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‘Twilight’ Taught a Generation About the Spanish Flu

Definitive proof that your school failed you and your teen obsessions will always be relevant

Before the pandemic, I had heard of the Spanish Flu. What I knew was that it happened in the early 20th century, and that it killed young men. I certainly didn’t hear about it in school, though. I’d only ever seen it mentioned in Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight saga

Like most, my knowledge of 20th century history is largely self-taught through books and film. I’ve not even once been in a history class that actually managed to comprehensively cover World War II before summer began, though it seems like every year of elementary and middle school contained a two-month unit explaining that the 13 colonies subsisted largely upon squash and beans, with at least a week devoted to establishing that corn was called “maize” (in fairness, I did grow up in Massachusetts). 

Even in high school, where were we lucky enough to have time to vaguely gloss over what happened between the abolition of slavery and now, there was never enough time to cover some little flu that killed between 17 and 50 million people. Yet again, I knew of its theoretical existence, because Stephanie Meyer was in need of a reason for Edward Cullen to have been turned into a vampire, and 12-year-old me was in need of some mass-market fiction to feed my tween lust. To add a little historical flair to the book, Meyer determined that Cullen’s backstory would involve him having been a 17-year-old living in Chicago when a horrific pandemic swept through the city. Cullen’s mother, on her deathbed, begs the doctor to save her similarly ill son. So, he does what the other doctors cannot: He turns Edward into an immortal vampire. 

And here we are today. 

I’m sure you have some questions about this setup. Why was Edward the only one turned into a vampire when thousands upon thousands of other young men were dying in Chicago at the same time? Couldn’t really tell ya. Why was the doctor a vampire? Like, isn’t that a bad job for someone who wants to secretly drink blood? Again, can’t answer these questions, largely because I got tired of protagonist Bella Swan’s shenanigans after the first book (i.e., I felt a deep sense of jealousy and resentment toward Bella who, like me, was pale and brunette). 

But once this current pandemic hit, the 1918 Spanish Flu became hot conversation. It seemed that most people weren’t familiar with the Spanish Flu at all, meaning they had not seen or at the very least not remembered it being essential to the Twilight series. With this, I’m sure many former teen girls now feel deeply vindicated: If reading Twilight was so stupid, how come I know all about this historical event and you don’t? 

Unfortunately, that sense of righteousness is somewhat dampened by the fact that we’re in the midst of a global crisis, but still.