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Children can't wave magic wands to make their fears disappear, but Harry Potter might help them learn to face them.
In The Prisoner of Azkaban, the latest movie installment of J.K. Rowling's series, Harry is tormented by an escaped convict hunting for him, by omens that foreshadow his death and by ''dementors'' -- ghoulish prison guards -- who have strange powers over him.
Despite the movie's dark premise, some experts say the film's overarching theme of confronting and overcoming fears -- a common thread through much of the series about the young wizard -- sends a positive message to young viewers.
''Superficially, it's about witches and wizards and magic and all that other stuff,'' says Syd Brown, a clinical psychologist in Bethesda, Md. ''In fact, it's a tribute to perseverance and resilience.''
In one scene at Hogwarts School, Professor Lupin helps the young witches and wizards visualize their worst fears and then turn them into ridiculous portrayals.
Harry's sidekick Ron imagines roller skates on a giant spider's feet. The scary Professor Snape turns into a hunched-over grandmother in silly clothes. And a hissing snake morphs into a gentle clown.
''Visualization and humor are great ways to get kids to overcome fears,'' says Lawrence Shapiro, a child psychologist in Norwalk, Conn., and author of The Secret Language of Children.
Michael Brody, a child psychiatrist and chairman of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry's television and media committee, says the Lupin scene in particular has played out in movies before.
For example, Yoda helps Luke Skywalker overcome his fear of Darth Vader by using The Force in The Empire Strikes Back.
But Brody says not all children with a fear of water can be thrown into the deep end like the young Harry.
''He realizes that he has power over the dementors,'' Brody says. ''That's Harry Potter. But for most kids, to be confronted with the exact things they're frightened of could freak them out and create more trauma.''
Research also has suggested that this visualization technique -- think the cliché of imagining the audience in their underwear when giving a speech -- is successful only some of the time. Repeated interaction with the object that scares children is more effective, says Tom Ollendick, a professor of psychology at Virginia Tech University who has studied fears and phobias in children for more than 30 years.
''When the fears and phobias are presented in reality, they often will disappear more rapidly and consistently than with just imagination,'' he says.
Others say they are skeptical of the film's ability to get the messages across.
Jerome Singer, a professor emeritus of psychology at Yale University whose research includes media and imagination, says younger filmgoers might be confused and frightened instead of empowered by the latest Harry Potter flick.
''Some of it is lost on them,'' he says.
Melissa Caldwell, director of research and publications for the Parents Television Council, says that if children are old enough to read the books, they probably can handle the movie.
But she cautions that parents should be the ones making that decision given the movie's darker content.
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