NOTE: This is a paper I presented at a conference to a largely non-Mormon audience a few years ago (April 2010 to be precise). Since the final Twilight movie hit theaters this morning at midnight, I thought it might be worthwhile to dust off this paper and present it for your review. Overall, I like the basic idea of the paper, although I think certain ideas and distinctions need to be further developed and drawn.
Vampire stories, argues William Patrick Day, are supposed to â€œviscerally [excite] us with primal, forbidden, terrifying images and scenes of flesh and blood, fangs and stakes, violence and deathâ€ (5). Yet, if this is true, why is Stephenie Meyerâ€™s Twilight Saga so devoid of such â€œterrifying images and scenesâ€? Already, much has been written about the â€œerotics of abstinenceâ€ in the Twilight novels, or their lack of explicit sexâ€”premarital or otherwise (Grossman). Less has been said, however, about how these vampire stories flout the conventions of the vampire genre by avoiding bloody, violent spectacles.
Indeed, one of the earliest reviews of Twilightâ€”a brief write-up in Publishers Weeklyâ€”points out that the â€œnovelâ€™s only weaknessâ€ is a â€œrushed denouementâ€ that mostly â€œtakes place offstageâ€ (207). In the climactic scene, Bella is in danger. James, a bad vampire who has become fixated on her blood, lures her to a dance studio where he plans to slake his thirst. The suspense builds as James, true to his nemesis role, monologues about his skills as a tracker, his desire for Bellaâ€™s blood, and his disdain for the Cullens, Bellaâ€™s good, â€œvegetarianâ€ vampire friends. Using his super vampire strength, James throws Bella against a wall of mirrors, breaks her legs, and cuts a gash along her forehead. The situation looks bad for Bella:
His eyes, merely intent before, now burned with an uncontrollable need. The bloodâ€”spreading crimson across my white shirt, pooling rapidly on the floorâ€”was driving him mad with thirst. (450)
James strikes at her, bites her on the hand, and Bellaâ€”our first-person narratorâ€”passes out.
And thatâ€™s all we get.
What comes next is a hallucinatory chapter that conveys Bellaâ€™s pain as she teeters between life and death. It interweaves Bellaâ€™s surreal ramblings with snatches of dialogue between members of the Cullen family, who have rescued her, it seems, in the nick of time. Oddly, James is no where to be found. It is only later, after Bella is safely propped up in a hospital bed, that Edward Cullen, her vampire boyfriend, informs her, vaguely, that â€œEmmett and Jasperâ€â€”Edwardâ€™s vampire brothersâ€”â€œtook care of himâ€ (461). Bellaâ€”and the reader, of courseâ€”can only imagine what it means to â€œtake careâ€ of a vampire, since neither she nor the reader witness it first hand. To be sure, earlier in the novel, Edward had informed Bella that the only way to kill a vampire is â€œto tear him to shreds, and then burn the piecesâ€ (398). So, thanks to Bellaâ€™s low threshold of pain, this clue is the only insight we get into Jamesâ€™ violent fate.
Why Meyer makes the choice to turn her narrative away from the violent spectacle of Jamesâ€™s death is unclear and atypical of the genre. Elana Gomel, after all, argues that the horror story â€œemphasizes visibility,â€ and its â€œviolent subject is born in [a] tug-of-war between story and spectacleâ€ (2). In her vampire novel, though, Meyer seems more interested in Bellaâ€™s distress and deliverance than in conforming to generic conventions; indeed, in Twilightâ€™s climactic scene, what Edward ultimately delivers Bella from is not Jamesâ€™ teeth, but Jamesâ€™s vampire venom. In a sense, then, after he bites her, James no longer matters to Edward, Meyer, or the narrative: itâ€™s the venom that becomes the enemy to beat, and a new focal point for the readersâ€™ attention.
Still, as Publishers Weekly suggests, the non-spectacle of Jamesâ€™s well-deserved destruction is a definite weakness in the novel. The readersâ€™ thirst for justiceâ€”to witness wrongs made rightâ€”to see the gruesome end of the monster that breaks our heroineâ€™s legâ€”goes largely unsatisfied. Interestingly, in a Newsweek interview shortly before the publication of Breaking Dawn, the final novel in the Twilight Saga, Meyer complained about how â€œ[people] want to know every single detailâ€ about how to end a vampireâ€™s life. â€œYou know,â€ she states, confessing her struggle to write such scenes, â€œI majored in English, not biologyâ€ (â€œSecret Lifeâ€).
Meyer, of course, is no Cormac McCarthy, whose blood-soaked novels are full of surgically precise spectacles of violence. Still, her professed inexperience with biology seems like an inadequate explanation for the lack of descriptions of violence in her novels. So, the question remains: why does Meyer avoid â€œthe spectacle of violence [that is so] central to the aesthetics of horror?â€ (Gomel 7).
