Mary Baldwin Student and Professor Investigate Potter Psychology

November 2, 2011

For the current generation of college students, it is likely difficult to remember a time without Harry Potter. They have grown up with Harry, Ron, and Hermione, the main characters in J. K. Rowling’s beloved series.

Louise Freeman as Hepzibah Smith

Taking the train from Platform 9 ¾ into that magical world are Louise Freeman, associate professor of psychology, and sophomore Linnea Kuglitsch. They will present papers at the first-time conference, “Replacing Wands with Quills: A Harry Potter Symposium for Muggle Scholars”, November 10–12 at James Madison University (JMU).

Freeman became a fan of the books through her children, and enjoyed dressing up as Hepzibah Smith, the rich old witch Tom Riddle killed to steal Hufflepuff’s cup and the Slytherin locket, for the premiere of the second book (pictured at right with her son as Harry).
The professor looks forward to this, her first, symposium because of its interdisciplinary nature and its inclusion of undergraduate presenters.

“I enjoy being around other professors and students who share my passion for Harry Potter,” Freeman said. “This gives me something different from my research interests and, being at a small school that values the liberal arts, I get to have a broader focus. I can teach introductory courses, whereas in a large school it would be all research, all the time.”

Freeman’s Psychology 101 class set the stage for Kuglitsch’s participation in the Harry Potter symposium. The sophomore submitted a paper about the effect of violence on children and adolescents in The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, a post-apocalyptic novel about a televised event in which teenagers battle until only one remains. Freeman thought the premise would transfer well to Harry Potter, and Kuglitsch, a long-time fan, adapted it from a 12-page term paper into an 18-page presentation.

Linnea Kuglitsch

Looking forward to speaking at her first academic conference, Kuglitsch (pictured at left) said, “I’m definitely excited and pretty nervous, but I’m sure it’ll be fine because it’s a geek fest.”

Kuglitsch focuses on the manifestation of violence in three characters’ behavior — Voldemort (dark wizard and arch-villain), Severus Snape (antagonistic professor at Hogwarts), and Harry Potter. She examines their circumstances and risk factors for aggression.

“It’s super-fun because these characters fall along a violence spectrum, ranging from Voldemort down to Harry. It’s great to apply theory to something you love,” Kuglitsch said.

Freeman also analyzes characters’ psychology in her conference presentation, tentatively titled, “Harry Potter and the DSM–IV.” The DSM–IV, or Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, provides standard criteria for classifying mental disorders.

“I’m focusing on how various psychological disorders are depicted in the books,” Freeman said. “The dementors [soul-sucking, ghost-like beings] are inspired by J. K. Rowling’s experience with clinical depression. The cures she describes in the books fit into actual treatments, for example calling on good memories and prior successes and achievements.”

Freeman investigates several characters’ connections to mental disorders, such as “Mad-Eye” Moody (auror who hunts dark wizards) and post-traumatic stress disorder; Neville Longbottom’s parents (Hogwarts student whose parents were tortured and then incapacitated) and Alzheimer’s disease; and Winky (a house-elf servant) and Stockholm syndrome in which a captive comes to sympathize with her captors.

Speaking about the world of Harry Potter in general, Freeman dubs Hermione Granger, whom she calls “the brilliant female character,” and Neville Longbottom as favorites. On the other hand, Kuglitsch chooses eccentric Hogwarts student Luna Lovegood, “because she’s crazy,” and Hogwarts Headmaster Albus Dumbledore, “because he knits and has lovely magenta robes.”

Kuglitsch enthusiastically recalled her history with the books, “I have been a Potter-ite for as long as I can remember. When I was younger, I’d listen to Harry Potter books on audiotape while going to sleep. I’ve gone back to the books many times because they have so many characters and are so rich.”