I Lost My Shit At the Movies: Why A Frightening World Makes Us Crave Tearjerkers

I’m not much of a memorabilia collector, but I do have one prized possession. It’s a small black pin printed in the late 1970s, and it bears the famous image of Jack Nance as Henry in Eraserhead, framed by four words: ERASERHEAD — I SAW IT.

As the story goes, these pins were handed out at early screenings as proto-viral marketing. The pins helped the film gain not just notoriety, but infamy. This wasn’t a movie you saw, this was an experience you endured, and afterwards you were awarded a badge of honor. Now you could present the challenge to others: I saw it. Do you dare?

There was a similar whiff of infamy in the air at Sundance this past January. Much of it centered around Hereditary, a movie that was quickly dubbed a contender for scariest ever made. A.A. Dowd of The A.V. Club referred to the film as “pure emotional terrorism” and Joshua Rothkpf of Time Out New York promised, “You’ll be gasping for air in the theater.” It’s all part of the fun of a horror movie, taunting the potential viewer — the Independent asked readers, “Brave enough?” before sharing the trailer for the film — but there was a real sense of caution, too. There are some experiences that you shouldn’t go into unprepared.

That air of infamy wasn’t limited to Hereditary, or even to another harrowing sensation, The Tale. One more film was spoken of with the same solemn forewarning, and from the outside, it could not have seemed more unlikely.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (Focus Features, 2018)

The dispatches from the premiere of Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, the documentary on the life and legacy of Fred Rogers, were thick with emotion. “So much sniffling and wiping of tears as the credits rolled,” reported Ethan Anderton of /Film, while Matt Goldberg of Collider solemnly attested, “I cried multiple times.” There’s a common understanding that Sundance hype is to be taken with a grain of salt — the consensus on Hereditary simmered significantly once it hit sea level — but when the trailer for Won’t You Be My Neighbor? premiered, the response was so intense that it became clear we were about to witness a phenomenon unlike anything surrounding a documentary in recent memory.

A quick skim of the top YouTube comments reveals a tone of awestruck wariness: “I almost broke down and cried over this trailer,” wrote one commenter, “how am I going to make it through the full documentary?” “Oh boy,” wrote another, “if a trailer gets me all emotional then I’m screwed watching this movie…”

It’s odd to see such a mix of excitement and wariness on any movie that isn’t a manipulative romance in the Nicholas Sparks mold, and I was particularly interested to note that, at least based on the internet communities I traffic in, this response transcended any conceivable demographic.

Once the film was released, wariness shifted into something like performative masochism. A quick skim of Twitter users on their way to screenings calls to mind Bill Murray’s gleeful dentistry patient in Little Shop of Horrors. Hell yeah,” wrote one user, “can’t wait to cry my eyes out. Super pumped for the emotional onslaught.” “Looking forward to sobbing uncontrollably,” wrote another, while still another made a day of the anguish: “A group of us are going to Mr. Rogers on Sunday so we can all cry together, I can’t wait to be an emotional mess.

The post-screening tweets bear a tone of caution that seems mildly ironic but mostly sincere. “Be prepared to weep copiously,” wrote one user. “Be prepared to cry in the theater,” wrote another. And one user wrote the kind of thing I usually see reserved for something like The Human Centipede: “No one will be prepared for the Mr. Rogers film.

I pay close attention to online film chatter, but even weeks after the film’s wide release, I had no idea what the actual content of this documentary might be. Everyone seemed to love the movie (it currently holds a stunning 4.3/5 average rating on Letterboxd), but the highest praise anyone had to offer was, it wrecked me.

The response to Won’t You Be My Neighbor? has been striking, but it’s also been familiar, at least if you were following film Twitter last November.

Lady Bird (A24, 2017)

It all started quietly enough with the November 3rd release of Lady Bird. The first weepy tweet came the day before release, when Vanity Fair’s Nicole Sperling reported, “Even reviews of Lady Bird are making me cry.” But once the film was widely available, the floodgates opened. “I don’t cry at movies ever,” wrote freelance writer Tom Philip, “but then I saw Lady Bird.” After her screening, actress Fernanda Andrade wrote, “[I] now know it’s possible to cry the entirety of a movie from start to finish.

