The Science Behind Why You Love Romantic, Sad AF Movies

There might actually be a scienftic reason here.

Image via Warner Bros.

On Friday, romantic drama Me Before You will debut in U.S. theaters, and people across the country have been getting their tissues ready for weeks. Based on a popular novel by Jojo Moyes, the film follows the tear-jerking romance between Will Traynor (Sam Claflin) and his caregiver Louisa "Lou" Clark (Emilia Clarke), and is just the latest in a long line of blockbusters that end in the tragic death of one of the leads. From The Vow to The Fault in Our Stars, and eight different films based on Nicholas Sparks books that are so consistently sad that some even say he has created a new genre, the “love tragedy,” movies that emotionally destroy us are perennially popular. 

Not everyone is excited for Me Before YouThe Chicago Tribune called it a “bad romance” and Variety dubbed it ”a melodrama with soft-rock ballads where its beating heart should be.” But despite critics panning the film, the hype on social media is impossible to deny, and besides, many “love tragedy” movies preceding it have done very well despite negative reviews. The Nicholas Sparks adaptation Dear Johnraked in $32.4 million in its opening weekend after the Hollywood Reporter described it as “dramatically stillborn” and called box office success for the movie “a long shot.” The Last Song, starring Miley Cyrus, grossed $62 million despite a 1-star review on Rotten Tomatoes, and The Choice grossed $18 million after the New York Timescalled it “almost repellently synthetic.” Clearly critics aren’t watching these films, so who is? And even more interestingly, why?

New York-based psychotherapist Jonathan Alpert said the popularity of these super-sad romances could be chemical as well as emotional. Watching them can release stress hormones that calm viewers, and allow people to feel a range of deep emotions in the comfort of a theater. 

“Sad movies also allow us to confront feelings—feelings for example around loss, broken hearts, and failure,” Alpert said. "Such movies can also be inspiring—watching how others deal with sadness might teach us how to handle it as well, and how to persevere in the face of difficulty.”

Other theories have been circulating in light of the success of Sparks’s novels and movie adaptations. Emily Yahr in the Washington Postposited that the appeal is due to the movies’ “comfort of predictability…with a twist.”

“In each of his works, Sparks reels you in with the ultimate relatable theme—love!—and sprinkles in just enough surprises that no two are ever the same,” Yahr wrote. “At this point, seeing a Nicholas Sparks movie is like listening to a remake of an old song: You know all the beats, but it’s just different enough to keep your attention.”

According to LA Timeswriter Ben Fritz, the success of Sparks films is due “almost entirely to a single demographic: teen and college-age girls.” The numbers back that theory up: Dear John’s successful opening weekend was thanks to an audience that was 84 percent female and 64 percent under the age of 21. A brief survey of social media shows this may be the case for Me Before You as well, with AMC Theatres promoting the film as a perfect “girls night out” event. Clinical psychologist Dr. Bart Rossi said there may be some truth to the theory that teenage girls favor these dark romances. 

“Women who are thinking about romance, and have mindset related to romance based on where they are in their life would find these movies especially appealing,” he said. “Younger folks may be drawn to these movies because they can emotionally relate to them—even if they haven’t fully experienced the full emotional turmoil of romance, they can still relate to the two main figures and what could happen down the road.”

Angsty, lovesick teens aside, Rossi warned not to write off all sad romantic films as only for women and young adults. These movies appeal to people based more on personality type than demographics, and at the end of the day, some people just enjoy a good sad film more than others. “When you see something dramatic, where one of the major figures dies or has a terrible illness, it brings us into reality and brings us a lot of emotion, and the psychology of that has an impact on us,” Rossi told me. “It brings up a lot of emotion and depth—what is the meaning of life? What are we all about?” 

Of course, these same questions are at the heart of many classical works, including what may be the original “love tragedy”: Romeo and Juliet. If Nicholas Sparks were around at the time, surely he would have written something as melodramatic as Romeo saying, “Thus with a kiss I die,” before poisoning himself for a lost partner. 

These themes are timeless, universal, and irresistible—even if we don’t want to admit it. Jocelyn Noveck, Associated Press critic, revealed she cried halfway through Me Before You though swore she wouldn’t, calling it “overly broad, overly simplistic, lacking depth both in characterization and in treatment of the serious issues it raises.”

“At the end, I still thought all those things … but the tears came anyway,” she wrote.

It seems even the best of us can’t help but fall victim to the cheapest attempts to pull at our heartstrings. Admittedly, some of the worst movies, books, and plays are the ones that end up making us total messes. Maybe it is a human flaw, or perhaps there is a timeless, inevitable appeal to crying our eyes out at the theater. Whether you agree or not, make sure to bring some tissues to Me Before You. Just in case.  

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