Hogwarts House Merchandise, Liminal Play, and Fan Identities
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Liminal merchandise transforms the everyday world by incorporating mugs, t-shirts, décor and other items that could exist in story worlds into homes, workspaces, and other environments, blurring the threshold between worlds. It is not confined to liminal times and places such as conventions and theme parks. Liminal play involves general identifications with story worlds or elements within them. It is a self-reflective process wherein fans draw upon story worlds for self-expression. It differs from bounding or cosplay, since it does not require evoking or performing specific characters created by somebody else, and is not limited to wearable merchandise. Fans immerse themselves, as themselves, in beloved story worlds. For example, displaying Gryffindor or Slytherin merchandise announces a sense of membership in those Hogwarts Houses and associates fans with their attributes. Liminal merchandise offers tangible reminders of such self-reflections, and of traits fans want to explore or emphasize in their own personalities.
Merchandise such as mugs, t-shirts, décor, and other items display fans' affection for and identification with fictional story worlds. Such material interfaces display both fan interests and aspects of a fan's identity. In terms of the Harry Potter franchise, for example, Gryffindor- or Slytherin-related merchandise announces a sense of membership in those Hogwarts Houses and associates fans with their attributes. This article primarily focuses on the Harry Potter story world since fans enthusiastically adopted its Houses and their liminal merchandise as a means of self-expression. Most non-fans readily understand both visual and verbal references. Fan statements like, with "robes, a Head Girl pin, a collection of wands, ties, scarves and headbands...I'm a loud and proud Slytherin," demonstrate how fans use such liminal merchandise to articulate these associations. Liminal merchandise also facilitates immersion, transforming everyday environments by bringing story world items into them, blurring the threshold between worlds. Such liminal play involves general identifications, not with specific characters, but with story worlds or elements within them. Liminal play is a self-reflective process in which fans draw upon story worlds for self-expression. It also is an opportunity to explore the fan's own identity, providing safe venues for experimentation by accentuating different personality traits. Liminal merchandise offers tangible reminders of these self-reflections, and of traits fans want to emphasize in their own personalities.
Fictional story worlds are "places people can visit and live in for a time." Also known as "'diegetic worlds,' 'constructed worlds,' and 'imaginary worlds,'" and so forth, story worlds "invite audience participation in the form of speculation and fantasies, which depend more on the fullness and richness of the world itself than on any particular storyline or character within it." A fan studies theoretical framework facilitates examination of both fan desires to access story worlds, and of material practices fans use to access those worlds, such as interfaces.
Within fan studies scholarship, Kurt Lancaster's interface concept facilitates exploration of material fan practices such as collecting, displaying, and using liminal merchandise. An "interface is a...material object that...makes concrete the imaginary," facilitates entry "to another's imaginary universe," and through which "participants interact with the environment" physically. Thus it differs significantly from computer, new media, and other virtual interfaces. Through interfaces such as "toys, games," and other material objects, "[t]he imaginary, the virtual images of film and television, can now be touched and manipulated." Interfaces offer means for fans to see, hear, touch, taste, smell, and interact with story worlds while still firmly in the ordinary world. They facilitate liminal experiences.
Related concepts likewise encompass liminal experiences. Merchandise and clothing "enable the formation of 'tactile transmediality' ... by bridging the gap between the virtual 'worlds' on screen and the lived material body." Thus tactile transmediality extends media texts "into the material world through...tangible products, creating opportunities for fans to continue exploring a story world even as their homes (or other places where their fandom resides) become part of said world." Not only does tactile transmediality acknowledge the role of "material objects" in "transmedia storytelling," it also indicates "the opportunity made available by such objects for fans to reach out and grab hold of the story for the purposes of telling their own." Liminal merchandise is one means that fans use to tell their own stories. It is a tangible manifestation of story world elements that help fans to explore and communicate who they are, who they want to be, and who they could be. Both mass-produced and fan-created interfaces permit fans to interact with, and thereby experience aspects of, story worlds, with the potential for immersion in those story worlds.
Due to its relevance to material interfaces, this article specifically uses Lancaster's definition of immersion: using an interface, "participants break the frame of their actual 'everyday' world, allowing them to interact in some way within the fantasy environment." Merchandise functions as "invitations for immersion" and as "the connecting agent between...fans and imaginary spaces." Interfaces such as the Wizarding World of Harry Potter (WWoHP) theme park's "interactive wands enable visitors to create specific physical 'spell' effects in specific locations via technology... assisting immersion" in the story world. Fans "take these interfaces home with them as souvenirs of their trip into this story world." Liminal merchandise transforms everyday environments. Bringing these concrete pieces of story worlds into homes, schools, and workspaces extends immersive experiences beyond reading or viewing media texts, or visiting media tourism sites.
