What are the Saddest Movie Scenes Ever?


The Smithsonian reports the clip to the right from Franco Zeffirelli’s remake of the 1931 movie The Champ, starring Jon Voight as a boxer and Ricky Schroder as his son “has become a must-see in psychology laboratories around the world when scientists want to make people sad.”

The Champ has been used in experiments to see if depressed people are more likely to cry than non-depressed people (they aren’t). It has helped determine whether people are more likely to spend money when they are sad (they are) and whether older people are more sensitive to grief than younger people (older people did report more sadness when they watched the scene). Dutch scientists used the scene when they studied the effect of sadness on people with binge eating disorders (sadness didn’t increase eating).

The project to find scenes that could reliably elicit a strong emotional response in laboratory settings began all the way back in 1988 when Robert Levenson, a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and his graduate student, James Gross, started soliciting movie recommendations from colleagues, film critics, video store employees and movie buffs. The two ended up evaluating more than 250 films and film clips, selected 78 contenders and eventually surveyed nearly 500 viewers on their emotional responses to what they saw on-screen.

Eventually, in 1995 the duo came up with 16 short film clips to evoke a variety of emotions. Here’s the list:

  • Amusement: When Harry Met Sally and Robin Williams Live
  • Anger: My Bodyguard and Cry Freedom
  • Contentment: Footage of waves and a beach scene
  • Disgust: Pink Flamingos and an amputation scene
  • Fear: The Shining and Silence of the Lambs
  • Neutral: Abstract shapes and color bars
  • Sadness: The Champ and Bambi
  • Surprise: Capricorn One and Sea of Love

I recently asked you “Did Toy Story 3 Make You Cry? What Movies Did?” and the article received over 120 comments to date. Now I ask you what specific movie scenes you believe to be the saddest ever? Are there scenes that make you cry no matter how many times you watch them?

Personally, I don’t tend to cry while watching movies, but sadness is undoubtedly an emotion we have all experienced. As far as specific scenes go, I’m not sure if it’s a matter of being horrified or sad, but select moments in Schindler’s List, Dancer in the Dark, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Good Will Hunting, American History X and a film I only recently saw for the first time, Terms of Endearment, certainly well up the emotions. How about you?