One possibility is Stephenie Meyerâ€™s Mormon faith, which has a long, largely unknown literary tradition with its own set of conventions and aesthetics. Indeed, I would like to suggest that the moments in the Twilight Saga that fail to perform the expectations of the vampire or horror genreâ€”those moments, for instance, that advert the gaze from violent or even sexual spectaclesâ€”are performances of an aesthetic informed to some extent by Mormon views on the appropriate representations of good and evil. This paper, therefore, seeks to examine various threads of Mormon thought that have contributed to an aesthetic that, when applied to a genre â€œin pursuit of graphic bloodshedâ€ that â€œshowcases rather than represses the violated body,â€ performs that genre in a decidedly atypical way (Gomel 1, 28).
Mormon Aesthetics and Questions of Representation
Discussions about aesthetics among Mormons frequently begin at the same spot: the thirteenth Article of Faith, a passage of Mormon scripture that Stephenie Meyer would have been encouraged to memorize throughout her childhood and teenaged years. Penned by Joseph Smith in 1842, the thirteenth article reads as follows:
WeÂ believe in beingÂ honest, true,Â chaste,Â benevolent, virtuous, and in doingÂ goodÂ to all men; indeed, we may say that we followÂ theÂ admonitionÂ of Paulâ€”We believe all things, weÂ hopeÂ all things, we have endured many things, and hope to be able toÂ endureÂ all things. If there is anythingÂ virtuous,Â lovely, orÂ ofÂ good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things. (Articles of Faith 1:13)
This statement, to be sure, makes no ostensible reference to artistic representations. In fact, as Mormon historian Richard L. Bushman points out, â€œthe words â€˜virtuousâ€™ and â€˜praiseworthyâ€™ could refer to the Red Cross as easily as toâ€ art. Still, he notes, the Mormon artistsâ€™ â€œprejudice in favor of the arts leads [them] almost automatically to an aesthetic reading of the thirteenth articleâ€ (212). Merrill Bradshaw, a Mormon musician and aesthetic theorist, for example, cites the thirteenth Article of Faith as the sole statement on aesthetics in the Mormon canon of scripture (27).
Often, appropriations of the thirteenth Article of Faith as an aesthetic credo imply that art must express virtue and loveliness and be praiseworthy and of good report to be of any worth or value to society. This notion is echoed, in many ways, by Brigham Young in his remarks at the 1862 dedication of a theater in Salt Lake City. â€œEverything,â€ he notes, â€œthat is joyful, beautiful, glorious, comforting, consoling, lovely, pleasing to the eye, good to the taste, pleasant to the smell, and happifying in every respect is for the Saintsâ€ (244). In the same speech, however, Young also acknowledges that Mormon artists and audiences should deal with ugliness and evil in art. The stage, after all, can function as an extension of the pulpit:
Upon the stage of a theatre can be represented in character, evil and its consequences, good and its happy results and rewards; the weakness and the follies of man, the magnanimity of virtue and the greatness of truth. The stage can be made to aid the pulpit in impressing upon the minds of a community an enlightened sense of a virtuous life, also a proper horror of the enormity of sin and a just dread of its consequences. (243)
In a sense, Young suggests that the stage presents its audience with crucial vicarious experiences; through artistic representation, Latter-day Saints can experience â€œevil and its consequencesâ€ without tarnishing their spirits. Artists, therefore, provide their audiences with moral lessons when they allow them, through artistic representation, to discern the difference between good and evil, and suggest ways to recognize and shun the â€œthorns and pitfallsâ€ of the â€œpath of sin.â€
Not surprisingly, subsequent theorists of Mormon art have used Youngâ€™s words to justify content in Mormon art that some may view as anything but virtuous, lovely, of good report, or praiseworthy. Few of these theorists acknowledge, however, that Brigham Young was hardly an advocate for realistic representations of evil acts. In fact, before closing his remarks at the dedication of the theater, Young discourages the performance of tragedy because of the ugliness and cruelty that tend to characterize the genre:
I do not wish murder and all its horrors and the villany leading to it portrayed before our women and children; I want no child to carry home with it the fear of the fagot, the sword, the pistol, or the dagger, and suffer in the night from frightful dreams. I want such plays performed as will make the spectators feel well [.] (245)
While hardly a central text in the Mormon doctrinal canon, Youngâ€™s counsel against tragedy and violent spectacles of â€œhorrorâ€ and â€œvillanyâ€ remains somewhat echoed in ecclesiastical counsel to Mormons today; Mormon youth, for example, are currently encouraged to avoid â€œentertainment that is vulgar, immoral, violent, or pornographic in any wayâ€ (â€œFor the Strengthâ€ 17). Likewise, the manuscript submission guidelines for Covenant Communications, one of the largest publishers of Mormon fiction, informs potential authors that they do â€œnot accept manuscripts that contain offensive material, which includes profanity, vulgarity, excessive violence, or sexually explicit or suggestive scenesâ€ (â€œSubmissionâ€). Indeed, owing to these and other counsels and teachings, Mormons in general tend to be leery of artistic representations of violent and sexual spectacles, regardless of the spectaclesâ€™ context.