Liminal merchandise could exist in particular story worlds, whether or not it is mentioned specifically in books or seen on screen. For example, students or alumni would use items with Hogwarts or House logos. Not surprisingly, many corporate and fan sources sell mugs, pens, notebooks, book bags, and so forth with such crests. Sales pitches on Amazon, Etsy, and elsewhere urge customers to show their House pride, changing only the text identifying colors or Houses. A typical interchangeable product description awards "fifty points to Ravenclaw" (or other Houses, depending on fabric and logo choice) for "displaying your Hogwarts house pride" with "cosplay, costuming, or whimsical wear all year round." The sheer variety available assists fans to articulate themselves as individuals through their choice of commodities. Merchandise overlaps with multiple simultaneous interests to appeal to multiple groups. Anyone might buy House scarves or sweaters, but they could be especially tempting for knitters, who also could seek out fan-created patterns and wools dyed to match House colors. Foodies buy themed cookbooks and foods such as butterbeer and chocolate frogs, often making their own. Quidditch shirts and equipment could appeal to sports fans. Fans buy liminal merchandise related to their other fandoms. With so many different types of merchandise to choose from, fans' actual choices articulate more specific identities: not only a Potter fan, but also a knitter, or foodie, and so on. So many options targeting so many overlapping fandoms makes it possible to establish that you are you (a person also passionate about knitting, or food, or whatever) and not just a generic Harry Potter fan.
With liminal merchandise, there is a parallel with"[l]ifestyle brands...whereby a character or franchise's attributes become signifiers of their owners' unique identity" with "individuals using branded products as forms of self-expression." Indeed, "the acts of acquiring and collecting media-oriented objects are also an integral part of how individuals express their identity and individuality within a consumer society." However, I use the term liminal merchandise, designed as if from a story world, to differentiate it from other themed or branded merchandise designed to promote specific characters, narratives, or story worlds. A Half-Blood Prince mug or t-shirt advertises the book, film, and franchise. In contrast, students and alumni would drink from or wear Slytherin or Ravenclaw mugs or t-shirts, just as fans do. Such immersive interfaces bring elements of story worlds into everyday environments. Liminal merchandise positions users as wizards or witches, as members of particular Houses with particular interests. It thus expresses certain characteristics: shrewd, wise, crafty, athletic, and so forth. Obviously toys and other merchandise can and do function as paratexts. However, liminal merchandise also includes additional functions as interfaces facilitating immersion and self-expression via liminal play.
Liminal play involves self-reflection about why a story world resonates with a fan, and its influence on the fan's own life. Liminal play is not bounding, defined as dressing like a character in contemporary life. Nor are fans cosplaying as generic types, such as wizards or muggles. You're still you, interacting with or immersed in a story world via material interfaces. Although cosplay and bounding can feature liminal elements, liminal play serves distinct functions. Liminal play indicates identification with a story world without the need or even the desire to perform a character created by someone else, as in cosplay or bounding. Liminal play is not limited to wearable products. Instead, fans use a wide variety of liminal merchandise to embody story world elements and thus transform the everyday world.
Hogwarts House Traits: Choosing and Using Liminal Merchandise
Liminal merchandise positions story world elements within and as part of ordinary environments, facilitating liminal play. Expressing identification with a story world via décor and other liminal merchandise enables fans to explore aspects of their identities in the safety of their own home, transformed via its contact with interfaces to story worlds. For example, Hogwarts liminal merchandise can signify aspects of a fan's identity via general identifications not with specific characters, but with certain Houses and their associated identity traits: wise Ravenclaw, shrewd Slytherin, brave Gryffindor, or loyal Hufflepuff. Wearing or using Gryffindor House liminal merchandise does not mean fans are cosplaying Hermione or Harry. Fans are not necessarily performing or evoking specific characters created by somebody else, even if they adopt elements of cosplay or bounding. A fan's choice of story world, or choice of elements within that story world, facilitates expression of certain aspects of their identity. In the related fan practice of cosplay, "the identity of the fictional character rubs off on the identity of the player. The values or features of a character are projected onto the player by the spectators and player." Similarly, projecting certain traits onto fans displaying Slytherin rather than Gryffindor liminal merchandise prompts very different reactions from observers.
