Monday, May 23, 2022

The Magic of Memory

Amnesia is an old trope in fiction, all the way back when Fred Flintstone was clocked over the head with a frying pan and suffered a football player level concussion. While getting hit in the head and forgetting is usually done for a laugh, when magic is involved the amnesia trope takes a more serious tone. The exploration of memory loss turns from a well timed joke to a timeless message about loss and the space a person makes when they're no longer there. 

Trigger warning: Suicide

"Better if I was Never Born"

Modern fiction sees the first incident of magical amnesia in It's a Wonderful Life when Clarence shows a suicidal George Bailey what the world would be like if he was never born. Not exactly a memory spell but it may as well be. We see that without George Bailey, nobody is happy. His wife is an old maid (kinda sexist I know but this was 1946), his mother takes in boarders since her only son is now dead because nobody saved him from the ice when he was a kid. With nobody recognizing George he is lost, begging Clarence to let him live again so that he could be part of the world full of people he loves. The message is that no matter how hard life is the world is always better with you in it, which is a message that is still true today. The memory loss emphasizes the point in the most direct way it could come across. 

(Side note: I once had to write a 13 page dissertation about how Potter in It's a Wonderful Life was the good guy. It was fun to defend the villain but after watching that movie so many times over the course of a month I couldn't watch it for a couple years after, despite it being one of the few Christmas movies I actually like)

The Curse to End All Curses

If you haven't watched Once Upon A Time, frankly I don't blame you because it is a wild trip and may not be for everyone, but I liked it. Anyway, the first season centers around this curse the Evil Queen casts on the Enchanted Forest that's supposed to tear everyone away from their happily ever afters. What the curse does is transports everyone to a little town in Maine and makes them all forget their pasts, giving them fake identities and making them all shadows of their former selves. We go back and fourth between the little Maine town and the magical land before getting to know these characters in both states, watching how Snow White was a strong willed rebel and Prince Charming was a knight errant only to see Snow as a meek teacher afraid to voice her own opinion and Charming as a two-timing jerk. It's up to our main characters Emma and Henry to remind everyone who they really are. The interesting message here is just how close to the Gospel the entire affair is (Minus Rumpelstiltskin and the entire Disney vault being involved). It talks about being something before, something magnificent and beautiful, and remembering that person in the now, trying to identify with the parts that are magical and special. In this sense Emma and Henry are essentially missionaries without nametags. Obviously a powerful message if it's taught by missionaries all over the world, just without Snow White et al. 


No, I'm not talking about Gilderoy Lockheart. 

Harry Potter and The Deathly Hollows Part 1 starts with tears when we see Hermione casting the memory charm on her own parents, erasing her from their memories. We see the baby pictures on the mantle disappear and their eyes glazing over as the spell takes over. Hermione knows that the best way to keep her parents safe is to erase herself from their memories in case the Death Eaters show up and start asking questions. While the memory charms are touchy in the Harry Potter universe (the muggle guy in Crimes of Grindlewald just kind of shrugged it off with the help of his manipulative girlfriend), this scene is still heartbreaking to think that Hermione will probably never be able to see her family again, choosing their safety over her own needs. This theme will come up again later and while it's heartbreaking it does counteract the message from It's a Wonderful Life so it should be read cautiously. 


For the non-comic book readers let me give you a quick synopsis on the comic Identity Crisis. A murder mystery leads to the discovery that a small group within the Justice League has been going to villains who find out the identities of super heroes and erasing their minds with Zatanna's magic. Batman walked in on the heroes and tried to stop them only for Zatanna to freeze him and erase his memory of them being caught. The question behind this is if you have the power to erase memories to protect others, do you? And what if someone disagrees, do you have the right to erase their memories too? The implications of the memory wipes escalates in the comics to Batman becoming paranoid after finding out he's been manipulated, Catwoman finding out that Zatanna got to her to make her a good guy and questioning everything she believes about herself, and a dangerous villain trying to take vengeance on the league for not only altering his memories but partially lobotomizing him in the first place. The story brings up questions of accountability, manipulation and is a person who they are supposed to be if part of who they are is missing. 

Under Your Spell

Along with Zatanna messing with memories to protect heroes identities, we have Willow from Buffy the Vampire Slayer messing with memories to protect her relationship. By the later seasons Willow has become a full-fledged witch, and has started using her magic in unsafe ways. On one of her first dalliances she accidentally erases the entire Scooby gang's memories and we get a funny episode of nobody knowing who they are. We get the serious stuff when it's revealed that Willow's been erasing her girlfriend Tara's memories of them fighting, thus manipulating Tara into staying with her even though she's abusing magic. The theme here goes into gaslighting in relationships, lying and manipulation to keep a person with you. When Tara finds out she breaks up with Willow, making Willow's plan backfire in the end. 

Peter Who? 

More recent memory mishaps happen in Spider-Man: No Way Home where Dr. Strange agrees to help Spider-Man erase his secret identity from everyone's memories, thus letting his friends and family go back to having a normal life. After the spell fails and some multiverse shenanigans happen Dr. Strange casts the spell again, this time making it so everyone forgets who Peter Parker is. This plays out a lot like the It's a Wonderful Life lesson, except Peter decides that it's best if the world did forget about him and just know him as Spider-Man. He believes he can then let his friends have a normal life and that they can't be hurt by getting in the way of his heroism. The message here is that maybe it is better that they don't know Peter Parker is Spider-Man, which implies that it's better for Peter to disappear than be part of the world. See the issue here? 

The point of all the memory plotlines is that we are who we are because of our memories. When we lose parts of our memories we lose parts of who we are, so those parts, even if painful, are still worth having because they forge us to be better. Our relationships are made up of memories as well, when you see a friend on the street you're not excited to see them for no reason, it's because you remember how much you love them and how much fun they are to be around. When that person is gone, there's a hole left behind that can't be refilled without them. 

So when it comes to memory remember this: people would rather remember a life with you in it than without, and the only way to move forward is to make new memories both good and bad, because to not make new memories at all is just as bad as forgetting altogether. 

Also remember that really every mechanic in the Harry Potter universe is unstable and will never make sense. 


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