Paranormality and Skepticism in Harry Potter
The subject of this essay may seem a bit peculiar. Paranormality? In a series about magic? How can the determination even be made as to what is paranormal when people are busy turning teapots into tortoises right and left? The matter is complicated further when one is forced to acknowledge that, even in our familiar mundane world, there is no clear explanation of just how “paranormal” really should be defined. Does it mean occurrences that cannot be explained by science, currently are not explained by science, are not explained by a certain kind of science, or what exactly? The word “skeptic” is even more contentious, with one side of the debate insisting that it has come to mean little more than “knee-jerk debunker” and “disciple of materialism,” and the other saying that they have no prejudicial ideology. One must arrive at an understanding of just what is being talked about in an essay such as this one.
I’m going to decline the invitation to assign dictionary definitions to “paranormal” and “skeptic” that cross-reference our world and the Potterverse. Instead I am going to take the “I’ll know it when I see it” defense. I’m going to look at the Potterverse phenomena whose analogs, in our world, are generally regarded as being paranormal. This includes purported contact with discarnate spirits, the various forms of psychic divination, and ESP (including remote viewing and telepathy). One will note that I have excluded telekinesis from this survey, because in Harry Potter, telekinesis is clearly explainable by the known and understood working of magic. It is not paranormal there. It is simply wandless magic.
The most prominent person acting as a skeptic in the books is, obviously, Hermione Granger. For the most part, her reaction to paranormal phenomena is what I am going to take as the skeptical reaction to it, and I suspect that this reaction does not necessarily mirror Rowling’s own opinion. (Rather, I think Harry’s reaction mirrors Rowling’s own beliefs.) However, in the case of divination, I rather believe that Rowling’s own beliefs are indeed expressed through Hermione. I will get to that later.
In HP, discarnate spirit communication takes a variety of forms, some of which are very objective. Ghosts are visible to every wizard, and a poltergeist—an entity that, in our world, has (to my knowledge) never actually been reported as a visible being, but rather is only observed by its destructive activity—is of course observable as a formed entity. Another objective type of “spirit” communication is that of portraits, which do not hold the actual soul of a person, but merely an imprint of their personality. In our world would be roughly analogous to the alternative theory of ghosts (those that are not explainable by magnetic resonance, infrasound, and other scientific theories) that they are nonliving impressions of a deceased person, but not the actual spirit of that person. Hermione Granger does not display any disbelief or skepticism toward this type of spirit communication. It is wholly objective. Everyone who is a wizard sees these things. I would bet that to Hermione, ghostly contact is not remotely paranormal. (I would also bet that before she became aware that she was a witch, she would have disbelieved in it.)
However, there are also some far more subjective forms of spirit communication. The most obvious is the manner in which certain people are able to hear the voices of the departed through the Veil in the Ministry of Magic. There doesn’t seem to be any correlation between having experienced death and hearing the voices, because Ginny Weasley is also able to hear them. In fact, of the kids who go into the Department of Mysteries, Hermione is the only one who definitely can’t hear these voices. (It is unclear whether Ron Weasley can or cannot.) “There’s nothing there!” she says sharply, expressing clear fear of the Veil, when there very clearly is something there. It is difficult not to conclude that Rowling is, through this little portrait, expressing her opinion of closed-minded disbelief and taking the side of paranormal investigators who maintain that closed-minded disbelievers usually can’t experience paranormal, spiritual, or religious things because of their own bias. It is interesting to note, though, that there is never any objective answer given as to just what the Veil is, even though it seems obvious to readers. How do we know that it isn’t just a magic hallucination that Hermione is somehow immune to? We don’t. Like some paranormal activity in the real world, the Veil remains a bit ambiguous. It’s probably a doorway to the afterlife, and the voices are probably the departed, but we don’t know with absolute certainty.
The Resurrection Stone is an example of a paranormal artifact that starts off as absurd legend and ends up being objectively true. We’re told “no spell can reawaken the dead.” Apparently, all this means is that no spell can reawaken the dead in their physical bodies, because it is blindingly obvious that the spirits that accompany Harry are indeed the real McCoy. But Hermione, in her initial skepticism, uses a misapplication of this theory to “prove” that the Stone cannot be real. She is forced to recant when it becomes clear that it is real.
It is curious that there is no apparent analog of mediumistic communication with spirits of the dead in HP, a type of paranormal phenomenon that was very popular in the late Victorian and early Edwardian era and persists today. The closest the books come to this is with the description of bodily possession (by Voldemort), the odd mental phenomena that Harry experiences (which I will discuss as a form of ESP), and the entranced channeling of prophetic forces by Seers. The Seers, at least, are certainly acting as mediums for whatever is responsible for creating prophecies, and Rowling’s description of how they go into trance is at least in keeping with how the Victorian-era mediums would go into trancelike states when they were allegedly channeling spirits. Hermione, our resident skeptic, does not seem to have an objection to the idea of possession, but it’s hard not to conclude that this is because Dumbledore believes that Voldemort has done it. Hermione, bless her, is sadly prone to the appeal to authority. She also doesn’t seem to object to prophetic channeling, though again, this is because there is objective evidence that this occurs: namely, a room full of the records!
