Much ado about Harry: Harry Potter and the creation of a moral panic.

Author:Soulliere, Danielle M.


[1] Move over Postmodernism--the Western world has now entered the age of "Pottermania." The Harry Potter book series, created by J.K. Rowling, has achieved record-setting publishing success, topping and toppling both children's and adult's bestselling book lists in the United Kingdom and the United States. The seven-book Harry Potter series claimed eight spots on the USA Today bestseller list (Chan 2007) while the feature films, based on the books, have also been widely successful, each drawing over $200 million in the United States and over $750 million worldwide (www.boxoffice

[2] But while Harry Potter has enjoyed tremendous publishing and box office success, the novels and films have also generated enormous controversy among concerned parents, educators, and various religious groups. Such concern, mainly focused on the portrayal of witchcraft and the occult in the novel series, has led to attempts to ban the books from schools and libraries and a push for Harry-free reading in some homes. According to the American Library Association (2000), the Harry Potter series topped the list of most frequently challenged books in 1999, drawing concerns from parents and educators about the books' focus on magic and wizardry. At the more extreme end, objections to the books by some religious groups have even led to Harry Potter "book burnings" (Killinger 2002; Neal 2002; Zander 2005).

[3] It is certainly not the first time a creative work of literature has sparked concern and controversy. Other novels have stirred objections and concern. But, whether these concerns expressed over Harry Potter are simply reflective of a period of momentary hysteria or are part of a larger, more encompassing "moral panic" needs to be examined more thoroughly. Given the worldwide popularity and commercial success of Harry Potter, it is important to assess the "panic" surrounding the J.K. Rowling series, with particular attention to its intensity and impact, as well as the role of key groups and individuals in generating the "Potter Panic."

Moral Panics

[4] A "moral panic" is best described as a period of heightened concern over some group or issue in which the societal reaction is disproportionate to the actual seriousness of the event (Cohen 1972; Goode and Ben-Yehuda 1994; Springhall 1998). There has been an increasing number of moral panics in recent years (Thompson 1998) which, according to Goode and Ben-Yehuda (1994), are likely to arise in troubled times. In his classic work, Cohen (1972) outlined the characteristics of a moral panic as follows: (1) a heightened level of concern; (2) increased level of hostility toward some group; folk devils are generated; (3) substantial widespread consensus that the threat is real and serious; (4) reaction is out of proportion to the threat; and (5) relatively short-lived. Goode and Ben-Yehuda (1994, 41) succinctly summarized Cohen's model by claiming that:

What is important is that the concern locates a "folk devil", is shared, is out of sync with the measurable seriousness of the condition that generates it, and varies in intensity over time. [5] Moral panics typically gain momentum through claims-making efforts by groups and individuals referred to as "moral entrepreneurs" or "moral crusaders", who employ various tactics in an attempt to influence public opinion (Goode and Ben-Yehuda 1994). The media often become an essential venue for claims-making and contribute to the generation and maintenance of the moral panic (Cohen 1972; Critcher 2003; Goode and Ben-Yehuda 1994).

[6] While media often create a space for expressing concerns over perceived threatening issues, it is also the case that moral panics have developed over concerns about media and popular culture. Springhall (1998) has discussed most extensively moral panics surrounding popular culture, liberally extending Cohen's moral panic concept to describe panic reactions to forms of commercial entertainment such as penny theatres in the Victorian era, penny dreadfuls in the mid-nineteenth century, gangster films in 1930s America, and horror comics in the 1940s and 1950s. Others have noted contemporary moral panics involving popular culture such as the panic over comic books (Nyberg 1998), rap and hip-hop (Edsforth and Bennett 1991) and other popular music (Shuker 1998), video games (Waldron 2004) and media violence (Kline 1999; Springhall 1998), as well as trading cards and items (Cook 2001). Drotner (1992) has claimed that recurring panics about media and popular culture often target children and young people who represent most often the primary consumers.

