The premiere of Twilight: New Moon takes place this week, exposing the public to throngs of screaming women overflowing with love for the movie’s leading men. Frenzied fans share their devotion and build social bonds. But sometimes expressions of adoration become inappropriate. What happens in the brains of women who fall for men they don’t know — and when does it cross the line?
If you’ve seen a screaming teenager, a heated middle-aged woman, or a giggly grandma recently, chances are you’ve been exposed to the Twilight phenomenon.
This collection of romance novels and movies, complete with vampires and werewolves, have become a global movement featuring legions of devoted, passionate followers — present company included. Women become so hopped up on their own excitement that they’re out of breath, panting and sweaty. Say or see anything Twilight-related and it’s immediately a scene on par with Beatlemania.
Only slightly sicker. And possibly more dangerous.
Where extreme Beatles’ fans would cry and faint, the Twilight fans, or Twilighters, come in a spectrum of devotion … and propriety. The well-behaved line up on sidewalks days in advance of the New Moon premiere in hopes of catching a glimpse of the stars. The dedicated, and mostly harmless, follow the movies’ actors around, camp out in front of their hotels. The audacious demand to be bitten. (Vampire novel, remember?)
But you know it’s gone too far when a middle-aged woman asks one of the younger actors — a then-16-year-old boy — to sign her underwear … that has his name stitched into them. She’s clearly lost her mind, not to mention her knowledge of statutory sexual predator laws. This is a land somewhere between schoolgirl crush and white-padded-room crazy. Admiration runs amok, pathological fascination kicks in and societal norms are ditched right along with the panties.
Welcome to the lives of Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner, the leading men in the Twilight films. Whether welcomed by screaming masses at airports or being mobbed on the streets, they are magnets for inappropriate and strange infatuation-fueled requests. Yes, Pattinson, 23, who plays lead vampire Edward Cullen, says he has been asked to bite fans, including such a request by supermodel fan Tyra Banks. And yes, 17-year-old Lautner, who plays Jacob Black, says he has been asked to sign the underwear of a middle-aged woman.
The obsession runs so high among fans that Twilight is practically its own economic recovery engine. The first movie did $350 million in ticket sales and 80 million copies of books from the series have been sold. At a charity event, two kisses from Pattinson reportedly sold for $40,000. Forks, the town where the story takes place, now has an official Twilighttourism guide. But nothing quite shows the depth of this over-the-top yearning for all things Twilight like the fact there is a market for New Moon Wolf Pack Tattoo Packing Tape.
From innocent crushes to flaunting unmentionables, the questions beg to be asked: What drives fans into a frenzy? And what exactly is happening in the brains of women who obsess over (to the point of stalking) men they don’t know? Even Pattinson says he doesn’t quite get it.
Luckily for us — and Pattinson’s curiosity — the increased heart rate in each Twi-hard makes sense when seen through the view of Dr. Helen Fisher, biological anthropologist at Rutgers University and author of “Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love.”
When you look at this chaos through the eyes of Fisher’s brain-scan research, all of the behavior may not seem rational, but it does get a little more logical. Hang onto your Twilight lip venom and Team Jacob water bottles; we’re heading into the heads of devoted, smitten, frenzied women.
Chivalry Isn’t Dead — It’s Undead.
The path to romantic mania begins with what Fisher calls each person’s internal “love map” and what it does to the “reward system” in the brain. The reward system is the base portion of the brain; it controls our motivation — what we want in a primal way.
The love map is “an unconscious list of what you are looking for in a partner. And we’re carrying this around in our head,” Fisher says. “When you run into somebody, or read about them, or see them in a film, who fits within your concept of an ideal partner, the [reward system] can get triggered.”
Lauren Suero, the co-owner of the official Twilight Facebook fan pageputs it this way: “I think my addiction [to Twilight] happened because I wanted that relationship. I wanted that undying love. Really strong love.”
In other words, when women readTwilight and see how the character Edward Cullen treats his human girlfriend Bella, the readers’ reward systems tell the rest of the brain that this is something to get excited about; this is what you’ve been looking for. The ladies’ love maps dovetail with what Stephenie Meyer, the author of the series, has described in the book. Sure, Edward Cullen is a vampire but he’s also loving, caring, protective, generous and utterly devoted.
You see in the Twilight world, chivalry isn’t dead — it’s undead.
“You’re My Own Personal Brand Of Heroin.”
This personal yearning should sound familiar to Twilight fans. In the story, Edward Cullen is famously torn between loving Bella and killing her. He says she’s his own personal brand of heroin. That’s a lot how fans of the series feel about Edward Cullen or Jacob Black — they match their own personal love map.
When women recognize traits in a person (or fictional characters, as it were) that they’d want in their own mates, Fisher says the reward system in their brains become active. The brain sprays positive signals and natural drugs, specifically the pleasant-feeling dopamine, all over the place. Physiologically speaking, Fisher said in aTED speech, this is the same spot in the brain that “becomes active also when you feel the rush of cocaine.”
