So there’s this fun little theory that seems to have started on Reddit and moved into the popular theory sphere. It concerns Harry Potter’s status as a Horcrux, and how it might have affected his extended family the Dursleys, leading to their mistreatment of him throughout childhood.
And it doesn’t hold water.
Look, I can see where the impulse comes from. It’s really hard to stomach the way the Dursleys treat Harry. It would be nicer to believe that their abuse was the result of outside sources beyond their control. That said, the theory doesn’t stack up when we take a closer look.
Here is the idea: a bright fan noticed that Horcruxes can have a deleterious effect on people who are exposed to them. We see the effect manifested most strongly in two Weasley kids—Ron under the influence of Slytherin’s locket and Ginny under the spell of teenaged Tom Riddle’s diary. Both of them display behavior that’s not very nice. Ginny writes some scary things on a wall and opens the Chamber of Secrets without intending to, and Ron abandons his friends at a key point in their quest. Even Harry and Hermione get suspicious and irritable when they’re wearing the Locket. Horcruxes are bad news.
By the same token, it was hypothesized that perhaps the Dursleys weren’t such bad people. Perhaps they were simply acting under the influence of a Horcrux… who happened to be a living person. After all, Harry does contain a piece of Voldemort’s soul, trapped inside him the minute that the Dark Lord attempted to take his life as an infant. So clearly they’re not to blame—it’s all Voldemort’s doing.
But it’s just not true.
Let’s start with the simple and obvious; Harry is a living Horcrux and as such, we cannot automatically assume that the same rules that apply to inanimate Horcruxes apply to him. Nagini doesn’t seem to have ill effect on people (outside of terrifying the crap out of them due to being a gigantic snake), and she is also a living Horcrux. A live Horcrux is likely a very different way of containing part of someone’s soul. It’s not as though Harry is constantly possessed by that little bit of Voldemort he’s got floating around inside—which can be a side effect of some of the other Horcruxes we observe in the series. Safe to assume, it’s a new game entirely when you’ve got that piece of someone’s soul resting alongside another, entirely intact soul.
In addition, while Harry bears the label of Horcrux due to the fact that he carries a piece of Voldemort’s soul, he is not the same as the others; he was created accidentally, without the necessary procedures and incantations that go into making a deliberate, fully realized Horcrux. This is often forgotten when considering Harry’s status alongside the others—it means that the rules that we observe for Horcruxes in general probably don’t mean anything where the Chosen Kid is concerned. It’s important to note that Lily’s magical protection is not at play here, as that only functions to keep Harry from being killed by Voldemort up until the end of his fourth year at Hogwarts. The issue is that a Horcrux requires intent to be created, and very powerful magic has to be concentrated into its formation. The piece of Voldemort’s soul that resides in Harry essentially chipped off on the Killing Curse’s rebound because he’d done so much damage to his soul already by creating multiple Horcruxes prior to the attack—it was rare enough to create just one of them before Tom Riddle started.
But let’s dig deeper. In the final installment of the series, Ron asks Hermione about the nature of Horcruxes, about how they affect people, recalling what happened to his sister in her first year at Hogwarts. This is what Hermione had to say:
“While the magical container is still intact, the bit of soul inside it can flit in and out of someone if they get to close to the object. I don’t mean holding it for too long…I mean close emotionally. Ginny poured her heart out into that diary, she made herself vulnerable. You’re in trouble if you get too fond of or dependent on the Horcrux.”
Matters of the heart give Horcruxes a way in. Ginny needed a confidante, felt she could trust the Tom Riddle she encountered in the diary, and those emotions opened a doorway. It’s notable that Slytherin’s Locket affects Ron for the worse after he hears that his sister has been punished back at school for attempting to steal Gryffindor’s sword with other members of Dumbledore’s Army. He’s afraid for his family, for the people he cares about, and that’s when the Locket finds a way in. In order for Horcruxes to sway a person, you have to care deeply, to be vulnerable, as Hermione says. (It’s also possible that the Locket’s hold on people has nothing to do with it being a Horcrux and everything to do with the magical protections that Tom Riddle put on the Locket to prevent its destruction.)
So this is the reality: even if Harry is capable of affecting the mental and emotional states of others by virtue of being a sort-of Horcrux—and that’s already a theory on thin ice—the Dursleys would first have to be emotionally invested in him for that to even begin to apply. And they clearly aren’t. Their neglect is active disengagement: they treat Harry as a practical servant when he’s a boy and ignore him at the best of times. Even if (as many of us would prefer to believe) Petunia had ever managed to care for her nephew, her husband and son never did. Vernon was vehemently against Harry’s mere presence in his life. Dudley was raised to think that mistreating his cousin was humorous and acceptable. Actual affection and concern was never part of the package. They are never fond of Harry, or reliant on him. Even if we were to argue that the magical protection that Harry’s residency extends to their home is a form of reliance, that’s a practical sort that still doesn’t require them to emotionally engage with him. And engagement is key when letting a Horcrux take hold.
What’s more, Harry doesn’t have that effect on any of the other people in his life, other people he is around for years. If anything, Harry inspires the opposite in people—he makes them want to do good and more and better. It’s part of what makes him an excellent leader.
So that’s the long and short of it. Living Horcruxes are liable to be completely different from non-living ones, and Harry isn’t even a gold standard Horcrux to begin with. But the other factor here is simple, if it applies at all: the Dursleys never cared enough about Harry for him to be affecting in any meaningful way. Their cruelty is not handily explained away because they were exposed to a fragment of Voldemort’s soul while Harry was living under their roof.
It’s still hard to stomach. But it’s unfortunately true.
So I hope that people stop trying to pass off the Dursleys’ behavior as anything less than abuse. It’s not cool. As hard as it might be to accept, they were terrible guardians to a child left in their care. They don’t get an an excuse to hide behind.
Emily Asher-Perrin thinks it’s super relevant that Harry is not a “normal” Horcrux, and it needs to get talked about more often. You can bug her on Twitter and Tumblr, and read more of her work here and elsewhere.