Losing Faith and Finding Fantasy at Harry Potter World
Taking my kids to a theme park about magic forced me to reckon with my own cynicism
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I do not believe in magic. I don’t see a need for it. A belief in magic negates how complicated the world actually is. There is a universe full of wonder and terror that we are only just now beginning to understand, which makes it hard for me to put faith in ghosts or spells or other things we know not to be true.
In December of 2017, I drove with my family from Chicago to Florida, only a few days before New Year’s Eve. Although we would be staying on the Gulf Coast, my wife suggested that we take our kids to Harry Potter World at Universal Studios in Orlando on the way there. As any reasonable person might tell you, this was not on the way. It was several hundred miles out of the way and was also an additional expense—upwards of several hundred dollars. Both of our children are voracious readers and love Harry Potter. We had read the first two Harry Potter books aloud before my ten-year-old-daughter made her way through the remaining volumes on her own. But I still did not want to go to a theme park based on the books and movies.
“It’s a one time thing,” my wife argued.
I said going to Florida was special enough.
“But it’s for one day,” she countered. As a parent, one of my fears is that my children are growing up in a world that suggests just because you can imagine something, you can have it. They are good kids but extremely privileged. They have not gotten their hearts broken, they have not been disappointed nearly enough. I thought, perhaps, that driving to Harry Potter World, being confined to the backseat for twenty hours beside your sibling and then seeing adults dressed up as wizards, might be one such opportunity for disillusionment.
Once when I was four or five years old I found a small blue egg in my backyard and thought it might have been left there by an angel. I do not know why I imagined that. I told everyone at dinner that this was what I thought and no one bothered to correct me.
The books themselves are captivating. The characters are strong, especially Hermione, and the world J.K. Rowling builds is relentlessly layered. But you have to say this. You have to agree that you like the books or people on the internet will get angry, as if they are engaged in some political debate. The way people talk about Harry Potter, their voices take on a quasi-religious quaver. You have a feeling someone is talking about their culture, their identity. Which maybe they are.
The journey would be 22 hours in total, over a period of three days. Twelve hours to the Smoky Mountains where we would stop for the night, then seven hours to Savannah, Georgia, then a few more hours on to Orlando. We bought a map so the kids—ages ten and seven—could follow our progress. We left at 4:30 in the morning and began to drive through the cold blue Indiana light. On the road, they could watch cartoons on their iPads. At six am, we pulled over and had breakfast at McDonald’s, something our kids almost never got to do. Eating the Styrofoam-textured pancakes, seeing their sleep-deprived smiles, one could argue something otherworldly was already at play.
I have always believed—somewhat stupidly—in the majesty of America, or in the mystery of the physical landscape of the nation itself. It seems unconquerable. I had grown up in the ‘70s and ‘80s and witnessed the cosmic war between good and evil, right and wrong, and came to think that both the U.S. and Ronald Reagan were infallible. I still recalled the condemnation in that man’s voice as he accused the Soviet Union of being an “evil Empire.” All of that certainty remained in the land itself, the sturdy resolve of hills and valleys, the rising sun coming up over a rolling tree line in northern Kentucky.
There was also the almost indescribable uniformity—the same prairie, the same billboards, the same kind of cars, the same kind of houses—that gave you the sense America was endless and could not possibly be questioned. Every half hour or hour there was a sign for a Burger King, a Taco Bell, a Pizza Hut. It was impossible to ever get lost, to be uncertain in a land that repeated itself over and over again.
We stopped at a Chipotle for lunch, the second fast food of the day. Both kids looked at us like we had lost our minds; they could not believe their luck.
I do not have a belief structure of any kind of specificity. I grew up Catholic—my parents were Bosnian, Polish, and Italian—and each of those cultures possessed their own relationship to magic. Certainly the story of the empty tomb suggests the terrible possibility of magic in an uncertain world.
Once when I was eight and had trouble sleeping, my Polish grandmother gave me a St. Christopher medal to wear and said all my relatives who had passed away would also watch over me. As you can imagine, I had even more trouble sleeping that night.
The backseat began to smell the way humans do after only a few hours of driving. I caught sight of my son doing a book of Mad Libs. Then my son and daughter began to page through an illustrated version of the third Harry Potter book. Both he and his older sister were transfixed.
On the way through Kentucky into Tennessee, there was some kind of phenomenal accident on the highway. Flashing lights and road flares blocked our path. Google Maps suggested an alternate route. We left the highway and began the long circuitous drive along the backcountry of the lower Appalachians. My kids peered out the windows. The small hamlets of the Smoky Mountains had been hit hard by economic recession. In these perfectly secluded hollows and valleys, you could see homes on the verge of falling apart, a hand-painted sign warning off meth dealers, an American flag hanging above a charred motel, half-burned.
