The Harry Potter series is about mental illness. Hogwarts is a mental institution.
Bear with me. I'll explain.
I watched the fifth Harry Potter movie this weekend. The series is wildly successful, one of the most successful of all time, and I am interested in understanding why these mega-hits appear from time to time.
As I watched this installment, it became clear to me that the entire Harry Potter series is an extended metaphor -- a coded transcription, really -- about a boy with severe mental illness, suffering from delusions. Everything depicted in the movie can be interpreted as a recitation (from his delusional perspective) of his attempts to cope with the harsh realities of his confinement in a mental institution.
Here's my thesis: 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.
When Stef reviewed the Twilight series in one of his podcasts, I was inspired to go back and look at a lot of popular books and movies and interpret them in a new light. In short, my theory is that most (if not all) of the most popular boks and movies of all time are constructed as a kind of double-fantasy -- the reader and author understand and implicitly agree that the subject matter of the book or movie is not real, but on another level, the events in these stories are also constructed as a fantasy or delusion of the protagonist himself.
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 supernatural-based storylines, this is where the first non-empirical, magical event occurs.
In the real-world portion of these stories, the protagonist typically experiences some form of psycholoigcal 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. Nick Carraway of the Great Gatsby finds that he is incapable of intimacy, and feels like a fraud among the New York elite. The narrator in Fight Club is literally anonymous, and lives in corporate hell. Peter Parker and Clark Kent are bullied relentlessly.
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. Freud called this type of story a "family romance," in which a young hero imagines his primary care-takers to be mere substitutes for his real parents, who are dead or otherwise out of the picture, but are of a higher social class than his foster parents.
In the Harry Potter series, his parents are famous wizards, who were famous in all the world for their unparalleled love for the boy Harry, which set 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 Durselys 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 explication 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.
I believe there is a great deal of evidence in the text for this hypothesis. 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.
- Sirius Black is Harry's godfather, and is overtly insane.
- In the 4th book, Black is closely affiliated with (and introduced by and treated as a kind of surrogate for) a werewolf, who is obessesed with the moon. The moon is a symbol for insanity (i.e., lunacy).
- 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 Derek Diggery (a fantasy image of the popular, successful boy Harry could have been were it not for his mental problems) is murdered by "Voldemort," 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 "Voldemort." 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 "Voldemort" 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 Derk 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.
- This "murder" takes place in a maze where the main danger is being
psychologically possessed and going insane.
- Harry is helped in this unwanted fight to the death by "Mad Eye" Moody, who is also openly insane. To compound the insanity of this parent-surrogate, Moody is not actually the real Moody, but an imposter, who is even more openly insane.
- Book Five opens with Harry again attacking his brother/cousin Dudley, leaving him traumatized. Periodically, Harry returns to civilian life, but finds that he can't go
five minutes without a seriously violent, delusional episode.
- 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 where Black and Lestrange (and others) went off the rails.
- It is also in the fifth book and movie that we meet Black's cousin Beatrix LeStrange, who is also openly insane. She murders the insane Sirius Black just as he is becoming more stable and normal. This is a metaphor for the violently delusional side of Harry's mind defeating and suppressing the side that might have healed.
- Harry's newest friend at school is Luna Lovegood, whose name is another reference to lunacy, and is openly known to be crazy, and is the only other student who can see Harry's delusions, even within the context of an otherwise crazy place like Hogwarts.
- Another "class" mate, Neville Longbottom, the forelorn loser, is revealed to have a family history of mental illness -- parents who are mental patients, having been driven insane by Beatrix.
- Repeated references are made to "Voldemort" being so evil that he drives his victims crazy with torture, rather than merely killing them.
- It is repeatedly indicated that the boy "Tom Riddle" (the young "Voldemort") is actually Harry Potter, with constant parallels and similarities being heavily stressed. Same books, same wand, both orphaned, etc. Harry has increasing visions of Voldemort, and they even share thoughts, which is an obvious symbol for saying that "Voldemort" is just a component of Harry's diseased mind, at first only a whisper, and becoming increasingly dominant and thus real to him.
- In the 6th (or 7th?) book, I believe Rowling tried to tell us what she was really writng about -- there is a flashback scene where Dumbledore first meets "Voldemort," as a boy. Dumbledore comes to rescue the boy (who is really Riddle/Harry) from abuse and poverty. When Dumbledore says he has come to take him to a special school for kids with his kind of needs, Riddle's first response is that he knows Hogwarts is an insane anylum, and he doesn't want to go.
After I watched the movie, I suspected that the author, J.K. Rowling might have had some family or personal experience with childhood mental issues or institutionalization, and that her Harry Potter series was a way for her to talk about them in a safe way.
I did some quick searching about her online. I couldn't find any reference to any institutionalization experiences in her childhood, although I did find this: she donates heavily to two causes -- multiple sclerosis, which was her mother's cause of death, and has gone to great lengths to fund an organization called Lumos, described as follows:
We want to end the systematic institutionalisation of children across Europe. We want to see children living in safe, caring environments. We believe this should be the case for all children, whether they’re disabled, from an ethnic minority or from an impoverished background.
We know our vision is ambitious. We understand that removing children from institutions isn’t – in itself – enough. We must work with governments, policy makers and practitioners to enable children to grow up in a family-type setting.
Here's a quote from the author on the subject:
"Twenty years ago, as Communist regimes across Europe toppled, harrowing images of Europe’s hidden children began to emerge,” said Rowling. “Thousands upon thousands of children were living in vast, depressing institutions – malnourished and often maltreated, with little access to the outside world. Slowly governments have begun to transform care systems. Real and lasting change takes time, but today we are putting down a marker and calling for significantly more progress in the next twenty years to ensure that eventually no children are living in, or at risk of entering, such institutions.
Stef once said that Catcher in the Rye was Salinger's way of talking about the sexual exploitation of children, but that he became withdrawn because no one seemed to understand.
I believe the Harry Potter series was written about the kind of experiences that institutionalized children encounter, the kind that the Lumos charity is working to eradicate, but that 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.
I would love to hear people's thoughts on this interpretive theory, as to Harry Potter or any other mainstream work of fiction.