Do you remember your Disney prince crush as a kid? Or which cartoon character’s stuffed animal you couldn’t sleep without, staying up late under the covers, telling them your inner most 7-year-old secrets? My crush was Aladdin. I wanted to run my hands through that thick, luscious black hair. Plus he had an adorable monkey. I found friends in many Disney and other fictional characters as a child. Just when my parents thought I couldn’t possibly want to watch a particular movie for the umpteenth night in a row, I would inevitably demand another trip to Bambi’s forest, or under the sea with Ariel and Sebastian.
The psychology of creating attachments to fictional characters is not a new phenomenon. It often comes down to an emotional connection we feel with a particular story or persona. Maybe we can relate to a struggle that a character is going through, maybe their hardships trigger our feelings of sympathy, empathy, and compassion, or maybe we aspire to be as brave, successful, or kind as our favorite protagonist. There are, of course, also the antagonists that we love to hate. They are powerful, strong, maybe beautiful, and therefore it is all the more satisfying when we watch them fall.
Blakely Vermeule of Stanford University even wrote a book on the subject, entitled “Why Do We Care About Literary Characters?” She writes that as human beings, we “need to know what other people are like”, and that the reasons we grow to care about and understand fictional characters are similar to the reasons we care about and understand other (real) people in our lives. I can only hypothesize that this basic human need to learn about and know others around us stems directly from our need for human connection and social networking.
The research is seemingly endless in support of social connectedness, and how feeling loved and accepted into a community benefits your health – physically, emotionally, and mentally. Studies have shown that the lack of a social network is more detrimental to one’s health than obesity or smoking, and that being connected to others can lead to a 50% increased chance of survival.
Even as long ago as the 13th century people were beginning to understand the importance of social connectedness. Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II devised a social experiment wherein about 20 infants being raised in an orphanage were to only have their basic needs met, and they were not to be cuddled, played with, or interacted with in any way outside of their feeding, bathing, and diaper changing. We may not find it surprising today that these infants all died within weeks – what we might call “failure to thrive” in today’s world. Regardless of the fact that they received the same food and basic care as the other infants, they still failed to thrive due to their lack of social interaction. In short, we are inherently social creatures, and the extent and depth of our relationships with other people is directly related to our health.
Today, it is easier than ever to become sucked into a fictional world, whether it be through books, movies, TV shows, or video games. These alternative universes, which used to only be available through the page, radio, or television, have now also found a home online, where like minded people from all over the world can discuss, create, share, and connect through their shared interest. In the days before the internet, it was much more difficult to not only find the other people who shared a particular passion, but then also to exchange ideas or homemade paraphernalia. We now have access to a whole new level of this social network called fandom.
Fandom can be defined as a community or subculture that forms around a certain person, sports team, book, TV show, movie, video game, comic book, etc. True diehard fans can spend hours discussing the smallest detail of a story, or every single pro and con to trading a certain baseball player. Probably the first example of fiction fandom as we know it today started in the late 1800s, when the Sherlock Holmes books by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle developed a following who were actively invested in Holmes, provoking them to write fan mail to Sir Doyle with every kind of question and opinion. This ultimately led to the author being all but blackmailed into bringing the detective back to life after killing off his best-selling character, even though as an author he was desperate to write more “serious” work.
Again, with the advent of the worldwide web, fan culture has become infinitely more connected, organized, and active. One of the most avid fandoms is the one surrounding Harry Potter. For many of us, our love for the Harry Potter story is deeply rooted in our childhood. For me personally, the first book was published in the United States when I was 9 years old, only 2 years younger than Harry when we first met him. My generation quickly caught on and became enthralled with this spectacular new world. We grew up with Harry, we understood his awkwardness as a preteen entering a new school, having to make new friends. We admired his bravery and righteousness when he first stood up to Draco. We rooted for him during Quidditch games, and were intimately familiar with his anxiety when left alone with a certain pretty girl in the Room of Requirement. We immediately began awaiting our own letters from Hogwarts. (I’m still waiting patiently. Do they have a graduate program?)
As the hype around Harry Potter grew, and Rowling’s writing became more sophisticated and experienced, the fan base quickly grew from younger kids and teenagers to include people of all ages. However, I believe the true heart of HP fandom and the reason that Harry’s world is still relevant is the fans of my generation, those of us who literally grew up with Harry.
One of my favorite memories from my college days is going to the midnight premieres of the last few Harry Potter films. Tickets sold out as soon as they went on sale, and every single person staying up until 3am to see the new movie was a diehard fan of college age, just like me. We dressed up, we excitedly theorized about how they would portray a certain character or event, and as we anxiously awaited the opening credits, someone inevitably began a mysterious ticking noise, which crescendoed into a packed theater full of college kids yelling, “Snape, Snape, Severus Snape” – “DUMBLEDORE!” And then the lights would dim and we would scream our overwhelming excitement for a few exhilarating seconds before collectively becoming deathly silent as to not miss a single word.
It is us who have kept Harry alive through Pottermore, LeakyCon, both Harry Potter theme parks, and not to mention all of the fan fiction and fan-made YouTube videos, music, and paraphernalia. We are exceptionally nitpicky in our attention to detail. And I mean, down to the word.
But despite any disappointments or details that were missed, we stand behind the story, our loyalty and enthusiasm are unwavering – Always. We remain steadfast even as we pass the torch along to the next generation, introducing Harry to our own children.
I remember the controversy when the Harry Potter and the Cursed Child script was released. The debate seemed to be over whether or not Harry Potter is even still relevant, and if the release of this latest installment was a sad attempt at continuing Rowling’s empire, or a valuable addition to the story of Harry and his family. It’s true that fan reactions were pretty divided. The purists felt like Harry’s story ended with the 7th novel, and it needed to stay ended there, while some other fans appreciated the new story for what it was and were happy for another adventure into the wizarding world, regardless of its script format.
Despite the crevice in response to this new story, I don’t believe Harry Potter or his world have become any less relevant. Fans who disliked Cursed Child for whatever reason, have not lost any love for the original story, and I suspect that many, if not most, of them still lined up to see Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them. The differences in reaction have only given fans more to discuss and debate about a world to which they are forever connected, instead of driving people away. It’s like the love one has for a younger sibling, you will always love them and be invested in them, even when they disappoint you or make you angry.
I believe that our continuing dedication is in part due to the nostalgia of what Harry means to us. Maybe he was your childhood crush, maybe you too felt like an outcast, and Harry gave you hope that one day you would also find your tribe. Maybe it was about the new community you became a part of as an HP fan, the worldwide social group that accepted you as one of their own.
Whatever it was that grabbed your attention and then held it even as you left childhood, it is magic. Not the kind of magic that can make you invisible, immortal, or allow you to speak to snakes, but the kind of magic that awakens a passion and connects you to other human beings, becoming part of a family who understand and accept you. It is a kind of magic that allows you to thrive.