Watch 'Em and Weep

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 4, 2007

Why do we cry at the movies?

Maybe it is the movie or the psychological baggage we schlepped in with us. Or is it empathy, or you-are-so-busted guilt? Maybe genetics or cultural conditioning. Or were we simply bursting to spill that night because the boss refused to give us a week off for Christmas?

This much we do know: All of us do it in varying degrees of blubbitude. Some of us are waterfalls, soaking fellow moviegoers with our public displays of empathy (PDE). Others are Saharas for whom tears are about as rare as oases. Most of us fit somewhere in between.

The trigger may be the moral injustice in "Schindler's List," or the way Heath Ledger's throat catches when he confesses those forbidden feelings in "Brokeback Mountain." Or that cheesy Michael Keaton movie -- you know, the one where he's dying of cancer and he makes a videotape for his future son and . . . (we are too verklempt to continue).

Whatever the external stimulus, it dislodges the sandbags of our inner levees. And as the darkness wraps us in a mantle of complete permission, we release. There we sit, teary-eyed, vulnerable and helpless. And we become as emotionally intertwined with the characters in the movie as we do with real people.

What is that? We sure like to talk about it, trading our virtual heartbreaks with one another like middle-schoolers comparing crushes. And we wrestle like Hallmark card creators for words to describe those feelings. The movie reached us. We related to it. It spoke to something inside us. The phrase " omigod" seems never far behind.

And in our dinner or parking lot discussions, the cultural myths (and facts) tumble out: Women cry more than men. Women go out of their way to find "chick flick" cry-athons. Guys will cry only if someone squirts Mace directly at their eyeballs. But what about the women who guffawed derisively through "Steel Magnolias," or the men who wailed like babies at Spock's screen demise? We throw up our hands about those "exceptions" and the mystery deepens.

It should come as no surprise that scientists and cultural thinkers have weighed in. Researching the psychophysiology of crying in the early 1980s, biochemist William Frey subjected approximately 150 subjects to various tear-jerkers, including the French movie "Sundays and Cybele," the story of a friendship between an amnesiac veteran and a teenage orphan, and the manly sports weeper "Brian's Song," about a football player with terminal cancer.

In "Crying: The Mystery of Tears," Frey and co-author Muriel Langseth concluded that boys and girls do equal amounts of crying until puberty. But as boys take the testosterone highway and women the estrogen bike path, their responses differ. Women do tend to cry more than men, four times as much, he found, and usually between 7 and 10 at night. (Which seems to be the precise time when husbands are home, hmm.) He also discovered that crying (the emotional kind, as opposed to the onion-slicing variety) releases internal toxins, a sort of purgative action.

Thus, says Frey in a telephone interview, "they are literally crying it out."

During his research, Frey also discovered a movie that was guaranteed to draw tears, a 1957 British drama called "All Mine to Give." Set in the late 1800s in Wisconsin, it tells of a Scottish family that loses both parents, leaving the oldest, 12-year-old son to take care of five brothers and sisters. Audiences wept without fail, he recalls, at a scene in which that boy (Rex Thompson) goes door-to-door with his siblings, giving each one away to a new family. After a few sittings, Frey couldn't stand watching anymore.

"I'd give my opening talk, turn on the projector and run for the exit. As soon as I heard the music at the beginning it would start me crying. Talk about Pavlovian response."

What actually made them cry, Frey believes, was empathy. And it helped, he says, if the characters were emotional themselves because "that says to the audience, this movie's so sad even the characters are crying. So they conclude, 'It's okay for me to do it, too.' "

Tom Lutz, a sociologist and author of 1999's "Crying: The Natural and Cultural History of Tears," dismisses Frey's crying-as-auto-therapy as cultural myth.

"If crying were therapy," he says drily, "actors who cry onstage every night and twice on Sunday would be the most psychologically healthy people in our culture, and we know that's not true."

What really triggers the waterworks, Lutz says, is a combination of conflicted emotions. We choke up, essentially, at the fulfillment of social roles, such as a couple pledging a life together at a wedding or, at the reception afterward, the father dancing with his daughter. But we cry for bittersweet reasons, realizing we can never sustain, or measure up to, that iconic moment. In other words, we strum a mental guitar chord that combines positive, major feelings with sadder minor tones. And the tears flow before we know it.

Mary Beth Oliver, a Penn State University communications professor and researcher of the effect of media on people, echoes Lutz's theory but on a more philosophical level. (She also tried to get us to understand Aristotle's definition of eudaemonia, but we hadn't had lunch at that time.) For her, tear-jerkers "cause us to contemplate what it is about human life that's important and meaningful. . . . Those thoughts are associated with a mixture of emotions that can be joyful but also nostalgic and wistful, tender and poignant. Tears aren't just tears of sadness, they're tears of searching for the meaning of our fleeting existence."

So, we are empathizing, we are strumming, and we are philosophizing in the flickering chiaroscuro. But whatever we are really doing within the ineffable inner machinery we call the soul, and whatever the prolactin content in our tears, we are forging a personal bond with a particular movie that we'll never lose. As with love, perhaps it's better not to understand the mystical algebra that connects us to "Beaches" but to be grateful it adds up to moments like these.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company