Why Do We Choose to Watch Upsetting Movies?

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Written By Pinang Driod

Earlier this month, I watched what will probably be the strangest movie I see all year. Sasquatch Sunset is an absurdist film chronicling the lives of four Bigfoots (Bigfeet?). The cast, which includes Riley Keough and Jesse Eisenberg, donned heavy prosthetics, layers of makeup, and furry costumes to play the titular mythical creatures. The script is devoid of dialogue. Instead, the group grunts, moans, and shrieks from scene to scene while carrying on with much feral behavior: They feast on berries; they fight; they wander the woods. In one very long, very goofy sequence, they urinate and defecate on the ground over and over and over to mark their territory.

The film played at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and I caught it in Park City, Utah, the day after it left some audiences “stomping for the exit … well before the credits began to roll,” as Variety reported from the premiere. The same happened at my screening: I counted more than a dozen walkouts, several of them occurring after the defecation montage, and many more after one of the creatures spent a scene repeatedly masturbating and sniffing his fingers. The movie, which will be released in theaters later this year, has thus become the latest in a long line of arthouse films—think the Daniels’s Swiss Army Man, Julia Ducournau’s Raw and Titane, Ari Aster’s Hereditary—that have made viewers want to stop, well, viewing altogether.

Call them crowd-upsetters—films that highlight the value of the collective theatergoing experience by becoming exercises in perseverance. As I watched Sasquatch Sunset, I derived a sort of sick pleasure from seeing how people were reacting to it. Was the man squirming next to me about to leave? I’d lost my appetite, but would I lose my nerve? Why were so many of us—as it happens, most of us—still seated?

Conventional wisdom suggests that we seek out entertainment that puts us in a good mood, but Ashton D. Trice, a professor emeritus of psychology at James Madison University and a co-author of The Psychology of Moviegoing, points out that people frequently make counterintuitive choices. He directed me to a small 2021 study exploring why people watched pandemic-related works such as Outbreak and Contagion during the earliest days of COVID; the researchers found that such viewers did so in part “to project their fears and uncertainties into the movie or TV series, thus reaching a sort of cathartic liberation.” Those audiences were, in essence, looking to validate their unease—a timeless impulse, in many ways. “I always want to remember that Hamlet,” Trice wrote over email, “with its multiple murders and suicides, was the biggest stage hit of Renaissance London.”

Besides, disgusting and revolting images can be stimulating to watch simply because they’re “very different from the things we typically experience,” Haiyang Yang, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University whose research focuses on consumer decision making, told me. “Do you want to see another romantic comedy after watching hundreds of very similar films?” he wrote. “Or do you want to watch some ‘wild’ sasquatch stuff?”

Truthfully, on most days I’d prefer the former, but he had a point: Novelty is refreshing, and plenty of filmmakers have built successful careers by tapping into an audience’s desire to be challenged. Katharine Coldiron, a film critic and the author of Junk Film: Why Bad Movies Matter, notes that respected directors such as Lars von Trier, Michael Haneke, and Gaspar Noé have used off-putting and graphic images to directly confront viewers, making them wrestle with their responses to something deeply visceral. Some movies can become word-of-mouth hits, with distributors capitalizing on audience reactions by incorporating them into marketing campaigns to pique further interest. Poorly made and infamously unpleasant-to-watch films such as The Room have become cult hits through audience participation, and objectively terrible franchises such as Sharknado thrive off of people responding to their preposterousness.

But whatever their intentions, all crowd-upsetters, Coldiron told me, “have an endless capacity to surprise the audience.” “Extreme cinema … is about viewers testing their limits,” she said. “How rough can it get before you’re like, ‘Okay, I can’t take any more?’… [Some people] want to see if they can outlast whatever the filmmaker throws at them.” In such cases, watching a movie no longer feels like a passive undertaking.

Inside a theater, then, that sensation of active engagement only gets heightened. “The feeling that oneself is superior to others on some dimensions (including the ability to endure ‘tough’ experiences),” Yang wrote, “can indeed be motivating.” And ridiculously satisfying, at least for me. Quietly competing with everyone around me is a silly thing to do, but I can’t deny that I felt like I’d achieved something every time another person left and I stayed.

To be clear, though, Sasquatch Sunset wasn’t made to be an endurance test. In an interview, Nathan Zellner, who directed the film with his brother, David, explained that they’d been fascinated with Bigfoot since they were children and merely wanted to imagine how one would really live. “What initially got us going with it was that the only footage available was just of it walking, which was fascinating,” he said, referring to the 1967 recording often cited as “proof” of Bigfoot’s existence. “We were like, ‘What else is it doing? What is Bigfoot doing, along with all the other animals of the forest, out there in the wilderness?’”

As it turns out, per the Zellners, Bigfoot spends most days maintaining a sweet relationship with the natural world. Amid all the waste-expelling and fornicating in Sasquatch Sunset are tender scenes of the creatures caring for one another and practicing Sasquatchian rituals, including one in which they rhythmically knock on the trunks of trees, then wait and listen attentively for a response. By the end of the film, I was moved by their closeness and their clear yearning to find more like them. When I told Coldiron that I left the film not just weirdly glad I’d outlasted others but glad to have seen it, she sounded delighted. “This movie seems like it’s probably nonsense, but that did affect you,” she said. “That’s fascinating to me. I’m looking forward to seeing it.” And perhaps sticking with it all the way through.

Shirley Li is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

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