Stephenie Meyers’ emo-riffic series of books about sensitive, sparkly vampires and the bland girls who love them rocketed into the cultural lexicon seemingly overnight: The first of the series’ four books was published in 2005, with the rest following at a steady clip; the film adaptation was, unsurprisingly, rushed out by 2008, with the sequel to follow this fall. In less than half a decade, Twilight has burrowed into the public consciousness, where it has, depending on your outlook, either bloomed or festered.

Meyers’ slapdash empire has spawned a huge, largely female legion of “Twihards” who devote large portions of their lives (and incomes) to exploring (and buying) everything and anything having to do with their beloved Bella and Edward: re-reading and -watching the books and film ad nauseum, creating and maintaining mind-bogglingly intricate and loving websites/vlogs/fanfic, and forming diehard allegiances to minor characters that sometimes manifest themselves in bewildering craft projects:

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And yet for all its adoration, Twilight has also earned its share of critics turned off by any number of offenses: the series’ thinly veiled “true love waits”/pro-life themes (Meyer is Mormon); its decidedly unsexy, non-violent, boring take on one of literature’s most sexy/violent/intriguing mythical creatures; and perhaps more than anything, the shrieking throngs of manic fans.

As I explained in the podcast I did with Tasha about the Twilight movie, I gave in to curiosity about a year ago and read the books. I’ve had no desire to return to them since, due in no small part to some major ideological problems I have with the fourth book, which I discuss in the podcast. The subject of Twilight fandom, on the other hand, continues to fascinate. Yes, it’s funny—in a mean sort of way—to watch 15-year-old girls who don’t know any better freak out about this stuff, but that’s what teenage girls do. But what about the middle-aged “Twimoms”? Or the grown male fans? Or, oddest of all, those who love the series even though they see and acknowledge its flaws—the guilty-pleasure girls, if you will?

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It was one such fan who talked me into attending Twicon 2009 in Dallas, the largest conference in the U.S. devoted to Twilight. A friend of mine who works at a record label here in Chicago approached me with the idea of going to Dallas to bear snickering witness to this madness, should we be able to swing some sort of free admission. Before I knew it, my non-committal shoulder shrug had resulted in the two of us leading a session at the convention called “Music And Twilight,” along with two other acquaintances from other facets of the entertainment industry. And just like that, I found myself actually researching the very thing I’ve spent so much time deriding, all so that I could fly to Dallas under the cover of “professionalism” to deride it in person. I am aware this makes me a terrible person.

Despite my detachment from the whole Twilight fandom universe, I was genuinely nervous about plunging into this pool of Twihards. Given my easily Google-able C- review of the film and the aforementioned, mostly critical podcast, I was envisioning a lecture hall full of angry fans ready to tear me into pieces and set me aflame (the Twilight-sanctioned method of disposing of one’s enemies) should I say one disparaging thing about the film’s soundtrack during our panel, which I was planning on doing.

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However, as usual, my ego had gotten the best of me. Not only was there no melee, there was hardly an audience for our panel, thanks to a poorly thought-out schedule-of-events booklet that failed to mention that singer-songwriter Sam Bradley—who penned a song for the film’s soundtrack and just happens to be childhood friends with Robert Pattinson—would be on the panel as well. Considering every time I saw him throughout the weekend he was neck-deep in swooning fans, such a mention probably would have increased the profile of our janky little panel somewhat. As it stood, however, approximately three dozen people populated the 4,300-capacity ballroom in which our panel took place. Burn.

Despite that ignominy, our little discussion went off quite well, thanks in no small part to a lovely woman named Maggie who organized and led our panel, along with all the other academic programming at the convention, in between getting her Ph.D. in film adaptation and being a genuinely cool, sane Twilight fan. (They exist!)

Sadly, the entire convention wasn’t planned by a bunch of Maggies, and the weekend was plagued by the same sort of disorganization and lack of foresight that torpedoed our panel. As the weekend wore on, I found myself feeling sorry for the approximately 3,000 Twihards in attendance who had shelled out so much money and gotten so little in return. In exchange for their $255 registration fee—not to mention travel and lodging expenses—they got the pleasure of waiting in line after line to get into “breakout sessions” relegated to 40-person conference rooms while our panel sat in a mostly empty ballroom. Call me crazy, but when you’re mounting a conference targeted toward teenage girls, it might be a good idea to reserve the ballrooms for planned events like a jewelry-making class and dancing lessons, not the fuddy-duddy discussion panels.

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As I was not willing to stand in a 100-person line to get into “Alice’s Makeover Room” or “Cardio With The Cullens,” I resigned myself to exploring the more subdued programming options. I was hoping to get to go to one of the convention’s eight, that’s right, eight panels devoted to fan fiction—sample titles: “Twilight Crack-fic: Angst Be Gone!” and “Fade To Black… Twilight’s Missing Moments” (a.k.a. sexytimes)—but once again scheduling confusion landed me instead in a mildly interesting lecture about gender roles/identification and Twilight. (Sample insight: “Those who reject feminist identity are less likely to be absorbed by the books.”) Other than that, Friday was devoted mostly to wandering around and gawping at fan shenanigans while Twittering non-stop about the whole experience.

The most cringe-worthy stuff mostly unfolded in the convention’s merchandise area, which drove home the impression that Twicon exists solely to get impressionable fans to pay for crap. Let’s take a turn about the room, shall we?