Displaying liminal merchandise announces one's own identifications and facilitates contact with like-minded fans, potentially creating a sense of comradery or antagonism. Different Tumblr users note frequently having an "unspoken bond instantly" when they encounter other House members. "I wear my house scarf, badge and tie in public with pride, catching eyes with others that know. We always smile at each other but rarely speak." However, if "I wear my Slytherin hoodie and scarf, I get the nastiest glares, even from my friends." Public displays of liminal merchandise also prompt others to mention their own House identifications, indicating common interests and kindred spirits. As in any micro-community, "strangers connect by participating in a shared cultural icon." In this case, instead of fandom as a whole, or even Harry Potter fandom specifically, fans connect through displays of merchandise indicating identification with an aspect of a story world: with a particular House and its associated traits.
People feel more comfortable greeting and interacting with total strangers who display liminal merchandise, since it signals shared fan interests and activities. If they share some affection for this story world, these do not seem like total strangers. They are fellow fans. More importantly, if they are fellow House members, you already know something about their personalities. Part of what makes self-expression via the Harry Potter story world so appealing to fans is this shorthand. If a person states "I'm a Ravenclaw," either verbally or via display of liminal merchandise, one has some idea what sort of person they are. Fan activities construct, but also reify, Houses as standing for certain characteristics or values. Fans pore through books and films, compiling lists of House traits by quoting the Sorting Hat, Dumbledore, or other sources within the story world into wikis and other resources. Some fans describe themselves by simply copying an (uncredited) House description from the Harry Potter Wiki or a similar source, noting "Slytherins tend to be ambitious, shrewd, cunning, strong leaders, and achievement-oriented....My personality exactly," with no examples or commentary to support this identification. Both licensed and fan-produced merchandise draws on similar sources, and thus reinforces how the Houses are conceived by fans.
Popular texts also position Hogwarts Houses (and their members) in certain ways. For example, internet quizzes sort respondents into Houses according to their answers to personality questions. Fans and fan sites such as Pottermore create and administer many of these quizzes. However, even quizzes from other sources, such as the BBC, Buzzfeed, or The Guardian, equate certain personality types with certain Houses in ways consistent with the lists fans compile in various wikis and other sources. As an example of liminal play, fans tend to describe themselves in terms of House affiliation: I am a Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, or Slytherin. Fans note when sorting quiz results support their identifications. As evident in typical responses by slythiasnape, slytherinpirate, 149461, 541364, and 441000, consistent results five, fifty, or all times they take sorting quizzes reinforce House identification even more strongly. However, sahrenaslytherin "almost cried" when "the sorting hat in Pottermore put me in Hufflepuff" so she "deleted that and tried until I was in Slytherin." Although sorting quiz results offer one possible source of identifiers for liminal play, this sort of construction is not the only one, or even the most highly-regarded one. Other fans report similar do-overs and thus position self-assessment as more accurate than sorting quiz results.
Fans sort themselves by self-reflection, using their own personality traits to find the best match. For fan 278440, Slytherin loyalty means protecting "those I care about... Although I am quite brave, I don't think I would be Gryffindor because if the situation called for it, I'd back down if it meant saving my life or the life of people I love." Fans 278440 and 238578 likewise go beyond merely repeating descriptions from wikis such as cunning and ambitious by elaborating on specific examples of how those traits actually manifest in their own lives. Alternatively, as with slytherinpirate and 269305, some fans identify with certain Houses via a process of elimination if traits associated with other Houses don't seem like a good fit. These processes are consistent with the use of fan texts for self-reflection noted by Cornel Sandvoss.
Liminal play includes self-reflection, exploring the fan's own identity and emphasizing different character traits. Liminal play provides safe venues for such experimentation, much like related cosplay and bounding practices. Those traits don't have to be forever. They can end as easily as removing or packing away décor, props, accessories, clothing, or other liminal merchandise. Material interfaces offer concrete signals of the beginning and end of explorations of fan identity. This parallels a similar process when cosplayers "incorporate aspects of the character into their own identity" sometimes producing "a fetishization of both costume and character," so that costumes or props enable "cosplayers to tap into the character as archetype and the costume piece as fetish...Essentially, both become a totem, or a meaningful emblem or symbol." Liminal merchandise facilitates similar identity work. It also illustrates that like fetishization, much identity work previously attributed to cosplay or bounding also occurs in a variety of fan practices. It requires neither costume, character, nor performance. For example:
I have an eating disorder, and I struggle with it everyday. I always wear my Slytherin muffler when I feel so weak, I don't want to go on. Wearing it makes me feel like I have the strength to ignore those voices telling me I'm not enough, and listen to the ones telling me I am a Slytherin, and I am stronger than my inner demons. It means so much to me to be in this house that, as silly as it seems, it has literally saved my life many times.
