When my daughter was 13, she received a copy of Twilight, the first in a series of vampire novels by Stephenie Meyer, and was utterly enthralled by it. Since then she’s gone on to devour the rest of the series. A quick look at the bestseller lists over the past few years reveals a veritable vampire craze in teen fiction. The Twilight series of four novels are the bestselling of the lot, with millions of copies sold, and the film version of Twilight, the first book, was a box- office sensation.
Why do stories with dark themes and characters so captivate the teenage imagination? Should we be worried about kids reading them? As one reader on a Todaysparent.com forum discussion put it, “Vampires make me nervous!”
I can relate. For me, the iconic vampire is Dracula, the bloodthirsty monster created by 19th-century novelist Bram Stoker. It’s a tale rife with themes of repressed sexuality and evil — all that business about vampires sneaking into the bedrooms of young women at night and stakes through the heart was pretty creepy when I read it as a teen.
But when I asked my daughter what the attraction was, she said, “It’s not about evil or the dark side, Mom. It’s about romance.” What about the vampire? I say. “Edward? He’s so wonderful, Mom.”
She’s right, says Veronica Hollinger, a cultural studies professor at Trent University in Peterborough, Ont. The monster has been rehabilitated over the past 30 years or so, beginning with Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire. Meyer’s creature, Edward Cullen, is a vampire, but he’s tortured by his predatory nature. He’s not only the most gorgeous guy in her school — so beautiful that he sparkles like diamonds in sunlight — but quite gentlemanly; there’s no biting before marriage in this relationship. “Edward and his family — who call themselves vegetarians because they feed on animals, not humans — would rather starve than kill humans,” says Hollinger. “They’re ethical vampires who seek another way to live.” Edward is more akin to Angel, the reformed vampire who appeared in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series, than to Count Dracula.
For her part, Bella, the ordinary, very human high school girl who falls for Edward, is socially insecure, and torn between the bad-boy werewolf who also courts her affection, and the nobler but also dangerous Edward.
Fantasy allows kids to explore the issues that challenge them as they move from childhood into adulthood, says Vancouver parenting writer and Today’s Parent columnist Kathy Lynn. In the netherworlds where demons, sorcerers, zombies and vampires exist, the stakes are higher whether the conflict is the battle between good and evil or whether to kiss the boy. And while adult readers may find the pace of Edward and Bella’s courtship to be excruciatingly slow — every gesture or sidelong glance is painstakingly documented — “why go so fast?” said Meyer in a recent Time interview. “Slow it down and experience everything.”
This is classic escapist fiction, says Hollinger, the ultimate romantic fantasy. “There’s nothing wrong with that. Bella is perfectly sensible and coherent,” she adds.
Still nervous? Lynn has some advice: “Don’t overreact. This is part of trying on new ways of thinking and being,” she says. “Every generation has something that helps them say, This is who I am, separate from my parents.”
Talk to your kids about what they’re reading and watching, why it interests them, recommends Lynn. “If you’ve got a healthy kid who’s willing to talk about it, there’s probably nothing to worry about.”
And consider this from Anne Rice, whose novel Interview with the Vampire was published 30 years ago: “People are very drawn to dark stories, but dark stories can be very moral, and they can be very transformative and very uplifting.”
Parents need to be clear about their own limits when it comes to themes and images in popular culture that they find offensive. While Lynn doesn’t think it’s necessary for parents to fully vet everything their kids read, watch or listen to, it’s worth doing a bit of research to decide whether the material crosses your line. “My kids played video games, but anything with violence toward women was not allowed in our house,” says Lynn.