The conversation around Lady Bird was thick with hyperbole — which A24 stoked by marketing it as “the best-reviewed movie of all time,” arguably a misrepresentation, given the source was the notoriously misunderstood Rotten Tomatoes metric — so there was no particular reason to imagine this would be the beginning of a trend. But the story changed two weeks later with the simultaneous release of Call Me By Your Name and Coco.

Call Me By Your Name (Sony Pictures Classics, 2017)

Call Me By Your Name is one of the best movies I’ve ever seen and I can’t think about it too much or I’ll fucking cry,” wrote one Twitter user in what sounds less complimentary than indignant. “Feed the meter for 4 hours when you see Call Me by Your Name,” warned another. “2 hours for the movie and 2 hours to cry in your car after.” The response to Coco was even stronger, though excessive emotionality has long been Pixar’s trademark (and an expectation on the audience’s part, a phenomenon that Vulture’s Emily Yoshida disdainfully referred to as “ooh yes Pixar Daddy spank my feelings I hate it so much wink wink”). Early responses carried a tone of warning similar to Lady Bird and Call Me By Your Name, but by now there was a greater sense of pleasure to the emotional testimonials: “HEY IF YOU WANT TO CRY EXCESSIVELY IN PUBLIC LIKE ME MAY I SUGGEST SEEING COCO,” one user wrote (or shouted). “Coco 10/10 highly recommend” wrote another user, “take my money make me cry again.

Coco (Walt Disney Studios, 2017)

A few weeks into Coco’s run, after word had gotten around that this one was a guaranteed weepie, the tide of conversation turned. You didn’t go to Coco knowing you might cry, you went to Coco looking to cry. “I’m gonna cry so fucking good,” wrote one user, sounding more like adrenalized thrill-seeker. “Decided to unwind by going to see Coco. Let’s see if it makes me cry like everyone else,” wrote another, demonstrating a somewhat non-normative definition of unwinding. “I just watched Coco for the 6th time cause I love to cry,” exalted another. And it was around this phase of the cycle that it really struck me: these movies are serving some kind of social need.

And if you skip back to the beginning of the great tearjerker boom of November 2017, a tweet about Lady Bird becomes keenly instructive: “Lady Bird is a fantastic movie if you want to cry about something other than the end of civilization.

I’m skeptical of the urge to bring Donald Trump into any and all discussions of the current American moment; it can be easy to sound like Arrested Development’s Tobias Fünke, who says of the dissolution of his marriage, “I don’t want to blame it all on 9/11, but…” Still, it’s impossible to deny that the 2016 election is a trauma that America has yet to overcome.

But (to quote another PBS staple), you don’t have to take my word for it. In November 2017, on the one year anniversary of the presidential election — and the same month that Lady Bird, Call Me By Your Name, and Coco were released — the American Psychological Association published a nine-page infographic titled Stress in America. Among its findings, the study revealed that 52% of Americans cite the 2016 election as a significant ongoing source of stress, and that 59% of Americans, regardless of age, reported this moment to be “the lowest point in our nation’s history.”

Thomas Colleran/Crooked Media

In a paper published in the collection The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump, clinical psychologist Jennifer Contarino Panning discusses “Trump Anxiety Disorder,” an informal diagnosis she created to account for a sharp increase in her clients’ negative symptoms — “feeling a loss of control; helplessness; ruminations/worries, especially about the uncertain sociopolitical climate while Trump is in office,” and “an elevated stress level when reading articles about [current events]” (with that bracketed text standing in for a list of ten of the previous year’s seemingly infinite crises).

And your response to this information may well be, “No shit, Sherlock.” But psychiatrist Thomas Singer, in his paper ‘Trump and the American Collective Psyche’ (also published in The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump), gets at something deeper and a bit less self-evident.

