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When Harry met Salem

More than 1,000 Potter readers swoop into city for symposium

(This article was written for the Thursday, Oct. 6 edition of Globe North. It was first published online at Boston.Com on Oct. 5.)

As Salem starts its famed Halloween celebration Thursday, Oct. 6, Harry Potter fans from around the world will descend on the Witch City for a five-day conference celebrating the boy wizard as a literary hero.

The Witching Hour, a Harry Potter symposium, will analyze the popular books by British author J.K. Rowling as fantasy literature, with more than 1,000 scholarly muggles expected to attend the panel discussions, academic presentations, and special readings through Monday.

Festivities include a Halloween Ball, an all-day Quidditch tournament Saturday on Salem Common, and other celebrations of the culture that has sprung up around Harry Potter, largely through online fan clubs.

Dressed in long cloaks and pointy hats, not to mention round glasses, some participants will masquerade as Dumbledore, Harry, Hermione, and other favorite characters when they deliver their talks. Others will be going by pseudonyms such as Gold N. Locks and Lacy Lovegood, the name adopted by the conference's ''Minister of Magic."

But don't be fooled by the costumes and fake names. This Harry Potter class is for grown-ups.

Academics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and New York University are among the panelists, along with other adult fans of the bespectacled boy with the lightning bolt on his forehead. Almost 90 percent of the 1,000 attendees are women ages 24 to 35, organizers said.

Themes will include moral choices, religion, death, and other darker story lines that emerged in the later books, including the recently released ''Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince." Fans have been invited to present their own papers and sit alongside professors on the panels.

''No academic is going to know these books half as well as the fans that will be gathering," said Henry Jenkins, director of the Comparative Media Studies Program at MIT and a keynote speaker at the conference. A specialist on fan culture, his talk will focus on how the Internet has spawned a global fan forum, now believed to exceed 10,000 people.

The Witching Hour is the second symposium organized by HP Education Fanon Inc., a nonprofit Harry Potter fan group based in Texas. The group's first meeting, Nimbus 2003, drew about 600 to Walt Disney World two years ago. Salem was chosen for the group's second meeting because it is the only American city mentioned in the series.

The mention comes in the fourth book, ''Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," which hits the big screen next month as the newest Potter movie. In that installment, Harry travels to the Quidditch World Cup, where he sets up camp beside a group from the ''Salem Witches' Institute."

Real-life Salem has no such institute, but it does have Witchcraft Heights Elementary School, named for the neighborhood where 19 victims of the Salem Witch Trials were hanged in 1692. Salem High's mascot is a witch, and if any of the visiting ''wizards" get lost in Salem, they can just look for the flying-witch logo on Salem police cruisers.

Each October, the city's ghoulish side comes out during Salem Haunted Happenings, a monthlong festival that begins Thursday at 6 with a parade through downtown Salem.

This makes the city a perfect fit for Harry Potter fans, said Amy Tenbrink, a conference organizer.

''We wanted a lively experience for our participants," Tenbrink said. ''We could have dressed up in our cloaks and held panel discussions in the wing of a hotel in Omaha, but that's not really what we're all about."

While most participants are from the United States, fans from Japan, Australia, New Zealand and, of course, Great Britain, will attend.

Registration closed months ago, with 900 signing up on But 100 new registrations will be accepted starting Thursday in the lobby of the Salem Waterfront Hotel & Suites on Pickering Wharf.

The Potter festival has filled up hundreds of hotels rooms in Salem and at the Sheraton Ferncroft Resort in Danvers, where a handful of events, including Thursday's opening banquet, will be held. Most events will be held at historic sites, such as the House of the Seven Gables, and even a few church basements around Salem. A few events are also open to the public.

On Saturday, the public may play Quidditch (the broomstick game) on Salem Common, and party with wizards during the Fall Festival, scheduled for 8 until midnight. Special events, including a Potter-themed auction, stargazing, and outdoor science experiments are planned at locations around the city.

''Salem is integrally tied with what we're doing," said Tenbrink, 29, a corporate lawyer from Denver. ''We want our participants to be active around town."

The Witching Hour is not affiliated with Rowling or Warner Brothers, which owns the film rights. A spokeswoman at Rowling's London-based agent, the Christopher Little Literary Agency, said the author is on maternity leave and unavailable for comment.

Papers to be presented at the conference include ''Not an Ordinary Cut: A Discussion of Harry's Scar," ''Developmental Writing with Harry Potter," ''Muggle Management in the Classroom," and ''Heroine or Victim: Growth and Development of Ginny Weasley."

Organizers have planned more than 150 hours of programming, with the discussion aimed at college level and above, Tenbrink said. ''We deliberately solicited papers not only from academics, but also from artists, writers, and other professionals," she said. ''We wanted a wide variety of people involved."

Most participants have never met before. But they know each other from online chats, blogs, and websites such as On the Web, fans also write their own fiction, either by creating new plots for Harry Potter, or adding their own characters to the existing storyline.

''They've really created their own virtual Hogwarts," Jenkins said of the fictional wizard school. ''The Internet has created an active, creative fan base . . . . This conference in Salem will bring two worlds together."

For a list of Harry Potter events this weekend, visit For information about Salem Haunted Happenings, which runs through Halloween, visit www.hauntedhappeningssalem.comKathy McCabe can be reached at

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