Cookies help us deliver our Services. By using our Services, you agree to our use of cookies. Learn More.

The Dark History Of Voldemort

The "Harry Potter" novels and movies are technically aimed at children, but they also enjoy huge popularity among adults because the franchise wades into much darker and more mature themes than standard kid-friendly fare. The grimmest aspect of "Harry Potter" is embodied in its main villain, Tom Marvolo Riddle aka Lord Voldemort. 

A dark wizard so deeply feared that most people in the "Harry Potter" series refuse to say his name, Voldemort combines the worst aspects of Sauron from "The Lord of the Rings" and Hannibal Lecter, with a bit of inspiration from real-world despots and bigots also thrown into the mix. Far from a one-dimensional baddie, Voldemort has a complex backstory and tangible motivations for his desire to rule over the wizarding world of "Harry Potter."

After only being mentioned and whispered about in the first three books/movies of the franchise Voldemort makes his proper debut in "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," played in the film by Ralph Fiennes. While many of the bad things Voldemort does are on display in the series, a lot of the worst stuff from his backstory is only hinted at or referred to in passing. Here are some of the worst aspects of Tom Riddle's backstory that turned him into the dreaded Lord Voldemort. 

A product of trauma

The tragedy of Tom Riddle's life began before he was ever born. In the town of Little Hangleton, there lived a prominent muggle (non-magical) family called the Riddles. The handsome young son of the family, Tom Riddle, became the object of obsession for Merope Gaunt, who belonged to a poor wizarding family from the same village. 

With no hope of getting to know Tom under ordinary circumstances, Merope resorted to using a love potion to brainwash him into falling in love with her. Under the spell of the potion, Tom married Merope, and their son Tom Marvolo Riddle was born. After some time, Merope stopped using the love potion on Tom Sr., who immediately left her and his young son in disgust and returned to his ancestral home with the Riddles.

The fact that Lord Voldemort was birthed under the circumstances of brain-washing and non-consensual consummation carries special significance, according to series creator J.K. Rowling, and Merope died soon afterward. Thus, Tom Marvolo Riddle was raised as an orphan. "[Voldemort] came from a loveless union," Rowling stated in an interview with Bloomsbury Publishing (via The Leaky Cauldron). "But of course, everything would have changed if Merope had survived and raised him herself and loved him." Rowling added, "The enchantment under which Tom Riddle fathered Voldemort is important because it shows coercion, and there can't be many more prejudicial ways to enter the world than as the result of such a union."

If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN's National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

A bully since childhood

Considering the sorry circumstances under which Tom Marvolo Riddle grew up, you might think his younger self would cut a deeply tragic figure, but this was far from the case. Lord Voldemort's cruel and dominant nature was not something he picked up in later years — it was always a pronounced part of his personality.

In "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," the titular protagonist of the franchise does a deep dive into Voldemort's backstory to understand what makes the dark wizard tick. Harry discovers that Tom Riddle spent the first 11 years of his life in a muggle orphanage run by a woman named Mrs. Cole. Even back then despite not yet being a teenager, Tom Riddle had already started developing a scary reputation among the other children. 

"[Tom] scares the other children," Mrs. Cole says at one point in the story. "But it's very hard to catch him at it." Among the cruelties inflicted by Tom Riddle on the other children of the orphanage are: somehow making Billy Stubbs' pet rabbit hang itself from the rafters and leading Amy Benson and Dennis Bishop into a secret cave. No one knows what Tom did to Amy and Dennis inside the cave, but the children were deeply traumatized by the incident and could never bring themselves to talk about it again.

Dumbledore always knew Tom Riddle was disturbed

On the eve of turning 11 years old, Tom Riddle gets visited in his orphanage by a mysterious man named Albus Dumbledore, who informs Riddle of his wizarding heritage and offers him a position at the most famous magical school in the world: Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. 

What Tom does not know is that Dumbledore is not just a Hogwarts teacher, but he's also the greatest wizard in the world and an uncommonly intelligent dude. In the first few minutes of their meeting, Tom allows the façade of normalcy he puts on for the rest of the world to slip, and Dumbledore can catch a glimpse of the true darkness lurking beneath the surface.