To be sure, these cautionary words have not kept depictions of violence and sex entirely out of Mormon literature, as readers of Twilight and other Mormon fictions know, although much debate continues over the necessity of such depictions. In his essay â€œThe Problem of Evil in Fiction,â€ Mormon author Orson Scott Card directly addresses the struggle Mormon fiction writers face when they wish to explore the evil aspects of violence and sex with an audience that frequently â€œmisunderstandsâ€ that â€œ[showing] evil is not necessarily advocating it.â€ As a Mormon writer, Card believes that it is â€œimpossible to write well without dealing directly with evil, [and] portraying it in [his] workâ€ (69-70). Furthermore, he is suspicious of attempts to eliminate any trace of violence and sex from fiction out of a fear that the portrayal of such could lead readers to commit evil acts. Consequently, he warns against writerly attempts to â€œsidestep the depiction of evilâ€ or â€œleave it up to the readerâ€™s imagination.â€ Fiction writers who do so, he argues, frequently fail to communicate what happens in their narrative, so their readers lose insight and understanding into the story and its characters. To illustrate his point, he refers to a rape scene in his historical novel Saints, which depicts the early years of Mormonism. In his first draft of the novel, Card chose simply to refer to the rape rather than to depict it. He found, however, that readers of this draft â€œwere unable to understand [his characterâ€™s] later actions in response toâ€ the rape â€œbecause they had not actually experienced some of the terror of that sceneâ€ (96-97). His point, ultimately, is similar to that of performance theorist Anne Bogart, who reasons that â€œcontent is about connectedness.â€ Without honest content, art cannot connect with an audience nor affect it deeply or meaningfully (see Bogart 108).
The CleanFlicks Aesthetic and Twilight
Despite arguments against it, though, the temptation to sidestep depictions of violence and sex for a less â€œoffensiveâ€ aesthetic remains strong in the Mormon community, giving rise to what I call the CleanFlicks aesthetic. Named after the controversial Utah-based movie editing company CleanFlicks, which until recently made a business out of â€œslicing, dicing and sugar-coating Hollywood movies for Mormon tastes,â€ the aesthetic advocates an art free of â€œgratuitous sex and violence, […] profanity and blasphemyâ€ (Buckman, Janofsky). The tell-tale characteristic of this aesthetic is the use of â€œnon-sequitur jump cutsâ€ as soon as scenes of intense violence or sexuality begin, which shield audiences from the spectacle, but can also leave them confused about whatâ€™s going on. Beyond confusion, though, is the matter of how this aesthetic affects the relationship between character and audience. In Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault points out that the violent spectacle has the potential to inspire â€œsolidarityâ€ between the victims of â€œviolence exercised without moderation and restraintâ€ and those who witness the violence (63). What happens, then, when audiencesâ€”or readersâ€”are not permitted to stand as witnesses and connect emotionally with characters who are victims of unrestrained violence? How then is â€œsolidarityâ€ achieved?
Already I have shown how Meyer applies the CleanFlicks aesthetic to the climactic fight scene in Twilight, and how the aesthetic undermines, to a certain extent, the sense and suspense of that scene. Arguably, though, not much is lostâ€”or gainedâ€”by shielding Jamesâ€™s demise from our gaze. In contrast, a more problematic application of the CleanFlicks aesthetic occurs in Eclipse, the third novel of the saga, when we finally learn the history of Rosalie, the most aloof and antagonistic member of the Cullen family. Early in the novel, Rosalie tells Bella how, before becoming a vampire, she had been engaged to a wealthy young man named Royce. One night, shortly before the wedding, Rosalie encountered Royce and his friend, a stranger, who â€œlooked [her] over like [she] was a horse he was buyingâ€ (159). Both of the men were drunk, and the friend demanded that Royce remove Rosalieâ€™s coat so that he could get a better look at her figure. Rosalie then recounts:
â€œSuddenly, Royce ripped my jacket from my shoulders […] popping the brass buttons off. They scattered all over the street.