Singer uses the term “group spirit” to refer to “the ineffable core beliefs or sense of identity that binds people together.” And following the 2016 election, Singer believes, there is a deep, raw wound at the core of the American group spirit, one that he postulates (just in case you weren’t feeling depressed enough already) “[is] amplified on all sides by an even deeper, less conscious threat that I call extinction anxiety.”

In short, we are simultaneously feeling more anxiety than ever about the end of life as we know it and feeling more alienated than ever from each other. It’s enough to make anyone feel like crying. And since it’s not socially acceptable to burst into tears at the bus stop or in line for cofee, we need outlets. If you buy a ticket to a good weepie, you’re buying permission to purge as much emotion as you need, as well as permission to cheerfully tell your friends, “I cried like a baby today!” without risk of too many askance glances.

© International Center of Photography

Ever since noticing this recent wave of popular tearjerkers, I’ve wondered what it might tell us about what we look for when we go to the movies. It’s easy to cite the communal experience provided by a movie theater, but as we’re reminded constantly, audiences are staying home in droves, alienated by poor behavior from other attendees, and enticed by the convenient bounty on demand. The masses still turn out for a new Marvel or Star Wars movie, but until recently, there were fewer and fewer non-franchise films that inspired that universal urge.

With Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, though, the trip to the theater has become something like a sacred rite, one we’re each expected to undertake when called upon by the whims of our emotional fates (“Feeling pretty emotionally strung out, so today’s the day to go see that Mr. Rogers documentary probably, yeah?” wrote my sometime editor Kelsey Ford in the tweet that inspired the discussion that inspired this essay). And amid all that hype, I’ve been thinking about the idea of ecstatic ritual, practices that aim to generate such a surge in emotion that one transcends their entire sense of self. Ancient Romans used drunken dance to try and access their purest natural state. Some practitioners of yoga strive toward samadhi, a state of bliss so intensely focused that you can completely merge with the flow of sensory experience.

‘The Youth of Bacchus’ (William Adolphe Bouguereau)

And then there are those of us who go to the movies to find our ecstasy and achieve emotions heightened enough to take us out of ourselves and link us to something bigger.

But this is all getting a little heady, and I’m probably at risk of losing you, so why don’t I hand things off to Pauline Kael, who wrote a passage in her 1969 essay ‘Trash, Art, and the Movies’ that I find more affecting than any other evocation of the power of movie theaters:

A good movie can take you out of your dull funk and the hopelessness that so often goes with slipping into a theatre; a good movie can make you feel alive again, in contact, not just lost in another city. Good movies make you care, make you believe in possibilities again. If somewhere in the Hollywood-entertainment world someone has managed to break through with something that speaks to you, then it isn’t all corruption…you know there must be others perhaps in this very theatre or in this city, surely in other theatres in other cities, now, in the past or future, who react as you do.

When Kael mentions a fear that “it’s all corruption,” she’s referring not just to a craven Hollywood system, but to a country that was entering a historically turbulent era. Writing, as she did, in the first months of 1969, fresh on her readers’ minds were the protests at the DNC convention, the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., and the national riots that followed the latter. Americans were suffering a wound to their group spirit as dramatic as our current one, and, as Kael argued, the movies were the place they could go to feel connected to something when they found themselves connected to nothing.

Love Story (Paramount Pictures, 1970)

And so they did. The following year, the number one box office smash, still listed as #39 highest-grossing film of all time (ahead of Spider-Man, Independence Day, and The Last Jedi), was Love Story, the tale of young love cut short by terminal illness that Roger Ebert described as “a three-, four-or five-handkerchief movie.”

The next few years, as Americans suffered through a massive crisis of disillusionment spurred by the agonizing ends of the Vietnam war and the Nixon presidency and an unprecedented surge in violent crime, they were drawn to media phenomena like Brian’s Song, the story of a doomed friendship between two football players that has, according to Matt Zoller Seitz, “for at least two generations…spawned tens of thousands of gallons of male tears,” as well as The Way We Were and Bang the Drum Slowly, another doomed romance and sports weepie respectively, which emerged to answer the public demand for both. And that’s not even to mention 1973's star-studded adaptation of Charlotte’s Web. After all, the whole family deserves their chance to walk out of the movies a weeping mess.

