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The Psychology of Twilight

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Smart Pop Classics’ Summer of YA Romance: The Emotional Pleasures of Reading Twilight

In the Smart Pop Classics’ Summer of YA Romance series, we share greatest hits from our throwback YA essay collections. This week, Peter Stromberg breaks down how how reading about intense emotions can help us feel those emotions, and the positive impact this has on the human psyche, in his essay “The Emotional Pleasures of Reading Twilight” from The Psychology of Twilight

The Twilight Saga is, simplified, a tale of the romance and adventures of a young woman and an immortal vampire she meets at school. Readers of the novels do not reject this premise out of hand—”regular old teenage girl falls for ancient vampire”—because by now we are so used to the strange rules of romantic tales that this seems completely plausible. Indeed, a stock convention of the contemporary romance novel is the dark, mysterious, and potentially dangerous male (and in fact vampires and romance have gone together like burgers and fries since the nineteenth century (1). The potentially dangerous, inappropriate male character provides one of the essential ingredients of the formula: romantic stories require a seemingly insuperable barrier to the couple’s desire for union. The actual romance is generated by the description of the couple’s burning desire for one another, not tales of their enjoy- able companionship walking the dog and picking out wallpaper. A questionable male is a good way to keep the couple apart so they can long for one another.

And longing is what they do. According to a Time magazine article on the series, “[Stephenie] Meyer put sex back underground, transmuted it back into yearning, where it became, paradoxically, exponentially more powerful. (2) “But why is longing so romantic? More broadly, what is the character of emotions in the romance, and to what extent can we say that emotions are the basis for the enjoyment of this extraordinarily popular genre? Once we begin to look at emotions in the romance, all sorts of intriguing questions start popping up. For example, why is an unrealized erotic attraction endlessly fascinating, the topic of books and stories and plays and films without number, while once realized erotic attraction holds little interest for fiction readers? Why aren’t romances about the affection that a happily married couple feel for one another? 

We can begin with the emotions that are described in the story itself, the feelings of the central characters. Perhaps the most important characteristic of the emotions that draw the couple to one another is that they are overwhelming. Early on in the series, Bella (regular old teenage girl) has come to strongly suspect that handsome Edward is a vampire: “Now that I knew—if I knew—I could do nothing about my frightening secret. Because when I thought of him, of his voice, his hypnotic eyes, the magnetic force of his personality, I wanted nothing more than to be with him right now” (Twilight). She can do nothing about her attraction. He is hypnotic—that is, he over-rides her will—and magnetic; she is pulled inexorably toward him. Her attraction to Edward is unsubtly depicted as being so strong that she is helpless to resist.

Nor is Edward in any better position. Discussing his craving for Bella, he enthusiastically endorses her suggestion that she is his “brand of heroin” (Twilight). He is overcome, addicted to her. This is initially presented as a matter of vampire appetite. Quite literally, the primary component of Edward’s attraction to Bella in these passages is his almost uncontrollable lust for her blood. In fact, neither member of the couple is presented as having any real interest in one another’s character, sense of humor, political views or moral convictions, etc. (though later, in New Moon, Bella speaks of her admiration for Edward’s moral goodness, and in Midnight Sun, we see Edward’s fascination with Bella’s thoughtfulness and maturity). Again and again in the first volume of the saga, we hear about Edward’s unfathomable male beauty and Bella’s delicious-smelling blood. 

As the tale unfolds, Bella and Edward’s love is not the only example of uncontrollable impulse. The plot is continually driven by the potent emotional forces that impel the central characters toward actions they are powerless to resist. Early on, werewolves enter the plot. Werewolves, too, are unable to control their emotions, so much so that they may maul anyone in their reach when they feel cranky. Werewolves can also be utterly overwhelmed by their feelings of attraction to a potential mate, what is referred to in the book as imprinting. Once they imprint, there’s no going back, even if the object of their attention is an infant. To take one more example of how werewolves can be subject to forces beyond their will, there’s the fact that they are compelled to obey the leader of the pack— no matter how much they disagree with his orders. 

