I already know what’s coming: true love, unfulfilled; hysterical mobs wading through flooded hallways fearing for their lives; solemn music played by band members at peace with their fates; bobbing heads in the vast freezing ocean; and me, dissolved into a puddle in my seat, sobbing like an infant.
So why oh why would I want to put myself through it again by watching “Titanic” yet another time — in 3D, no less? Clearly, I’m not alone in this boat. From Meryl Streep’s heart-wrenching decision between which of her children to save in “Sophie’s Choice” to Christopher Walken’s last brutal act in “The Deer Hunter” to baby Bambi crying for his slain mother, we love to watch sad movies.
Theories about the refreshment of purging sad emotions through drama date back to Aristotle's day, but the science of why we are so willing to put ourselves through the process — and even pay for the privilege — has remained largely unexplored.
Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick, a communications professor at Ohio State University, says she was so affected by a recent viewing of “Message in a Bottle” (1999), a star-crossed, three-hanky yarn starring Kevin Costner, Robin Wright Penn and Paul Newman, that she set out to study why viewers are so attracted to sad films.
Her conclusion: crying at movies brings us happiness in the short term because it makes us focus on positive aspects of our lives. "These tragedies," she says, "appeal to us because they help us appreciate our own relationships more."
Knobloch-Westerwick and three Ohio State student researchers recruited 150 male and 211 female undergrads to watch part of the 2007 British movie “Atonement,” starring Keira Knightley and James McAvoy as lovers who are separated through a misunderstanding and later die as casualties of World War II.
The students were partitioned, given computers with headphones and asked questions about their thoughts and feelings before, during and after the film. In addition to measuring the intensity of their emotions, including sadness, the students rated their enjoyment of the movie and how it led them to reflect on their lives, goals and relationships.
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