Tales of Disenchantment: On Harry Potter and Vampire Movies

In his book The Secular Age Charles Taylor talks about how, over the last 500 years, the world has become disenchanted. Five hundred years ago the world was enchanted, full of supernatural forces, witchcraft, and ghosts. A world full of thin places, where the border between this world and the Other world was porous and leaky. People then could become demon possessed or afflicted by magic. The night was full of occult menace. Black cats were bad luck.

Things are much different today. We live in the aftermath of the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason. We are moderns. Science and technology now rule. With electric lighting the night has been banished. Our cities never sleep. So there's no room for monsters. Medicine and psychiatry have pushed witchcraft and demon possession offstage. Worrying about black cats is superstitious and irrational. Ghost stories are just that. Stories. Fictional tales to scare the kids around the campfire.

But one night a year the world seems to become re-enchanted. Halloween night feels different. That night is spooky and menacing. For one night a year we go back in time and become medieval again. That's what makes Halloween so interesting. It's the last vestige of the Dark Ages. Smack in the middle of our disenchanted modernity.

To see just how disenchanted our world has become consider how science and medicine have chased the supernatural out of places that should be immune to disenchantment. Take our stories about magic and vampires. Surely these stories remain locations of enchantment, even if only in our imaginations? And yet, even these stories are becoming disenchanted. How? Consider this post I wrote a while back about the disenchantment in Harry Potter and vampire movies:

My friend Jonathan Wade and I have a quirky habit: We like to go to vampire movies. Once, on the way home from a movie, we began discussing recent trends in vampire movies and graphic novels. The classic vampire genre cast vampires as evil and occult. They are undead. Thus, the classic genre (CG) has a heavy metaphysical overlay where the spiritual forces of good and evil fight it out. Thus, weapons against vampires are holy water and crucifixes (along with the non-spiritual weapons of garlic, sunlight, and silver).

But increasingly, the modern genre (MG) of vampire movies is moving away from these metaphysical and spiritual themes. The MG, in contrast to the CG, is non-metaphysical. The MG is biological. Increasingly, you see biological explanations for vampirism and its symptoms. The vampire bite is analogous to a mosquito or rabid dog bite causing a gene-altering allergic reaction or viral infection. Further, the vampire’s reactions to garlic, sunlight, and silver are increasingly portrayed as hyper-severe allergic reactions.

In a correlated manner, we thus see the decline of the metaphysical weapons against vampires. If you assault a vampire in the MG, holding a crucifix aloft, the vampire will chide you for being superstitious. The supernatural is absent in the modern vampire genre. Biology—with its allergies, viral infections, naturalistic ontology, and genetic mutations—is king in modern vampire movies.

Further, in many of these MG vampire movies we see issues of race and eugenics emerge as significant plot themes. See the Blade series or Underworld as examples. Again, this is a very biological theme. And this brings me to Harry Potter.

Despite concerns from religious fundamentalists, Harry Potter is a very non-metaphysical series. The magic seems to come from nowhere in Harry Potter. The etiology of magic is unspecified. Magic just is. No occult forces are described. No devils, gods, or demons. True, there is dark magic. But the darkness is largely a moral issue speaking to uses and outcomes rather than supernatural source. “Darkness” is a pragmatic issue, not a metaphysical one.

But what you do see in Harry Potter are heavy biological themes. Race issues—pure-bloods versus mud-bloods—feature predominately in the series. Further, magical ability appears to be transferred via some kind of rare recessive gene. For example, two muggle parents can have a magical off-spring (e.g., Hermione). Lastly, magical ability in the Harry Potter series seems to be a matter of genetic talent. Some of the children are naturally good magicians (e.g., Harry) while others are not (e.g., Neville). But it is more complex than that, hard work is also a part of acquiring magical skill. Hermione is a good example of this. In short, what we see in the magic of Harry Potter is not a metaphysical portrayal but the classical biological conundrum of nature versus nurture.

The point? God is dead in Harry Potter and in vampire movies.

What I mean to say is that even in classically supernatural and metaphysical genres (vampire or magic stories) we see this de-emphasis on metaphysics and the rise of the biological (i.e., scientific) worldview. It really is a startling shift: Science as the coin of the realm in classically occult or supernatural tales.

But if we think about it, all this is simply a reflection of our culture. More and more often, our psychological and moral states are being defined by biology rather than spirituality. Sins are now addictions. And moral failures are increasingly traced back to genetic predispositions. Our debates are less about good versus evil and more about nature versus nurture. We are no longer bedeviled by demons but are harassed by genetic determinism and chemical imbalances in the brain.