ESP is a different kettle of fish, and it is with this that we get the closest to spirit mediumship in Harry Potter. The types of ESP that turn up in Harry Potter are telepathy, remote viewing, and prophetic dreams, and they are all exclusively reported by Harry Potter himself and no one else. For “telepathy” I am specifically excluding Legilimency that was performed by the known, understood, eye-to-eye contact method. That is not paranormal; it is (probably) just Dark Magic. Harry’s “alternative” form of telepathy is a different thing entirely. In fact, some of Harry’s odd experiences are arguably a hybrid of ESP and spirit mediumship. Of course, the reason he has these dreams, remote viewing of Voldemort’s activities, perception of himself as Voldemort (channeling), and telepathic knowledge of Voldemort’s emotional state is because he is hosting a piece of Voldemort’s soul. However, it is far too simple to say that this means it is pure mediumship. If that were so, then whenever Harry had an episode, he would only see from Voldemort’s point of view. Sometimes he does perceive himself as Voldemort (or the snake). However, throughout the whole fourth book, he has experiences that are definitely remote viewing episodes keyed to Voldemort, rather than directly seeing from Voldemort’s perspective. One remote viewing dream involves him flying in on the back of an owl. Another, the opening chapter for the book, involves him experiencing, from a third-party point of view, the last moments of the life of a Muggle who is in proximity to Voldemort. This kind of thing cannot be explained simply by mediumistic channeling. Remote viewing is involved as well. However, it does seem that remote viewing gave way to pure channeling after Voldemort resumed a physical form.
Hermione’s reaction to Harry’s experiences is, in this case, complex. She does not doubt that they are occurring, which is to her credit; however, she is bewildered and terrified of them. It is quite clear that she wishes he would not have them. This reaction may parallel the debunking skeptic’s aversion to demonstrably “weird” and scientifically inexplicable accounts that can only be evaded by denying the data—by claiming the one reporting them is lying or deceived. Hermione doesn’t think Harry is lying, but she is very discomposed by these experiences of his. Better for them just to go away! And, I should note, the mainstream media of Harry Potter—to the extent that it knows about any of his problems—does think he is either hallucinating or lying because, in the words of Fudge, “I’ve never heard of a curse scar acting as an alarm bell before.” They’ve never heard of it happening, so it can’t really be happening. Again, it is hard not to conclude that Rowling is drawing a parallel here and that she, personally, is firmly on the side of those who report paranormal or spiritual experiences instead of that of their critics who immediately dismiss them because they do not fit with some theory or other.
However, her treatment of Divination is a bit different, needless to say. I’m not sure that Hermione’s assessment of Sybil Trelawney as a fraud is completely accurate; “fraud” implies deliberate deception, and I think that Trelawney is sincerely self-deluded. Rowling is not friendly to Trelawney’s activities, though. They are either blatantly wrong (I’m reminded of her zodiac-based conclusion that Harry was born in winter) or are ridiculously general (such as the bit about “the thing you are dreading”). But it is important to note that the kinds of things that Trelawney does are not held in high esteem by serious paranormal investigators in the real world, either. Palmistry, reading the tea leaves, reading the tarot, astrology, crystal ball gazing, etc., are regarded in the light of illusionistic parlor tricks or generalizations for the suggestible. We are not actually given an example of Trelawney acting as a psychic reader, but were she to do so, it would probably be blatantly obvious that she was using the “cold reading” technique to give off the illusion of being an impressive psychic. Hermione’s poor opinion of Trelawney ends up being shared by Ron and, most importantly, Harry. When the centaur Firenze ends up taking over some of the Divination classes and offers his own exceedingly general—so general as to be pretty much useless—method of “divining,” Ron and Harry form low opinions of this as well. It is through Harry that we can usually get the best idea of what Rowling herself thinks. And it is clear that, while she may indeed accept some well-documented paranormal phenomena and regard closed-minded debunking of these reports negatively, she is not interested in cheap illusions, mind tricks, and “prophecies” or “psychic hits” so vague that they can apply to almost anyone.
On the whole, I can’t really make any complaints with Rowling’s treatment of paranormality and skepticism in Harry Potter. Although a scientist myself, I pride myself in being open-minded and putting the data before any scientific theory. That’s how the scientific method works; a theory is never sacred and it is improper to toss out data for the sole reason that they do not fit with a theory. And yet it is important to maintain honest scientific skepticism and to not be credulous, because some things are not what they seem to be. A theory (such as generalization, cold reading, illusions, etc.) that truly does explain something and fits with the data deserves to be looked at.
Of course, that goes both ways.