The North Tower #39: The Imperius Curse

by Maline

Hi everybody. Hope your summers are progressing nicely. I’’m in the middle of moving and live in a pile of boxes, but today I finally found the one containing my HP books, so here’s a new article for you: Imperius Curse.

Note: In this article, “Moody” means “fake Moody who’’s really Crouch Jr.” all through. It was just easier not to write the long version every time.

The Imperius Curse, we are told, is one of the three unforgivable curses in the wizarding world and is used to control people. It’’s used as a very important plot device in GoF and has received quite a bit of criticism for being used inconsistently. Now, I love and adore JKR (naturally, since I spend the time I do reading, praising and writing about her books) but she is only human. Furthermore, the Harry Potter series is her first published story, and even though it’’s split into seven books, it’s still just one story. Everyone who’s ever tried to write fiction knows how hard it is to keep track of absolutely everything, so that some things in the series might not really add up; it isn’t weird at all. It’s normal.

Now, most writers can get by with little inconsistencies here and there in their works, since most of the time, people don’’t read books that thoroughly. Not like how people read the HP books, making a huge deal out of tiny details, like the fact that July 31, 1991 wasn’’t a Tuesday according to our calendars. But I’’ll get back to the discussion on whether the Imperius curse is used inconsistently. Let’s start at the beginning.

Our first formal contact with the Imperius curse is in the fake Moody’’s classroom, where we have the following descriptions:

“Moody reached into the jar, caught one of the spiders and held it in the palm of his hand so they could all see it. Then he pointed his wand at it, and muttered, ‘Imperio!’ The spider leapt from Moody’s hand on a fine thread of silk, and began to swing backwards and forwards as though on a trapeze. It stretched out its legs rigidly, then did a back flip, breaking the thread and landing on the desk, where it began to cartwheel in circles. Moody jerked his wand, and the spider rose onto two of its hind legs and went into what was unmistakably a tap dance.”
(GoF, UK hardback, p. 188)“’”Total control,”’ said Moody quietly, as the spider balled itself up and began to roll over and over. ‘”I could make it jump out of the window, drown itself, throw itself down one of your throats…’””
(p. 188)

“Moody picked up the somersaulting spider and threw it back into the jar.”

My first question here is, how exactly does Moody control the spider? With his thoughts, his wand, or both? In the following descriptions, there is nothing like the jerking of Moody’s wand to make an object do something new. In fact, the way things seem in the rest of the book, once the spell has been cast, the attacker and the victim don’’t even need to be in the same room – the victim will continue to carry out the order given until the curse is removed or thrown off. Later, when Harry is placed under the curse (both by Moody and by Voldemort) he hears their voices in his head, telling him what to do. I very much doubt that these orders are issued out loud for all to hear – mainly because there is no mention of Moody talking when he puts the spider (and Harry’’s classmates) under the curse. And it would undoubtedly ruin the effect for Voldemort if he had to tell Harry to say ‘no’ in front of all his Death Eaters. (Kind of takes away the point for using the Imperius curse to humiliate people.) I think it’s all in the victim’s head, which really puts the Imperius curse in the mind-control category – it seems like you more or less transfer your thoughts to the other person, cleaning out their mind and replacing their thoughts with your own (see Harry’s description of the experience below).

My second question concerns the actual workings of the curse. Compare these descriptions for example:

