Like the notion that vampires might be real, the stories spread in whispers. Rumors pass between fans in Twilight-centric online forums or at conventions. Somebody knows somebody to whom it really happened, somebody whose love of Twilight and the version of romance it presents got in the way of real life. Somebody whose marriage was killed by the undead.
Of course, it’s not a new idea: Madame Bovary was letting fiction mess with her ideas of romance more than 150 years ago, but it’s hard not to feel that—with fan fiction and Robsten in the tabloids and movies like Breaking Dawn-Part 2 (in theaters Nov. 16)—the risk of choosing fictional romance over real-life love is somehow worse than it used to be.
On a forum for fans of Jeep cars—yes, a Jeep forum, the rumor really is everywhere—a poster writes:
Twilight has ruined my life… **** those books! That’s all she does now… Then after me badgering her to put the damn book down all I hear is ‘edward this, bella that.’
Elsewhere, on the website itThing.com, another blogger headlines his post “Twilight Almost Cost Me My Wife (and My Life)” and writes “my wife loves Twilight as much as anyone I’ve ever met or read about, and, I swear, I loathe those stupid books 100 times more than she loves them,” describing how his wife took a vow of chastity that she would not break until the books’ characters did. In the Twimoms forums—although the Twilight saga, based on the books by Stephenie Meyer, is marketed for teens, a big chunk of the fandom comprises women in their ’20s and ’30s, many of whom identify as “Twimoms”—a thread is called “Edward Cullen causes divorce,” and starts with a poster gleefully texting her husband that she loves him more than Edward “for the most part.”
And it’s not just bloggers. Details writes:
Each month, thousands of women go to Forks, Washington, to indulge their passion for Edward Cullen of Twilight. If your wife or girlfriend is one of them, you better start buying flowers.
“I found poems my husband had written in his journal about how I had fallen for a ‘golden-eyed vampire,’…Twilight was always on my mind, to the point where I couldn’t function.”
(MORE: Filling the Twilight-less Void)
But maybe marriages aren’t really the relationships affected by Bella and Edward. In her new book, Fanpire: The Twilight Saga and the Women Who Love It, author Tanya Erzen dismisses the “Twilight divorce” as largely urban legend. Erzen tells TIME that, in extensive interviews with fans and surveys of the online community, she never actually met someone who asked for a divorce in order to find her own Edward or who was on the receiving end of one due to his spouse’s obsession with said vampire. “Inevitably there were stories with their husbands, wanting their marriages to be more like the Bella and Edward relationship,” she says. “People said it caused tension, but it was often tongue-in-cheek.”
And actual stories of tension were more about the time women devoted to the fandom rather than their love of the character, particularly in a fan community that Erzen found largely followed traditional gender roles, in which a Twimom would be expected to have dinner on the table even if she had a group excursion to Forks to plan. If there’s an element of Twilight obsession that’s comparable to emotional infidelity, it’s not the reader-Edward relationship. Instead, the “romance” is often between the female reader and the community of other female fans—and that’s the relationship that can more frequently detract from a marriage.
The relationships in Twilight, with their weighty declarations of eternal love and intense sexual tension deferred until it can become socially acceptable passion, could even be more of a marital aide than a wedge, adding aspirations for intimacy or spice to marriages. “People would often say that they loved their real-life partners ‘forever like a vampire,’” says Erzen. “People would say, ‘He’s my Edward.’” Still, she does cite a man who walked around at a Twilight convention with a sign telling the world that his wife abandoned him for Twilight. That readers have such polar reactions to Edward—either seeing the potential for immortal love with their real-life partners in that role or seeing those partners’ failings compared to fictional and impossible standards—lends credence to the no-Twilight-divorces theory: it can go either way so, if Edward Cullen did lead to divorces, those splits are more likely to come in marriages that were already at the breaking point.
Not that Twilight doesn’t affect fans’ real lives. Instead of harming marriages, Twilight may be fortifying a different relationship, Erzen posits. “Where I saw it make the most impact on peoples’ relationships was more with families…You really did see mothers and daughters, sometimes three generations, generally women, who had read the book,” she says. “They use it as a way to connect and talk about things, like sex and having a first boyfriend, a lot of topics that are tricky for parents and children. This text becomes sort of a way to engage those questions without it having to be so personalized.”
Women—and men—who shared their love of Twilight with their children didn’t just talk about it. They spent time together at conventions, and in some cases rearranged their lives to get more time for their hobby. Erzen says that Bella’s blank-slate characteristics (and her tween- and mom-friendly adherence to Edward’s no-sex-till-marriage ideals) means that readers can project themselves onto her whether they are 12 or 32.
And it’s a good thing they do, because even if Edward hasn’t caused too many divorces, he can sink his fangs into romantic expectations of readers who haven’t yet had a relationship that’s not with a fictional characters. Older women whom Erzen met tended to be critical of Edward’s behavior toward Bella—how he loves her but diminishes her or stalks her or puts her in danger. Younger women were more generous.
“I wouldn’t want to ascribe Twilight exceptional power, to say that it will affect how girls understand their relationships or sex or romance, but I would say that given the vast numbers of people who were reading it and were captivated by it, it can’t help but shape your expectations for sex, for relationships, for what you conceive of as romance,” says Erzen. “I also think those kinds of messages that are in Twilight—the idea that it’s okay to be domineering because he really loves you, it’s okay to have somebody bruise your body the first time you have sex with him because he really loves you and he’s apologetic—I do think those ideas are part of broader American culture in a lot of ways and Twilight reinforces them.”
The girls looking for real-life Edwards when they read Twilight stand to be either disappointed or harmed by the convention that being masculine means being both domineering and wounded, a perfect set-up for the healing power of love—which is also basically the plot of 50 Shades of Grey and many of the zillions of pieces of fan-fiction that have not yet become bestsellers and non-Twilight romances too. (A recent essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books also takes on what Twilight might do to young boys and men who see Edward as a role model for romance, arguing that girls are actually in a better place to learn from what happens to Bella than boys are to learn from a stalker vampire who wins in the end.) But Erzen cautions that the obvious feminist critiques of Edward and Bella’s relationship—or, on the other side, religious critiques that challenge plot points like Edward’s sneaking into Bella’s room—don’t mean that Twilight readers are stupid or in denial or don’t see clearly. Rather, they’re conflicted. “There’s a big gap between the critics of the series and the people who actually love the book,” she says.
Of course, there’s no way to know yet whether Twilight‘s influence on real-life romance will continue to be felt now that the last movie installment (of this round, at least) is on its way to theaters. At Twilight conventions these days, the places where the mothers and daughters featured in Fanpire would meet and discuss their ideas about romance, a more pressing task arises, the question of how to sell off all the merchandise before the fans move on to a new obsession. “It’s already fading,” says Erzen. “It’s inevitable.”