I had my first brush with existential terror during Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
I couldn’t have been more than seven or eight when I watched it for the first time. I was enjoying it, too—right up to the part where Violet Beauregarde turned into a blueberry. I started bawling.
Half-baked ideas about an afterlife had softened my fear of death by that point, but this was different. I was smart enough to know that blueberries couldn’t think or feel. Blueberries didn’t have souls. When that little girl became a little berry, I knew with horrifying certainty that Violet Beauregarde had ceased to be.
Of course, that would be a bit dark for a children’s story, and Roald Dahl returned Violet from the chocolate factory safe and sound. But that moment stuck with me. That fear stuck with me.
You’ll notice that this post is not titled “Monster of the Week: Willy Wonka.” (Well, it could be. That man was twisted. Don’t get me started on the Oompa Loompas.)
This particular kind of terror—a bit dark for a children’s story—is exactly the kind that Dementors evoke. It adds depth to the definition of evil in Harry’s world and creates a more mature tone.
It’s why I love Dementors. Because they scare me—more than any basilisk or giant spider or three-headed dog. Dementors mark Harry’s first foray into the world of psychological terror.
But let’s start simple.
Rowling gives her Dementors a classically spooky appearance. Dark, hooded cloaks obscure their lanky bodies. The hooded figure is a very old archetype. Who hasn’t heard of a fairy tale with some evil old witch or cutthroat hiding under a cloak? We don’t know who—or what—is under there, and that rightly sets us on edge. Their unnatural height makes them even more intimidating.
When they get closer, they add another layer of eeriness. Their flesh is grey, desiccated, and corpse-like. Dead bodies are a real quick shortcut to creep people out. For centuries, humans from all around the world have told stories about their fear of the dead rising. Dementors also carry an aura of cold with them, which is unsettling on its own but also solidifies their connection to death.
Then we get to the good stuff.
Sure, they look creepy, but the real terror of Dementors is their ability to suck all of the joy out of the humans around them. They literally feed on misery, forcing you to relive your worst memories over and over—and forget your happiest. Prisoners in Azkaban become hollow shells of their former selves after years of exposure.
A metaphor for solitary confinement? Possibly. For inhumane conditions in the prison system? Definitely.
But beyond their role at the wizard prison, this is where Dementors get their real power from. Before their first appearance, the forces of evil could do terrible things to you—hurt you, injure or kill your loved ones, the usual—but there was always that hope for a better future. Harry suffered through a childhood of abuse and neglect after his parents were murdered, but at Hogwarts he found joy, friendship, and love. Love, above all, could shield him from evil.
Dementors forced him to relive his worst moments and dwell on them, like a magical manifestation of PTSD. They undermined all of those vectors of positivity.
Harry’s enemies define what evil means in his world so that good knows what it stands against. Like a twisted mirror, that reflection makes the hero’s values clearer. Rowling created monsters that take away a person’s humanity by taking away their happy memories—and so they lose their sense of self. Their soul.
Nowhere is this clearer than their ultimate power: the Dementor’s kiss. Under the hood, nothing remains of the Dementor’s rotted face but a hole of a mouth. It sucks all the warmth and joy out of the room, and then—pressed to a person’s lips—it tears out their soul.
It’s a fate worse than death, if you can believe Rowling’s wizards. Death isn’t the end in her books. Some wizards live on as ghosts. Others pass on to whatever “comes next.” Rowling never makes it explicit, but you can easily see the suggestion of a heaven or afterlife.
Whatever that is, a Dementor’s victim never gets to see it. Like Violet Beauregarde, they just… stop. Their body lives on, heart thumping and lungs pumping, but the person they once were is no more.
What is a body without a soul—or a self?
What are your worst nightmares, and what hollow shell of a self would you be if you were reduced to nothing but that?
A bit dark for a children’s book. Deeper questions for a darker world as Harry begins his adolescence. Without that depth, the Harry Potter books would not be the series that I love.
And, yeah. I love those questions, even though they scare me. Because they scare me.
What better way is there to see who you are than to face losing it?
Prompt: Take a character and threaten them with the loss of their identity or happy memories. How do they react? What do they learn about themselves—and what do you learn about them?