David Beagley, editor

Do themes presented by scholarly discourse correlate with the casual conversations of people through the world wide web?

Stephanie Di Palma

Stephanie Di Palma is an assistant lecturer in the Faculty of Education at La Trobe University's Bendigo campus in Victoria, Australia. In her Honours degree research study she compared the discussions about the Twilight series by fans on their web sites with the analyses by academic commentators in the formal channels of journals and papers.

There is no denying it; technology has become the key determinant of social evolution as we know it. Prensky (2001) has defined this circumstance to be so significant and irreversible, that it is a “singularity ... the arrival and rapid dissemination of rapid technology in the last decades of the twentieth century” (p. 1). What was considered impossible years ago, is now a living reality for today. We have been introduced to a cascade of terms such as “digital natives”, the “N- (for Net)- gen or D- (for Digital)- gen” (Prensky, 2001, p. 1), “MilGen” (Pengast, 2007, p. 24) “technoevangelists” and “technoromantics” (Thomas, 2011, p.1). Kozinets (2010) notes that, as a consequence of our world’s very own digital upgrade, “social scientists around the world are finding that to understand society they must follow people’s social activities and encounters onto the Internet and through other technologically-mediated communications” (p. 1).  The relationship between technology and society is complex. We, as a society, can only be understood by our practices, which now occur predominantly through these avenues. “Technologies emerge from society ... they are made possible and encouraged by society ... and they in turn have effects on society” (Sandler & Bosso, 2007, p. 29). People are able to keep in contact with one another from opposite hemispheres of the earth, masses of people can be aware of news just as it happens through social networking sites, and individuals all over the world can be involved in discussions of depth and considerable scholarship on a mutual topic via online forums. All of these functions were enabled through technology and, in turn, affect society.

This scholarship of online forums was a concept I explored in 2011 in a study of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight novels and the expression of the key themes that contribute to the attraction and popularity of the Twilight Saga phenomenon. Firstly, four major themes and nine subordinate themes were identified in academic literature on the Twilight texts. The study then established that these ‘academic’ themes could also be found in the comments of Twilight Saga fans on Twilight Saga based fan sites, which raised the big question of whether such forums ought to be given more academic credibility in literary discourse.

The public internet and, especially in this situation, these fan forums are usually associated with ‘low level’ pop culture conversations, marked by slang, gushing praise and personal display. The idea that this internet could be associated with academic quality is new and innovative, and clearly controversial, as noted by Gullestad (2006) and Tussey (2001). Yet, with the current speed of technological advancements and society’s dependence on technology, it is a question that must be faced in the extremely near future with all its consequences for issues of credibility, reliability, academic rigour and authority.

People tend to think that social networking sites and online communities are one and the same but, according to Howard (2010), there is a very distinct difference; with social networking “… the ‘profile’ users create inside the boundaries of a social network is unique to each individual” (p. 15). However, with a community, “The primary focus in a community is on the user’s commitment to a core set of interests, values, and communication practices” (Howard, 2010, p. 15). It is the online communities – fan sites in particular - which were focused on and analysed in the study.  

With the boom of the Twilight Saga’s global popularity and success, there was a plethora of book, movie and fan fiction fan sites on the Internet. The communities of these sites all expressed their love of and commitment to the Twilight Saga trademark. However, when they were accessed in 2011, a considerable number had been inactive for several years, even though the titles were first published from 2005-2008. It was evident that selection criteria needed to be developed.

In 2011, Stephenie Meyer’s official website featured a list of two hundred and seventy nine websites in the “Fansites” section of “The Twilight Series”. Due to the scale and scope of these websites, a procedure was designed, to ensure that validity and rigour was maintained throughout the study and that the most relevant and rich data was obtained.

The guidelines were:

  • The hyperlink to the website would be in active order and accessible at any given time.
  • The comments and posts provided in the fan site were to be in English, to ensure researcher comprehension.
  • Posts and comments, which did not relate to the Twilight Series were eliminated.
  • Posts and comments, comprising single to minimal word answers, were eliminated.

