Halloween marks the occasion of the death of Nearly Headless Nick (a.k.a. Sir Nicholas de Mimsy-Porpington), which was caused by having been “hit forty-five times in the neck with a blunt axe” (CoS p. 123).
We find out in Chapter 12 of Chamber of Secrets that October 31, 1992 is Nick’s five hundredth deathday. Hoping that Harry will attest to Nick’s being impressively frightening so that he might be allowed to join the Headless Hunt, Nick invites Harry and his friends to his Deathday Party. Ron skeptically asks a good question: “Why would anyone want to celebrate the day they died?” And Hermione characteristically looks forward to what she can learn from the experience: “A deathday party? . . . I bet there aren’t many living people who can say they’ve been to one of those—it’ll be fascinating!” (CoS p. 130).
With Hermione’s inquisitive spirit, let’s have a go at wrestling with Ron’s question. Is there something more going on here than a chillingly gothic setting for the horrors to be unleashed by the re-opening of the Chamber of Secrets?
The Chains of Desire and Fear
Although Nick has invited Harry, Ron, and Hermione to a party, it’s hardly festive—in fact, as Ron keenly puts it, it ends up being “dead depressing” for some of the ghosts in attendance. Nick’s attempt to impress Sir Patrick Delaney-Podmore, the organizer of the Headless Hunt fails miserably, and as Nick tries to give a speech at his own deathday party, he’s interrupted by a rousing game of Head Hockey so that no one pays any attention to the ghost of honor (CoS p. 136). Since Nick clearly cares a great deal about being honored, this outcome undermines the entire purpose of the party.
Then we have Moaning Myrtle, who keeps re-living her troubled existence at Hogwarts. Prodded into self-pitying tears by the poltergeist Peeves, Myrtle sobs, “D’you think I don’t know what people call me behind my back? Fat Myrtle! Ugly Myrtle! Miserable, moaning, moping Myrtle!” (CoS p. 135).
And we also see an unnamed “portly ghost” who is drawn toward the table of “food,” a description of which makes my stomach lurch: “The smell was quite disgusting. Large, rotten fish . . .; cakes, burned charcoal-black . . . ; there was a great maggoty haggis, a slab of cheese covered in furry green mold and, in pride of place, an enormous gray cake in the shape of a tombstone” (CoS p. 133). (Ugh! Where are the pumpkin juice and treacle tarts when you need them?) The portly ghost approaches the table and walks through it with “his mouth held wide so that it passed through one of the stinking salmon.” When asked by Harry whether he could taste it, “‘Almost,’ said the ghost sadly” (CoS p. 133).
It isn’t until the end of Order of the Phoenix that we learn more about this phenomenon. When Harry hopes that he can communicate with his recently killed godfather, Sirius Black, he seeks out Nearly Headless Nick. Nick cannot help Harry, explaining:
“Wizards can leave an imprint of themselves upon the earth, to walk palely where their living selves once trod. . . . But very few wizards choose that path. . . I was afraid of death. . . . I chose to remain behind. I sometimes wonder whether I oughtn’t to have . . . Well, that is neither here nor there. . . . In fact, I am neither here nor there . . . . I know nothing of the secrets of death, Harry, for I chose my feeble imitation of life instead” (OotP p. 861).
Something seems unreconciled from the lives of these sad ghosts, which tethers them to this world after their deaths. In Nick’s case, what holds him is in part a fear of “moving on.” Holding on to some shred of mortal life keeps the ghosts in a discontented limbo, unable to have what they desperately want and unwilling to let it go.
Letting Go, Moving On
As we see from the grave markers in Godric’s Hollow (DH p. 328), Halloween also marks the occasion of the murder of James and Lily Potter, and here we have an instructive contrast with the death of Nearly Headless Nick. Lily and James did not become ghosts. They don’t hold a deathday party. They could let go of desire and fear, leaving this life with a wholehearted commitment to an ethical vision. As we know, Lily and James died while protecting Harry from Voldemort. Every ounce of their being was willing to put their lives on the line without regret. We can see this perspective embodied in Remus Lupin. When Harry tries to apologize to Remus for getting him involved in the war that leaves his son an orphan, Remus says, “I am sorry too . . . Sorry I will never know him . . . but he will know why I died and I hope he will understand. I was trying to make a world in which he could live a happier life” (DH p. 700).
A brief look at Harry’s experience with his loved ones after summoning them with the Resurrection Stone highlights the need to let go and move on. He has decided to allow Voldemort to kill him, and wants his deceased loved ones with him for what he believes to be his final walk on this earth: “Harry understood without having to think. It did not matter about bringing them back, for he was about to join them. . . . They were neither ghost nor truly flesh . . . . Less substantial than living bodies, but more than ghosts, they moved toward him” (DH p. 699). Assured that his loved ones will always be a part of him, Harry begins his walk: “His mind and body felt oddly disconnected now, his limbs working without conscious instruction, as if he were a passenger, not driver, in the body he was about to leave” (DH pp. 700-701). This brief glimpse into Harry’s state of mind when he thinks he will die reveals his having transitioned away from the physical. One can hardly imagine that this was Nick’s state of mind when he was nearly beheaded and killed.
Ron has a great point, then, in wondering why anyone would celebrate a deathday. For it’s life that is to be celebrated. Keep in mind Hermione’s comment to Harry in the Godric’s Hollow cemetery, when he is shocked by the inscription “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.” She explains, “It means . . . you know . . . living beyond death. Living after death” (DH p. 328). We’re best able to live after death in the hearts of the living when we’re not bound by the chains of desire and fear, but instead freed by love.
So shake off the damp chill of the dungeons and return to the Great Hall for a life-giving, non-moldy Halloween feast filled with friendship, harmless frights, candy apples, and one of Hagrid’s huge jack-o-lanterns!
Further thoughts and insights about Nick’s Deathday Party are most welcome in the comment box below.