“It was the most wonderful feeling. Harry felt a floating sensation as every thought and worry in his head was wiped gently away, leaving nothing but a vague, untraceable happiness. He stood there feeling immensely relaxed, only dimly aware of everyone watching him. And then he heard Moody’s voice, echoing in some distant chamber of his empty brain: Jump onto the desk… jump onto the desk… Harry bent his knees obediently, preparing to spring. Jump onto the desk… “Why though? “Another voice had awoken in the back of his brain. “Stupid thing to do, really,” said the voice. Jump onto the desk… “No, I don’’t think I will, thanks,” said the other voice, a little more firmly… “no, I don’’t really want to……” Jump! NOW! The next thing Harry felt was considerable pain. He had both jumped and tried to prevent himself from jumping – the result was that he’’d smashed headlong into the desk, knocking it over /…/. ‘”Now that’’s more like it!’” growled Moody’’s voice, and suddenly, Harry felt the empty, echoing feeling in his head disappear. He remembered exactly what was happening and the pain in his knees seemed to double.”
(GoF, p. 204)“And Harry felt, for the third time in his life, the sensation that his mind had been wiped of all thought… ah, it was bliss, not to think, it was as though he was floating, dreaming… just answer ‘no’… I will not, said a stronger voice, in the back of his head, I won’t answer… Just answer ‘no’… I won’t do it, I won’t say it… Just answer ‘no’… ‘I WON’’T!’ And these words burst from Harry’’s mouth; they echoed through the graveyard, and the dream state was lifted as suddenly as though cold water had been thrown over him.”
(GoF, p. 574)

“Moody began to beckon students forward in turn and put the Imperius curse upon them. Harry watched as, one by one, his classmates did the most extraordinary things under its influence. Dean Thomas hopped three times around the room, singing the national anthem. Lavender Brown imitated a squirrel. Neville performed a series of quite astonishing gymnastics he would certainly not have been capable of in his normal state. Not one of them seemed to be able to fight the curse off, and each of them recovered only when Moody had removed it.”
(GoF, p. 202)

“He [Mr Crouch] looked slightly eerie, the half-darkness making him look much older, giving him an almost skull-like appearance. When he spoke, however, it was in his usual curt voice.”
(GoF, p. 243)

“Mr Crouch seemed to come out of a deep reverie. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘instructions, yes… the first task…’ He moved forwards into the firelight. Close to, Harry thought he looked ill. There were dark shadows beneath his eyes, and a thin, papery look about his skin that had not been there at the Quidditch World Cup.”
(GoF, p. 246)

The words “eerie” and “reverie” seem to support the sensation Harry describes: a feeling of being in a dreamlike state of mind, only dimly aware of your surroundings. This is rather contradictory, however, to the claim by Crouch Jr. as to the orders given by Voldemort to his father:

“It was very quick. My father was placed under the Imperius curse by my master. Now my father was the one imprisoned, controlled. My master forced him to go about his business as usual, to act as though nothing was wrong. And I was released. I awoke. I was myself again, alive as I hadn’t been in years.”
(GoF, p. 597)

How exactly does one go about business as usual when one is only dimly aware of one’’s surroundings and walks around in some kind of foggy bliss? It seems very difficult indeed, and yet, from the way people talk about the curse, it seems to be nigh impossible to distinguish between a person under the curse and a person acting out of their own free will. It’s stated many times that the MoM had great problems separating those who were actually affected by the curse from those who only used it as an excuse after the first war. Dumbledore doesn’t know Crouch Sr. is affected at Halloween (though he seems to suspect that something is wrong). Nor does the Order notice that two of their members have been hit with the curse in OotP before one is in St. Mungo’’s and the other is in Azkaban. (Hrm, was Bode actually in the Order? I’’m not entirely sure… forgive me if I’’m wrong). On the other hand, to completely contradict the above, Dumbledore, at the end of GoF, takes one look at the real Alastor Moody (unconscious at the time) and states that he is stunned and under the Imperius curse. A guess on his part perhaps. (That’s the beauty with literary analysis, you can always find some way to argue pretty much anything you want. :-))

Still, I think it’s odd that a person in la la land would be able to “act normal”, the way Crouch apparently does. There’s a great difference between that and the kind of control exercised over the Hogwarts students. There, the orders are clear: “jump on the desk”, “sing the national anthem”, “imitate a squirrel”, “do a somersault” etc. Each requires the victim to use sections of their own “wiped out” mind, such as the memory of how a squirrel looks or how to talk and use your muscles. But there’s a big step, I think, from these fairly easy and straight-forward tasks to do the very complex thing of going about your life as usual – without constant guidance on what to do next.

