Chris Collins/ShutterstockWhat’s the funniest movie of all time? How about the scariest movie? The saddest? You probably have your own set of answers to all of these questions, forged over years of debate with friends and first dates, tempered in bottomless cups of coffee and wine. There is no wrong answer; defining our own emotional extremes is one of those uniquely human impulses, like playing air guitar, that we must all experience but in our own special way.
But according to science—specifically, University of California, Berkeley researchers Robert Levenson and James Gross—that doesn’t mean there isn’t a right answer to these questions. There is, in fact, a scientifically verified saddest movie of all time. It’s called The Champ (1979), and it is heartrending. But before we get into that, you may wonder how (and why) science weighed in on this.
Behavior researchers need to be able to manipulate their subjects’ emotions for a lot of reasons. So in 1988, Gross and Levenson set out to find the be-all-end-all of emotion-altering films across seven categories: Amusement, anger, contentment, disgust, fear, sadness, and surprise.
As anyone who has ever debated movie merits with friends will understand, these are not question easily answered. After years of narrowing down a list of films suggested by colleagues, film critics, video store employees and the like, Levenson and Gross put 76 clips before an audience of 500 male and female students in 1995. Students recorded how each clip made their moods shift according to the seven feelings mentioned above, giving the researchers raw data on the relative emotional power of each film on their list.
On the happy end of the spectrum, eight minutes of Robin Williams doing stand-up produced the highest amusement, followed closely by the fabled diner scene from When Harry Met Sally. Footage of waves on the beach rated highest for contentment, and the climactic basement chase from Silence of The Lambs nibbled out a win over a creepy hallway scene from The Shining as most fear-inducing film. When it came to tearjerkers, the notorious death of Bambi’s mom shot to the top of the list, but was beaten out by one other clip. And that brings us to The Champ.
For those who have not seen The Champ, here’s the upshot: A washed-up boxer (Jon Voight) gets back in the ring to try and win a better future for his son (9-year-old Ricky Schroder). In a climactic upset, the boxer wins the big match and becomes The Champ yet again—only to die in his dressing room immediately after. His son’s emotional (and Golden Globe-winning) breakdown that follows is what Gross and Levenson discovered to be the definition of sad cinema, a scene so tear-jerking it has since become the scientific standard for bumming people out and been screened in more than 300 studies (and cited in more than 4,000 Google Scholar pages) for that purpose. If you are saying to yourself, “enough blabbering, show me the blubbering,” here is the scene:
If you are not affected by that, you are a scientific anomaly and should submit yourself for further study.
Look for The Champ in ongoing sadness studies near you, and enjoy the rest of Gross and Levenson’s most-emotional films list below.
- 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