The head of the National Association of Theater Owners caused a bit of kerfuffle this week when he gave a speech at CinemaCon and said that recent Best Picture winner 12 Years a Slave was “too unequivocally intense” for him to watch in a movie theater. Instead, he watched it at home. It was an odd thing for the man supposedly representing movie theaters to say. Still, it pointed to how the movies can provoke a strong emotional response — be it grief or joy or fright or some heady cocktail of all three — that can feel overwhelming, especially in a theater, where we are rooted to the experience in a way that can make an intense film that much more powerful.
Here are some examples of intense movie-watching experiences from the BuzzFeed staff. And please feel free to share your own in the comments!
1. 12 Years a Slave was definitely my most intense experience, but a close second for me was The Passion of the Christ. What made it so intense wasn’t the movie itself — because of my own religious beliefs, I didn’t have the emotional anchor that many folks had to it — but the audience, who very much had that emotional connection. EVERYONE was crying. Like, funeral-style sobbing. It made me feel like an island because I really felt like the only person in the room outside of this experience. I also felt sort of like…a voyeur? Like I was intruding on a really precious, intimate moment that should have been reserved for people who got it. Or something. I don’t know.
2. After I saw Dancer in the Dark, I really couldn’t speak. I just had so many emotions and felt so overwhelmed. I saw it with a friend who’d already seen it, and he didn’t have nearly the emotional response I did (he knew what was coming), so he started chattering away to me about it as if everything was fine, and I remember getting ANGRY with him for disrupting my fragile emotional state. That movie wrecked me.
3. Million Dollar Baby had me crying so hard, I ended up just lying on my side in my chair.
4. I started sobbing uncontrollably toward the end of Hunger and I had to leave the room for a while because I couldn’t handle anymore and also because I was being very loud.
5. The first movie I saw in a movie theater was E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. It came to Brazilian theaters around ‘83. I was around 4 years old and my mom took me to a dubbed session, but when we got there, the tickets were sold out and we had to catch the original version, subtitled in Portuguese. I was starting to learn how to read, and obviously wasn’t fast enough to get to the end of the subtitles before the scene changed. So I found myself in a strange, dark, and loud room, with an extraterrestrial creature who, although very good at heart, was amazingly scary to me. (Remember, I’m not getting the full story, because I couldn’t read everything.) Meanwhile, my mom was trying to explain the film for me and to convince me that E.T. was BEAUTIFUL.
We used to live in a two-story house in the suburbs and, after E.T., I wasn’t able to stay up or downstairs by myself for, like, one or two years.
6. Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomanic. I saw it last night and I screamed internally for hours until I got home. I’m still screaming right now. Sex is sex, but my stomach just can’t handle it. It was beautifully shot and I felt liberated for the main character because she just loves sex but — UGH DIGITALLY COMPOSITED PORN STAR GENITALS.
7. Boys Don’t Cry — I sat in my car for 30 minutes afterward, just weeping. The pain of Brandon Teena, the aggression of the men who brutalized him, and the relative indifference of almost everyone else coming out of the Syracuse movie theater left me stunned, saddened, and hurt in a way I did not expect.
I was supposed to meet friends for dinner afterward but I canceled, went home, and cried myself to sleep.
8. I saw Synecdoche, NY when I was a freshman in college and had just ended the most epic three-and-a-half-year high school relationship. I shaved my head, and got my sexuality questioned a lot, even though I didn’t really get what the big deal was about wearing plaid and vests every day — I thought it was hip. Anyway, life as I knew it was changing a lot, and the world was no longer this beautiful place. And I went to see this movie with our beloved Philip Seymour Hoffman (RIP), and, it’s basically the most existentially sad film you have ever seen about life being terribly poetic, but meaning absolutely nothing. And I did everything I could do to not cry in front of all my friends afterward.
9. I was in a rocky place with my man when I saw Blue Valentine, by myself in the theater. It was kind of insane, because it made me think love was impossible. I was also in film school at the time, and it had been so long since I had watched a movie without thinking about shots and acting and all the technical nonsense, but in that film I was exclusively feeeeeeeeeeeling a movie for the first time in years. I walked out of the theater and then walked right back in and watched it two more times in a row. And cried a lot. And then a few weeks later, my boyfriend and I broke up.
10. Before Midnight. It was sort of a life-changing film for me. It’s so brutally honest in its depiction of the difficulty of relationships, but at the same time, it’s so funny and, in spite of everything, so romantic. I think finding this space of romantic realism is so rare in film and so moving. It also meant a lot to me personally, because I’d had my heart broken three years previously, and was shunning serious relationships because I was very cynical about the whole establishment. Seeing the movie really changed that. I saw it with a boy who had been in love with me for a while who I’d been turning down, and soon afterward, we got together and we’re still together now.
