The Killing in the Killing Curse: A Muggle’s look at Avada Kedavra (SunshineMoot 2022)

On April 2, 2022, Signum University held its second-ever SunshineMoot ’22 in Winter Park, FL. The conference’s theme was “The Practice of Magic,” which focused on the mechanics and influences of magic in our real world and fictional storytelling. The script below was presented as a 15-min flash presentation. The questions at the end were taken from a 5-minute Q&A session facilitated by Dr. Corey Olsen, president and founder of Signum University. (A pdf version of the accompanying slideshow is available at the bottom of the page.)

The Killing in the Killing Curse: A Muggle’s look at Avada Kedavra

The Unforgivable Curses are three of the most recognizable spells in the Harry Potter franchise. First introduced in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the Unforgivable Curses are three extremely powerful spells that stem from dark magic. Any witch or wizard discovered using one or more of these spells would be immediately arrested and sent to Azkaban Prison. These spells are the Imperius Curse, the Cruciatus Curse, and the Killing Curse, and each can be defined in straightforward terms: Total Control, Endless Pain, and Instant Death.

However, even though these curses are easily defined, their functions are not as easily understood. While the Imperius Curse is given a fair amount of focus in the Goblet of Fire, so much so that the reader is essentially shown how it works, the same cannot be said for the Cruciatus Curse. Based on its coverage in Harry Potter & the Order of the Phoenix, a reader can attempt to deduce the Cruciatus Curse’s mechanics, but it all remains speculative. Moreover, there is a lack of data on the Killing Curse, which is curious given the overarching theme of death in the book series. This absence of information and understanding has led fans to speculate for years on how exactly the Killing Curse achieves its result – and I think I have that answer.

So, in this presentation, I will briefly review what we know about each of the three Unforgivable Curses – what is needed to perform these spells and their results. Afterward, by pulling directly from quotes and examples found in the books, I will attempt to answer the following question: what does the Killing Curse do, and is there any evidence to prove it?

I. Willpower

In chapter fourteen of the Goblet of Fire (titled “The Unforgivable Curses”), Barty Crouch, Jr., while disguised as “Mad-Eye” Moody, gives Harry and his classmates a brief overview and demonstration of each curse. From his summaries and a small comment by Bellatrix Lestrange in Order of the Phoenix, the reader learns that there are three requirements for using any Unforgivable Curse.

The first requirement is willpower.

Anyone trying to use an Unforgivable Curse must be strong-willed and have enough grit to use dark magic. This ties in directly to the Imperius Curse, which gives the user absolute control over their victim’s body and mind. Derived from the Latin meaning “by [means of a] command,” Imperio forcibly imposes the caster’s will onto its victim. The victim’s mind is put into a state of utter bliss, where commands from the caster come to them as thoughts or impulses. Here is a quote from the Goblet of Fire:

“It was the most wonderful feeling. Harry felt a floating sensation as every thought and worry in his head was wiped gently away, leaving nothing but a vague, untraceable happiness . . . And then he heard Mad-Eye Moody’s voice, echoing in some distant chamber of his empty brain: Jump on the desk . . .”

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, pg. 231

To an observer, Imperio is almost entirely undetectable. The only caveat is that the curse also endows its victims with the ability to perform physical or magical feats they otherwise could or would never achieve.

Unlike the other two Unforgivable Curses, Imperio can also be resisted, although it requires “real strength of character” to counter its effects. Not everyone has a strong enough mind or the sheer tenacity of willpower to shake off another person’s will. Attempting to do so without such could cause mental and physical stress. Worse, if the caster is inept at performing the Imperius Curse, their attempts to dominate the mind could result in mental scarring for the victim. 

So, we can see with the Imperius Curse the importance of one’s willpower and mind when inflicting and being inflicted by the spell. To control another human – body & mind – means dominating their will entirely with your own and seeing them as nothing more than tools.

II. Intention

The second requirement to using an Unforgivable Curse is intention, more precisely the intention to do harm.

As Bellatrix expressed to Harry in chapter thirty-six of Order of the Phoenix, to use an Unforgivable Curse necessitates true malicious intent, wanting to inflict pain on another living creature and relishing in their suffering. Inflicting pain is precisely what the Cruciatus Curse does. Crucio derived from the Latin meaning “I torment or torture,” is used to inflict an amount of pain so intense that victims would rather be knocked unconscious or killed to avoid feeling the pain. Here is another quote from Goblet of Fire

“It was pain beyond anything Harry had ever experienced; his very bones were on fire; his head was surely splitting along his scar; his eyes were rolling madly in his head; he wanted it to end . . . To black out . . . To die . . .” (pgs. 657-8)

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, pgs. 657–8

Despite what we read in this quote, there are no visible signs of torture exhibited by Crucio when used on a living creature. And should the curse miss its intended target and hit an inanimate object, that object will shatter to pieces.

