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I asked a question here, in which @Scanner (CREDIT TO THEM) pointed out that there was a fundamental part of the question that was missing.

How does a Basilisk kill with its eyes? Does it sever the soul, cause instant brain melting, cause spontaneous combustion, or is there some other mechanism at work?

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    do we share the spoils on this one?:P oj. It's definitely a worthwhile question to ask +1
    – Scanner
    Mar 30, 2016 at 17:36
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    Magic my friend magic
    – Himarm
    Mar 30, 2016 at 17:50
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    @Himarm Cop out of an answer. >:I
    – Anoplexian
    Mar 30, 2016 at 19:16
  • Definitely not spontaneous combustion—unless I’m misremembering, we see Myrtle’s arm being quite unharmed when her body is carried out of the school with her parents. Very good question, though. My instinctive answer would be sever the soul like Avada Kedavra, but I don’t believe there is any canon information at all to confirm or rebuff that. Apr 19, 2016 at 0:37
  • Related: scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/96856/…
    – Möoz
    Apr 22, 2016 at 22:50

6 Answers 6

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It’s not clear exactly how they work, but they cause instant death.

In Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, it’s stated that looking directly into a basilisk’s eyes causes instant death. However, it’s not said how looking into the basilisk’s eyes kills.

“It has exceptionally venomous fangs but its most dangerous means of attack is the gaze of its large yellow eyes. Anyone looking directly into these will suffer instant death.”
- Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

When Myrtle describes how she died, she said she saw yellow eyes, seized up, and then was floating away (so she was dead right after seizing up). It was very quick.

“So I unlocked the door, to tell him to go and use his own toilet, and then –’ Myrtle swelled importantly, her face shining, ‘I died.’

‘How?’ said Harry.

‘No idea,’ said Myrtle in hushed tones. ‘I just remember seeing a pair of great big yellow eyes. My whole body sort of seized up, and then I was floating away …’ She looked dreamily at Harry. ‘And then I came back again.”
- Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Chapter 16 (The Chamber of Secrets)

We don’t know what her body looked like, so we don’t know what damage looking into the basilisk’s eyes caused but ‘seizing up’ almost sounds like she’d been something like Petrified, but in a strong enough way to actually kill. This would fit with how people who see its eyes indirectly get Petrified but not killed, but there’s no confirmation that this actually is how it works.

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  • Interestingly, the very old library book in Chamber of Secrets describes the death-gaze differently from Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: the Basilisk has a murderous stare, and all who are fixed with the beam of its eye shall suffer instant death. (And the simple meaning of this contradicts the entire plot.)
    – Alex
    Aug 21, 2018 at 5:13
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Impossible to answer from canon as far as I know. Moaning Myrtle's account certainly sounds like it is an instant effect.

However it is clearly not a spell in the way that Avada Kedavra is. (or we'd see green flashes flying out of its eyes constantly) I think it is something triggered in the victim when eye contact is made. A more subtle kind of magic perhaps. It seems like the brain decides to shut itself down at source.

It is probably trivially easy to stop being alive, we have just evolved to avoid doing so. The Basilisk's eyes could be compelling the brain to commit suicide while unlocking the, generally avoided, ability to do so. This has the bonus of being much more sinister than a generic killing spell, for me at least, as it uses the victim's own body against them.

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  • Plausible, so do you think it's an innate chemical reaction from the victim? Possibly from the sheer terror they suffer the body instantly shuts down?
    – Scanner
    Apr 1, 2016 at 15:21
  • I almost added something about being scared to death, but what Myrtle says suggests she doesn't have time to be scared. So a similar effect, but on a sub-conscious level I think.
    – Flooks
    Apr 1, 2016 at 15:34
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    I think your speculation has a glaring hole. You essentially make it sound like the Basilisk magically convinces the victim to die. But considering that seeing a reflection of a Basilisk's gaze causes petrification, your answer would imply that the Basilisk is now "convincing" the victim's body to turn to stone. Last I checked, people don't really have the mechanisms to turn to stone. So, the magic behind the Basilisk's gaze can't be as subtle as you suggest.
    – Ellesedil
    Apr 1, 2016 at 17:31
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The basilisk DOES kill by eye-to-eye contact. All the petrified victims don't meet the basilisk's gaze.

According to Greek mythology, the basilisk never had the power to petrify. There are no known accounts of someone looking at a basilisk's eyes indirectly in reflection or in any other way.

What the petrification reminds me of is Medusa. It seems Rowling incorporated that old legend into the Harry Potter saga.

Of course, doesn't really explain HOW the petrification worked. Maybe petrification is a watered down version of death? It can also be conjectured that petrification is a state which is closest to the state of being dead, without actually being dead.

Maybe the power would've been diluted even more if more reflections of the basilisk's eyes were involved.

EDIT: TO THE ACTUAL QUESTION.

