I'm not sure who I met first: Helen McHenry or Harry Potter. In my mind, the two are irrevocably intertwined.
J.K. Rowling first published "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone" -- or, as it was titled here in America, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" -- on June 26, 1997. The movie based on that first book was released Nov. 14, 2001. I started kindergarten at the same school as Helen in the fall of 2004. For both of us, Harry Potter was always there, and our shared love for the series seemed to grow naturally into a major part of our friendship.
Junior high was the peak of it. Helen, a big fan of Hermione Granger in particular (as many bookish girls are), started the Emma Watson/Hermione Granger Fan Club, an informal organization that included a significant portion of the girls in our small grade. Each month she typed up letters with the latest in Harry Potter and Emma Watson news, complete with desaturated pictures copy-and-pasted from Google Images and 2000s-era Microsoft Word page borders, and mailed them to every member. And, in the summer, she held the Emma Watson/Hermione Granger Fan Club Sleepover Extravaganza.
And it was extravagant. Helen's house, a suburban two-story with high ceilings inhabited only by herself and her parents (and several cats, rabbits and a goldfish or two), was transformed for one night each summer into an explosion of Harry Potter memorabilia.
Clothes and robes in the colors of all four houses hung from the railings of her staircase. Little pieces of paper with facts and quotes from the books and movies were taped to the walls. Books about the making of the movies and imitation props were scattered in every room. In the kitchen, Helen's parents helped make chocolate frogs and poured homemade butterbeer into goblet-shaped glasses.
When it was time to sleep, we all laid our sleeping bags out in the living room and looked up at the flickering electric candles hanging from the ceiling as we whispered and giggled and eventually drifted off. In the dark, we couldn't see the strings suspending the candles in mid-air; it seemed that they really were floating, that we were gazing up at the enchanted rafters of Hogwarts' Great Hall.
In the summer of 2011, the day following the slumber party was the day "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II" came out. In the morning, we rolled up our sleeping bags, donned our merchandise and marched into the theater, ready to watch a Harry Potter movie for the first time, for the last time.
Helen's mom kept a box of tissues in her lap for most of the movie. Near the end, when Harry went into the Pensieve and discovered that Snape had loved Lily Potter all along, she heard the sniffling of about half a dozen 12-year-old girls all the way down the row and silently passed the box along.
"After all this time?" Dumbledore asked Snape.
"Always," Snape said.
Thwip, thwip, thwip, went the tissues out of the box, all the way down the row.
Not much later, Harry, Ron and Hermione watched their children board the Hogwarts Express, and all was well. And that was the end of it. The credits rolled, and we walked out into the sunlight again. More than a million words spread across seven books, almost 20 hours spanning eight movies, countless tears shed over characters we'd grown up with -- and just like that, it seemed the saga of Harry Potter had concluded.
So some of us moved on.
And some of us didn't.
It is difficult, for a fanbase as massive as Harry Potter's, to evaluate the ebb and flow of interest. How to quantify passion? How to measure emotion? The only way to know for sure is to be in the middle of it, to play the long game and witness the change firsthand. Still, there are some numbers we can use.
On Archive of Our Own, a website where fans of any media can post transformative works (primarily fanfiction), there are about 193,500 works listed under "Harry Potter - J.K. Rowling" -- the most for any piece of literature.
On Fanfiction.net, an older transformative works archive, there are about 798,000 pieces in the "Harry Potter" category -- far more than for any other single piece of media.
On LiveJournal.com, a blogging platform and an even older hotbed of fandom activity, there are nearly 15,000 official communities containing Harry Potter content, and just short of 293,000 individual blogs.
All that on just three websites; it's clear that the Harry Potter fandom is a juggernaut. What these numbers don't say, however, is whether the posting of content has slowed or sped up, or how many of those communities are no longer inhabited.
Google Trends, however, gives a clearer picture. Using data going back to 2004, peaks in interest in the term "Harry Potter" have coincided with the release of books and movies, with the highest peak being in July 2007, the month in which the final book was published. Since the last movie came out in July 2011, interest has lingered around 10-15 percent of what it was at the highest peak.
So that's the hard evidence: Harry Potter has left a lasting imprint on the internet, but interest is way down, if steady.
