Arts & Pop Culture / Culture & Society

Vampires, Werewolves, and… the Economy? The Effects of the Twilight Saga on Local Economies in Washington State

By Magdalene Murphy

At the top of the Olympic Peninsula, that dark and rainy spit of land that sticks out from the westernmost edge of the continental United States, sits the unremarkable town of Forks, Washington. It is unremarkable, of course, except for being the backdrop to one of the biggest pop culture stories of the past decade: The Twilight Saga. It’s also located in my home state and was a repeat feature of my childhood.

When I was a kid, every summer we’d escape from the heat and noise of the city and head northwest to see my grandma and stay at the Oceanside Resort in La Push, on the lands of the Quileute Nation. The routine was the same every year. We’d take a long flight or drive to Forks and from there, a short drive to La Push. We’d always arrive just before they were ready to let us in, so Maman would buy us marshmallows from the reservation store and we’d sit on the cold damp sand in cold damp jeans and eat them while Maman and Grandma collected shiny rocks and chatted in a rapid-fire French my brothers and I barely understood. I remember Forks well; I loved going there, sitting in the diner and kicking my feet at the bottom of the booth, ducking into little shops to pass the time. When I moved to Washington at six years old, La Push and Forks served as anchors, reminding me that the place I was going was not as unfamiliar as it seemed. Even now, when I describe Washington to someone, the image that comes to me is of First Beach at La Push. The area is one of the ways I conceive of the Pacific Northwest.

But the Forks I visited no longer exists, at least not in the same form; it has been transformed into a reflection of the Twilight series and attracts tourists for that very reason. Forks, as I remember it, has no place in Twilight; when Stephenie Meyer visited Forks, La Push, and Washington State for the first time in 2004, she had already completed the first book in the series. The Forks depicted in the book is completely fictional. In fact, the blog post Meyer wrote about the visit, entitled “Forks is a real place and I was there!” details her worries about being “disappointed” by the town, though in the end she found it a perfect fit for her invented Washington. Nearby La Push, where I spent so many hours as a child, was “incredible,” an absolutely perfect fit to her imagination. Since the books are so intensely connected to the land and climate—from protagonist Bella’s anxiety about the weather and longing for her native desert, to the vampires’ ability to come out only when it rains, to the direct connection of the werewolf characters to the land itself—it’s strange that Meyer had never even visited when she wrote the first book.

In fact, the decision of the setting was completely arbitrary. According to her website, Meyer chose the site after a Google search named the Olympic peninsula as one of the rainiest places in the United States. The success of her books transformed the little town of Forks into what the New York Times, in 2009, called a “mecca for Twilighters.” By that year, four years after the first book was published, local businesses had changed their names, or else had them changed by the Forks Chamber of Commerce—suddenly, the Miller Tree Inn Bed & Breakfast became the “Cullen House.” According to statistics from the Forks Chamber of Commerce, the town received about 70,000 visitors in 2009 and 73,000 in 2010, as compared to only about 5,000 in 2004, before the book was published. Numbers had been on the decline since at least 1997, victims of a failing timber industry. Twilight emerged just in time to fill the gap left by timber.

As businesses emerged to satisfy the growing number of Twilight tourists, a strange and very meta transformation turned the town into Meyer’s—and therefore the tourists’—very invention of it, and finally the town became drastically different from the Forks I remember. The Oceanside Resort that I once ate s’mores in, for example, now offers a “Twilight Escape” package (available Oct. 1 to April 1), a “Wolf Den” (a Twilight-themed cabin chock-full of werewolf imagery, including the sheets), and declares on its home page that guests can “visit the haunts of all [their] favorite characters from the popular book series penned by Stephenie Meyer.” Even more direct, in this same introductory paragraph, “Jacob Black and the rest of the Quileute Tribe invites” guests to visit. The illusion is almost complete—Jacob Black, the invented member of a mostly invented tribe (by which I mean that the activity and mythology of Meyer’s Quileute tribe bears little resemblance to reality) now serves as a spokesperson for the real Quileute Nation’s business. It’s a strange concept, made stranger by Meyer’s lack of knowledge about La Push and the Quileute Nation. According to her blog, she picked La Push for its beauty (which is absolutely undeniable)—but again, the series could have as easily been set in Norway for all the connection it has to West Coast culture.

Despite this transformative success, by 2011 the number of visitors was halved from the previous year, and consequently some of the businesses, like Dazzled by Twilight, have shut down. Others, such as the Forks Adventure Tour, have simply disappeared—their websites gone and Google searches or phone calls fruitless. While tourist numbers for 2016 are still higher than they were in the pre-Twilight years, they are less than half of the peak number. Even the official Cullen House blog, the homepage of the bed-and-breakfast renamed for the house of the vampire family from the books, had its last post referencing Twilight in 2014. Though the website is still up and running, its recent posts are focused on local events: the Quillayute Valley Scholarship Auction, Memorial Day celebrations, and recipes, for example. While there may still be enough tourists to make Twilight tourism a viable source of income, they do not make it a lucrative one—hence the disappearance of many Twilight businesses and websites. The Forks Chamber of Commerce website’s Twilight page has a distinct look of desperation, a glittering slideshow of Twilight-themed images insisting that visitors can “discover the magic…just like Bella did!” Signs in local shops proclaim: “Twilighters welcome.” The Quileute Nation homepage makes less mention of the series, though a note does encourage visitors to contact Tribal Publicist Jackie Jacobs for Twilight inquiries. Twilight lingers in every corner of the public face of the Forks and La Push economy, even as its economic viability and popularity dwindles.

When I spoke to a representative of the Forks Chamber of Commerce on the phone, she told me that one of her favorite things about the boom in Twilight tourism is that people “come for Twilight” but return for the Olympic Peninsula. They fall in love, she intimated, and want to come back for weddings, vacations, or just to walk in the woods—Twilight aside. I found this comforting—the idea that even a visit just for Twilight could bring people “from all over the world” to appreciate the wild beauty of the Olympic Peninsula. It’s also a hopeful sign for a tourist-based economy; even if Twilight fails, perhaps the tourism might continue. But the marketing of Twilight tourism doesn’t portray the series as just another quirk that helps make a visit worth the trip; rather, it is the main draw, and the rest of the area—the real parts—is an addition. A Forks Chamber of Commerce “guy’s list” of “manly things” to do in Forks includes activities like hiking in Olympic National Park, fishing, or visiting the Timber Museum. These are main cultural and economic points of interest for Washington State and especially for the Olympic Peninsula, but for the Twilight tourist—at least the one targeted by marketing—they are secondary, there for those who don’t share the Twilight passion. Notably these are men, although the list says that “gals can have fun doing these things too!” Twilight is the main reason to visit Forks, at least terms of publicity, and both town and marketing reflect that attitude.

While most attempts to attract tourists rankle, especially for locals, there’s something particularly perturbing for me about the Twilight fanfare. Perhaps it is the way my generation utterly rejected the series just as soon as we were done adoring it. Perhaps the association of Twilight and the essence of teenage girlhood still upsets me in that place where I’ve hidden my memories of being a teenage girl, in part because teenage girlhood and its accompaniments aren’t socially acceptable. Mostly, I think, I’m bothered by the gradual transformation of a place I knew and loved—a place I will forever associate with family and with the intense beauty of my home in Washington State—into a playground for people who care about an unrelated fantasy. Twilight has nothing to do with Forks, but Forks has come to have everything to do with Twilight. The disturbing reality is that socio-cultural movements, like the Twilight craze, that take place almost entirely over the internet—and therefore might seem harmless—have significant consequences on the lives, homes, and businesses of real people.

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