unforgivable: analyzing the worst curse in harry potter

I’ll start this off by saying that while I’m a fan of the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, I do not support her social/political beliefs, nor do I consume the products that come out of the Wizarding World without forethought on where my values lie. That aside, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter was a cornerstone of my growing up. I’d discuss ad nauseam aspects of the world, the lore, the stories, and envision myself whisked away into the magical world of the FICTIONAL 90’s UK.

But one aspect of magic always got me and my little discussion group going: Which Unforgiveable Curse was the worst?

In the series, there are three Unforgivable Curses, each with its own form of severity and consequences.

  1. The Killing Curse (Avada Kedavra): Instantly kills the victim without causing any physical harm. It's often considered the worst because it directly causes death, leaving no chance for the victim to survive or be healed.
  2. The Cruciatus Curse (Crucio): Inflicts intense pain on the victim, akin to torture. While it doesn't cause death, its effects can be psychologically damaging and can have long-term impacts on the victim's mental health.
  3. The Imperius Curse (Imperio): Allows the caster to control the actions of the victim, effectively taking away their free will. It can be used to make a person commit acts they would normally find abhorrent, but it doesn't inherently cause physical harm or pain.

The perception of which curse is the "worst" can vary depending on the context and individual values. If you value life above all, the Killing Curse may be considered the worst. However, if you value autonomy or mental wellbeing, the Imperius or Cruciatus Curses could be viewed as more severe due to their long-term effects and the violation of personal freedom and integrity. But what are all the arguments we could make for them? 

Imperius Curse

Courtesy of Wizarding World

Personally, this is the scariest Unforgiveable. Consider the alternatives.

Pain is pain and nobody wants that, but it’ll eventually end. At the very least, it can be managed or grown accustomed to over time when it’s all done.

Death is death, and while I’ll fight tooth and nail to stave it off until I’m good and well ready, I accept my mortality and that it is inevitable that my mortal body will fade into dust.

Don’t get me wrong: The Cruciatus and Killing Curses are both bad, but the Imperius scares me beyond either of those.

Being a sleeping passenger in your own body if your mind doesn’t realize it’s been lulled to sleep and you’re doing who-knows-what? And worse: Being a prisoner in your own mind if you aren’t stronger enough to break the spell and watching the world around you go by while you have no say? And what if you finally do break the spell or you’re released by the spellcaster’s mercy, nobody believes you were bewitched? Couldn’t be me!

Why it’s the worst:

  1. Violation of Free Will: The Imperius Curse represents a profound violation of an individual's free will, arguably the most fundamental aspect of human identity and autonomy. By controlling a person's actions against their will, the caster strips them of their most basic human right – the ability to make their own choices. This can be more psychologically damaging in the long term than physical harm, as it undermines the very essence of a person's sense of self.
  2. Long-term Psychological Impact: The effects of being under the Imperius Curse can have long-lasting psychological consequences. Victims may struggle with trust issues, a sense of violation, and the trauma of having been controlled. Unlike the immediate and final nature of the Killing Curse, the effects of the Imperius Curse can linger, causing prolonged suffering.
  3. Moral Corruption and Abuse of Power: The Imperius Curse allows for the manipulation of individuals to perform acts they would normally find morally reprehensible. This can lead to significant ethical dilemmas and guilt for the victim, as they grapple with the actions they were forced to undertake. It also represents a dangerous tool for those in power to maintain control and suppress dissent, leading to a corrupt and unjust society.
  4. Lack of Physical Evidence: Unlike the Cruciatus Curse, which leaves the victim in evident (unmarked) pain, or the Killing Curse, which results in a corpse, the effects of the Imperius Curse can be invisible to outsiders. This makes it a particularly insidious tool for covert manipulation and control, as victims might struggle to prove they were under its influence.
  5. Potential for Widespread Abuse: The Imperius Curse's potential for widespread abuse in political and personal power dynamics is alarming. A world where this curse is used unchecked is one where no one's actions can be trusted, undermining the foundations of society, governance, and interpersonal relationships.

