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“Stay Close to Me” – Attachment, Terror Management, and Symbolic Immortality in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

I recently watched the last film in the Harry Potter series on DVD (after seeing it twice in theaters last year; yes I’m a huge fan), and I was reminded of a powerful moment near the end of the story that highlights the connection between close relationships and the metaphysical world (e.g., life/death, spirituality).

(Fair warning before reading further: there are plot spoilers below).

Towards the end of Deathly Hallows, Harry realized that he must die in order to conquer Voldemort once and for all (it was necessary for Harry to die because his body contained a piece of Voldemort’s soul, which must be destroyed). At that moment, Harry experienced an awareness of his own looming death, or what social psychologists refer to as “mortality salience.” This awareness of death is unique to humans; we are the only species (as far as we know) that possesses knowledge that death is inevitable, and that every one of us will die someday.

This mortality salience is a strange source of fear,1 and it changes people’s psychological and social behavior. When people are aware of their own mortality, they experience more pride in their own religion/worldviews, preference for war against other nations, and prejudice and discrimination toward others from different social groups.2,3 For example, as we discussed in a previous post, when people are primed to think about death, they show favoritism toward others who agree with their worldviews (like people with the same religious beliefs) and discriminate negatively toward people with different worldviews.

But relationship scientists hold another perspective—that when humans focus on the idea of death, they draw closer to significant others, parents, and close friends (what we would call “attachment figures”) for comfort and support.Scientists label this type of behavior “proximity-seeking.”5 When you’re threatened or stressed, it feels good to be in the presence of others who express love and care for you. That’s why hugs can be so outstanding; any problems that loomed large just a few moments before don’t seem as threatening after some close contact with people we care about. When our loved ones are not physically available (such as when we are alone), we often draw on our memories of those people. In fact, memories of attachment figures who have died can be just as powerful a source of comfort as were those same attachment figures when they were still alive.

Back to Deathly Hallows...as Harry sensed his own death drawing close, he used the Resurrection Stone to evoke the images of his deceased loved ones—his parents, godfather, and former teacher. They stood around him as ghosts, and Harry drew on their faces and their words for courage. As he prepared to confront Voldemort, he uttered these words: “stay close to me” (a great example of attachment behavior!). Harry’s moment of courage to confront his enemy and his own death was possible because he remembered those who loved him and cared for him in the past.

People with a more secure attachment style (in other words, those with a more positive outlook on close relationships) respond to thoughts of death by seeking intimacy, closeness, and bonding with others.6 Scientists also find that secure folks react with more “symbolic immortality” after thinking about their own deaths. That is, they score higher on questions like, “It is important for me to write, create, or build something that will exist after my death;” insecure people do not show this tendency.6 In the fictional wizarding world, immortality is a bit more literal (ghosts and living portraits of the deceased), whereas in our world, we leave inanimate remnants behind (like diaries or photographs) to symbolize an eternal existence. 

So, is Harry Potter securely attached? Based on this account, I would say yes. But Harry clearly demonstrated avoidant attachment in other parts of the story. This is consistent with the view that attachment styles can change, and people can move toward secure attachment as time goes on. This is especially true if you’ve had positive experiences in infancy (even if you can’t remember them).

For more on this topic, see this post on attachment styles at Hogwarts; also see our post on mortality salience and sex. 

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1Greenberg, J., Pyszczynski, X, & Solomon, S. (1986). The causes and consequences of the need for self-esteem: A terror management theory. In R. F. Baumeister (Ed.), Public self and private self (pp. 189- 212). New York: Springer-Verlag.

2Pyszczynski, T., Abdollahi, A., Solomon, S., Greenberg, J., Cohen, F., & Weise, D. (2006). Mortality Salience, Martyrdom, and Military Might: The Great Satan Versus the Axis of Evil. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 32(4), 525-537.

3Greenberg, J., Pyszczynski, T., Solomon, S., Rosenblatt, A., Veeder, M., Kirkland, S., & Lyon, D. (1990). Evidence for terror management theory II: The effects of mortality salience on reactions to those who threaten or bolster the cultural worldview. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58(2), 308-318.

4Hart, J., Shaver, P. R., & Goldenberg, J. L. (2005). Attachment, Self-Esteem, Worldviews, and Terror Management: Evidence for a Tripartite Security System. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 88(6), 999-1013.

5Simpson, J. A., Rholes, W. S., & Nelligan, J. S. (1992). Support seeking and support giving within couples in an anxiety-provoking situation: The role of attachment styles. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 62(3), 434-446.

6Mikulincer, M., & Florian, V. (2000). Exploring individual differences in reactions to mortality salience: Does attachment style regulate terror management mechanisms?. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 79(2), 260-273.

Dr. Dylan Selterman - Science of Relationships articles Website/CV
Dr. Selterman's research focuses on secure vs. insecure personality in relationships. He studies how people dream about their partners (and alternatives), and how dreams influence behavior. In addition, Dr. Selterman studies secure base support in couples, jealousy, morality, and autobiographical memory.

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