The Harry Potter Hallucination Theory

There is a theory going around on the internet that the entirety of the Harry Potter series is just a series of hallucinations in the mind of Harry Potter. The poor boy, having been kept in a cupboard by his abusive aunt and uncle, was driven to insanity and invented the whole story of the world of the wizardry in which he was the center of the universe destined to save the world.

Fan theories are nothing new. There is a theory that Ferris Bueller’s Day Off was actually about his best friend Cameron’s schizophrenia, or that The Matrix had more layers of virtual worlds than we see in the movie, or that the shining contents of the briefcase in Pulp Fiction was actually the extracted soul of Marsellus Wallace. Most of the time, fan theories reflect the quality of the story. Good books and good movies have fan theories surrounding them. The Fly 2 does not.

Fans can be more observant than the writer and can discover plot holes the writer never realized were there. The most famous example is the “who killed the chauffeur?” question in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. It is a testament to how engaging the book is that readers become obsessed enough to latch onto unanswered questions.

But not all unanswered questions are plot holes. Some questions, like the contents of Marsellus Wallace’s briefcase, are deliberately left unanswered to enhance the story. Since these are intriguing points by design, they tend to act as magnets for fan theories. But the Harry Potter fan theory is different because there never was an unanswered question, deliberate or by accident, about Harry’s sanity. The idea that Harry is insane is something of an out-of-left-field accusation.

J. K. Rowling responded to this fan theory by saying this: “I think that’s a fabulous point, and it speaks so perfectly to the truth of the books.”
Excuse me? WTF?
She actually added “I’ve heard it suggested to me more than once that Harry actually did go mad in the cupboard, and that everything that happened subsequently was some sort of fantasy life he developed to save himself.”
And that’s a “fabulous point”? What is she trying to do? Undermine her entire franchise?

There is only one of two possible reasons why Rowling said this. One; she is crazy and  it is high time she stopped commenting on every opinion offered by fans and left Harry Potter alone, or Two; she might actually be on to something profound about the nature of successful fiction.

Most fan theories try to answer unanswered questions. Some try to look at the story from a different perspective. Others are not even theories at all but belong in the realm of “fan sequel” or “fan fiction”. But, unlike all of the above, the theory that Harry is an insane child who escapes into an imaginary world can blend into the original story and still hold up.

Fantasy stories have a special relationship with reality in that almost all fantasy stories could be explained away by the phrase “It was all just a dream”, but a plausible one. Harry builds a family, a career, and a future in his magical world. He does not wake up one morning to discover that it was all a dream. But he might have.

J. K. Rowling rewrote the first chapter of the first volume of Harry Potter fifteen times. Obviously, this chapter was very important. It sets down the reason why the story had to delve into fantasy. Harry Potter, the abused child, had a vested interest in the magical world of Hogwarts being real. And we the readers knew it. Otherwise, why would we want to read a story about a kid on a broom?

This is where so many amateur fantasy stories fail. They do not present a sound real-world ground to break away from. Not all fantasy stories start in the cupboard of the Dursleys on Privet Drive. Take Lord of the Rings for example, which starts in the fantasy world of Middle Earth. (Bad example. The first few hundred pages of LOTR is a pain to read.) Or take Star Wars which starts on the planet Tatooine. Luke Skywalker is bored out of his mind working on a dirt farm in the middle of nowhere. What if Luke, an orphan raised by his aunt and uncle, imagined that he found a secret message in a discarded android? From there, his imagination ran wild. He imagines he went deep into the desert to find a hermit of an old man, who turns out to have been a wizard, who happened to have known his father, and now he has to go on an adventure to save the galaxy… Yes, Star Wars could totally be a figment of Luke’s imagination. Luke was in such a terrible position, he needed a fantasy to enliven his life.

So when you write a good fantasy story, there should always be a possibility (however remote) that the whole story is an escapist pipe dream by someone in need of a protective psychological cocoon. We suspend our disbelief because there is a need to believe the magical world is real. If it were not real, we are stuffed back into the cupboard under the staircase, a dreadful, humiliating, marginalizing place.

We cannot believe in Hogwarts, or the Galactic Empire, if there were nothing at stake in the whole thing being real. Think of what a pathetic character Harry would have been if he was just an abused psychotic child in a cupboard mumbling to himself about Hogwarts all day. Think of what a let down it would be if Luke woke up in a desert hut one day, alone and destitute, to find that the whole story of Han Solo, Princess Leia, and Darth Vader were all just a dream. We are forced to believe in the fantasy because it is backed by the dreadful alternative of reality. Which side would you follow, heads or tails?

Books like The Never Ending Story strides between the real and imaginary worlds without the story collapsing onto itself. Mary Chase’s Harvey actually stresses the possibility of insanity and Elwood almost ends up in an asylum. Lewis Carroll’s Alice and The Wizard of Oz‘s Dorothy both wake up from dreams. Readers need to be prodded to the edge of belief and non-belief. The Dursleys stubbornly reject the notion of magic in a way that make their disbelief seem unreasonable, when in fact it is the reader who is suspending disbelief.

You have to give your fantasy reader a reason to believe at the very outset. For that purpose, the risk of the story being unreal must be presented. Sometimes it is very obvious. (The main character keeps mumbling “I must be in a dream” or his immediate family consults a psychiatrist.) Sometimes it is not so obvious. But the threat must be there. The reader must have no choice but to believe the fantastic.

So, as much as I would like to see J. K. Rowling shut up and stop tweaking the Harry Potter legacy, in this particular case, I must admit, she nailed it. For once, she responded correctly to input from her fans. It is in fact a “fabulous point” that the whole of Harry Potter franchise might have been a figment of Harry’s imagination. That is the foundation of why the story works.

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