I’d rather die. (That is NOT an invitation, thanks!) 

Cruciatus Curse

Courtesy of Wizarding World

This one hurt to write (pun or no pun.)

We all have experience with pain. We can all probably remember the most excruciating unending pain we’ve experienced and likely still shiver at the mere thought of it. The more imaginative among us can probably imagine a terrifying scenario where something happens and we cringe in horror at a pain we’ve never felt. The Cruciatus is probably 10 times worse than that.

Now I know I said the Imperius is the scariest one of all to me, but this one is terrifying because of how inconceivable it is that even in our wildest imaginations, we’d likely still underestimate how awful it is.

In my imagination, once the curse is cast on you, every nerve cell in charge of creating physical sensation is switched on, so you’re feeling pain from every direction at the highest level those cells can muster. Probably in places you never thought of, like the nerves inside your teeth and tongue, or your eyeballs. We generally can only imagine pain being localized to an area, or having a point of impact or origin. Imagine being kicked down there but instead of someone’s foot, it’s a bulldozer. And instead merely originating down there, it’s starting point is all over the surface and inside of your body.

Why it’s the worst:

  1. Intense and Prolonged Suffering: The Cruciatus Curse inflicts excruciating pain on the victim, an experience that is both physically unbearable and psychologically traumatic. Unlike the instant death caused by Avada Kedavra, Crucio subjects its victims to prolonged torture, which can be repeated indefinitely at the whim of the caster.
  2. Psychological Trauma: The psychological impact of enduring such extreme pain is profound. Victims of the Cruciatus Curse can suffer from long-term psychological effects, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), severe anxiety, and an enduring fear of pain. If you read the books, you know that Frank and Alice Longbottom were cursed this way and lived the rest of their lives in St. Mungo’s hospital. This mental trauma can be more debilitating and long-lasting than the physical injuries.
  3. No Physical Trace: One of the most insidious aspects of the Cruciatus Curse is that it leaves no physical marks on its victims. This can lead to a lack of belief or understanding from others about the severity of the torture endured, isolating the victim in their suffering, and making it harder for them to seek help or find justice. We probably don’t need to dive too deeply into the real-world parallels here.
  4. Use as a Tool for Intimidation and Control: The Cruciatus Curse is often used to intimidate and control others, inflicting pain as a means of coercion or punishment. This use can have a corrosive effect on societal norms and values, fostering an environment of fear and compliance. Furthermore, if someone has seen the effects firsthand on someone else, the person threatening to use the curse likely doesn’t even have to cast it to ensure their victim follows orders.
  5. Irreversible Damage: Prolonged exposure to the Cruciatus Curse can result in permanent mental incapacitation (refer to the case of the Longbottoms discussed earlier). This outcome is particularly tragic, as it leaves the victim in a state where they are unable to lead a normal life, trapped in their trauma.
  6. Moral Deterioration of the Caster: Using the Cruciatus Curse requires a certain level of sadism and cruelty. The act of deliberately inflicting pain on another human being can have a corrupting influence on the caster, degrading their moral and ethical boundaries. This is probably what truly separates dark wizards from the general population: Normalizing the use of this curse makes it so that it’s as part of your magical toolbox as Accio (summoning charm) or Wingardium Leviosa (levitation charm).

Yeah, somehow death seems preferable. (Again, not an invitation.)

Killing Curse

Courtesy of Wizarding World

The boy who lived come to die. Avidi Kadivi.

I think this one is most personal to everyone because of its finality. We’ve all reckoned (or not) with our own mortality and we all have our thoughts of what it means to meet the end of our material existence. While it seems like the worst, most unspeakable curse, it also feels like the one which, for all its complexities and the expectations we project onto it, is the easiest to understand.

It’s not something that happens and you wake up feeling like you’ve experienced existential helplessness like with the Imperius Curse. It’s also not something where you experience something so horrible but at least are able to emerge on the other side like with the Cruciatus Curse. It’s just a painless transition from one side of the veil to the other. You’re done. As far as the mortal world goes, there are no consequences, there is no more to do, there is no judgement. It’s simply… The end.

