In the northwest of Middle Earth sits the Shire, a modest agricultural community whose verdant landscape was created and densely described by JRR Tolkien, visually interpreted in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and the subsequent Hobbit, and dissected in enormous spatial depth by a legion of committed readers and artists. The Shire is perhaps not “real,” but it is ironically better described and far more appealing than most of the real world. Consequently, fans eager to find such a place flock to the New Zealand sets where Jackson fancied hobbits and elves might live. Half a planet away Soprano’s fans likewise have migrated to a fantasy landscape constructed in popular culture: New Jersey. The world of the Soprano’s references genuine places that have a material presence in the same way as the LOTR sets, but both fabricate a world in which New Jersey, Hobbiton, Mayberry, or Springfield are imagined places constructed from a mix of historical, social, and fantasy referents. Those narratives and the landscapes they reference underscore that the distinction between imagination and reality has long been a contrived dichotomy for many fans. The depth of that fascination is reflected in the enormous number of fans who now flock to the likes of Merlotte’s Bar and Grill, The Seven Seas Motel, The Millennium Centre, Los Pollos Hermanos, Hershel’s Farmhouse, the Bada Bing, Gaius Baltar’s House, the Double R Diner, and the crash site of Oceanic Airlines 815 intent on securing a material connection to their fandom.
Fandoms push beyond enjoyment of a series or film, finding dimensions of their fan passion that they can relate to their everyday lives: the Soprano’s in this case becomes not a soap opera but instead a jarring and personally relevant vision of ethical ambiguity, violence, and desperation. Fandoms weave these philosophical narratives from threads drawn from a rich range of discourses: in the case of Star Wars, for instance, the canon is drawn from the films, which are in turn accented by official novelizations, cartoons, comic books, and games that are themselves reinterpreted by fan web pages, cosplayers, and fan conventions. Such participatory fan cultures draw idiosyncratically from a breadth of official and fan narratives and demonstrate mastery of the particularities of the narrative: the Star Wars fans, for instance, know all the details of the multiple Lucas edits, can identify an Anxarta-class light freighter, and can quote a breadth of Yoda aphorisms. Yet the material experience of fandom is often ignored entirely or reduced simply to purchases of some mass-produced trinkets that accompany nearly every popular cultural franchise (for a European exception, see Stijn Reijnders’ 2011 study Places of the Imagination: Media, Tourism, Culture).
Contemporary fandoms are perhaps most powerfully fueled by their digital forms in fan pages, blogs, and forums: for instance, mega-fandoms like Star Wars, LOTR, Harry Potter, and Vampire Diaries have gargantuan wiki pages that dissect the infinite particularities of the fan passions, and many more modest fandoms have devoted online spaces. Nevertheless, pilgrimage to sites like Dexter’s crime scenes or Bill Compton’s house–a phenomenon that Stijn Reijnders refers to as “media tourism”–is a critical material experience of contemporary fanhood. Fan tourism has become increasingly commonplace, but it is not a 21st-century phenomenon: Nicola Watson details 19th-century literary tourists who flocked to homes and gravesites of famous authors in Britain. Many of these sites have remained in popular consciousness: for instance, tourists began visiting Baker Street in the early 20th century to see the haunts of Sherlock Holmes (the 221B Baker Street address eventually was remodeled in 1990 to become a museum interpreting Holmes’ residence, basing the re-modeling on Arthur Conan Doyle’s descriptions of the imagined home).