Mainstreaming Witchcraft? Parents Assess

LOS ANGELES — As Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone opened to record-breaking crowds the weekend of Nov. 17, parents and experts continue to agree to disagree upon its appropriateness for children. While some see the series as merely adventure-some entertainment, others wonder if the film might take the stigma away from witchcraft and the occult, opening children to danger.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is the first in the series of four Harry Potter adventures written by Britain's J.K. Rowling. The film follows the exploits of a bespectacled orphan with magical powers who attends the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

In the first three days of its release, the film made a record $93.5 million. Audiences packed theaters, with thousands lining up for midnight screenings.

“I have never attended a movie on opening weekend,” admitted Barb Hennen, a Catholic mother of seven in Ghent, Minn. “Yet, it was really fun for my 13-year-old son and I to see the film together.”

She and her son Robert saw the film at their local multiplex on Nov. 17. “I was disappointed that some of the characters in the book were not in the movie,” recalled Robert. To date, only one of Robert's 15 classmates had seen the film. “I hope to go see it again,” said Robert, who admitted that he has read each of Rowling's four books at least five times each.

However, Barb Hennen cautioned that the film was probably not appropriate for anyone under the age of 9. “Lord Voldemort is scary,” she said. “At one point he absorbs a man's body. That's not as clear or visible in the book. That certainly would not be appropriate for younger children to see.”

Otherwise, she said it was a fine movie. “The Christian mothers I've talked to have agreed that it's an imaginative and adventuresome story. I don't think it's right to focus only on what could be wrong with it.” While she admitted that it could be an entry point for a child into the occult, she added, “A child leaning in that direction might … but Harry Potter wouldn't be the only source the child would go to.”

Michael O'Brien respectfully disagrees.

“I think it is a mistake to take a child to the Potter film,” said the Canadian Catholic artist and author of A Landcape with Dragons: The Battle for Your Child's Mind.

“The series uses the symbol-world of the occult as its primary metaphor,” he explained. “This has the potential of lowering a child's guard to the actual occult activity in the world around us, which is everywhere and growing.”

O'Brien argues that both the books and the film present serious threats to the moral integrity of the coming generations. “In the film, an added dimension of psychological influence is at work,” he said. “Any serious student of modern media recognizes the power of film to reshape consciousness. By using overt and subliminal techniques, it can override the mind's natural critical faculty.”

He added that the widespread devotion to the Potter phenomenon, even among Catholic parents and scholars, “is a symptom of our naivete about the power of culture. In our modern culture we have all become accustomed to eating a certain amount of poison in our diet; indeed we often no longer even recognize the poison. Why have we accepted a set of books which glamorize and normalize occult activity, even though it is every bit as deadly to the soul as sexual sin?"

Clare McGrath Merkle, a former New Age “healer” and a revert to the Catholic faith, said she has seen firsthand that O'Brien's warning should be heeded. “We just don't understand that our children live in a reality steeped in violence, sex and the occult,” she said.

She said the problem with Potter remains, despite the explanation that the books depict an innocent, even humorous, white magic. “There is only one kind of magic,” said Merkle. It's “variously known as black magic, occultism, diabolism, or the dark arts.”

The Defense

Los Angeles film critic Michael Medved, known for his defense of traditional virtues and criticism of Hollywood's rejection of them, defends Harry Potter.

“A number of Christian organizations have objected to the whole Harry Potter phenomenon, suggesting that its benign, light-hearted treatment of witchcraft and the occult will lead young people into dangerous realms. I resisted this argument concerning the books and I reject it even more with the movie,” he said. “It's hard to imagine any child who will want to study necromancy, spells or Satanism as a result of seeing the film.”

Medved contends that the film projects a “deadly serious battle between good and evil, while highlighting humane values of generosity, loyalty, discipline and selflessness.”

“Magic,” said Medved, “emains a staple in most of the best children's literature in history, and generations of young people have indulged in those fantasies without satanic influence. In Grimm's Fairy Tales, for example, magic and witches and shape-changing and curses and incantations have always played a role.”

British Catholic home-schooling mother Debbie Nowak also believes that the film can be viewed as good entertainment.

She has seen the film with four of her eight children and doesn't worry about her children falling into the occult.

“Harry Potter has an invisible mark inside of him that his mother gave to him when she sacrificed her life for his,” she said. “This mark, unlike his lightning bolt scar, is one of love. Because he has this mark of love, evil cannot bear his touch.”

Mary Weyrich of Paso Robles, Calif., warned that, in these days of cross-marketing, much of the danger with the book is extraneous to the story.

“I recently went shopping and noticed the sold-out Harry Potter display,” the Catholic mother of eight said. “There on the same shelf was a book of Spells for Children. It looked like a cookbook, except that it was filled with the sorts of things that Harry does, in the books and movie. It was user friendly, easy for children to try.”

She looked into the matter further, she said.

On the Internet, “I went to a large online bookstore's Harry Potter site, found Harry's 'related subjects,’ which included witchcraft.” Three clicks connected her to The Witch Bible, she said.

Her conclusion: “Many will say that the Harry Potter books and movie are just fiction. Many will say that they are so glad that the children are reading again. Many will say that the movie wasn't that scary and it is no big deal. But I do believe that it is a very big deal.”

The Harry Potter phenomenon and franchise — and debate — is only just beginning. Warner Bros. was scheduled to begin shooting a sequel in November, and fans are already looking forward to Rowling's next book.

Tim Drake is the executive editor of Catholic.net.

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