First, how would you like to purchase some nice art?

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Or perhaps you’d like to pose for a photo with the hand model whose hands appear on the first book’s cover? Presumably you can pose with her whole body, should you choose to do so. If you can’t afford to shell out $20 for that honor, she’ll give you an autograph for $10. Bargain!

After that, it’s off to the spray-on glitter booth to get your vampire sparkle on!

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Once you’re properly bedazzled, pick up some Twilight-themed Sweethearts, which are distinguished by an iridescent coating and creepier-than-usual candy sentiments.

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Then it’s time to pose for another photo, this time with a bunch of “look-alike” actors whose commitment to their craft seems to go no further than putting on some white makeup and looking vaguely pissed off.

Had I only had an extra hundred bucks or so to spend on these “opportunities,” perhaps I would have gotten the true Twicon experience. Instead, my thrifty ass decided to check out a concert featuring a couple of fan bands. There seemed to be some genuine talent percolating in the creatively named Twilight Music Girls quintet, though I question whether they really needed to feature three acoustic guitars, given that they were all playing the same chords in the same tuning. I didn’t stick around for any of the other fan bands, and I also skipped out on one of the con’s hottest tickets, Friday night’s performance by 100 Monkeys, the band of Twilight actor Jackson Rathbone, whom most attendees seemed to regard with the sort of reverence reserved for Johnny Depp or Brad Pitt, despite the fact that he had exactly five lines in the film, and spent most of his onscreen time looking like this:

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But a hottie is a hottie, and Rathbone does have a certain dirty-boy charm when he’s not under 3 inches of pancake makeup—and he was probably the most interesting part of the cast Q&A panel on Saturday, with the possible exception of Peter “Mr. Jennie Garth” Facinelli, who made the inadvisable choice to actually run into the crowd of 3,000 screaming Twihards at one point. (Incidentally, this was the exact moment when my eardrums finally exploded). The rest of the cast in attendance at the con accounted for a grand total of maybe 20 minutes of the movie’s runtime—one of them, Alex Meraz, wasn’t even in the first film; he plays a minor character in the upcoming sequel, New Moon. Yet judging by the squeals when they appeared onstage for the Q&A, you’d think Robert Pattinson himself had just done naked cartwheels across the dais.

There seems to be no spectrum of enthusiasm with hardcore Twilight fans: No matter how minor the association, their fervor always seems to be cranked to “squeal.” This was especially apparent when, during the sound check for the Q&A, Maggie tested the levels by saying various Twilight-related phrases into the eight mics, eliciting screams for just saying the names of characters. The audience even screamed when she said “red pickup truck” and “silver Volvo,” the two cars driven by the main characters. Earlier in the day, a screening of the film in the ballroom was punctuated by shrieks and gasps every five minutes or so—basically whenever anything possessing a penis came onscreen.

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And yet, at many times throughout the weekend I got the impression that the Twihards were flipping out over minor delights to compensate for the fact that most of the time, a large contingent of the attendees and organizers seemed to be pretty annoyed. The horde of volunteers seemed to be in a perpetual state of scowling confusion/exasperation, while con-goers could frequently be heard bemoaning the constant clusterfuckery of huge lines, confusing scheduling, or the fact that pretty much everything a superfan would want to do—namely meet-and-greets and autograph sessions—required pre-registration and often an additional fee. The academic programming was interesting to a niche audience, sure, and hey, live music and movie screenings are always nice. But manic screaming aside, most attendees usually seemed to be as excited to be at the con as they would walking through the halls between classes.

Or perhaps they were just saving it all up for the Volturi ball on Saturday night. Presumably the highlight of the weekend’s planned activities, the Volturi ball existed mainly as a show of female wardrobe one-upmanship. (Quick aside: Any dude looking to get laid would be well-advised to bust out his best vampire attire and seek out the nearest Twilight convention—the male-to-female ratio at the ball seemed to hover around one to 10. Just be sure to ask for I.D.) Sure, there was a DJ, table centerpieces, and a fairly impressive spread of hors d’oeuvres. But the ball existed mainly as a parade of black and red satin and velvet in varying degrees of modesty.

Most conspicuous were the “Hillywood” troupe of actors—the same ones who were offering photo ops earlier in the con—dressed as their respective characters. (“Bella” and “Edward” are representing this Entertainment Weekly cover, while “Jasper” and “Alice” are wearing outfits described in the books.) Needless to say, these getups garnered their fair share of raised eyebrows among the mostly chaste crowd.

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Others attendees seemed to settle for busting out their old Ren Faire attire, despite the fact that the Twilight series takes place in the decidedly uncorseted modern day.

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Though I have to give genuine props to the creativity and talent displayed by the winners of the evening’s costume contest, who fashioned gowns inspired by each of the series’ four books.

Like everything else at Twicon, the ball seemed to aspire to be much more than it was in execution. Whether that was due to poor organization, frustrated attendees, or some combination of the two, the fact remains that the whole endeavor was kind of a ripoff. This epic thread on the Twicon forums gives a little more insight into the general disappointment by the fans in attendance—though it should be noted that there is a healthy contingent defending the con as well. But considering there’s already a Vegas con planned for 2010, and similar cons have popped up all over the country, it’s clear that this cash cow isn’t anywhere close to being milked dry.

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