Here's the anecdotal evidence:
I've encountered Harry Potter fans almost everywhere. They might not be obvious (although sometimes they most certainly are), but it doesn't take much for them to reveal themselves. Whenever I wear my Time-Turner necklace, whenever I wrap myself in my scarf striped with the colors of Gryffindor, whenever I drop a reference into casual conversation -- if there is a fan present, their face will light up, and they will profess their love for the series. It happens all the time.
And here's one more piece of data: According to Google Trends, although general interest in Harry Potter has dropped, when it comes to Google Shopping, interest has never dipped below 19 percent of what it was at the highest peak in 2011. And as of November 2018, in the midst of the "Fantastic Beasts: Crimes of Grindelwald" hype, it was's at 82 percent of that. Since then, it has steadily dropped closer to its normal rate. In March 2019, it was down to 31 percent.
Harry Potter remains a cash cow, and even when it seems dormant, it's always capable of rising again. Like a phoenix from the ashes, one might say. Like Fawkes.
When we graduated from eighth grade, Helen and I went our separate ways: I to Bishop Fenwick High School, her to rivaling Archbishop Alter High School.
Our love for Harry Potter did not diminish, but without the excitement of new content, the fire of passion had somewhat dimmed. And with high school came new friends, more work and heightened responsibilities. As time went on, we stopped texting each other, although we had been best friends in junior high. I invested my energy into soccer, she into marching band; I into the TV show "Supernatural," she into Marvel movies (with a particular focus on Loki from the Thor movies and Tony Stark from Iron Man); both of us into academics. And so for years, we saw very little of each other.
Helen would still pick up the books from time to time, whenever she got upset, once re-reading the whole first book in a day. I, who had read the whole series seven times in grade school, rarely touched them.
In 2015, the announcement came out that "Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them," until then only known as one of Harry's textbooks, was being made into a five-part movie series.
This was huge news, and I contacted Helen for the first time in about two years. We had thought Harry Potter was finished, that we would never get anything more, but here was this unexpected and generous gift. The fire was lit again. I saw the movie the day it came out in November 2016, and when the Warner Bros. logo emerged from the clouds on the big screen and the opening bars of the iconic Harry Potter theme played, my eyes welled up. Back again, I thought with a rush of nostalgia-powered sentiment. Back home once more. And I loved it. Helen did too. And most fans and critics agreed.
Helen wasted no time in adding the wands of Fantastic Beasts characters to her collection and committing the soundtrack to memory, just as she did with all the original movies.
"Since Fantastic Beasts is like a thing now, there's more of a reason to still be into Harry Potter," Helen said, but admitted that even if it weren't, she still would be.
The second film in the franchise was two years away. And in that time, we would enter the biggest change of our lives so far: college.
There's a steamer trunk in the basement of Helen's house that once belonged to her great-great-great grandfather. It is heavy and battered and army green, with faded yellow stickers on the lid from its journeys across the world, on boats and in train cars. It smells heavily of mothballs, or at least that's what Helen's mom, Maurene, says. I have never seen nor smelled a mothball, but there is a definite whiff of age that spills out when the lid is opened. Who knows how much history this trunk has seen over the past century, or what it has contained.
Now it holds just a small portion of the McHenry family's Harry Potter merchandise, including stuffed owls, wizard chess and Quidditch equipment.
The McHenrys are a tight-knit unit of three, and what they love, they love together. Helen's parents have always indulged her interests and fostered some of them. Maurene was a Harry Potter fan even before Helen was, and she brought her daughter to Harry Potter book launch parties before she could even read. They've been to Harry Potter World in Orlando, Florida, twice, where her dad, Tim, took hundreds of photos to commemorate every moment.
Both Maurene and Tim are capable of holding their own in conversations with Helen about the series, conversations that often veer into esoteric topics that only the most dedicated fans would know about. And over the years, they have sponsored the accumulation of vast amounts of merchandise.
In the room a few feet away from the steamer trunk resides the rest of the McHenrys' Harry Potter merch. Rows of shelves and towers of plastic bins make the room seem narrower, the ceiling lower; at least one whole shelving unit and a few extra bins are dedicated to everything Harry Potter. Some of it hasn't been touched in years. But I'm curious as to exactly how much paraphernalia the McHenrys have stashed away, so I ask to take a look.
