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One pioneering man of science has decided to find out why we feel linked by witnessing the same sad movie. His methods, however, were questionable.
You know that feeling. That crystalline drip of inspiration you feel when you navigate a tearjerker, a moment kept solely in those short seconds between the conclusion of the film, and the moral handjob of the credits. That feeling of, damn it, I’m going to stop war, pestilence or philandering spouses. You seek the eyes and thoughts of others who share this impulse, but by the time you reach your car and flick the lock, you’ve sort of moved on with your life.
That macro-change is at the forefront of a study from the land of the stuffed shirt, of the muddied rugby polo, and of sending the lads over the top to give Harry Hun a darn good thrashing in the name of king and country. Yes, Oxford University. And yes, I should get with the times. The meta-nerd who handled the study, Robin Dunbar, sought to find an answer to the question: why do we continually seek the arms of sad movies or books, knowing fully that they’d just hurt us again?
Through the application of two films and a chair, we’ve stumbled closer to the light of greater understanding. The science fiction double (yep, double) feature was Stuart: A Life Backwards, the story of a disabled man who struggles with drug abuse and imprisonment, goosed by his formative years spent suffering at the hands of abuse (at the risk of a spoiler alert: …he decides to throw himself under a train, in an effort to ease his pain); the other movie was the Natural History Museum of London’s documentary that charted Irish geology. A little less bloody, but no less brutal.
Prior, and after the credits rolled, the audience was asked to fill out a test which measured their sense of belonging in the group of fellow moviegoers. The test subjects were also subject to further humiliation, as they were strapped to the “Roman Chair”, which sounds like a Victorian torture device (shout out to the Iron Maiden), but is actually an effective proxy for the release of endorphins. I’m unsure how exactly, but ask your parents. There’s no actual chair involved – participants braced themselves unsupported in a chair-like stance against a wall until their leg muscles started burning. The higher the endorphin level, the longer a person should be able to sustain the posture, Dunbar says. At the risk of editorialising, these people had to suffer a made-for-TV movie, while setting their legs aflame with the petroleum of lactic acid. The horror.
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The participants who had watched Stuart: A Life Backwards were able to maintain the Roman chair roughly 18% longer than they had in their initial baseline test, compared with those who had watched the documentaries. They also found a parallel increase in the volunteers’ sense of social bonding that was not seen in the control group, suggesting that watching the drama – and not the duller BBC shows – had boosted group coherence. Those with the clipboards claim that this could shine the spotted limelight on that feeling of marched unison that grips us, as we climb out of entertained darkness.
“As they come out into the foyer, they’re talking to complete strangers,” says Dunbar – the man who put all those people through awkward, uncomfortable horror to reduce the study to a trite showbiz aphorism: “People go into a play as individuals, and come out as an audience.”
Whatever. Here’s my favourite sad scene.
It’s as perfect as they ever got. Their closest. Afterwards, Bill Murray spoils it by banging the lounge singer in a vacuum, and they end as more teacher/student than adult-movie-teacher/student.
In years to come, in their separate, hollow lives, they’ll look back at this moment when that song invades their ears, and they’ll truly think “what if?”