Earlier this year (2019), millions of people went to their local movie theater to watch Avengers: Endgame, by Marvel Studios. So many went, in fact, that it became the highest grossing movie in history, surpassing James Cameron’s Avatar from 2009. Isn’t it surprising how so many people love these movies? They dedicated more than 2 hours of their day and spent money to go and see them, and to top it off: they’re fiction! None of these characters or events were real!
One of the most common topics of conversation among friends and coworkers these days is “What are you watching on Netflix?” Beyond movies, streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video offer dramatic series of hour-long episodes, spanning several seasons. Do these fictional (and non-fictional) movies and TV series offer us anything beyond a means to kill some time? Why is it that seemingly everyone, across the world, enjoys consuming these stories?
Humans have been telling stories for a very long time – as far back as we can look! One of the oldest known stories is “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” from Mesopotamia. This set of poems chronicling the adventures of the Sumerian king dates back to 2100 BC, over four thousand years ago. Anthropologists believe that language had been around long before writing, with the most conservative estimates being at least fifty thousand years ago and many estimates placing the origin of language much farther back in time. Who knows how long “The Epic of Gilgamesh” was told orally before it was ever recorded in writing? Before developing the ability to write, humans passed knowledge and tradition verbally from generation to generation. Poems and stories provided formats that would have been easy to remember for re-telling in the future. Certainly, encoding bits of wisdom and historical events into dramatic narrative form would have helped their staying power across so much time.
What likely began as telling stories in a cave or around a fire eventually evolved into the forms we know today: incredible Broadway productions, blockbuster films, and TV series spanning many episodes over several seasons. By looking at some of the other qualities unique to our species we can find more insight into why our need for great stories has persisted for thousands of years.
We humans are social creatures. It’s interesting to note that, in chimpanzees and other primates, very little of the area of their eyes is white. By comparison, our eyes have a distinct iris and pupil that contrasts against the whites and is visible to others. That’s useful, because we want to know what those around us are up to, and what they’re looking at. We watch each other and learn from the experiences and actions we see and try to incorporate the good things into our own lives.
After observing, we often adopt some of the actions and attitudes we see. You can see this in children to play house or school. They’ve watched mom and dad closely for a while and they enjoy making a game out of trying out those roles. Acting out the role of “Mom,” or “Dad,” as they understand it helps them explore the limits of being in charge and being responsible for helping others. Another common role they adopt for pretend is that of the hero. They dress up as best they can to look like their favorite superhero and swoop around the house saving innocent people from evil doers! Recognizing patterns of behavior and acting them out is an important part of their development and learning how to interact appropriately with other people.
Our ability to see patterns of behavior can extend well beyond our observation of other people. Back in the 1940s, a pair of psychologists, Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel, made a short video with some moving triangles and a circle. They showed the video to a group of people and asked them about the moving shapes. Nearly all the participants described it as a narrative in which the shapes had personalities and motives, ascribing human qualities to objects that are far from human! Perhaps this quality is why we can enjoy animated movies, even though cartoon animals that can speak is pretty far from actual reality.
These innate traits we all share make movies a perfect vehicle for bringing positive meaning into our lives. Even today, movies help us connect with our culture and remember our history. What must it have been like to venture into the western frontier to make a new life for your family in the face of unknown danger and strange people? What was it like for our grandfathers to storm the German positions on the beaches of Normandy? What might life have looked like for a slave in early America?
Even fictional stories can help us explore some of life’s difficult questions. What does it look like to fall in love? What is it like to be betrayed? How should we act in the face of impossible odds? How does evil manifest itself in the world? Watching these situations play out helps us get a sense of what it looks like or feels like to act courageously in the world, or relate to people who are different than us, among other things. This can be incredibly valuable to children; whose models of such things are relatively new and basic. Of course, the content should be carefully monitored and curated by mom and dad.
We’ve covered what it is about our love of stories that brought those millions of movie goers to see Avengers: Endgame this year, but what else does the movie theater experience have to offer that made them pay money and leave their homes? Going out is certainly fun, especially with our favorite people. The other major driving factor is that the movie theater offers a large-scale experience that magnifies or matches the size of the story. Large screens and immersive sound allow us to sink deeper into the story, enriching the quality and meaning it has to offer.
It’s been the case for some time now that a cinematic experience can be had at home. Over the years the options for the necessary equipment has steadily expanded. A room dedicated to a comfortable and amazing movie experience is hard to beat, but even multi-purpose living spaces can now accommodate the equipment in a way that doesn’t detract from the look of the room and its other uses. All these possibilities combined with the knowledge of how beneficial these stories are in our lives and how much time the average household spends watching them has brought me to the conclusion that every home should have at least one room where a quality experience can be had.
You enjoy stories today because every one of your ancestors leading up to you did too. They help us connect with our culture, empathize with others, explore our morals, and embolden us to act courageously in the world. Good movies bring positive meaning into our lives and the lives of our children. I hope after reading this you’ll start to think about how you and I can make watching movies at your house a little more special. I wonder, what will be the first movie you play?