Wailing the Dead: Dementors in Muggle Legends and Tales

by Barbara O’Quinn

Abstract: Discussing Dementors: the origins of the word, and the presence of the creatures in Muggle legends and folk tales.

The Christmas homes of England!
Alike in peasant’s cot,
Where hath the death-wail not been heard,
Where hath it entered not?

–“The Christmas Homes of England,” Caroline Hayward

A dark, hooded cloak of ripped black cloth, concealing a vaguely human form, towers above you – its skin grey and decaying, its breathing hoarse and rattling as it glides soundlessly across the floor. One glistening hand reaches out as it nears you, and a wave of unbearable cold fills the area. To your horror, as the hood falls back, no features can be seen… only a large black hole where the mouth should be. That is the last sight you see, as you feel a chilling emptiness fill you from the inside out – erasing all hope, all warmth, all joy, all memory.

The name is the stuff of wizard nightmares across the ages, so monstrous it’s only whispered of in some circles: Dementor. Little is known of Dementors. Even the most eminent magizoologists confess themselves uncertain as to the habits of these feared and hated creatures. But perhaps there are clues which we in the wizarding world have overlooked. Perhaps it is time we turn to our long-separated cousins for answers, and the tales they told around their home-fires at night, when the wind was cruel and the nights too dark.

Perhaps it’s time we asked the Muggles what they know about Dementors.

The word ‘dementor’ likely derives its origins from two words, the first being “demented,” which appears in the middle 17th century. It is the past participle of the earlier word “dement” (“drive mad”), which in turn derives from Old French “dementer” or late Latin “dementare”(“out of one’s mind”).

The second word is “tormentor,” a Middle English word which serves as both noun and verb, referring to the infliction or suffering of torture. It comes to us from the Old French “torment” (noun) or “tormenter” (verb), from Latin “tormentum” (“instrument of torture”), derived from “torquere” (“to twist”).

It may be reasonably concluded, therefore, that the word “dementor” means “someone or something that drives mad or twists the mind.” Although this precise word may not have entered regular use until this century (with the appointment of Dementors as the prison guards of Azkaban), it certainly could have existed in both wizarding and muggle lexicons, prior to that. Muggle and wizard society hadn’t begun its current separation until 1692, with the International Statute of Secrecy, as every wizard child is taught in history class.

“Dementor,” though, is not a universal word, even among wizardkind. Different geographical areas have different names for these beings.

Consider the following:

Japanese – “kyuukonki” (the “soul-sucking demon”)
Indonesian – “iblis” (a demon of death and happiness remover)
Hindi – “damapishācha” or ‘dampishāch” from pishācha (a type of Hindu demon)

Each of these regional terms for Dementors define them as demons. Another dive into word entomology tells us “demon” is descended from medieval Latin “daemon,” from Greek “daimōn” (“deity” or “genius”); it also also from Latin “daemonium” (“lesser or evil spirit”). In this particular case it’s interesting to note that “genius” is not connected with intellect, but instead is defined as “a spirit associated with a particular person, place, or institution” (see also “genius loci”, literally “the spirit of a place”).[1]

There are two legendary creatures from the Muggle world that have some relationship, I think, to the foregoing. One dates back to medieval times, while one is of much more recent origin. Hopefully my readers will find them as interesting as I do.

The Banshee

In Ireland, many stories are told of the “bean sí” or “bánánach,” most commonly rendered as “banshee”; Scotland calls them “bean-sidhe,” “ban nigheachain” or “nigheag na h-àth.” In Wales the “Gwrach y Rhibyn”, the hag of the mist, haunts the night. Stories of banshees, interestingly enough, can also be found in America as recently as the 18th century, most prevalently in the area of North Carolina.[2]

Of course, banshees are scarcely unknown in the wizarding world. Anyone who’s heard of Celestina Warbeck will remember her backup group is composed of banshees. The difference is in attitude and appearance. Wizarding-world banshees look like women with floor-length black hair and a skeletal, green-tinged face. They are classed as dark creatures, due to the fact that their screams can kill, but are otherwise more or less harmless (otherwise I’m fairly certain the Ministry wouldn’t allow a group of them to roam from concert to concert).

