March 8, 2022


Why the "Harry Potter" fandom endures

Twenty-five years after the first book was released, the “Harry Potter” series continues to captivate college students’ attention. A DePaul study abroad trip is returning after a three-year break to explore places in the United Kingdom that inspired scenes in books and films. The two professors who lead the program—Rebecca Johns-Trissler, associate professor and director of the Graduate Program in Writing and Publishing, and Paul Booth, professor of Media and Cinema Studies—join DePaul Download to share how they plan a study abroad trip around a fictional world, why college students are still interested in "Harry Potter" and how they’ll discuss J.K. Rowling’s recent controversies with their students.



REBECCA JOHNS TRISSLER: We’re really kind of working together, taking it literally from the creation of the books into how that becomes, like, a media phenomenon, a media empire, and why we’re still talking about it 25 years later.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Welcome to DePaul Download. I’m your host, Linda Blakley. The “Harry Potter” series captivated fans with vivid depictions of a magical world, complete with an enchanted castle, haunted forest, and entire towns invisible to the Muggles around them.

For the first time in three years, a DePaul study abroad trip will explore the places in the United Kingdom that inspired many of these scenes. Beyond sightseeing, students will study the series’ impact on the literary world as well as on pop culture. They will also explore recent controversies involving the series’ author, J.K. Rowling.

Joining me today are the two professors who lead the trip. Rebecca Johns Trissler is the director of the graduate program in writing and publishing in the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences, and Paul Booth is a professor of media and cinema studies in the College of Communication. Welcome, Rebecca and Paul.

PAUL BOOTH: Thank you so much. It’s great to be here.

REBECCA JOHNS TRISSLER: Hi, Linda. Thanks for having us.

LINDA BLAKLEY: It’s been 25 years since the first book was published. I was certainly an early devotee and could be found in Barnes & Noble at midnight when new books were released, going home, and reading through the night to keep up with Harry, Ron, and Hermione, of course, as well as He-Who-Cannot-Be-Named. Why are we still talking about this series a generation later?

REBECCA JOHNS TRISSLER: Well, you know, as the lit person here, maybe I’ll tackle that one. And I think it’s because it touches on big themes and ideas that are emotional that have to do with justice.

Harry is, you know, mistreated, and there is a big sense of injustice in the Wizarding World. It’s a dystopia, and so we feel anger on his behalf at how he’s mistreated by his Muggle relatives, but also how he’s mistreated within the Wizarding World. And so Harry is gifted power and ability in relation to how badly he’s mistreated. And so we love that sense of Harry being the one who’s going to restore some balance to the scales of justice in the world.

And I think that’s a story that’s real familiar to readers of, like, Victorian orphan dramas like “Jane Eyre” and “David Copperfield” and things like that, so I think that it just kind of touches us deep in our guts, where we sense that unfairness that children sense in the world.

And that doesn’t go away when you’re an adult. You like to see fairness and honesty rewarded and cruelty punished. So, yeah, why wouldn’t you love that?

PAUL BOOTH: And, you know, Linda, there’s also, I think, you know, you’re talking about coming to Barnes & Noble and waiting in line at midnight. And I was working at Barnes & Noble when I think books six and seven were coming out, so I got to see it from the other side. It’s very different when you’re opening the boxes of books.


PAUL BOOTH: But, you know, when you’re there, it’s also partly that crowd that you’re with and the people dressed up and the feeling of being part of this emotional community. And so I think that the series also – it’s survived for 25 years because of this strong, passionate fan base that has really formed communities of sharing and communities of creativity and communities of emotional connection because of the series, too.

LINDA BLAKLEY: I think if I looked hard enough, I might find my Harry Potter glasses. But how do you plan a study abroad trip based around a fictional world? Where do you visit?

REBECCA JOHNS TRISSLER: I do teach -- this is a literary studies class, but my -- in my guts I’m a creative writer. And so, you know, I’m a novelist, and so I’m interested in inspiration. You know, what things inspired J.K. Rowling to create the story? What pieces was she pulling from either consciously or subconsciously? You know, one of the things we do is a Muggle walking tour. And we go see some of the places around London. We do one in London and one in Edinburgh, and we see some of the places that are inspirational.

So, for instance, in London, we go visit, like, a row of bookshops, and literally across the street diagonally is this little alley, and it’s Diagon Alley, you know, and it looks like the Diagon Alley from the films. You could tell that they did their research when they made the films.

Or when we take the train from King’s Cross station and Platform 9¾ up to Edinburgh, it’s, like, a four-hour train trip into Scotland, and you come out of the train, and you step out, and there’s the castle up on the hill above you. I mean, literally, like, that you can see some of where the inspiration was coming from out of the real world, and that’s really interesting because she managed to create I think the world is really the thing that people are so attached to more than anything else, this kind of ever expanding Wizarding World, where so many impossible things became possible, and everybody kind of wants their own Hogwarts letter.

