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How did Snape muster the emotional ability necessary to kill Dumbledore?

In Order of the Phoenix, Bellatrix tells Harry that in order to execute an Unforgivable Curse, one has to truly want to inflict damage, pain, subjugation, or death against one's victim.

Hatred rose in Harry such as he had never known before; he flung himself out from behind the fountain and bellowed, ‘Crucio!’

Bellatrix screamed: the spell had knocked her off her feet, but she did not writhe and shriek with pain as Neville had – she was already back on her feet, breathless, no longer laughing. Harry dodged behind the golden fountain again. Her counter-spell hit the head of the handsome wizard, which was blown off and landed twenty feet away, gouging long scratches into the wooden floor.

Never used an Unforgivable Curse before, have you, boy?’ she yelled. She had abandoned her baby voice now. ‘You need to mean them, Potter! You need to really want to cause pain – to enjoy it – righteous anger won’t hurt me for long – I’ll show you how it is done, shall I? I’ll give you a lesson –’

Order of the Phoenix - page 715 - Chapter thirty-six, The Only One He Ever Feared - Bloomsbury

Yet in Deathly Hallows, Snape seems reluctant to kill Dumbledore. While not super high up on the canon ladder, the movie Deathly Hallows has Snape saying to Dumbledore, indicating Snape is having second thoughts, "Sometimes you ask too much! Has it ever occurred to you that I don't want to do this [help the cause by killing you] anymore?" (Paraphrase) Dumbledore basically says, "Whether you want to or not is irrelevant." (Paraphrase)

‘After you have killed me, Severus –’

‘You refuse to tell me everything, yet you expect that small service of me!’ snarled Snape, and real anger flared in the thin face now. ‘You take a great deal for granted, Dumbledore! Perhaps I have changed my mind!

‘You gave me your word, Severus.’

Deathly Hallows - page 550 - Chapter thirty-three, The Prince's Tale -Bloomsbury

If Snape had changed his mind about killing Dumbledore, how was he able to muster the murderous feelings necessary to successfully cast Avada Kedavra and kill Dumbledore? As Bellatrix said, righteous anger (or being prepared to kill, etc.) was not enough -- one has to actually feel the emotion behind the curse. How did Snape manage to achieve this when it came to Dumbledore?

An answer based on canon (the 10 canon books; interviews with J.K. Rowling; Pottermore) would be fantastic; however, if no canon info is available, a subjective answer within the spirit of canon is certainly more than welcome. :) Please note I completely dislike the HP Wikia; I typically don't consider answers based on, or containing information from, the HP Wikia, as the Wikia frequently contains inconsistent and/or wrong information. Please cite your sources!

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    Maybe she's just sledging: "The purpose is to try to weaken the opponent's concentration, thereby causing him to make mistakes or underperform." – A E Apr 4 '15 at 22:13
  • Why should "meaning it" - meaning to cause death - imply murder? Can one not "mean it" every bit as much if the object is euthanasia? – Stan Rogers Apr 5 '15 at 13:28
  • @StanRogers -- Because Bellatrix is talking about the three Unforgivable Curses when she says you've got to really mean it. One of the Unforgivables is the killing curse. You can also refer to the chapter The Unforgivable Curses (I believe it's called that) in Goblet of Fire -- Avada Kedavra is touched on there. I'm not getting into an existential discussion about murder vs. euthanasia. Dumbledore and Snape discuss how Snape killing Dumbledore will affect Snape's soul in Deathly Hallows. It is murder that rips the soul. – Slytherincess Apr 6 '15 at 18:28
  • Why do you assume that I don't understand the question? You can really mean to kill without really meaning to commit murder. (As a former serviceman, I'm rather familiar with the distinction at a deeply personal level.) The Dumbledore/Snape discussion was about precisely that distinction - Dumbledore's suggestion was that it was killing, yes, but it would only be murder if Snape believed that it was, leaving Dumbledore to a worse fate (specifically at the hands of either Fenrir Greyback or "dear Bellatrix, who likes to play with her food before she eats it"). – Stan Rogers Apr 17 '15 at 1:25
35

Just because he changed his mind, doesn’t mean he’s changed his heart

Severus Snape is compelled by a lot of strong emotions, but love or loyalty of Dumbledore doesn’t really seem to be among them. Dumbledore doesn’t give him all the details, demands complete obedience, and requires him to do a lot of things he doesn’t want to do – particularly to interact frequently and personally with a one Harry Potter. He no doubt has immense respect for Dumbledore, but Snape’s got plenty of rage to tap into.

