First, the play allows them an expression of instinctual energy in a setting that is generally not particularly destructive or dangerous. With parents benignly watching over the play, children can literally get away with "monstrous acts" and if they are too rambunctious, they are easily controlled (as Max's mother does in the book).
Second, and just as important, the child through this play can transform their own intense anxiety about being attacked by "monsters" into an identification with the monster. In children's games, this is a pleasurable experience, and helps to lessen the normal kinds of fears and anxieties that are a part of childhood.
Thus we can see the origins of what has become known as the "Stockholm Syndrome" or Anna Freud's concept of "identification with the aggressor."
By taking on some characteristic of a thing which causes extreme anxiety, a child is using that identification (or introjection as it is sometimes called) as a means of reducing his or her anxiety by morphing from the passive role to the active role. With psychological identification, instead of being the object of a threat, you become the one making the threat.
In children this is considered a normal part of the development of the "superego" as children learn to master their anxiety. In fact, this capability of identification with another is essential for normal psychological development and when it is not brought about by excessively traumatic events in a child's life (i.e.,during the safety of play) the child can develop normally. The healthy result of this process is an introjection and assimilation of others leading to normal human relationships and empathy and understanding of other people.
When the process short circuits for any reason (i.e., abuse, trauma etc.) then more primitive alternatives come into play, including projection and full-blown paranoia. ShrinkWrapped has more on this phenomenon from an earlier post.
Roger Simon links to a site that quotes a recently released hostage in Iraq:
"I was treated very respectfully and courteously apart from the fact that I was detained against my will and threatened with beheading," Sands told The Associated Press on Saturday. "I was not beaten, starved or treated badly."
This was said of the people who threatened to behead the hostage in question.
In fact, it is not too uncommon for some people in such a hostage situation, particularly where their lives are at stake, to fully and completely identify with the side that is threatening them.
I was just watching an episode of Firefly (interestingly titled "Bushwacked") where the sole survivor of a Reaver attack is rescued by the crew, but he has been the witness to such horrors that he literally transforms himself into a Reaver in order to cope with the trauma. Reavers are what is left of a human being when all civilizing mental processes are stripped from their minds; only the primitive and animalistic part of the human remains. Thus they are capable of any atrocity.
If you have been reading some of my posts on psychological defense mechanisms (here ), you will realize that "identification with the aggressor" also involves the use of a particularly primitive defense called "projection", where one's own unacceptable feelings or behaviors are placed on another individual or group. Thus it is not at all uncommon for those who are sadistically traumatized to become sadistic themselves and carry on the trauma and to project their feelings of helplessness and trauma onto others as they create more victims. This mechanism explains why some abused children go on to become abusers themselves when they are adults. It also explains why someone of Jewish heritage would admire a Hitler and hide their ancestry; or why people in general might find themselves hanging around with and even imitating people who despise them or even might want to kill them.
Identification with the aggressor is only considered normal when it is innocuous --as in children's play.
When it occurs in adults in real life situations, it can literally transform those who unconsciously use it into the very monsters they fear the most, as they cope with their severe anxiety and dread.
I do not contend that coping in a healthy manner to traumatic circumstances is an easy thing to do. In fact, maintaining psychological health under those circumstances may be very difficult. One must do what one must to survive and get out of the deadly situation. Personally, I would say anything (even lying, if necessary) and do anything--right up to the point where it would betray my own fundamental values, without which I am not myself anyway) in order to survive.
But it is after the trauma--after the rescue--that the hardest and most painful part of coping psychologically will present itself. And to survive psychologically will require not a little insight, self-awareness, and honesty; possibly shame and/or guilt; and most of all, using one's rational faculty to help understand all that has transpired both externally and internally. In this way, one may permit one's self to tap into the terrible feelings of fear and humiliation and to deal with them --instead of repressing them, and letting them deal with you and thus, unconsciously control you and distort the reality of what happened to you.
An example of this is the case of the hostage above, who clearly dealt with his fear by identifying with his captors and projecting some of his own normality onto them-- as in, "they were so respectful and courteous to me"....
Yes, they were. As respectful and courteous as anyone could be when they are threatening to cut off your head.