UPG vs. Headcanon: Two Sides of the Same Coin?
Is leaving an offering of chocolate to Loki because UPG tells me it’s his favorite really all that different from my headcanon that Percy Weasley and Oliver Wood had an intense and passionate love affair?
This post was born in conversation with Annie, whose argument is thus:
Fandoms are religions — that is, communities united by shared practices centered around a common text. Fandom is, in fact, one of the healthiest and most fruitful sources of novel religious practice in the contemporary Western cultural landscape. Fandom represents the antidote to the commodification of culture — it takes the products of corporate mass media, uncouples them from this origin, and returns them to the folk tradition.
Moving forward, let us examine the specific overlap between UPG (Unverified Personal Gnosis) and headcanon, as well as the consequential overlap between SPG (Shared Personal Gnosis) and fanon.
So that I don’t lose all of you before I begin, let us have a breakdown of some basic terminology here. For definitions of UPG and SPG I turn to John Beckett’s excellent article “UPG: Why Unverified Personal Gnosis is Good and Necessary”.
UPG is Unverified Personal Gnosis – information and wisdom that comes to individuals through means that can’t be objectively confirmed. It’s things you learn in dreams, in trance, or through divination. It isn’t something you made up or something you think is true. It’s something you believe is true because you trust the source, even though you can’t “prove” it’s true to yourself, much less to someone else.
If multiple people get the same message, it becomes SPG – Shared Personal Gnosis. If enough people get the message and accept the message, then it becomes part of the religious tradition.
All supernatural elements of all religions were originally someone’s UPG or SPG.
(If it wasn’t obvious by now, I want to make it clear that in my discussion of UPG, SPG, and various religious frameworks I am speaking from a primarily Pagan/Neopagan context. I was not raised in a particular religious tradition and thus have a short history of personal experience with religion. That said, I have undertaken extensive research regarding both Christian and Neopagan practices due to my work in composing a book about the Goddess Brigid/Saint Brigid, along with second hand knowledge via knowing people of various religious paths and questioning them about their practices. I do not claim comprehensive knowledge of any religious path, and will happily engage in discussion with anyone who believes that I have incorrectly represented their faith, as I strive toward both accuracy and respect.)
To take a turn away from the unambiguously religious, let us turn instead to fandom and definitions of “headcanon” and “fanon”. Both of these terms are used in contrast to “canon” — that is to say, what is taken from source text and thus an established and irremovable (though at times flexible) part of the original material. Headcanon can be defined as that which an individual believes to be true about something within the source material that has no explicit confirmation, although headcanon can derive from a fan theory. Fanon is when something is believed to be true by the majority or a large minority of the fandom and becomes intertwined with the mythos of the text. Another term that should be defined is “fan theory”. A fan theory is created when precedent from the source text is used to construct a postulation that is then evaluated for its validity in the source text.
To further define these terms, let us look at an example from the Harry Potter universe. One popular fan theory is that Draco Malfoy is a werewolf. There are online videos, there are reddit threads, and people have argued back and forth to no end as to whether or not Draco has lycanthropy. The theory gained so much traction, and so many people had accepted it into their headcanons that it got attention from JK Rowling herself… who shot it down.
And yet, for many people, Draco Malfoy is still considered a werewolf. While JK Rowling has denied the werewolf theory, there are many who reject her view. Indeed, there is a rather large camp of people who claim that she stopped having control over Harry Potter once the seventh book was released. A casual Google search will yield millions of results saying that JK Rowling needs to stop. (Seriously, just Google search “JK Rowling needs to stop”, I got about 24,100,000 results in 0.60 seconds). But even as fans cry that JK Rowling is ruining Harry Potter, many still create new fan theories and accept collective headcanons to the point where a large subsection of the fandom now accepts that Draco Malfoy is a Werewolf. Just look at all the fanfiction.
But I digress.
Fan theories are not the only way that headcanon and fanon can arise. To take another look at how other people define headcanon and fanon, and the nebulous spectrum upon which they exist, let us examine the definitions of canon, fanon, and headcanon from the Fanon page on TV Tropes, which differs slightly from my own perspective:
Ultimately, official canon is much smaller than the people who throw the term around like to think it is. Canonicity is limited to that which has actually been described in the source material. Especially in groups of writers, it boils down to what the writers specifically need to worry about for the purposes of the ongoing plot.