By applying these guidelines, I condensed the two hundred and seventy nine websites to twenty three that were explored, before the seven that offered the most consistent and useful discussions were then used for data collection.

These were:


These comments and discussions of Twilight Saga on the seven fan sites were matched against the key themes identified in academic and scholarly literature, and these findings formed the major contention of my study.

The foundation of my investigations was the archetype of the vampire, as a supernatural being, which has been a source of intrigue and fascination for over centuries. Literature has been an ideal breeding ground for the evolution of this supernatural concoction, from the malicious wit of Doctor John Polidori’s “The Vampyre” (1819) through Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” (1887), to books, movies, cartoons and even licensed merchandise. However, the current popularity of vampires, that dominates popular teen culture, has everything to do with Stephenie Meyer and her Twilight Series.

The first book of Meyer’s series, Twilight, was published in 2005 with New Moon (2006), Eclipse (2007) and the final book of the series, Breaking Dawn released in 2008. Within three years, Stephenie Meyer had created a vampire phenomenon in popular teen culture.

The initial purpose of my study was to determine why the Twilight Series has become so influential and popular in today’s culture and society and what specific features of the novels cause such a powerful response in its readers. I found this examination applicable to broader audiences, as there is little research literature regarding this concept, though this is rapidly expanding. Both researchers and readers (who may either like or dislike the series) cannot avoid the popularity and marketing success of the Twilight Saga. The influence this phenomenon has had on various demographics globally, particularly young adolescent girls and middle-aged women, is staggering. Click, Stevens, Aubrey & Behm-Morawitz (2010) note that “there is no mistaking that this female-driven vampire franchise ... has struck a chord with its intended audience, teen girls, and an unexpected audience, adult women” (p. 137).

While Edward Cullen is only one of the many interpretations of the 21st century vampire, he is the most influential expression in current literature, as the sympathetic hero. He is idealised love object, yet a threat; he affirms the female, but exudes the attraction of the dark and forbidden. The Twilight Saga began a phenomenon which affected how all vampires are currently perceived in popular culture, and it is this development of a phenomenon that merited close research and academic analysis.

The study found that the appeal of the Twilight Saga to readers is influenced by four major themes. They are, the domestication of the sympathetic vampire from a creature of folkloric tradition to an assimilated human; the series’ Mormon influences on the story line, from idealised concepts of marriage and family, to the chaste male vampire; the association between adolescence and escapism, how fans have been captivated by the vampire’s otherness, sexuality and immerse themselves in the text and, finally, the Gothic Romance as a genre, how the series allows female readers to identify with the storyline and fall in love with a vampire.

These major and subordinate themes were developed initially from analysing academic sources; however, they were also identified directly in the casual conversations of fans on Twilight Saga fan sites. How these themes became interrelated and engaged with both academic discourse and novice casual conversations became an intriguing study.


(Note: The online names chaosen by web participants are shown in bold font)

Web participants identified positive emotions when discussing Stephenie Meyer and her creation of the new Cullen vampire; they found this new interpretation to be an exciting change in vampire literature. Participants shared mixed views when discussing the alternate and potentially untraditional characteristics of Meyer’s vampires, with some alluding that they were inauthentic while others considered the Cullens to be a refreshing take on literary archetype. As Burleigh Matthew MD identified, the idea of the Cullens as a new interpretation of the literary vampire in popular culture should be accepted when acknowledging that Meyer as the author “knew almost nothing about vampires” and that her decision to “bestow” Edward with “the capacity to love unconditionally” is the reason for such high reader appeal.

These statements discussed above, are particularly reflected in academic discourse provided by Nayar (2007), Klaus and Kruger (2011) and Williamson (2005a) who identify and discuss the various changes accompanying the 21st Century vampire. Auerbach’s (1995) concept, that vampires shape and adapt themselves to particular times in history and due to their constant changing, “their appeal is dramatically generational” (p. 5), is also identified in discussion by web participants. Anne Rice’s and L. J. Smith’s vampire interpretations were also featured in the online discussions when considering the various vampire representations. Participants expressed their awareness of the traditional vampire archetype and how this factor influenced their interest in the Twilight Series.

