The Harry Potter saga is set to continue on July 30, albeit in an unexpected medium-- Harry Potter and The Cursed Child will begin a stage run at the Palace Theater in London on that day. A script book will be released as the de-facto eighth installment of the Potter series on the 31st.
The list of intellectual properties more valued or beloved than Harry Potter is extremely short and even more distinguished. Fan excitement is mounting as the return of The Boy Who Lived approaches. We know that the play will focus on Harry and his son Albus Severus. We know that primary characters from the books and films will return and that J.K. Rowling created the story, but didn’t pen the script.
Among the innumerable things we don’t know is how the story will be presented tonally. In the books, the story progressed into darkness as the heroes approached adulthood. It remains to be seen if The Cursed Child will assume the more innocent voice of early Potter books or if it will continue with the grim, adult tone of the post-Goblet of Fire stories.
It’s worth wondering about, because the first seven books (and to a lesser extent, movies) are tonally masterful, matching the plot’s ongoing descent into darkness. What started as a story with a great deal of playfulness and wonder became something entirely different as the stakes climbed.
Those moments of darkness, where the ever-looming evil in Harry’s universe burst to the forefront, are among the most memorable in the series. This list highlights the darkest moments from the series – those instances where we were reminded that this story could be jarringly adult. We exclusively chose moments that made it to the screen-- those scenes book readers dreaded seeing in the theaters because they knew exactly what was coming, and just how disturbing it would be.
One note – this list isn’t just a recounting of every major character that died in the story. Yes, we were rocked by many of the books' deaths. But to keep it interesting we will acknowledge that the death of any beloved character is obviously dark, and leave it at that. On to the list:
These are the 15 Darkest Moments in Harry Potter.
Sybill Trelawney could never been confused with a comforting, stable influence. Trelawney is a Seer and Professor of Divination at Hogwarts, and, most importantly, she made the original prophecy concerning Voldemort and the Chosen One who would defeat him.
But that’s not the prophecy we are referring to here. In The Prisoner of Azkaban, Trelawney – already a fragile eccentric who may or may not have control over her abilities – becomes seemingly possessed as she prophesies to Harry in private. What she says is disconcerting enough on its own – part of what erupts from her mouth is “innocent blood shall be spilt… and servant and master shall be reunited once more” – but even more disconcerting is how it comes out of her.
Staring at nothing, forehead veins bulging, Trelawney essentially vomits the prophecy in that cavernous baritone that audiences understand to be distinctly demonic. It supports the idea that Trelawney isn’t a Seer, but a vessel – that she lacks control over the truths she does see and that they are seemingly pried from her by force. And while she could at times be very wrong, in this instance Sybill Trelawney – possessed or not – was all too right.
Everything about Remus Lupin’s transformation in the third Harry Potter film is dark as midnight.
The transformation itself is body horror worthy of Cronenberg. The form Lupin assumes has as much in common with a rodent as a canine (except for size). His mouth jumps from his face, forming a grotesque snout. He becomes skeletal, with long, gangly arms and a pronounced spine. He is still vaguely human, never growing a coat of fur or dropping to all fours. What Lupin turns into is essentially a giant, feral naked mole rat/human hybrid with mange. It’s gross.
Beyond his appearance-- appalling as it is-- the circumstances of Lupin’s condition are sad and disturbing in ways that transcend unfortunate cosmetics. Watch Sirius’ behavior as the change begins– his furious pleading and desperate attempts to stave off the transformation reveals what he knows: that his friend Lupin is about to go through something extremely unpleasant and that it’s entirely likely anyone around him will suffer a fate even worse. When his efforts fail, Sirius is left with the undesirable task of assuming his own animal form to fight one of his best friends. It was one of the first truly complex and heartbreaking moments of the entire series.
Dumbledore’s first meeting with a young Tom Riddle at the orphanage sent chills up spines and set hairs on end. Although nothing of particular note happens during the encounter, the darkness that the audience knows will eventually consume the young boy on screen paints the entire thing with a dour, eerie brush.
Tom is the classic creepy child, mature for his age in that distinctly unsettling way. Hints about his actions with other children, specifically two kids he terrorized in a cave, coupled with his alarming disposition, turn a meeting that should be innocuous into something completely disturbing.
