12/23/2012 09:33 am ET Updated Feb 20, 2013

Of Deities and Dragons: Newtown, Trauma and the Uses of Fantasy

The muzak was playing "Tis the season to be jolly" when I walked into the supermarket on Friday December 14. But people were gathered in a tense little group around the store's video screen watching something unimaginably horrific--parents crying for their murdered children in Newtown Connecticut, only a few hundred miles away. But what made me cry was a photo the next day in the Boston Globe of the surviving children being led out in a line, hands on each other shoulders, as if on their way to some happy expedition off campus. Except that the children were not happy. They were shocked, tear-stained, devastated. In a word, traumatized.

What do we say to these traumatized children? What can we say to them? That everything will be alright? That they'll get over it soon?

Over the last few months I have been spending a lot of time researching childhood, trauma and fantasy. No I'm not a psychologist. I'm a professor and have been recently working on a book on Hayao Miyazaki, the Japanese animation director. Miyazaki is globally popular for his enchanting family-oriented movies such as My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away, and Ponyo. These fantasy films offer beautiful imagery, magical situations and upbeat endings. But they also feature young protagonists, sometimes as young as four or five years old, who confront painful, even traumatic events, that they must overcome. In Totoro the event is a mother's serious illness, in Spirited Away it is the loss of both parents (who are transformed into pigs), and in Ponyo it is a tsunami that inundates an entire fishing village and leads to the disappearance of a five-year-old boy's mother.

The children cope. In Totoro they find a furry woodland deity who helps them in moments of stress and despair. In Spirited Away the ten -year -old heroine goes to work in a bathhouse for the gods in order to rescue her transmogrified parents. And in Ponyo the boy and a magical five-year-old girl conjure a little boat that allows them to float above the flooded town and reunite with the boy's mother.

The situations are scary and there are times when the child protagonists are potentially in danger. But the children I know who have seen and loved Miyazaki's films seem to understand that the trauma presented is one that can be worked through. It helps that Miyazaki works in the mode of fantasy, where situations that might be overwhelming to children in a realistic film are presented at a safe remove through the magical situations he places them into. It also helps that he presents his child protagonists as exceptionally resourceful and resilient. In this he is not being unduly optimistic. Child development specialists tell us over and over that children are indeed amazingly resilient and capable of transcending the most awful of horrors.

The fantastic mode is a particularly effective way for us to process trauma. Watching or reading fantasy we can work through our fears in a world that is like but also enough unlike our own to allow us to stay within a comfort zone of reassurance. Perhaps it says something about contemporary society that the popularity of fantasy in film and literature is at an all time high. Fantasy is not necessarily escapist. It may be therapeutic.

And it may be no coincidence that the film version of The Hobbit, which was released the same day as the Newtown massacre, has had record attendance levels so far. Dragons are scary but they dwell in far away enchanted realms and are far less threatening than arms bearing young men who might live in the same town as you. And the Everyhobbit Bilbo, while not a child, is an innocent who confronts and transcends dangers within and without and who ultimately survives the dragon.

The author of The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien, fought in the trenches in World War One and lost some of his closest friends. Miyazaki at four years old lived through the fire bombing of Tokyo in World War Two. They turned these traumatic experiences into richly realized fantasy worlds that explore the shadowy side of life at the same time as they celebrate the wonder of living.

I do not know what Miyazaki might think or Tolkien might have thought about Newtown. Perhaps even they might lose hope if they had to confront the horror of twenty murdered children. But I prefer to think that they would (and in Miyazaki's case will), continue to create works of art that they could present to the surviving children who walked in a huddled line out of that school. Works of art that say, "I know, I hear. I was there and I came through. And so will you."