“I killed Sirius Black! I killed Sirius Black!” Bellatrix Lestrange chants with the cadence of a deranged preschool teacher butchering nursery rhymes for sport in “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.”
Bellatrix is high off murdering Harry Potter’s godfather and only living “family” member, but the real joy is rubbing it in. “You coming to get me?” she taunts Harry. “He knows how to play. Itty-bitty-baby-Potter.” Her words are punctuated with feral cackles, uttered through teeth caked in plaque, the residue of her time spent wasting away in Azkaban.
When I read the “Harry Potter” books growing up, I had a strange affinity for Ms. Lestrange. Yes, she is a psychopathic Death Eater who worships the Dark Lord and reaps pleasure from the suffering of innocents. But Lestrange also embodies a combination of power, liberation and an unabashed lust for life (and death) I found enticing. Even while using the Cruciatus Curse to scramble the brains of noble wizards beyond salvation, she’s always having the most fun in the room.
Lestrange is a villain, and a deliciously cruel one at that. And yet, in fables and fantasies, antagonists are often the female characters endowed with the most agency, freedom and style. As Leslie Jamison wrote of the “evil stepmother” figure that reappears in classic fairy tales time and time again: “She is an artist of cunning and malice, but still — an artist.”
There is something, if not admirable, at least enthralling about a woman who rebels against norms and expectations to feed her own delusions and desires, who embraces the inner “female monster” so many fight to suppress.
In the books and films, Bellatrix is a pure-blood witch born in 1951 to the House of Black, an established and powerful wizarding family in the Potterverse. She studied at Hogwarts in the Slytherin House and winds up serving Lord Voldemort as a Death Eater, his most fanatic and devoted follower by many accounts.
Readers first learn about Lestrange through a flashback to one of her most heinous offenses. During the First Wizarding War, when Voldemort is in hiding, Bellatrix tortures Neville Longbottom’s parents while interrogating them for information on his whereabouts, tormenting them to such a degree that both lose their minds. The couple is then sent to St. Mungo’s Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries for the rest of their days.
For her crimes, Bellatrix is sentenced to a lifetime in Azkaban, though she escapes after 15 years. Her incarceration is said to have wreaked havoc on her physical and mental states ― though her previous appetite for torture reveals her conscience was already nonexistent. In a cultural landscape that often supplies female characters with a specific motivation behind their cruel intentions (revenge! love! betrayal!) it’s strangely thrilling to follow a woman who was born vile without excuse or explanation.
Physically, Bellatrix possesses the Black family line’s dependably handsome genes, endowed with long dark hair, heavily lidded eyes, long eyelashes and a strong jaw. Yet prison takes its toll on her good looks. Upon release, Bellatrix is described as having a “gaunt and skull-like face,” with hair that’s “unkempt and straggly.” In looks alone, Bellatrix exists between easy stereotypes or descriptions. She’s a beauty and a hag, attractive and repulsive, the hyperbole of a woman who, after spending years deteriorating in a magical penitentiary, has dared to “let herself go.”
Bellatrix is 30 years old when she is locked up; she breaks free at 45. The maturation she missed out on while incarcerated is evident in how she comports herself ― basically, like a big, evil baby. She is “incredibly infantile,” actor Helena Bonham Carter ― who played Lestrange in the film franchise ― said in an interview, as evidenced through her consistent baby-talk and predilection for sticking out her tongue.
“Dear Bellatrix, who likes to play with her food before she eats it,” Dumbledore says, referring to her penchant for torturing her victims before killing. The script for “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” refers to her as a “mad child.” After being imprisoned during a woman’s “peak years,” Bellatrix exists simultaneously in the before and after, scrambling the usual categories that separate a woman from a girl.
Women are used to being infantilized; we’re assumed to be juvenile, then patronized and underestimated as a result. Bellatrix takes this gendered stereotype to its monstrous extreme, becoming part-girl, part-hag, who will giggle like a giddy schoolgirl as she inflicts unbearable pain onto her victims. She collapses the space between what men desire and what they fear, the appealing young girl and the undesirable old woman, leaving her allies and enemies torn between desire and horror.
“She can be scary, definitely kids are scared of her,” Bonham Carter said when describing the character. “But also has a part of her that they wouldn’t mind being her, in the sense that she’s really naughty, she gets away with everything ... She’s very liberated. It was really fun to play her because she is just completely abandoned. I just let go, really.”
Because of her traditionally feminine attributes, as a reader I sometimes found myself empathizing with Bellatrix. She is known among magical circles, for example, for being a bit on the batty side, as psychopathic Death Eaters ― and powerful women ― can be. Despite being one of the most powerful wielders of Dark Magic in the “Harry Potter” universe, she is still constantly undermined and overlooked by her fellow Death Eaters, written off as a hysterical woman. Bellatrix plays up her unhinged persona, again contorting a weakness into something so fearful it becomes a strength.
The most glaring example transpires when Bellatrix desperately tries to warn her fellow Death Eaters not to trust Severus Snape, believing him to be loyal to Dumbledore over Voldemort. Of course, she’s right, as Snape reveals only after Bellatrix is dead. If heeded, her intuition could have uprooted the entire course of the story, though instead she’s just laughed off.
Bellatrix is killed in the final battle at Hogwarts. Aside from Voldemort himself, she’s the last Death Eater standing. Molly Weasley eventually does the job, screaming “Not my daughter, you bitch!” as she strikes her with a fatal curse. It’s a battle between a loving mother of seven and an unruly girl-hag embroiled in an unrequited love affair with a noseless Dark Lord ― or as Molly put it, a “bitch.”
“I really enjoyed killing Bellatrix and I really enjoyed having Molly do it,” J.K. Rowling said in an interview. “You have two very different kinds of female energy there, pitted against each other.” Not surprisingly, love wins out over a bottomless lust for human suffering, and probably for the best. But Bellatrix dies with a “gloating smile” still frozen on her face, perhaps preferring death over Molly Weasley’s domestic bliss.
“She just doesn’t act the way a mother is supposed to,” Leslie Jamison writes of the evil stepmother. “That’s her fuel, and her festering heart.” Yet even a malicious stepmother has more maternal instinct in her bones than Bellatrix, who murders her own niece without hesitation.
With Bellatrix Lestrange, Rowling creates a monster whose attributes are culled from feminine tropes and stereotypes both desired and reviled. She’s the femme fatale, the hysterical woman, the mad child and the hag. Her inherent contradictions ― intelligence and flightiness, power and subservience, beauty and repulsiveness, childishness and decay ― contribute to her fearfulness.
Rarely are women, fictional or otherwise, given the space to embody paradoxical selves at once. This, in part, is what makes Bellatrix so menacing, along with her unquenchable thirst for torture, murder and Dark Arts.
From June 1 to 30, HuffPost is celebrating the 20th anniversary of the very first “Harry Potter” book by reminiscing about all things Hogwarts. Accio childhood memories.