When Harry returns from viewing the scene through Dumbledore’s pensieve, the unspoken tension is broken when Harry asks Dumbledore if he knew then what was to come. Ðumbledore replies “Did I know that I had just met the most dangerous dark wizard of all time? No.” After watching the scene again, we can’t help but wonder… how could Dumbledore not?
The overall lightness and humor of both the books and the films the darkness present in Harry Potter doubly effective. In The Sorcerer’s Stone, the juxtaposition between the two is still stark, as Harry enters a world of magic that contains only peripheral hints of the sinister influences that become so pervasive.
We didn’t yet know if Voldemort truly existed when Harry and Draco stumbled upon some… thing drinking the blood of a unicorn in the forbidden forest. This scene is emblematic of balance between light and dark in the early Potter installments. Young, innocent characters in a literally dark place stumble across something that we are not meant to fully understand, but that is so uniquely unnerving it can only be evil incarnate. The centaur Firenze tells us as much when he outlines the sanctity of unicorns and the depravity of anyone wicked enough to destroy one. Drinking the blood of a unicorn can bring life, the centaur tells us, but it will be a life cursed by the vile deed that sustains it. Heavy stuff.
If the act itself isn’t dark enough, the scene is one of the creepiest in the series’ early going. An incredibly Draco and Harry, who are serving detention in a very dangerous forest for some bizarre reason, spot Quirrell/Voldemort. It’s hard to tell what you’re looking at in the film, because the disgusting, blood drenched face you see looks human, but the form moves in a distinctly serpentine manner. It was a watershed moment for the presence of evil in Harry’s world.
This entry could solely read “Dementors,” but the striking first encounter between Harry, the audience, and the terrifying soul-suckers takes place on the train to Hogwarts. For the uninitiated, Dementors are non-living beings that feed off human joy. They are despairing to be around and are capable of easily turning humans into vegetables. In The Prisoner of Azkaban, the Dementors were sent to Hogwarts to guard against the escaped titular prisoner, Sirius Black. Harry first sees them on his way to school, when he endures the beginning of a Dementor’s Kiss, only to be saved by new professor Remus Lupin.
Dementors were singularly terrifying in the books, so it was important that they were handled correctly by the films. With a story as popular as this, studios don't want fans lamenting the poor adaptation of an iconic creature. Thankfully, that didn’t happen here. The Dementors that appear on screen are plainly as scary as those in the books. Completely cloaked in tattered clothes, they are over-sized skeletons that float eerily across the screen. The film smartly plays with atmosphere as well, darkening the ambiance and showing the temperature plummet when Dementors are around. The audience understands what they are meant to: Dementors are quite literally darkness personified.
In the first Deathly Hallows film, Ron and Harry attempt to destroy a locket horcrux, which means Harry has to coax out whatever demonic presence it contains and Ron must smash it to bits with a sword. It all seems pretty cut and dry. Except that what emerges from the locket is an inky, ephemeral mass that taunts Ron, playing on his feelings of inadequacy and his romantic longing for Hermione. It’s also worth mentioning that hundreds of large spiders begin to descend on Ron while this is happening.
In the black cloud, visions of Harry and Hermione appear to needle Ron about his perceived shortcomings and to flaunt their own (imaginary) romance in Ron’s face. The two uncanny apparitions end their bullying session with a long, passionate kiss, before Ron regains his composure and destroys the locket.
The scene does what many memorable scenes in the Potter films do – manages to shift tones so nimbly that the audience is disoriented and disturbed by what they see. This sequence moves from the reunion of Ron and Harry, to an entirely disturbing encounter with the black make-out blob, to the touching and funny reunion of Ron and Hermione. It is yet another fantastic moment that exists in the balance between darkness and the light.
Readers and filmgoers alike were trained to dislike Professor Umbridge from the moment she entered Harry’s life. Rowling smartly framed her as a smarmy, smug, and unthinking faculty member, one overly concerned with arbitrary rules and standardized tests. It is a personality at least vaguely recognizable to anyone who has ever attended a school. Still, it would be impossible for audiences to immediately grasp the depths of Umbridge’s corruption. That would come later, when Harry was told to see the professor for detention.
Most detentions, as you might know, are exercises in boredom. Maybe if students are lucky, they are given some mindless task to pass the time – writing one sentence repeatedly on a chalkboard is an immediately recognizable example of such a task. Umbridge, with her passion for discipline, introduced a new twist on an old play: having Harry write that sentence (“I must not tell lies”) on a piece of parchment, with a charmed pen that simultaneously carved the sentence into his own hand. As the scene starts out, you feel for Harry. By the end, you are left with the stark realization that you just saw a teacher torture a child. It was a scene that redrew the boundaries of suffering for Harry, and continued to erode the idea that Hogwarts itself was a haven from the evils outside its walls.
