In the past, when someone had a favourite film or TV series, he or she would buy a mug or a T-shirt. Fans are now travelling en masse to the locations where the scenes were shot. Film tourism, once the domain of die-hard nerds who re-enacted battles in a field has become big business. Media researcher Abby Waysdorf wants to know why.

She spoke with Harry Potter fans in a theme park in Orlando (US). She went on Game of Thrones tours of filming locations in Ireland and Dubrovnik (Croatia). She also visited Portmeirion, an estuarial village in North Wales to which fans of the 1960s series The Prisoner have been coming for decades to re-enact scenes.

Are you a big fan yourself?

“No, but I can empathise with those who are. I’ve read all about what the fans do and have also seen what they do, so I’m very much up to speed on the subject. Fans are often referred to as weirdos by, for example, journalists who think that it’s fun to make fun of others. Fans can therefore be reluctant to be open. For instance, I once wore a Ravenclaw badge, the crest of one of the Houses, when approaching Harry Potter fans in Orlando. It suddenly became a lot easier to find respondents because the badge showed fans that I understood them.”

Wat bezielt deze mensen?

“They want to know what is real and what is not. They want to know how something is made, why a particular location was chosen and whether the actors were friendly. Many of the people who give the tours in Dubrovnik were extras in Game of Thrones and can therefore provide all kinds of juicy details. The actor who played The Hound was very popular among the Croatian ladies, for example. There are also fans who wish to immerse themselves in the dream world of the film or series. They wish to swim along the walls of King’s Landing or walk through the setting. I interviewed a girl who burst into tears when explaining what the Harry Potter books had meant to her. She had never done very well at school. She explained that the Weasley twins, the characters Fred and George – average students like herself but successful because of their Joke Shop – were an enormous source of support to her at the time. It therefore all came back to her when she was in the shop that is an imitation of Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes, even if the shop is in a theme park and is obviously fake.”

Isn’t someone who travels the world to visit filming locations somewhat obsessed?

“What we consider obsessive is based very much on class and gender. We tend to think of someone who visits Game of Thrones locations as being a bit strange, whereas it is considered entirely normal that thousands of people head to Père-Lachaise each year to visit the grave of Jean-Paul Sartre or Jim Morrison. We consider a teenage girl who is screaming because of a boy band to be somewhat pathetic, but an older man who is completely into Led Zeppelin is fine. In addition, we tend to prefer restraint rather than open displays of enthusiasm about something. Our culture does not value exuberance.”

What are the most memorable cases that you have come across?

“In addition to fans of Game of Thrones and the Harry Potter works, I look at fans of The Prisoner, a 1960s British TV series filmed on the Welsh coast. In Portmeirion, there is a group of people who have been coming together each year for over 40 years now for the purpose of re-enacting a key scene down to the last detail; people of my parents’ generation who try to outdo each other with their costumes or in terms of how well they know the script. It’s really about showing off a bit. As a fan, the lengths to which you go are up to you. For Game of Thrones, I went to TitanCon, an annual conference for fans. It was possible to get the autograph of Hodor or of the actor who plays Bran Stark, for example. There was also a workshop on making Dothraki jewellery and a course in medieval sword fighting given by the Society for Creative Anachronism. Most people do not go that far, however. Sometimes tourists just happen to be in the area and decide to have a look, and even the biggest fans lead otherwise normal lives.”

Do film tourists mind that they may be being exploited for maximum profit?

“I was surprised by what people are prepared to buy. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is a real money-making machine in this respect. The chain of themed areas has everything you can think of, including a magic wand for which, just like in the story, you have to complete an entire ceremony. It’s just a piece of plastic that contains a sensor, but people love it. I spoke with people who told me that they just couldn’t believe that they could buy chocolate in the same shop that Harry bought chocolate. It was another ten dollars spent. While one can become cynical about the whole thing, buying products like the chocolate makes some people genuinely happy. The consumption in itself is meaningful. The interwovenness of art and commerce is characteristic of popular culture.”

Would this research have been possible without visiting Croatia or Ireland?

“Many media researchers tend to think that fan culture is a largely online phenomenon and therefore carry out digital surveys. My research shows, however, that the physical experience is far more important than we think. All kinds of information and images are available online, and still people want to go to a particular location. I want to know what people look at and how they behave when they are at a given filming location, and what affects them in an emotional sense. You can only observe and describe behaviour and emotions if you are at the location in person; if you are on the same tour exploring the city walls of Dubrovnik in the almost 40-degree heat of a blazing sun, for example, even if, like me, you do not cope with heat very well.”

Why is this kind of research important?

“Understanding the role of stories in a given society or culture in terms of how they inform an individual’s relationship with time and place and what is perceived as reality is a key part of understanding that society or culture. In this sense, it’s like keeping a diary of modern-day life as an anthropologist. It is important to keep such a record so that, 50 years from now, we will know how people of a bygone era related to films, fiction and technology. One of my favourite books about fan culture provides a very accurate description of fans in the 1980s. It’s really interesting to read the book today. There’s also the business side. Media tourism is a huge sector. It is important for policymakers and promoters of tourism to be aware of what people do and what people are looking for so that they can manage tourism.”

You’ve now been on several tours. What could be improved?

“The amount of knowledge required is sometimes underestimated. It is necessary to be aware of the events that occur in a given episode, the nature of the characters and the twists and turns of the plot. People look for a certain level of expertise, so it’s not enough to just put on a Game of Thrones jumper and set out a route. A link must also be made between the fictional history and the actual history of the location in question. Although often neglected, this link is something that most tourists expect.”

Abby Waysdorf (31) is conducting doctoral research into media tourism at ESHCC. She is aiming to identify what motivates Game of Thrones viewers, for example, to opt for filming locations like Dubrovnik (King’s Landing) or Seville (Dorne) as holiday destinations. Although the exact number is difficult to determine, there are an estimated 40 million film tourists worldwide. Waysdorf’s study is part of the major Locating Imagination project of the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO).