Remus Lupin and the stigmatised illness: why lycanthropy is not a good metaphor for HIV/AIDS

Using werewolves as a metaphor for people with HIV and AIDS seems, at best, woefully ill-considered.

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As more extraneous Harry Potter content is released into the world this week via three new eBooks, JK Rowling has given us new information on one of the most popular characters in the Harry Potter series: Remus Lupin - a Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher at Hogwarts. Not only do we hear more about Lupin’s childhood, we also learn more about what Rowling intended to achieve with his character. Lupin, one of the characters most frequently rewritten as gay by Harry Potter fans, was meant to metaphorically represent those with “illnesses that carry a stigma, like HIV and AIDS”:

Remus Lupin was one of my favourite characters in the entire Potter series. I made myself cry all over again while writing this entry, because I hated killing him.

Lupin’s condition of lycanthropy (being a werewolf) was a metaphor for those illnesses that carry a stigma, like HIV and AIDS. All kinds of superstitions seem to surround blood-borne conditions, probably due to taboos surrounding blood itself. The wizarding community is as prone to hysteria and prejudice as the Muggle one, and the character of Lupin gave me a chance to examine those attitudes.

Remus’s Patronus is never revealed in the Potter books, even though it is he who teaches Harry the difficult and unusual art of producing one. It is, in fact, a wolf – an ordinary wolf, not a werewolf. Wolves are family-orientated and non-aggressive, but Remus dislikes the form of his Patronus, which is a constant reminder of his affliction. Everything wolfish disgusts him, and he often produces a non-corporeal Patronus deliberately, especially when others are watching.

Of course, there are… issues here. It can be facetious to follow metaphors through too literally, but comparing lycanthropy and HIV invites deeply problematic comparisons. Let’s restrict ourselves just to the Pottermore entry to begin with.

In it, Rowling describes a community that stigmatises werewolves, who are “so shunned by wizarding society that they generally avoided contact with other people”. She notes that Lupin’s own father, “generally a mild-mannered man”, would describe werewolves as “soulless, evil, deserving nothing but death”. Of course, Lupin is one of the most kind, intelligent and popular characters in the Harry Potter series. Rowling here hopes to make a point about how misplaced and damaging stigmatisation is.

But Lupin is a “good” werewolf – while his condition is often used to reveal prejudice, it is equally as often used to set him apart from other “bad” werewolves. He listens to his doctor, takes his medicine, and isolates himself from anyone he may pose a “danger” to. The passage praises Lupin’s “respectful politeness”, “lonely, itinerant existence”, and his refusal to interact with other people without taking Wolfsbane. It’s all a bit Mark Fowler saying a tearful goodbye before riding away on his motorbike in EastEnders, and plays into the respectability politics that doggedly follows those with stigmatised illnesses. Lupin is a good, responsible patient existing in opposition to those other more threatening patients (who we still need to watch out for). In fact, Lupin is a rare exception that forces people to challenge assumptions that are, in most other circumstances, proved correct.

Rowling goes on to describe Lupin after he has become a werewolf:

[Lupin] was what he had always been – loveable and clever – except for that terrible period at the full moon when he suffered an excruciating transformation and became a danger to everyone around him.

But Lupin is described as loveable despite or aside from his condition – which makes him explicitly a “danger to everyone around him”. His condition is unpredictable and difficult to manage, makes him violent, and puts his friends and family at risk. Even loveable Lupin is made less human by his disease.

All this is before we really consider the other werewolves in the series (and this passage), who are at best so embittered by prejudice that they become horrible and vindictive – and at worst inherently violent. In the Pottermore passage, we learn that Fenrir Greyback (one of the Potter series’s most twisted villains, a werewolf who intentionally hurts, infects and even eats children) was subject to the anti-werewolf slurs of Lupin’s father Lyall, and decided to bite Lupin to teach his father a lesson.

Shortly before Remus Lupin’s fifth birthday, as he slept peacefully in his bed, Fenrir Greyback forced open the boy’s window and attacked him.

The imagery here is loaded – the violence clearly carries sexual undertones. This is something we also see in depictions of Greyback in the books, who, to Ron, calls Hermione “your pretty little friend” and insists “I’ll get a bite or two” out of her. Dumbledore is disgusted by Greyback’s “taste for human flesh that cannot be satisfied”. If being a werewolf is parallel to being a person with HIV, then this moment ascribes to one of our culture’s most offensive smears: that those with sexually transmitted diseases are sexual deviants and will even rape the innocent simply to pass on their symptoms.

This continues throughout the Harry Potter series. In the sixth book, Lupin describes Greyback as “the most savage werewolf alive today”:

He regards it as his mission in life to bite and to contaminate as many people as possible; he wants to create enough werewolves to overcome the wizards. Voldemort has promised him prey in return for his services. Greyback specialises in children... Bite them young, he says, and raise them away from their parents, raise them to hate normal wizards.

Even if Greyback is meant to be a warning about how discrimination can be damaging – the lack of humanity here, and his desire to “recruit” the “normal” into his abnormal community, especially young people, has rhetorical parallels with homophobic , heterosexual fears of the “conversion” of their straight children by perverted older gay men.

But if Greyback is pictured as the worst of werewolves, he is by no means alone. Throughout the series, werewolves are constantly associated with darkness, supporting Voldemort as a community. On Pottermore, Rowling describes werewolves as follows:

While in his or her wolfish form, the werewolf loses entirely its human sense of right or wrong. However, it is incorrect to state (as some authorities have, notably Professor Emerett Picardy in his book Lupine Lawlessness: Why Lycanthropes Don’t Deserve to Live) that they suffer from a permanent loss of moral sense. While human, the werewolf may be as good or kind as the next person. Alternatively, they may be dangerous even while human, as in the case of Fenrir Greyback, who attempts to bite and maim as a man and keeps his nails sharpened into claw-like points for the purpose.

[…]

Genuine wolves are not very aggressive, and the vast number of folk tales representing them as mindless predators are now believed by wizarding authorities to refer to werewolves, not true wolves. A wolf is unlikely to attack a human except under exceptional circumstances. The werewolf, however, targets humans almost exclusively and poses very little danger to any other creature.

By Rowling’s own definitions, it seems like people are right to fear werewolves. They are depicted as inherently more aggressive, more prone to violence, and less human as a result of their condition. They “target” other humans, can lose their sense of their morals, and turn against anyone who does not share their illness. Using them as a metaphor for people with HIV and AIDS is not a progressive move. It seems, at best, woefully ill-considered. At worst, it parrots our society’s most discriminatory fears of stigmatised illnesses.

Anna Leszkiewicz is culture editor of the New Statesman.