Then there are the descriptions of a person fighting off a long-running curse, which is very different from the description of how Harry fights off one that’s just been put on him. Compare:

“And Harry felt, for the third time in his life, the sensation that his mind had been wiped of all thought… ah, it was bliss, not to think, it was as though he was floating, dreaming… just answer ‘no’… I will not, said a stronger voice, in the back of his head, I won’t answer… Just answer ‘no’… I won’t do it, I won’t say it… Just answer ‘no’… ‘I WON’T!’ And these words burst from Harry’s mouth; they echoed through the graveyard, and the dream state was lifted as suddenly as though cold water had been thrown over him.”
(GoF, p. 574)“But Winky didn’t know that I [Crouch Jr.] was growing stronger. I was starting to fight my father’s Imperius curse. There were times when I was almost myself again. There were brief periods when I seemed outside his control. It happened, there, in the Top Box. It was like waking from a deep sleep. I found myself out in public, in the middle of the match, and I saw a wand sticking out of a boy’s pocket in front of me.”
(GoF, p. 595)

“He [Crouch Sr.] looked as though he had been travelling for days. The knees of his robes were ripped and bloody; his face scratched; he was unshaven and grey with exhaustion. His neat hair and moustache were both in need of a wash and a trim. His strange appearance, however, was nothing to the way he was behaving. Muttering and gesticulating, Mr Crouch appeared to be talking to someone that he alone could see. He reminded Harry vividly of an old tramp he had seen once when out shopping with the Dursleys. That man, too, had been conversing wildly with thin air. /…/ Mr. Crouch /…/ continued to talk to a nearby tree: ‘and when you’ve done that, Weatherby, send an owl to Dumbledore confirming the number of Durmstrang students who will be attending the tournament, Karkaroff just sent word there will be twelve…’”
(GoF, p. 481)

“He [Crouch Sr.] looked utterly mad. His eyes were rolling and bulging, and a trickle of spittle was sliding down his chin. Every word he spoke seemed to cost him a terrible effort.”
(GoF, p. 482)

The main difference between these quotes is that with Harry, the fight starts as soon as the order is given and continues until one has beaten the other, whereas father and son Crouch are controlled for long periods of time without even trying to fight. The same seems to hold true for Dean, Neville and Lavender. What I find a bit puzzling is that the either/or situation Harry experiences is so different from e.g. Crouch Jr.’s description of going back and forth between awareness and being controlled. In Harry’s case, resisting an order breaks the curse. Crouch Sr. jumps between lucidity and being controlled in a way compared to mental illness. Moody’s claim that it takes mental strength to beat the curse doesn’t quite seem to explain this difference either. It would explain why some would start fighting later rather than sooner and why it might take longer, but it doesn’t make sense of the fact that in one case (Harry’s), you’re either under the curse or you’re not, while in another case (e.g. Crouch) you break free, then fall back, then get out again and so on. If Crouch Sr. was ordered to go about business as usual, then I really do think that escaping from his imprisonment, travelling all the way to Hogwarts and telling Harry (albeit in a mumbled fashion) everything he knows of Voldemort’s doings since the start of Book 4 qualify as resisting order – same as Harry does when he doesn’t say ‘no’. And still, Crouch keeps going back and forth, having completely lost track of reality and time as well. This is, in my opinion, very weird.

