Fear of the Unknown: A Study of Supernatural Horror in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter Series
(Assistant Professor, Department of English, D.B. Pampa College, Parumala)
Supernaturalism is a non-exclusive trope in fantasy fiction and contributes to the creativity of the genre. “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is the fear of the unknown,” wrote H. P. Lovecraft, godfather of the modern horror story. Fear and supernatural horror have been part of literature as long as stories have been told, making it a powerful ingredient in the cauldron of stories. J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series provides a doorway into supernaturalism. In the novel series the seemingly ordinary things and beings are given extraordinary powers by the addition of magic.
Haunting is rooted in history. Rowling writes about a school with a detailed history that bears highly on the story line and it is the perfect atmosphere for ghost, one of the primary ingredients of Gothic Literature. Here Rowling deviates from the time-tested conventions of ghost stories by not using traditionally scary creatures as her conduits for fear. The ghosts of Hogwarts are not at all frightening. Even Peeves, the poltergeist, which traditionally haunts children in folklores, is not at all scary although he is a trouble maker. Yet the supernatural machinery in the story plays a significant role in it.
Rowling’s story is replete with supernatural creatures from folklore and mythology, but she adopts and adapts them into her own world. For example, she has turned Cerberus, the three headed dog guardian of the Underworld in Greek mythology, into Fluffy, Hagrid’s pet three-headed dog, who guards the Philosopher’s Stone in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. The Giant Squid in the Black Lake next to Hogwarts is Cthulhu. “Cthulhu is the monstrous, squid-like creature from outer space who, in what has become known as Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, lurks under the water until the time he’ll return to the surface to destroy human kind” ( Prinzi 45). Although Fluffy, who guards the entrance of the trap door to the chamber in which the Philosopher’s Stone is hidden, is a frightening spectacle, Rowling lessens the intensity of the fear by suggesting that Fluffy can be calmed by playing music. The appearance of the Giant Squid in the lake may create fear, but it is a friendly one who plays with the students at times.
While the background is of fundamental importance to supernatural horror, a simple ghost story will not create the desired effect of producing fear, especially when the wizarding world is a place where the supernatural is expected. In order to dwell deep into how the horror element works its way into the Harry Potter series, Lovecraft’s explanation can be relied upon.
The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathlessness and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of the most terrible conception of the human brain -- a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the demons of unplumbed space.
According to Tolkien “fantasy is a natural human activity” (“Fairy Stories” 370) and it answers “primordial human desires” (Tolkien Reader 41). Rowling skilfully blends the ideas of both Lovecraft and Tolkien. Rowling agrees that fear is an essential part of human emotion and imagination is the place where fear is felt and resolved. The Harry Potter series may be described as the kind of story that Lovecraft describes in which supernatural horror can be found “appearing in memorable fragments” scattered throughout the series. C. S. Lewis has outlined various types of fear in his essay “On Stories”. They are: a fear which is twin sister to awe; a fear which is twin sister to disgust; taut, quivering fears; dead, squashed, flattened, numbing fears; and fears not of danger at all (3-21). All these different varieties of fear are found in the Harry Potter series.
The only awe-inspiring figure in the Harry Potter series is Albus Dumbledore. In the first three books of the series Dumbledore is portrayed as a funny old man who loves music and sweets. Only once in the first book – when Hermione Granger proclaims that Dumbledore is the only one whom You-Know-Who ever feared – do we get a glimpse of the awe-inspiring aura of Dumbledore. His funny image undergoes a sea change from the fourth book onwards. For instance as the imposter Moody is about to kill Harry, Dumbledore arrives on the scene and rescues Harry.
At that moment, Harry fully understood for the first time why people said Dumbledore was the only wizard Voldemort had ever feared. The look upon Dumbledore’s face as he stared down at the unconscious form of Mad-Eye Moody was more terrible than Harry could have ever imagined. There was no benign smile upon Dumbledore’s face, no twinkle in the eyes behind the spectacles. There was cold fury in every line of the ancient face; a sense of power radiated from Dumbledore as though he were giving off burning heat. (Goblet 679)
He is the leader of the Order of the Phoenix, and the only one who owns a phoenix, a bird having supernatural powers - it has the power of immortality and its tears have healing powers which can save a person from the worst wound caused even by a basilisk, another supernatural creature from mythology which can live for hundreds of years and kill its victims with an evil look from its amber eyes.
We get glimpses of the second kind of fear at several moments throughout the series. Harry feels the kind of fear which is at the verge of disgust on seeing the ‘abject’ figure of Voldemort. Voldemort, after losing his soul has been reduced to something of an ‘abject’ child form which, even his servant Wormtail fears and feels a kind of repulsion to look at. Harry’s and Ron’s fear at travelling through the slimy pipes to the Chamber of Secrets, Harry’s fear at having first seen the skeletal thestrals and Ron’s fear of spiders also fit into this category.