Fanon, also known by the term ‘headcanon’ among fans (though ‘headcanon’ refers to personal fanon instead of widely recognized ideas), fanfic writers and roleplay crowds, is the set of theories based on that material which, although they generally seem to be the “obvious” or “only” interpretation of canonical fact, are not actually part of the canon. Occasionally, the explanation seems good enough to just be “common sense”. The salient point to remember is that when someone shouts, “That episode was terrible because it violates the canon!”, they are very often totally incorrect.
Fanon fills in holes that the writers may have deliberately left in order to have fodder for later stories. In addition to arising from a point of vagueness in the canon, fanon can come into existence as a fact gained from a popular but non-canonical source, or taken from a different adaptation.
Every fan has their own nuanced opinion about what canon, fanon, and headcanon mean, but these are just some basics to get those of you who don’t have concrete opinions, or who have those that veer wildly away, on the same page with me so that we can move toward the main argument.
Now that we’ve gotten the definitions out of the way, let’s take a closer look at how these two concepts — UPG/SPG and headcanon/fanon overlap and differ. UPG/SPG is considered to be spiritual, and at times without external precedent. UPG often comes to people in dreams, and it can become SPG either by other people having a similar experience, or by someone sharing their UPG and that resonating with someone else, even if they didn’t have that experience on their own first. In many ways, that is similar to sharing a headcanon.
Furthermore, as I mentioned before, headcanons do not have to come from fan theories. Often they come from dreams or small ideas that pop into someone’s mind. Just the other day I was going about my usual routine when I came to the startling realization that the 13th Doctor could be Luna Lovegood’s mother and the thought simply would not go away. Sure enough, when I mentioned it to my then-fiancée the headcanon was accepted as a wonderful possibility. In that moment, my UPG became a microcosm SPG. The idea of Pandora Lovegood being Thirteen in disguise has zero precedent other than the fact that I am in love with the idea and I want someone to make fanfiction about it right this instant because I am way too busy for that.
But again, I digress.
What I am getting at here is that there is no functional difference between UPG/ SPG and headcanon/ fanon; it is only because people perceive fandom and religion as distinct entities that they are not allowed to fully coexist. My perception is that this is because people may think that comparing religion to fandom delegitimizes religious practice, but that strikes me as nonsense and I don’t at all agree.
I understand that there is a certain amount of concern about what is and isn’t considered religion, for a number of reasons, some of which I consider valid, and others not. There is something to be said for the fact that religion holds a socially and, more importantly, legally protected status in the world, and that legal status in particular can be and is abused when in the wrong hands. The social protections of religion are more subtle, but in general, belonging to an organized religion is vital to someone’s social and often economic position.
More precisely, belonging to a respected organized religion can bring important advantages to someone’s life, and thus having one’s religion be respected can be very important to them. So in order to protect the institution of religions as valuable practices, calling any old practice a religion can seem like an affront. And claiming something without established roots as a religion can bring many social disadvantages and expose someone to stigma. There is also another idea, that religion isn’t useful, especially when it comes to the question of ‘God.’ But religion doesn’t need gods or even God. Religion can be about community and shared experience, and about belief in a way that doesn’t necessarily need deity. As Peter Gardella put it in his book American Civil Religion:
The word “religion” derives from the Latin ligo, which means “I bind,” and religion has to do with what is binding or obligatory. Religions are not philosophies or sets of beliefs but systems of symbols, actions, and ideas that purport to bind together groups of people, or people and gods, or even the elements of nature. Religions may be explained or defended by reason, but they do not gain their power from reason any more than a piece of music or a work of visual art does.
Those accustomed to Western religions, which are centered on God or on gods, tend to think of religion as requiring some divine or supernatural element, but the broader phenomenon of religion does not demand this. Taoists, Buddhists, and Confucians often demonstrate undeniably religious behavior, including elaborate symbolism and ritual, without affirming a god. To refer to religions as “faiths,” as some writers do, omits many whose religions do not consist of beliefs but of practices.
