FORKS, Washington — If you're like many "Twilight" fans, you cherish every word of Stephenie Meyer's novels, gush each time Robert Pattinson runs his fingers through his hair and celebrate the birthdays of the Cullens as if you're part of the family. But if you haven't been to Forks, you're missing out on a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience.
After all the time that I've spent covering the "Twilight" beat for MTV, I was extremely honored to be asked to attend Summer School in Forks: A "Twilight" Symposium, a real-life fan event that allowed Twilighters to attend classes, go to a prom and enjoy field trips around the real-life town that Meyer immortalized by making it home to her beloved characters.
"We're having Summer School in Forks right now," beamed Kaleb Nation, a.k.a. the "Twilight" Guy, a popular blogger/author. "We have all these bands up here for the 'Twilight' prom. I gave a speech earlier, and we have all these speakers that have been talking about the series. We have the woman who [voices] the audio books here. It's been an amazing event for a bunch of Twilighters to get together in Forks."
Driving into the small town (population 3,000), the first things you see are the enormous trees, the gorgeous beaches — and the pouring rain and overcast skies that make it such a perfect place for sexy vampires to call home. Then, when you pull into town, you see a quaint Disneyland for Twilighters: A motel sign screams "Edward Cullen Slept Here," a local Chinese restaurant features a "Twilight Dinner" and every third storefront sells Robert Pattinson cardboard cutouts, custom-made T-shirts and other "Twilight" trappings.
"I've had the flower shop for about 14 years — my mom owned it before me," explained Charlene Cross, owner of Lepell's Twilight Central (where an employee dressed as Alice sells lollipops that read "Bite Me" and bumper stickers that say "Warning: I Drive Like a Cullen"). "Business is three times what it normally would be. [Before the novels became popular], when I sold flowers strictly, holidays, funerals, weddings would be a good time. Now it's a daily thing, and I think it's only going to get bigger."
"The town was having some major economic issues, because their major export was logging — and then 'Twilight' came along," Kaleb explained. "And if you look at Forks now, Stephenie has transformed this town into a 'Twilight' tourism economy. It's crazy."
"None of our students are vampires — at least, not that we're aware of," grinned Kevin Rupprecht, the real-life principal of Forks High School, who promised me that he resists the daily temptation to call Edward Cullen to his office over the loudspeaker. "Thousands and thousands of people come through this town, just to see the 'Twilight' setting, every month. We do have a couple of lockers, for the fans, that are designated for Edward and Bella. People like that. And we do know which parking spot the almost-accident occurred in. So we direct fans to that; they eat it up."
Forks High was the site of the Symposium. And although it was fun to see all the fans wearing T-shirts that read "Jasper Says Relax" or fathers dressed up like Carlisle (complete with brown contact lenses), they were here for some serious business.
"We got to listen to a lecture by John Granger, who is the author of many [books about] Harry Potter," explained Maddi of "Bloodsuckers," a "Twilight" podcast, who attended Granger's class on religious themes within the pages of the popular novels. "Stephenie Meyer is a Mormon, and we didn't realize how much her religion played into the 'Twilight' series. ... He told us about how Bella and Edward, in the series, represent the relationship between man and God. Edward is God, Bella is man, and when he leaves she feels an absence in her heart. That was really interesting."
Another interesting part of the weekend was Saturday night's "prom" in the Forks High gymnasium. With attendees of all ages dressed in their best evening gowns and suits, popular "Twilight" acts the Bella Cullen Project, Bella Rocks and the Mitch Hansen Band sang odes to the Cullen clan. The YouTube sensation Hillywood Players walked amongst them dressed as Bella, Jasper, Alice and Edward — the latter had his shirt open to reveal his chest, naturally. After sniffing a few potential mates, "Edward" chose his dancing partner from among the blushing fans.
"It's been totally inspirational," Mitch Hansen said of his first time in Forks, saying that he was moved enough to write some new lyrics. "It's mind-blowing."
On Sunday, yours truly got to deliver the keynote speech to the "graduates" during a ceremony that saw them all receiving diplomas. As we stood in the real-deal Forks cafeteria, it was hard to deny the feeling that Edward could come strolling in at any moment, grab a tray of food that he would only poke at and stare longingly at Bella from across the room. As the line between fiction and fact continued to blur, the Twilighters exchanged hugs and phone numbers, taking home the memories of a lifetime along with their diplomas.
"We ended up taking the same flight Bella took to get to Forks in 'Twilight,' " explained Maddi, remembering the journey that she and her friends had taken to get to the tiny town Meyer selected for her novels despite the fact that she had never actually set foot here. "We went from Phoenix to the Seattle airport, then took a puddle-jumper from Seattle to Port Angeles and got to see all the beautiful scenery.
"We ate at Bella Italia, which is where Edward and Bella had their first date. It was pouring — just like it should be — when we got here," she continued, saying that even when there isn't a scheduled fan event, Forks is still a Disneyland for Twilighters. "Everywhere you go, you can just imagine Bella and Edward walking down the street in this cozy little town. It really is like being in the home of 'Twilight.' "