It’s Villain Week here at Mashable. In honor of the release of Venom, we’re celebrating all our favorite evildoers from film and TV all week long. Spooky, scary!
I remember the precise moment I finally understood my dark fascination with Professor Snape — that greasy-haired, hook-nosed, black billowing robe of terror who stalked the halls of Hogwarts.
The Occlumency lessons with Harry backfired for the first time in Order of the Phoenix, and suddenly we were in Snape’s memories. And for the first time, I glimpsed the boy that would grow into the terrifying Potions Master:
…a hook-nosed man was shouting at a cowering woman, while a small dark-haired boy cried in a corner…
It was just a passing image, but my throat clenched, breath caught. Because here was this scene I’d seen play out so many times in my own life. And an experience I never imagined I shared in common with the foreboding, formidable man I thought I knew after four lengthy books.
That moment changed everything, and also nothing about who Severus Snape was.
It changed nothing in the way that abuse does not absolve anyone of the cruel behavior. But it (and all other subsequent Snape memories) changed everything to complicate the series’ outlook on evil and villainy.
And it (or rather Snape) changed everything for me, as loving him allowed me to embrace the neglected, unloved, crying child in the corner — and the darkness that brewed inside us both.
Listen, I’m fully aware that I embody everything that a vocal, adamant, relentless, and sometimes even aggressive subset of the Harry Potter fandom despises about “Snape Apologists.” Ironically, in a testament to the Half-Blood Prince’s enduring resonance as a character, the Great Snape Debate rages on a decade after the conclusion to the franchise.
And to be clear, neither the fans who love Snape nor the people who reject his redemption are acting in bad faith. Neither are “wrong.” The purpose of this article is in no way to declare either “side” of the argument a winner. Those well-made arguments have been thoroughly exhausted.
But what I do want, though, is that we all lay down our wands and look past the familiar arguments over the status of his heroism (or lack thereof). Instead, I want to understand what these reactions to Snape says about us, as both readers and people.
Snape is all grey. You can’t make him a saint: he was vindictive & bullying. You can’t make him a devil: he died to save the wizarding world
— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) November 27, 2015
What I am asking, in other words, is for us to try to become comfortable with living in the grey.
Because I actually understand how anti-Snapers feel. Before that moment in Order of the Phoenix, there had been no logical explanation for my shameful, ill-advised love for the Potions Master. I pained over the inescapable magnetic pull I felt toward him, that electric jolt every time I read his name on the page.
I was a Gryffindor, after all. Through and through. I felt nothing for any of the other villains in Harry Potter, if anything repulsed by more popular bad boys like Draco Malfoy. I flinched, along with Harry, at every awful injustice Snape inflicted upon his students (from my house in particular).
Like Snape, I became attracted to dark people and things that let me believe I’ll never have to be that crying child in the corner ever again.
So why, I wondered in all my youthful naivete, could I not resist the poetry of his first year potions speech: those promises given in no more than whisper to ensnare my senses, bottle glory, even stop death.
Looking back, I like to think I saw hints of that vulnerable, crying child hiding behind his cold, black, unfeeling gaze.
But more likely, that’s just an excuse I give myself to keep from admitting that, like Snape, I am weak to promises of power. Because like Snape, I am attracted to dark people and things that let me believe I’ll never have to be that crying child in the corner ever again.
On a thematic level, Snape also expanded the moral worldview of Harry Potter in a way that it desperately needed.
Even as a proud Gryffindor, I myself readily admit that the books have a tendency to fall into the trappings of the good vs evil fantasy genre tropes. While more evolved than, say, Tolkien’s orcs vs hobbits, Harry Potter still pales in comparison to the complex moral tapestry of other fantasy contemporaries, like Game of Thrones.
With a few exceptions, the fandom is accustomed to quite literally sorting characters into two neat boxes: bad guys (Death Eaters and Slytherins) and good guys (kind of everyone else, particularly Gryffindors).
Most characters who urge Harry and the reader to not do this even show their own hypocrisy, and do it anyway. Sirius, for one, never fully saw beyond black and white, despite warning his Godson about splitting the world into polarities.
Even Dumbledore, the most enlightened and empathetic toward the plight of bad guys, falls into this trap, in the way he “compliments” Snape by musing that he should’ve been sorted into Gryffindor instead of Slytherin.
In these kinds of discussions, though, there is little to no room for the truth of humanity
This dichotomous view of people and goodness inevitably trickles down into the Harry Potter fandom. Sure, the later books (Deathly Hallows in particular) challenged readers. It forced us to recognize that our greatest heroes like Dumbledore are also weak to power, and that incredible bravery lies in the greatest villains like Snape.
But the damage had already been done.
