The Last Enemy That Shall Be Destroyed Is Death
By Bryn Bandt-Law
Bryn graduated from Claremont McKenna College with B.A in psychology in 2016. She conducts social psychological research that is primarily focused on how humans’ awareness of their own death influences legal decision-making and health-related behavior. Bryn is the Communications Coordinator at The Ernest Becker Foundation. Her background in research and social justice initiatives have granted her a passion for the real-world application of Becker’s work and legacy.
After reading the last page of J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter series, it felt as though my childhood had ended with clouds of smoke, tears and heroics, the shock of mortality, and bittersweet smiles. It was invariably poignant growing up with Harry, Ron, and Hermione as they battled dark wizards and teen angst, and I long for the magical world Rowling revealed to us. The finale of the series, however, opened the door to another unexpected world: the role of death in life. Mortality is a driving force behind Rowling’s characters’ actions, and I couldn’t help consider whether death exerts a similar influence over non-magical humans. This led to the inevitable Google search: ‘how do humans deal with the fear of death?’ and my discovery of Ernest Becker.
As we know, humans are unique in our ability to meaningfully contemplate our own mortality. This awareness conflicts with the human evolutionary drive for survival and creates the potential for debilitating anxiety. Becker proposed that this anxiety motivates people to construct and invest in cultural belief systems that bring life meaning. These belief systems decrease death anxiety by granting individuals’ self-esteem and the sense that they are part of something that symbolically transcends death. Becker also argued that humans’ need for self-esteem and meaning due to death anxiety drives the truly vicious and evil acts of human behavior. With this context, reading Becker’s work brought forth a nuanced interpretation of Harry Potter and the role that death plays in the series. Despite fictional witches and wizard’s magical abilities, it seems that mortality influences them in the same ways as it does humans in the real world. The etymology of antagonist Lord Voldemort’s name (in French ‘Vol de mort’ means ‘flight from death’) provides insight into an integral component of his character: his fear of mortality. Ernest Becker’s perspective on existential anxiety can provide insight into how Voldemort’s fear of death drives his evil behavior.
Voldemort subdues his fear of death in the symbolic realm through his constructed belief in hierarchies based on the magical composition of one’s blood. The dominant group is purebloods, who descend from long lines of witches and wizards. Muggle-borns are witches and wizards with no magical blood, and are the inferior group. Voldemort is a vehement advocate of the agenda to purify the blood of Wizards by eliminating Muggle-borns and restoring pure-blood rule over the Wizarding community. This agenda is what Becker calls an “immortality project:” the attempt to subdue death anxiety by symbolically transcending death. His blood-purification campaign, through the subjugation of Muggle-borns, grants him self-esteem. It also grants him the opportunity to use his dark powers to have a transformative, lasting effect on the Wizarding world. It is an important avenue through which he derives self-esteem, purpose, and a symbolic legacy as the most powerful dark wizard of all time. This pursuit to symbolically transcend death is rooted in hate, oppression, and violence, dramatically demonstrating how the fear of death can lead to evil behavior.
Lord Voldemort’s adherence to tyrannical cultural belief systems that assuage death anxiety illustrates that tenets of Becker’s philosophy of human social behavior can be observed in literature. Characters in novels can respond to the threat of mortality in similar ways as humans. This lends itself to some interesting questions. Do authors unconsciously instill their characters with symbolic defenses against existential concerns? Does developing fictional characters that are meaningful and valued actors in their world grant their creator a sense of self-esteem and significance? Can we uncover previously unforeseen relationships between death and human behavior by examining book characters’ relationships to mortality? Rowling created a world so minutely imagined in terms of its history, rituals, and rules that it qualifies as an alternate universe. It is also utterly recognizable to its readers, a place where death is inevitable, just as it is in our mortal world. Here, the mundane and surreal coexist—spawning fervent analysis and interpretation.