Have you ever wondered what in the world motivates you to watch a sad movie that makes you bawl your eyes out? A scary movie that makes your heart race? Surprisingly enough, I have never even considered it until this week.

As a general topic we have been discussing suffering. Both how it’s represented in the media and how the public observes it. The history is long and varied- it has a long past of being used as religious propaganda, for example Jesus’s suffering was viewed as something to be admired and to motivate Christian devotion. It then found its way into the media in an opposite light throughout the World Wars, showing front-page images of both soldiers and innocents suffering as a way to trigger sympathy and discourage war.

But the question that stuck me the most about viewing suffering, is why do we voluntarily do it on a regular basis? Even if it is a film with actors and (usually) fictional stories, why do we ever get the urge to watch sad, upsetting or emotionally torturous films? Why are the majority of highly decorated films are the ones that inflict the most pain on their stars (the revenant pops into mind!)

Surely we must enjoy it if we choose to watch it. Does it make us feel better because by comparison it makes our lives seem better? Are we just all cruel humans that like to watch people suffer? Perhaps. But I have some theories that suggest otherwise.

From both experience and research I have gathered the two most viable explanations (in my opinion) as to why we willingly watch others suffer even though there is nothing we can change about the situation.

Firstly there is the theory of pretending. Ever since we have been little we have used our imagination for play and pretend to help improve our understanding of social scenarios. You have to use your imagination to understand sarcasm, figurative sayings, and to understand the emotional connotations attached to conversations. This is all done by empathising and placing ourselves in others shoes. Which I believe is exactly what we do when we watch movies. Emotional movies can act like a sort of role-playing approach to practice empathising and also social skills. I’m assuming most people (or maybe its just me) have seen a horror movie and thought, “what would I do in this situation?” Movies give us the opportunity to place us in the sufferer’s positions and see things from their point of view.

Elizabeth Picciuto, a blogger for the Daily Beast with a PHD in psychology, suggests that we “are enhancing their empathy and decision-making and social skills”. This is supported by research that suggests we not only watch movies for pleasure, but also for insight, enlightenment and also meaningfulness (Picciuto, E 2014). Therefore although we may be witnessing unchangeable suffering, at least we are flexing our empathy abilities.


Secondly, and admittedly my favourite theory is that of catharsis. All of us are guilty of suppressing emotions if it’s not the time or place (for instance, I try to avoid crying at uni). This theory suggests that we view the suffering of others to channel and express our own emotions. This reflecting of our own emotions into the suffering in films and tv allows us to oust our own emotions in a cathartic and healthy way. David Campbell, a leading Media Studies expert at Temple University, suggests that this is still the case even within the horror genre. He believes that the pleasure of watching nail-biting horror films is the relief that follows, and that “it provides a cathartic effect, offering you emotional release and escape from the real world of bills and mortgages and the economy and relationships” (Campbell, JE 2016 via Miyamoto, K).

“Tragic plays have the capacity to purify the spirit and aid us in coping with aspects of life that cannot be reconciled by rational thought” – Aristotle

To my question “Why do you watch people suffering?” (examples being soap operas and sad movies) the large majority of my family and friends have said they choose what they watch based off their mood. Thus correlating appropriately with the theory of connecting with others to stimulate the desired emotional release. I believe that this ability to confront very real and perhaps unresolved feelings in a safe and stable environment is an extremely healthy and civilised method of releasing pent up emotions.



Gray, J 2016, ‘5 Steps to Catharsis; Can Watching a Movie Help You Heal?’, AskMarsVenus, viewed 24th March 2016, <https://www.askmarsvenus.com/Article.php?id=340>.

Haltiwanger, J 2015, ‘People Who Cry During Movies Aren’t Weak, They’re Emotionally Strong’, Elite Daily, viewed 23rd March 2016, <http://elitedaily.com/life/cry-during-movies-emotionally-strong-people/1176578/>. 

Miyomoto, K 2016, ‘The Neuroscience Behind Horror Screenwriting and Filmmaking’, Screencraft, viewed 24th March 2016, <https://screencraft.org/2016/03/24/neuroscience-behind-horror-screenwriting-filmmaking/>.

Piccuito, E 2014, ‘The science of Weepies: Why We Love Crying at the Movies’, The Daily Beast,  viewed 23rd March 2016, <http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/06/04/the-science-of-weepies-why-we-love-crying-at-the-movies.html>. 

Zak, P 2009, ‘Why We Cry at Movies’, Psychology Today, viewed 23rd March 2016, <https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-moral-molecule/200902/why-we-cry-movies>.