First came the sobbing.
Then came the screams of joy.
If you aren't particularly tuned in to the Harry Potter fandom, you might have thought that the release this month of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, the eighth film about the boy wizard, based on the seventh and final novel by J.K. Rowling, marked the end of a 14-year, multibillion-dollar pop culture phenomenon.
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From the top of the eight-lane Universal Boulevard overpass across Interstate 4, you can see the towers of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. It's the Hogwarts at Universal Orlando's Wizarding World of Harry Potter, but that's close enough for the 3,400 devoted fans gathered for LeakyCon 2011 during a steaming-hot week in the middle of July.
All over the grounds of the Loews Royal Pacific Resort, young people in long black robes stroll amid the tropical landscaping and murals of Polynesian dancers. Lined up at a kiosk for Starbucks coffee, cookies and vegetarian wraps are a woman in a velvet gown and tall witch's hat, a silver-faced Deatheater and a diminutive house elf with pointed ears and a shift that looks like a pillowcase. Not everyone is in full costume, but even the kids in tank tops or sundresses loop a Hogwarts house tie — Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw or Slytherin — around their necks.
Everywhere, wands are carried, stuck through ponytails or waistbands, mounted in special leather scabbards strapped to an arm. The only object as ubiquitous is the smart phone, often held in the same hand as the wand. T-shirts bear messages like "Suffering From Post-Potter Depression," "Snitches Be Crazy" and "Palin/Voldemort 2012." In the bustling vendors' room, one of the few buttons that is sold out is "I e_SsnS Snape."
Although some older adults are in attendance — teachers, librarians, parents — the crowd is overwhelmingly young. Most of those at the convention are in their teens or 20s: These are the kids who grew up right along with Harry Potter, who see his story as their own.
Reilley Dabbs of Tampa is one of them. The 18-year-old Berkeley Prep graduate, who's on her way to Washington University in the fall, says, "Harry Potter was my childhood. I started liking boys at the same time Hermione and Ron started liking each other. It was the first time I learned that you can have a relationship with a book, and now I have relationships to many more books.
"It was so special to read them as they came out. I wish there was a way parents could tell their kids, 'One (Potter) book a year.' But once you start, you can't stop."
Sara Mears, 21, is another longtime fan; she has come from South Carolina, where she works in a bank, to attend LeakyCon.
"I didn't get to read any of them until the fourth book," she says. "My parents thought, you know, oh, witchcraft. But then we got a school assignment where we were supposed to read all four of them during the year. There was a form that would let you opt your kid out, but I didn't tell my parents about it."
She has read all of Rowling's books multiple times — the last one 29 times, she says — and wants to write her own book comparing the books to the movies. "They're good movies if you've never read the books, but the books are so much better."
Mears and her husband are expecting a daughter in November, and the baby already has a name: Emma, after Emma Watson, who plays Harry's friend Hermione Granger. Mears plays the Potter audiobooks while she sleeps so the baby will hear them. The nursery is decorated with owls.
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LeakyCon is an offshoot of the Leaky Cauldron, one of the biggest of hundreds of Internet fan sites related to the Potter phenomenon. (The nonprofit con's proceeds will benefit the Harry Potter Alliance, which has raised more than half a million dollars for such causes as abolishing child slavery and combating climate crisis; Book Aid International and other charities.)
Conventions for fans of the Potter books and films began with Nimbus in 2003, also in Orlando; at least a dozen more have been held around the country since. They are a curious combination of sober scholarly panels and fan fun like wizard rock concerts, costume contests, podcasts, live performances of musicals, Quidditch matches and field trips, not to mention lots of opportunities for Potter devotees who know each other online to hang out in person.
Orlando is the logical place for this year's conference, given the 2010 opening of Wizarding World. The meticulously detailed re-creation of the world of the movies, overseen by some of the films' creative staff and Rowling herself, is a mecca for fans. (It gave the theme park a 30 percent bump in business last year.)
