The Scariest Harry Potter Book is… Chamber of Secrets

cos-uk-adult-jacket-artGreat. I have to be the first person to disagree with J.K. Rowling–and possibly with everyone who read Deathly Hallows’ Bathilda Bagshot chapter at four o’clock in the morning after a midnight release party… oh, wait, I did that, too. That was terrifying.

But I well remember being afraid to read Chamber of Secrets in anything but the broadest of daylight. Ah, Chamber of Secrets. How do I fear thee? Let me count the ways:

  • It’s more or less a murder mystery with a psychopath at its center
  • Said psychopath likes to leave creepy messages on stone walls in finger-painted rooster blood
  • There’s cold, hungry, murderous, disembodied whispering that only our hero can hear
  • People and cats are getting Petrified
  • There are snakes. And Harry discovers he has a Dark wizard’s gift in being able to talk to said snakes.
  • There’s the Slytherin common room, which is decorated with greenish light and skulls. (Such a happy student environment.)
  • There are SPIDERS THE SIZE OF HORSES. If there were nothing else scary in this book, that would be enough. Seriously. Picture one of those in your back yard. I double-dog dare you.
  • There’s the tale of a girl who was murdered in a bathroom
  • There’s a lot of ghosts having a Deathday Party and a Headless Hunt… okay, maybe that’s more funny than spooky. Depends on what time of day you read it, and how alone you are in the house at that point, perhaps.
  • There’s a case of Dark wizard possession (kind of like demon possession, but with wands and without levitation)
  • Last but not least, there’s the Chamber itself, which involves hissing at a carven snake by flickering candlelight, taking a slide down dark water pipes to an unknown destination, the ubiquitous Voldemort, and this guy:
Art by DeathlyToxicity
Art by DeathlyToxicity

…who can kill you with his eyes before he eats you with those fangs.

Not to mention that Harry has to spend his twelfth birthday pretending he doesn’t exist. Which concept, while it won’t jump out at you and yell “Boo!”, is pretty horrific if you think about it.

a wind in the door_2Now, if you enjoy the sort of fright you get from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets I’m going to have a hard time helping you, because I am too chicken to read very many spooky books. If you haven’t read the sequel to Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, however–A Wind in the Door–I recommend it. Rips in the cosmos. Multiple impersonators of the mean school principal, competing with the real guy for control over you. A snake and a tall, dark-cloaked being as Teachers, and a scale-and-eye-covered monster as a companion. X-ing. Lots of time in the dark. As with Harry, there’s some sorrow and love mixed together, providing a way out of the darkness–if the characters can will themselves to take it.

7 thoughts on “The Scariest Harry Potter Book is… Chamber of Secrets

  1. I agree with you immediately, Jenna. I’ll admit though, Chamber of Secrets was at first my most “forgotten” book because, well, it’s the second. But when I finally listened to it on audio, and had a nice slow, deep read with Jim Dale and that creepy voice in the wall, I know a) love the book and b) think it is the scariest. In SS we are still figuring out the wizarding world, the good guys and the bad guys, and Hogwarts in general. By PoA, Harry has some skill, a little more freedom, and we as readers are more grounded. but in CoS, we know just enough to realize there are REALLY BAD THINGS that can happen and Harry is still to young to manage all of it.

  2. You’ve made an excellent case for CoS to hold the most spooky elements. It’s practically a festival of traditionally scary elements.

    As I’ve thought about these books, including SS/PS, I offer another take on the scary aspects of all the books.

    At the beginning of SS/PS, Harry is used to overt evil. The Dursleys and other people are transparently who they are. Harry knows the Dursleys hate him because they hated his parents. For good or ill, such transparency makes Harry secure in understanding the world, no matter how unhappy he is. People are predictable.

    But once Harry enters the magical world, Harry gets some rude awakenings about people. First he learns that the Dursleys hate him because of his magical heritage. And his new “real home” is filled with people who aren’t what they seem, some intent on killing him, without animus, merely because he’s the Boy Who Lived. One of Harry’s biggest challenges is to learn to negotiate such ambiguity and the masks people wear, often at the near cost of his and his friends’ lives.

    This is reality for every child as they grow into adolescence, determining or failing to determine who people really are. We all go through it and it’s very scary. We learn that people wear false faces, our friends and teachers may turn on us, we become slaves to our romantic feelings and crushes, we can publicly fail and quickly become outcasts. There are monsters and they go to our middle and high schools. And sometimes we are the monster.

    I think Rowling does an excellent job in capturing and conveying this relevant, scary, and dangerous period of our lives, with humor, empathy, poignancy, without condescending or minimizing.

  3. Agreed, I feel like the murder mystery and its spookiness is sometimes overlooked. But there’s also another part that’s very scary and that is Harry’s struggle with finding his identity. It might not be traditionally gothic, but it’s definitely one of the most scary points in his life.

  4. That point about identity, Kelly, is something I meant to comment on when I was mentioning Harry’s “Dark wizard’s gift” of Parseltongue above. CoS is very much about identity, and it’s not just “Who am I?” but “Am I good?”–or, rather more accurately and taking in Deborah’s point, “Am I a monster?”

    That insidious fear of being evil/irredeemable yourself is one of the powerful underlying threats in this storyline. It picks up here and there throughout the series, but it’s a core theme in CoS. Can’t believe I forgot to expound on that. All those Gothic frights are just icing on that black Deathday cake.

    PotterMom05, this has usually been the most forgettable Potter book for me, too, on account of which, every time I read it I’m blown away by how awesome it is. 😉

    1. Yes, identity is a key theme here, and that can be so scary, especially as one shifts out of the primary grades/Dursley hothouse to middle grade/Hogwarts, with a real change in style, expectation and social structure. Just like the mandrakes, who are featured in this book.

  5. I still agree with myself. I just finished reading it out loud with my son (first time for him)- and really- the voice in the wall? the snake coming out of the statue? Freaky ghost Tom Riddle? And he’s only 12!!! S(till catching up on all the posts I’ve missed for, oh, 6 months or so. It’s good to be back)

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