The Muggle version is a tall, thin figure with pale or translucent skin, dressed in flowing white, black or gray (often described as “tattered” or “ragged”) whose faces at times appear human, and at other times like a skull. These fearsome creatures are, with few exceptions, seldom seen in the daylight. Mostly they appear at night, and usually in the wild, on seldom-traveled roads or near lonely areas of wilderness. They are also reported (in the Celtic tales, at least) to appear either when someone is about to die or has died, and foretell or announce the death with a wailing or keening sound.

Given the fact that Muggles tend to have a propensity for trying to fit any supernatural occurrence into as mundane a context as possible,[3] one can see how any unusual deaths might have been explained away, at least by those who were too “intelligent” to believe in spirits, ghosts, poltergeists, wizardry or flying brooms.

Why is it, though, that the stories always describe the creatures as female? Certainly a Dementor looks nothing like a female of any kind, except possibly a hag (and although I myself have yet to see a hag, I am told by several reliable sources the experience is not one to be envied). Possibly it has something to do with the fact of the Dementor’s habitual garb, the tattered dark cloak (one might almost call it a death-shroud). To a shaken Muggle mind (and there is some evidence to suggest that certain rare Muggles have the ability to dimly perceive such entities as Dementors, grims and thestrals)[4] the cloak, flowing as it does on its own, might have suggested a long robe or dress, particularly the type worn by women of the day upon retiring for bed – or rising from their graves.

It might also have something to do with the attitude of the time towards women. The Catholic Church, which was one of the largest influences on daily life in medieval times, regularly taught that women were the inheritors of original sin, and thus a source of spiritual danger for men. If not chaste and pure (i.e. socially acceptable), they were deceitful, beguiling hags. Once again the idea of fitting a bewildering and terrifying event into a context that could be, at least partly, understood might have colored a Muggle’s impressions of the creature that actually assaulted them.

The Shadow People

There is another phenomena that I would like to bring to your attention, though this one will require a quick explanation of a wholly Muggle-based pursuit… or avocation… or something… known as ghost hunting.

Yes, yes, I know. Why on Earth go around hunting ghosts when you can find them quite readily at most older and more reputable establishments (Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry springs to mind) or possibly thumping around in your own attic?

Well, here’s the thing. Most Muggles can’t see real ghosts at all. I’ll wait for you to stop laughing. Done? Good. It’s absolutely true. A charming spirit known as ‘Old Green Eyes’ once proved the point to me by doing a song and dance[5] routine in front of a group of tourists, all of whom completely failed to notice the spectral floor show.

That being said, here’s another surprising fact. Almost one in five people in America alone believe in ghosts, about 18% of the total population.[6] Now, one might suppose that some of those polled were in fact wizards and witches that played along just to keep up appearances, but that’s only some.

This fascination with the afterlife leads some Muggles to participate in the aforementioned activity of “ghost hunting”. Armed with various clever devices, they research areas or buildings reputed to be haunted, then spend a night or two investigating the place, to see if they can find any proof suggesting there really are such things as ghosts.

Let me hasten to say that although the idea of hunting ghosts may seem amusing to us, these Muggles take it very seriously, and the more reputable groups are as thorough as possible in eliminating any possibility that the occurrences they experience are caused by reflections, bad pipes, shaky building supports, or pranksters. I really admire their tenacity and dedication, and I don’t mean to hold them up as a figure of mockery. Just because we enjoy a more or less pleasant relationship with the lingering deceased, doesn’t mean we should look down upon those who don’t.

One of the more recent developments in the field of Muggle ghost hunting is the emergence of a class of visitation known as “shadow people.” These are shadow-like humanoid figures that, according to believers, are seen flickering on walls and ceilings just at the edges of vision. Sometimes the figure or figures appear as the mere silhouette of a person, usually male, but generally lacking any other characteristics of gender. They are always an intense black in color, much more shadowlike than normal ghosts (hence the term “shadow people”).