The third kind is a thrill-like fear and carries with it a spirit of adventure such as fear like Harry’s first riding experience on the hippogrif, the fear of Harry and his friends riding on the invisible (visible only to those who have seen death) thestrals, or the escape from Gringotts on the back of the flying dragon.
The fourth kind is the fear that Voldemort evokes. His very name is enough for anyone to be frightened of. He is not referred to by his name in the wizarding world, instead by the epithets You Know-Who, He Who Must Not be Named etc. A parallel to the fear of Voldemort’s name is found in the world of acromantulas, who are afraid to speak about the basilisk as wizards are afraid to name the Dark Lord. This is again the kind of fear which the dementors evoke leaving one to depression, numbness, and inability to act. As the soul-sucking dementors guard the Wizard Prison Azkaban, the very place itself evokes a horrific fright.
The fifth kind of fear appears in the series when the first year students have their first experiences with ghosts, who clearly pose no danger, but cause a chilling experience whenever they suddenly pass through a student. There is nothing to fear from Hogwarts ghosts, but they produce a fear nonetheless. This is the case with Time-Turners, Tom Riddle’s Diary and the Pensieve. There is no potential danger when the characters travel back and forth in time but nonetheless the fear factor is there when they ponder more about the consequences of time travel. Goblins, pixies and house-elves are not so dangerous although they are endowed with supernatural abilities. At the same time Harry and his friends confront certain difficulties in handling these supernatural beings
Fear of the unknown is a key element in supernaturalism. Rowling introduces this note of fear at different points throughout the series - the introduction of Voldemort in the Forbidden Forest, Harry’s first encounter with a dementor, the discussions of inferi in Half-Blood Prince etc. When Harry encounters Voldemort for the very first time in the Forbidden Forest he does not realise who he is seeing. He is walking in the Forbidden Forest looking for the dead unicorn.
Then, out of the shadows, a hooded figure came crawling across the ground... The cloaked figure reached the unicorn, lowered its head over the wound in the animals’s side, and began to drink its blood…
The hooded figure raised its head and looked right at Harry - unicorn blood was dribbling down its front. It got to its feet and came swiftly toward Harry- he couldn’t move for fear. (Stone 256)
Before realising what is happening, Firenze, the centaur comes and rescues Harry. Centaurs are powerful supernatural creatures that are adept at reading the stars. But they never speak directly about anything they know which builds the mystery of the scene further. Harry and the readers now know there is something to be very frightened of. The Forbidden Forest by virtue of its very name evokes a fear of the unknown.
The way Rowling deals with the evil Voldemort is particularly effective in creating ‘fear of the unknown’ because we do not see quite a lot of him. For most part of the series he is in the background, plotting ways to kill Harry, to achieve immortality and power, but his evil aura always permeates the whole series, creating a sense of supernatural threat. From a place entirely hidden, Voldemort sends armies of Death Eaters, giants, walking dead, dementors and werewolves into the world to wreak havoc.
There are several places in the Harry Potter series in which Rowling touches upon the atmosphere of fear, exciting in the reader “a profound sense of dread, and of contact with unknown spheres and powers” (Lovecraft). Rowling subverts many traditional fearful elements. For instance the Shrieking Shack is a classic example of the haunted house, but in the Harry Potter series it is not really haunted. In fact the ‘shrieks’ come from the werewolf Remus Lupin who uses it as a kind of shelter during the full moon, when he transforms into a werewolf. Werewolves are indeed scary as they are not in their right mind once the transformation is complete and can harm human beings. But through Remus Lupin, Rowling gives the readers the idea that the werewolves are not something that one needs to inherently fear, they are also defined by their choices. Remus Lupin is a werewolf but he is also a respectable professor at Hogwarts and a mentor to Harry and an active member of the Order of the Phoenix, a resistance group against Voldemort and his Death Eaters.
Boggarts and dementors are two fascinating supernatural creatures that Rowling introduces in the novel series. Boggarts are not an original creation of Rowling, having previously appeared in Susan Cooper’s The Boggart. A boggart is a shape shifting supernatural creature which transforms into the greatest fears of its victims. Defence against the boggart is a charm, ‘ridikulus’, and laughter produced by the effect of the charm on which the boggart turns into something comical.
“Dementors represent a psychological progression from fear to depression.” (Prinzi 38). Dementors are Rowling’s own creation of a supernatural evil. The Dementors are evil and their natural affinity for evil makes them take sides with the Dark Lord, in the final battle of Hogwarts. Rowling does not give the readers detailed information regarding the origin and nature of the dementors there by maintaining ‘the fear of the unknown.’
The motif of fear leading to depression and of mental illness is most strongly evident in Voldemort, who becomes a psychopath as a result of his fear of death. His mad pursuit of immortality and power leads him to defy the laws of nature, the natural cycle of life and death by creating horcruxes.
