In A Nutshell
A study by a group of researchers needed a catalyst—the saddest movie ever. They needed something that would evoke plenty of sadness in their subjects, but they needed sadness that was untainted by other emotions in order to accurately measure things like whether or not age had anything to do with sensitivity, or if sad tears impact men’s libido differently than any other tears. The movie that science has called the saddest ever is The Champ, which includes a scene of a nine-year-old boy crying over his father, who just died in front of him.
The Whole Bushel
Chances are pretty good that you haven’t even heard of it. It’s called The Champ, and it’s a 1979 remake of a 1931 award-winning film. The remake stars Jon Voight in the title role, but he’s not the reason it’s so sad. It also stars a nine-year-old boy named Ricky Schroder as Voight’s son. At the end of the movie (spoiler alert) Voight dies, pummeled to death right in front of the boy.
The clip is just as heartbreaking as you’d imagine, but it’s more than just heartbreaking. It’s scientifically heartbreaking.
The whole thing started in 1988, when researchers at the University of California at Berkeley were trying to decide how they could best go about studying human emotions in a laboratory. They needed a surefire, guaranteed way to produce pure emotions in their subjects. The research wouldn’t work if the subject was feeling, say, not only sad but also angry at an injustice or unfair death.
They needed just plain sad. (And happy, and amused, and some other emotions.)
It was harder to find that guaranteed sadness, though, and they screened hundreds of movie clips for hundreds of people. (And they only settled on movies after the discussion over ethical concerns of causing a sad reaction by lying to a subject or betraying them somehow meant that a lot of possibilities for causing sadness were taken off the table.)
When they started going through their findings, they saw some surprising trends. There were a handful of movies that were selected for their sadness (they also tested subjects with the scene in Kramer vs. Kramer where a child is hurt in a fall) alongside the final scene from The Champ.
And The Champ was rated as incredibly more sad. It even (just barely) beat one of the most infamous sad scenes in movie history: the death of Bambi’s mother.
Some of the other emotion-getting films? Robin Williams was at the top of the list for funny movies, and The Shining and Silence of the Lambs had scenes ranked highest for fear. Contentment was highest for beach and wave scenes, while disgust was high for a scene of an arm being amputated.
So what’s the point of finding movies that are guaranteed to make people feel sad?
They’ve already been using the knowledge to test a number of different theories, ranging from collecting women’s tears to see if they have a scent that impacts men’s libido (testosterone goes down), to testing what sleep deprivation does to emotions. They’ve also been using The Champ to see if preexisting mental health issues, like severe depression, make people more likely to cry, and whether or not age has anything to do with emotional sensitivity.
It also provided them with a pretty fascinating look at how our emotions are entwined. It was nearly impossible to find a movie that made people feel only sad, with no bit of anger or contempt. Anger was also a difficult one to pin down, but they guessed that was mostly because a lot of anger depends on our own individual biases.
But, it turns out that at the end of the day, if you want to make someone feel as close to pure sadness as you can, watch the little tow-headed boy crying over the body of his dead father. It’ll get you every time, and that’s science.