Much Ado about Harry: Harry Potter and the Creation of a Moral Panic

By Soulliere, Danielle M. | Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

Much Ado about Harry: Harry Potter and the Creation of a Moral Panic


Soulliere, Danielle M., Journal of Religion and Popular Culture


Introduction

[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 mojo.com).

[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. …

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