11. When I saw Titanic, a rugby player was sitting next to me sobbing his eyes out. He kept repeating, “They don’t know they’re gonna die. Someone stop them.”
12. I saw 50/50, which I didn’t really think would be that big of a deal. However, my cousin had recently had a couple of brain tumors removed. During the scene where he gets put under for anesthesia, I just started sobbing uncontrollably in the theater. All my friends were pretty startled since I really couldn’t stop or pull it together. The doctors had let me go back with my cousin right before they took her away for surgery, and the parallels were just too real for me. She is fine now, but I still can’t watch that movie without completely losing it.
13. In high school, a friend and I went and saw Lars von Trier’s Dogville. It’s this amazingly well-acted and super-stylized film that takes place on a theatrical stage, wherein Nicole Kidman gets raped by what seemed like every fucking other character. I remember being a young woman and for the first time, being confronted with like what rape looked like. We left like in total silence. My friend’s a screenwriter now.
14. Blood Diamond filled me with rage…and a lot of tears. I was in high school, and at the time, I was very interested in human rights, but I also didn’t understand the power and realities behind my white privilege. Seeing a portrayal (and a tame one at that) of the horrific events that take place in order for wealthy nations to get diamonds made me sick to my stomach. I was enraged that children were suffering, that families were being slaughtered, that people were benefitting from the violence, and that my own ignorance of the issue was contributing to the success of the diamond industry. Between my angry outbursts and steady flow of tears, I’m sure everyone in the theater wished I had watched the film alone.
15. Gravity was physically exhausting to watch in a big way. I have never before walked out of a theater and felt such a keen desire to a) immediately sit down (even though I was just sitting for two hours?) and b) have an alcoholic drink RIGHT AWAY.
16. Sitting through Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire was like enduring a two-hour stroke. There was never a moment of relief, from start to finish. I watched all of Schwarzenegger’s movies from the ’80s and early ’90s and they have nothing on Precious for violence — physical, emotional, or otherwise.
17. I was 13 when the first Saw movie came out, and I was so terrified that I slept on a blow-up mattress in my sister’s room for a week. I think the combination of pure terror and the idea that a person like that really could exist (as opposed to a ghost movie or demons) was what really got to me.
18. I saw Life Is Beautiful with my dad and brother when it first came out and I could not stop crying. But I didn’t want my brother to make fun of me, so I went to the bathroom after and sobbed uncontrollably. Also, it came out when I was 9 so I have no idea why they took me to see that.
19. I suppose this is kind of predictable, but I found The Pianist to be pretty goddamn intense to watch; I have a lot of family who died in the Holocaust so everything involving the train and the deportations was very tough. And the scene near the end where he plays the piano in that house was BRUTAL.
20. I saw American History X in a theater where I was one of only two white people — and looked like a full-on skinhead: white T-shirt, jeans, boots, the whole deal. That was an intense experience. During the curbing scene, the guy sitting next to me just started glaring at me. Afterward, though, there was this weird emotional release and everyone was super friendly and upbeat.
21. When I was a kid, around 9, my mom decided I should see Gorillas in the Mist because I was obsessed with wildlife and animal behavior, and had read a ton of books by people like Jane Goodall. I assume that she knew that it would be fairly intense, given what actually happened to the scientist Dian Fossey in real life, but since I was watching it with both of my parents, we all assumed it would be OK.
I was rapt throughout the beginning of the movie when the (real!) gorillas slowly crept out of the Rwandan jungles and Fossey gained their trust. I was crying tears of joy and gripping my mother’s hand throughout the slow, beautiful, and authentically emotional encounters between humans and gorillas — particularly between Sigourney Weaver’s Fossey and the gorilla she was closest to, Digit — that were happening in front of me. I was more determined than ever to do something with my life that would help save animals that were in danger and that would allow me to get to be around creatures that didn’t look like me and start to communicate with and understand them.
Then, in a scene toward the end of the movie, the poachers who’d been creeping into the outskirts of the plot burst in and killed Digit in a startlingly realistic scene, beheading him. It looked real to me. Again, I was 9. I started SCREAMING at the TOP OF MY LUNGS and my mom had to carry me out of the room. She was terrified, I was red and wouldn’t stop screaming at full volume, for probably 20 minutes straight, while also shaking and crying and saying nonsense. To this day — even with all of the human death, scary accidents, tragedies, and hospitalizations we’ve been through together — my parents say it’s by far the most upset they’ve ever seen me.
