 would most likely possess mature traits by today’s comparison and, coupled with 90 years of relationship-building and world experience, he offers a certainty where a return-on-investment is more probable than would be with such peers as Mike Newton or Eric Yorkie. Despite her self-deprecation throughout the series (another trait of many adolescent girls), she is truly a healthy person always seeking the truth, even if it’s painful.
That truth is apparent in a series of near-death experiences illustrated through both risk-taking and self-sacrificing behaviors. Contemplating her death in such a fashion suggests an increase in affection that affirms Bella’s love for the people in her life. A 2003 study by Mikulincer, Florian, and Hirschberger revealed an association between close relationship seeking and mortality salience. In fact, they found that desire (which is a foundation for love) can trump many other emotions that often lead us down the wrong road.
In 2000, Pyszczynski, Greenberg, and Solomon examined approximately 300 published experiments by independent researchers around the world which reinforced this theory, as an awareness and recognition of death affects a wide range of human behavior, including romantic relationships, sexuality, prejudice, aggression, and engaging in risky behaviors in pursuit of symbolic immortality. The psycho-social implication in the book and films is to understand Bella’s motivational underpinnings by recognizing the influence of mortality salience as a death management function. The following are such examples:
1. Confronting Edward in the forest after mind-numbing hours of research into monster mythology. He asks if she’s afraid and she replies with an emphatic “no”;
2. A selfless plight to save her mother leading to an attack by James;
3. Building a motorcycle and riding it dangerously and without caution;
4. Taking an erratic motorcycle ride with a complete stranger;
5. Cliff diving and almost drowning;
6. Venturing into the meadow to “find” Edward and meeting Laurent;
7. Offering herself to the Volturi in place of Edward;
8. Willfully dying to save her child;
9. "Becoming" a vampire.
These unfolding events illustrate new truths for Bella—a desire to know, learn, be, and love more—even in the face of death and because she faces death. She is always weaving in and out of convoluted cultural structures, yet her awareness and confrontation with her own mortality unwinds those paths and creates harmony and balance. She lives on, both physically and symbolically in the lives of the people she has touched.
A Landscape to Die For
“I’ve never given much thought to how I would die, but dying in the place of someone I love seems like a good way to go.” –Bella, Twilight
Bella Swan is not afraid to die. In the dizzying struggle between staying and going, she’s only afraid of being without Edward. Facing death helps her to see that most clearly. Despite the strong statures given to Jacob and Edward throughout the series, Bella is the true hero and strong woman who constantly puts her life down for another. Even more than dying, it’s the risk of dying that places her into that heroic context. Heroes purposely expose themselves to mortal danger in pursuit of immortality—both physical and symbolic. Even if selfish, a life of eternity (or the return of life to another) is a token of immortality in and of itself. In this saga, true reality is the final communion of Edward and Bella—a metaphysical truth that is realized at various moments in the series.
A meaningful life through death awareness is examined in Leo Tolstoy’s book, My Confession. In facing his death, his anxiety was more about living without significance and less about the actual act of death. “Is there any meaning in my life that the inevitable death awaiting me does not destroy?” Our personal meaning embodies the transcendence of death and our culture perpetuates its members through symbolic systems. That’s how we manage our awareness of death and how Bella enjoys transcendence throughout critical points in her short and eternal lives.
Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung once said that our psyche is instinctively aware of death and accepts that fact, whereas our rational mind only sees anxiety, fear, and a grim ending. Similarly, German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer explained that life is a constant process of dying. We have a fundamental alienation of where our body and soul want to go that keeps us from embracing death by clinging to life. In this respect, death is a welcome relief to life. In holding on, our individual is split from our transcendental and we are cut off from our essential being.
Bella teaches us that a superficial life (and the boxes society cuts out for us) simply makes us suffer more. Letting go of things and people not only allows us to aptly recognize the futility of our human condition, but we come to learn the value of our absolute existence.
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Becker, E. (1973). The denial of death. New York: Free Press.
Becker, E. (1962). The birth and death of meaning. New York: Free Press.
Goldenberg, Pyszczynski, T., Greenberg, J. & Sheldon Solomon. (2000). “Fleeing the Body: A Terror Management Perspective on the Problem of Human Corporeality.” Personality & Social Psychology Review, Vol. 4, Issue 3, p200-218.
Heidegger, M. (2008 Harper Edition Reprint). Being and time.
Jung, C. (2006 ed.) The Undiscovered Self: The Problem of the Individual in Modern Society (Reissue Edition): Berkley.
Mikulincer, F. & Hirschberger (2003). "The existential functions of close relationships. Introducing death into the science of love." Personality and Social Psychology Review, 7, 20-40.
Schopenhauer, A. (1966). The world as will and representation (2nd ed.). Dover Publications.
Tolstoy, L. (1961). My Confession. London: Oxford University Press.
Zilboorg, G. (1951). Sigmund Freud: His exploration of the mind of men. French Press