But eclipsing even Wizarding World for many fans at LeakyCon is the debut of Deathly Hallows: Part 2. On July 14, the day before the movie will open in North America (and rack up a record-breaking opening weekend, grossing $168.5 million), hundreds of con attendees fill the big ballroom at the convention site to see some of the film's cast members on stage.
Six of them are youngsters in their first Potter film roles. Three appear in a flashback sequence playing adult series characters as kids — Ellie Darcy-Alden as Lily Potter, Benedict Clarke as Severus Snape and Rohan Gotobed as Sirius Black — while the rest appear in the film's coda as the future offspring of principle characters: Helena Barlow as Rose Weasley, Ryan Turner as Rose's brother Hugo, and Arthur Bowen as a scene-stealing Albus Severus Potter.
Bowen is a scene-stealer on stage as well. All the other kids profess their devotion to the Harry Potter stories before they were cast, but he says with a grin, "I'm not a fan because I saw the first movie and Voldemort scared me to death."
Also on stage are Chris Rankin, who has played Ron Weasley's older brother Percy in all eight of the films, and Scarlett Byrne, who plays Hogwarts student Pansy Parkinson. But the fan favorite is Evanna Lynch, the Irish actor who has played Harry's friend Luna Lovegood since the fifth film, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Her own story is a little magical: A lifelong fan of the books with no professional acting experience, she won the role over 15,000 other girls.
On screen, Luna is a dreamy kid who stands out as odd even in a school full of witches and wizards. In person, Lynch is crisper, casually dressed in shorts and flip-flops and clearly enjoying being with other fans. She'll show up at a wizard rock concert the next night to play bass with headliner band Harry and the Potters.
In another onstage interview after the film showing, she'll talk about her first experience of seeing a Potter movie with a theater full of emotional, hard-core fans: "I kept thinking, oh my, the next scene will kill them!"
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On Day 2, LeakyCon attendees fill the entire Universal City Walk theater complex of 20 screens, clutching boxes of tissues. They know too well what is coming: Some of the books' most beloved characters will not survive the battle for Hogwarts in Deathly Hallows: Part 2.
They scream with approval as the house lights go down. (This is a crowd quite prone to screaming its approval; the convention is a little like a five-day Justin Bieber concert.) But it doesn't take long for the sniffling to start. There are moans and sighs early on as George Weasley says casually to his twin brother, "You all right, Freddie?"
But it's during a crucial scene between Lord Voldemort and another major character — one whom the fandom is most passionate about — that the sobs really begin. For almost the entire latter half of the movie, the theater is filled with unrestrained wails and weeping, shouts of "Oh, no" and "Stop!"
Jay Forbes, 37, a video game developer from North Carolina, is at the convention with his 17-year-old daughter, Rowena — "like Ravenclaw," he says, referring to one of Hogwarts' founders, Rowena Ravenclaw.
Forbes says his daughter has read the Harry Potter books "over and over — she knows some of it by heart." He was happy to bring her to LeakyCon: "She's made so many friends through this, so many interesting, nice people."
Forbes, a fan of Stephen King and The Lord of the Rings, hasn't read Rowling's books, although he plans to, but he has seen the movies. Did he tear up a little during Deathly Hallows: Part 2? "I couldn't help it. Everybody else was crying." He smiles. "Thank goodness for 3-D glasses."
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Many of the fans dried their tears with an early-hours visit to Wizarding World just for LeakyCon folks, and by Friday morning they were bright-eyed and bushy-tailed (a few of them literally, depending on their costumes) at a performance of The Final Battle, a full-dress musical with live orchestra.
Harry Potter fans don't just read the books and watch the movies. It's a fandom that has spawned a remarkable amount of creativity throughout its 14-year history, which shows no sign of abating.