22. This is a really weird one, but Celeste and Jesse Forever killed me. Three days after I broke up with my boyfriend of seven and a half years, my friends thought it would be fun to watch this cute lil’ film because it had Rashida Jones. What could go wrong?! I cried the entire time because it made me realize something you only realize as an adult: Sometimes love isn’t enough. And sometimes, that is OK. It’s not an Oscar movie, but it kind of proves that sometimes it’s the moment that does it to you.
23. I’ve only cried at one movie (well, when I wasn’t on drugs, anyway): Once. It absolutely killed me. Full-on waterworks multiple times, but when the ne’er-do-well kid gives his speech about the kid everyone loves? Maaaaan, shit.
24. I have seen Schindler’s List and Terms of Endearment, but the only movie to ever make me cry was The Santa Clause. I saw the movie in theaters at the ripe age of 3, and I completely lost it the moment Santa fell off the roof. I remember yelling, “Santa is dead! They killed Santa!” I have yet to react so strongly toward a movie — which includes Casablanca, Bridges of Madison County, and the first eight minutes of Up — and it’s the only proof I have that I’m not a robot.
25. I went to see Beasts of the Southern Wild at an early show with two friends. At a certain point in the movie, when Hushpuppy’s dad was sick, my friend started crying audibly, which then gave me permission to let loose and start sobbing. That lasted pretty much straight through to the end of the movie. I feel kind of bad for the other folks who were at that early movie and had to listen to our weeping — but not too bad.
26. I went to see Rachel Getting Married with my younger sister when it came out. The choice of movie was random — it fit the time and location that we needed, and neither of us thought about what it was about until it started. The important part of going was that we made plans to get together, there was no alcohol involved, and we both showed up. That was a first. One of us was VERY recently out of rehab, and the months leading up to that particular stint had involved an incredible amount of care-taking, worrying, stress, tears, etc., on the part of the healthy sister. Having a sister that was sober and not in the throes (physically and mentally) of rapid decline was brand new and we were both just happy to have some hope. CUE THE MOVIE. We both sobbed for at least half the movie, but kind of to ourselves? It was really ridiculous actually, now that I think about it: We were both trying not to upset the other one. The scene where Anne Hathaway’s Kym shows up and needs her sister Rachel (played by Rosemarie DeWitt) to take care of her—bathe her and make sure she’s not injured — ON RACHEL’S WEDDING DAY: Good luck summing up what it is like to have an addict for a sibling better than that situation, All Films Past, Present, and Future.
27. I watched One Direction: This Is Us in 3D, in a theater full of teenage fangirls who squealed nonstop. It was a waking nightmare.
28. The Stoning of Soraya M. Heaving sobs for a good hour. I hid in my hoodie.
29. When United 93 was released in 2006, I was single, and I could not convince any of my friends to see it with me, so I went alone. In hindsight, that was just as well, as I ended up grateful that there was no one seated next to me. I was a rocking, stamping, groaning, sobbing, armrest-pounding mess while watching that film, and nobody should have to deal with that if they’re not dating or married to me.
30. I watched Oldboy (the superior original Korean film) in a Paris theater with my (50-plus-year-old) mother and (80-plus-year-old) grandmother, and none of us had any idea what it was about before going in. It featured French subtitles, so I couldn’t quite grasp the plot, but I was overwhelmed, viscerally and emotionally, by the insane visuals and performances. My grandmother, being from another time, couldn’t follow the complex plot twists either, so when the shocking climax was revealed, my mother had to explain to both of us what was happening. And so began one of the most uncomfortable family conversations in the history of human speech. If you don’t know what happens in Oldboy, I won’t ruin it, just go watch… Just not with your grandma in a crowded theater.
31. One of the most intensely happy experiences I’ve had in a movie theater was when I watched Bridesmaids with my friend Matty. I’d never before been in a theater where every single person was laughing. You could practically feel the room shake. I felt delirious by the end, and I also legitimately could not breathe through most of it.
32. I feel I’ve had so many — Boys Don’t Cry just about killed me. And when I saw Million Dollar Baby, my half-brother had recently died, and there was something about the very end… Wait, I’m welling up thinking about it. But rape is always especially horrible to see on a big screen, and The Accused was a nervous-breakdown experience (which is its point). There are also intense physical experiences, like Gravity — and like The Blair Witch Project, too, which has that different you-are-there nausea. I also cried a lot watching Evita! And a zillion other movies. I love it.