In a similar fashion, "when fans do purchase items, their choice often is an active statement of identity," especially with House liminal merchandise or wands linked with certain personality traits. Self-reflection is necessary to select the item a fan considers the best match. Liminal merchandise offers tangible reminders of House identifications, and of characteristics fans wish to emphasize and communicate to others.
Possible motivations for fans to immerse themselves in a story world or transform their everyday environments include, but are not limited to, vicarious experience. There are obvious appeals to seeming to possess, if only temporarily, magical abilities or super powers. The appeal of identification with heroes and their traits, saving the day with powers beyond those of ordinary mortals, is obvious. Few fans or non-fans question choices of Gryffindor liminal merchandise. However, there is a lot of Slytherin merchandise available via licensed stores and websites, as well as unauthorized fan offerings on Etsy and similar sites. There also is a Knockturn Alley section in WWoHP for those who feel the attraction of this story world's "dark" aspects. Similar options include Star Wars liminal merchandise with Imperial logos. Such story world elements appeal to very human urges.
Related phenomena include a fascination with fairies during the Victorian era. During this time, "fairies provided a safe vehicle for individuals to live out their fantasies. Through the symbolism of fairies, an individual could vicariously experience uninhibited, amoral, and generally extraordinary behaviour without adverse repercussions." Likewise, Gothic history and subcultures offer individuals "means...to relegate their 'forbidden thoughts and feelings' to a safe space distanced from their ordinary lives." Although fairies and Goths seem like tangents at first, there is a parallel with the attraction of liminal play related to groups associated with traits perceived as villainous. Interfaces and the story worlds which inspire them also offer opportunities to explore forbidden or denigrated thoughts and feelings in safe environments.
Many fans position attributes commonly perceived as negative in ways that emphasize positive aspects of those traits. For example, House Slytherin offers "queer metaphors," as evidenced by Pottermore's original "Welcome" message for those sorted into Slytherin, which portrays "a frequently misunderstood group that was often unjustifiably feared, but who looked out for their own," who "occasionally let people believe the scary stuff about them or played into the stereotypes that might convince others not to mess with them." Other self-identified Slytherin reframe traits from the lists fans compile on various wikis. A psychiatric nurse explains how Slytherin traits help her perform her job. She uses "cunning, and...a pretty dark sense of humour...I know how to manipulate people," not "always for bad reasons, if anything, it's usually to help people (if in a rather underhanded way)....and I definitely look after my own rather fiercely.... I'd do anything to protect them." Self-reflection adds nuance to lists of traits that otherwise could become reductionist stereotypes. For example, one Tumblr users reveals enduring bullying "gave me the backbone...to stand up for myself and to know where I want to go in life. Bullying turned me into a Slytherin, but it will never turn me into a bully." House identifications offer shorthand means to explain complex biographical details.
Experimentation with identity is not limited to exploring negative or devalued traits. Interfaces such as House clothing, props, and accessories also offer physical reminders of valued or desired characteristics. Corporations readily use such associations to encourage consumption. For example, promotional material for "unclaimed" wands urges visitors "to personalize their wand by choosing one linked...with certain character traits or important dates." Thus wands "provide material manifestations of how visitors perceive themselves, or function as physical reminders of important events or aspirational goals," much like other liminal merchandise. Fans use marketing materials as potential springboards for creative processes. Fans also ignore such suggestions and create their own descriptions and narratives from scratch. Choosing a wand or any other liminal merchandise to fit a fan's own personality requires self-reflection, and displaying that item involves self-expression. It makes a statement that one possesses certain characteristics associated with that House or some other element of a story world. The concept of liminal play explains how displaying souvenirs and other liminal merchandise in home or work environments is a statement of fan interests and identity traits based upon such self-reflection.
