The disciples of Potter

Real-world professors hold an otherworldly symposium for young witches and wizards.

harry potter 88 (photo credit: )
harry potter 88
(photo credit: )
Hundreds of Harry Potter fanatics have turned the historic seaport of Salem, Massachusetts, best known for its witches and their trials, into a makeshift college campus fit for a young wizard. In hotel ballrooms, professors from real-world universities led panel discussions with titles such as “Bucolic Bullionism: Economics in the Wizarding World,” “Christianity and Harry Potter” and “Introduction to Spell Writing.” On the city's common, students braved rain showers on Saturday for a muddy game of Quidditch — minus the floating broomsticks. And fans dressed as characters Lord Voldemort, Draco Malfoy and, of course, Harry Potter drew stares from tourists as they wandered through the streets of Salem. The five-day “Witching Hour,” a serious-minded symposium on all things Potter, suggests that adults may get as much from J.K. Rowling's series of novels as the children who line up at midnight whenever a new book hits stores. It runs through Monday. The Potter books chronicle the life of Potter and his cohorts as they attend Hogwarts, a magical boarding school. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the most recent volume, had sold 11 million copies in the United States as of September. Potter books have now been translated into 63 languages, most recently Farsi. Worldwide sales top $250 million. “There are so many dark, adult themes in these novels. They're not just kids' books anymore,” said Kirstee Byrne, 24, of Melbourne, Australia. She was better known to the fans at the Witching Hour as Lacy Lovegood, the event's “Minister of Magic.” The event is not sanctioned by Rowling or Warner Bros. Studios, which holds the movie rights. But its organizers, a Texas-based Harry Potter fan group called HP Education Fanon, Inc., brought the Witching Hour to Salem because the city is the only American location mentioned in any of the books. That comes in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the fourth book in what is planned as a seven-book series, when Harry encounters members of the “Salem Witches' Institute” at the Quidditch World Cup. “Salem is considered almost like a sacred place for fans of the books and the movies,” said Carol Thistle, executive director of the city's tourism office. “We've never had a group this big in Salem” she added, even though the city is a mecca for Halloween fans every fall. Of the 1,000 or so people who attended the symposium, roughly 90 percent were women. The composition was virtually the same when the group hosted its first meeting at Walt Disney World in July 2003. “We honestly cannot explain the phenomenon,” said Witching Hour spokeswoman Kayla Gagnet, 23, of Lafayette, LA. Also among those in attendance was actor Chris Rankin of New Zealand, who played a recurring role as Percy Weasley in three Potter films. “I'm also a fan of the books, long before I got into the movie,” Rankin said. One of Saturday's most popular events was a speech delivered by Henry Jenkins, a professor of literature and comparative media studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “What's exciting about this (symposium) is the total fusion of fan and academic discussions,” Jenkins said. “That's a breaking down of the walls that hasn't occurred in many other places.” Jenkins, who wrote about Harry Potter fans in a forthcoming book, Converge Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, said Rowlings' novels could become fodder for serious academic study. “(Nathaniel) Hawthorne's books were potboilers in their time and became part of the literary establishment,” Jenkins said of the 19th century author, a native of Salem. “No one knows if the Harry Potter books will be part of the literary curriculum 100 years from now, but it's quite possible.” Later in the day, several professors participated in a panel discussion on the “perils and potential” of using Harry Potter books in college courses. George Plitnik, a physics professor at Frostburg State University in Maryland, uses Harry Potter mythology as a hook for the real science he teaches in class called “Cosmic Concepts.” Mind-reading wizards who float on broomsticks and teleport their bodies help Plitnik illustrate the principles behind antigravity research, quantum physics and genetic engineering. “It's not a pop culture class,” he said. “You don't just sit around and talk about Harry Potter. You don't even have to read the books to take the class. ... When students find out they have to actually do work, about 20 drop it on the first day.” Tammy Stiller, a biology professor at Westminster College, teaches a seminar called “The Harry Potter Phenomenon.” “We don't approach it as literature, but as a way to approach a broad array of topics,” Stiller said. “Rowling has such a wonderful understanding of human nature. Her books are about real emotions and real experiences.” The fans at Witching Hour may be serious about Harry Potter, but they haven't lost their sense of humor. Michelle d'Entremont, a 25-year-old Army reservist from Rochester, N.H., traded in her military uniform for a Harry Potter costume. “The wonderful thing about Harry Potter fans is that we do indeed know the difference between fantasy and reality. We just choose to occasionally ignore it,” said d'Entremont. (AP)