Part of that creative surge can be attributed to the Internet. More than any earlier group of fans, Potter enthusiasts could communicate with each other via fan sites, and communicate they have. Even though the thousands at LeakyCon come from all over the world — Sweden, Australia, Dubai, Japan — most of them already know many of the other people attending.
Fan sites also provide fertile ground for fan fiction, which has millions of readers and in turn has led to online writing workshops, and to fan art, fan-produced films like the satire Harvey Putter and the Ridiculous Premise, and wizard rock, which draws inspiration for its lyrics from the stories.
LeakyCon features three musicals created and performed by fans: The Final Battle, The Warlock's Hairy Heart and A Very StarKid Event, the last by members of Team StarKid, a theater group that began at the University of Michigan and gained fame when its spoofy A Very Potter Musical went viral. (Its breakout star is Darren Criss of Glee, who plays Harry in the musicals.) There's also a full-length performance by Potter Puppet Pals, whose YouTube sensation Mysterious Ticking Noise has had more than 172 million views.
The con sessions include a dance class, writing workshops, a meetup for people with Potter-themed tattoos and demonstrations of art, crafts, cooking, video game design and improv. The costume contest draws more than three dozen participants, some decked out in remarkably detailed, elaborate costumes. The Vega sisters, Erika and Jessica, from California, win best pair for their portrayals of wicked sisters Bellatrix Lestrange and Narcissa Malfoy; younger brother Eddie Vega is "Harry Freakin' Potter," as he announces to the cheering crowd.
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The biggest buzz at LeakyCon, though, is about Pottermore.com. Rowling's new project stunned and delighted the fandom when it was announced in June, but so far all they've been able to do is submit their e-mail addresses (6.1 million so far) to the website's placeholder page.
On July 16, the ballroom is packed for a Pottermore preview. On stage is Melissa Anelli, one of the rock stars of the fandom, head of Leaky Cauldron since 2005, author of Harry, a History and friend of the reclusive Rowling. How close she is to Rowling was revealed at the preview: Anelli moved to London a year and a half ago to work as a consultant on Pottermore.
With her is James Deeley, the site's creative strategist, a shaggy, bespectacled Brit who looks a bit like a grownup Harry. After dire warnings against taking photos, he wields a remote control like a wand to reveal pages of Pottermore on a giant screen, and the screaming grows almost continuous.
The site, he explains, will be the only place to buy Harry Potter e-book editions and will also have digital audio downloads. But that's a minor point compared to how it will present — and add to — the books these fans know by heart.
Illustrations and animations, painstakingly developed with Rowling herself, will have layers of objects and scenes that lead to others and — this evokes a scream so big it shakes the rafters — "lots and lots of new material by Jo."
Deeley flips to a page headlined "New from JKR" that is the backstory of Hogwarts professor Minerva McGonagall. Amid whoops, Anelli says, "You'd better wait a minute. They'll want to read this." Deeley chuckles and starts talking again, and the whole hall hisses "Ssshhhh!" He hushes, scrolls down when commanded to, shakes his head in wonder.
Other delights are revealed: a Rowling-designed Sorting Hat process, shopping in Diagon Alley, common rooms and a Great Hall for chat, wizard dueling and potion lessons. All of the online content is free.
The site will open to 1 million selected fans on July 31 (the birthday of both Rowling and her boy wizard). It opens to everyone, in five languages, in October. The first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, will be there in glorious enhanced form. The others will come later, with, no doubt, midnight launch parties, endless fan discussion, new creative response and more conventions.
A few hours after the preview, Jon Truong, 18, of Tampa says, "We are the Harry Potter generation. That could be bold, but look at all of us here."
Truong, who sports an indigo tattoo of Harry's owl, Hedwig, on his left shoulder, is in his second year at the University of South Florida and plans to transfer soon to Oxford University to study psychology. He, too, grew up on the books and says they "affect us in so many ways."
Pottermore, he says, is "mind blowing. You feel like a family when Jo does this for us.
"It's not over. It will never be over."
Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435.