One year after one of the most contested and troubling elections in my lifetime, you could trace the shape of an entirely different country, how removed it was from the present we knew, and come to an understanding of why someone offering to support working class communities, someone with an isolationist worldview, could persuade so many voters to go against their own self-interests. If you never left the place where you had been born, the town you had grown up in, it would be all too easy to believe whatever you wanted about the world.
What was this need then, to want to put your faith in something, on some basic level, you knew couldn’t possibly be true? To accept the impossible, lies upon lies, fiction upon fiction? What does it say about our capacity as humans to be fooled, how gullible we actually are, and our willingness to participate in that complete delusion?
I worry sometimes. I worry that all these fantasy stories, our never-ending quest for magic—Harry Potter, all the Marvel movies, Star Wars, Game of Thrones—might suggest that, as a culture, as a nation, we are in a prolonged state of arrested development. I worry we are unable to move past the duality, the magical thinking of adolescence, and that the books we read, the movies we watch, the television shows we love might be partially to blame.
We stopped in the town of Gatlinburg, Tennessee for the night. Everything in that town was lit-up, loud, noisy—a tourist destination surrounded by mountains. There was a wax museum which no one but me wanted to attend. So we got gigantic margaritas and then took the kids swimming at the motel pool which had a fake, indoor waterfall. There was still magic in that indoor man-made waterfall, regardless of how unrealistic the false rocks looked. We let them stay up late swimming, thinking it would tire them out. It did not. Back in the motel room with its stale-smelling air, they continued to joke and dance and wrestle until angry words were exchanged. Finally we read Harry Potter to get them to settle down. Soon they were quiet. I did not like how invested both children had become in the fates of these imaginary people.
I had seen a shift in the students I worked with as well. Twenty years ago, all the young writers I knew carried Naked Lunch around with them. The writers they admired were transgressive—Hubert Selby Jr., Jim Carroll, Mary Gaitskill. Their works questioned social and political institutions—Toni Morrison, Louise Erdrich, Dorothy Allison.
In one of my writing classes this year, an undergraduate said she did not want to read Bastard Out of Carolina because it was too sad, too real, which was why she preferred fantasy literature instead. I had assigned the novel after the recent Kavanaugh hearings.
In another class, two graduate students who were working on fantasy books said that they refused to write characters who were unlikable because they had to deal with people who were assholes in the real world all the time. For them, fiction was something else, a place to imagine, free from the constraints of reality. They did not want complex characters; they wanted characters they could root for. I have always thought of fiction as the opposite—as an in-between place, a space where you could engage with the liminal, the complex, the complicated things that could not be easily understood.
Over the mountains and down through the Carolinas to the sweeping coastal plains. I tried to talk to the kids the next day, but both of them were too busy reading or watching Harry Potter movies. But I think it was good for all of us to be silent together. It was like we were all sharing the same daydream.
Once again there was some other kind of tragedy out on the highway. We took several arcing rural roads, passing beneath the limbs of trees overcome by Spanish moss. In the motel pool that evening, a mother carried her daughter from a wheelchair to a mechanical lift so her girl could enjoy the water. It smelled a little too much like bleach. But the girl clapped, and moved her hands in the water, and splashed at her siblings, like nothing bad had ever happened to anybody.
We arrived in Orlando late the following afternoon. Apparently if you spend a night at one of Universal’s resort hotels, you can get free fast passes, which my wife discovered were essential to get on rides you wanted to. So we found ourselves staying in a nondescript fake Venetian hotel.
My son said he was too excited to sleep so we read a little more from the book.
I talked it over with my wife in murmurs after both kids finally fell asleep. I can only imagine what it would be like reading Harry Potter as a kid. I had a hard time with fantasy stories when I was younger. The covers, even the fonts, made me extremely self-conscious. Comic books were okay, but I read those in seclusion; science fiction as well. By the age of ten, the fear of being seen checking out a fantasy novel at the library was so severe that I refused to go down the aisle, as if there was some kind of negative force at play, some dark energy that would immediately nullify all my future prospects. The imaginary was one thing—if someone made the effort, you could try and explain time-travel, at least partially. The impossibility of a fantasy novel was something altogether different.
On some level, I also believe it had something to do with sex. Even at that age I was aware that certain books, certain movies, certain clothes could render you permanently sexless, and that others might see you as a less-than-ideal mate. I had a presentiment that reading fantasy novels would be an obstacle, an additional conflict to the many other problems I already had. I assumed if I even touched one of those books I would be rendered both mute and invisible.
