When I was in second grade, I wanted to be a werewolf. I’d been raised to think that most of my goals were within reach, if I only applied myself. Also, a good friend had just upped and moved to Martha’s Vineyard, so I had time on my hands. I practiced my snarl for half an hour after school each day, baring my teeth in the bedroom mirror. At recess, I crawled under the shed, convinced I was allergic to sunlight (I’d gotten my horror myths confused). I’m not sure where my werewolf fascination came from—maybe I felt social cliques tightening around me, and monsters suggested the blurring of boundaries: between humans and animals, for instance, or earth and the underworld. More likely, though, it was about power. I longed for the thrill of being feared, of commanding fear. Not all the time, of course. Once I attained shape-shifter status, I knew I would spend the majority of my day undercover. The secret would be part of the fun: Who would suspect that, beneath my quiet facade, a supernatural fury waited to erupt? Lycanthropy was an insecure girl’s backup plan, for use as needed.
As I got older, the fantasies took a new form. I started to imagine dating werewolves. They were, unfailingly, cute guys who turned into dangerous beasts when I needed protection. One, who showed up during my Ben Folds Five phase, played rock piano and hated the suburbs. Another, an ice-hockey player, memorialized a very short-lived interest in the Washington Capitals. They melted in and out of my high-school existence at odd intervals. Feeling lonely or undesirable, I would retreat to my inner woods, where they waited: strong, loving, but also ineffably menacing. I was deliciously aware that any one of these soul mates could hurt me if he wanted to. Apparently, it was intoxicating to be scary, but being scared was even better.
To me, werewolves and vampires amount to basically the same thing. If Dracula lacked a certain shaggy charm, he could still tie the underclothes of Victorian England into knots. He was sophisticated. He appeared to be kissing your neck; he penetrated you with his fangs. Today, his retro wardrobe would put a hipster to shame.
Real threats are rarely pleasurable; fantastic ones, though, give us access to a range of emotions we might not otherwise experience. This is especially true for kids. In a safe space—a movie theater or a daydream—fear becomes frisson. Our pulses race, our palms sweat. We tend to shrink from the unknown, but those things that elude our grasp are also more likely to surprise, delight, and provoke us. Happily, fiction allows us to detach the menace from mystery, leaving behind pure possibility. In her study No Go the Bogeyman, Marina Warner suggests that we tell scary stories for the same reason we sing grisly nursery rhymes. Naming our terrors is the first step in living with them, and the safest place to do this may be within the magic circle of child’s play. When I look back on it, I can see how my werewolf fantasies tried to embody the onset of puberty in something traditionally (as opposed to existentially) horrifying.
Because the thing about relationships is, they are scary. The metaphors that accrue around vampires confirm it. Ward off a bloodsucker as you would an overeager date, by eating lots of garlic. If you need to stop him for good, drive a stake through his heart. Do you feel empty or drained in the sober light of morning? Maybe you shouldn’t have invited her in. It’s as if us monster junkies can’t stop reciting one of intimacy’s first principles: The person you love—your protector, your comfort—has, necessarily, an almost preternatural power to hurt you.
So I feel like I “get” Twilight. I get that monsters are scary-sexy. I even get that a controlling jerk like Edward Cullen might appeal to the teenage thirst for new experiences—the bodily responses to fear and sexual arousal are tightly linked. I get Twilight, and I watch the prom-king vampires and the buff werewolves with a slightly irrational resentment. I hate that Stephenie Meyer has co-opted my private fantasy and brought it into the mainstream. I hate that my ambivalence about the give and take of power in dating has been reincarnated in something so misogynistic. And I hate the way the franchise domesticates monsters. If you have not wasted hours of your life on these movies: Edward, Alice, and the other “good” vampires abstain from human blood; they are played by conventionally attractive actors; exposed to the sun, they … glitter. These are the shadowy figures meant to initiate young adults in transgression? Does anyone find Dakota Fanning scary? When I dreamed about werewolves, I was seeking escape from high-school cliques and popular culture and normal ideas of what a relationship looked like. I wanted to embody my desires in a creature that was as freakish as I sometimes felt. But the airbrushed immortals of the Twilight saga don’t do it for me. It’s an oft-cited etymological curio that monster comes from the Latin monstro, meaning “to show.” What Stephenie Meyer has shown us is that high schools have very little room for real monsters, even in Forks.