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7 thoughts on “Tales of Disenchantment: On Harry Potter and Vampire Movies”

  1. What a fascinating article and, in my own opinion and from my own research I see your conclusions very firmly in evidence in the field of modern theology (mt) too, especially when compared to classic theology (ct).
    My PhD supervisor recently warned me to be very careful indeed about my description of Satan and of 'demonic hordes'. It'll come across as fundamentalist he said...
    It's of huge interest to me that the demythologising of Satan and a dark metaphysical realm has been so thoroughly accomplished in MT. It has not completely taken hold but to believe in such a realm leaves me in limited and, ahem, not entirely welcome company.
    I am aware that there are multifarious (maybe even nefarious?) reasons for this being the case and yet I can't help but wonder whether writers/thinkers such as Rene Girard have had a disproportionately powerful influence? He 'believes' in Satan, if by Satan we mean 'the oppressive force of otherwise secular power structures' (a la Walter Wink and myriad others...)
    Hmmm, where does this leave us?
    For me, I don't want to simply hold onto CT for the sake of it, but neither am I happy to jettison it simply because MT is, by definition, Modern and therefore representative of PROGRESS and the NEW.

    I just LOVE this Blog and find myself looking it up more and more often (for example, I should be writing reports for my job as a teacher at the moment but this has proved almost INFINITELY more compelling...)

    Thank you for taking the trouble to post - many of us very much appreciate it...

    Ps Would you recommend buying/reading The Secular Age - it sounds fascinating?

  2. Do certain people have a genetic predisposition to creativity or factual kowledge? Personally, I have not regarded the novel as my preference. I have most always read books about ideas pragmatically applied.

    What you create here is a way to support the uneducated and you defend the right of these to believe in the speculative Those that believe in such a way of framing their experiences (pentecostals) have a right to do so. I just find my resistance too strong.

    Religion is based in philosophical speculation, or pscyhological, cultural framing of reality. I think understanding what is it that makes for the "human", is an interesting endeavor.

    Liberty of expression is of neccessity, it seems, which is about political freedom.

  3. Hi Martyn,
    Regarding The Secular Age I think it's a mixed bag. It's very rich but very long and rambling. Plus, it's not in paperback so it's expensive. All this makes me hesitant to full heartedly recommend it. But it is a good book. Some see it as a work of genius. My recommendation is to try to borrow a copy or check one out from a library. Read into it and see if you'd like to purchase it.

    Anyone else want to weigh in on the book?

  4. Martyn, I join you in your enthusiasm for this blog, as well as your sensibility of not jumping in to MT just because it's modern; or "not ancient".

    A question I would ask you, in spurring your thinking, goes something like this:

    What is the difference between being "fully human", and "fully Christian?"

    After that, I would ask, "if they are the same in God's eyes (I think this is the case) does Christianity have the complete view of what it is to be human?" "Does Science?" "If so, or if not, why- and how so?

    And finally, if you think that being fully Cristian is indeed different from being fully human, how do you go about believing this?

  5. Of course parents have the duty to their children. I had mistaken a general question, as a personal one.

    Adults have grown to a point of evaluation about their life. Adults in free societies have a right to define their own life and not be "formed" by social planners and engineers.

  6. Hi Karen,
    I agree all around. I don't want to suggest that Harry Potter is fully disenchanted. That would be, well, a bit crazy to suggest. Mainly I was focusing on the origins of the magic. Where does it come from? When you dig in that direction you don't run into the occult but nature versus nurture.

    A part of this observation is my comparison of Harry Potter with the the Bartimaeus Trilogy. When you compare those two worlds regarding the etiology of magic (where does it come from and how do spells work?) the disenchantment of Harry Potter really pops out.

  7. Mike,
    Thanks for responding - it was encouraging.
    In answer to your question and without, I hope, sounding too glib I would say that one can only BE fully human once one IS fully Christian (I appreciate that this would take rather a lot of unpacking to fully explicate the claim, but I am not sure that this is the place to do it...)
    In regard to the second part of your question I'd want to establish with you what we meant when we talked about 'Christianity' in this context. I certainly feel that faith and science are not by any means mutually exclusive but personally my own worldview leads me to think that ultimately Christianity has all the answers I currently need to enable me to live and enjoy a Full Life.
    For me becoming a Christian in a full ontological rather than merely functional sense goes a long way towards defining just what a Full Life is.
    The outworking of this is rather more problematic, but in synopsis these are the immediate answers I'd give to your questions (are you wishing that you hadn't asked now?)

    It's good to think and talk and communicate isn't it?

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