Genre Splicing: “Harry Potter” as Horror
Horror: Stephen King, gothic tales, eyes closed tight, and popcorn flying from bowls. So how does Harry Potter fit into this genre? Harry Potter has come to be a classic fantasy tale, one that’s often targeted at children and therefore possibly the last thing you would associate with the horror genre. However, if we look at the similarities between horror and Harry Potter, perhaps there’s more in common than you might have thought. Or perhaps we’ve simply been misjudging the merit in horror stories all along.
1. Horror and Growing Up
Believe it or not, many horror stories have a purpose beyond giving you some freaky nightmares. Some of the original dark fairy tales and gothic horror stories were written as lessons, particularly for those still growing up and coming into their own. They exist to chart the transition from innocence to awareness, and to frighten, but also to educate – teaching us how people often hide their true selves or the classic lesson: Don’t wander off. Some scary stories even talk about the simple things in life, such as the benefits and necessity of sleep, as Nightmare on Elm Street tells us. Harry Potter also contains many valuable life lessons and charts the coming-of-age period that is so formative for many of us. Harry and his friends face many disturbing and frightening events, but it is the way they are able to triumph over this darkness that creates change and shapes their growth.
2. Focusing on the Fantastical
From ghosts to ghouls, many horror stories contain menacing dark creatures. Tales of vampires and werewolves have always been used in cautionary tales and to add darkness and fear to horror stories. In Harry Potter, we also see a wide variety of magical creatures, both dark and benign. However, the stigmas and fears we see in the wizarding community toward these creatures reflect instead on humanity’s own darkness, and it makes us think about how our own prejudices and attitudes can lead us down dark paths.
3. The Theme of Death
Horror doesn’t shy away from death, and neither does Harry Potter. Horror brings us the senselessness and purposelessness of death, often striking with no logic or end in sight. Of course, some deaths play integral roles in shaping the plot. In Harry Potter, we see this in the death of Cedric or Lily and James. However, the focus on senseless death in both Harry Potter and horror stories makes these worlds more real to us and teaches us the painful reality of indiscriminate death. Horror stories such as The Woman in Black or other tales of vengeful spirits likewise show us how there can be fates worse than death, as Voldemort’s use of Horcruxes and fixation on defeating death also shows us. Sometimes all we can hope for is a peaceful and dignified end.
4. Anxiety, Anxiety Everywhere
What gives horror stories that certain zing – that foreboding atmosphere that glues us to the pages or screen even when we want to tear our eyes away? The ever-present tension and atmosphere of anxiety is what gives horror those elevated feelings, a sense of impending doom coming closer and closer. This is precisely what we also see as the Harry Potter series progresses, moving from more light-hearted mysteries to a serious and high-stakes war engulfing the wizarding world.
5. Normal vs. the Supernatural
Horror isn’t all about jump scares, but what makes a really frightening moment is the balance between the mundane and the disturbing, the normal and the supernatural. If the tension is dialed to eleven all the time, after a while, it doesn’t seem so scary to us anymore. Both good horror stories and Harry Potter understand this and often mix normal things like household life, schools and homework, and the everyday grind into worlds full of spooky happenings, uncertainty, and darkness. After all, it’s those moments of normality or even light-heartedness that make the shadows all the darker.
Acknowledging the dark themes in Harry Potter is an important part of the complexity of the series. The horror genre, likewise, uses its dark elements in constructive ways, beyond simply frightening people and creating a mess with spilled popcorn. And while Harry Potter is much more than its darkness, it is in these moments that we find the lessons it tries to teach us, to see the ugly sides of life and learn from them. Many horror stories tell us to pick ourselves back up, learn from mistakes and trauma, and be aware of the darkness in our world. That’s not such a bad aim at all. Perhaps more of us should explore this little-loved genre. You first, though. Good luck.