Maurene pulls down box after box and the three of us rifle through. I try to compile an exhaustive list of the items we find, but after about 20 minutes, I give up and scribble down generalities instead as we unearth potion bottles, empty jars of pepper imps, holographic chocolate frog cards, imitation jewelry, dragon eggs made from papier-mache, Tom Riddle's diary, Rowena Ravenclaw's diadem, the crystal cup Dumbledore drinks poison from in the sixth movie, a solid block of wizard gold, more and more and more and more.
It's been a long time since some of this stuff has seen daylight. Some of it I recognize from the last Sleepover Extravaganza, like the wands we made out of dowel rods and pipe cleaners and the pygmy puffs we made by gluing googly eyes onto pom-poms.
Some of it is still in its original packaging, unopened, untouched -- some board games, for example, and some props. We discover a pink plastic bottle with a heart-shaped cap and a pink tassel. It reads, "Love Potion," and it is still covered in plastic. We deduce that it's some sort of liquid candy.
"Best by: January 20th, 2018," Maurene reads off the back of the package. That was 10 months ago. "Dare I open it?"
She does, and we pass it around, taking little cautious tastes.
"It tastes like perfume smells like," Maurene says.
"It kinda tastes like if you melted down some of the better-tasting Bertie Botts' Beans," I suggest.
"It tastes like rose water smells," Helen adds.
(In the books, I remember, love potions smell different to everyone, according to what each person finds most appealing.)
"Well, we'll save it, in case you need it with Chris," Maurene jokes, and we all laugh.
Chris is Helen's boyfriend. They've been together for a couple of years now, and Helen talks about their future like it's absolute.
I ask her, is he into Harry Potter?
"Not as much as he should be," Helen says. "I keep telling him, you need to get on that and read them again."
The few times I've met Chris, he's been too quiet for me to really gauge how much he actually likes the things Helen does, but he goes along with her elaborate future plans well enough.
"I was like, 'Chris, what if our kids aren't in Ravenclaw or Gryffindor?'" Helen recalls. "'That's gonna be so hard to work with the color scheme! It's gonna be so hard to decorate the house!' and he's like, 'We can worry about this later.'"
After almost a full hour of digging through heaps of trinkets, we begin to pack everything away again. Predictably, it doesn't all fit in the bins the way it did before we opened them.
"We should have another Harry Potter party," Maurene says. Helen and I hum in agreement.
It's been seven years since the last one. Who knows where all the girls who slept over that last night are now.
Maurene forces the lid down hard onto the last bin and slides it back on the shelf.
The walls of Helen's dorm room in Hillcrest Hall are filled with paraphernalia from her various fandoms, but Harry Potter dominates. On the wall above her bed are two large framed posters -- one of Hogwarts, the other of Newt Scamander and young Dumbledore from the Fantastic Beasts franchise. On the opposite wall, banners with the crests of all four houses hang in a neat row. Helen's roommate dropped out before the semester even began, so she has a double room all to herself; the extra bed is draped with a Gryffindor throw blanket and several whimsical pillows.
There are traces of her other loves, too. A calendar on the wall is flipped to a picture of Black Widow and Hawkeye. Pinned to a corkboard, alongside postcards and pictures of her cats, are several photos of Robert Downey Jr. There's a large framed photo of Audrey Hepburn above her rack of clothes. But walking through the door, the first impression is overwhelmingly of witchcraft and wizardry.
In my room, a single in Elliott Hall, the only sign of Harry Potter is the large Hufflepuff banner hanging next to my door. I only put it up as an afterthought. I found the banner crumpled in my closet on a visit home one weekend (I had gotten it for Christmas a year or two ago, and even then thought that it was embarrassingly big) and used it to cover up a plaque with a creepy picture of a man on it that I could not remove from the wall.
As I was putting it up, I hesitated, thinking, This is childish, this is embarrassing, I'm really not that kind of a fan anymore, but then I rebuked myself. Why not put it up? I'm not ashamed to like Harry Potter. It means a lot to me. It always has, and it always will.
Still, whenever people comment on it, I am quick to pull it aside, to show them the plaque, to say, I only put it up to cover this.
I don't look down on Helen for decorating her walls so completely with what she loves. But at this point in my own life, I'd be too embarrassed to do the same.
But where does that embarrassment come from? That shame just for showing that I like something? Well, mostly I'd say it's because the wind is changing in the Harry Potter fandom.
