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The first I heard of Harry Potter was from a string of news reports in the '90s, centred around complaints that the book series might encourage children to investigate the occult.

This seemed odd at the time since I'd just spent a large part of my childhood watching or reading fiction that showed witches and wizards as hero(in)es (e.g. Meg & Mog, The Hobbit, Mr Magica ...), and some that had children being taught magic (The Worst Witch, The Sorcerer's Apprentice ...), and I have still not heard of similar complaints over those older works.

I don't doubt that there were genuine objections to the series since just about everything in the world offends someone, but why so much, and so well-publicised?

As far as I could see the main effect of the Harry Potter controversy was to get the series a lot mentions on prime-time TV. I think the books were good enough to stand on their own, but the extra publicity in the early days didn't hurt.

Is there any evidence that the complaints around Harry Potter were deliberately stirred up, over-reported or somehow brought to the attention of the media by someone connected with the publisher? Were there similar news reports about other magic-related children's books in the last century?

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    What level of evidence is needed for a "No" answer? – Jontia Dec 9 '19 at 11:05
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    I'd take a wild guess it was down to the books' massive and very sudden popularity. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings have been banned too, for having satanic themes or something. – Matt Gutting Dec 9 '19 at 11:18
  • @MattGutting TIL; that's really surprising and interesting. I've asked another question about where the supposed satanic themes are in Tolkien's work. To me at least, the reasoning for that connection is much less clear than for the Harry Potter series. – Rand al'Thor Dec 9 '19 at 11:54
  • The best evidence for or against this would probably be a timeline showing whether Harry Potter's first surge of popularity pre or postdates the earliest reports of it being banned. – Arcanist Lupus Dec 9 '19 at 14:26
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    @ErnestFriedman-Hill no it doesn't, it would get closed on Skeptics for lack of a notable claim. – Arcanist Lupus Dec 10 '19 at 14:40
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Short answer: No. I don't have any evidence that controversy was fabricated or embellished by the publisher, and in fact there's fairly strong evidence to the contrary.


To start off, I think context is important here. The Satanic Panic of the '80s—a wave of (mostly or entirely false) accusations of Satanism among daycare workers, and fear surrounding occult influences in Dungeons and Dragons—was still fresh in everyone's minds. These fears never entirely subsided, and still persist among some religious circles today.

Enter Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (in the US) in September 1998. It spread like wildfire among young readers. It also used the word "witchcraft" openly and often, which is a huge red flag to those already concerned about possible occult influences. In 1999, children's author Judy Blume wrote an op-ed acknowledging the widespread controversy surrounding Harry Potter (Blume herself was a staunch Potter defender). That same year, the Michigan school superintendent restricted access to the book to children who had written parental permission. Sorcerer's Stone was the most challenged book of 1999.

The controversy continued through the next several books but eventually subsided, as Harry Potter became an integral part of the cultural landscape. Occasional flare-ups, however, can still be found today. The American Library Association lists Harry Potter as the most challenged book series of the 21st century, mostly thanks to the first half of the series. Just this year, a Catholic school in Nashville, TN has banned the series from its library "out of an abundance of caution" (a decision, it should be noted, that seems to have little support from the community).

So to summarize, the backlash against Harry Potter had already spread far and wide within its first calendar year of release, which, if manufactured by the publisher, would have taken a strong coordinated effort. To this day, you can still find groups who openly criticize the books for supposed occult influences-- despite Harry Potter being a cultural phenomenon, particuarly among Millennials, and therefore would be an entirely wasted effort on the part of the publisher.

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    You put this far more diplomatically than I would have. Bravo. – Spencer Dec 10 '19 at 23:14
  • I knew immediately what you meant by the Satanic Panic (there was news coverage of what turned out to be basically witch-hunts against some UK parents around that time), but didn't know it was so widespread. Thanks. – Pastychomper thanks Monica Dec 13 '19 at 10:32
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    @Pastychomper Yeah, that was some nasty stuff. Similar to the hypnosis-revealed "parental child abuse" revelations of a bit earlier, which may have merged seamlessly in this particular panic directly out of "The Crucible". Quacks and "concerned members of the public" ginning up hysteria and instrumenting the law with so-called "experts" are the worst humans. Anyway, if one goes after Harry Potter, does one go after books by Lovecraft, Charles Stross or anything by John Dee – David Tonhofer Dec 16 '19 at 13:46

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