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'Harry Potter' & the Deathly Obsession? Series May Help Fans Cope with Death
Ron (Rupert Grint), Hermione (Emma Watson), Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and Ginny (Bonnie Wright) gather at platform 9 and 3/4 to send the next generation of witches and wizards to Hogwarts, in "The Deathly Hallows: Part 2" (Warner Bros. Pictures, 2011).
Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

WASHINGTON — For many "Harry Potter" fans, rereading the books or rewatching the movies over and over may serve as an entertaining way to escape the real world or get a bit of a thrill.

But a new study suggests that for some, an obsession with the "Harry Potter" franchise may signal something darker: a greater awareness of death.

For some, it seems that anxiety about or obsession with death makes them want to reread the books or rewatch the "Harry Potter" films, said study co-author Lance Garmon, an assistant professor of psychology at Salisbury University in Maryland. Garmon and his co-author Meredith Patterson, an associate professor of psychology at the same institution, presented their findings here today (Aug. 3) at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association. [The Science of Death: 10 Tales from the Crypt & Beyond]

From the very start of the series, death plays a prominent role: Harry's parents are murdered by an evil wizard when he is a baby, for example. And throughout the series, fans see people close to Harry die, including several major characters.

But connecting Harry Potter to death isn't necessarily a bad thing — rather, Garmon and Patterson said that they hope it can have a positive effect.

For people who do dwell on death, the series could serve as a coping mechanism, Garmon told Live Science. And for younger fans with a high level of death awareness, it could help them start to understand grown-up issues, such as dying, he added.

Garmon and Patterson's new study involved more than 400 college students. The study participants identified how many times they had read each of the books and watched each of the movies in the "Harry Potter" series. In addition, they were asked a series of questions about why they read or watched both, as well as about how prominently death featured in their daily thoughts.

The people in the study who had read the books at least nine times or watched the movies at least 30 times were considered to have high exposure to the series. Compared with people in the low-exposure group (up to three book readings and up to 11 movie viewings), the high-exposure group was more likely to think that death played an important role in the series. In addition, the high-exposure group reported higher death awareness — meaning, for example, that they ruminated on death or were anxious about the thought of death — compared with the low-exposure group.

But the reason why people said they were reading or watching "Harry Potter" was important: Those who said they do it as a way to cope or form their own identity were most likely to have higher levels of death awareness, compared with people who read or watched primarily for entertainment, Garmon said. (In other words, reading the books or watching the movies repeatedly doesn't necessarily mean that a person is obsessed with death.)

The finding that "Harry Potter" fans report using the series to help them cope could have implications for parents, for example. The themes in the book may make it more comfortable for parents to talk about death with their children in a safe environment, Patterson told Live Science. Some parents may not talk to their children about death until a loved one dies, and this conversation can be "fraught with emotion," she said. Instead, parents could introduce the idea outside of a crisis by discussing the "Harry Potter" series with their children.

And for older fans who are anxious about or obsessed with death, "Harry Potter" could be a good way to cope, Garmon said.

The findings have not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal.

Originally published on Live Science.