After that, when Tom starts attending Hogwarts, he can charm all the other teachers through playacting at being a polite and obedient student, but he never tries to exert his charm on Dumbledore. Even back then, Riddle realized that Dumbledore suspected his true nature and would not be as easily manipulated by flattery or charm. Thus, the rivalry that came to define Dumbledore and Voldemort's relationship in their later years found its roots in their earliest interactions, when Tom Riddle was still only a fresh-faced student.  

Starting a life of crime early

Despite being born without a family support system or even being aware of his true heritage, Tom Riddle always had a remarkable amount of confidence in himself, as well as a breathtaking measure of ruthlessness. Both these traits were evident in his early years at the orphanage, and they came out in full force at Hogwarts.

Using his genius intellect, Tom soon established himself as a model student in front of teachers. In private, he started gathering a coterie of friends and followers who'd commit all kinds of crimes against other students on Tom's orders without him ever getting blamed for it. Tom Riddle also finally learned about his heritage as a descendant of Salazar Slytherin and the Gaunt family

Armed with this knowledge, Riddle opened the Chamber of Secrets in his fifth year, which directly led to the death of a Hogwarts schoolgirl who would come to be known as "Moaning Myrtle." Then, during the summer before his sixth year, Riddle took a journey to the village where his birth father lived. Not only did Tom murder his father's entire family, but he also pinned the blame for the crime on his Uncle Morfin, and took from him the signet ring family heirloom belonging to Salazar Slytherin. 

The murder of Hepzibah Smith

By the time he graduated from Hogwarts, Tom Riddle had already become well-versed in leading a secret criminal life while presenting a respectable appearance in front of regular society. The ascent of Lord Voldemort was still some years away. In the meantime, Riddle had to find gainful employment in a regular profession. 

The answer lay with Borgin and Burkes, a well-known (and rather disreputable) wizarding establishment that specializes in the buying and selling of exotic magical items. Riddle worked at the shop for some time as an "assistant," and he got tasked with negotiating the sale of particularly controversial items which might not have been obtained legally. In this capacity, Riddle befriended an old, rich witch named Hepzibah Smith.

Hepzibah was smitten with Riddle, and he used his charm to try to convince her to give up some valuable items she owns. One day Hepzibah showed Tom her two most precious items: Helga Hufflepuff's cup and Salazar Slytherin's locket. This proved to be Hepzibah's undoing, as Tom wasted no time in finishing her off and taking the cup and the locket. After that, Borgin and Burkes never heard from Tom Riddle again, as the young sorcerer disappeared from society and properly embarked on the road to becoming the most dreaded wizard of all time. 

Moving beyond redemption

In his youth, Tom Riddle had often been acknowledged for being an uncommonly good-looking man. Those good looks and an unfailingly polite manner helped Riddle gain the confidence of most people. But after disappearing from society for some time following the death of Hepzibah Smith, a drastic change began to occur to Riddle's appearance. 

As is described in "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" by Dumbledore, Riddle spent the next decade falling deeper and deeper into the embrace of the dark arts in his quest for power and immortality. More specifically, this is the time when Riddle began the ancient and taboo practice of splitting his soul into separate parts via murder to create "Horcruxes." Each of these Horcruxes was placed inside objects of great value to Riddle, guaranteeing his immortality even if his physical body perishes.  

Due to the repeated breaking apart of his soul, Riddle's physical appearance became steadily more grotesque and horrifying, but he did not care. In fact, it was around this time that Riddle started referring to himself as Lord Voldemort, thereby permanently severing all past connections to his life as Tom Riddle, and gathering an army of dark wizards around himself to one day take over the world. 

Placing a curse on Hogwarts

After rising rapidly through the ranks of the wizarding underworld in his new guise as Lord Voldemort, Tom Riddle made a somewhat unusual next movie by applying for the job of teaching Defense Against the Dark Arts at Hogwarts. Dumbledore had already become the new headmaster when Riddle arrived at the school for his personal interview.