This scene, from The Order of The Phoenix, is emblematic of a certain type of suggestive darkness that J.K. Rowling employed when certain acts were either too adult or disturbing (or both) for the young adult readership of the series. We never find out what happened with Tom Riddle and those children in the cave, or what truly happened to Ariana Dumbledore, or what Aberforth Dumbledore was doing with those goats. We also don’t know what happened once Dolores Umbridge was dragged off by centaurs, as Harry and Hermione looked on.
Rowling often laces her story with truly adult ideas, and she encourages inference in those instances. Because the violation and destruction of the female body is rightly a chief cultural concern at the moment and because when we next see Umbridge she is a shell of herself, there is a widespread theory that she was defiled by the centaurs after being kidnapped by them. It’s important to note that this is only a theory and that it doesn’t seem consistent with the way Rowling treats the other female characters in her story. Game of Thrones, this is not. This idea is also inconsistent with the other judgements meted out in Harry Potter; when the good guys win, it is almost universally just and with dignity.
Still, we couldn’t highlight this particular scene without acknowledging one obvious reading of it. Either way, the moment is a testament to the power of inference as it is used in Harry Potter: the idea that what we don’t see is usually worse than what we do.
He’s back. He’s real. It was a realization that we knew was inevitable but was somehow still shocking when it happened. If Voldemort had simply walked out from behind a curtain or apparated into the scene, we may not be writing this. Instead, he was revealed to be living like a barnacle on the back of Professor Quirrell’s head.
It’s a scene that matches narrative gravity with unsettling imagery, one with dark implications, beyond just the revival of the series’ chief antagonist. We knew already that in order to sustain himself, Voldemort had embraced a tainted, noxious existence – his use of unicorn blood as sustenance tells the viewer as much. And yet, he still shows a shocking lack of morality by using a living pereson as vessel for his essence to survive in. Quirrell is not the villain in this scene – he is simply another used and abused tool that The Dark Lord is ready to discard.
It was a reveal that did more than just illuminate a single of information – it continued to build the manipulative, destructive character of Voldemort. It foretold what Voldemort would be become once again – a virus set to destroy anything in its path.
As the stakes in Harry Potter rose continually during the lead up to The Second Wizarding War, audiences learned that not every character would make it out of the saga alive. In the story J.K. Rowling tells, there is no clear delineation of protected characters-- very few have "plot armor" and, as the books went on, there was any connection between the way a character lived and the way that character died decreased.
When Arthur Weasley was attacked by Nagini at the ministry of Magic, it was fair to wonder if maybe he had met his end. Audiences were conditioned by that point to view Nagini – Voldemort’s Basilisk – as one of the series’ big-bads. The ferocious snake doesn’t seem like an attacker that would leave prey alive. Making the scene even more tense and disturbing, the audience views the attack the same way Harry does: through the eyes of the basilisk. Because of his cognitive rapport with The Dark Lord, Harry has a dream that shows him attacking Arthur – only to wake up realizing that it had not been a dream at all. It was scary moment, and a pivotal one in Harry’s development, prompting him to begin occlumency classes after the incident.
As far as gross and shocking imagery goes in Harry Potter, it doesn’t get more skin-crawly than Bathilda Bagshot in The Deathly Hallow’s, Part One. Bagshot’s entire presence in the Godric’s Hollow sequence is unnerving – she is so unresponsive and bizarre that it is initially unclear whether she is real or alive in any meaningful sense.
As it turns out, Bathilda is not alive – she is a corpse, re-animated by Voldemort’s snake and waiting to attack Harry. The mechanics of the possession are sort of muddled, more so in the film than in the books. In the film, Nagini appears in Bathilda’s stead, emerging from a cloud of smoke after the old woman dissolves. In the books, the snake is physically inside of Bagshot. In both instances, the encounter with an eerie, unresponsive old witch who only speaks in parsel tongue and eventually molts into a giant snake is… disturbing.
Harry Potter is a story about darkness steadily encroaching on the light, until the two are just about evenly matched in a showdown. That ever-creeping darkness is marked by signposts along the way, pivotal moments that extend the boundary of both Voldemort’s influence and the tonal shift that happens throughout the story.
