Your next stop: the ‘Twilight’ zone

Carpenter is a Times staff writer.

When the timber economy that had sustained this wet and distant place for its first hundred years came crashing to earth like an old-growth Douglas fir, people exhausted themselves trying to figure out what the future would hold. What would happen to the little town clinging to the western slope of the rain forest on the Olympic Peninsula with its single grocery store, one traffic light and 3,100 residents?

Nobody guessed anything like this:

Sydney Conway and two of her teenage friends, on a school holiday, got into a minivan and drove four hours -- to stare at the nondescript brick building that is Forks High School. There’s a weathered wooden sign announcing it as “the home of the Spartans,” but otherwise it looks like most other high schools in the country.

Sydney, Alexis Miller and Rebekah Hamilton got out of their van, stood in front of the school -- oblivious to the cool mist that was frizzing their hair and chilling their pedicured, flip-flopped feet -- and screamed, “Twilight!”


The Twilight Saga, as just about any teen girl could tell you, is the name of a mega-selling series of books by Stephenie Meyer set in a mythical version of Forks. The books chronicle the complicated love triangle of a human, a vampire and a werewolf. To say they are huge is like calling Harry Potter just a boy.

Specifically, the young-adult books are about Bella Swan, a teenager who moves to Forks to live with her dad. Attending the local high school, she meets a pretty boy named Edward Cullen, who, it turns out, is a vampire; he is powerfully attracted to Bella, but to act on his instinct would mean injuring, possibly even killing her.

Over the course of 2,000 pages, Edward avoids, falls in love with and leaves Bella, which makes room for a werewolf named Jacob to vie for her affections. Jacob and Edward spar, Bella chooses Edward, and 17 million book sales later, the Twilight Saga is a major cultural force, inspiring such adoring fandom that this tiny town is now a tourist destination for giggling, screaming teenagers (and some women) whose love for the Twilight books is so strong that they want to live in its make-believe world. So far this year, more than 7,000 Twilighters have visited.

Forks High School is often besieged with Twilighters, who pose for pictures in front of the Spartans sign or scan the parking lot for Edward’s car, a silver Volvo sedan. Some have even wandered inside to seek out the fictional characters. Still others have requested to be transferred to the school.

As Sydney and her friends mugged for the camera, a man in a pickup drove by and smiled at them with a pair of white plastic fangs.

“We probably wouldn’t do this for another book,” said Sydney, 17, who lives in Redmond. “Maybe Harry Potter, but that’s a little too far away.”


A few blocks over, Anna Vandenhole, 46, was traipsing down the sidewalk of Forks Avenue, on the hunt for an official Bella bracelet -- a piece of costume jewelry festooned with charms and Swarovski crystals that Meyer herself helped design.

“We’re just looking for trinkets and the photo ops. They’ve already got their T-shirts,” Vandenhole said, glancing at her 17-year-old son, Sonny, and his girlfriend, Ashley Parker, 16, who were wearing matching black Twilight T-shirts.

Vandenhole had already succeeded with part of their day’s mission. Her digital camera was brimming with photos she’d taken of the local hospital, a stranger’s two-story bungalow, an old red pickup truck -- places and items that, to a non-Twilighter’s eye, are just a hospital or a house or a truck. To a Twilight fan, they’re the truck that Bella drives, the high school where she and Edward begin their romance, the hospital where Bella is taken after her true love saves her from being killed by a van. Characters who, to many Twilight fans, have been so thoroughly and emotionally rendered in print that they seem real.

“How often have you ever taken a vacation to see a grocery store, a high school and a hospital?” asked Janet Hughes, owner of JT’s Sweet Stuffs, a brightly lit candy shop that sells Twilight delights: Edward Bites (chocolate-covered peppermint bark) and Bella Creams (mint butter creams). “We’ve had people from all over the world.”


‘Welcome race fans and vampires,” trumpets the sign for Weston Motors, an auto shop along State Route 101 that is the first Forks business a visitor sees when driving in from Seattle.

“Edward Cullen didn’t sleep here!” reads a letter board at the Olympic Suites Inn, just a couple hundred yards farther up the tree-lined road.


That’s before visitors have even reached the main drag. Travel toward Forks’ one lighted intersection, and tourists can eat Twilight sandwiches at the sub shop or rent Bella’s Suite at the Dew Drop Inn.

Many locals have played along with the themes in the Twilight books -- and business has boomed.

“It’s not that hard to put [Twilighters] over the edge,” said Julie Hjelmeset, the inn’s manager. She transformed the double-queen bedroom in the otherwise run-of-the-mill hotel by swapping the white linens and towels for racier black-and-red versions and resting imitation long-stemmed roses on the beds. Bella’s Suite fetches double the rate of a regular room -- $149 a night versus $74.

The driving force behind the town’s resurgence is the Forks Chamber of Commerce.