Liminal Experiences and Locations
Liminal merchandise also contributes to an immersive effect of inhabiting wizarding society, due to the transformation of ordinary work and home environments by introducing aspects of story worlds via multiple forms of material interfaces. This mingling creates liminal experiences and locations: at the threshold between worlds. Fan studies scholarship already addresses more obvious liminal interfaces such as cosplay and bounding. Costumes "act as an interface," one of the means by which a fan "transports" into a story world. Using "costumes, cosmetics, and other accessories," cosplay provides "materiality" for fictional characters, functioning as "the suture between the unreal existence of the character...and the real performance space in which they talk, move and interact with others." Cosplay makes it possible for "spectators to encounter fictional characters," gives "the spectator access to the fictional world," and interweaves fictional characters into the "actual lives" of spectators. With bounding, both identification with a story world and "character embodiment... transcend any specific fan moment into...everyday lives." By interweaving elements of story worlds into the everyday world, costumes can function as interfaces, enabling immersion even as all involved know those characters, artifacts, and story worlds all are fictional. In contrast to previous scholarly emphasis on cosplay during conventions and other liminal times and spaces, liminal play is neither a character performance, nor limited solely to wearable items. Fans display liminal merchandise in homes and workspaces as part of ongoing identifications and self-reflections, and as self-expressions of who fans always are.
Journeys to theme parks, conventions, studio tours, filming locations, and other liminal sites highlight the nature and use of liminal merchandise. However, such expeditions are not required for liminal play. Like cosplay and bounding, they merely offer more dramatic and more documented examples of fans' self-expression via liminal play than liminal merchandise. They are times and places marked as special, and thus more likely to be photographed, posted online, or discussed with friends and family than workplace mugs and other liminal merchandise incorporated into ordinary environments. However, these locations, like successful immersive theme park attractions, do not "try to change who or what" visitors are so participants do not "have to pretend [to be] someone or something else in order to play a role within the attraction. Immersion is one thing, but transformation is another. That demands a suspension of disbelief that challenges even the best themed environments." Rides such as Escape from Gringotts and the Forbidden Journey meet these criteria when they address visitors as muggles. So too do spellcasting wands which position visitors as witches and wizards. Whether in liminal locations or in everyday environments, visitors are able and eager to change what they are, so long as they keep who they are. You might be a wizard or a muggle, but you still are you.
Such liminal play increases the appeal and immersion of attractions. Visitors step from the everyday world into beloved story worlds as themselves. When they return, liminal merchandise souvenirs transform home, school, and work environments into liminal spaces by introducing elements of those story worlds.
Interactive wands offer another example of how interfaces such as immersive theme park attractions and merchandise facilitate self-expression via liminal play. Unlike interactive collectible card games such as Disney's Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom (SotMK) or augmented reality games (ARGs) such as Pokémon Go (2016), WWoHP's interactive wands are not framed as games or competitions to score points or to complete quests, but instead as material parts of the story world. WWoHP visitors actively choose how to define their interactions with the wizarding story world via this interface, creating their own original narratives for each spell's use without any framing devices imposed by corporate publicity material. Thus interactive wands have much in common with table-top role-playing games (RPGs) and Live Action Role Playing Games (LARPs), which both facilitate and encourage free form play. In both liminal sites and ordinary environments, liminal merchandise such as wands, robes, school ties, Quidditch team t-shirts, butterbeer, and so on offer playful engagement and immersion without forcing fans into pre-determined narratives, framing devices, or roles. Fans define their own wizarding identities and their own forms of liminal play.
Fans do re-enact familiar scenes during visits to liminal spaces. Scholarship on media tourism and cosplay briefly mentions, but does not explore in-depth, fans who visit locations "literally dressing up; more often, reenacting poses in a (light-hearted) attempt to enter the fiction." Cosplay tableaux vivants and similar reenactments of characteristic poses and scenes parallel such activities. These behaviors often model characters created by others. In contrast, even when visitors pose on Hagrid's motorcycle at WWoHP, or for a green screen "flying" experience during the Warner Bros. Studio "Making of Harry Potter" tour in Leavesden, or at the official photo opportunity in King's Cross, fans are more likely to caption such photos "Here I am" on the flying motorcycle, or on a broom, or on Platform 9¾ than "Here I am pretending to be" Hagrid or Harry. Such statements highlight differences between cosplay and liminal play. Immersion and interaction with a story world via liminal merchandise does not require adopting roles created by someone else. Instead, those material interfaces express identifications with certain story worlds based upon self-reflection.
Neither interfaces nor the immersive interactions they facilitate are limited to re-creations of specific scenes and characters. Fans do engage with favorite locations or scenes when they ride the Hogwarts Express or visit Ollivander's wand shop, but they are more likely to do so via liminal play enacting new events. Apparent re-enactment actually encourages "immersion and active performances. Visitors can cast themselves as students or alumni traveling to or from Hogwarts, with their own adventures running parallel to or intersecting with narrative fragments...on the Hogwarts Express ride." In such instances, fans go beyond re-enactment to participate in liminal play, interacting with familiar elements of beloved story worlds to create new narratives. The point is not to duplicate scenes, but rather to extend the "attachment to the original text" by inhabiting the story world, as themselves. Similar activities involve fans "re-enacting certain episodes from the story on location, such as spending a night in the same hotel as [a character] or having the same evening meal."