Edward Cullen is literally causing a feel-good drug reaction in women’s heads.
The co-owner of fan-site Cullen Boys Anonymous, Kim Clarkson, says visitors to her site joke about this all the time asking, “What did Stephenie Meyer put in these books?”
The Embodiment of Edward Cullen
What has started as a crush on Meyer’s perfect male character got a lot worse when Edward Cullen got assigned Robert Pattinson’s flesh-and-blood face.
“An exquisite beauty,” is how Vanity Fair’s Evgenia Peretz described Pattinson. ” … with perfectly formed red, red lips and a face that might have been dreamed by the Romantic poets … ”
Some girls would just say “smoking hot,” but the point is the guy has a mug that’s worthy of another dopamine high. Suero says, “When [the fans] have the visual from the movies, it’s ‘Oh my God, Robert Pattinson!’ That’s when the addiction hits.”
The Twilight line “You’re like a drug to me” is taking on a whole new meaning now.
Even if Pattinson doesn’t get it, his leading lady co-star Kristen Stewart does, in a way that makes it seem like she’s been reading Fisher’s books. In a joint-interview with Entertainment Weekly she said to Pattinson, “Edward Cullen is such an icon. When you see people in the street, it’s not just that they feel like they know you. It’s like they need you. You can complete a very personal aspect of their lives.”
See Rob, Kristen gets it.
The incessant media attention isn’t helping the targets of our fascination get any peace, either. With every new headline and each new picture, the girls find something else to attach to.
Taylor gained 30 pounds of muscle out of dedication to the role! Swoon!
Pattinson sings a song on the Twilight soundtrack! Sigh!
Dopamine. Dopamine. Dopamine. Each hit feels great; women are left wanting more. The addiction is being fed.
This Is Your Brain On Love
Physiologically, a funny thing happens when the reward system is lighting up and dopamine is flowing — the rational-thought system dims down. Simply put: Romantic love makes you do dumb things, like,say, falling for fictional characters or men we don’t know.
“Blood pours into brain regions associated with motivation, with drive, with energy, with focus, with craving and with goal-oriented behavior,” Fisher says. “In this case the drive to pursue somebody who you’ll never get and will never respond.” And just where does all of this blood-flow come from? Why, from the rational part of the brain responsible for making decisions, of course. Suddenly love affairs with fictional vampires or movie stars make a little more sense.
You heard it here first: Robert Pattinson really is sucking your blood … from the sane-making portions of your brain.
But, how far does this dopamine-induced idiocy go? “You crave the person, you’re willing to do irrational things to win the person,” Fisher says, “you obsessively think about the person. You distort reality.”
After hearing all this, I was tempted to say that Lautner’s underwear woman wasn’t totally nuts, she was just drunk on dopamine. Fisher was quick to correct me: “It’s not an either/or. The ‘drunk on dopamine’ is creating this reaction and this adoration is continuing the rush of dopamine. It’s one in the same.”
When it comes down to it, these rushes physiologically mirror drug addictions in the brain, but there is still no excuse for crossing the line, and die-hard Twilight fans are vehemently against the UndieGate woman (Tyra Banks’ neck-biting stunt, too).
“[The underwear] was offensive — it’s too personal. Let [Lautner] remain in your fantasy,” said Dawn Sirtak, one of the first five women in line for red carpet access at the New Moon premiere. Her friends, including administrators and visitors of fan site Twifans (pictured below) agreed. “It was ridiculous,” Yolanda Rodriquez said. “That was dumb.”
Adoration: The Good News
Despite a few bad apples, dedication to the series and the stars can be good for the soul. “When you drive up dopamine in the brain you feel more optimistic, you feel more energetic,” says Fisher. “It’s entirely possible that being crazy about some kind of rock star is being useful to them in some way.”
Fisher also says that sharing the communal experience of Twilight is a way to strengthen social bonds among friends. Waiting near the red carpet for a glimpse of a star can be “about sharing this experience with your friends and tightening your community,” says Fisher. “You aren’t just connected to this person but you’re connecting to the people around you.”
A quick survey of the line of women waiting for red carpet access to the premiere ofNew Moon proves that point. Fifty people down the line there was an Australian girl being hosted by a woman from Burbank. The two had met at the Twilight premiere last year and have remained friends ever since. The Cullen Boys Anonymous and Twifans groups drove out together from Arizona, camping out (and bonding) since Thursday.
As for Pattinson and Lautner, Fisher says the fans will stay as long as they’re getting the high, but there shouldn’t be any post-Twilight letdown.
“[The fans] already got what they wanted out of this,” Fisher says. “They weren’t looking for a long-term attachment; they were looking for a rush. They got the rush. If they don’t get it again out of this, they’ll find another.”
Hear that Rob and Taylor? It’s only a matter of time and you’ll be able to take a walk in public again, free of underwear signatures and bite requests. Someday