So seeing how she maybe took pieces of inspiration from her real life, from the real world, from literature, I think is really meaningful to students. A lot of our students are writers. So I like to approach it that way.

Paul, do you want to add your piece?

PAUL BOOTH: Yeah. Because I think, you know, the other part of the course is the fan studies course. And what that what my portion of the course covers is exploring the way that fans find an emotional journey in the locations either where something was filmed or, as Rebecca was saying, where inspiration may have come from or where it takes place.

So along with going to filming locations, we also trace kind of a fan’s journey when we go to Edinburgh and we go follow in the footsteps of J.K. Rowling. It’s also following in the footsteps of fans who make this pilgrimage to go on this trip.

And London has no shortage of fan tourist locations. So beyond the “Harry Potter” tourist locations that we go to, you know, we go to Abbey Road and see the history of The Beatles there. There is for “Dr. Who” fans, there’s “Dr. Who” locations. For “Sherlock” fans, there’s “Sherlock” locations. And what I like to do in the course is take a survey of the students and see what sorts of things are they into, and we can find a connection to aspects of London. And I think last time we had quite a few One Direction fans. So I believe there was a trip to some One Direction locations.


PAUL BOOTH: But no matter what the interest is there is something about being physically present in the locations where our objects of fandom are. And our trip allows students to explore that and explore their own feelings as they go through these locations.

LINDA BLAKLEY: So that leads me to my next question. How do your classes complement each other? Paul, I’ll start with you.

PAUL BOOTH: That’s a great question, Linda. We really designed this course from the ground up, that these two courses go together, absolutely they are integrated into each other.

So although students do take the two courses, they’re really inseparable from each other. Rebecca’s portion of the class focuses on the literature. My portion of the class focuses on the perception of the literature and the films.

This was a new kind of design, where we really talked about ways that we could find connections between the English portions and the media studies portions, where we could we combined some assignments so that the students will do an assignment for both like one assignment that is in both of our classes.

REBECCA JOHNS TRISSLER: For instance, Paul and I, we discovered when we were designing the course, both did a fan fiction assignment. So there was no reason to assign the fan fiction twice. We do it once, and it counts for both courses. And that was kind of natural affinity.

You know, some of the -- another assignment that I do is usually some kind of presentation on an issue that Harry Potter kind of mimics in the real world, in the Muggle world. So things like criminal justice reform or minority rights and politics and things like that. So -- and they will create, like, a multimedia presentation usually.

And, you know, that kind of feeds into some of the things Paul does, too. So we’re really kind of working together, taking it literally from the creation of the books into how that becomes, like, a media phenomenon, a media empire, and why we’re still talking about it 25 years later.

Our students are coming from a lot of different backgrounds. You know, most of them are either media studies or English, but there’s some that are into psychiatry, psychology, you know, and so they might go on and do very different things in their future lives, but they’ll always kind of understand this phenomenon of “Harry Potter” I think in a new and very deep way.

LINDA BLAKLEY: So that brings me to another question for the two of you. And, Paul, again, I want to start with you. How has the student population who’s interested in this study abroad trip changed in the last few years? Is it usually all huge “Harry Potter” fans?

PAUL BOOTH: Big, huge “Harry Potter” fan doesn’t even begin to describe the types of students we have. Enthusiastic “Harry Potter” fans. But they come from such a wide variety of areas at the university as well as a wide variety of interests in the series.

Some of them are writers. Some of them are media studies folks, and I don’t think that’s that much different than what we had the first time. This really seems to hit students across the board.

REBECCA JOHNS TRISSLER: One thing I would say is that the group that we have this time is older, which is interesting how people are coming at the series as the series itself ages. And more and more of our students are coming at it from having seen the films first than having read the books first. You know, I’ve been teaching this Topics in Popular Literature course, this “Harry Potter” course, for I think six or seven years now, even before Paul and I got together to turn it into a study abroad.

When I first started teaching it, reliably everybody had read the books, and now it’s less so. I would still say most of them have read the books. But I’ve noticed a shift over time that we’ve seen more students coming to it from the films first.

LINDA BLAKLEY: As we mentioned, this is the first trip in a few years.


LINDA BLAKLEY: And some “Harry Potter” fans find themselves grappling with problematic things J.K. Rowling is reported to have said about people who are transgender. Tell me how each of you is processing the controversy.

REBECCA JOHNS TRISSLER: Well, I mean, I’ve been processing it in very personal ways because I have trans people in my family. And I understand absolutely why some fans are so hurt by what she says.

I also think it’s worth kind of discussing why she said those things and maybe, you know, talking through it with the students about whether they find -- I don’t want to say merit but, you know, where those ideas are coming from, why they think she’s misguided in saying what she said and coming at it from a -- not just an emotional standpoint, where the reaction is very visceral and immediate, but also from an intellectual standpoint. Where can we see what this argument is about?

And then I think Paul’s piece of it is particularly interesting because I think it’s really affecting the fandom.