Returning to vampires, their lust for blood is so strong that, at least until they have undergone years of nice vampire training, they cannot stop from attacking their human victims. More generally, young vampires are slaves to whatever impulse or emotion they feel, such as lust. Bella turns out to be something of an exception to this rule, but even she lacks complete ability to control her reactions to her feelings. Here is Bella as a newly-minted vampire, reacting to a kiss from Edward: “my wild vampiric reactions took me off guard yet again. Edward’s lips were like a shot of some addictive chemical straight into my nervous system. I was instantly craving more” (Breaking Dawn). (3) 

Being overwhelmed by desires and forces beyond one’s control is everywhere a reader turns in this series, and all the different versions of this theme are but echoes of the primary assertion that one’s attraction to that which one desires is inexorable. And the central instance of this is the romantic bond between Bella and Edward, “something so strong that it could not exist in a rational world” (Eclipse). This emphasis on the magical potency of romance is, in fact, the reason my own fairly reflective teenage daughter detests these books. To her, blind attraction between a couple is no basis for a serious relationship; rather, the couple should like one another, enjoy one another’s company, and so on. Physical attraction may play a role, but it should not be basic. Thus my daughter understands the Twilight Saga to promote an ideal of romance that she thinks is false, immature, and sexist. She may be right about this, but (as I have said to her) she is also missing the point: romance is about uncontrollable desire, not about forging long-term relationships based on compatibility. 

It is worth remembering that in the first of the romantic leg- ends to appear in the West in the twelfth century, Tristan and Iseult, the attraction between the couple is generated by a love potion. Their love is born in forces beyond their control and is not the result of any reasoned mutual attraction. Thus the prototypical romantic love, from the very beginning, has been the same sort of thing that Bella and Edward feel, an inexorable mutual desire with its origins beyond the will. And indeed, this quality is an essential part of the romantic package; it is what is so . . . romantic. Were the couple’s love based in reason, it could be reversed. To say that someone has made a decision about something is to say that they could make a different decision. But the power of romance is based in the notion that romantic attraction has a power beyond the will. Other forms of attraction seem puny in comparison with the passion of romance. 

Put together what we have said so far, and one comes up with this: romance is a genre in which overwhelming, uncontrollable desire meets an obstacle that prevents its realization. (4) Thereby a powerful yearning is created, and this yearning constitutes the emotional backbone of the tale. Finally, in the contemporary popular romance, at least, a resolution occurs in which the painful longing gives way to joy as the couple unites (5) (and presumably lives happily ever after). 

This leaves us with three intriguing psychological and socio- logical questions about the Twilight Saga, and indeed about the genre of romance novels more generally. First, why is a form of emotional tension—the longing that is generated by the barriers to the couple’s happiness—so central to the romance? Second, why is desire represented as an overwhelming force that the person is powerless to resist? And third, what about the emotions of the reader: What is the relationship of her emotions to those of the characters? Are they the same, or at least similar? If so, why should the reader so cherish these potentially negative emotional experiences—unfulfilled desire and the sense of being overwhelmed—as being so appealing, and even, in fact, irresistible? 

How Reading Can Generate Emotion 

Let’s begin by thinking about the reader’s emotions. There are long-standing debates in psychology and literary studies about the nature of the emotions that readers experience when they engage their minds in a fiction. One of the central questions in such debates is whether the emotions one feels as one enjoys a story are the same sorts of emotions one might feel in a real situation. Is the fear I feel as the hero prepares to face his powerful enemy the same emotion as I might feel if I perceive that a tree is about to fall on my head? For my money, this debate has always had some problems, in the first place because I am not sure how one can establish that two emotions are the same under any circumstances. Is my fear about the tree the same emotion as my fear that I might get fired from my job? Is my love for Mary the same as my love for Sue? Upon close consideration, questions about whether certain emotions are the same as other emotions do not seem answerable. 

Recent advances in cognitive neuroscience may allow us to side-step this difficulty. The fundamental skills engaged when reading fictions are very similar to those used in pretend play. Pretend play, an ability that is firmly established in humans by the age of two years, (6) is an extension of the human capacity to adopt the perspective of others (7) and see the world from that perspective. In this sense pretend play is a form of imitation. (8) Whether we are interacting with fictional characters or real people in everyday life, it is easy—in fact it is automatic— for us to see the world from perspectives other than our own. And, for most people, this capacity is emotional as well as cognitive. In sum, engaged readers put themselves in the place of the characters because they are used to adopting the perspective of others in their everyday interactions in the social world. And as they put themselves in the place of the characters, they are likely not only to see but to feel the world from the characters’ point of view. So it is not only the fictional Edward and Bella who feel overwhelmed by a painful desire, it is also a substantial proportion of their audience, an audience which by now may be in the hundreds of millions. 