From the moment he walked into Dumbledore's office, it was clear that Riddle has changed beyond all recognition. It was not just his face and voice that were completely different, but an aura of menace that the former Hogwarts pupil now openly exuded. At first, Riddle tried to keep up the pretense of politeness when talking to Dumbledore. But once the headmaster made it clear he has no intention of giving him the job, Riddle's mask slipped away. 

In the last few moments of their meeting, Dumbledore tried to appeal to Riddle's better nature, but it soon became amply clear that nothing could turn Riddle from his dark path now. Later, it was revealed that the only reason Riddle applied for the post of a teacher was to get inside the Room of Requirement to stash away Rowena Ravenclaw's diadem, which was then a Horcrux. Before leaving Hogwarts, Riddle also placed a curse on the establishment, which means that no other person would be able to hold on to the position of Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher for more than a year.  

A reign of terror

After failing to secure a job at Hogwarts, Voldemort embarked on his plan of conquest in earnest. The next few years were dark times for the wizarding world, as Lord Voldemort and his army of Death Eaters and assorted evil magical creatures attacked Britain from all sides and brutally cut down anyone who stood in their way. 

So great was the terror exerted by Voldemort that people were afraid to even say his name. That is the time when the Dark Lord came to be known by such monikers as "He Who Must Not Be Named" or simply "You Know Who." These names would continue to follow Voldemort even after his first fall at the hands of Harry Potter, proving just how great a hold he still exerts over the popular imagination of the wizarding world in the events of the main story. 

It was also around this time that Voldemort gave a few of his Horcruxes to his most trusted servants with instructions to keep the objects under strict lock and key at all costs. One such servant was Regulus Black, who, unknown to Voldemort, had decided to stop being a Death Eater, and who left behind clues to the location of one of the Horcruxes that would one day be deciphered by Dumbledore and Harry.  

The fall and the second coming of Voldemort

On 31 October 1981, Voldemort arrived at Godric's Hollow to kill an infant named Harry Potter who was prophesied to be the one to end Voldemort's reign of terror. Unexpectedly, the Dark Lord was unable to kill the baby, and in fact, his own body got destroyed, leaving his fragmented soul an empty husk that fled into the forests of Albania for safety. 

Over the next 11 years, Voldemort remained in hiding while plotting his return. He lived a parasitic life, quite literally leeching on the soul of Professor Quirrell while trying to find a magical item called the Philosopher's Stone that could restore him to power. 

Early on in the books and films, Harry Potter, an 11-year-old student at Hogwarts, manages to thwart that plan. But Harry cannot stop former Death Eater Peter Pettigrew from joining Voldemort two years later.

Thanks to Pettigrew's assistance, Voldemort is able to hatch a plan that finally brings him back to full power at the end of Harry's fourth year at Hogwarts. This starts the second great Wizarding War, as Voldemort makes yet another attempt to take over Britain with his army. Finally, after a long, painful battle to find and destroy the remaining Horcruxes, the Dark Lord gets beaten by Harry in his seventh year and finished off for good.  

The dark offspring

The one thing that has always typified Lord Voldemort's character is his complete disregard for any human being other than himself. Despite having an army of followers, Voldemort treats all of them as disposable fodder in his quest to gain ultimate power — all except Bellatrix Lestrange, Voldemort's only prominent female follower. 

Even among Death Eaters, Bellatrix is infamous for her extreme cruelty, like the time she literally tortured Neville Longbottom's parents until they lost their minds and taunted Neville about the incident when she met him years later. Bellatrix's cruelty is only matched by her utter devotion to Voldemort, which leads to an unexpected union that would have major implications decades after the events of the final "Harry Potter" novel. 

In "Harry Potter and the Cursed Child," it is revealed that Voldemort fathered a child with Bellatrix somewhere during the events of "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix." That child is then raised in secret, and grows up to become Delphini, who attends Hogwarts at the same time as Harry's children. Delphini would later attempt to resurrect Voldemort using a time-turner, but the attempt is successfully thwarted by the children of Harry and Draco Malfoy.