On the morning of our day at Harry Potter World we overslept. You have to get there by 7:30am or the lines for the rides will be so long, you will never get to do them all, or so the internet told us. I was just happy everyone had eventually fallen asleep.
We went outside and took a motorized gondola down a swampy canal to the park’s entrance. We donned wristbands, got IDS made, put them around our necks. Then we waited in a long, long line. Both of our kids were more excited than I had ever seen them before. It was like seeing them on drugs. They did not know where to look, what to do with their eyes.
Universal Studios, Orlando is probably like a lot of other theme parks. I don’t know. I have not been to too many. We made our way past the front gates, practically running past the other movie-themed rides and attractions. In the distance was Harry Potter World with its gray and black castle, train station, and replica English shops and back alleys. I was dubious up until the very moment, and then when the moment arrived, an odd tranquility set over me.
I’m going to be honest now. I once got into an argument with a friend over Harry Potter, having never read any of the books. I accused her of liking a book that was made for children. I said she was afraid of adult literature. It was years before I had kids of my own; I think both my friend and I were in our late twenties. Like many writers I had a complicated opinion of any other author’s success. It was amazing to see so many adults line up at midnight to buy a book—a novel, at that. But wasn’t there something kind of off-putting, kind of odd about grown-ups being as invested in a novel as the young people it was marketed for? What did these adult readers of Harry Potter and the Hunger Games want? What was it they were running from?
I watched my kids race through Diagon Alley. We went on a ride that took us through a magical bank. A magical bank! It was cold for December in Florida and raining a little but no one seemed to notice. From store to store, we explored the replica town that had been built first in words, then onscreen. It was surreal, to stand in a place you had read about, and to see the totality of detail the world J.K. Rowling had imagined. Everyone—included the people hired to work at various points of contact—seemed enthusiastic to be there. You could not manufacture that kind of happiness.
If you bought a certain kind of wand, you could point it things and those things would move. A fountain would spit water. A toy in a shop window would dance. I was apoplectic, shocked at the level of cleverness and invention. Both kids ran from spot to spot, engaged in reciting spells. Sometimes they worked, sometimes they didn’t, which I thought was perfect. Imagine if you could step into one of your favorite books and make things move around. It was implausibly and thoroughly enjoyable. We ate candy from the candy shop, drank the drinks. I turned and saw people—many, many adults dressed in black robes, many people in their twenties without children doing the very same things we were doing. I admit I was puzzled and a little saddened by this.
William Perry Jr., a psychologist and professor at Harvard, conducted a fifteen-year study of undergraduates and described the cognitive development of these students, beginning with dualism—good vs. evil and a reliance on magical thinking—and maturing to multiplicity, to relativism, to commitment. I wonder why it seems the majority of our nation is unable to move past basic duality? What if our culture, our politics, our social structures, all our entertainment only reinforces such beliefs? And what if those same stories—described in book series after book series, film series after film series—all the commercial narrative of the last thirty years only repeats the same thing? How do you ever escape the idea that life is more than just good versus evil if all the best-loved, most popular stories of the day suggest the opposite?
Moving amongst the theme park and all the people gathered there I realized I had lost faith.
The election had ruined some things for me. It had taken away a belief, my sense that, on some basic level, people could be good.
I want to believe that. I still do.
I have sometimes prayed, which is also a kind of magical thinking I have been guilty of. I have prayed for a number of ridiculous things over the years, some of which I am too embarrassed to put into writing. I believed, even at the time, that no one was listening and yet I still did it. Once my wife was pregnant and the doctors could not find the heartbeat. For several days I prayed for things to go the other way. I believed while I was praying that what I was doing might make some infinitesimal difference—which is the basis of any kind of belief, hope in the face of direct evidence to the contrary.
In the end, it was not the rides, or the millions of details translated from J.K. Rowling’s exhaustive literary imaginings. It was the people themselves. We were waiting in line to go into the Hogwarts castle and you could hear all the voices, all the languages being spoken. A Sikh family in black and green wizard robes—the father and sons also wearing turbans—waited a few feet in front. A group of noisy young Italians—all wearing robes—spoke excitedly behind. It seemed like some people had traveled hundreds, thousands of miles to come to this imaginary world, this place inspired by a book, by words, because they believed in something, as odd and fantastic as it was. Their enthusiasm did not answer any of the larger questions. Coming to a place built entirely on fantasy did not resolve the difficulty of a country’s reliance on dualism, but it was a start. It was a belief you could build on. It was an insistence in the possibility of impossibility, in the probability of improbability, which anyone could tell you is essential for any sort of change.
In the parking lot, loading up our luggage later that afternoon, I could see a number of Trump bumper stickers on the back of many minivans and SUVs, but decided not to count. I did not want to ruin the feeling, the quiet spell that had been cast.