Horcruxes are the foulest form of black magic. In order to create a horcrux one has to commit a murder there by splitting his soul and hiding them in an external physical object, so that the person cannot be killed until the horcrux is destroyed. The creation of horcruxes dehumanises a person, and in Voldemort’s case, mutilated his very appearance. We can see the ‘fear of the unknown’ in the case of the horcruxes too, because horcruxes and their creation are not fully explained by Rowling in the novel series.
Walking dead, or zombies, have held a firm place in classic horror fiction. In the world of Harry Potter, inferi are corpses reanimated by dark magic to do the bidding of a dark wizard. The army of inferi waiting underwater in a cave - one of Rowling’s chilling and frightening scenes - are ready to attack anyone who attempts to drink from the lake after taking the locket horcrux. In Half-Blood Prince Rowling builds up the ambience of the horroric encounter with the inferi by giving hints about their existence early with the Ministry’s pamphlet and in Snape’s Defence Against the Dark Arts class. The symbolism of inferi is terrifying and evil, vile and disgusting. Even the earliest mythology, The Epic of Gilgamesh contains references to these supernatural creatures.
One of Rowling’s most frightening images is the graveyard scene in which Voldemort regains a material body when his abject child - like form is brewed in a simmering blood red potion along with certain heinous acts of horror and incantations. According to Prinzi, “Cult rituals are powerful conduits for horror in a story, because they set the atmosphere of the dark unknown and of tampering with the unknown, cosmic, supernatural forces in the universe” (62).
The Dark Arts themselves create an atmosphere of unknown fear. Snape is described as a person who loves Dark Arts and he uses the language of supernatural, incomprehensible horror. “The Dark Arts are many, varied, ever-changing and eternal. Fighting them is like fighting a many-headed monster, which, each time a neck is severed, sprouts a head even fiercer and cleverer than before. You are fighting that which is unfixed, mutating, indestructible” (Half-Blood Prince 177).
Although Rowling plays with human psyche by evoking different kinds of fear she also suggests the alternatives to overcome them. Naming evil is the first step towards conquering fear of it. Harry finds it out in his very first encounter with the magical world that there is an evil wizard out there whom every witch and wizard fears to speak of. But Harry soon finds out that he is much more comfortable when he uses the name. Voldemort rather than using the epithets associated with the enigma. Moreover he gets the support of Dumbledore. “Call him by his proper name Harry. Lord Voldemort. Fear of a name only increases fear of the thing itself” (Stone 298).
Laughter is another way to overcome fear. For instance boggarts are defeated by the incantation ‘ridikulus’ and the resulting laughter it produces. Another way by which fear can be overcome is ‘rememberance of the things past’- by relying on one’s happiest memories. Dementors feed on all the happy memories of its victims, and the victims are left with nothing but the worst memories of life, driving them in to fear, depression and insanity. They can be defeated by the Patronus charm, which is a projection of one’s positive thoughts. Love and music are said to be powerful and ancient forms of magic. Rowling suggests these potent powers as modes to overcome fear and depression.
It could be argued that the entire plot clings to the difference between Harry’s and Voldemort’s response to ‘fear of the unknown.’ Voldemort’s fear of death and his supernatural magical abilities drive him to pursue power and go against the natural laws. He hates the unknown because he fears it. His hatred and the fear of the unknown become his downfall. “Harry on the other hand embraces the unknown by faith” (Prinzi 66). While Voldemort flies from death Harry willingly walks to his death. Voldemort cannot understand the power of love, but Harry’s heart is so full of selfless love and sacrifice.
The growing interest in the Harry Potter series and the like is enough testimony that supernaturalism is not an overworked or out-dated topic. As far as mankind exists fear and supernatural horror will continue to appeal and haunt the human psyche. According to Prinzi, Rowling, far from seeing humanity as small and inconsequential, the victims of unfathomable cosmic forces, as Lovecraft did, celebrates the world-changing potential of humanity and urges readers, through her characters, to realise how consequential acts of love and courage can be, especially in the face of acts of evil born of fear and cowardice. But one cannot demonstrate a courageous victory over evil without first creating an atmosphere of fear and evil to be conquered (63-64).
Lewis, C. S. “On Stories.” Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories. New York: A Harvest Book,1966. 3-21. Print.
Lovecraft, H. P. “Supernatural Horror in Literature.” 1927. en.wikisource. Web. 10 Aug. 2015.
Prinzi, Travis. Harry Potter and Imagination: The Way Between Two Worlds. Allentown: Zossima Press, 2009. 43-67. Print.
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. London: Bloomsbury, 1997. Print.
---. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. London: Bloomsbury, 2000. Print.
---. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. London: Bloomsbury, 2005. Print.
Tolkien, J. R. R. “On Fairy Stories.” Tales from the Perilous Realm. Glasgow: Harper Collins Publishers, 1949. Print.
---. The Tolkien Reader. New York: Ballantine, 2001. Print.