*Disclaimer: The following is based on how the characters are depicted in the Harry Potter book series, not in the movies.
What does it take to turn someone into a killer? What are the ingredients and proper measurements for making a monster? When it comes to psychopathy, known in the mental health community as antisocial personality disorder (APD), there are many debates about nature vs nurture. But one thing that is never in question is the profound impact that a person’s childhood can have on exacerbating that genetic trait. In the case of one of modern literature’s most popular antagonists, Lord Voldemort, the key to understanding him, as Harry’s mentor, Professor Dumbledore, learned early on, was in understanding the circumstances surrounding his conception and early upbringing.
So what was wrong with Voldemort’s upbringing? Not much, actually, but enough that, coupled with his family’s history, it presented a very real problem for him. Though readers don’t officially “meet” Lord Voldemort until we near the end of the Harry Potter series, we start learning of him in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, when Harry’s understanding of his past and present are drastically altered, he discovers that he is a wizard, and the truth behind how he came to be an orphan. We learn then that Lord Voldemort came to kill Harry and that his parents had died protecting the young infant, that Lily’s love had protected her son and the spell which should have killed him instead disembodied Voldemort and only scarred Harry. Though Harry spent the entirety of the series fighting some manifestation or other of Voldemort, who is weakened and seeking to be embodied and powerful again, we don’t learn much about this enigmatic enemy until Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.
In this book, we learn that, contrary to what he grew up believing, his mother and not his father was the “special” one, the magical one. In this book, a young Tom, who is already obsessed with death and how to avoid it (a fascination which could be attributed to the knowledge that at least one of his parents was dead), learns that his mother had lured a handsome Muggle named Tom Riddle into marrying her by using a love potion, that once she’d stopped magically manipulating this man’s affections, he’d abandoned his wife and child. It’s understandable, then, after learning that he’d been named after a man who didn’t love him, that a young Tom would have thus felt compelled to later fashion himself a new name. Tom, who’d already exhibited a predilection for cruelty and torture, also falsely believed that anyone “like him”, with powers, would also be cruel, until he met Professor Dumbledore. Tom’s APD, coupled with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) was dangerous enough, but Tom was also incredibly handsome and intelligent, attributes which he would later exploit as he wore whatever mask was required to get his way. We learn early on that, although orphaned, Voldemort had a much more pleasant childhood in the orphanage, where he was clothed, fed, cared for, and acknowledged, than Harry, and arguably even Sirius Black and Neville. But rather than being grateful, he chose instead to be cruel to the other children whom, like nearly everyone else, he saw as beneath him. It can be argued that, although Voldemort had exhibited evil from a very young age, it was the combination of cruelty and anger that made him dangerous.
What was Tom Riddle so angry about? Being wrong, of course. Tom had imagined a world where his Muggle mother was long dead and his wizard father would be coming back at any moment to save him from mediocrity. What he learned was that his witch mother had been poor and uneducated as a result (Can you say “irony”?) of a bigoted, purist father who would not allow her to attend school with “Mudbloods”. He learned that his Muggle father was quite wealthy, and not the least bit curious about him at all. He learned that his magical side was a shameful laughingstock and that his human side didn’t want him, and never had. Tom learned enough to not just look down on Muggles, but also hate all Muggles, including his Muggle family. And he learned that he couldn’t lead a movement to make the wizarding community “pure” while still having any allegiance to, or letting others have knowledge of, his Muggle heritage.
How can someone manage to hide their family history so effectively? That’s easy: Kill your entire family. Before graduation from Hogwarts, Tom had not only opened up the Chamber of Secrets, attacked several students and killed Myrtle (while effectively managing to frame Hagrid), he had also killed his father and paternal grandparents. One would think that he’d at least have cared more for his mother’s pureblood family, that he’d killed his namesake only in order to avenge her death, but that would be incorrect, as Tom was deeply ashamed of the Gaunts’ lack of wealth and notoriety, using them, as he used everyone else, as a means to an end.
Voldemort is a deeply interesting character because every single thing we know about him is secondhand information. This is obviously a side effect of having only fans, followers, and enemies, no friends or loved ones. But this is the way he wanted it. It’s made very obvious, as readers learn of Tom’s horcruxes and how he charmed his way into possessing many of them, that had he wanted friends, he would have them. Bellatrix Lestrange, though married when she becomes a Death Eater, is more than a little bit infatuated with him, as was nearly every woman whom he met prior to his self-induced physical transformation on the journey to immortality.
Merope Gaunt, though only mentioned briefly, is easily one of the most tragic characters of the Harry Potter series. Young, alone, under-educated, abused, unwanted, and poor, this woman’s story was only a fairy tale for the brief period when she was pulling the strings, and writing the story herself. Merope wanted to be loved for who she was, without magic, but that never happened. The son who had looked down on her when he’d assumed her to be a weak, Muggle woman only grew to loathe her all the more when he learned that she’d been an “incompetent”, love-struck witch. Tom Riddle had inherited his father’s looks and snobbery, his uncle’s cruelty and ability to speak to snakes, and his maternal grandfather’s bigotry, but nothing from Merope. Aptly named, Tom Marvolo Riddle possessed none of her gentleness, tenderness, and desire for a happy, whole family. In Lord Voldemort, we are dealing with a villain whom, if all else in his life had been perfect, could very well have still been evil.
Similar to in-the-closet gay bashers, and the world’s most popular genocidal maniac, Adolf Hitler (whose mother was rumoured to be Jewish), Voldemort’s Achille’s heel was his self-hatred. His desire to be anything other than what he was, to drown his anger and disillusionment in vengeance and power, to chose to be alone after having loneliness forced on him. In arguments of nature versus nurture, it’s important to remember that different people can react to the same situation in different ways. While the things that bring us pain and anger are always valid, ultimately, we are all responsible for our own actions, and no amount of scapegoating can change the past.
So what does it take to create a monster? Incredible power, years of plotting, tremendous support, numerous resources, and absolutely no accountability. If the Harry Potter series and the character of Lord Voldemort taught us anything, it’s that evil can be layered and complex, but no matter what the backstory is, it is still dangerous. It takes a lot to make a monster, but it also takes equal amounts of power, plotting, support, resources, and accountability on the side of good to destroy one.