He’s also a powerful wizard with a great deal of skill, and he has experience with dark magic, rather than just trying it on in the heat of the moment as with Harry. He knew what casting avada kedavra required, knew he would be called upon to do it, and knew what he needed to do, emotionally, to make that happen. Calling up his repressed fury, and directing it at Dumbledore by thinking of all the ways Dumbledore has disrespected him (e.g. not letting him in on everything) and abused his offer of help (e.g. making him kill Dumbledore in the first place), was probably, in the end, not that difficult for him. On a technical, spellcasting level, anyway.

  • I don't know about loyalty. It seems that Snape has to be pretty loyal to Dumbledore to even be a part of this plan after all his time as a Death Eater (and considering how much reason he has to hate Harry, Dumbledore, and friends). Not the "household servant" kind of loyalty where he wants to satisfy Dumbledore's every whim, but the kind of loyalty that means Dumbledore knows he (Snape) will do what needs to be done when crunch time comes. So I would say Snape is loyal to Dumbledore, albeit begrudgingly so. – David Z Apr 5 '15 at 18:55
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    @DavidZ He’s loyal to Dumbledore in his head. He’s signed on with Dumbledore because he knows Dumbledore is the best shot at taking down Voldemort. But I never got the impression that he loved Dumbledore, that his loyalty was a heart-felt emotional reaction. It always seemed very much more a matter of doing the right thing even though he didn’t want to, if that makes sense. One of the things he does out of loyalty to Dumbledore is, I think, suppressing his emotional reaction to Dumbledore, which appear to be more along the lines of “screw you, old man, you’re not as great as you like to act” – KRyan Apr 5 '15 at 18:59
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    Snape prefers being logical to being emotional, and he is poor at understanding his own and others' emotions. His hatred of James and his deep love for Lily are anomalities. Normally Snape tries to relate to others on a logical level, and he is uncomfortable expressing his emotions. We know that Snape does not want to kill Dumbledore, and ultimately does so only because he is loyal to Dumbledore--one of the only people he is truly open with. That D. knows about Lily is a big deal, since Snape NEVER discusses emotional matters with anyone. – E. J. Apr 7 '15 at 4:48
  • He just needs to remember +15 years of being denied the Dark Arts teaching position and let that fuel his rage :p – Binary Worrier Aug 8 '16 at 14:38
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    @Pryftan I’d have to reread the relevant scene, but not loving someone is still an awfully long way from wanting to kill that person. After all, that distance is what prompted the question. Severus Snape is a heavily conflicted individual, after all; it’s entirely plausible that he doesn’t really know himself how he feels about Dumbledore. His feelings about Dumbledore were no doubt powerful, but confused—certainly not straightforward love as with Lily. And turning powerful, complicated, confusing, and conflicting feelings towards anger and malice is, sadly, not all that difficult. – KRyan Aug 7 '17 at 18:21
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I don't see any evidence within the canon that the Avada Kedavra spell explictly requires malicious intent. The sole description of what's required comes from Moody (HP:GF) who states that it simply requires strong magical focus and, presumably a considerable amount of practice:

Avada Kedavra’s a curse that needs a powerful bit of magic behind it – you could all get your wands out now and point them at me and say the words, and I doubt I’d get so much as a nose-bleed. But that doesn’t matter. I’m not here to teach you how to do it.


Even if we assume that the three unforgivable curses are the same class of spell, it's not obvious that you need to want to hurt someone to use the Avada Kedavra spell. According to Bellatrix, the Cruciatus Curse needs you to want to hurt someone (the spell's main effect), so perhaps the Killing Curse merely requires you desire someone's death.