Again, this is not to say that readers experience precisely the same feelings as the characters do, or that one has the same feelings reading about a romance as one would experience in having one. For example, no matter how strongly the reader is drawn into the story, barring insanity she still realizes she is not a character in the book. This entails an element of distance from the powerful emotions of those characters. As all roller-coaster riders know, even highly aversive emotions such as strong anxiety can be enjoyed so long as they are held at a distance by the fact that they are not “real” and do not apply to one’s actual situation. Thus, Edward and Bella’s painful longing for one another can become the reader’s deliciously painful longing. 

In sum, the romance is fun because it offers the reader the chance to experience stimulating feelings. But this is not the only thing that happens in the reader’s mind while reading. For these feelings also come to be associated with certain ideas, and these ideas thereby become values. In every society, aspects of the culture—stories, proverbs, myths, religious teachings— are used to weave together values and powerful feelings about what life is all about. And people, in coming into contact with this material, have their passions aroused by certain ideas and experiences—the noble warrior, the religious prophet, the star-crossed lovers. 

This suggests some answers to my first two questions about why people find it appealing to experience—either directly or vicariously—overwhelming emotions and emotional tension. Since it is more or less universal in human societies that stories and myths generate powerful feelings, one way to try and understand why this is so is to look to facts about all human beings or all social groups. Furthermore, when we notice that in one particular society, our own, these powerful feelings often have to do with romantic love, we are led to ask questions about what it is about our society that makes just these emotions so important. Specifically, when hundreds of mil- lions of people in our society engage in a set of practices— reading romances—that tend to generate a somewhat peculiar complex of ideas and feelings, we need to explore what this complex is and why it is so popular. What is it about our society that makes a painful yearning for overwhelming passion so appealing that millions read, and re-read, the Twilight Saga? 

The Romantic Emotions 

Take the first question first: what is it about human beings in general that could explain our attraction to experiencing over- whelming emotions? It is no great insight that people can enjoy feeling overwhelmed; in part this is probably why some consume alcohol to excess, for example. But why? 

The most careful answer to that question would be that one can only guess based on preliminary research. (9) Neuroscientists have begun to make some progress in understanding this matter by studying what happens in the brain during experiences that are typically regarded as pleasurable: sex, eating palatable foods, and social interaction, to name a few. They have discovered that there are a number of different systems in the brain that contribute to the hard-to-define sense that something is pleasurable. Among the widely reported findings of this research is that pleasure is sometimes associated with the release of natural, internally produced chemicals known as endorphins. The endorphins are also known as opioids because of their similarity to plant-based analgesic (pain-relieving) chemicals such as opium and its derivatives (e.g., morphine and heroin). 

It is also well-established that the opioid circuitry in the brain (the production of endorphins and the neural receptors that respond to these chemicals) evolved at least in part as a natural system of analgesia. Endorphins are released, among other times, when the organism is threatened or injured. (They can also be released in response to certain biologically desirable experiences such as sex or valuable nutrition). Thus it is not unreasonable to speculate that emotional stress—the experience of strong emotion—could also activate this system. This speculation would make sense of the fact that human beings have developed innumerable techniques that seem to produce a sense of euphoria by cultivating powerful emotions.

But it would be an error to assume that this settles the matter, that reading the Twilight Saga is just a legal means for readers to experience an endorphin-generated emotional high, because these techniques for cultivating powerful emotions are usually if not always linked to specific practices and ideas that have psychological and sociological significance. At the beginning of the twentieth century the great French sociologist Emile Durkheim, having observed that many of the world’s great religious rituals and other religious practices produce overwhelming emotions, argued that these emotions were the key to understanding the social importance of religion. (10) For thousands of years, men and women have pursued religious practices such as collective ritual, chanting, meditation, and repetition of bodily movements, practices that can produce overwhelming emotions. They have not done so simply to amuse themselves. When people feel overwhelmed by their feelings, they no longer recognize themselves or their world and they feel as if they have entered another realm of existence, and thus such experiences can be interpreted as a form of con- tact with the divine. It is this conviction, based in bodily experience, that Durkheim claimed to be the basis of the human idea that there is a sacred realm, a domain of perfection beyond the world of the everyday. 