PAUL BOOTH: Yeah. This is -- the way that I approach it is as an aspect of fandom because this is not the first time a creator has done and said things that have alienated a section of a fandom. There’s a kind of long history of trying to figure out how we as fans and we as people who are invested in this property, right, not just invested in terms of money, although if you have all the videos and you have all the books and you have the glasses and you have all wands, you know, you are heavily financially invested, but also emotionally invested.

Fans take the “Harry Potter” series -- take any series and apply it to their lives. They identify with aspects of it. And when a creator has said something hateful or said things that you vehemently disagree with, it calls into question that emotional engagement, and it in some ways troubles the security you feel with the media text.

And, like I said, this is not the first time it’s happened in a fandom, and it’s not going to be the last time it happens. So at least in my portion of the class, we’re going to talk a lot about separating the artist from the art, how we should do that, whether we should do that, and how to reconcile these very difficult feelings that are I think in some ways very valid, and in other ways we have to learn to reckon with throughout every piece of media, which is always created by people, and people have issues and are problematic, and we will disagree with them.

LINDA BLAKLEY: So during this trip, is there anything you’re hoping to hear from or discuss with students that might be different from your first trip?

REBECCA JOHNS TRISSLER: Yeah. We don’t want to shy away from a difficult conversation. And students are going to come at it from very different perspectives, I’m sure. You know, some of them might be very, very angry at some of the things that Rowling had to say, and others might not care or might even agree with her.

So it’s going to be interesting, and it’ll be up to Paul and I to kind of mediate the discussion and keep it focused on the work.

But I think Paul’s right; this is not the first time it’s happened. It certainly is not going to be the last. And I think we’re always going to have to negotiate our respect for a piece of art. Even our ability to talk about a piece of art with our feelings about the artist, about some of the messages that the art is putting forward into the world.

I tend to take things from a very historical perspective. I’m very interested in kind of the long sweep of history and how things change over time. And, you know, we’re just at the beginning of this conversation, really, with “Harry Potter.” It’s going to be going on. Like this is going to be something people are going to talk about 100 years from now. I’m looking forward to having what I’m sure is the first of many conversations, yeah.

PAUL BOOTH: I think definitely this J.K. Rowling controversy is going to be fresh and new. I think students want to talk about it. I’ve talked about it in some of my other classes as well, and students are very eager to share their thoughts and ideas.

So I’m really interested in exploring this in a much more focused kind of way. Like when I bring it up in class, it’s always, like, a conversation, but we have readings. We’re going to have kind of a focused discussion about it in class. So I’m really, really excited about that.

LINDA BLAKLEY: So before we close, do either of you have a favorite place you’re going to be going back to?

PAUL BOOTH: I think for me, you know, there’s -- there are some places that we go that are nostalgic for me. So there’s a pub that we always have a kind of first night dinner at, and it’s really -- it’s relatively close to the dorm we stay in. It’s just a very friendly kind of environment. And so there’s something about -- it feels a little bit like coming home in some ways. So I always look forward to that.

REBECCA JOHNS TRISSLER: We have a couple of new places that we’re adding this year. So I wouldn’t say we’re going back to. But last time what really surprised me was how much I enjoyed the tour of Parliament. I thought that was so interesting.

One of the discussions we have is the difference between the U.S. political system and the British political system, which have some similarities, but very significant differences, and so I really liked that a lot more than I thought I was going to. I thought it was really cool.

But I’m looking forward very much to the coach tour of the Highlands. We’re going to go up to the Glenfinnan Viaduct and Loch Shiel up in the Highlands just west of Fort William. Scotland is very dear to my heart, so I’m really excited that we’re going to get to take the students there.

PAUL BOOTH: And one of I think both of our favorite things is at the Warner Brothers studio tour. There’s a moment when you turn -- it’s all dark, and you’re walking down a hallway, and you turn the corner, and you’re greeted by the soundtrack to the movie and this enormous model of Hogwarts. And so I always pose right at the entrance. And when the students come in, I snap a quick picture of their face as they see it, and their eyes get wide and they gasp. And that’s always just nice and fun to kind of review those after the trip has gone.

REBECCA JOHNS TRISSLER: M hmm. Last time when we walked into the Great Hall -- that’s the beginning of the studio tour. They walk into the Great Hall and push the big gold doors open. Some of them were crying. You know, they were, like, “I can’t believe I’m here.” It was really -- it’s sweet, yeah.


LINDA BLAKLEY: Well, we can’t wait to see the photos from your trip and hear about what the students have learned. Rebecca and Paul, thank you so much for joining me today.

REBECCA JOHNS TRISSLER: Thanks so much, Linda, for having us.

PAUL BOOTH: Thank you. This was wonderful. Thanks.

LINDA BLAKLEY: I’m your host, Linda Blakley. Thank you for listening to DePaul Download, presented by DePaul’s division of University Marketing and Communications.