In the tone of the Great Snape Debates, you too often hear this dire need on both ends to either bathe him in an a white light of total absolution, or to cast him down as an inescapably repugnant pit of darkness.
In these kinds of discussions, though, there is little room for the truth of humanity: That we all live in perpetual shades of grey, some days darker, and other days lighter.
I say this with the bias of someone who sees my own weaknesses reflected in Snape. Yet still, I think to deny Snape’s humanity — to shrink away from the complexity of the darkness he represents — is to miss the point of the Harry Potter series altogether.
And before you @ me about how being abused or neglected as a child does not justify a lifetime of Snape’s moral failures, I am aware. And I reiterate: This is not about justification.
Because I also know that kids of abuse often unwittingly find themselves locked in a cycle of abuse, reenacting the same traumas they experienced onto others. This does not mean they cannot rise above it (yes, I know, Harry did), or that many do not.
But that’s exactly why I must believe Snape, in his own deeply backwards, complicated, and self-serving way, did overcome that cycle.
I began to use intelligence and words as my own version of Sectumsempra, slicing down my perceived enemies
As a kid, I did not have dark magic to turn to when the feelings of powerlessness threatened to consume me to a point beyond repair. At first, I responded to it by becoming quiet, making myself small and as invisible as possible.
But I soon realized that did little to protect me. And instead, I turned to my own sort of magic, which I then proceeded to consciously weaponize.
Words. Those things that, as J.K. Rowling put it, “are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic. Capable of both inflicting injury, and remedying it.” I began to use intelligence and words as my own version of Sectumsempra, slicing down all perceived enemies with eviscerating verbal rages and abuses.
After years of being the little girl too shy to speak, too terrified to fight back, the dark magic of anger was the single most intoxicating sensation I had ever felt. Nothing, not even the leaden weight of guilt that began to build in my gut every time I caused pain, could make me turn away from my addiction to that sense of invulnerability.
Snape didn’t die for ‘ideals’. He died in an attempt to expiate his own guilt. He could have broken cover at any time to save himself 1/2
— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) November 27, 2015
To my credit (and the credit of characters like Harry and Sirius), I realized far sooner than Snape that this addiction would cost me everything if I let it.
But undoubtedly, the Sorting Hat would’ve had a tough time deciding whether I should be in Slytherin or Gryffindor (before listening to my choice, that is). The need to stave off the monster inside me — the one that promised glory, control, and power — continued to be a daily battle.
Sometimes I lose that battle, no matter how hard I try.
The scars of being bullied, beaten, broken, and forgotten never fully heal, even if you master every tool available in a desperate attempt to overcome them. On the hardest days, when self-hatred overwhelms, you must hold onto the smallest glimmers of goodness you can find in yourself.
Snape’s tragedy is that he could never find the strength to see that goodness in himself. He relied on Lily’s love, not just romantically but as possibly his one and only friend. And almost certainly, as the only person (outside of Dumbledore, later on) who made him feel safe enough to trust that this goodness could outweigh the protection that evil promised him.
From my perspective, his iconic line of, “Always,” is not a declaration of obsessive love. It is not romantic. When Snape says, “Always,” it is in reference to the prison of loss and guilt that he made himself prisoner to.
With nothing nothing but his own weakness of character to blame, Snape lost the battle of becoming worthy of Lily’s love. He failed, or arrived too late, to breaking the vicious cycle of abuse. But in losing her, it became a reminder to himself — and to me — that one can lose everything when they allow fear, cowardice, and anger to overcome love, courage, and forgiveness.
Snape is not a hero. There is no argument there.
He was a villain, but in the way that all of us are sinners because that is the very nature of being human.
He is not like Harry. He is not, despite what Dumbledore implied, a secret Gryffindor. His switch to the good side was born from a place of personal loss rather than moral integrity. And in this way, he’s a Slytherin through and through.
And it is precisely because and not despite these flaws that he is the single most important and relatable characters in the Harry Potter series.
In a sea of characters who play out our fantasies of pure heroism which flies in the face of logic, Snape is something else. He was a villain, but in the way that all of us are sinners because that is the very nature of being human.
To love Snape is not necessarily to excuse the inexcusable, or romanticize his abusiveness. It is to embrace the concept that we are all mortal, all fighting inner demons. Some of us don’t make it out of those battles looking like the hero. Others don’t even make it out of that battle alive.
But as Harry Potter fans, we have seen that winning the war against pure evil is not just up to the purely good and moral. Rather, it is about fighting alongside the people who struggle with the temptation of evil themselves. The ones who know that darkness so well that they can tell us exactly how to conquer it.
I, for one, must trust in a person’s capacity to find redemption from that darkness. Even if it is in their final hour, with tears that encapsulate the goodness that they could never show the world in life.