Screenwriters are using science and cunning to spill your tears.
I used to imagine groups of dark-suited screenwriters who just sat around desks, thinking up fresh new ways to make people cry—low key villains that couldn’t cut it as a big screen supervillains basically. Even today I have a hard time breaking away from the idea: that you have to be a psychopath to write something that takes my young heart and shatters it into pieces.
Consider the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde transformation by Pinocchio‘s Lampwick, for example, where he begs and screams for his momma. That gave me short-term fears of donkeys and jolly old white men. Or that story about cute bunnies named Thumper and flying quails that catch lead in Bambi. That made me abstain from meat, which lasted for about a minute but the tears still ran. I still believe that the Disney of the 1940s was a villainous company—at least when it comes to the emotional manipulation of children.
To this day as a grown man, my triggers are largely the same. It’s not the scene of a “Jack” freezing to death to a Celine Dion serenade that gets me. It’s actually the Pixar montage segment of Carl and Ellie during their last…. just watch Up, OK?
It’s been hard for me to admit this. That films, especially animated ones, could turn me into a sniffling mess.
I wondered why some movies impacted my tear ducts so effectively. What was the manipulation in the classic underdog sports flick. Or the trick in the life lesson film with the terminally ill sage that teaches the healthy how to live. How do movie cliches, so often re-worked, affect folks in such consistent ways?
Breaking down some of these methods by a select few tropes made the most sense to me rather than obvious topics like “death.” With the help of a screenwriter (a possible psychopath) whose film made me tear up, along with a scientist that refers to himself as the “cry guy,” I aimed to understand their tricks at pulling tears out of an audience.
The Underdog (happy place cry):
To start, it’s one of the few tropes where it’s socially acceptable for a lion hugger to shed a tear. Who hasn’t blubbered from the scrawny little Rudy surprising everyone with that sack. Or from that serenade of “We Are The Champions” following Charlie’s use of the Triple Deke to score a penalty shot in The Mighty Ducks. This category of crying comes from a happy place. As a neuroscientistDr. Paul J. Zak told me:
“As social creatures, we’re very interested in human conflict, because we learn from it, and If you tell the story in a proper way, we’ll pay attention,” he said. “Afterwards, you’ll find that people begin to share the emotions of the characters within a story. When the underdog team wins the championship, you’ll have the same exact positive reliefs as the characters you watched grow because you’ve begun to mimic their emotions subconsciously, from struggle to reward.”
And I’ve felt it in films like Remember the Titans. With all its N-word this and Cracka that, the flick showcased a racially divided team coming together that made me want to befriend the closest white guy I could find. When I spoke to its screenwriter, Greg Howard, he told me that his methods in evoking those emotions amounted to realness.
“I believe you have to try to get to the truth of the scene and make sure that the audience is crying, not the people on screen,” said Howard. “I had hundreds of hours of interviews for Remember the Titans. If I had a particular genius, it was listening and knowing that when I cried during an interview, I’d go on the script.”
Animated Lessons (hard cry)
This is the one. The master manipulators of our collective hearts for adults and little children alike. There won’t be any soft-tears here but instead a fountain, like a drive-by shooting where a screenwriter yells “Oh you thought this was a kids movie?” Brap! Brap! Brap! To the heart.
As mentioned before, these films hit me every time and according my scientist friend, it’s probably because I have an affinity for the helpless.
“Children are parasitically attached to their parents, and we’ve created other little versions of these like dogs and pets. We’ve shown that children and dogs are the best stimuli for Oxytocin,” (dubbed the hug hormone) Zak said. “Movies that feature children and animals are particularly really good at provoking tears for that very reason.”
And according to Paul, as humans, most of us have a greater need to protect the innocent the older we get. At these aged stages in life we’re more aware of the children and animals that we come across. I’m basically staying away from 1940s Disney movies.
Romantic Hellos and Goodbyes (sad, hard, happy cry)
My tears are the least affected by this category. It probably says a thing or two about what I feel about affection, or Hollywood love for that matter. A lot of what affects us is a direct result of what we identify with. The scene where Demi Moore kisses her ghost of a lover, with those primo heavenly effects? I couldn’t relate. The Notebook, god’s gift to every romantic movie fan I’ve personally known? I just didn’t care for the characters. But of all the film tropes, it’s the romance movie that makes it an objective to make someone a sniveling mess.
“ Slumdog MIllionaire. That damn movie turned me to a puddle of tears. Deeply emotional,” Greg Howard the screenwriter admitted to me. “That’s why the damn movie did 500 million dollars. It’s called getting to the humanity and it got to that. It blew me away.”
It’s the familiarity with love and heartache that makes the romance trope so effective for some. Many of us have gone through its rollercoaster ride, and if we haven’t, we’ve longed for it. I don’t have to speak to a scientist to understand how that works.
Ill and Special (pity cry)
We’ve all seen this one before. Films that take a bullseye to the part of the heart that identifies with sickness. Try watching a paranoid schizophrenic, John Nash be mocked for his walk without wanting to either clock that big head with a collar or simply help Nash in A Beautiful Mind. Then there’s that exploitive film that mixes terminal illness with the serene sage; basically Love Story and all the imitators ( A Walk To Remember, A Fault In Our Stars) that came after it.
This trick comes down to the writer’s understanding that most humans, unless sociopathic, have an empathy for the helpless.
“What does evolution want us to do? Survive and reproduce. To do both those things we need to be in groups,” Zak said. “So you gotta be acutely aware of the most weakest members of the group, like children, dogs but also the sick.”
Insert all tropes here ________ (never cry)
“I don’t believe you,” is the first instinct that comes to mind from tear deniers. To that I have to ask, do you not bleed? If you’re tickled, would you not laugh? If you’re poisoned, would you not die? Stop with the bullshit. Apparently though, I may have been wrong about this. It’s actually a very real thing that’s on some biological tip according to Zak.
“The people that are telling you that, I’m guessing are younger males. So one of the most effective ways to slow down the release of oxytocin is by giving people more testosterone, and that peaks between 15 and 25, so if you’re in that age group, you’re already preventing the nurturing response of oxytocin.”
As we age, the effects of testosterone pretty much fizzles out, so unless you’re a sociopath or psychopath, the complete lack of tears the older you are is actually abnormal.
My conversations had me coming away believing that I won’t stop crying anytime soon because I am who I am mentally and biologically. It’s a fact I gotta face.
As an end note, I asked screenwriter Howard why films, beyond just crying resonate so well with people on a mental level.
“Films are just really effective propaganda,” he admitted. “That’s what makes them so effective. The two things that work best, are spectacle and emotion, and we all know that crying is all about that damn emotion.”