And shattering is a good description of what prolonged exposure to Crucio does to a victim’s mind. The Cruciatus Curse does not kill its victims but keeps them in a perpetual state of pain until the caster cancels the spell. However, repeated torturing by way of the Cruciatus Curse will inevitably cause permanent psychological damage to its victim. Our best examples of this are Alice and Frank Longbottom – Neville’s parents. They were driven insane after being tortured over and over again by Bellatrix and Barty Jr. via Crucio.

Given that the Cruciatus Curse could have lasting effects on a victim’s mind, we might consider that Crucio attacks a person’s psyche like Imperio. More specifically, it is possible that Crucio directly engages the pain receptors in a person’s brain, thus no outward signs of tormenting. In that way, the pain is just all in a person’s head . . . which, frankly, only leaves me with more questions.

III. Talent

Finally, we come to the last requirement needed to perform an Unforgivable Curse – talent.

Like the Patronus Charm or Fiendfyre, it takes natural magical talent and potential to perform high-level and potentially dangerous spells. In fact, it may even be better to understand talent here as affinity. In other words, you need to have a genuine willingness, conviction, and aptitude to perform as high caliber a spell as the Killing Curse. Because what is more significant, sinister, and dangerous than a spell only known to do one thing – kill?

Avada Kedavra, otherwise known as the Killing Curse, allows the caster to kill their victims instantly and painlessly without injury. There is no reliable defense or resistance to Avada Kedavra, as, like Crucio, the curse is known to damage or disintegrate inanimate objects.

But what does Avada Kedavra actually do to kill another person or living creature? Imperio uses its caster’s willpower to dominate another’s will, while Crucio, theoretically, attacks a person’s brain and psyche. Well, I think I know how the Killing Curse works, and, if I am right, readers were given the proof in the opening chapter of the Goblet of Fire.

Cause of Death?

“A team of doctors had examined the bodies and had concluded that none of the Riddles had been poisoned, stabbed, shot, strangled, suffocated, or (as far as they could tell) harmed at all . . . The doctors did note (as though determined to find something wrong with the bodies) that each of the Riddles had a look of terror upon his or her face – but whoever heard of three people being frightened to death?”

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, pg. 4

The quote on-screen describes the autopsy of the Riddle Family after they were murdered by Tom Marvolo Riddle, a.k.a. Voldemort. As with the other two Unforgivable Curses, Avada Kedavra does not leave any visible evidence of injury, and the victims would appear to otherwise be in good health. So, what did Avada Kedavra do to kill three perfectly healthy muggles? I suspect that, as indicated in the final line of this quote, Tom Riddle, Sr. and his parents were petrified to death.

This might seem like a cheap and unsupported answer to you – after all, where is the evidence? What does it even mean to die of fright? To answer the second question first, dying of fright happens when our “fight-or-flight” response goes into overdrive. Adrenaline is created and rushed throughout our body faster than our heart and brain can handle. Heart muscles contract and fail to relax, our blood pressure drops, and blood stops flowing to the brain, causing us to lose consciousness. So, imagine what would happen to a person if that entire bodily process occurred instantly, at the exact moment they were hit with Avada Kedavra

The evidence for dying of fright should be obvious – the “look of terror on his or her face” – but maybe this is just an isolated incident, right? Let’s take a look at the following quotes then.

“For a second that contained an eternity, Harry stared into Cedric’s face, at his open gray eyes, blank and expressionless as the windows of a deserted house, at his half-open mouth, which looked slightly surprised.”

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, pg. 638

“Every inch of him ached, and the place where the Killing Curse had hit him felt like the bruise of an iron-clad punch. He did not stir, but remained exactly where he had fallen, with his left arm bent out at an awkward angle and his mouth gapping.”

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, pg. 724

The first quote comes from when Harry glances over at Cedric’s lifeless body after being killed by Peter Pettigrew in the Goblet of Fire; the second is from The Deathly Hallows after Harry regains consciousness from being hit with Avada Kedavra by Voldemort. In both instances, Rowling describes Cedric and Harry with open mouths, making me immediately think of people’s reactions when they are shocked or frightened – many tend to scream, shriek, or yelp. Cedric is even called out as “look[ing] slightly surprised,” as if he became so petrified in an instant that his face couldn’t fully register the shock before dying. And if we think for a moment about the films (even video games!), there are a fair number of instances where victims of the Killing Curse are shown with similarly surprised or spooked expressions. I have no doubts that this acting direction is inspired by the description of the Riddle Family, as shown in the opening chapter of the Goblet of Fire.

