What Harry Potter Is Actually About. Childhood Ruined.
I'm often amused by the books and movies targeted at children and pre-teens. Harry Potter is one of those with great success and popularity and I found this take on it quite interesting. I'm curious what readers and my fellow clinicians think. Check it out!
Betsabé Rubio, LMFT LPC
Well here we see an odd, yet strangely plausible, fan theory that brings us Harry Potter...with a twist.
The Harry Potter series is about mental illness.
Hogwarts is a mental institution.
Bear with me. I’ll explain.
The entire Harry Potter series is an extended metaphor about a boy with severe mental illness, suffering from delusions. Everything depicted in the movie can be interpreted as attempts to cope with the harsh realities of his confinement in a mental institution. Every major event in the books is a fantasy/delusional version of the experiences that a child would encounter in the course of being institutionalized and forcibly treated for mental illness.
Typically, the opening act of this kind of story takes place in the real world. Then, something happens that sends the hero into a new world, where the usual rules of the hero’s former life do not apply.
In the real-world portion of these stories, the protagonist typically experiences some form of psychological trauma, notably in the form of humiliation, rejection or social isolation. The hero finds himself to be anonymous, abandoned, dumped, or socially subordinated in some extreme way. Luke Skywalker is told he can’t leave the farm. Dorothy is told to stay out of the way of the grown-ups, while her dog is about to be killed. The narrator in Fight Club is literally anonymous, and lives in corporate hell.
Then, some outside agency comes along and empowers the hero to respond to these traumas. The resulting heroism is always the exact opposite of the earlier powerlessness, rejection or humiliation.
In Harry Potter, his parents are famous wizards, who were world-famous for their unparalleled love for the boy Harry, which sets the whole series in motion, killing them and leaving the boy a scarred orphan. (This is a fantasy, crafted as the direct opposite of the way in which children usually end up scarred – through abuse and neglect.)
If we interpret the story as Harry’s fantasy, then the Dursleys are Harry’s real parents, and the Potters are imaginary. The Dursleys either can’t cope with the increasingly-delusional boy living with them, or perhaps they are merely abusive, and it’s the abuse that’s making him delusional. In any event, the parent- figures constantly mistreat him, favor the brother, and inflict endless cruelty and humiliation on him.
One day, Harry snaps, and Dudley (who is really Harry’s brother) is severely injured, in a way requiring repeated hospital treatments. (In the delusion, Harry imagines that a pig’s tail is magically grown from Dudley’s buttocks.) As a result of this incident, Harry is taken away to a “special school.”
My theory is that this story line is a coded explanation of a delusional boy that is starting to engage in violent outbursts, and is sent to a mental institution as a result. Everything that happens after that becomes increasingly detached from reality, and what we see, as the audience, is his delusion, which is a re-casting of his institutionalization experience into a kind of adventure.
Mental illness is featured just about everywhere in the series, and the theme of insanity is very prominent. Classic features of mental illness, such as delusions, paranoia and multiple-personality disorders become increasingly more important to the story line. Here are a few examples:
The first book features Harry at his new “school,” becoming obsessed with a mirror, where he spends endless days imagining his perfect parents (of course, they are dead, which is a metaphor for saying they are wholly imaginary). Dumbledore, the paragon of surrogate love, warns Harry that the mirror has driven people insane, because spending all your time in fantasy causes you to become unmoored to the real world. (This is exactly what happens to Harry for the rest of the series.)
The school is locked. It is also filled with random, insane dangers that everyone accepts as perfectly normal – moving stairs, talking paintings, deadly monsters roaming around outside. Mental prisons are dangerous places where crazy situations are, in fact, ordinary.
The Goblet of Fire contest pits students against each other in contests that are openly life-threatening, which is what students at a school for violent, mentally-disturbed children experience on a regular basis.
The clean-cut Cedric Diggery (a fantasy image of the popular, successful boy Harry could have been were it not for his mental problems) is murdered by “Voldermort,” who is Harry’s alter ego and the projection of his rage and fury. Harry is the only one who sees this event, and no one believes it was “Voldermort.” This event is a metaphor for Harry murdering a boy who is too perfect, despised for having the life of love and ease that Harry wanted, but never got. So, he imagines that “Voldermort” did it.
When no one believes him, it’s an unspoken metaphor for the fact that everyone knows Harry is the murderer. If the murder of Cedric Diggery is not meant to be a real event, but entirely imaginary in Harry’s mind, then the murder of the normal boy is a metaphor for Harry losing his final chance at a normal life.
Book Five opens with Harry again attacking his brother/cousin Dudley, leaving him traumatized. This incident was interpreted by Harry as an attack by “Dementors” who cannot be seen by normal people. This incident causes Harry to appear before a board of inquiry to determine if he is too violent for Hogwarts, the alternative being Azkaban (i.e., a more harsh mental prison).
Azkaban is heavily associated with insanity. In the story, it is said that inmates go crazy within days of arriving, which is a metaphor for saying that it is a high-security prison for violent mental patients. It is here Black and Lestrange (and others) went off the rails.
Harry’s newest friend at school is Luna Lovegood, whose name is another reference to lunacy, and is openly known to be crazy, as is the only other student who can see Harry’s delusions, even within the context of an otherwise crazy place like Hogwarts.
It is repeatedly indicated that the boy “Tom Riddle” (the young “Voldermort”) is actually Harry Potter, with constant parallels and similarities being heavily stressed. Same books, same wand, both orphaned, etc. Harry has increasing visions of Voldermort, and they even share thoughts, which is an obvious symbol for saying that “Voldermort” is just a component of Harry’s diseased mind, at first only a whisper, and becoming increasingly dominant and thus real to him.
The Harry Potter series, then, was written about the kind of experiences that institutionalized children encounter, the kind that JK Rowling (actively through her charities) is working to eradicate, but most people simply see it as an adventure story about magic, It’s not about magic. It’s about mental trauma and the delusion that results from it.
The final reinforcement of this idea comes towards the very end, when Harry appears in his imagined version of Kings Cross with Dumbledore.
‘Tell me one last thing’ said Harry. ‘Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?’
‘Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?’