This is in contrast to the usual Muggle ghost sightings, in which the figure is either white, misty and ill-formed, or well-defined enough so the witness can describe the ghost’s facial features, style of clothing, or other details. In addition, more often than not, the shadow people bring with them a feeling of oppression or even outright malevolence. They have been compared to stories of the Raven Mocker, a monster from Cherokee Indian mythology, and also to Islamic traditions of the Jinn.

In the year 2010, the so-called “shadow people” were described as one of the most regularly reported paranormal phenomena in the United States, thanks in part to a Muggle radio program named the ‘Coast to Coast AM’ show[7] , and particularly its interviews with a ghost researcher named Heidi Hollis. Ms. Hollis, it seems, is of the opinion that shadow people (a) have always existed, (b) feed on the emotion of fear, and (c) can be repelled by thinking positively.

Another researcher, Shaan Russell, writes (in part):

These Shadow People are defined by their featureless, shadow-like appearance and the feeling of foreboding when they are present. They are nearly always a manly shape, large and with a broad silhouette and perhaps the strangest thing about them, is that they are usually seen wearing a hat of some sort. In some instances there are red eyes that seem to pierce right through you. So are they “normal ghosts?” Most people will say that they are not. They don’t usually seem to have purpose to their visits and from the bad feelings they emit, it seems that they aren’t benign by any means.“[8]

Black, flowing figures, bringing with them an atmosphere of malice, feeding on fear, repelled by pleasant thoughts and cheerful memories… if that isn’t the textbook description of a Dementor, I’ll eat a goblin’s hat. The question remaining is, how do these two concepts, the banshee and the shadow people, tie together with Dementors and their behavior?

I believe that Dementors in the wild originally did as the Muggle legends of banshees suggest, and waited for their prey at places near settlements where there was little or no help to be had. A victim’s dead body, if discovered at all, could have its cause of death attributed to nature (a fall, a drowning, and so forth). At regular intervals they would draw nearer to a chosen village, hoping to sense the despair and sorrow engendered by an impending death or a death that had recently occurred.

If they sensed the appropriate emotions, they would attempt to instill further mental disorder by producing eerie cries to augment the atmosphere of despair that seems to follow them wherever they go. (Just because none of us has ever heard a Dementor make a sound doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of doing so). They would have been somewhat solitary and territorial, each one selecting and prowling a particular area of the country as its own hunting ground (hence the idea that certain places housed a powerful spirit that never traveled past a set boundary – the origin of the “genius loci” I mentioned earlier).

When the Ministry of Magic made its decision to use Dementors at Azkaban, it must have seemed like the best of all possible worlds to the Dementors. The prisoners, unable to escape and unable to defend themselves, were like so many sheep lined up for the slaughterhouse. Over time, the Dementors might have abandoned their previous hunting style. In the enclosed spaces of the prison, their presence alone was enough to keep the emotional torment at suitable levels, and the occasional influx of new prisoners negated the need to establish or keep a territory. From solitary stalkers, the Dementors passed into a kind of pack or pride mentality, and simultaneously began to lose whatever reluctance they had to move among the cities of men.

The Dementors are no longer interested in concealing themselves, I believe. No indeed. They wish to be noticed. It is true that hitherto no reports of Muggles seeing magical creatures has been made, and in fact it’s long been assumed that Muggles simply cannot see magical creatures at all. But is this always the case? Specifically, is it the case with magical beings, as well as magical beasts? Dementors have demonstrated the capacity for independent thought and action, one of the primary attributes of a rational entity. Is it possible they are allowing themselves to be perceived by particularly sensitive Muggles, in order to feed upon them?

