The idea of horror in children’s stories is a controversial topic. Jeff Ambrose and Nick Viola believe that darkness is necessary for stories to have an impact on us. The two spoke on the darkness apparent in Harry Potter at Zenkaikon Anime & Sci-fi convention.
Jeff Ambrose has an extensive background in Harry Potter related academia. He teaches a Harry Potter class and presents at a Harry Potter Academic Conference. Nick Viola works as a Parole Officer in Philadelphia, working with the criminally insane in the Mental Health Unit.
Ambrose kicked off the panel with a quick exploration of why people enjoy scary stories in the first place. “We’re not afraid of monsters. We’re not afraid of things we see,” Ambrose said, quoting Stephen King. “Why are we afraid of the dark? It’s what we can’t see. The unknown terror, that’s what’s scary.”
Ambrose elaborated on the subject with a quote by GK Chesterton. “Fairy tales are more than true, not because they tell us dragons exist but because they tell us that dragons can be defeated.”
In the first segment, “Death and Darkness”, Ambrose went in depth on the parallels between Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy. He focused on their similar struggles with the temptation of dark magic.
He brought up Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire as the turning point where the series began exploring real horror, from the graveyard scene and the first major character death to minor details like the Veelas and their deadly effect on males.
Ambrose began discussing themes of the series, such as intolerance, love, and death. Intolerance is the main theme of the series, with several characters expressing it or expressing tolerance. Love is often shown as the most powerful force in the magical world. There are many examples of its power, such as the sealed room in the Department of Mysteries or the Love Shield.
With death, Ambrose highlighted the character’s relationship with death and the permanence and non permanence of death in the magical world. The fear of death is Voldemort’s driving motivation while Harry himself struggles with it.
Ambrose then got personal. He talked of his history with brain damage and facing the possibility of death at a young age, reflecting on how he brought his own fears while reading Harry Potter and how it effected his experience.
Ambrose turned the panel over to Viola, who also got personal, espousing his own philosophy. Ambrose believes that three things are required for a happy life, the balance of the soul, mind and body. He used examples from the books to show a similar philosophy showcased by JK Rowling.
The series’s portrayal of prison was, in Viola’s opinion, a depiction of the mental effects prisoners go through. Dementors are an obvious metaphor for depression, but he also believes they show the trauma of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The Dementor’s kiss is also a symbol of capital punishment. Viola brought up his work in the mental health unit and how he has seen these effects first hand.
This segued into an exploration of series’s relationship with mental illness. Certain characters, he said, can be seen as metaphors for these disorders. Other characters may literally have the disorders. The two disagreed on the portrayal of Luna Lovegood. Viola sees her as being on the Autistic Spectrum, while Ambrose interprets her as a metaphor but Luna herself not being on the spectrum. Other characters were discussed at length, with Hagrid and Neville facing issues of isolation and social anxiety and ultimately overcoming them.
“The beautiful thing about the series is that it reflects the true nature of people,” said Viola. “Everybody has some damage. Everybody. Nobody in this room is perfect. Everyone’s got things that’s happened to us that’s effected us. And nobody in this series is perfect.”
The panel wrapped up with them concluding that horror is not a negative for children’s stories. Harry Potter, they say, is not about the dark elements. Instead it is about facing the darkness and overcoming it.
“In short, what I always like to say,” concluded Ambrose. “These books aren’t about magic. They are magic.”