[7] Cohen (1972) asserted that, in a moral panic, moral barricades are often manned by "right-thinking people" and that moral outrage is often driven and sustained by conservative forces. In the United States, the Christian Right has been a particularly influential group in generating moral panics over a variety of social issues including homosexuality and same-sex marriage, pornography, abortion, feminism, and media violence (Di Mauro and Joffe 2007; Greek and Thompson 2002; Hicks 2003; Murray and McClure 1996; Waldron 2004). Moreover, Christian Right groups have played a primary role in sparking moral panics over Satanism and the occult (Bromley 1992; Jenkins and Maier-Katkin 1992; Victor 1994), and have been linked to moral panics surrounding various forms of popular culture (Cook 2001; Levinson 2002; Waldron 2004). Cook (2001), for example, outlined the moral panic surrounding Pokemon-trading, pointing out the role of Christian Right leaders in denouncing the activity as evil. Likewise, Waldron (2004) has noted the Christian Right attack on role playing games (RPGs) during the late 1980s and early 1990s, creating a moral panic by claiming that RPGs, such as Dungeons and Dragons, would lead gamers to become Satanists or Pagans and then to engage in immoral and violent activities.

[8] In these examples, Christian Right interest groups attack a form of popular culture, making claims for both personal and societal moral decay, often seeking censorship or banishment as the primary political action. Several scholars have noted the preoccupation of the Christian Right with censoring and banning books, especially those written for children, that it feels contain themes contrary to traditional and fundamental religious beliefs (Hentoff 1991; Oliver 1997). Waldron (2004) noted that banning of role playing games and harassment of gamers were the primary actions effected by Christian Right moral crusaders in the RPG moral panic, while censorship seemed to be the primary goal of those conservative groups involved in the rap/hip-hop panic (Edsforth and Bennett 1991).

[9] That the Harry Potter series is an integral part of popular culture marketed primarily to children and youth, which ostensibly deals with themes perceived to be associated with the occult (magic, witchcraft, wizardry), makes it ripe for a moral panic generated and fuelled by members of the Christian Right. In this paper, I argue that the reaction to the Harry Potter books constituted a "moral panic" created by Christian Right groups and leaders, with fictional character Harry Potter emerging as the primary "folk devil." Nevertheless, the heightened concern over Harry Potter was not a full-blown moral panic for reasons that will be outlined and discussed.


[10] The goal of this paper is to assess the "moral panic" surrounding the Harry Potter book series, liberally using Cohen's model as a guide, and to examine the role of the Christian Right in creating the panic. This assessment is achieved through an analysis of popular discourse and an examination of the debates concerning the Harry Potter series and films through various media sources. More specifically, the following questions are attended to in assessing the nature, intensity, and impact of the moral panic: (1) Who were the individuals or groups involved in the claims-making process which contributed to the moral panic surrounding Harry Potter? (2) What claims or concerns were expressed forming the underlying impetus for the panic? (3) How were these claims and concerns disseminated? What tactics were used in the claims-making process? (4) Where did the moral panic originate and sustain itself? (5) When did the moral panic take hold and peak? (5) Why did the panic happen?


[11] Examination of the popular discourse and debate concerning J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series reveals evidence of a moral panic, as classically outlined by Cohen (1972), with some slight, but not unexpected, variations. To be sure, there has been heightened concern over the books expressed by parents, educators, religious groups, and activist organizations that could be considered disproportionate to the actual threat posed by the stories, characters, and the author of the series. Moreover, this heightened concern seems to have generated hostility aimed at the books and its characters, essentially casting Harry Potter and, by extension his creator, as appropriate "folk devils." While there has been widespread consensus among certain groups in order to effectively launch the "Potter Panic", a considerable amount of dissention has also been present, which needs to be taken into consideration. Finally, while moral panics tend to be "relatively short-lived" (Cohen 1972), the controversy and concern surrounding the Harry Potter series has spanned an entire decade. Nevertheless, Goode and Ben-Yehuda (1994) suggest that moral panics may vary in intensity over time; in this case, the moral panic over Harry Potter has come in waves, surfacing in accordance with the release of a new book in the series and/or book-based feature film.

[12] In assessing the intensity of the Potter Panic, I argue that, though the reaction to the Harry Potter series fits Cohen's classic moral panic model, this was not a full-blown moral panic for reasons that will later...

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