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Study is bewitching at Harry Potter U.

Academics gather in Salem, Mass., to consider all things Hogwarts
/ Source: The Associated Press

Hundreds of Harry Potter fanatics have turned this historic seaport, best known for its witches and their trials, into a makeshift college campus fit for a young wizard.

In hotel ballrooms, professors from real-world universities led panel discussions with titles such as “Bucolic Bullionism: Economics in the Wizarding World,” “Christianity and Harry Potter” and “Introduction to Spell Writing.” While on the city’s common, students braved rain showers over the weekend for a muddy game of Quidditch — minus the floating broomsticks.

And fans dressed as Lord Voldemort, Draco Malfoy and, of course, Harry Potter drew stares from tourists as they wandered through the streets of Salem’s historic district.

The “Witching Hour,” a serious-minded symposium on all things Potter that opened last Thursday and was to end on Monday, suggests that adults may get as much from J.K. Rowling’s series of novels as the children who line up at midnight whenever a new book hits stores.

The Potter books chronicle the life of Potter and his cohorts as they attend Hogwarts, a magical boarding school.

“Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” the most recent volume, had sold 11 million copies in the United States as of September. Potter books have now been translated into 63 languages, most recently Farsi. Worldwide sales top $300 million.

The event is not sanctioned by Rowling or Warner Bros., which holds the movie rights. But its organizers, a Texas-based Harry Potter fan group called HP Education Fanon, Inc., brought the Witching Hour to Salem because the city is the only American location mentioned in any of the books.

That comes in “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” the fourth book in Rowling’s seven-book series, when Harry meets members of the Salem Witches’ Institute at the Quidditch World Cup.

“Salem is considered almost like a sacred place for fans of the books and the movies,” said Carol Thistle, executive director of the city’s tourism office.

Among those attending was actor Chris Rankin, who plays Percy Weasley in the three Potter films.

“I’m also a fan of the books, long before I got into the movie,” Rankin said.

Serious stuffOne of the event’s most popular was a speech by Henry Jenkins, a professor of literature and comparative media studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Jenkins, who writes about Harry Potter fans in a forthcoming book, “Converge Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide,” said Rowlings’ novels could become fodder for serious academic study.

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s books were “potboilers in their time and became part of the literary establishment,” Jenkins said of the 19th-century author, a native of Salem. “No one knows if the Harry Potter books will be part of the literary curriculum 100 years from now, but it’s quite possible.”

Several professors participated in a panel discussion of the “perils and potential” of using Harry Potter books in college courses.

George Plitnik, a physics professor at Frostburg State University in Maryland, uses Harry Potter mythology as a hook for the real science he teaches in class called “Cosmic Concepts.” Mind-reading wizards who float on broomsticks and teleport their bodies help Plitnik illustrate the principles behind antigravity research, quantum physics and genetic engineering.

“It’s not a pop culture class,” he said. “You don’t just sit around and talk about Harry Potter. You don’t even have to read the books to take the class. ... When students find out they have to actually do work, about 20 drop it on the first day.”

The fans at Witching Hour may be serious about Harry Potter, but they haven’t lost their sense of humor. Michelle d’Entremont, a 25-year-old Army reservist from Rochester, N.H., traded in her military uniform for a Harry Potter costume.

“The wonderful thing about Harry Potter fans is that we do indeed know the difference between fantasy and reality. We just choose to occasionally ignore it,” she said.