They gathered early, many with witches’ hats or brandishing wands, still bleary from a late night listening to a band called Ministry of Magic.
The faux-baroque staircases and chandeliers of the Chicago Hilton are not accustomed to this type of client, strewn across the carpets eating pizza slices for breakfast and deciding whether to attend Evanna Lynch’s yoga class or a discussion on “Making Harry Legit: Harry Potter Courses in College”.
“Y’all make a lovely crowd,” observed the muscular black security lady doubtfully, as Snape lookalikes and Ravenclaw robes rolled by.
It has been five years since the final Harry Potter book and a year since the denouement film, with JK Rowling’s adult novel now eagerly awaited. But the afterlife of the epic series proliferates like an ever-expanding Hogwarts universe at the third LeakyCon, the global Potter convention named after the Leaky Cauldron pub in Diagon Alley. Five years since the publication of Deathly Hallows, the pilgrims have come in greater numbers than ever – 3,800 this year.
Those who jeer at Harry Potter as a fantastical celebration of toff-school traditions forget that this is not how books about wizardry and magic are viewed by young people – and their parents – in the stultifying, Bible-bashing suburbs of the American outback. There, for all the mass appeal of Hogwarts, the iconography and very notion of magic can be subversive and heretical.
“My parents aren’t cool with it,” says Caitlin R (Slytherin), aged 17, from Lincoln, Nebraska, with dyed red hair and wearing work boots. “It’s just like a whole world they don’t understand, and it scares them and they don’t trust it.”
Did they see the movies? “Yeah, they kinda liked Prisoner of Azkaban, but my interest in magic they don’t like – or my tattoo.” It’s a circle and vertical line within a triangle, representing the Deathly Hallows. For all the wholesomeness, dental braces and Listerine here, there’s a prevalent gothishness too – coloured hair, fishnet, heavy mascara.
Others do not take the magic that seriously. “It’s more about human relations, the real-life world and lives of young people that play out in the setting of Harry Potter,” says Emma-Jane Wilson (Gryffindor), who is over from Cardiff.
Evanna Lynch is a linchpin to the proceedings; if Rowling, her mentor, is the distant empress of all this, Evanna is its princess, and very present. Suffering from anorexia, she wrote to Rowling for help and received a reply that set her on the road not only to recovery but stardom as the character Luna Lovegood. Here she can be seen weaving her way through the crowds at a Starkid concert to chatter with fans. She said the Potter story is “something you can’t disengage from… It charted their childhood, their transitions being teenagers and then adults. Having that so entwined with your life, it’s then impossible to take yourself out of it and say goodbye to Harry Potter. It would just be the most unnatural, strange and weird thing in the world to me. It would be like denying a part of myself … ”
She speaks about the connection between her own tribulations, her character and fans, for whom both she and Luna Lovegood matter, inseparably, during hard times: “I got this huge privilege of playing [Luna]. This character who so many people look up to, inspired in their daily lives to help them overcome these demons. I owe it to her and all these people to spread her message, which is to be yourself and embrace that; and be your most bold and crazy version of yourself. I have a duty, and not only that – I want to do this work.”
The “work”, with a charity called the Harry Potter Alliance, is a campaign called Live the Lovegood Way. “JK Rowling said to me in the letters when I was writing to her about my struggles and how the Harry Potter books helped,” Lynch recalls, “that this is something you’re going through, and you may think: ‘Why is this happening to me?’ [She said] one day you’ll come out of it and be able to help girls who are going through it, and that is exactly what happened… Trying to help people who are going through these struggles helps me to get to grips with myself.”
The young people in Chicago seem to have one thing in common: they are not the “in” crowd, not the set that flaunts its self-confidence from party to party, boyfriend to boyfriend. They tend to be the people – mostly white, middle-class girls – who have no gang but each other, and when they converge it is heartwarmingly hilarious. “The most important thing,” says Kate Burnside, one of the organisers, “is that these people have a place to meet and be themselves. Where it’s OK to be nerdy, or passionate about something.”
The concept of having to return to “muggles” – people who “don’t want to know what’s beyond the mountain”, as Christine from Belmont, Texas, put it – is daunting. When my daughter Elsa, who is attending with me, expressed dread at going back to “muggle-world”, Christine said: “At least they’re London muggles – I gotta go back to Texas muggles!”
We drop in on a session with best-selling author John Green extolling the virtues of reading and assailing what he calls “the reality in the US that being smart is something socially inferior”. He posits a notion that “coolness” entails being able to “study broadly, think broadly and read broadly”.
And play around with texts. Fans engage here and on the web in “shipping” characters, to couple them in a way that need not have happened in the text – those who feel deprived of the Wagnerian denouement whereby Harry “pulls” Hermione. They “ship” the leading boy to get the leading girl and other permutations, even Harry and his nemesis, Draco Malfoy, in a gay counter-plot.
What about the notion that Grand Wizard Dumbledore is gay? There’s a whole session on gender and racial roles in Rowling’s oeuvre, and the Dumbledore question “requires her to write book eight!”, jokes Green. “Hey: sleepy English town, gay wizard turns up – of course there’s going to be an upset!”
But when night falls, cold and wet for a Chicago summer, on come the glitter and rouge, wigs and fishnet gloves, cloaks and pointed hats, leopard catsuits and Ron and Harry masks to jump around in a mosh pit beneath both chandeliers and a band called Gred and Forge. Because, assures Gwen from Detroit wearing a frog outfit, “Harry Potter is also rock and roll”.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010