Web participants expressed intrigue and positive attraction when discussing Edward Cullen. Both EdwardsSecretHeart and Vampfan discussed the vampires of the saga as a new interpretation of the vampire and provided their personal opinions on the new changes. EdwardsSecretHeart wrote “I was also pleasantly surprised that this was not the normal 'vampire thing'”.  Vampfan noted “I thought it was a good change, too. Literature has a lot of different versions for vampires, and I believe they are all really cool. It's all about your tastes, too”.

 While some participants found the new vampire portrayed in the Twilight Series to be an unrealistic and an inauthentic re-representation, most applauded Stephenie’s creativity, taking the negative comments of others personally and defending Meyers by addressing aspects of the series they found to be appealing about the new vampire.  Eikoo and Carol identified Meyer’s character Edward as both a vampire and from his human origins. Eikoo justified that, because Edward was once human, his psychology and reasoning are comparatively similar to that of humans. Carol acknowledges that whilst Edward’s vampirism is a significant aspect of his character, readers may become “confused” by interpreting his desire for blood to be human desire of lust. Many participants sympathised with Edward’s predicament of forbidden love and potential murder, and began to humanise Edward by giving him certain human characteristics, such as morality and family, yet fans insisted that human and vampire psychology are very similar. These concepts are particularly reflected by the academic works of Atwater (2000) and Backstein (2009).


Discussions on marriage and family were particularly evident by participants on online fan sites when referring to key protagonists, Edward and Bella. These themes were also identified in the scholarly works of Click, Stevens Aubrey & Behm-Morawitz (2010), Mercer (2011) and Housel & Wisnewski (2009). Participants identified positively the extraordinariness of the love both characters share. Online participants, Ashley M and Eikoo discuss their personal perspectives of Edward and Bella’s relationship and the type of love they share. Both participants acknowledge the rarity of the love between Meyer’s characters and how it cannot be compared to others. Ashley M referred to Edward and Bella’s love, as “not a passing thing, not as simple as a crush, and very all-encompassing”.

Meyer’s association with the Mormon religion was also discussed. Participants acknowledged that this personal characteristic of Meyer’s has, in fact, influenced the storyline of the series; a claim also made by the academic discourse of Stevens (2010), Housel & Wisneski (2009) and Silver (2010). Participants, Nella, Ice cold and KatieQ, identify their association between Meyer’s storyline and the Mormon religion and how this has influenced the type of love shared between the two protagonists of the Twilight Series. Nella and Ice cold view Bella and Edward as old souls because of the particular type of love they share, whilst KatieQ acknowledges the “instant love” of the characters and discusses the various parallels between their love in the storyline and the ideal of love and a relationship in the Mormon religion.

Edward’s chastity as a male protagonist was a recurring theme discussed throughout the data, though it was met with opposing views. Correlation between both forms of literary commentary was strongly identified when most of the online participants idealised Meyer’s decision for Edward to abstain from sexual intimacy with Bella until marriage. Online participants Breakingtwilight and Gwen discuss their personal support of Meyer’s decision to portray Edward as a chaste vampire; both readers acknowledged the sexual undertones in the storyline but felt that “they never go too far” and “at least it doesn’t describe it in detail”.

However, other participants, such as Carol, would have preferred more literary detail when it is alluded that the characters finally have sex and consider the series to be a young adult novel for this reason. In various online posts, Carol voices her frustration at the lack of sex and “bodice ripping” throughout the series, particularly when Edward and Bella consummate their marriage in the final book of the series Breaking Dawn. Carol blames the storyline’s omission of sex to be due to the fact that it is a “teen novel”. She also expresses frustration at the lack of detail provided by Meyers when it is alluded that the two protagonists have had sexual relations. These concepts are reflected in the scholarly papers of Chadwick (2009) and Spaise (2005). 


