Dealing with Dementors and Depression

Screenshot from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
J.K. Rowling’s dementors, first introduced in The Prisoner of Azkaban, are a frightening, visceral force of evil, serving both as a villainous power and a major plot point. But these cloaked and hooded minions are more than just another antagonist that Harry must defeat; they are reminiscent of a stigmatized, fundamentally human struggle: mental illness and depression. Rowling herself has confirmed that the dementors represent the horrors of depression, and if we take a closer look at these frightening creatures, similarities between their impact on the characters and the realities of mental illness abound.

In both the Harry Potter books and their on-screen counterparts, dementors cause a creeping sense of dread, a tangible coldness in the air, and a dredging-up of horrible memories. The longer a character is in the presence of a dementor, whose very name suggests “mental demons,” the worse these symptoms become. Harry hears his mother screaming, feels a numbing cold, and eventually, unable to cope with the horror, passes out. These symptoms are similar to clinical depression—a darkness, an almost existential dread, and claustrophobic, tunnel-like enclosing, which leaves the one suffering in a state of suspended numbness and despair. Though hope may exist outside of the dementors’ range, that hope is inaccessible; it might as well be non-existent to those suffering.

Lupin affirms that the amplified reaction Harry has to dementors is not because there’s something wrong with him.

The first time Harry experiences the terrifying effects of the dementors, he is ashamed and embarrassed in the aftermath. Though Hermione and Ron are also horrified, they do not respond nearly as viscerally as he does. Indeed, Harry is frequently mocked by his arch-enemy, Draco Malfoy, because of how strongly he responds to the dementors.

Lucky for Harry, though, he is in the care of Professor Lupin, who not only understands the horror of the dementors, but has suffered through judgement and awfulness himself. Lupin intervenes during that first encounter on the Hogwarts Express, casting his own patronus to shield Harry and company from the dementor attack and then offering them chocolate bars once the creatures have fled. Though chocolate is not a “fix” or a cure for the dementors, it acts as a balm, soothing the fears and anxiety of the students.

Lupin becomes a key force in Harry’s education about dementors. Importantly, he does not gloss over the horrors of these creatures; he doesn’t tell Harry to fight the feelings of dread by just “getting over it” or “thinking happy thoughts.” He affirms that the amplified reaction Harry has to dementors is not because there’s something wrong with him. Instead, he simply says that Harry has experienced true horrors in his life; this is why the dementors affect him so. But Lupin does not stop with sympathy. Once he has acknowledged that Harry truly suffers from the effects of the dementors, he begins to teach Harry about the patronus charm: the only effective way to repel and dispel dementors.

The patronus charm is rich with symbolism, teaching the willing reader deep truths about repelling our own mental demons. The incantation “Expecto Patronum” is coupled with a happy memory, and not just any memory will do; it has to be a powerful, outstanding one. Harry tries out a few memories before eventually discovering one that is powerful enough. The result of a correctly-cast patronus charm is a silvery ghost of an animal, singular to the witch or wizard producing the spell. It gallops, swims, canters, or runs at the dementors and acts as a veritable shield, protecting the individual against these dark forces of evil. But the incantation, like many in the series, has its roots in Latin, and this one in particular means “I await a guardian.” The incantation is said hopefully; even its syntax suggests an element of faith, of expectancy. But only when this hope, this faith, is coupled with a powerful memory, can the actual patronus burst from the witch or wizard’s wand.

Harry is frequently mocked by his arch-enemy, Draco Malfoy, because of how strongly he responds to the dementors.

It’s significant that the patronus itself is never an inanimate object or a human. A particularly loved doll, a favourite food, a childhood home, the image of a best friend or family member—these are not powerful enough to dispel the dementors. In Rowlings’ universe, only animals can chase away the demons. I am sure this was no accident on the authoress’s part. Animals are often incredibly keen, possessing a sort of sixth sense when it comes to human suffering. And they have a simple, yet rich way of comforting their humans. In fact, the most soothing parts of my day involve proximity with my two dogs, who pick up on my emotions sometimes before I do. Additionally, each patronus’s shape says something about the wizard and witch who casts it. Harry’s, for example, is a stag, reminding him of his father, who died before Harry turned two. Snape’s is a doe, recalling his unrequited love. Hermione’s is an otter and Ron’s is a terrier. Each of these is reminiscent of the individual thoughts, dreams, comforts, and desires of their human.

Ultimately, Rowling’s saga teaches us that the dementors are a reality, but they are not un-vanquishable. A susceptibility to dementors is nothing to be ashamed of, and an honest realization of how and why they are so terrible is part of the cure. Only when Harry and company are educated about the dementors, equipped with wands and proper incantations, and drawing upon their happiest memories, can they truly overcome the horrors of these hope-crushing creatures. And so can we. With proper education on mental illness and depression, medication or therapy, and a supportive community, we can begin to destigmatize our susceptibility to the dementors of our world.

Christy Chichester

Christy Chichester

Guest Writer at Area of Effect magazine
Christy Chichester is an instructor at Penn State University, where she teaches Composition and Rhetoric, Writing in the Social Sciences, and Sci-Fi Literature. When she isn't teaching, writing, or grading, Christy can be found watching Star Wars, quoting Tolkien, or snuggling with her two pit bulls.
Christy Chichester

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