“From Beatlemania to Beliebers. Trekkies to Twihards. Behind every great success story there’s an army of fans. Most just want to show their appreciation. Some take it further to prove their dedication. But there’s an elite group who go above and beyond this: they push the boundaries and walk the line between keen interest and life-changing obsession. But why?”—Tom Felton
Why obsessive fans act the way they do is the central question of Tom Felton’s documentary, Tom Felton Meets the Superfans. Having successfully come out the other side of Harry Potter fame (although he still gets called “Draco” in the streets), Tom has a personal stake in getting to the bottom of the psychology of what drives the most dedicated superfans. In the film, Tom follows fans into poster-covered basements, to cosplayers’ hotel rooms, and through back alleyways in pursuit of one question: why?
He begins his directorial foray into fandom with nervous curiosity about one of his own personal “superfans,” a middle-aged woman named Tina Davies who follows him everywhere, including once to the Louvre. Despite Tina’s best intentions, Tom admits her constant presence is “unnerving.” “She always seems to know where I am,” he says. “Why does a middle-aged woman have an obsession with a—back then—a teenage boy? […] I’m still absolutely confused as to why she would want to see me. What does she want from me?”
In addition to his own experiences, Tom draws from his Harry Potter brethren, Jo Rowling, Daniel Radcliffe, and Rupert Grint, to get their perspectives on superfans. Jo remembers feeling stunned that people “went crazy,” shoving and elbowing and clamoring for autographs at a book signing in New York. Daniel likens superfandom to addiction: “If you’re going to be obsessed with something, being obsessed with a series of books or films is pretty good. Some people are obsessed with heroin.” Although he finds it troubling when fanatical behavior crosses over from fictional characters to real-life actors: “I’m very comfortable with people being obsessed with Harry Potter. I’m less comfortable with people being obsessed with me.” Rupert, on the other hand, loves getting recognized and has difficulty saying “no” to fans: “That’s the danger. I would do anything. It’s got me into a few tricky situations.” He then giddily tells Tom about a night he went to a drag queen’s apartment because he “couldn’t say no.” She and her friends dressed him up in a feather boa and heels and they all went out for bagels.
Tom seeks out some of the more interesting personalities in fandom to help answer the question, “What separates the passionate from the obsessive?” He throws a nervous glance to the camera as he knocks on the door of “the world’s biggest Harry Potter fan,” Steve Petrick, who greets him in full Gryffindor garb. “Draco Malfoy, nice to meet you, sir,” he says, extending a hand. Tom laughs nervously and asks what name (“Steve” or “Harry”) he would prefer. “Steve, please,” he says quickly. He leads Tom down into the basement, the bunker that holds his world-famous Harry Potter collection. Steve has spent fifteen years amassing $13,000 worth of merchandise, including a wardrobe so extensive that he could wear Harry Potter clothing “every day for three months without wearing the same thing twice.”
After getting over his initial shock at the “formidable” collection, Tom sits down with Steve to discuss how his obsession started. “I was really bullied. I didn’t fit in,” says Steve about his school days. “Just [for] being the small skinny nerd that liked to dance instead of play baseball.” He identified with Harry’s character because of his transition from the “skinny little kid getting picked on” to the “biggest badass in the wizarding world.” Like many fans, Steve’s obsession began through a deep emotional connection to a fictional character and a chance to escape into a world where he felt accepted: “I just wanted to be at Hogwarts so bad, so bad, that I just brought it to me.”
Another superfan, Jade, tells Tom her love of Harry Potter helped her cope with mental illness. The Dementors, she said, perfectly personified the experience of soul-sucking depression. Escaping into the world of Harry Potter motivated her to get help. “Sadly, it’s not the first time a fan has told me something like this,” narrates Tom, who says fandom helps many people cope with mental illness. Indeed, the healing power of friendship, camaraderie, and sense of belonging cannot be underestimated.
Tom delves deeper into the psychology of superfans when he meets up with “autograph hunter extraordinaire” Brian Pechar, who has already amassed over 250 signed items from Daniel Radcliffe alone. Donning a disguise, Tom joins Brian during his nightly quest for autographs in New York City. “I think that was Nick Jonas,” says Brian, his eyes following a black SUV. He recognizes the license plate. After an unsuccessful attempt to get noticed by the star, Tom and Brian camp out at the stage doors to Rupert Grint’s broadway show. They wait with several other collectors until Rupert finally emerges. Recognizing both Brian and Tom immediately, Rupert happily obliges them selfies and autographs. Brian is over the moon. Tom says it was Brian’s giddy reaction that made him realize what drives superfans: “It’s the thrill of the chase, the success, but, perhaps most importantly of all, the sense of recognition from Rupert.” Tom himself described the encounter as an “adrenaline rush” and Brian’s gleeful reaction as “infectious.”
Finally beginning to understand the psychology behind superfan behaviors, Tom resolves to get answers from Tina, his lifelong devotee: “She’s been following my career and supporting me for seven years and I haven’t taken twenty minutes to have a conversation with her!” Visibly anxious, Tom travels to Tina’s house for a chat. He sits on her living room couch and flips through a photo album, pausing at each candid photo of himself at press conferences, at premiers, at the Louvre. He finally cracks: “Why me?” Tina says although her obsession started with the character of Draco Malfoy, who she described as a “slimy git,” it quickly transitioned to Tom Felton himself. In a poignant moment, she confesses that she “never had a family” and that watching all the actors grow up gave her a sense of love and community. “You seemed like a big family,” said Tina. After seven years, Tom finally understands: “You wanted to be part of it.”
Being part of a larger community, the chance to escape into a more tolerant world, and the desire for personal recognition are all things that drive superfans. Often written off as “crazy” or “unstable,” Tom concludes that most fans are harmless and have good intentions. And he admits that his adventures with the most dedicated of the bunch were not only enjoyable, but “infectious.” “I reckon we could all use a little more superfan in our lives,” Tom says as he dons a Stormtrooper costume and marches into Comic-con with the others.