Often this domain of perfection is associated with a deity, but Durkheim argued that more fundamentally the sacred is linked to a society’s most fundamental values. Inevitably, overwhelming emotions are experienced in some sort of context, and elements of that context are typically understood as causing the overwhelming emotions. For example, in America’s Pentecostal churches, sometimes people experience an overwhelming emotion that leads them to speak in tongues. The context—a church service informed by particular views of how the Holy Spirit manifests itself in the world—defines the cause of this unusual experience as God. As sociologist Randall Collins has pointed out, (11) this sort of thing does not just occur in religious rituals, it happens frequently in everyday life. You could be having a lively conversation with a friend and feel swept away by the encounter, so that an hour passes pleasantly before you know it. You are likely to explain this temporary giddy emotional state as being caused by the person you are talking to— you will tend to feel that you like him or her. When people experience emotions so strong that they make them feel as if something special has occurred, they will find something in the context that they assume to be the source of that specialness.

Now take the case we have been looking at. A reader encounters some appealing characters being overwhelmed by their emotions, and she feels overwhelmed, as well. She asks herself what could be causing these feelings, and she (correctly) concludes that it is something in the story itself, something that drives both the characters and her, the reader. That something is romance. The tale provides overpowering testimony to the power of romance and reaffirms the readers’ conviction that she, too, could experience the bliss of falling under its sway. 

Because being overcome by romance is so desirable, we long for it. And because we long for it, it becomes more desirable. In this context, longing can be understood as a form of age-old technique for the intensification of emotion. Psychologist Nico Fridja has distinguished six basic varieties of pleasure in humans. (12) The second of these is what he calls “pleasures of gain and relief.” These occur with changes in psychic state, and changes can be caused either by the appearance of something that feels good or the disappearance of something that feels bad. 

Humans long ago figured out that one way to provoke strong pleasures is to build up a high level of tension and then release it. But often such experiences can produce feelings of separation and suffering at the times when one is not in the state of rapture. In some traditions, this problem is converted to an advantage: these feelings of suffering are themselves emphasized so that the relief will be ever greater when they finally end in another experience of ecstasy. The same is true in some traditions of story-telling and other narrative art: generating longing and other tension emotions (such as suspense) in a story is a means of intensifying the relief their resolution brings, and thus a means of strengthening overwhelming emotions even further.

But this is not the only result of the pattern of longing and resolution in the romance. Wherever we find this pattern— and we find it throughout human artistic creations—it hear- kens back to something undoubtedly universal in our experience, namely the uncertainty of our existence and our hope that that uncertainty will find a positive resolution. Leonard Meyer expresses this well in his discussion of music, another genre that evokes emotion by creating a lack of harmony and eventually resolves that tension by offering a tonic resolution, a return to the harmony we expect: 

Both in life and in music the emotions . . . arising have essentially the same stimulus situation: the situation of ignorance, the awareness of the individual’s impotence and inability to act where the future course of events is unknown . . . Musical suspense seems to have direct analogies in experience in general; it makes us feel something of the insignificance and powerlessness of man in the face of the inscrutable workings of destiny. (13)

The happy endings of a romance novel or a major chord are satisfying to us because they re-affirm our hope that the emotional tension that is an inevitable part of our self-consciousness is but a prelude to a meaningful and satisfying resolution. As is the case with the overwhelming emotions generated in ritual, a society can channel powerful feelings into forms of reassurance. Ultimately what is at stake here is that forms of art and ritual can be means to render our uncertain and potentially terrifying existence meaningful.

Happily Ever After 

I am now in a position to provide some answers to the ques- tions with which I began. The Twilight Saga tells a story in which all of the main characters are, in a number of different ways, influenced by their emotions and other non-rational forces in ways that they are powerless to resist. Chief among these feelings is romantic love, the desire that the two main characters feel for one another, identified by Bella in the final volume as stronger than any love two people have ever felt: “Now you know. No one’s ever loved anyone as much as I love you” (Breaking Dawn). And precisely because this love is so strong, longing is generated in the reader: the better something feels, the more we want it when we do not have it. And this longing in turn intensifies the sense of relief that is generated when, in spite of all the obstacles, the lovers come together. 