The trouble began in 2007, when, shortly after the last book's publication, J.K. Rowling revealed at a public Q&A that Dumbledore was gay. At the time, it was a very progressive reveal, and one that Rowling said she had always had in mind from the start. But the years went on, and the times changed, and where once there was praise, there is now criticism. If Dumbledore was gay, why not say so in the text? LGBTQ+ kids could have used that representation, critics say.
Well, Rowling defended herself, it was never mentioned because it wasn't important to Harry's journey.
I've seen this answer mocked many times; people call it a cop-out, a lie, a cover-up for the fact that Rowling didn't actually have it in mind the whole time and is just trying to retroactively force diversity into books that have very little. Whatever the truth, it was the first in a long line of revisionist claims, many of which seem like a thinly veiled excuse to embrace progressive ideals.
Such claims include but are not limited to: Lupin's lycanthropy is a metaphor for HIV. Hermione is not necessarily white. Tuition at Hogwarts is free.
Rowling's habit of confirming individual fan theories on Twitter has drawn mockery and irritation. Leave it alone, J.K., many people write. They say, Don't make things worse for yourself, don't taint the beautiful world you built. Write new things with diversity and progressivism; don't force it where it never was. Acknowledge that you were young and not as socially conscious when Harry Potter began.
An article crossed my news feed recently, the headline announcing that a 4,000-year-old megalithic tomb in Spain had been defaced with a Harry Potter symbol. The picture showed that someone had indeed spray-painted a crude Deathly Hallows -- a triangle containing a circle and bisected by a line -- on the ancient stone, and underneath it, had scrawled, "ALWAYS <3."
Needless to say, the comments were not kind.
"Harry Potter fans are poison," said one person.
"Harry Potter = ew. Vandalism = ew," said another.
"READ ANOTHER BOOK," one said.
And at the bottom, another commenter had simply posted a badge-like image that read, "ANTI- HARRY POTTER ACTION."
It's far from the first time I've seen this sort of thing. The most rabid fans, it seems, are -- as they are in any fandom -- their own worst enemy. And like many a popular piece of media, the internet has begun to slowly yet surely turn on Harry Potter.
And so, I distance myself, as if to say, Well, sure, I like Harry Potter, but I'm not one of the crazy fans, you see? I'm not a kid anymore, I can act like a grown-up.
Sometimes, though, it still feels like a betrayal.
Helen is fully aware of the criticism leveled the franchise's way. But, somehow, it doesn't bother her. She loves what she loves -- what should she care? And a few years of mockery does not outweigh a decade of devotion.
"Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald" came to theaters this past November, and I barely even realized it beforehand. It was more than a week after the release date that I was able to go see it with Helen. Watching the opening sequence, I remembered all of a sudden how the same sight had moved me to tears two years ago. There was no such swelling of emotion this time.
About three-fourths of the way through, I realized with a bit of a shock that I was wondering how much time was left until it was over. That had never happened to me at a Harry Potter movie before -- certainly not on the first viewing. When the end did arrive, there wasn't much in me but confusion, and some disappointment, and mostly just ... meh. Precious few of the characters captured my attention. The twists at the end made me frown rather than gasp. It wasn't a pleasant feeling.
But apparently, I wasn't alone.
No Harry Potter or Fantastic Beasts movie had previously gotten less than 7.3/10 on IMDB, a 65percent on Rotten Tomatoes, a 63percent on Metacritic, or less than 94percent approval from Google users.
"The Crimes of Grindelwald" received 6.9/10 on IMDB, 39percent on Rotten Tomatoes, 53percent on Metacritic, and only 87percent of Google users liked it.
Outside the movie theater, on the way out to the car, I confessed to Helen that I would have to sit on it for a while before I decided if I liked it. Helen agreed it had its issues, but stayed loyal.
"I liked it," she said. It was her second viewing, and she added, "Some things make more sense now. And I really liked the music."
In the car on the way to her house, the subject turned to Dumbledore.
"Some people are upset because they didn't think that they made it clear Dumbledore was gay," Helen said. "And I was like, 'Did we see the same movie?'"
She was referring to when Dumbledore said of his old friend Grindelwald in the movie, "We were closer than brothers," and when he saw Grindelwald in the Mirror of Erised -- a magical artifact which, Dumbledore told Harry way back in the first book, "shows us nothing more or less than the deepest, most desperate desire of our hearts."
