Why Films Make Us Cry

Why Films Make Us Cry

Often it's the happier moments.
(716 words)
IELTS Reading Questions:
Matching Information & Summary Completion

Why do films make us cry, or generate any emotional response, when we know it’s not real? Why do some people enjoy this when most don’t enjoy feeling sad in real life? And why is it that it’s often the happier moments in films that bring tears to our eyes?

Our emotional response to films is (at least partly) caused by the actions of a hormone called oxytocin, according to Professor Paul Zak. Oxytocin plays a role in our experience of empathy, he explains – it’s released when we have close interactions with people, and it makes us care about and feel for them. However, it doesn’t differentiate between having interactions with real human beings and watching people on a screen, he says, which means that its release while watching films and TV shows can lead to us having quite strong feelings for the characters and what happens to them.

Our emotional response may also be connected to our tendency to mirror other people’s expressions, says Dr. Jeffrey Zacks. This happens both in the real world and when watching films, which means that when we see someone on screen smiling, we tend to smile a little, and when a character has a sad expression, we may also mirror that expression. The emotional response comes because our facial expressions affect how we feel, Zacks explains: when we smile we tend to feel happier, and if we have a sad expression, we will feel a little sad. Add music and close-ups of faces, and we can have quite a strong emotional response to what happens in films.

This may explain why we feel sad when watching sad films, but why people enjoy this, or enjoy any sad art, is another question. It’s known as the paradox of tragedy, and there are a few theories that attempt to explain it. Philosophers Daan Evers and Natalja Deng believe that it’s because sad art acknowledges some of the sad aspects of our lives and shows us they are significant. Others have argued that watching sad films can be cathartic, allowing us to experience difficult emotions that we don’t have much opportunity to experience in everyday life. And a third theory is that we might actually take pleasure from the fact that we are able to experience such a range of emotions.

However, it’s not just sad films or sad scenes that make us cry; often happier moments bring tears to our eyes. For me, themes like kindness and acceptance tend to create that emotional response – think Robin Williams telling Matt Damon, ‘It’s not your fault’, in Good Will Hunting. And when I asked friends what makes them cry, other ‘happier’ themes such as redemption, forgiveness and characters getting through difficult situations came up. Why these happier moments have such an effect might be connected to sad aspects of our own lives and to feeling safe enough to allow ourselves to feel.

Philosopher Alain De Botton believes that these happier moments make us tearful because of what’s happening in our own lives. He says that, especially as we get older, we tend to cry not so much at sad scenes, but more often when people are kind or tender. The reason for this, he explains, is that the loveliness on screen is making us aware of some of the difficult or sad things in our own lives, perhaps the things we want but are finding it hard to get. It’s the suffering in our own lives that makes the scenes moving rather than just nice, De Botton says.

Psychoanalyst Michael Bader focuses on why we cry at happy endings in films; he argues that it’s because it feels safe enough to allow ourselves to feel. This safety idea comes from an older theory by Joseph Weiss, and it may also explain our reactions to characters getting through difficult situations. Bader explains that during difficult situations survival is key, so we tend to protect ourselves by repressing painful feelings, and then allow ourselves to feel them when the danger has passed and we feel safe. In a film, that safe moment might come at a happy ending, he says, and explains that it’s not the happy ending that makes us cry, but that it’s safe enough for us to feel the feelings that were there from before. 

IELTS Reading Questions for Why FIlms Make Us Cry:
Matching Information & Summary Completion.

Sources and links from Why Films Make Us Cry

Paul Zak’s article in Psychology Today about oxytocin.
– Jeffrey Zacks has been interviewed and talked about mirroring in several articles; here are two:
Article in Today.
Article in Vice.
Dan Evers and Natalja Deng’s philosophy paper about the paradox of tragedy.
YouTube short by Alain De Botton about why we cry at movies.
Michael Bader’s article in Psychology Today about safety and happy endings. 
– Photo by Adrian Swancar on Unsplash

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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Jolie

    Hi Nick,
    This is a topic that I have never think about.
    I do really enjoy sad songs and sad situations in a story, and they make me feel the strong emotions that I can’t feel in daily life.
    I agree with Michael Bader. When the difficult or dangerous things are happening, we are busy getting through them. However, it’s releasing afterwards. The emotions are ineffable, and I kind of addicted to that.


    1. Nick

      Hi Jolie.
      Thanks for the nice comment. It’s good to hear from you.
      I also think the safety theory is really interesting – more than just films.

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