â€œâ€˜Show him what you look like, Rose!â€™ He laughed again and then he tore my hat out of my hair. The pins wrenched my hair from my roots, and I cried out in pain. They seemed to enjoy thatâ€”the sound of my pain….â€
But Rosalie cuts her story off here, telling Bella, â€œI wonâ€™t make you listen to the restâ€ (159-60). Consequently, what exactly happened to Rosalie on that night remains a mystery, although the implication is that Royce and his friend beat and raped her nearly to deathâ€”an act-as-spectacle that reveals the heinous human cost of violence. Meyer, however, leaves â€œsome of the terror of that sceneâ€ to our imagination.
To be sure, Meyer does give us some sense of how awful Rosalieâ€™s experience was for her, primarily through her charactersâ€™ reactions to it. What reaction we do not get, however, is our own unmediated reaction to the terror of the scene, since Meyerâ€™s use of the CleanFlicks aesthetic gives us very little to react to. In one sense, we struggle to connect and sympathize with Rosalie as a character on an emotional level because we witness little more than the pulling of her hair. Moreover, Meyer compounds the distance between us and Rosalie when she fails to take us to the scene of Rosalieâ€™s later revengeâ€”a scene which has the potential to give readers a window into the depth of Rosalieâ€™s trauma. As before, though, Meyer again cuts short the spectacle, which was crescendoing rapidly into a macabre enactment of a wedding night gone awry:
â€œ[Royce] was hiding inside a windowless room behind a door as thick as a bank vaultâ€™s […] when I caught up with him [….] I was overly theatrical. It was kind of childish, really. I wore a wedding dress I had stolen for the occasion. He screamed when he saw me. He screamed a lot that night. Saving him last was a good ideaâ€”it made it easier for me to control myself, to make it slowerâ€”â€ (163)
Again, although we learn that Royce â€œscreamed a lot that nightâ€ during his slow, presumably painful death, we are not permitted to see the murderous consummation of this mock-marriage, specifically the way Rosalieâ€™s revenge exacts measure for measure the violence of her rape. Consequently, we have little option but to rely on Meyerâ€™s characters to tell us how to feel about the scene, and assure us that Rosalie suffered trauma, but that justice was served in the end.
Of course, after hearing Rosalieâ€™s story, Bella feels that she understands Rosalie and her antagonism better. To a certain extent, we readers also feel the same way, since Bella acts as our touchstone for appropriate responses. Still, not having experienced more of the terror of the attack on Rosalie, can we truly say that we have connected with her and better understand her motivations as a character? More importantly: since the narrative silences the rape, do we feel any solidarity with the victim? Do we better comprehend the heinousness of the violence enacted upon her?
One could argue, of course, that Meyer is writing for younger, less emotionally mature readers, so her treatment of the violent spectacle is understandably tailored to them and their level of maturity and understanding. It should be remembered, though, that as a devout Mormon, Meyer inherits a long tradition of wariness about depictions of those aspects of life that seem far from being â€œvirtuous, lovely, of good report, or praiseworthy.â€ Furthermore, she is part of a culture that cautions against representations of the violent spectacle because of the potential challenges they pose to individual morality. Her desire, therefore, to tell a story within a genre that is known as much for its performance of â€œlurid, extravagant, exotic sensationalismâ€ as its â€œ[indulgences] in the perverse, the forbidden, the dangerous, [and] the supernaturalâ€ is ostensibly at odds with the kind of literature her community as a whole advocates and encourages (Day 5).
Still, Meyer has â€œsuccessfully combined the most conservative of social values with the most blood-thirsty literary genresâ€ although her vampires are more Mormon than anything else (Mills). In one of her first interviews, Meyer confessed to having a â€œhard timeâ€ describing Twilight because it is â€œso not like the other vampire books out there [….] It isnâ€™t that kind of dark and dreary and blood-thirsty world,â€ she insisted, but â€œa vampire book for people who don’t like vampire booksâ€ (Margolis). Indeed, in order to expose us to a world of moral alternatives, rather than one of â€œraw pleasure without ethics, […] consciousness or conscience,â€ Meyer does as her fellow Mormons at CleanFlicks do: she shields us from the base spectacle (Day 7). Doing so, of course, often confuses her narrative, disappoints her readers, and sacrifices a degree of the connectedness and solidarity we could share with her characters when they become victims of violence. Still, for Meyer, the aesthetic decision seems to be based on personal convictions and cultural traditions rather than generic conventions. Like her vampires, she looks for alternatives to bloodshed.
 In their study of Mormons and film, â€œToward a Mormon Cinematic Aesthetic: Film Styles in Legacy,â€ Thomas J. Lefler and Gideon O. Burton observe: â€œLatter-day Saints aspire to movies that enhance, rather than undermine, their spiritual lives and that respect their religious convictions. However, discussion among Mormons about film tends to focus primarily on contentâ€”the presence of inappropriate content or the desire for more family-friendly subjectsâ€ (275).
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