Participants discussed the supernatural appeal of Meyer’s vampires with great fervour, particularly identifying Edward’s perfection, super strength and athleticism. Comments made by online participants Ammy and Tony refer to the supernatural abilities displayed by the characters in the saga as, apart from Bella, all the major characters are vampires. Ammy identifies and discusses the powers of the characters, whereas Tony addresses his appeal to the vampire, due to their Otherness and super “strength, speed and other athletic skills...” and how this can produce a positive “euphoria” to readers.

Some participants focussed on the vampires portrayed as Other, and discussed their connection with the text on those grounds. Participant, LCircinus, associated the vampire as the Other and outsider, yet acknowledged that some readers may be able to relate to this exclusion of the Other. LCircinus praised Meyer’s concept of the “damned” outsider being able to aspire to more than a “mindless beast” and acknowledged that this may provide support and a different perspective to teens and adolescents. These statements are also addressed by the academic literature written by Krishnan (2007), Sceats (2001), Atwater (2000) and Williamson (2005b).

Sexual arousal of the vampire was another recurring topic of conversation throughout the posts and was specifically suggested by the works of Icoz (2003) and Rickels (1999) on the vampire in literature. Once again, some participants identified that there was a lack of described sexual intimacy and detail in the storyline. The majority of participants considered Edward “sexy” and an ideal sexual partner in their fantasies. capersforcullens and Stupid_lamb, discussed their personal attraction to Edward the vampire and their moral awareness that various characteristics Edward presents may be deemed “creepy” or dangerous; yet there is something alluring  and “sexy” about this danger. capersforcullens identified that readers can only “have that view” because the Twilight Series is of course, fiction. Participants, sparkling and Connieann confess that Edward was the focal source of their sexual fantasies. Connieann acknowledged that her fantasy is personal and “private” and cannot be altered or changed in any form, due its existence in her mind only. 

As also suggested by Mercer (2011), Ames (2010) and Clapp (2010), web participants discussed that when reading the series they would either personally attach and identify themselves as a character in the story (particularly Bella) or, as identified by Gabriel & Young (2011), O’Bannion (2010) and Backstein (2009), immerse themselves into the fantastical story and escape the reality of their lives. karolien and alleycat considered the series to be a means of escape from their everyday lives. Both participants viewed this form of escapism from reality in a positive light. Nella and cullens discussed the concept of reader escapism through the series’ love story. Nella, noted that the purpose of the series is to allow the reader to escape into the storyline and be immersed in the “exceptionally” love story. cullens discussed female attraction to the series due to its “capacity” to send women to another world, and explained that Meyer’s series has elements which appeal and are attractive to females, elements which “women’s heart loves to hear and fantasies about”.


The majority of online participants discussed their personal attachment to female protagonist Bella when reading the series, due to Meyer’s inclusion of Bella’s first person narrative. The participants felt that they were vicariously living Bella’s character through the narrative. Online participants Vampfan, the_cold_one, dagger and lillyanne1021 all shared the notion of reader appeal due the female protagonist’s first person narrative throughout a significant amount of the series’ four books. These participants all referred to Bella’s point of view as the key justification for their attraction to the series and storyline. The participants identify themselves with the leading characters and therefore become immersed in the romantic storyline. This concept of female identification with Bella, the female protagonist of the series, was discussed in various academic discourse by Backstein (2009), Wilson (2011) and Pearlman (2010).

The fact that Bella is described to be an average female adolescent is another characteristic which assisted participants’ identification with the leading love protagonist. The majority of participants expressed their desire to be Bella and experience the extraordinary love presented in the Twilight Series. meLzo discussed Bella’s ability to be easily identified with female readers of the series, concluding that Bella was written in such a way that females would tend to relate to her due to her normal characteristics and personality. The fact that Bella meets the love of her life, provides female readers with the hope that they, too, could meet their own Edward Cullen.

As Bailie (2011), Lee (2008), Williamson (2005b) and Sceats (2001) suggested in their scholarly works, most participants found the series to be a love story rather than a vampire story. Many online participants justified their reading of the books because of the high romantic elements, particularly identifying that it is the love between Edward and Bella, which provides the appeal to readers (particularly female readers). Vampfan acknowledged that readers want to be Bella and experience an enduring love. The mELICE and cullenize noted readers’ identification with Bella due to her falling in love in the storyline and, by noting their re-experiencing of the feelings of first love through the story, are therefore vicariously living through the character. This notion reflected in the academic discourse of Meloni (2007) and Sjöqvist (2010).

