Tourists take over the ’Twilight’ town

The town the famous vampire novels are set in is bracing for the release of the film sequel

Twilight Central's sobbing pilgrimsHordes of screeching strangers have taken over the formerly sleepy community of Forks, Wash. “This is like the mecca,” says Mike Gurling, manager of the visitors’ centre at the Forks chamber of commerce. “It is amazing.”

The visitors are “twihards,” diehard fans of Twilight—the tetralogy of romantic vampire novels by Stephenie Meyer. They’ve been making the pilgrimage to Forks, population 3,120—the town Meyer chose as the setting for her story because of its isolation, beauty and near-constant rainfall—since 2006, a year after the first novel was released. The books, which tell the story of a clumsy teenager named Bella who falls in love with Edward, a moody, immortal bloodsucker, are the biggest thing since Harry Potter. The film version of Twilight’s sequel, New Moon, will be released Nov. 20 and is expected to bring droves of fans to Forks, even though the nearest theatre is about 60 miles away.

“The backs of the cars say things like ‘Forks or bust,’ ‘We love Bella,’ ‘We love Edward,’ ” says Gurling. “They get on their cellphones, just literally jumping up and down on the floor, calling their best friends, saying ‘You won’t believe it, I’m actually in Forks.’ ” One teenage girl, says Gurling, “comes in and she starts looking around at all the T-shirts and things and she actually begins sobbing. Tears are just streaming down her cheeks.”

The crowds can cause bumper-to-bumper traffic, infuriating residents waiting for cars to trickle through the town’s single stoplight. But for the most part, Forks has completely embraced the madness. “We realized all these people would be coming to Forks and we wanted to give them an experience,” says Gurling.

Approximately 69,000 tourists have filtered through the town’s handful of inns and bed and breakfasts since January, compared to the 6,000 a year who came in the B.T. (before Twilight) days. The visitors are mostly groups of middle-aged women or young girls dragging along bewildered parents. Nedra Reed, the town’s mayor, tells the story of a man, “probably in his forties,” he saw walking around a parking lot. “He looked like ‘What the heck am I doing here?’ I walked up to him and said, ‘Would you be a Twilight dad?’ And he said, ‘Oh God, yes, five girls, from Nebraska.’ ”

Tourists are welcome at the hospital, police station, high school and area beaches, all of which were featured in the novels. They pose for photos on a replica of Bella’s pink ’52 Chevy, or in front of the “Welcome to Forks” sign at the town’s entrance—made iconic by its appearance in the first Twilight movie.

The Forks Coffee Shop was about to close before the fans invaded. Now, with the addition of some Twilight-themed menus, it’s thriving. Leppell’s Flowers and Gifts, in downtown Forks, calls itself “Twilight Central.” Like almost every other shop in town, it carries merchandise ranging from “I was bit in Forks” bumper stickers to “Team Edward” mugs and scrapbooking materials based on the series.

The town’s sudden popularity even caught the attention of Jason Brown, an Emmy-award-winning filmmaker. His documentary about the community, Twilight in Forks, is scheduled to be released in March, coinciding with the DVD release of New Moon.

Annette Roots, who has read the Twilight series 16 times, owns a store that is featured in the doc. After only one visit to Forks she decided to quit her job, pack up her five children (her husband stayed behind in Vancouver, Wash., and commutes on weekends) and move to the town to open an “immersive” gift shop called Dazzled by Twilight. “I sat down and thought: what would it feel like for me to walk into the book?” she says. The 4,000-sq.-foot store is divided into four sections: a forest with gigantic fake trees, a beach with sand and driftwood, a broken-down castle and a dim, black-lit dungeon. One of Roots’s friends jokingly calls the store “Twisneyland.” With business booming, Roots was able to expand aggressively—she started running tours, opened a second gift shop, and turned an abandoned bar into a family-friendly, Twilight-themed lounge. “I get to do what I love all day,” she says. “It’s kind of magical.”

The phenomenon has been nothing but magical for the town. Forks has had its share of economic problems—the logging town would have been devastated by the recession. Instead, it’s doing better than it has in 30 years. “Twilight has been an absolute blessing,” says Mayor Reed. “It’s kept the last person from turning out the lights, and as a matter of fact, lights are going on in abandoned buildings.”