If there is any validity to my ideas, I would caution both the Ministry of Magic, and any readers of this essay, to keep a close eye on reports of paranormal[9] activity that bear any resemblance to either of the creatures I’ve mentioned in this article. We, as responsible witches and wizards, must call for a resolution to this issue, or we may find ourselves once more shivering at the sound of eerie voices wailing the dead in the streets and neighborhoods we share with our defenseless Muggle kin.

1 In classical Roman religion, a genius loci was the protective spirit of a place, usually appearing in iconography as a figure holding a cornucopia, patera (a broad, shallow dish used for ritual libations) and/or a snake. In modern works of Muggle fantasy, the term is used for an intelligent spirit or magical power residing in one particular place, and unable to leave the borders of that area. The spirit is shown as being extremely powerful, and in most cases, also very intelligent.

2 Reference the legend of the Tar River Banshee, Tar River area, North Carolina, circa 1781.

3 Also known in Muggle studies as the “belief bias,” which is a pattern of judgment where someone’s evaluation of the logical strength of an argument is biased by their belief in the truth or falsity of the conclusion. In other words, if you don’t believe grass is green, any argument trying to logically prove that the grass is in fact green will not make reasonable sense to you. On the other hand, if you do believe in green grass, then any logical argument asserting grass’s inherent greenness will seem perfectly sound and plausible.

4 See Professor Merricus Lockwod’s article, “Seeing the Unseeable: Second Sight and Faerie Salves,” published in the Journal of Muggle Minutiae, volume 3, issue 11; see also the account of the attack on Harry Potter and his cousin, Dudley Dursley, as recorded in the proceedings of the Ministry of Magic, 12 August 1995 disciplinary hearing. And there’s always the Muggle legend of Black Shuck, a ghostly black dog which is said to roam the coastline and countryside of East Anglia. Its alleged appearance in 1577 at Bungay and Blythburgh is a particularly famous account. Of course, Black Shuck could just be another of those pesky unregistered Animagi.

5 Well, more or less song and dance. Song, yes. Dance not so much, since Old Green Eyes has no body. Artillery shell blew it to bits, so all that’s left is his head. Good things ghosts float or he’d never get any traveling done. If you are ever in the area of Chickamauga, Georgia (which is located to the extreme northwest of Georgia, right on the Tennessee/Georgia border), stop by the Battlefield Park and say hello.

6 Source, a 2009 Pew Research Center survey conducted under the direction of Princeton Survey Research Associates International, among a nationwide sample of 4,013 adults, 18 years of age or older.

7 Coast to Coast AM is a Muggle late-night syndicated wireless talk show that deals with a variety of topics, but most frequently ones that relate to either the paranormal or conspiracy theories. It was created by Art Bell and is distributed by Premiere Radio Networks. The program currently airs seven nights a week 1:00 a.m. – 5:00 a.m. Eastern Time / 10:00 p.m. – 2:00 a.m. Pacific Time. As of 2006, the show attracts an estimated 4.5 million listeners every night, making it the most listened to late night show in North America.

8 Quoted from the article ‘Shadow people phenomena’ by columnist Shaan Russell, posted on Friday, 15 June, 2007 at the Unexplained Mysteries website. If you have access to the Muggle device known as a computer and have some idea how to operate it, you can view the entire article at unexplained-mysteries.com, choosing the ‘Columns’ section and searching for Shaan Russell. If what I just said is absolute gibberish, ask a goblin to look it up for you. They’re usually quite good at websurfing.

9 A Muggle term for experiences that lie outside the range of normal experience or scientific explanation, or phenomena understood to be outside of science’s current ability to explain or measure. That science thing again! Muggles are awfully fond of the term, bless them.

About The Author:

Barbara has been masquerading as a Muggle for 30 years (ever since finishing school at Gordon Junior Collegium of Magic in Barnesville, Georgia, USA). She is excited about the possibility of attending further training at Hogwarts Online, and, while not much of a Quidditch player herself, loves to cheer the teams on, assisted by her Cheezle, Bear. When not writing essays or adverts for wrockBOX, she enjoys a good game of Wizard Chess.