Of all the Halloween horrors to send shivers up your spine today, few can top this fright from J.K. Rowling: Dolores Umbridge was based on a real person.
The prolific Harry Potter author, in honor of Halloween, released an essay on her Pottermore website Friday, an origin story of sorts for the character who may just be the most chilling villain she created in her world of witches and wizards, He Who Must Not Be Named be damned.
Voldemort, you see, was your standard horror bad guy, pure off-the-rack evil who manifested himself in snakes and ghoulish phantasms and in our hero’s nightmares. His badness was otherworldly. In contrast, Dolores Umbridge, the Ministry of Magic official who becomes the tyrannical headmistress of Hogwarts in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, is far scarier. Her nefarious nature wasn’t a thing of legend—this was evil in human form, evil wrapped in skin.
Even Stephen King, the grand maestro of all things frightful, acknowledged this in his review of Order of the Phoenix for Entertainment Weekly, writing, “The gently smiling Dolores Umbridge, with her girlish voice, toadlike face, and clutching, stubby fingers, is the greatest make-believe villain to come along since Hannibal Lecter.”
For so much of the Harry Potter series, Voldemort was the ghost story, but Dolores Umbridge was the actual ghost. Worse, she didn’t just haunt her charges; she actively tortured them, wielding her famed punishment quill of her own invention.
And now Rowling, in her Pottermore essay, makes an already terrifying character even scarier with her revelation that, in many ways, Umbridge was real. And is real. And exists almost everywhere.
Umbridge, you might remember from the Harry Potter novels, was installed as a Defense Against the Dark Arts professor at Hogwarts before taking over as headmistress when Dumbledore was briefly removed. She instantly proved to be the ultimate anti-Dumbledore. She loathed children and tortured them without remorse. She actively, and with glee, imbued their lives with an abundance of misery. And yet the blackness of her heart was offset with her pastel pink wardrobe, her fondness for bows and kittens and frilly knickknacks, and her prim and polished nature.
Perhaps Potter’s own description of Umbridge from the book says it best: "When they entered the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom they found Professor Umbridge already seated at the teacher’s desk, wearing the fluffy pink cardigan of the night before and the black velvet bow on top of her head. Harry was again reminded forcibly of a large fly perched unwisely on top of an even larger toad."
This was, it turns out, a description that is very much in line with a teacher Rowling once had whom, she says, “I disliked intensely on sight.”
Rowling is careful, explicit even, to note that this woman was not “the real Dolores Umbridge.” But her existence as a source of inspiration reminds us, fittingly on this day of ghouls and goblins and monsters and creatures, that the repugnancy of the human spirit can be far more fearsome than any Halloween stock character or spook.
“I have noticed more than once in life that a taste for the ineffably twee can go hand-in-hand with a distinctly uncharitable outlook on the world,” Rowling writes. “I once shared an office with a woman who had covered the wall space behind her desk with pictures of fluffy kitties; she was the most bigoted, spiteful champion of the death penalty with whom it has ever been my misfortune to share a kettle. A love of all things saccharine often seems present where there is a lack of real warmth or charity.”
As for the villainous nature of Dolores Umbridge? “Her desire to control, to punish, and to inflict pain, all in the name of law and order, are, I think, every bit as reprehensible as Lord Voldemort’s unvarnished espousal of evil,” Rowling writes.
It is, of course, a treat on this day when tricks are the alternative to read an in-depth biography of one of the most popular author of all time’s greatest characters, and even more so to have that backstory accompanied by an essay explaining how the creator got her inspiration.
But, at least for a bit this Halloween morning, it seemed like the existence of these incredible essays was, indeed, a trick.
It took me, a person who makes his living writing for the Internet and who is generally savvy about such things, nearly a half hour to figure out how to read the dang-blasted story. And not a fun, whimsical half hour. A curse-filled half hour that saw my blood boil as my filing deadline ticked further into the past. I’ve always been enchanted by the magical world of Harry Potter, but I don’t feel as if I should need to know some secret spell in order to read a freaking essay on the Internet.
By the end of the adventure, I felt like a goddamned Hufflepuff. Pottermore could stand to be easier navigate.
But what awaited was a joy, a glimpse into the life of the fictional Umbridge.
It turns out she’s always been terrible.
She disowned her mother because she was of Muggle blood. She started as an intern (iconic literary villains, they’re just like us) and rose to the ranks of the Ministry of Magic by taking credit for other people’s work. On her rise, she convinced her father, a janitor at the ministry, to retire early—so as to not embarrass her with his lowly position—and denied their relation whenever she was asked if she was from the same Umbridge family as the one “who used to mop the floors here.”
She never married, and nurtured a racist take Muggles that concerned even the most evil of Ministry employees. Perhaps the most intriguing thing Rowling reveals is how Umbridge ended up fighting on Voldemort’s side in Deathly Hallows, despite never overtly having been labeled a Death Eater or having a connection to He Who Must Be Named.
The answer was simple. She was judged by the Death Eaters, after they took over the Ministry, “to have much more in common with them than she ever had with Albus Dumbledore.”
The backstory also details Umbridge’s satisfying demise after the fall of Voldemort, convicted of torture, imprisonment, and deaths of several people. It’s perhaps the greatest treat Rowling could give us. After all, the comeuppance of the Big Bad is the good part of any horror story.