What makes us feel the way we feel while watching film? The secret is not always in the plot.
I can remember my first experience with a film as a child, the smell of the popcorn and the excitement of the darkening theatre as the lights begin to dim and the screen comes to life. Every North American child will experience this at some point or another, the moment when film first enters our lives and carves a niche in the back of our minds.
According to Wikipedia, film is essentially a story told with moving pictures, a series of images placed in concise order to convey an idea. So to understand that watching films – these stories told in a succession of pictures and ideas – can have a psychological effect on the viewer is not a far stretch from the truth.
North American culture has become so adapted and so conformed to film as a part of life as opposed to a form of entertainment that film has crept into the psyche of the people who watch them. We feel romantic when we watch romance films; we are frightened when we watch horror films and we feel sadness when the characters we watch tell us a sad story, but what is it about film that causes these psychological affects within us? What is it about these films, the way or order that these images are shown to us that makes us feel these emotions so effectively when we are decidedly disconnected from these characters on screen?
I walk into a local coffee shop on a Sunday afternoon with all of these questions in mind. It’s relatively busy, nothing unusual for the time, but I spot my contact almost immediately sitting in the far corner of the cozy establishment sipping on a steaming mug. I order my own drink and make my way over to the quaint little table situated by a large plate glass window that looks out onto a busy roadway in the heart of the Orleans suburb. Spring doesn’t seem like it’s nearly upon us with a glance outside, but with the warmth of the afternoon sun filtering in from the window that couldn’t seem more untrue.
Jessica Elinord is a psychology major at the University of Carleton in her fourth and final year of the program. She has the air of an individual who is well-studied and confident in her path of education and I find myself almost immediately excited to begin the interview. She greets me with a lop-sided smile and a casual wave that makes me instantaneously comfortable as I sit down in the seat opposite her, my coffee in one hand and a notebook in the other.
We chat casually for a while about everything that isn’t the topic we have agreed to meet on and we settle into the relaxed atmosphere before we get onto the topic of film and the psychology behind them. “Psychology is an important objective behind film,” Jessica admits almost immediately, “it’s the key to the success of any form of entertainment, really.” I find myself agreeing. But the question is, does the psychological effects of film follow us out of the theatre and have an impact on our lives more than we know?
The psychology in psychological thriller.
According to multiple research projects and sources, children are the most susceptible to the psychology of film. It is possible that children – who sometimes take in the most amount of portrayed violence in video games, television and film – can become psychologically damaged after years of prolonged exposure to violence or extreme images. It can lead to emotional damage as well as weaken the physical structure of the mind. Without learning to cope before they reach their teen years, this stress of psychologically extreme images and ideas could lead to an inability to cope as these children reach adulthood. Another source in the Zur Institute which offers a course in Cinema Therapy offers the idea that “movies affect many of us powerfully because the combined impact of images, music, dialogue, lighting, sound and special effects can elicit deep feelings and help us reflect on our lives.”
When I show Jessica some of my research on the topic she can’t help but agree. “With children especially, movies provide and fuel the need to model themselves after the people they see on the screen,” Jessica goes on to explain. Modeling is a psychology term which explains that children at a younger age are very impressionable to any adult figure they see, especially the adult figures they see in larger than life formats on the silver screen. Children who are exposed to too much glorified sex, drug usage and violence will be more likely to engage in risky behaviour as they grow up and become adults. “Look at the teenage generation these days,” Jessica laments before throwing her gaze at the group of thirteen to sixteen-year-olds that step through the door at just the right moment.
Another psychological effect instigated by movies coincides with Carl Jung’s theory of the Archetypes. Three Archetypes represent facets of the self: The Animus represents one’s masculine side, the anima represents one’s feminine side, and the Shadow represents one’s repressed shortcomings and faults. Viewers feel connected to the characters –whether they be in novels, in plays or in film – because these characters represent parts of the audience; horror movies are particularly rich with shadows of its viewers. A stark example of this is the monster in horror movies we have been made to fear. The monster is simply a shadow of ourselves in our darkest form; what we are essentially afraid to become. The torment we experience while watching these films is brought on because we are seeing a reflection of the parts of ourselves that we dislike and try to hide from public view. This same theory is shared by Sigmund Freud and Frederich Perls a famous German Psychologist who calls his theory “The Monster”.
Jung also held the theory of Archetypes to a higher standard when considering the psychological effect of film on the human brain. “Archetypes tap into the concept of the secret-self being in every film,” my contact points out casually in a way that I imagine Jung would have said himself were he alive today. The theory of the Archetype is the idea that every film reflects us as people and that’s why we have such strong reactions to characters. For example, the archetype for Beauty and the Beast is that the boy and the monster often represent two sides of a girl's own sexual desire (i.e., not of her own sexual-image), and the implication that she cannot choose Mr. Right without first confronting her desire for - or to be with - Mr. Wrong.
In conclusion, to say that film does not affect us psychologically would then be undoubtedly untrue. As people who have made film such a large part of our society, our personal lives and our public lives, film is built to affect us on levels we are presently unaware of while we are viewing them. Film does indeed affect the way we chose to live our lives and may be the latent reasoning behind some of the decisions we make and how we make them. Films have more control and more input into our lives that we’d like to believe but it is ultimately left up to us to become aware of this and control our own lives based on educated ideas.