Deathly Hallows, Lively Brain Function

By Staff

This is part one of a two-part column.

This summer I watched the eighth and final installment of the Harry Potter film franchise, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part Two,” marking the end of its 10-year reign. To say it was the cinematic event of the season would be an understatement, as it not only concludes a decade consisting of predictably sold-out midnight premieres, but it signifies the transition of the cultural phenomenon of the books from which the films were transcribed.

After the movie ended, my best friend and I, along with many other audience members, remained seated in the theater, almost transfixed by the fading credits. Movie-goers filed out, trudging back to their vehicles solemnly, over-crowding the escalators and bathrooms, and eventually the parking lot and Mass Pike. We weren’t eagerly watching the screen to see who the unit production manager or key grip was, but rather sat in what I can only describe as a combination of exhaustion and bittersweet denial. After all, it was nearly three in the morning, and like most people we had day jobs which we would have to get up for in a mere couple hours.

There is a definite shift in consciousness in watching a film through to its end and then having to realize, “It’s over, I have to go home now. I have to stand up, and walk back to the car, drive home and continue living my life – living in reality.” The lights in the theater come on, people shift and excuse themselves out of the rows. The screens of cell phones and iPods suddenly illuminate what had been sacred surrounding darkness – jolting the audience back into the world. It’s a harsh feeling – to have to admit to yourself that for the past two hours or so you allowed yourself to lose touch with reality and become engrossed in a world of fantasy and drama.

The psychology of movie watching at the individual level as well as the collective, physical experience of sitting in a dark room among peers is the key to understanding why movies have become so embedded in our culture. To put it simply: they are humanizing. Despite what’s on screen – be it a promenade of players in a quirky romantic comedy, or some vampire zombies chasing our beloved protagonist – it doesn’t matter. At the most basic level we enjoy allowing ourselves to suspend our disbelief because it is at that final moment of recognition, of having to get up and find our way back to our car through the masses, which forces us to reckon with our real personal lives. While that is the deeply personal experience, consciously recognized or not, there also lies a humanizing experience in sitting with a group of complete strangers in that shared psychological experience. It’s the same as a crowd that collectively boos or cheers at a football game; it’s enough evidence to suggest a shared wavelength of action and emotion. We as a species find pleasure in having shared, instantaneous reactions, which is why movie theaters and other public forums are so popular and full to capacity.

Movies, like forms of art, music, literature or food, cause us to feel a certain way as we register what we are experiencing in the sensory framework through our limbic system or emotional framework. This is the primitive, paleomammalian brain, which accounts for emotion, behavior, long-term memory and olfaction. Thought to be much older than other parts of the brain as the Latin phrase suggests (‘paleo’ meaning old or before, ‘mammalian’ clearly meaning mammal), the limbic system is that primordial part of us that remains no matter how many layers of clothes we may wear; in the end, we are animals, and no superficial way of adjusting our psychology has yet to change that. For this reason we have used art to trigger such senses –
senses which before all else have ensured survival for our species.

Before we made our way back to the car, which was parked hundreds of yards from the mall due to the hordes of people attending the film, my friend and I decided to sit on the curb and have a cigarette. We both knew it, but didn’t have to say it – we didn’t want to go home. Why? I thought. Because we didn’t want the movie to end? Or was it because having been a part of the entire Harry Potter experience from beginning to end hit our limbic systems so strongly? The latter takes the cake.

The Harry Potter books first hit the U.S. bookshelves in late 1998. The year 1999, the last of the 20th century, was probably the most significant year in my life to date. I got the “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” and the “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” for my ninth birthday that summer. All summer, I didn’t read the books, but instead I played outside in my New England backyard, went to summer camp to learn how to ride a pony, play archery, go fishing, and just enjoy the thrills of being an athletic, bright-eyed 9-year-old girl.

Then the autumn came, and my mom got very sick and my dad left for the west coast. School had begun and I very quickly realized in my private Jewish education that the stories of the Bible were mere allegories and Aesop’s fables. If these stories held the guidelines to live by, I thought, then why did we have to mask them as the definite truth? Suddenly life wasn’t so simple anymore … and suddenly classmates were calling me a muggle.

That fall I grabbed my copy of the “Sorcerer’s Stone” late one school night and went downstairs to the den. I sat on the end of my family’s black futon, with my scrawny 9-year-old legs dangling over the side, my feet hovering just above the brown carpet. I opened the book and read the title of the first chapter, “The Boy Who Lived.” It was that night which I remember so vividly that I began what would be the 13-year long journey that ended at 2:45 a.m. one night. Harry Potter opened up an entirely new world for readers, particularly children. I, like so many others, eagerly watched the mailbox for my letter from Hogwarts on my 11th birthday, only to be severely disappointed. “But I would make such a GOOD witch,” I’d say to myself. “I would be Harry’s girlfriend and we would fight Voldemort together!”

But it was more than that. Here was a story with themes unoriginal to literature (i.e. orphaned boy seeking father figures, boy meets girl, oh, and that whole good vs. evil thing), but they were part of a world unexplored – intricate and unattainable, complex and historiographical. There was peril, family feud, love, sacrifice, deceit, prejudice, cowardice, corruption – all the terrible and all the magnificent elements of life which we see every day, but with that added bonus – magic! We could as readers relate, but only to a point. We were, after all, muggles forced to watch from the sidelines. J.K. Rowling acknowledged me, the reader, and figuratively wrote, “Not all people are wizards, but all wizards are people.”

And that is the very idea which is at the heart of the struggle between Voldemort and Harry. Voldemort wishes to carry on Salazar Slytherin’s goal of only allowing “pure” wizards to have access to magical knowledge whereas Harry empathizes for and respects all the wizards, muggles, goblins, giants, house elves and other fantastical creatures with equal and unwavering respect. That’s the human quality that overcomes the evil and not the magic. Even though we weren’t a wizard or a witch, we wanted Harry to win because he represented our values.

The magic is merely the force through which the true powers of friendship, love and courage overthrow Voldemort. It was not a fantastical paradise, but a parallel universe mirroring our own world’s woes. By the end of the books we were less captivated by this world of magic and more so with the strength and resilience of Harry and his entourage.

Emily Felder is a Collegian columnist. She can be reached at [email protected]