These are the feelings of the characters, but because of the way that the human brain processes narratives, we can also assume that of many of the readers experience very similar feelings. The brain has finely tuned abilities to imitate other social beings. That is, our minds place us in the position of another so that we can both see and feel the world from that other’s perspective. And this is true of fictional “others” as well as real ones. Thus human beings have told stories throughout history, stories that not only thrill and entertain, but that offer a society’s instructions on what to feel and how to make sense of those feelings. After all, while our thoughts may organize our activity, it is our feelings that drive them; it is our feelings that make us want to do what has to get done. 

In this way, stories work similarly to other forms of art and ultimately to religion. All of these human practices are means whereby we organize our thoughts and feelings. For better or worse, we have an intellect that allows us to understand ourselves as mortal beings whose choices influence our fates. (In fact, we don’t seem to have much choice in the matter.) It follows from this that we will think about how to live and what to do. Stories, art, and religion are systems of thought that arise out of this activity. And all of these systems allow us to bring not only our thoughts but our emotions into the process, and to feel what other perspectives are like. If you think about it, that possibility is at least as astonishing as vampires and were- wolves, but in this case it’s a reality. 

The Twilight Saga is an entertaining story, but if it did not speak to some broadly-based hopes, worries, and dreams, it would not sell tens of millions of copies. The underlying psychological and sociological basis of these novels is—at least in part—about generating the complex of feelings and ideas we call romance. That complex is not present in the human mind at birth, but rather it must be learned and maintained; by that I mean that our art and stories and religion must somehow make romance seem a plausible, important, and compelling, even unavoidable, part of life. 

The processes I have discussed in this essay are about learning the idea of romance and making it seem both real and in fact inevitable. The overwhelming feelings that readers feel are probably all the proof they need that romance is a potent force that cannot be resisted. That conviction will turn out to be important in influencing how these readers approach intimate relationships. For in our society, romance is not only a system of feelings and ideas that guides our behavior in relationships; it is much more than that. It is one of our fundamental social values. The idea of the romantic informs our experience of much of the world. We have romantic ideas about families, about careers, cars, houses, and computers. All of these things can become objects of longing, and can either satisfy us or disappoint us once they are acquired. 

We live in a society in which our romantic dreams of fulfillment are important. There is no more sacred premise in contemporary society than that all of us should pursue our dreams. The premise even drives our economy: a consumer capitalist economy requires people to work hard and make sacrifices to achieve the success they dream of, Without such striving our entire way of life would rapidly break down. In reading the story of Bella and Edward, readers learn, re-learn, and celebrate the joys and value of participating in a culture in which we long for our dreams and retain the conviction that we can merge into a reality in which all our wishes come true. 

Notes

  1. See James Twitchell, The Living Dead: A Study of the Vampire in Romantic Literature, 1981.
  2. Lev Grossman and Bryan Alexander, “It’s Twilight in America,” Time, vol. 174, issue 20, 2009. 
  3. It should be noted that one of the acknowledged mysteries in the last volume is the fact that Bella does not react in this uncontrolled way after she becomes a vampire. 
  4. In this romance could be considered a variation on the tragedy, the ancient dramatic form in which a protagonist is doomed by being placed in a situation with conflicting imperatives, in which he will lose either way.
  5. Of course, there is the alternative of the tragic romance, in which only death can resolve the impossible situation of the lovers. 
  6. See Paul Harris, TheWork of the Imagination, 2009
  7. Peter Stromberg, Caught in Play: How Entertainment Works on You, 2009.
  8. See Alvin Goldman, “Imitation, Mind-Reading and Simulation.” In Susan Hurley and Nick Chater, eds., Perspectives on Imitation: From Neuroscience to Social Science, Volume 2: Imitation, Human Development, and Culture, 2005. 
  9. I should say that there are experts in the field whose guesses would likely be more informative than my own. See the articles in Pleasures of the Brain,ed. Morten L. Kringelbach and Kent C. Berridge, 2010. 
  10.  Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, 1912.
  11. Randall Collins, Interaction Ritual Chains, 2004. 
  12. Nico Frijda, “On the Nature and Function of Pleasure.” In Morten L. Kringelbach and Kent C. Berridge, eds., Pleasures of the Brain, 2010. 
  13. Leonard Meyer, Emotion and Meaning in Music, 1956. 

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