Friday, August 2, 2013

Unexpected Connections: Horror and Harry Potter

In the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the new Minister of Magic must explain to the non-magical Prime Minister that there are evil forces at work, threatening his country. “But for heaven's sake—you're wizards!” the Prime Minister protests. “You can do magic! Surely you can sort out—well—anything!”

“The trouble is,” the wizard explains, “the other side can do magic too, Prime Minister.”

Even the leader of a powerful country is helpless against the dark wizards that pose a threat to everyone, magical or Muggle alike. All he can do is sit back and wait for the real main characters of the series to duke things out.

Given these limitations, I'd like to imagine the potential conclusions we could draw from a hypothetical Harry Potter movie—perhaps more streamlined and less widespread than Rowling's original books—set after the “epilogue” chapter. Harry, now in his late thirties, is a professional Auror, who fights dark wizards as part of the Ministry payroll.

Voldemort and his supporters have been defeated, but a new generation of evil wizards is out there. Both good and evil wizards are rich in symbology—Harry still wears a scar from his initial confrontation with Voldemort, and the phoenix who rises from the ashes will call Dumbledore and his heroic Order of the Phoenix to mind. In contrast, evil wizards have either imitated Voldemort's serpents, or found their own creatures like the haunting Dementors, which literally suck your soul out of you, to symbolize.

Artifacts are rife with innate magic. Horcruxes are symbols of evil, that require acts of murder to create and prolong the existence of evil spirits on the earth. In contrast, the sword of Gryffindor is imbued with the power to destroy them. Harry is the Master of the Elder Wand, one of the most powerful weapons known, but if he is disarmed, his power could fall into enemy hands.

So, let's say some evil witches or wizards plan to attack unassuming Muggles. Using the Imperius Curse, they can literally control their victims' minds, causing them to commit acts of violence. Harry must decide; can he follow orders and go through the Ministry paperwork process, before coming to the aid of simple Muggles who don't otherwise know about the doings of the magical world? Or is the danger so imminent that he must jump into action, now, even if it seems rash?

In a subplot, Harry's wife Ginny is concerned about their eleven-year-old son, Albus Severus. At his age, she was possessed by a memory of Voldemort's. Albus Severus was named after two Headmasters who eventually proved both good and brave—but not before youthful curiosity about the Dark Arts. Is her love enough to protect her family, or will Albus fall under the sway of evil influences?

Harry is insecure about leaping into action, but Ginny is always there for him. Wasn't his birth foretold by a prophecy? He is, literally, magically fated to do good and fight for the cause of right. Sure enough, he yells a lot of Latin-inspired incantations, defeats the evildoers, and all is well.

What can a simple Muggle learn from this plotline?

Firstly, good and evil powers are out there. They're fighting each other. If you need to fight, fight on the side of good.

Secondly, to be specific, the motivations to protect your loved ones are the forces of good. Maybe not everyone has a love interest or children to guard, like Ginny, but defending the people you love is very solidly on the “good” scale.

Thirdly, magic is very much out there...and it's very decidedly not for you. Depending on how you phrase it, this could be good news. Just because you don't like another Muggle's taste in clothing, or movies, or love interests, or flavor of ice cream, does not mean you can claim that a wizard will show up out of the blue to turn them into a rodent. We need to learn to tolerate each other and coexist as we are, without turning our fellows over to powers we can't control. Wizards have their own problems. Indeed, the actual Harry Potter books mostly avoid this possibility by having wizards be invisible entirely from the Muggle world, trying not to solve other people's problems for them.

By now I'll come out with it: the above summary is not really based on an imagined Harry Potter adventure. Instead, I've rather loosely altered the plot of The Conjuring, a horror movie about an expert Catholic who's pressed into performing an exorcism to save a family that has moved into a haunted house. In one corner, liberal use of Latin recitations; in another, demonic rituals. (“They tap three times,” our expert solemnly explains to the victimized family, “to make fun of the Holy Trinity.”) An alien observer would conclude that this tradition, within Catholicism, is a particularly striking combat between good and evil forces, at an immediately perceptible level. I'm not at all familiar with the horror genre, so I can't really tell whether that sort of fight themes are typical.

But what are we supposed to take away from the movie? Is contemporary institutional religion something to be left to the experts and their dueling forces, while the rest of us nod along politely? I don't exactly like the sound of that. And yet, when I think about what Christianity means in my life, I realize that pretty often it's the sense of ritual I'm attracted to, not—for instance—a powerful emotional force, that could help me share the sufferings of the poor.

More and more in the past year or so, I've been increasingly self-conscious about how my faith is reflected in spheres like literature. Well-meaning professors reassure my classmates and I that, being moderns, we're not expected to be familiar with the religious context of centuries-old literature. Sure, I'll take the slack—and yet I grow paranoid, fearing that everyone expects me to have some default skepticism by virtue of the decade of my birth. That everyone wants to put words in my mouth. And yet I know I'm not an expert either—not being Catholic, specifically, I can't even begin to comment on how different the traditions of demonology are from my practice.

The movie does feature one of the “Muggles” fighting back against a demon; the mother of the family, when possessed, is inspired to resist its powers when her ally reminds her of the love she feels for her husband and daughters. Sure enough, focusing on hopeful moments in a photograph with them is enough to motivate her to break free of possession. Love as a force for good: it sounds nice, I guess, but it's not very substantial. Or is this just a much more powerful experience than I, naively, am aware, my failure to appreciate it itself a sign of my jadedness?

I guess the sort of religion that's most natural to me, and the kind that I'm still keeping my eyes open for, is the kind where God is the first agent. God does, we receive—be that a created world, community, or forgiveness. Maybe it's not very narratively compelling, if we can't—at our best—cast out demons and call down supernatural powers, or shouldn't—at our worst—use religion as a tool for discrimination. But if nothing else, I have the conviction that there are many types of love—personal or profound, motivating or sacrificial—and all of them have the potential to be used on the side of right. 

By Madeline Barnicle