Photos by Eric Weiss
According to Marvel comics, the Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters is located at 1407 Graymalkin Lane in Westschester County in upstate New York. In truth, the storied institution sits a little less than an hour outside of Toronto, at the Parkwood Estate in Oshawa, Ontario. Or at least, that’s where it would be located, if the X-Mansion was the kind of place that you could visit.
The reality, of course, is that there is no Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters, which is a fictional school created for a fictional group of misfit superheroes. Parkwood is simply where Fox has filmed some of the X-Mansion scenes for the long-running X-Men series, the latest of which, X-Men: Apocalypse, hits Blu-Ray on October 4. The difference is that Parkwood is a place that you can visit, as I learned when I was invited for a recent media junket to promote the film. The Canadian National Historic Site was temporarily converted back into a boarding school for a few days in September, allowing us to tour the dorms, Professor Xavier’s office, and a destroyed bathroom stall that was on the wrong end of one of Cyclops’ optic blasts.
Having said that, the trip did leave me wondering about how fans relate to the physical world. Though Parkwood has the right dimensions, the X-Mansion is a costume, a few strategically placed props that trick your brain into thinking you’re somewhere else. Why was I so excited to visit a building when I know it’s only an illusion?
I’d suggest that it speaks to people’s desire to believe in (and give meaning to) fiction. Tourist destinations like Disney Land and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter exist to feed a growing appetite for more immersive fan experiences, and while the nostalgia industry is often criticized for its refusal to let go of the past, I think there’s something beautiful in the intersection of real and fictional spaces. Looking at a place through the lens of fiction often gives it a much greater personal resonance. It’s a powerful framing device that gives you a reason to notice things you otherwise might have overlooked, in much the same way that Pokemon GO gave people a reason to get out and take pictures of local hotspots.
Walking the halls of the X-Mansion drove that home in an unexpected way. As a kid, I spent countless hours pretending to be Nightcrawler during recess. Standing in his dorm room – decorated with a rosary, a Thriller poster, and a matching red Michael Jackson jacket – made that playground fantasy tangible and present. Nightcrawler has a dorm room, and that means there’s an alternate reality where the two of us are roommates.
Yes, the effect has its limits. You’re not allowed to touch anything on a movie set, so no matter how real it looks, it will never feel like home. Parkwood is also one of the many locations that has served as the X-Mansion over the years, which means that any tour is bound to be incomplete. I’m well aware of the the artifice and I have no trouble separating fantasy from reality.
However, the appeal is not entirely frivolous. We tell stories to teach the social values that we deem important. The need to make the settings real is a way to reinforce those lessons. The X-Men stand for normative values like tolerance and acceptance. Believing in the fantasy in the most literal, physical sense – seeing the X-Mansion as a breathing institution – underlines the metaphorical significance of that particular universe. The time spent in escapist daydreams has a profound influence on one’s worldview, and in some cases is just as crucial as real-life events in the shaping of one’s personality. Seeing the X-Mansion as a real place is comforting because it gives legitimacy to our memories of fictional events, reassuring us that those Saturday morning cartoons were more than wasted time.
It also makes the real world a little more fun. That’s one of my favorite things about living in Toronto. Thanks to the city’s booming film industry, you’re never more than a few blocks away from a former set. Recognizing landmarks in movies like Kick-Ass, Resident Evil, or even Suicide Squad is gratifying because it means that Toronto is cool enough to pass as a fictional setting for a global audience. I live and work in a city where exciting things happen. With a little effort (and a lot of luck), maybe one of those adventures could happen to me.
In most cases, it’s almost impossible to see the idealistic fantasy through the mundane veil of reality. I walk through Dundas Square so often that it’s difficult to think of it as anything other than a pedestrian hub, while City Hall will forever be a site of bureaucratic inefficiency. Even if you do remember that both have appeared in movies, it’s a fleeting memory that fails to distract you from the routine business that brought you downtown in the first place. Toronto spends most of its time being Toronto, which diminishes any cinematic sheen.
With Parkwood Estate, the sensation is more intense. I’d never been to the mansion, and in fact I learned of its existence on the same day that I received my invitation to Xavier’s. For me, Parkwood and Xavier’s are one and the same. Films have the power to turn real places into fictional worlds. Some of that transformative magic remains long after the film has left theaters, and you can absorb that magic if you journey to the right location. You can envision what it would be like to live there. You can believe, even if just for a minute, that the fantasy is real.
And you know what? I think that’s pretty awesome. Touring the grounds at Xavier’s fulfilled a lifelong dream, and while I’m not a mutant, I got to pretend that I was one for a day. I went to the archery range and took a spin in Cerebro (or at least a Cerebro VR experience), and that’s more than I ever expected back when I was pretending to teleport across the playground in grade school. X-Men: Apocalypse might not be the best comic book movie or even the best X-Men movie, but it got me into Xavier’s and for that, I’ll always be grateful.
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