One such turning point is the terror attack at the Quidditch World Cup, in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Goblet of Fire is the first full book and movie to fully shift the tonal needle for the series. The final act of Prisoner of Azkaban certainly introduced some adult themes, but Goblet is an entire entry marked by the presence of darkness and danger. Two sequences in Goblet of Fire stand out for their bleak tones – one we will get to in a few entries, and one takes place at The Quidditch World Cup.
Readers and viewers are introduced to Death Eaters, as they storm the campsites at the Cup, setting fires and wreaking havoc. The scene is filmed in a way reminiscent of real world terror – the pacing, the disorienting editing, and the background sound effectively set up a wizarding analog to the attacks becoming more commonplace in our muggle world. The incident culminates with the appearance of the Dark <ark. A menacing green skull in the sky, the Dark Mark announces, to characters and audiences alike, that things are changing for the worst.
There aren’t many story elements – especially in what are ostensibly young adult stories – darker than torture. It’s difficult to think of any characters – ever – who reluctantly torture. It’s usually a well-enjoyed hobby, a reflection of the bankruptcy of a character’s morals. Consider Bellatrix Lestrange, for example. Terrifying in the books and masterfully portrayed by Helena Bonham Carter in the films, Bellatrix is full of hate and rage that is almost unmatched in the Potter universe.
By the time Bellatrix isolates and tortures Hermione in Deathly Hallows, the audience knows enough about her character to be sufficiently horrified by what is happening. But what exactly is happening? In the books, Rowling once again allows readers to frighten themselves, playing the scene out through the perspectives of Ron and Harry, who are restrained within earshot of Hermione’s deafening screams. The film employs shorthand to show the extent of Hermione’s suffering, with Bellatrix carving “Mudblood” into her arm, an immediately recognizable real world reference that sufficiently signals the extremity of the situation.
As the story progressed over eight films, Harry Potter did a good job of matching narrative tone to color palette– the grim scenes are presented with bleak colors - washed out browns and grays and blacks, with dim, muted lighting. The cave sequence in Half-Blood Prince is exemplary in that regard– as Harry and Dumbledore approach a cave in a rocky coast, the scene is first enveloped by fog and then plunged into darkness. The water itself is white from the churning, the cliffs are gray, the cave is black. When audiences read or saw what came inside, that visual language makes sense.
In the cave, there is essentially a puzzle set up guarding a horcrux left by Voldemort. In order to get to the horcrux – a locket, in this instance – Dumbledore must drink poison. Before doing so he tells Harry that no matter what, no matter how hard he is about to beg, he must be made to drink it. The scene is tough to watch, as Dumbledore cries and begs not to drink any more poison but Harry dutifully forces it down his throat.
Oh, and once Dumbledore is soothed with a glass of water from the cave floor, the two are attacked by a mob of undead corpses that had had been lurking beneath the surface all along. It’s a scene that is literally dark, figuratively dark, and tough to watch all over.
Remember the shocking moments we mentioned when Voldemort appeared on Quirrell’s head or when the Death Eaters attacked the World Cup? Take those moments, roll in every other moment on this list, multiply it exponentially, and what you are left with is the experience of reading or watching Voldemort assume human form in the Graveyard at the end of The Goblet of Fire.
There is no one moment in the entire series more earth shattering than this one. It was Harry’s first confrontation with Voldemort in the flesh. It was an unmasking (or masking?) of numerous suspicious characters – the Malfoys, Crabbes, and Goyles appear as Death Eaters. In addition to restructuring the paradigm of the series, it was one of the most downright dark sequences from any Harry Potter book or film.
Here are some things that happen in the graveyard scene – Voldemort, with three of the most notorious words from the series (“Kill the spare”), orders the senseless murder of Cedric Diggory, who found himself in that place by sheer accident. Wormtail, Voldemort’s most loyal servant, amputates his own arm into a cauldron that contains bones of Voldemort’s father. Wormtail then slices Harry with a knife and adds blood to the concoction, before submerging a gross, slimy, infantile form into the mixture. Into that bleak, sinister environment, Voldemort finally reemerges in human form. Anything darker couldn't be captured onscreen.
Well, that got really dark, really fast. Are there other Harry Potter scenes that gave you chills or haunted your dreams? Let us know in the comments.