Thousands gathered at the Renaissance Baltimore Harborplace Hotel this weekend to visit with a half-dozen supporting cast members from the popular wizarding series, share fan fiction, dress in costume and generally celebrate all things Potter. As the J.K. Rowling series celebrates its 20th year in publication, fans are as eager as ever to delve into the rich, magical world Rowling conjured up just beneath the reality of modern-day London.
"There's an entire universe that has been created, something that people can take ownership of and imagine themselves in," said PotterVerse convention co-founder Oni Hartstein.
Leslie Sterling of Clifton, Va., drove 90 minutes to spend the day in Baltimore dressed as the well-meaning and mischievous house elf Dobby.
"You can walk into a room and you're surrounded by strangers. But you walk into a room at a con [convention], and you're surrounded by family," Sterling said. "It allows me to connect with people who love what I love. If I can make some little kid's day by being dressed up like this, even better."
Organizers said at least 2,000 people had attended the convention by Saturday afternoon, which extended until midnight with a "Yule ball." Events continue through Sunday, with actors who played supporting roles in the Harry Potter movies giving talks, signing autographs and chatting with fans.
"They're real people, not just characters," said Amanda Pash of Pittsburgh, dressed as Harry Potter's best friend, Hermoine. As she waited in line to meet actor Devon Murray, who played Seamus Finnigan in the film series, she said she hoped he would autograph the seventh book in the series for her.
"I'm so excited," she said.
Her husband, John Pash, meanwhile, was dressed as the pallid, notorious Professor Severus Snape. John Pash has never seen a Potter movie in its entirety or picked up a book, but he agreed to attend the convention in a wig and robe as an 11th anniversary gift to his wife.
"She told me not to talk to anybody because I get all the names wrong. I thought I was dressed as 'Professor Snakes,' " John Pash said. "I'm just looking for a place to get a drink."
Margie Fink of Knoxville, Tenn., was selling elf hats and other Potter-inspired apparel to raise money for her nonprofit, Transfiguring Adoption. The organization supports foster parents and teaches them how to use the Potter world as a way to connect with children who, like Harry Potter, have traumatic backgrounds to overcome.
"The Potter fans are a great niche," said Fink, who signs up volunteers for fundraising drives. One group of Potter fans, she said, raised money to buy 2,000 nightlights for children who were victims of sexual assault.
In the auditorium next door, hundreds of Potter fans attended a question-and-answer session with actress Natalia Tena, who played the beloved and quirky auror Nymphadora Tonks in some of the films. (She's also known for playing Osha in HBO's "Game of Thrones"and is the lead singer and accordion player of the band Molotov Jukebox.)
A young girl asked Tena if she had swiped an item from the movie set. Tena said she was too afraid of Warner Bros. to walk off with anything.
"But the Room of Requirement has an accordion in it, and I was eyeing that puppy up," she said, referring to a space featured at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
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Outside in a quiet corner, English professor April Walters was channeling Professor Dolores Umbridge, dressed head-to-toe in pink and offering free temporary tattoos that read "I will not tell lies." In the Potter series, the cheerfully evil witch was aligned with villain Lord Voldemort and forced Potter to magically etch that message into the back of his hand.
"Smiley and evil is fun to play," said Walters, who is an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Later in the afternoon, she was scheduled to lead a panel about the evolution of Harry Potter's critical thinking skills — how the young boy who accepted without question that he was a wizard became a young man who challenged authority.
Walters said the universe created by Rowling was a fertile world for a wide range of people to dream up their own alternative realities.
"It's a good playground," she said. "It's easy to imagine yourself there."