Of course, one could argue that fighting the curse for a long time is probably straining for the mind, and that’s what has turned Crouch Sr. into a raving lunatic, but then you still don’t get rid of the either/or vs. back-and-forth problem. Some inconsistency in the handling perhaps…? Time for today’s conspiracy theory, I think. 🙂

Take a close look at the following:

“’Yes, I know,’ said Ron, who was still skipping every alternate step. He had had much more difficulty with the curse than Harry, though Moody assured him the effects would have worn off by lunchtime.”
(GoF, p. 205)

Could it be that Ron was still under the curse when leaving the classroom? Descriptions of other students put under the curse that day (in Moody’s classroom) present the either/or situation – dreamlike state under the curse, where you do what you’re told, and lucid state away from the curse where you remember how it affected you but where you’re no longer under its power. If the same thing happened to Ron as apparently happened to the rest of his classmates, why would he still be skipping? If he managed to throw off the curse, he should be walking normally. If still under the curse, he should skip about in his dreamlike state. When the other students are under the curse, they recover the instant it’s removed/thrown off (e.g. Harry). We’ve also seen (with Crouch 1 and 2) that an Imperius curse doesn’t just “wear off”. It stays on the victim until removed or beaten. To me, it seems like Ron is still under the curse, which is very odd. Or a sign of some evil cunning, perhaps. The person who put the curse on Ron in the first place is, after all, Crouch Jr., the villain of Book 4, out to kill Harry. Suddenly something about Crouch’’s speech bothers me:

“The second task… that was when I was most afraid we would fail. I was keeping watch on you, Potter. I knew you hadn’t worked out the egg’s clue. /…/ I expected you to ask anyone and everyone you could for help. /…/ But you did not… you did not…’”
(GoF. p. 587-88)

Exactly how was Moody keeping watch on Harry? How did he know both that Harry worked on the egg alone (without even Ron and Hermione) and that he hadn’’t completely figured it out? Suddenly the “lingering effects” of Ron’s Imperius curse seem a lot more suspicious… after all, what would be a better way to gain inside information than to have a spy in Harry’s inner circle…? Then again, it seems a bit far-fetched. And if Crouch was controlling Ron, why not make him point Harry in the right direction? Not to mention what a risk it would be, should the boy suddenly break the curse and remember who’d put him under it and what the real orders had been (orders other than skipping, that is). Still, it’’s a thought.

If the wacky theory above were to be accurate, however, that could present a solution to the either/or vs. back-and-forth problem other than “Hrm, I think JKR messed up a bit here”, namely that there might be different kinds of Imperius curses. Last time, when we looked at other kinds of mind-control, I put forth the idea that there seem to be different kinds of Memory Charms, for example. Memory Charms aren’t that very different from the Imperius curse really – with one, you violate and change another’s memory, with the other you violate and change another person’s will. It’s probably possible to combine the two as well, and it strikes me that we probably have seen a fairly close example of that: when Tom Riddle possessed Ginny, making her do what he wanted and leaving her with no memory of it afterwards.

If this is true, then you might be able to use the Imperius curse in the more subtle way suggested by Crouch Sr. and Jr. without it being wildly illogical. What if the order given isn’t actually “go about business as usual” but “forget this ever happened”? After all, if you don’t remember having been put under a curse, why would it disrupt your life? And if you’re walking around in a bit of a dreamlike state, you’d be even less inclined to question things than you would normally. Under this kind of curse, you would automatically respond to any orders given to you by your “master”, but at the same time forget that they were orders. Eventually, you’ll start questioning your own behaviour (e.g. “Why am I giving all this money to the arms industry again?”) and that’s when you start fighting the curse – through remembering.

This scenario would support the “there were times when I was almost myself again” type of lines, but still doesn’t explain why Crouch Sr., when he arrives at Hogwarts, would be so out of it. His behaviour is, I think, the main inconsistency or mystery (depending on how you want to view it) regarding the Imperius curse. It would be very interesting to hear JKR address the problem.

I think I’’ll end the article on that note. I’’ll write one more before HBP comes out with my predictions for the book so that you can all worship my Seeing eye/laugh at how incredibly wrong I was afterwards. 🙂

Watch his eyes, that’’s where you see it.”
(GoF, p. 204)