And so if religions consist do not consist of beliefs but of practices, does that not mean that of course fandoms can be considered religions? And how, then, could we consider UPG/SPG any different from headcanon/fanon? But perhaps you may be wondering why I am pushing this so hard. Why I want fandom to be considered religious. The truth is that it certainly doesn’t need to be. We don’t need to give it a label. Labels are often restricting and ultimately kind of useless. But they can also be very useful when trying to figure things out, and they can validate and legitimize things that were once considered weird or taboo or uncomfortable. And we don’t need to attach these labels, certainly. But what I’m trying to get at, the point I’ve been trying to approach this whole time, is that these phenomena share incredibly similar traits, no matter what you want to call them.
All the same, I wouldn’t be doing my due diligence if I didn’t try to look at the ways that these things do differ. One way someone might distinguish headcanon/fanon from UPG/SPG is that it sometimes does draw upon objective precedent — regarding my earlier example of how Draco Malfoy is a Werewolf, that particular bit of popular fanon is based on a fan theory which is based on evidence in the text, albeit circumstantial. But again, headcanon and fanon doesn’t have to come from fan theories and can be something that isn’t verifiable. See, for example, my headcanon that Pandora Lovegood is secretly the 13th Doctor, which came to me unconsciously.
There’s the opposite argument, though, that headcanons that aren’t fan theories are completely made up, and so they aren’t UPG or SPG because they didn’t come from a divine or spiritual source. But I want to push back on that, because what does one really mean when they say “I made it up”? What was the source of that creativity? Perhaps someone may feel that it wasn’t particularly divinely or spiritually inspired, but what is creative thought if not a spiritual endeavor? I know this might sound a little woo-woo, so stick with me here, but all creativity is spiritual in the sense that it is immaterial and requires introspection and thinking outside the physical realm.
When evaluating from the religion v. fandom view, let us think about how in an age where gods are heroes in both the religious sense and the fandom sense, someone could have UPG about Loki as easily as they could have a headcanon about Loki, and that distinction is razor thin. These days authors and creators take a large portion of their inspiration from religious precedents. Just look at the success of Good Omens for example, a story whose backbone is the Christian Bible but which in reality is so much more than that, in large part because of the massive fan community that has been built around it. Neil Gaiman has in general been very successful via drawing upon religion and mythology — his book American Gods, which calls upon a swath of religious traditions and indeed questions the very idea of what religion and worship are and mean, has also been turned into a successful TV show on STARZ.
These productions have made fictional characters out of religious figures such as the archangel Gabriel or the god Odin. So the question is, when I decide that I agree that the demon Crowley from Good Omens is most definitely the Archangel Raphael, only fallen, that’s definitely fanon, right? But if I perhaps believed in the narrative a bit more than I did, then it could be classified as SPG, because fictional though it may be, there is no denying that Good Omens is a text steeped in religion.
To examine things from a slightly different angle, let us consider other cult classics that draw upon religion such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Charmed, which are both heavily influenced by Wicca and witchcraft. The rules of witchcraft work very differently in those series from how actual witches go about their practice in the real world, but their influence as representation of witchcraft nevertheless has influenced neopagan practitioners and have acted as a gateway for others to learn about witchcraft and neopaganism. Despite the fact that witchcraft on these shows is different from (though influenced by) actual witchcraft, ideas about practice by real witches can develop from popular media and grow out of fandom, as people accept aspects of the popular media into their personal headcanons, and further to that their practice.
This is where we can uncover the biggest difference between UPG and headcanon that I’ve noticed, which is that UPG on the whole tends to be something that someone generally discovers and accepts for themselves internally, while headcanon is discovered via an external influence. In this way, it can be argued that UPG is a mostly separate category that sometimes overlaps with individualized headcanon, but since headcanons are often shared among people in a fandom (even without becoming widely accepted fanon) it would be more accurate to say that headcanons and fanon tend to correlate more with SPG than UPG.
Another side note that I’d like to mention, if you’ll indulge me, as an example of how fans have synthesized religion and fandom, is that there are numerous Harry Potter fanfictions that incorporate aspects of neopagan paths such as Wicca, Hellenism, or Heathenry into their stories — in those cases the author is proposing a world in which fandom and neopaganism are blended inextricably. I think this is an important subject to take notice of because it shows how the lines between how magic is portrayed in media and how magic is enacted in the real world continue to blur.
So. What have we come to? Fandom is religion. UPG and SPG are headcanon and fanon. Yawn. So what? Why does that matter?
