LOS ANGELES (RNS) Ever since Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” began haunting the imagination in 1897, popular culture has identified Christian symbols—crucifixes, holy water, Communion wafers—as weapons to ward off a blood-thirsty vampire. The “Twilight” novels and film franchise have religious associations, too—but most of them come from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons). As the film’s “Twi-hard” fans get ready for the third “Twilight” installment, “Eclipse,” to open in theaters on June 30, few are likely to recognize the religious references in the film based on the novels by Stephenie Meyer, herself a Mormon.
“I think people make up all these Mormon references just so they can publish `Twilight’ articles in respectable publications like The New York Times,” actor Robert Pattinson (Edward, the film’s central vampire character), told Entertainment Weekly. “Even Stephenie said it doesn’t mean any of that.”
It’s possible that Meyer never set out to weave Mormon imagery into the `Twilight’ background. Yet intentional or otherwise, it’s hard to ignore:
— The story’s teenage heroine, Bella, avoids coffee, tea, alcohol and tobacco—not unlike the Mormons’ “Word of Wisdom” health code. Bella also advises her father to “cut back on steak,” much like the Mormon teaching to eat meat and poultry “sparingly.”
— Feminists have questioned Bella’s frequent cooking and cleaning—household chores that reflect a strong Mormon work ethic and traditional roles for women. The official motto for heavily Mormon Utah is “Industry,” and its symbol is the beehive.
— A crucial Mormon belief is that humans can become divine. In the “Twilight” series, the Cullen family of vampires was once human but now lives without death in a resurrected condition. Their immortality is a kind of probationary period for eternal life. Meyer describes the Cullens, particularly Edward, as “godlike” and “inhumanly beautiful.”
— Mormons believe angels are resurrected beings of flesh and bone. The most familiar is Moroni, who stands high atop Mormon temples, trumpet in hand. The Book of Mormon says Moroni was a fifth-century prophet who visited founder Joseph Smith in 1823. Smith described Moroni as radiating light and “glorious beyond description.”
Bella describes her vampire boyfriend Edward as an angel whom she can’t imagine “any more glorious.” Edward’s skin sparkles in the sunlight, and he visits Bella’s bedroom at night. But Mormon angels don’t have wings; in the “Twilight” film, Edward sits in the science lab, the outstretched wings of a stuffed white owl just over his shoulders.
— A unique Mormon teaching is that marriages are “sealed” for eternity; spouses are referred to as eternal companions and eternal partners. Bella describes her relationship with Edward as “forever.”
— Bella and Edward’s marriage, and her quick pregnancy, underscore the Mormon emphasis on the family. But Bella’s half human/vampire fetus nearly destroys her, so her distraught husband suggests an abortion and artificial insemination. Mormons permit abortions if the mother’s life is in danger, and artificial insemination is an option for married couples.
Bella quickly vetoes both abortion and artificial insemination, reinforcing the essential Mormon teaching of individual choice, or “agency.” Meyer has said that the apple on the cover of the first “Twilight” novel represents Eve’s choice in the Garden of Eden. The poster for “Eclipse” includes the line: “It all begins … with a choice.” The patriarch of the vampire family, Carlisle Cullen, supports Bella when he explains, “It wouldn’t be right to make such a choice for her, to force her.”
— By the conclusion of the “Twilight” series, Bella’s Quileute Indian friend, Jacob, “imprints” on her daughter, meaning he will marry the girl when she’s older and establish a genetic link to her vampire family. Mormons believe they share a common heritage with Native Americans through ancient Israel.
— The Book of Mormon teaches that a remnant of these ancient people came to America around 600 B.C.; their descendents, the Lamanites, are among the ancestors of the Native Americans. Quileute names in the series are decidedly Hebrew: Jacob, Paul, Sam, Ephraim, Jared, Seth, Joshua, Levi, Rebecca and Rachel. Jacob’s last name is Black, a reference to the Lamanites’ “skin of blackness” (metaphorically, a religious rather than an ethnic distinction).
Bram Stoker probably never imagined that vampires would actually represent a religious doctrine. But more than a century later, “Twilight” shows that these nocturnal creatures can accommodate just about anything.
(Angela Aleiss teaches film and religion at University of California, Los Angeles.)