Let's Talk About That Messed-Up Death Penalty In 'Fantastic Beasts' For Just A Minute

The "Potter"-adjacent movies promise to be just as dark.
Shh, it's just pretend.
Shh, it's just pretend.
Warner Bros

WARNING: Spoilers below for “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.”

In the world of “Harry Potter,” we know there are punishments for people who don’t follow the letter of the law. Book Three, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, gives us a look at the wizarding prison that’s like Alcatraz with Dementors. Those, of course, are the Dark ghoulish entities used to suck out the souls of the worst prisoners and leave them as empty shells ― a fate worse than death.

The latest film adaptation in the series’ universe, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” released Friday, introduces us to another solemn facet of wizarding life. In the 1920s when the film is set, the American wizarding society has its own punishment for rule-breakers ― and it’s possibly even more deranged than Azkaban’s.

Let’s review: When Tina (Katherine Waterston) and Newt (Eddie Redmayne) are sentenced for their suspected role in the mysterious magical destruction happening around New York City, they’re sent to a sterile white room primarily occupied by a dark pool. A witch takes her wand and, as we’ve seen in other “Potter” tales, extracts a long, silver-white thread of memory from Tina’s head. She tosses it into the pool, where it blossoms into a series of warm scenes that hypnotize Tina, who slides into a chair floating above the pool. While Tina gazes at her happy memories like a moth drawn to light, the pool rises up around her, forming a sinister jaw of silver-black liquid that burns through the chair as easily as volcanic lava.

She’s saved by Newt in the nick of time ― but what if she hadn’t been? Does the American wizarding society really burn people to death with scary magic lava? Is that humane because prisoners can’t see their fate coming? Is it inhumane because, um, scary magic lava? Is this a children’s movie? What?

The original eight “Harry Potter” films certainly visit dark places. We see witches and wizards fight dark powers that include spells that kill, spells that torture, spells that bind victims to the caster’s will, magic to create a drink that causes a person to see terrible things, magic that splits souls, magic that binds a soul to another body, magic that creates a grotesque human figure out of a cauldron.

The American magical community’s penalty may be simply a reflection of the times. Azkaban outlawed Dementors after the Second Wizarding War overseas in the mid-’90s ― perhaps Americans would have softened their prison system by that time, as well. Or perhaps not, because the main reason Dementors were outlawed was their defection to Voldemort’s side. Scary magic lava doesn’t seem to have such a presence of mind.

Whatever the case, it seems like the next four “Fantastic Beasts” films are set to go way beyond showing the lovable Newt Scamander sheepishly bumbling around with his box of creatures. (As much as it warms our hearts to watch him do that.) With the capture of dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp, bizarrely) and his ominous threat at the first movie’s end, it’s all but promised that Grindelwald will feature prominently in the second installment.

If he’s anything like Voldemort, which he is, we’re in for another set of films that aren’t afraid to go to dark places. We’ll see black spells put to use ― even, evidently, by the “good guys” at the American wizarding society.

But this is “Harry Potter.” Good triumphs over evil and love trumps hate; by the end of “Fantastic Beasts,” we can expect the inherent optimism of J.K. Rowling’s series to pull us into the light.

“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” is now in theaters.

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