At her house, we continued to discuss the movie with her mom; one thing neither Helen nor Maurene liked was the presence of Professor McGonagall at Hogwarts years earlier than she should have been, according to Harry Potter canon.
"They may have said, you know, 'We need names people are going to recognize,'" Maurene suggested as an explanation.
"I mean, they have tons," Helen said. "I don't think they ever say her name in the movie, but the main French lady, she's a Rosier, and that's a family in Harry Potter."
"Well, how many people know it as clearly as you know it?" Maurene replied.
A week later, at a party back in Oxford, I would mention that I had seen the movie to a friend, and she would ask, with a guarded expression, "What did you think?" There would be a pause, and then I would say, "Eh," and relief would break over her face and she would lean in and confess in a low tone, "I didn't like it," as if it were a betrayal, or a secret, or a shame.
Helen's dorm walls are barren now. At the end of the fall semester, she transferred to The Ohio State University. Helen wasn't happy in Oxford. She didn't like that there's nothing to do if you don't like to party all the time. She wanted the chance to start over with friends, to make fewer and closer friends rather than a wide array of acquaintances.
The main thing she'd miss at Miami was the Department of Magical Appreciation (DMA), the official campus Harry Potter fan club. Helen was on the exec board and had more fun at their meetings than any of her other organizations.
Her last meeting as part of the club and part of Miami was on a cold and dreary Wednesday, late in November. Outside, it was dark, and a wet mist hung in the air and blurred the streetlights. But in Shideler 001, the atmosphere was welcoming and warm as music from the Harry Potter movies' soundtracks played and club members talked and laughed while they waited for the meeting to start.
The club was having a Thanksgiving food drive, and whichever house brought in the most non-perishables would win points for their house. At the end of the meeting, the winner of the House Cup would be announced.
I raided my dwindling food supply in my dorm and brought four individual packs of ramen to contribute to the Hufflepuff cause. Helen walked in several minutes late, just as people were beginning to wonder aloud where she was, with two grocery bags full of 32 items for Gryffindor.
It was a valiant effort, but when Hufflepuff won the trivia game we all played soon after, their lead was too great for Gryffindor to catch up. Each member of the club's sizable Hufflepuff house became the proud owner of a new pair of Harry Potter-patterned socks.
At the end of the meeting, the club president opened up the floor to any general announcements. I wondered if Helen would mention that it was her last meeting, but she did not.
Nonetheless, several people expressed dismay at her leaving as a number of us walked out as a group.
"Guys, I'm really gonna miss you," Helen said to the room at large.
But this wouldn't be the last they saw of her. Helen fully intended to come back in the spring, when DMA would host its annual Triwizard Tournament.
At OSU, she is now involved with the executive board of the Harry Potter club there -- it's much bigger, but less active, than DMA. Harry Potter is something she, through DMA and Fantastic Beasts, has rekindled her love for, and will carry with her on to the next stage of her life.
To call it an obsession, at this point in her life, would be overstating. She already knows almost everything there is to know about Harry Potter, after all -- there's little left to be newly obsessed with. And there are other things to focus on. Her studies, for example. Starting over again at a new school. The fate of Tony Stark in the next Avengers movie.
So not an obsession, no. But a constant. A comfort.
"I've definitely cooled down some," she told me. "I mean, you remember, I was a Harry Potter freak ... But even when it's sad, it's still sort of a happy place. It allows me to get rid of all my stresses because, at the end of the day, I can still go to Hogwarts."
At the end of the year, I will take down my Hufflepuff banner, and I probably won't put it up in my room next year. Helen has transferred her decorations to her OSU dorm. When I permanently move out of my parents' house, I will probably leave all my Harry Potter Pop-Funko figurines behind. When Helen has her own place, she wants to buy a display case for all 23 of her replica character wands. When I'm building my own book collection from scratch, I'll buy the complete series in paperback online. Helen will keep the set she already has, and add the special illustrated version as well as several editions in different languages.
And when we are old, who knows? Will we still love these children's books about a boy who goes to wizard school? Will it stay with us that long? After all, isn't it just a story, just imaginary, made-up, not real?
Well, maybe so. But for Helen, and for millions of fans, and even, still, for me, it's more than that.
"Tell me one last thing," Harry asks Dumbledore in the final book, as he nears the end of his journey. "Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?"
"Of course it's happening inside your head, Harry," Dumbledore tells him. "But why on earth should that mean it isn't real?"