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Scientists Research Crying at the Movies

August 15, 2011

By John C.

At the end of July, the Smithsonian Magazine published an article citing the results of ongoing research studying which movies are most likely to make audiences cry.  These studies have been making the rounds over the last few weeks, and are worth revisiting now in honour of the endlessly moving drama The Help, which has been enjoying excellent box office numbers since it was released this past Wednesday.

To be fair, the initial study dates back to 1988.  That was the year when a psychology professor at the University of California, Robert Levenson, and one of his graduate students, James Gross, started analyzing which movies elicited the strongest reactions in the viewer.  After years of research, the scientists found that the final few scenes of the 1979 family boxing drama The Champ are the saddest they could find.  They have since been used in numerous laboratories over the years, when researchers wish to ignite feelings of pure sadness.

The final scene of The Champ, when (spoiler alert) the boxer (Jon Voight) dies in front of his young son (Ricky Schroder), has been shown alongside other film clips and proven time and again to produce the strongest emotions in the viewer.  “Champ, wake up!” the boy screams throughout the 2-minute, 51-second scene that would make a lasting contribution to emotional studies, delivering a performance that would later win him a Golden Globe.  On a much lighter note, Levenson and Gross also found that the infamous diner scene from When Harry Met Sally was the most likely to amuse audiences and make them laugh.

For me, one of the most interesting parts of what these studies have found is that people who are currently depressed are not anymore likely to cry at the movies.  Like everything else, I personally believe that this both is and isn’t true.  But out of the people who have taken part in this research, what the study has shown is that movies are able to emotionally affect us regardless of whether or not we are personally depressed.  Sometimes depression can make us apathetic towards the world, only concerned by our own problems.  But if we are depressed because of grief or regret and what we see on-screen mirrors events in our own lives, then these images can become unbearable.

One of the more controversial elements that the study didn’t seem to touch on, is the age-old debate of which gender is more likely to be moved to tears.  Even though certain scenes emotionally affect different people in varying ways, I think it is somewhat of a stereotype to say that women are more likely than men to admit that they cried during a movie.  If a movie truly moves me to the point of tears, then I am no less ashamed to admit this than I would be to say that a comedy made me laugh.  If something elicits strong emotions in me as the viewer, then it is the greatest compliment I can give to the filmmakers to admit to this in a review.

Many people, myself included, found themselves with tears in their eyes during The Help.  Based on a bestselling novel by Kathryn Stockett, scenes of racism and rejection amongst women at the height of the civil rights movement were undeniably powerful and often heartbreaking.  Much of this was due to the beautifully nuanced performances of the ensemble cast, but a good portion of the emotion also came from the fact that we were witnessing events that easily could have happened in the early-1960’s.  The fact that the film has already made $26 million at the box office goes to show that many audiences are embracing what is often an emotional rollercoaster ride.

Some would say that when we cry while watching a movie we are merely allowing ourselves to be emotionally manipulated.  In a sense, this is true.  But the times when I have felt the most genuine emotion watching a movie are often the same moments that have felt the most real.  Last year, I do not believe that I was emotionally manipulated by the final few scenes of Toy Story 3127 Hours or Never Let Me Go, rather that they held such emotional importance for me that is was all I could do not to be moved to tears.  The best movies allow the characters to become real to us over the course of the running time, making their inevitable payoff all the more satisfying.

The great Walt Disney famously said that “for every laugh, there should be a tear.”  Of course, movies have succeeded over the years by adhering strictly to just one or the other of these two components.  But just like real life, the best movies deliver some of both.  Melodramas that strive to do nothing but elicit strong emotions from the audience sometimes pile on so many moments of heartache or tragedy, that we are unable to be truly moved by any of the scenes.  The results often leave us feeling drained, but completely cold.  Merely understanding what the characters are going through often isn’t enough.  We must also feel a personal connection to them.

Aside from my own experiences sitting in the dark, I don’t have the degree in psychology needed to make me entirely qualified to discuss the emotions of moviegoers.  It should also be noted that it isn’t always a good thing to be analyzing exactly why a certain scene is eliciting such strong emotions while you’re watching it.  But I have seen enough movies to know what works and what doesn’t, and this research provides a lot to think about concerning how films are written and how audiences are likely to react while watching them.  More importantly, if all of this talk allows moviegoers to feel more comfortable discussing their own emotions, then I’m all for it.

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