It All Ends: Tales from the Midnight Screening of Harry Potter

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Rob Kim / Getty Images

Fans at the release party for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2: An Imax Experience at the AMC Loews Kips Bay 15 theater in New York City on July 14, 2011

Warning: Plot spoilers ahead.

Hundreds of people are standing in line to see a boy with a stick.

On Manhattan's Upper West Side, hundreds of anxious fans await a midnight showing of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2. Counting down the last few hours before the highly anticipated finale, they're in cloaks, clutching well-worn books and snapping pictures. The sidewalk is covered with the usual trash, but tonight it's full of verve. A line twists out the doors of the AMC Loews theater, with teens and early-20-somethings making up most of the queue. They've arrived from all over the city for this Potter pilgrimage, and they make the experience seem downright holy. After 10 years, the $6 billion film franchise based on J.K. Rowling's smash series of seven books is coming to a close. This is Harry's swan song, and the fans are looking the part.

Some are sporting Hogwarts robes, all sorted into the houses of their choosing. There are wands and circle-rimmed glasses, newspaper-stuffed Hagrids and lightning-bolt scars. A group hands out flyers for an upcoming Potter-themed burlesque show. There are girls in homemade "I Heart Draco Malfoy" T-shirts, with young men in Quidditch uniforms eyeing them. Inside, a bewildered duo shuffle around before asking the manager where they can find the next showing of Larry Crowne.

Midnight Potter screenings are always packed with the brand's most enthusiastic fans. Deathly Hallows Part 1 twilight shows in Canada and the U.S. alone took in $24 million in ticket sales when the film was released in November 2010. But even in a sea of cosplaying Harrys, Hermiones and Rons, Brandon Zelman, 19, and Dana Walsh, 20, command attention. Paired as Dobby the house elf and femme fatale Bellatrix Lestrange, the couple have been dating since November, after attending a midnight showing of Part 1 with mutual friends. Zelman was sporting his homemade Dobby costume that night too, complete with mismatched socks, a small burlap tank and shorts, as well as a bald cap with connecting elf ears. "The real question is, What am I wearing under it?" he says with a smirk.

Zelman's no stranger to Potter exhibitionism, as he's caught a midnight showing for each film since 2002's Chamber of Secrets. This finale is bittersweet. "I read all of the books multiple times, but after the seventh book was released, I finished it and had to put it away," he says. "I felt like it broke me. It's like I signed a waiver on the end of my childhood. This is going to hurt."

Walsh caught her fan fever much later. "I was homeschooled and wasn't allowed to read the books," she says. "My mom thought Harry Potter was evil. It wasn't until later that she admitted that maybe the books didn't have anything to do with the devil. By the time I got to college, I felt like I had missed out on something major." She started tagging along with friends to see the films in theaters and had just cracked open Rowling's books in the past week. She finished the first three in three days, but she's happy with her decision to experience the last chapter without knowing Harry's fate.

Inside the theater, most of the audience members have already donned Harry-style circle-rimmed 3-D specs. The series' smallest details are offered up as debate topics. A group of six or seven can't seem to agree on the origins of the Room of Requirement, a one-size-fits-all storage locker inside Hogwarts. Someone demands to know just what the heck is a wrackspurt. Gillian Kosinski has her nose in the books. A fan of the series since its first installment was published in the U.S. in 1998, the 23-year-old law student used to pen Harry Potter fan fiction but has since given it up for other pursuits — the law-degree aspiration may have played a role. She loves Rowling's story for its poignancy.

"You see that it reflects reality," she says. "At first you think this world is perfect, but then you realize it's not. There's prejudice and hate. It's really just love that's magic."

In the past decade, American children (and a great number of adults) were pulled into Rowling's magical world as it was fully transformed on screen. Selfless underdog hero defeats pure evil? How could we resist? In 1977, a similar young man pulled us hopelessly into his world. (Another orphaned hero. Even bigger stick.) The Harry Potter–Luke Skywalker symmetry is testament to how we prefer our heroes: earnest, brandishing staffs and mysteriously connected to the story's big bad villain.

Harry's life is full of catastrophe. But while the magic and almost Seuss-like vernacular are pure fantasy, the reality of evil is not. And our world can relate. Though our Waterloos are nowhere near as romanticized as those in Rowling's world, they're just as potent. The Sorcerer's Stone first entered theaters in the U.S. in November 2001, at a time when Americans were desperately seeking hope in a world terrorists had mangled just a few months before. Maybe the comparison is cheap, but somehow it feels right to see the demises of Osama bin Laden and Lord Voldemort occur in the same year.

This Potter behemoth — books, films, burlesque tributes — has captivated and in many ways guided a generation. It's impossible to dismiss its impact, something even Rowling herself acknowledges. Meanwhile, in some wizarding version of heaven, Harry asks Dumbledore if their afterlife interaction is, in fact, real or if it's all a fantasy in his head. "Of course it's inside your head, Harry, but why on Earth should that mean it is not real?" Indeed.

A few minutes before showtime, an elfed-out Zelman stomps to the front of the packed theater to lead audience members in a rendition of Gryffindor's Quidditch tune "Weasley Is Our King." He works the crowd up into a frenzy before Walsh, as Bellatrix, storms forward to plunge a plastic dagger into his chest. Cheers carry Zelman through his theatrical death scene and continue as the previews roll. Nearly three hours later, there are audible sobs as the last bits of magic flicker out and the house lights rise on a post-Potter world.