Fear, Death, and so much more . . .

 As I mentioned previously, for years. fans have been speculating about how exactly the Killing Curse works. Many hold to the idea that Avada Kedavra destroys a person’s soul. It makes for a good theory, except that we know from Harry Potter & the Prisoner of Azkaban that you can still live without a soul – after all, the Dementor’s Kiss sucks the soul right out of a person, but it doesn’t kill them. And if Avada Kedavra destroyed a person’s soul, how does that account for Voldemort’s first “death” when his spell rebounded before the series began? Could we chalk it up to J.K. Rowling simply not having sketched out every minute detail of the series, or, in retrospect, do we start to consider how Horcruxes play into all of this?

If I had to guess – and I will leave you all with this to consider – the Killing Curse was not the Killing Curse until it was named. Nevertheless, that spell, appearing in the early books as a flash of green light, had always been associated with Voldemort. It is, was, and always will be his signature spell. So, let me ask you . . . what does Voldemort fear above all else? Thank you.

5-minute Q&A session

Harry survived Avada Kedavra when he was a baby. So, doesn’t that mean that there actually is a surefire defense against the Killing Curse?

In the case of baby Harry, he only survived because Lily put herself between him and Voldemort to save her son. In so doing, Lily conjured up a protective ward around Harry that we understand to be “love” and to have come about from her unconditional love for him. It is an incredible primordial type of magic that is nigh-omnipotent. And yet, even with that all-powerful magic, Lily is killed – so there was no defense for her, as the victim, but she passed on a powerful counter-charm to her son.

In Chapter 34 of The Deathly Hallows (titled “The Forest Again”), we see Harry sacrifice himself to save the lives of his friends and comrades at Hogwarts. And while this particular situation is different – given Voldemort’s curse attacks his splintered soul within Harry (since the Elder Wand refused to harm its rightful owner) – later, in “The Flaw in the Plan”, we see that the primal love magic that Harry conjured is so strong it works almost like Felix Felices. While everyone battling is still in mortal danger, things just seem to go right and Harry is then able to conjure Protego (the protection charm) to such a degree that he actually stops Voldemort’s Killing Curse from hitting Mrs. Weasley.

If sacrificial love is the only true counter-charm to the Killing Curse, then I would say that it is no true defense for the victim. But then again . . . if the Unforgivable Curses are steeped in negative, sadistic emotions then what emotion is the opposite of those? Love, wouldn’t you say?

What about Dumbledore? How is he described in the Half-Blood Prince?

Here is the exact description of Dumbledore’s body in Ch. 28 of The Half-Blood Prince:

“Dumbledore’s eyes were closed; but for the strange angle of his arms and legs, he might have been sleeping. Harry reached out, straightened the half-moon spectacles upon the crooked nose, and wiped a trickle of blood from the mouth with his own sleeve. Then he gazed down at the wise old face and tried to absorb the enormous and incomprehensible truth: that never again would Dumbledore speak to him, never again could he help . . .” (HBP, 608 – 9)

Dumbledore seems to have died peacefully – of course, his death was predetermined as part of his plan to defeat Voldemort. But there is a brief mention of blood trickling out of his mouth. Could that have been from the fall off the Astronomy Tower or, let’s say, him biting his tongue as a fear-induced reaction to receiving Avada Kedavra? Well, Harry says he might have mistaken Dumbledore for simply sleeping but I would not count the blood on his mouth as a mere coincidence.

Do the Unforgivable Curses have some type of corrupting effect on the user?

Using curses or dark magic in Harry Potter is not like using the Dark Side of the Force in Star Wars – as far as we know. Characters use curses (which are categorized as low-level dark magic) all the time and none seem to be adversely affected. The Ministry even allows Aurors the use of the Unforgivable Curses as forms of lethal force when necessary. And when we look at characters we know: Ginny is famed for her Bat-Bogey Hex, Harry uses two of the Unforgivable Curses in the series, even Snape created a handful of dark charms and curses. But nothing about their personalities or physical appearances seemed to have changed as a result.

In fact, our only datapoint for corruption by way of dark magic is Voldemort and that seems to be tied to his creation of Horcruxes. Furthermore, we can assume from his backstory given in The Half-Blood Prince that it wasn’t until he created numerous Horcruxes that his physical appearance began to morph and degrade. So, I would not say that corruption comes from using the Unforgivable Curses.

The Killing in the Killing Curse: A Muggle’s look at Avada Kedavra (Powerpoint)

Categories: Writings & Errata

Tags: , , , , ,