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    In fact we know that what Bellatrix says about wanting to cause pain can't be true for all Unforgivable Curses. We've seen Harry use Imperius on innocents, for example. It seems likely that each curse has its own specific intent that makes it more than "wave your wand and say some words". – Chris Hayes Apr 5 '15 at 7:06
  • @ChrisHayes - Agreed. And although they're all "unforgivable", it actually seems pretty arbitrary that they were grouped together by the Ministry of Magic... – Valorum Apr 5 '15 at 7:11
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    Really, they're only legally and socially unforgivable. It makes perfect sense in that context, in the same way that we have capital crimes. Magically, I'm not sure these spells have any relation to each other except that they're hard to cast. – Chris Hayes Apr 5 '15 at 7:17
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    @ChrisHayes Agreed, in fact Avada Kedavra is painless! – Möoz Apr 5 '15 at 22:17
2

Severus was, at some time or another, a death eater himself. (He turns good when Harry's Mother is killed.) He's almost definitely used the curse before, probably on many occasions. If willpower (even a specific emotion) is needed to effectively cast the spell, Snape would be experienced enough to consciously switch his mental state.

Remember, Snape is already faking being a bad guy, and began doing so while still mourning Potter's mother's death. That would have required incredible control over his own emotions.

1

I believe that for increasing power or effectiveness of a spell one needs to have three things in his/her locker

  • Practice: More of it makes you better (Obviously)
  • Innate magical ability: Many references here and there in the novel about some or the other wizard being 'gifted'
  • Confidence/Mental Strength: Under-confident or confused students were always fluffing their lines

When Bellatrix says that

You need to mean them, Potter! You need to really want to cause pain

she may just be making a reference to the effectiveness of the spell. It does not, in any way, mean that the cruciatus cast by Harry was unsuccessful; after all it did knock Bellatrix off of her feet. But the pain component was low as Harry did not have the requisite expertise when it comes to casting a Cruciatus curse (as opposed to Bellatrix who drove Neville's parents to insanity). The 'enjoying pain' part may simple come from practice.

Now, Snape

  • is a very powerful (or gifted, your preference) wizard
  • has lots of practice when it comes to using unforgivable curses as he spent a lot of time fulfilling Dark Lord's wishes while continuing to be very good at it because You-Know-Who put a lot of trust in his abilities
  • has immense mental strength and confidence because even though You-Know-Who was the world's most powerful legelimens (as said by Dumbledore), he never realized that Snape was a double agent

(These qualities have also been touched upon by @KRyan above)

So even if Snape did not want to kill Dumbledore or was reluctant to do it, he had the ability and sheer force of will to cast the killing curse and end Dumbledore's life. It is very similar to how great atheletes are able to play through injury, or personal problems, or even when they don't feel like it because they are darn good at whatever sport they play.

PS: One factor that goes unnoticed here is the lack of resistance from Dumbledore. He wanted to and was ready to die at that moment. May be this made Snape's job easier, but someone would need to confirm whether this can happen with spells or not.

1

Snape cast the killing curse, yes, but Dumbledore didn't die on the spot. The curse pushed him of the tower and he fell, still alive. This shows that Snape wasn't able to hate the headmaster so much to let the killing curse work. Dumbledore died because he fell from the astronomy tower, pushed by Snapes spell, not killed by the hatred of Avada Kedavra. The elder Wand still chose Snape, because Snape did kill Dumbledore, but not by using Avada Kedavra. This was my theory.

0

Seems like the development of forbidden curse ability it would be similar to that of the Patronus charm. When first learning it you must call up the "happiest moment of your life" to make even the faintest Patronus. However, a fully trained wizard can just do it when the need arises. Similarly, when first learning the Cruciatus curse, you have to call up the feeling that you really mean it. But Bellatrix and, one supposes, Barty Crouch disguised as Moody during the classroom demonstration have gained the ability to perform these curses as the need arises, whether they are in the mood or not. Could Crouch really hate the spider enough to curse it so drastically?

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Considering he was under the Unbreakable Vow and Draco had failed, he had to do it or face death. And he didn't want Draco to taint his soul by killing.

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