susan young animation

Trauma, metamorphosis and animation

PhD by practice: Royal College of Art


This thesis examines animation’s capacity to process psychological trauma. Child abuse, rape, domestic violence, military combat and other extreme life events typically disrupt an individual’s ability to regulate their emotions, memories, thought patterns and behavior. Posttraumatic stress disorder often manifests as a consequence, commonly accompanied by a range of associated problems including substance abuse, explosive outbursts, suicidal ideation, and difficulties with interpersonal relationships. If the psychic disturbance is extreme or chronic, serious dissociative or personality disorders may develop. Due to their aetiological complexity, these conditions are exceptionally difficult to address through conventional verbal treatments.
I suggest that animation has the capacity to function as a form of moving visual therapy, potentially facilitating the metabolism of traumatic memory and positively engaging with trauma’s psychoform and somatoform symptoms and structural dissociation.
I intend to examine this hypothesis by exploring the following research propositions:

1. Animation may facilitate the processing of an individual’s trauma narrative through an involvement with sequential activities that invoke mnemonic representations and somatic responses.
2. The practice of animation requires an engagement with specific systemic and semiotic patterns of thinking which could be therapeutic for trauma survivors.
3. The degree of personal control that an animator has over the medium might also help those whose sense of autonomy and bodily integrity has been shattered by abuse or violence.
4. Animation’s frame-by-frame nature encourages both the use of metamorphosis and the juxtaposition of potentially disparate imagery over a considerable period of time. This may allow an exploration of the paradoxically rigidly fixed yet mutable bodily sensations, emotional responses and psychological defence mechanisms typically experienced by a trauma survivor.
5. The medium can invoke an almost trance-like state in both animator and viewer. Cognitive and neurobiological processes involved in the creation and watching of animation might be responsible for this effect and have a direct bearing on its potential for expressing, embodying and understanding trauma.
6. Animation processes may enable dissociated experiences to be reintegrated by bridging past and present, and the screening of any work created offers up the possibility of bearing witness to historical trauma.

The research questions outlined above evolved due to personal experience of complex posttraumatic stress disorder. My decision to become an animator was in part made when I discovered that the medium had the capacity to focus attention and mitigate the damaging impact of intrusive trauma-related thought processes and self-destructive behaviour. As my career progressed, this ameliorative effect continued, intensifying in the aftermath of further traumatic episodes. It is possible that this evaluation of the ostensibly healing impact of animation on my own experience of trauma was influenced by subsequent professional success, and that I may be confusing correlation with causation, but the fact that I experienced animation’s apparently therapeutic qualities prior to deciding upon and developing a career and expertise in the field, suggests that the medium did indeed have an immediate and verifiable effect separate from the self-esteem engendered by career success. In order to minimise the possibility of bias, research findings will be scrutinised carefully, and external clinical sources will be consulted in order to further challenge and clarify the viability of my findings.


My methodology follows principles of reflexivity and includes a series of self-reflective film experiments and case studies. The research approach is a variant of observing participation. Cycles of analysis are built into the process enabling a constant external reassessment and reevaluation of my findings, and in tandem with this I continue an internal dialogue with my own responses, reinforcing the primacy of the embodied and experiential within my research, and ensuring that both external and internal dialogues remain balanced and complementary to each other.

1. Theoretical considerations

An ongoing analysis of trauma research, from the pioneering work conducted by Pierre Janet through to that of contemporary specialists including Bessal van der Kolk, Judith Herman, Onno van der Hart and others, continues to inform my understanding of the aetiology of psychological trauma. Dialogue with academics in the fields of psychiatry, psychology, clinical neuroscience, art therapy and memory studies enables an interactive interrogation of my research propositions, as does correspondence with clinicians currently treating combat veterans, victims of interpersonal abuse and users of mental health services.
My study of trauma-related psychiatric literature is complemented by an examination of phenomenological and anthropological texts, including those with a focus on concepts of metamorphosis and on shamanic belief systems, which may be metaphorically relevant to my hypotheses. This ongoing literature review provides me with a clear theoretical understanding of the nature of psychological trauma, and supplies a sound philosophical basis for my research.
A detailed written analysis of the potential use of animation as a medium for the representation of trauma, and in particular its function as a possible tool to assist or promote positive psychological change will result from this research upon its completion.

2. Film experiments

My own practice self-reflectively explores historical personal archives, reinterpreting traumatic past events, and reconnecting them to the present through the use of text, drawings, photographs, film and other tangible objects. This aspect of my research questions whether animation’s symbolic form, process-oriented, sequential and temporal characteristics, and potential for patterns of repetition and the manipulation of imagery through editing methods, suggest that the medium is a particularly effective vehicle for the expression and resolution of complex traumatic memories that tend to remain ‘stuck’ and inaccessible to conventional psychotherapy. The utilisation of raw material including specific historical and visual imagery that is personally relevant to the individual and their trauma history is intended to reflect the unique manner in which that individual’s traumatic memories may manifest themselves.

3. Workshops and collaborative projects

I encourage an exploration of my hypotheses through drawing and animation workshops, and my film experiments are designed for use in these situations. Charting a path through the bewildering complexity of posttraumatic symptoms requires an engagement with a range of psychological challenges, and animated filmmaking can be beneficial to those involved in this process.
I collaborate with mental health professionals and creative individuals working with people affected by trauma across a range of settings, from medium secure units through to less formal structures, including interested groups who are not necessarily defined as suffering from any clinical condition.
Liaison with a variety of mental health and arts organisations has enabled an interdisciplinary dialogue with clinicians, scientists and artists, and this will continue to evolve as my research develops over time.

Research outcomes

Outcomes include both my thesis and a series of animated experiments testing research hypotheses relating to the medium’s capacity for processing traumatic memories and experiences. These will be of interest to clinicians, occupational therapists and filmmakers who may wish to develop therapeutic approaches involving animation for the treatment of trauma. The act of testifying, of being heard, seen, believed, and crucially, understood, is critically important to trauma survivors, and facilitating this process through public dissemination of my experiments is of particular interest in this research. The importance of the sharing of experience is beautifully illustrated by the following observation, made by a veteran of the first Lebanon War after watching Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir:
‘Despite the differences between my experience of the massacres and that of Folman, it was my war on the screen in Waltz with Bashir. But it was also his, and that of the people he portrayed. Not my war, but our war. And suddenly, almost miraculously, I am not alone’. (Animated Recollection and Spectatorial Experience in Waltz with Bashir, Landesman and Bender 2011).