Few stories have captured the collective imagination quite like Twilight, Stephenie Meyer's series of vampire-themed novels, spun into movies, that conjure the passion of young love.
By its nature, young love generates its own brand of intense drama--otherwise we wouldn't have Romeo & Juliet. And there's long been fascination with alternate worlds--think Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek, or the alien movie of the moment. But something in the mix has proven particularly powerful for the legions of fans, especially females, who cling to these stories as some source of lifeblood. That the Twilight fandom extends far beyond the "teen idol" variety to transfix so many women of all ages prompted one psychologist to explore the story's draw.
In her 2012 documentary, Into the Twilight Haze, Manhattan-based psychologist Niloo Dardashti investigates why Twilight has such a hold on women. The answer, perhaps unsurprisingly, is the love story. And specifically, the hero, Edward, and his all-consuming, other-worldly connection with Bella.
"He's kind of like this ultimate example of someone who would be just totally validating to their partner," Dardashti says. Edward's allure also stems, in part, from his sensitive side, she explains. Like Christian Grey, the character in 50 Shades of Grey--which has also captivated droves of women and developed from Twilight fan fiction--Edward boasts the rare balance of masculine and feminine energy, she says. And for many women, that ideal has triggered a deep longing for what's lacking in their own romantic lives.
[See How to Make Love Last.]
"Everybody loves that feeling of being in an intense relationship, and nobody wants to have an ordinary life or to have an ordinary love," Michal Towber says in Dardashti's film. "You want to feel something extraordinary," says Towber, a musician who helped compose the film's score, adding that people may find that at the start of a new relationship, which "maybe fades over time, and it becomes more comfortable."
In fact, that's precisely what happens in the course of a normal, healthy relationship, say couples' counselors, who teach that couples have to work at keeping romance alive.
Twilight, of course, is fiction.
Stephen Snyder, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, underscores that point in discussing Edward's role in the documentary. "He never takes his eyes off her. He doesn't sleep. He watches her sleep. Nothing she ever does is boring to him. He never gets restless. He never says, 'Bella, why do you have to talk about that again?' He never wants to turn on the Jets," Snyder says, bemused. "It's all Bella, all the time."
That's because of the idealized characters portrayed in movies, says Stuart Fischoff, senior editor of the Journal of Media Psychology. Female directors "have guys speaking like women," he says.
To the extent that's a problem has to do with whether it breeds dysfunction, and the depth of the gap between one's idealized life and actual one, Fischoff says. "Part of who we are is who we hang with and what we consume ... If you keep feeding into your mind these kinds of self-assassinating pieces of information, then you're going to stay hidden. You're going to stay living in a half-life."
This phenomenon goes beyond Twilight, of course. Research has found, for example, that the arrival of TV to underdeveloped countries has created a sense of lacking among people, who didn't necessarily know what they were missing until they saw the lives portrayed on screen, explains Lonnie Barbach, a San-Francisco-based psychologist who co-authored, with her husband, Going the Distance: Finding and Keeping Lifelong Love.
"The more centered you are and clear about who you are and happy in your own life, the less these other things are going to affect you," Barbach says. "The poorer your sense of self is, the more you're going to try to make up for it with external stuff."
While it's important to recognize adulation that's gone too far, fantasy can serve a purpose.
"What you can take from the film is the idea that everybody longs to find deep emotional connection with another person that they're in relationship with," says Dardashti, who notes that this desire is universal among her male and female clients, even though only women came forward for her documentary.
A strong emotional response to a movie such as Twilight can help someone realize what may be missing and what may be possible in life. That can only be achieved, however, by exploring those issues, not by escaping to find that rush in fiction.
As Fischoff puts it, some people would "rather live in the reel world than the real world." But "real adults deal with reality. That's a maturity that's hard to learn, very often."
Experts advise talking with others about such feelings--whether one turns to a partner, friend, therapist, online community, or self-help book. Barbach says that Oprah offers some great tools, for example.
But they agree that a key prescription for someone who feels stuck is to do something new.
"People feel stagnated when they're in these entrenched roles," Dardashti says. She suggests that people stop to notice their partner's interests and ask questions about those things. Try to freshen the relationship with new activities and surprises to find the balance that she says so many women seek--a stable, yet challenging relationship in which they feel accepted and heard.