Such liminal spaces and activities, like carnival, offer a societal pressure release valve. They grant permission to shed inhibitions, which facilitates experiments with identity work. Interestingly, within media tourism, carnival includes "a creative use of the [environment] that invests the real spaces with mythology and ... a liberating breakdown of boundaries between real and fictional worlds." This is similar to multiple mapping or "the permeable boundaries between...'[r]eality' and 'fantasy'" of cult geographies fans use "as the basis for material, touristic practices." Interfaces are material objects that enable crossing boundaries from the everyday world into story worlds. Theme parks, conventions, studio tours, filming locations, and such liminal sites are forms of interfaces. They also illustrate that transformation of what you are rather than of who you are is a key aspect of liminal merchandise and liminal play.
Material interfaces facilitate story world immersion both for those who use them and also for observers. At conventions and theme parks, spectators play along, striking their own poses, such as being taken prisoner by Dark Wizards or by Star Wars Stormtroopers. They address cosplayers as their characters. Likewise, they also follow cues on liminal merchandise to acknowledge liminal play, greeting others as members of House Slytherin and so forth. Visitors know they really haven't entered a wizarding world or a magical kingdom, but in such liminal spaces they play as if they have. In contrast to transformations of a story world or its characters in fan fiction, liminal merchandise is a form of material interface that transforms the everyday world, populating it with witches, wizards, Jedi, and so forth via liminal play.
The practice of displaying liminal merchandise such as House ties, headbands, sweaters, and robes in WWoHP is prevalent enough to feature prominently in official promotional material. Corporations frame and market fan activities and interests to offer consumer roles which benefit the company presenting the experience. Such practices are explored in greater detail in other articles, as are ways in which both fan- and mass-produced merchandise address similar impulses for self-expression. However, such fan practices also express fans' liminal play, by displaying House identifications and thus personality traits. Like other fans, "[t]ourists create meaning just as much as they are prescribed meaningful experiences." For example, many WWoHP souvenirs are liminal merchandise. Fans' display and use of such interfaces positions story world elements as part of everyday environments. Many collectibles and souvenirs are framed as tangible artifacts from fictional universes. Examples include Harry Potter wands, lightsaber and sword replicas from various franchises, and so forth. Interfaces with diagetic logos, such as mugs or t-shirts with Hogwarts or House crests, are the sort of items inhabitants of those story worlds would use.
Although Warner Bros. sells licensed versions of House sweaters, robes, and t-shirts, fans still knit, sew, and design their own, as evidenced by sales listings on Etsy, Amazon, Redbubble, and so forth. Official WWoHP wands simulate casting spells. Yet fans construct their own narratives around their choice and use of wand. Wand choice often links with personality traits, and thus are liminal play. Furthermore, fans still craft their own wands or buy from fellow fans on Etsy and similar sites. Fans can and do resist industry attempts to fix, limit, or define their experiences and actions, or to channel them solely or primarily into official consumption. Buying wands, robes, and other liminal merchandise, whether licensed or not, often facilitates active fan material practices such as crafting, customizing, or communicating character traits via liminal play. Whether mass-produced or fan-created, fans still turn these material interfaces to their own ends, thus complicating fan/producer relationships.
Fans do not obediently limit themselves to pre-determined corporate-approved roles. Instead, fan practices re-define or completely re-write those roles. For example, although pre-recorded characters in WWoHP's Forbidden Journey and Escape from Gringotts rides refer to visitors as Muggles, fans position themselves as wizards and witches through their choices of liminal merchandise. Furthermore, employees address those wielding wands or displaying House crests as wizards and witches, contradicting the corporation's official framing device in favor of fans' own self-expressions. Fans use material interfaces to participate in liminal play, often within new narratives of their own creation. Fans use liminal merchandise as active participants and performers, not as passive consumers whose fan practices have been co-opted or absorbed by corporations. Instead, fans purchase and use corporate- and fan-created material interfaces to immerse themselves in story worlds, to engage in liminal play, and to transform everyday environments by incorporating elements of story worlds into homes, schools, or workplaces.