A complete hypocrite

While Voldemort is possibly the most skilled magician in history, that alone is not enough to make him the most dreaded dark wizard the world has ever seen. A big part of Voldemort's power comes from his army of Death Eaters, who all rally behind Voldemort's call to eliminate non-pure-blood wizards and witches from society.

This philosophy of pure-blood supremacy finds echoes in Voldemort's ancestor Salazar Slytherin, but the truth is Voldemort never really believed in this idea like he wants his followers to think. Tom Riddle himself is a half-blood wizard with a muggle father, but that never stops Riddle from believing he deserves to rule the wizarding world as its unquestioned master. 

Also, as Dumbledore points out in the books, Voldemort had to decide whether his prophesied slayer would be pure-blood Neville Longbottom or the half-blood Harry Potter. Voldemort choose Harry, confirming that the Dark Lord did see non-pure-bloods as able wizards who could pose a genuine threat. In the end, Voldemort did not really believe that pure-bloods were superiors, but he was willing to spout that rhetoric just to gain followers. 

A reason for his madness?

Befitting his status as one of the most famous villains in the history of fiction, a lot of academic research has been done into the inner workings of the mind of Lord Voldemort. Many experts have weighed in on the issue, with the general consensus being that Voldemort exhibits many signs of suffering from an "anti-social personality disorder." 

J.K. Rowling seems to agree with this assessment. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, the author described Voldemort as "a raging psychopath, devoid of the normal human responses to other people's suffering." While everyone seems to agree that Voldemort is incapable of feeling empathy, the question of why he is this way might be answered by looking at his lineage. Voldemort is a descendant of the Slytherin family, who prided themselves on being pure-bloods. This pure-blood mania compelled Slytherin's descendants to inbreed heavily. 

In turn, this led to Voldemort's family on his mother's side, the Gaunts, suffering from many genetic defects due to years of inbreeding. It is possible that the defects that showed up outwardly in Voldemort's mother and her relatives took a different form in Tom Riddle. Of course, his years of splitting his soul into smaller pieces only served to increase Voldemort's tendencies, making him steadily more wicked in later books and movies. 

If you or someone you know needs help with mental health, please contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), or visit the National Institute of Mental Health website.

His final fate

While Voldemort is the most dreaded wizard in the world, there is something that terrifies him as well, and that thing is death itself. The chief governing fear of Voldemort's life is that he would die and be forgotten like any other ordinary mortal. 

It is this fear of death that leads Voldemort to split his soul into seven Horcruxes. It is this same fear that leads him to crave the Philosopher's Stone and, later, the Deathly Hallows as pathways to immortality. Yet, nothing works. In the end, Harry kills Voldemort with his own spell, and the Dark Lord is last seen as a mutilated soul, curled up miserably in a place beyond time and space that Harry briefly visits with Dumbledore. 

According to J.K. Rowling, that place, which takes the physical form of King's Cross station, is "a kind of limbo between life and death." That is where Voldemort will spend the rest of eternity. "He is not a ghost," Rowling states. "He is forced to exist in the stunted form we witnessed in King's Cross." And so Voldemort technically gets his wish, in the end, of being unable to die, but he is also not able to enter the world of the living ever again. 

Voldemort was also scary off-screen

After years of only being fearfully mentioned or seen in brief flashbacks, the movie "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" presents audiences with the live-action version of Lord Voldemort. At the end of the movie, Voldemort gets resurrected in all his terrible glory, and he is played by renowned British actor Ralph Fiennes.

Naturally, playing such an iconic villain comes with a bunch of responsibilities to do the role justice. "I think the one thing we were aiming for [with Voldemort's character] was a sort of question," Fiennes told Dark Horizons. "A certain amount of unpredictability in him so no one quite knows what he's going to do next or say next, which I hope makes him slightly sort of dangerous."

The actor's strategy worked, and he knew his take on Voldemort was going to be a hit when he saw the reaction of children to him in full costume. "[On set] the script supervisor had a little boy, he was on set," Fiennes told Graham Norton. "I just looked at the boy, and he burst into tears." After that unusual moment on the "Harry Potter" set, the actor grew certain that he was going to be able to be truly menacing in front of the camera.