Well, it matters for a number of reasons. As I mentioned before, a big part of established organized religion is respect. People respect organized religion *cough* Christianity *cough* in a way that they don’t many other religious paths and practices, and in a way that they certainly don’t respect fandom. But fandom deserves respect, and the insights that come from UPG, SPG, headcanon, and fanon also deserve respect. I think that linking those four things is a step in the right direction towards gaining that respect, which is why I have sought to do so here. UPG and SPG are essential to religions (all religions — not just neopagan, though this is particularly true of neopagan paths) because not everything is set in stone, or rather it shouldn’t be.
Faith and belief are or should be flexible in at least some respects, and there are gaps that need filling, particularly in the case of traditions whose historical practices are missing or have been destroyed. Similarly in fandom, there are often times where there are unresolved plot threads, or side characters that fans want to know more about, or certain communities are underrepresented in the source material, and headcanons and fanon step in to fill those gaps, which are an important contribution to the narrative. And those important contributions are not often respected by the creators, until they are such as the casting of Noma Dumezweni in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, (a play which is basically officially sanctioned fanfiction.) And it doesn’t always work, but when people come together in community, they can achieve some truly amazing goals, and much if not all of that innovation comes from outside the canon — that is to say, from UPG, SPG, headcanon, and fanon. Which, when you think about it, are all kinda the same thing.
Addendum: My historical connection between Religion and Fandom
While I was writing this post I thought to myself “where can I separate headcanon and UPG? Where is my spiritual experience different from my experience with fandom?” After a time I realized those weren’t the exact right questions to be asking, as there probably needed to be more distance there for proper analysis. But at the same time, my own connection to religion and fandom potentially important to inform some of the directions I took this post, which is why I added this section here.
As I mentioned before, growing up I didn’t have a traditional religious experience, but I did have Harry Potter. I would often tell people that the Harry Potter books were like my Bible. I said it as kind of a joke, but it was also true. I would listen to Harry and the Potters music and digested it like some may digest hymns. I would write essays and fanfiction like devotionals, and I would regularly praise the series and JK Rowling with the kind of fanaticism that was borderline evangelical. My bedroom was effectively a Harry Potter shrine and I had a bookshelf covered in paraphernalia reminiscent of an altar. Everything I said or did I connected back to Harry Potter and anyone who insulted the series may as well have spat upon my God. Whenever I met someone I would sort them into a house and use that as a framework for understanding their basic character. So I absolutely believe in the connection between religion and fandom, whole-heartedly.
I’m no longer quite so enamoured with the series, and I would no longer call it the foundation of my religious practice, but I still listen to Harry Potter and the Sacred Text and still think that the books themselves teach valuable lessons. Plus Harry and the Potters continue to make great music, so I don’t think I’ll ever stop listening to them.
Edit: Please read my posts Hogwarts Pride: A Meditation on my Relationship with Harry Potter, Fandom, and Queer Identity from 6/8/2020 Words are Weapons: Nonbinary Trans Thoughts About J.K. Rowling from 9/15/2020 and Why fanfiction is the only Harry Potter content for me from 5/12/2021 for more updated thoughts on Harry Potter.
 I would like to point out that, hilariously enough given my point against using religious terms here, “canon” is a religious term borrowed from Christianity used to refer to the body of ecclesiastical law.
 Note that I use “text” to refer to any original material that a fandom derives from, whether it be an actual book, or a film, or a TV series, etc. that is not actually consumed primarily via text.
 All links in the following quote are from the original page.
 Feel free to fight me; I’m not backing down on this point. JKR didn’t write that play.
December 12, 2019 @ 14:52
Interesting piece, and very thorough! As a relative newcomer to polytheism (3ish years) it’s been interesting to watch how UPG can become SPG, and I would’ve never thought of the comparison of headcanon to fanon, but I can see the similarity. It’s always fascinating for me to try to figure out what the threshold is, going from UPG to SPG — how many individuals need to have that UPG in order for it to become SPG? Does that quantity decrease if a big-name-pagan supports that UPG? I know it varies of course, but interesting stuff!
December 12, 2019 @ 18:13
I like your point about how we should consider the threshold when thinking about UPG v. SPG! Personally I find that something becomes SPG as soon as it is no longer limited to just one person — that is to say that for me SPG isn’t a monolith, and exists on a spectrum, so as soon as any number of people beyond the individual start to share a belief or experience its spiritual concentration begins to slide up the SPG scale.