Everyday Items, Every Day Use
Liminal play serves particular uses and functions for fans that are distinct from cosplay, bounding, and other fan identities involving wearable merchandise. This distinction matters because displaying liminal merchandise does not require evoking pre-existing characters that resonate with fans. Instead fans express who they already are, deploying liminal merchandise to emphasize existing traits. Fans typically identify with Houses because they recognize they already possess certain characteristics to some degree. House identifications offer convenient shorthand for fans to describe themselves to others. Liminal merchandise likewise signals interests and characteristics to others. However, related activities such as cosplay and bounding are more visible and thus more studied. Simply by posting images of their cosplay and bounding efforts, fans solicit likes, shares, comments, and other forms of affective feedback. In contrast, there is a definite lack of pictures posted of liminal merchandise in everyday environments.
Google searches produce many Etsy and Pinterest results for items sold by the poster or some other source. However, Etsy reviews typically mention shipping speed, communication with sellers, and whether recipients liked the item. Pinterest comments on wardrobe ensembles for everyday wear tend towards "I like/would wear this because I'm in this House" or wouldn't wear it because "I'm in a different House" with no further commentary or elaboration. Such low-affect comments are of limited use to this research, although the Pinterest comments at least demonstrate a consistent stating of more specific House affiliation instead of generalized Potter fandom.
Although many Amazon customer reviews and product descriptions likewise fall into trends of stating House membership, they tend to do so in more productive ways. Many Amazon reviewers note their purchases were gifts for friends, spouses, children, or other relationships. Affective responses typically note that the buyer or recipient loved it or uses it all the time. Interestingly, very few reviewers describe themselves or recipients by their fandom. Instead, House affiliations are the most common form of identification: "my girlfriend... is definitely a Ravenclaw through and through!" or "Just what my Ravenclaw needed to create her Hogwarts look." Friends and family employ liminal merchandise to express affection for recipients, selecting liminal merchandise that references fan interests that are shared or at least indulged.
Searches online and on social media also reveal collections, often in areas or whole rooms dedicated to their display, but not many results showing an incorporation of liminal merchandise into everyday living and work spaces. Few fans photograph their favorite mug or t-shirt to showcase it the way they would for their collection or cosplay. Advertisers already offer plenty of such images, taken by professionals. Furthermore, any liminal merchandise on display as part of a collection is not in everyday use, and does not facilitate liminal play or transform everyday environments to the same degree.
Ultimately, most liminal merchandise is designed for ordinary use: headbands, mugs, home décor, scarves, etc. Their use does not mark a special or liminal event or location such as convention or theme park attendance, or even a separate collection space. Nor do they mark a departure from everyday identity by evoking a pre-existing character. Why take a picture of a mug you drink from every day, which looks the same as other mass-produced items? Cosplay and bounding are marked as different from everyday clothing. Even if bounding can pass as everyday clothing, it still is marked as different from everyday activity since the fan is dressing to suggest a specific character. Such differences warrant photo opportunities. It is much more difficult to post an image of the internalized mental process of self-reflection that sets use of liminal merchandise apart as liminal play. Thus it is more difficult to locate images wherein fans display liminal merchandise, effectively inviting strangers into personal spaces.
However, a lack of online presence does not indicate a lack of activity or significance. Visits to fellow fans' homes and workspaces reveal mugs, wands, wanted posters, weapons, and other liminal merchandise that brings bits of various story worlds into everyday environments, every day. That selfsame everyday nature of liminal merchandise contributes to its lack of online presence, since it is less prone to photo opportunities. Exceptions occur for DIY (Do It Yourself) and customized items. For example, one self-identified "geeky couple...chronicles our attempts at mixing our passion for all things geek with DIY home projects" on a website, as well as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts. They "have always struggled with how few sources there are for good/affordable geek decor, which is part of why we had to start making our own." Liminal merchandise can be customized, kitbashed, or DIY as well as mass-produced. In their tutorial for a Wall-Mounted DIY Star Wars Wampa Head inspired by "the Photoshopped taxidermy Wampa head pictures," the picture of the finished project also includes glimpses of their "DIY 8-bit fireplace, giant DIY D20, and DIY Zelda pillow." Commenters state "I want to do it in my house," and note how the couple inspired them to apply their techniques to similar projects, such as "fantastical creatures" or "a Rancor head." Other tutorials prompt similar comments, or mentions of friends and family members who would appreciate such items as gifts. As with Amazon reviewers, gifts of liminal merchandise and DIY projects convey affection as well as shared interests.