It was the head of the Chamber who reached out to the owners of a house to see if they’d be willing to place a “Home of the Swans” sign in their lushly landscaped yard. According to homeowner Kim McIrvin, thousands of visitors have since stopped by the two-story blue bungalow to snap pictures and to imagine Edward sneaking in through the upstairs window.

Following McIrvin’s lead, another Chamber member offered to transform her bed-and-breakfast into “the Cullen house.” The door to the large mailbox now reads “Cullen,” along with the Miller Tree Inn wording that’s been there for years, and a sign on the front porch is updated with daily messages from the fictional family’s matriarch, Esme.

Marianne Ell, 53, and her daughter, Annie Harker, 14, had driven 10 hours from Vancouver Island, Canada, to stay at the inn and spend a day and a half in Forks.


“It’s completely worth it. This town is almost completely devoted to Twilight,” said Annie, who was wearing a Forks Fang Club T-shirt and a Love at First Bite cap. Annie is particularly fond of Edward, because he’s “mysterious and intriguing.”

He was also the reason Annie’s mother hadn’t been able to sleep for two nights.

“Chivalrous, supportive, protective, kind, thoughtful. A fantasy man,” is how Ell described Edward.

“We’re staying in his house!” she all but screamed from the inn’s breakfast nook.

The Chamber also bought a 1953 Chevy pickup truck, like the one Bella drives in the books. Spray-painted red, with a fake license plate that reads “Bella” affixed to the front bumper, it is parked in front of the Chamber’s Twilight-festooned office.

“You can’t believe how many people want to stop here and have their picture taken by that truck,” said Mike Gurling, the Chamber’s visitor center manager. Gurling came up with the Twilight Map given to visitors to guide them around town. He also uses it for the monthly three-hour Twilight bus tour, which he put together and leads. Among the stops: Forks City Hall, which houses the police station; and the Indian reservation in nearby La Push -- prime werewolf territory, where Jacob roams.

The Forks Community Hospital was also game. Recognizing the hospital had a part in the books -- Edward’s father is a doctor -- the administrator created a “Dr. Cullen Reserved Parking Only” sign and put it in the parking lot. It quickly became a tourist attraction.

When fans sought authentic Twilight food, Sully’s Burgers obliged. The Bellaburger -- a hamburger topped with a ring of pineapple and a slice of Swiss cheese and served with a pair of plastic vampire teeth -- is the bestselling item at the mom-and-pop restaurant. Never mind that this burger does not exist in the books. Nor do the Bellasagna, Bellaberry (raspberry/blueberry) pie and other Twilight foods offered at area restaurants.


Sully’s manager, Bruce Guckenberg, has four daughters, all of whom have read the books and three of whom work at the restaurant. What’s been most surprising to Christina Guckenberg, 30, is how seriously some fans take the books. She was especially surprised by a customer who hoped to meet Chief Charlie Swan, the fictional Forks police officer who is Bella’s dad.

“You mean Chief Powell?” Christina countered, offering her customer the name of the real Forks head of police.

Having strangers call him Charlie is “kind of flattering, but it’s weird because it’s from a book,” said Mike Powell, who has good-naturedly started answering to the fictitious name. Powell also signs autographs as Chief Swan and poses for pictures with his squad car. He plays along, he said, because “it’s good for the town.”

But not everyone in town understands the books’ appeal, or why their fans are descending upon Forks.

“Our kids don’t see the novelty,” said Mark Brandmire, assistant principal of Forks High School. “What part of ‘fiction’ don’t you get?”


Meyer had never been to Forks when she started writing her books. She chose the town after an Internet search showed it was the rainiest city in the Lower 48. Vampires, after all, don’t like sun. Forks, with its prodigious 120 inches of annual precipitation, is often covered with mist.


Twilighters first started trickling into town in August 2006, when Meyer came to Forks for the first time to promote her second book, “New Moon.” At that time, her books were printed in the tens of thousands and her appearances drew small crowds.

One year later, inspired by the release of Meyer’s third book, “Eclipse,” Forks threw a party. The date was Sept. 13 -- Bella’s birthday -- and 125 Twilighters showed up.

As Meyer’s fame grew, so did the town’s Twilighter tourism, especially this past summer leading up to the release of Meyer’s fourth and final book in the series, “Breaking Dawn,” and “Twilight,” the movie version of the first book. “Breaking Dawn” was published in August with an initial print run of 3.2 million. The movie, which wasn’t filmed in Forks but at various spots in Oregon and elsewhere in Washington state, will be in theaters Friday. The town of Forks was apparently too small to support such a large production, according to the film’s spokeswoman.

This September, more than 1,000 Twilighters came to Forks for Bella, Edward and Jacob look-alike contests and a werewolf dance, among other festivities. And the fans have kept on coming.

“This could be a phenomenon for quite some period of time,” said the Chamber’s Gurling.

“If the movie’s popular and they film ‘New Moon,’ ‘Eclipse’ and ‘Breaking Dawn,’ this could continue for the next several years.”