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Introduction: Yet Another ‘Potterhead’?
It is that time of the year again. Summer is coming to a close, and orange-tinted leaves are signalling that autumn is knocking at the door. The weather is gradually becoming frisky, and a new academic year has already begun in schools and universities across the globe.
It is also a time of the year when the halls of Hogwarts are once again filled with young witches and wizards eager to commence a new year at the famous British school of witchcraft and wizardry.
Although Hogwarts is a product of J. K. Rowling’s fictional world of Harry Potter, throughout the years, the well-known school of witchcraft and wizardry has peculiarly managed to infuse itself in the daily lives of students and fans outside of the Harry Potter story world.
In the little Dutch city of Groningen, for example, it is common to spot a student wearing a scarf coloured in the representative tones of one of the four Hogwarts houses. A similar sight is present among the corridors of the Saint-Petersburg State University in Russia, where a passerby can quickly catch a student wearing a sweater with one of the houses’ crest. By all means, even I regularly attend lectures wearing my Slytherin hoodie.
According to a study by Alderson-Day et al. (2017), the boundaries between fiction and reality are not as firm as they initially may seem. After reading a book, readers often transpose elements of the fictional world in which they have been immersed during the process of reading into their every-day life (1). Comparably, in Psychonarratology: Foundations of the Empirical Study of Literary Response, Marisa Bortolussi and Peter Dixon intriguingly state that fictional characters are “uncannily similar to people” (2), suggesting that the cognitive processes involved in processing ‘real people’ and fictional characters are fundamentally the same.
In order to explore the peculiar nature of fictional worlds and characters, this article reconstructs some theories in the field of literary and reception studies, which can help us shed some light on the contagious nature of J. K. Rowling’s universe, and similar fantasy worlds, such as those of J. R. R. Tolkien’s epic high fantasy novel The Lord of the Rings, or C. S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia.
Between Fiction and Reality
Coining the term “experiential crossing”, Alderson-Day et al. use it to describe moments in which readers and/or authors experience voices of fictional characters “outside of the context of reading” (1). The authors, concretely, apply this term to instances in which participants of their study reported hearing voices of fictional characters in their mind long after the process of reading, or writing, has finished. To exemplify, one participant, after reading Virginia Wolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925), describes imagining Clarissa Dalloway’s “reactions to different situations” (1). Even as she would walk into Starbucks, the participant would “feel” Mrs Dalloway’s reactions, visualising the character’s interaction with the extra-literary surrounding of a twenty-first-century café (1). Some participants in Alderson-Day et al.’s study even reported conversing with fictional characters and feeling as though these characters can somehow influence their personality or worldview (1).
Along these lines, studies in the area of neuroscience and cognitive psychology explain the phenomenon of “experiential crossing” by describing it as a natural function of the human brain linked to the ability to create patterns of diverse human personalities and behaviour (4).
Once “experiential crossing” is applied to the case of Harry Potter, it becomes clearer why elements of J. K. Rowling’s story world remain so long in the reader’s mind. Having accompanied Rowling’s characters throughout a total number of seven books, the reader and the book naturally become ‘glued’ to one another, and readers can easily simulate the characters’ voices, behaviour, and personality models within their mind. They can imagine, in other words, how these characters would behave in an extra-literary context, such as their university, or a nearby restaurant.
David C. Giles discusses fictional characters’ peculiar ability to become ‘alive’ in the minds of their readers and/or viewers. Directly addressing the case of Harry Potter, Giles observes fans’ vivid reaction to J. K. Rowling’s announcement in 2007 that Albus Dumbledore is gay.
Giles writes that, for Potter fans, Dumbledore, together with other characters within the story world, acts as a ‘real’ entity that “emerges from the pages of the book” (3). After reading the Harry Potter books, or watching the movies, the information encountered in these cultural products leaves an impression in people’s minds as though “they somehow know the figure [book/movie character], just as they know individuals in their immediate social circles” (3, emphasis in the original).
In Giles’ view, people have a remarkable tendency to form “parasocial relationships” with fictional characters, up to the extent of crying for the death of a beloved character (3). In the conclusion of his study, Giles suggests that, in cognitive terms, people essentially respond to fictional characters just as they do to human beings (3).
Although our first encounter with fictional characters usually happens amidst the pages of a book, or a movie, these characters rarely remain within the confines of their respective medium: They are much more likely to escape the medium, and accompany their fans on their daily strolls to a next-door café.
Having the insights from studies discussed in this article in mind, the vivid reactions of ‘Potterheads’ to J. K. Rowling’s announcement that Dumbledore is gay, for instance, come as no surprise, as simulations of fictional characters often remain in the minds of their readers, or viewers, long after they have read the last pages of the book, or finished watching the movie. In a similar vein, attachment to fictional characters may serve as a factor explaining fans’ tendency to identify with one of the Hogwarts houses, as a way of expressing their personality and character.
All in all, fictional characters, as peculiar homunculi dwelling within their readers’ mind, can leave a long-lasting mark on their fans’ life and become an inevitable part of their daily routine. The Harry Potter fandom has well exemplified how the boundaries between fiction and reality can easily become blurred, throughout the last decade.
1. Alderson-Day, Ben, Marco Bernini and Charles Fernyhough. “Uncharted features and dynamics of reading: Voices, characters, and crossing of experiences.” Consciousness and Cognition 49 (2017): 98-109.
2. Bortolussi, Marisa and Peter Dixon. Psychonarratology. Foundations of the Empirical Study of Literary Response. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
3. Giles, David C. “Parasocial Relationships.” Characters in Fictional Worlds. Eds. Jens Eder, Fotis Jannidis, and Ralf Schneider. Berlin/New York: Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co. KG, 2010. 442-458.
4. Hassabis, Demis, et al. “Imagine All the People: How the Brain Creates and Uses Personality Models to Predict Behaviour.” Cerebral Cortex 24 (2014): 1979-1987.