It’s been nearly a decade since the vampire saga Twilight began to sink its teeth into popular culture, infecting legions of fans with an obsessive, addictive fever for the series. In spite of the fact that the final book was published in 2008 – and the corresponding film, in 2012 – Twilightstills feels very much a part of the cultural moment. This is in part due to the multitude of paranormal, supernatural, and downright vampirical films, TV shows, and novels that the Twilight sensation undoubtedly spawned. Much of Twilight’s allure lies in its combination of subtle suggestion with far-out imagination; its appeal can, in part, be attributed to the fantasy-driven and fantasy-provoking nature of its content. The power of the Twilight saga, and the source of its enduring momentum as a franchise, lies in the element of fantasy that is intrinsic in both the series itself and the story of its meteoric success.
And that momentum continues even now – two years after the release of the final film. Recently, Facebook announced that it was partnering with Stephenie Meyer, Lionsgate, and Women In Film to sponsor “The Storytellers — New Creative Voices of The Twilight Saga,” a project allowing female Twilight fans to submit short films set in the Twilight Universe to be judged by a panel of women in film. The prize of the “multiphase contest” includes and mentorship by high-profile females in the industry – including actress Octavia Spencer and Frozen director Jennifer Lee. It will eventually result in the selection of several short films directed by women. In light of the many anti-feminist allegations the franchise, and Meyer herself, have faced, the contest is clearly in part an attempt to recast the brand, appropriating it for the recent, omnipresent frenzy of feminist discussion. The contest represents an obvious ploy to capitalize on the continued popularity of the franchise before time renders it outdated. More importantly, though, its appeal relies entirely upon the fantasizing tendencies of Twilight fans, and the contest itself shows that the fantasies of fans have become just as important in the franchise, as they now represent the series’ continuation.
In spite of what publishers and filmmakers would have liked potential readers to believe about the novels – namely, that they were a genre-defying blend of romance, horror, and action – the book is, by default of its content, a fantasy. This is not just in terms of the mythical creatures – including vampires and werewolves – that populate the series (and comprise its competing love interests.) The story is fundamentally a romantic fantasy, too, one in which an average girl’s life is made adventurous by the introduction of a first – and, preternaturally destined – love. But the fantasy element extends beyond the books’ content. Rather, much of it lies in what the story doesn’t include – leaving much to the reader’s imagination. One element that distinguishes Twilight from other Young Adult Novels – and essentially every adult romance novel – is that its central couple abstains from sex until marriage. Many have speculated that this is a function of author Stephenie Meyer’s Mormon beliefs, and some have even gone so far as to label the book “abstinence porn” used to deter its young audience from doing the deed.
But this lack of consummation is entirely crucial to the series’ appeal; it allows it to continuously heighten the sexual tension between the main characters, until the very end. The first book provides the perfect example of this buildup. Edward and Bella don’t even kiss until more than halfway through the book, and the narrative spends more time describing “that ideal moment of anticipation, sometimes better than the kiss itself.” They don’t do much other than kiss, but the suggestive appeal is undeniably sexy: “Blood boiled under my skin, burned in my lips. My breath came in a wild gasp. My fingers knotted in his hair, clutching him to me. My lips parted as I breathed in his heady scent.” The effect is even more powerful than a typical Will-They-Or -Won’t-They ploy. No, the incessant repetition of the two characters’ undying love for each other renders it more of an Imagine-How-Great-It-Will-Be-When-They-Finally-Do. It invites – practically begs – the reader to fantasize.
It may seem a rather unreasonable claim that a large part of the series’ allure lies in its tacit encouragement of sexual fantasy in a primarily teenage audience. But Twilight doesn’t cater to the fangirls alone: many fan-women – and, even some fan-men – have become a part of the readership. And all sorts of “Twihards” have contributed to fanfiction, which is part of what has given the phenomenon its considerable momentum. Dozens of sites allow and encourage readers to fantasize concretely, committing their own versions of their beloved characters’ stories to the open internet, extending the story and its universe beyond the books and films. The best proof of the fantasy that the stories’ subtle sexual suggestion provokes is actually its most commercially successful piece of fanfiction: E.L. James’ 50 Shades trilogy, which broke bestseller records, and originated as internet-based erotic Twilight fanfiction. Ironically, 50 Shades relies on highly explicit S&M sex scenes – rather than subtle, somewhat innocent, sexual suggestion. But its success – which includes a highly-anticipated film adaptation – is a testament to Twilight’s fantasy-inducing properties.
But the element of fantasy extends far beyond the Twilight novels’ content and the imaginations of its readers. The series’ meteoric rise from lowly Young Adult novel to pop culture phenomenon was every author, publisher, and film exec’s fantasy – a legend in its own right. To date, the entire franchise – including books, films, dvd sales and rentals – has grossed over $5 billion worldwide. Use of social media to promote the book, and eventually the films, was perhaps one of the biggest contributors to the franchise’s fantasy-fueled popularity: the success generated hype, and the teenage-fueled hype, in turn, generated even more success. The films, specifically, were a commercial dream come true for under-the-radar studio Summit Entertainment, and eventually led to their $412.5 million acquisition by Lionsgate. Additionally, Twilight’s $69.9 million opening weekend made the little-known Catherine Hardwicke the most commercially successful female film director in this category. And, of course, there was Meyer’s own wish-fulfillment story of being a Mom and first-time author, whose idea for the saga supposedly originated from an actual dream. The story of the phenomenon is just as linked to the concept of fantasy as the stories themselves – and this has only helped to perpetuate the series’ popularity.
The sponsors of the new “Storytellers” short film initiative, then, are savvy to be capitalizing on the fantasy element of Twilight’s fandom – after all, as E.L. James proved, one person’s fanfiction can become the world’s newest literary obsession. The emergence of the “Storytellers” contest years after the creation of the saga not only demonstrates the franchise’s potential staying power. It also belies the secret to the Twilight sensation. The series is based on fantasy, and its success represented the fulfillment of some larger-than-life ones, for publishers, authors, filmmakers and readers alike. Fantasy is fueled by imagination, of which Twilight fans surely have no shortage. The fantasy of the saga, then, will continue to be perpetuated; there’s no limit to fantasy, and since the franchise relies on fantasy, there’s no limit to the franchise’s success.