From the book, we see that Mrs. Norris is petrified. In the Harry Potter universe, I don't really recall the souls of animals being present. Except horses? The Ghosts of Hogwarts? Supposing that animals DID NOT have souls, the severing the souls concept doesn't hold up.

Using purely my imagination here, a basilisk's eyes COULD vaporise the chi of a living being. The life force of a living being that is.

According to legend though, the only way to kill a basilisk is to make it look at its own reflection. It would then die of fright. From this, we COULD conjecture that its victim dies of fright. This doesn't reeaally gel with the petrification power though.

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  • I feel like this answers "Why were the people petrified?" rather than "How do the eyes actually kill".
    – Anoplexian
    Apr 18, 2016 at 16:43
  • yeah...now that I read it, doesn't really answer the question @Anoplexian. Thanks for pointing it out Apr 18, 2016 at 16:49
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    @Anoplexian: In reality, the two (petrification and death) are linked. A good answer will explain how the Basilisk kills people while also allowing for a reasonable explanation for people who indirectly gaze into it's eyes to be petrified instead of dying. An answer that cannot account for both outcomes is likely to be wrong.
    – Ellesedil
    Apr 18, 2016 at 17:48
  • Ideally, edits should be incorporated into an answer, not just appended to the bottom. Anyone interested in previous versions of an answer can check the history.
    – ibid
    Apr 18, 2016 at 19:20
  • @Ellesedil They're linked, and that's completely true. I was pointing out that the answer didn't actually answer the question rather than it not being related.
    – Anoplexian
    Apr 18, 2016 at 19:31
-1

I have a theory, not sure how plausible but here it is

In The Flash tv show there was a villain Rainbow Raider who could alter a person's brain's chemical activity to incite various emotions by flashing certain colors from his eyes. I think Basilisk too flashes certain colors which affects brain's chemical activity resulting in an immediate shut down of neural activity, which in turn shuts every organ in the body. Since brain has shut down, the person couldn't even feel pain. And the reason an indirect stare petrified but doesn't kill is because the colors get slightly distorted due to refraction of the light

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    Whilst a nice theory is there any evidence from Harry Potter canon that you could edit in which would back this up? Anything from the books, films, extended media, etc.?
    – TheLethalCarrot
    Nov 20, 2020 at 10:23
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I'm always amused and intrigued when an author leaves important details (such as the functioning of devices, objects, etc) up to each reader's minds as though it's subjective enough for everyone to be right. Sometimes they just don't care to bother, which is more frustrating when that author has gone to great lengths to create details for so many other items in their stories.

Having said that, I think occam's razor might best provide the answer to the question. Of course all attempts to answer this question is pure supposition or conjecture. There's a passage in the book which states that all those who meet the beam from its deadly eyes will die from this murderous glare. Apply occam's razor to that and maybe we're actually talking about a beam shot or from the eyes of the basilisk. It could be a steady stream always on our the basilisk could even possibly control when beams actually shoot out from the eyes. The beam itself, could be invisible as Moaning Myrtle described seeing a pair of yellow eyes but not an actual beam (something akin to a laser or something). The explanation for the petrified victims also fits as this "beam" could get weaker with distance AND/OR reflection! Since none of the victims, during Harry Potter's era, were directly exposed to this beam they were only petrified.

As for the actual mechanical, physical or literal process of why the beam actually kills..... There are a few explanations "each as unlikely as the next"... But I think that a full dose of the beam would fry the brain causing instant damage and death.... But a weaken dose only temporarily disables motor function causing paralysis or permanently damages the brain thus disabling motor function & paralysis. In either case, the damage done is curable via a potion concocted from parts of stewed mandrake remains amongst other ingredients. I think the "beam" explanation is a more likely scenario of all those that might exist. It's easy to just throw out the term "it's magic" but even "magic" has to have a process by which it works including limitations reducing or even nullifying effects.

Thoughts?

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    You could improve this answer by editing it to include the specific "passage in the book" you alluded to, and any other quotes which at least vaguely support the theories you've proposed here. Nov 11, 2021 at 15:58
  • As an author myself, I can tell you there's at least one good reason not to explain these kinds of things: it's scarier that way. Often, trying to rationalise them either makes them less terrifying, raises more questions than it answers, or just plain sounds silly. We fear what we don't understand, and a supernatural element that's never explained (like the Basilisk's gaze) is inherently more terrifying than one that is. It's not just lazy writing.
    – F1Krazy
    Nov 11, 2021 at 19:01
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In my point of view, I suggest that the Basilisk’s sending a piece of its soul, which could be poisonous in nature or a human can not handle it in anyway, into a human through eye contact. Like how most witches and wizards use a wand to direct their magic, a Basilisk uses its eyes.

Or, it could be a swap in certain extremely small and resilient DNA strands that instantly make our own cells decay and rot which leads to us dying instant.

It honestly depends on opinion and what J.K Rowling tells us.

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    It actually completely depends on what JKR tells us. Nothing opinion about it.
    – amflare
    Feb 19, 2018 at 2:32

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