“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.”