Such DIY projects illustrate the most obvious way in which liminal play is distinct from cosplay, bounding, and other fan identities involving wearable merchandise: liminal play is not limited to wearable merchandise. In addition, while previous scholarly examinations of cosplay acknowledge that it is a form of self-expression, they often limit it to declaring identification with "a narrative or character." Scholars often emphasize cosplay's transformation of source texts and identification with a character or some of their traits, instead of affection for the story worlds in which narratives are set. The concept of liminal play expands the discussion to address fan desires to express themselves as themselves. Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, or Slytherin liminal merchandise represents a fan's own personality traits. In contrast to the usual scholarly emphases, many fans actually prefer "generic representation," appearing as a Hogwarts student or Death Eater instead of "reproducing a specific character from a given text" such as Harry Potter or Bellatrix Lestrange. Generic representation cosplay can signify identification with a story world rather than with a specific character created by somebody else. When a story world is "fully-realized...fans want to participate in it. Cosplay enables them to actively enter into this world and be a part of it," so that "fans create a shared sense of ownership and belonging to that world. They have inserted themselves into the Potterverse" or any other story world. Such self-insertion indicates immersion in a story world. It is not limited to performance of an existing character. Liminal play illuminates additional forms of self-expression, and uses additional material interfaces: liminal merchandise, not only costumes.
Self-reflection is an internal process, something fans do for themselves instead of a performance for positive feedback online and on social media. To reflect upon their fandom or their identity, fans do not have to strike a pose, speak in character, post images, or conform to any of the other performative aspects of cosplay. Any "performances become personalized and internal" based upon the process Sandvoss describes in which "fans project their own sense of self onto a fan text that resonates with them. They perceive parallels between themselves and this fan text and, as a result, have a greater sense of attachment to the text." For the purposes of this article, the fan text is the story world. This contrasts with previous scholarship on cosplay which emphasizes using specific "characters...as signifiers" to manifest and to express aspects of a fan's own identity. Liminal play also better illuminates previously-overlooked aspects of fan studies, such as claims that "[i]t is through interaction with stories that we can imagine and perform ourselves." Such personal internalized processes contribute to liminal play.
Bounding also offers some useful parallels to liminal play via liminal merchandise, since it "is not about putting on a show," but "is a self-reflective act of performing a fan-centred, but deeply personal identity." As a self-reflective act, bounding recognizes aspects of fan identity in fan objects. As in Sandvoss, "fans perceive elements of themselves in an object" and "attribute meaning to their bounds and use this meaning to make sense of their own identities." In bounding "individuals use personal dress to negotiate their own identity to themselves and to communicate that identity to others." The concept of liminal play expands this potential even further, since it is not limited to identification with specific characters expressed only via wearable merchandise such as clothing, accessories, and cosmetics.
Liminal play is a form of fan self-expression encompassing a much wider range of material interfaces: liminal merchandise such as mugs, t-shirts, and home décor. Instead of relying solely or primarily on wearable merchandise and performing or evoking characters created by others as in cosplay and bounding, the concept of liminal play incorporates fan use of material interfaces to immerse themselves, as themselves, in beloved story worlds. Display of mass-produced or fan-made liminal merchandise communicates fans possess personality traits associated with certain Houses, or otherwise self-identify with aspects of a story world. Interfaces are material objects that enable crossing boundaries from the everyday world into story worlds. Liminal merchandise also transforms everyday environments as fans interact with story world elements they deliberately place in their home, school, and work spaces. Liminal events and locations such as conventions and theme parks can generate more spectacular displays of cosplay and bounding, with more prolific documentation due to the urge to commemorate special occasions photographically. However, liminal merchandise enables fans to explore and to express aspects of their identities not only in such liminal times and places but also in familiar, regularly accessible everyday environments transformed via contact with material interfaces to story worlds.
Victoria L. Godwin holds a Ph.D. from Indiana University and is an Associate Professor of Languages & Communications at Prairie View A&M University. Her publications explore material fan practices, immersive theme parks, action figure customization, Twilight anti-fans, vampires and narcissism, and media witches. Her primary research interest is fan studies.
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Victoria Godwin, "Theme Park as Interface to the Wizarding (Story) World of Harry Potter," Transformative Works and Cultures, 25 (2017): 1.7, 3.1, http://journal.transformativeworks.org/index.php/twc/article/view/1078/871.
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Victoria Godwin, "Theme Park as Interface to the Wizarding (Story) World of Harry Potter," Transformative Works and Cultures, 25 (2017): 1.7, 3.1, http://journal.transformativeworks.org/index.php/twc/article/view/1078/871.
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