There’s another element that shouldn’t be discounted in this conversation about the great tearjerker wave of the past year, and that’s The Way We Talk Now.

Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock

I grew up in the heyday of AOL instant messenger, a time when if a friend typed something mildly amusing or shared a briefly diverting proto-meme, we would type LOL, with an tacit understanding that this probably represented, at best, a smirk. By the time I was in college (AIM having given way to GChat, with iMessage still on the horizon) LOL had lost its evocative power and escalated to ROTFL. Today, even the idea of rolling on the floor laughing seems pedestrian, so if we want to convey amusement, we declare we’re screaming, we can’t breathe. Exaggeration has given way to credulity-begging hyperbole.

Personally, I feel a sense of one-upmanship when I see someone claim they can’t breathe alongside a video of a guy falling off a swing — we can all agree this video is funny, but my amusement is literally life-threatening. And similarly, I feel a sense of attempting to prove emotional bona fides when people post selfies of their weeping faces at the end of Coco. There’s a compulsion to document and demonstrate the strength of our feeling, lest anyone charge us with emotional fraud.

From there, though, it’s a short walk to accusing others of watching the movie incorrectly. It’s not quite the gatekeeping of more ensconced fandoms, but if I’m considering seeing Coco and I see a tweet that tells me, “you’re evil if u didn’t cry to Coco,” or, “not to be too dramatic or anything but if a person sees Coco and doesn’t cry they are absolutely a sociopath,” it feels like a challenge that I can’t help unconsciously responding to with a certain defensiveness: don’t tell me how to watch a movie.

Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock

It took me about five months to see Coco, and by then, the hype around the emotional wallop of the last twenty minutes had become overpowering to the point of distraction; it was impossible to see the movie as anything but an hour-plus march to emotional devastation. I could hardly focus on the actual story, so busy was I considering every moment as a possible setup to this mythic tsunami of tears. By the end, I was moved, and may have even felt a tear or two sting my eyes, but I felt the invisible presence of all of film Twitter sitting over my shoulder whispering, Here it comes, oh boy, get ready…

In the internet age, there are precious few exclusive and intense experiences left. An Eraserhead button proved a status that few could attain. But a tear-soaked tweet on opening night of Coco provides a short-lived hit of the same exclusive status. I’ve survived something harrowing, you say, and for at least another night or two, you might be able to feel special.

But maybe this emotional arms race all goes back to Dr. Singer’s emotional alienation theory. If we feel increasingly estranged from one another, then we need stronger and stronger emotional experiences to bridge the gap. And like the bonds forged by survivors of a catastrophe, we can connect over the wringer we were put through by Coco much more easily than Phantom Thread, or any other excellent but emotionally tranquil film. The best you can hope for out of a post-mortem of Phantom Thread is “Wow! Great, huh?” But seeing Coco provides a perfect excuse to shout, be it to your moviegoing companion or to all of Twitter, “I’m not OK right now!” and get that affirmation and connection we all crave.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (Focus Features, 2018)

I assumed I wouldn’t cry at Won’t You Be My Neighbor? By the time I got in my car to make the trip, all these thoughts had been rattling around in my mind for so long that I was heading to the theater more for analytical purposes than for an emotional experience.

On the way over, though, I passed a house in my own neighborhood here on the south shore of Boston. It’s a house I’d never thought much of until recently, when an enormous banner appeared on the front lawn. That banner, perhaps three feet high by twelve feet long, says in star-spangled capital letters, ILLEGALS GO HOME.

There’s been furious debate over this sign on my neighborhood Facebook group, spinning through the usual cycles of escalating outrage — arguments over the meaning of free speech and hate speech, ridiculous strawman accusations, mounting sneering and name-calling. Nothing ever gets solved, and nobody ever learns anything, and it grinds along day after day in this group created for neighborly discussion, with an occasional break to publicize a school fair or a charity 5K.