And for as grand and final and magnificently awesome as that is (not “awesome” in the modern sense of the world; I’m talking Old Testament Bible sense), it’s amazingly simple.

Why it’s the worst:

  1. Irrevocability and Finality: The most striking aspect of Avada Kedavra is its finality. Unlike the Cruciatus or Imperius Curses, which inflict pain or control but leave their victims alive, the Killing Curse results in immediate and irreversible death. This absolute nature of the curse means there is no possibility for recovery, redemption, or justice for the victim.
  2. Denial of Life's Potential: Every human life carries potential – for change, growth, contribution, and experience. The Killing Curse snuffs out this potential instantaneously. It not only ends the current state of a person's life but also all the possibilities of what their future could have held.
  3. Impact on Loved Ones: The death of a person has a profound and lasting impact on their family, friends, and community. The sudden and violent nature of a death by Avada Kedavra can leave loved ones in a state of shock, grief, and trauma, creating ripples of suffering that extend far beyond the immediate act.
  4. Moral and Ethical Implications: The act of taking a life is widely regarded as the most severe moral transgression in many cultures and ethical systems. By using Avada Kedavra, the caster crosses a fundamental moral line, choosing to end a life and, in doing so, assuming a power that many believe should not belong to any individual.
  5. Societal Impact: The existence and use of a curse that can kill instantly and without any traceable evidence has far-reaching implications for the society in which it is used. It creates an environment of fear and mistrust, where power can be wielded lethally without accountability. In the first chapter of “The Goblet of Fire”, we see how the gardener of the Riddle estate is blamed for the murders of the Riddle family despite there being no indications of foul play returned from their autopsies. They were described as perfectly healthy other than the fact that they were dead. In a society where Avada Kedavra is used, nobody can feel truly safe.
  6. Ease of Use: Unlike the Cruciatus Curse, which requires the caster to genuinely desire to inflict pain, or the Imperius Curse, which involves controlling another's will with your own stronger will, the Killing Curse only requires the intent to kill. This can make it dangerously simple for someone to commit the most irreversible act of harm – taking a life. And to boot, it’s not like you have to use any critical thought to figure out the incantation like the other two (Cruciatus = crucio/Imperius = imperio); people interchangeably use Avada Kedavra and The Killing Curse as proper nouns when referring to it.

The Killing Curse, with its immediate, irreversible, and absolute nature, represents the ultimate violation of life. Its impact on the victim, their loved ones, and society, coupled with the profound moral and ethical implications of taking a life, arguably makes it the worst of the Unforgivable Curses.

So… which one is the worst?

I believe that for different reasons each curse is exceedingly reprehensible (never thought I’d use that word outside of quoting someone), but that it depends on the values of the person who might find themselves the on the receiving end of the wand casting the curse. Some might argue that because there’s no coming back from it and that to employ it is to literally take a proper objective opinion (the victim’s) out of the equation, the Killing Curse is the worst. I would then ask them which they think is worse when the options are Avada Kedavra and. the Dementor’s Kiss. One rendering the victim dead and the other as dead as can be while still alive.

From my personal point of view, the Imperius is the worst. As a child who was spanked, I could often retreat into the corners of my mind that helped me, however slightly, keep the immediate pain at bay. And afterward, even through the tears, I could rest easily knowing the worst was over.

If I likened spanking to the Cruciatus, it would operate as a punishment for disobedience, which I think I would have strongly preferred to being literally compelled beyond my own will, to obey without question or consent. At least with the former, even if it was an objectively unjustified instance, I could say that it was my choices or my actions that led to the Cruciatus as a punishment as opposed to not having an option at all.

And if we’re talking about the Killing Curse, I’m sure I’d make every choice my enemy wanted me to make to avoid getting it cast on me, but if I slipped up and wound up hit, it’s no longer my problem, so it’s almost not even worth considering on a personal level. Though I suppose if I were to think about which curse is the worst for EVERYBODY beyond just myself, it’d probably have to be Avada Kedavra.

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