By Aly Semigran
Updated July 19, 2011 at 05:03 PM EDT
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Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Daniel Radcliffe
Credit: Peter Mountain

Anyone who attended any of the record-breaking screenings of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2 this past weekend can attest that the echoes of weeping fans often rivaled the theaters’ booming sound systems. And while there’s no doubt that the tears flowed early and often because of hanky-worthy moments — such as (SPOILER ALERT!) Harry accepting his fate to die and Ron mourning the loss of Fred after the gruesome battle at Hogwarts — it’s also fair to say that many Potter fanatics found themselves crying for an entirely different reason: This was the moment in which they were letting go of Harry, and his beloved series, for good. “I don’t think I’ve fully come to terms with the fact that the series is now officially over,” says 19-year-old Evan Dalton, an avid West Virginia-based Harry Potter fan who has plans to see Deathly Hallows — Part 2 for a third time. “It couldn’t have ended in any other more perfect way, but it is just hard to think that there won’t be any more [movies]. It means so much to all of us fans because it has been a part of our lives for so long.”

Indeed, the boy who lived had existed in fans’ hearts for 10 years — 13 if you include the U.S. publication of J.K. Rowling’s beloved books. And for the better part of the past decade, fans even more fervent than Dalton have devoured every Harry Potter film and novel, going as far as to develop an intense, addiction-like attachment to the saga. At least, that’s what professionals like Jeff Rudski, PhD, an associate professor from Muhlenberg College, have found. Along with two then-students/fellow Harry Potter fans, Eli Kallen and Carli Segal, Rudski noticed that some children exhibited an addictive bond to the series during a study he conducted back in 2008 following the release of J.K. Rowling’s final, highly anticipated book in the franchise, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. All might have been well with the boy wizard at the end of the series, but some young fans suddenly found it difficult to cope without the promise of more Harry in their bookstores.

So how might some fans fare without Harry in their theaters as well? Based on Rudski’s findings, you can expect some to struggle with withdrawal. EW caught up with the associate professor, a Harry Potter fan himself who became intrigued by those who were “overly engaged with the Harry Potter phenomenon” when his then 14-year-old daughter became obsessed with the books. In fact, her behavior, as well as others who had an impulsive need to check out Harry Potter-related websites or engage in Potter discussions, reminded him of “someone who needed a cigarette. When they got their fix, the fangs would retract.”

The 2008 study, which polled 4,000 of what Rudski called “hardcore Harry Potter fans,” ultimately found that 10 percent of the participants exhibited characteristics of attachment seen in cigarette or even gambling addicts. Rudski and his colleagues monitored the “cravings” of the fans in the months leading up to the release of Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the time during the book’s release, and six months after it hit shelves. Rudski found that some participants had “mild withdrawal” symptoms and “mood disturbances.” In the study, a 29-year-old female participant is quoted as saying, “Spent some time crying over the end of HP. I feel very lonely” while an 18-year-old male stated, “I simply feel empty inside as a result of the acknowledgment that an entire chapter of my life (that being the HP series) has ended forever.” As a 24-year-old Harry Potter fan simply put it, “Post-Potter depression is real!”

But how exactly does Potter (over-)appreciation mirror something like a gambling addiction? “[The appeal of gambling is] the thrill of the unknown,” Rudski says. “When the books were released … it contributed to the excitement and it got people hooked. The thrill of the unknown, the speculating, which can feed an addiction, explains some of the withdrawal that people went through. There was a feeling of, ‘What now?'” Rudski noted that many of the Harry Potter fans from their study, some of which spent up to three hours a day or more on Harry Potter-related activities, shared a “sense of loss of an episode of their lives” when the series wrapped up.

Anthropologist Peter Stromberg, PhD, author of the book Caught in a Play: How Entertainment Works on You, echoes Rudski’s findings, telling EW it’s difficult for young fans to distance themselves from a fictional universe they became so attached to over the course of the past decade. “[It has become] a world for people,” he says. “They became connected emotionally in so many ways. [They grew] a relationship with certain characters and plot lines … Dobby dying was a genuine loss [to those fans] and there’s a bereavement process to some extent,” Stromberg explained.

It’s possible, however, that Harry Potter fans may not experience as strong a reaction letting go of the movies. “They’ll [go through] something related, not similar,” Rudski says. “The [last] book was a major milestone in people’s lives. A lot of them had grown up with Harry Potter. Some fans were the exact same age as Harry was in the first book. His adolescence was their adolescence.” Rudski — who also wants to make clear that a Harry Potter obsession is not nearly as dire as, say, a drug or gambling addiction (“Harry Potter doesn’t ruin your life,” he says) — thinks typical movie fans that are letting go “wouldn’t have been engaged with it to the same extent [of those who read the books from the beginning.] It’s a completely different set of people.”

And Stromberg says even the most intense devotees will get past their post-Potter pain after a short grief period. Not that they’ll ever have to fully let go of the boy wizard — they’ll likely not be given the option to. From the wildly popular theme park to Warner Bros.’s plans to keep Harry Potter going through the ages (a recent story from the Wall Street Journal reported that the studio, “is eyeing two properties in particular: Ms. Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a companion book published in 2001, and Quidditch Through the Ages,” as well as, “turning Leavesden Studios, where the eight films were shot, into an 85,000 square foot attraction”), it’s clear that though the series is over, it’s certainly far from gone. As Stromberg says, “There are lots of ways people are trying to extend the experience.”

Still, not all fans are desperate to cling onto the series. In fact, some are using the Harry Potter finale to turn the next chapter of their own lives. Leah Wynalek, a 22-year-old recent college graduate and intern for The Columbus Dispatch, for which she recently wrote an op-ed chronicling her life with Harry Potter, was ready to say goodbye. Wynalek told EW that while she, like scads of other devoted fans, attended a midnight screening of Deathly Hallows — Part 2, watching the final film “made me finally realize I’m an adult.” Wynalek, who began reading the Potter series in the fifth grade, told EW, “I don’t consider it a goodbye. The books are always there for you.”

Perhaps when it comes to Harry Potter, “It All Ends” when the fans say so.

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