I had to mute the group eventually; the emotional havoc that it wreaked on my group spirit was too much to bear, so now my wife gives me occasional highlights out of respect for my fragile nerves. But that inner wound was ripped open when I passed my neighbor’s aggressively jingoist banner, and I carried that hurt with me the rest of the drive and into the darkened theater.

For the most part, I found Won’t You Be My Neighbor? to be an informative, workmanlike documentary that pays effective tribute to an American legend. And for most of the runtime, I dismissed the idea that I would be moved to tears. There were too many distracting layers of analysis between my heart and the screen.

But then the last five minutes hit, and the tears did come, the kind that make your chest shake and your face collapse. And by the time the lights came up, I finally understood an essential mechanism behind this recent demand for tearjerkers.

Much of Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is devoted to reminding us of all the global horrors that ran parallel to the arc of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, but things get particularly bleak in the home stretch. We learn that even Mr. Rogers almost gave up hope after 9/11, and then the assembled interview subjects muse on how he might have coped with our current turmoil. We even get a brief clip of Fox News’ Brian Kilmeade, an unbearably low blow. All of these horrific images and toxic sentiments are the same ones that weigh me down day in and day out in the year of our lord 2018. And as I sat in the theater, pummeled by reminders of my despair, my coping ability began to crater.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (Focus Features, 2018)

But then, we cut to an archival soundbite from Mr. Rogers: “The only thing that ever really changes the world is when somebody gets the idea that love can abound…and can be shared.”

And in that moment, when the tears starting flowing, they came neither from despair nor from uplift, but rather from the collision of the two, from the simultaneous acknowledgement that the world can be unspeakably cruel and reminder of our capacity for triumphant love.

Lady Bird (A24, 2017)

In gathering sources for this essay, I ran across a tweet written last December by The Atlantic’s David Sims: “I cry basically the entire time.” After a bit more digging, I realized that Sims was referring to a rewatch of The Last Jedi, but for a moment, it seemed reasonable that he might just be making a tongue-in-cheek reference to the experience of being an American in late 2017.

I began this piece believing that we gravitate to tearjerkers looking for an opportunity to let something out. But the more I think about it, the more I think we’re looking to let something in.

We don’t cry at despairing movies. Take First Reformed, a current frontrunner for best of the year and perhaps the most despairing movie I’ve ever seen. I walked out cloaked in sorrow, but crying was the last thing on my mind.

Each of last November’s tearjerkers, on the other hand, is thick with despair, but just as abundant with hope. Lady Bird reminds us of the times we’ve been cruel to those we love but reminds us, too, that reconciliation is possible. Call Me By Your Name is a tragic romance, but it ends with the reminder that pain is worth the joy that came before. And Coco reframes the death of our loved ones by suggesting we keep them alive through our memories in the most literal way possible.

In each movie, something is lost that can never be fully regained, but the stories demonstrate a path to moving on, hope and despair in tandem. And so when we feel consumed by despair, and we feel drawn to a movie that’s supposed to provide a good cry, we must know — even if unconsciously — that we aren’t really going to wallow in our sorrow, but to find a framework that might help us endure it.

There’s a moment in Won’t You Be My Neighbor? that’s hung with me more than any other precisely because of how it speaks to this idea. In a decades-old clip from Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, Daniel Striped Tiger sings about his shame over his own fear and helplessness. In response, Lady Aberlin sings a refrain about Daniel’s worthiness, and his ability to grow and heal.

And then, just when (as noted by the interview subjects) you might expect the message of hope to win Daniel over, he and Lady Aberlin instead merge their refrains into a duet. Despair hasn’t been vanquished, it’s just blended with hope to create a more complete portrait of the essential battle of existence.

Neither despair nor hope can exist without the capacity for the other. Not in our painfully real world. And not, as we go to the movies to be cathartically reminded, in the land of make-believe either.

(Note: The tweets cited in this essay have been edited for style)