After identifying and further analysing the themes recurrent in the voices of both forms - academic and online - I found it essential to understand that these themes must be seen in a holistic manner as the source of the Twilight Series’ phenomenon. Not one theme has been the sole contributor to the appeal of this phenomenon worldwide. Each major and subordinate theme can be considered a variable which has influenced the book series’ popularity and, in some circles, unpopularity.

So, it was established that the themes developed through analysis of academic discourse were also identified in the casual discussions by fans posting on Twilight Saga fan sites. These results open up an exciting new avenue for researchers and facilitators of research. This study has determined that the reader’s online voice can potentially share, and provide audiences with, the same ideas presented in academic and scholarly works. The themes identified by academics were also recognised by the public, which leads to alternate perspectives when considering what makes a scholarly text scholarly.

Gullestad (2006) notes that “technological innovation” is one of the ever-changing contexts of research which is “...creating a need to reconfigure many aspects of scholarly practice” (p. 916). The internet is now becoming an arena for quality information. Web blogs, emails, wikis, comments and posts in all their transient fluidity can potentially portray the same information as an authoritative, traditional academic text. Gullestad (2006), warns that “... academics need to defend their working conditions...” (p. 916), “...both scholars and ordinary people” are given open access to research findings by the Internet “...reflecting both new technological possibilities and new expectations” (p. 916). Gullestad (2006) goes on to note that a decrease in “social status of scholarship” has been implied due to the “...destabilized...social role of scientific knowledge and the associated relationships of authority” (p. 916). This can be seen as similar to the change in how the public perceives news reporting by major networks in the face of the use of social media by demonstrators in uprisings all around the world. One may ask who is now the more credible source: the commercial news companies or comments and posts made by individuals directly affected by a specific event?

The quickening pace of technological advancements and the demand these advancements have on society has been noticed by academics and public alike, Baker (2010) notes that “...there are new thought processes involved in making sense of what is available online” (p. 294); new literacies have been identified through the internet medium. Issues of ownership and intellectual property rights (IPRs) has become another debatable topic, with internet users employing “...cyberspace as a true common- a marketplace of ideas - open to all communicative uses, including free transmission of informational and creative works with little regard for IPRs” (Tussey, 2001, p. 1131). It is Tussey’s (2001) concept “free transmission of informational and creative works” (p. 1131) that is identifiable with the topic at hand. The excerpts and comments that I collated and which were then provided in the study’s findings were accessible due to the internet’s free transmission. This distinctive characteristic of the internet as an online forum of (in this particular context) Twilight Saga discussion, enabled me to work with ideal quality data, easily accessible to readers throughout the world and easily accessible to myself, as the researcher of the study.

This final thought has directed this exploration of online communities and literacies into a further avenue of research. Can the genuine attraction adolescents experience when engaging with fellow fans on fan sites be adapted, fostered and transferred to the engagement required of middle years students when focusing on and enhancing their literacy development in the classroom? As previously identified, technology is an imperative part of our daily lives; it has become “so pervasive and intertwined with so many aspects of our private and professional lives that we seldom notice it” (Grabe & Grabe, 2004, p. xix), this also involves our time in the classroom.

So, a challenging question is raised. Shall there be a day when the thoughts and ideas of one individual, via the World Wide Web, has the same academic merit and following as a scholarly journal article written by an esteemed academic? What would this mean for universities and scholarly expectation? Has a revolution begun, of judging a text purely based on the quality and richness of an idea, rather than the means and people who developed it? Can the voices of the average Joe match the views and ideas of the academic Andy? Only time shall tell. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that technology is the means for this concept to become a reality and we - as a society, both academic, and broader - must be prepared for the consequences.


Works Cited

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Stephanie Di Palma

Volume 16, Issue 2, The Looking Glass, 2012

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