Posted on 05 April 2016
Listened to the last quarter of Hamilton on the way into work today. As always, hit me right in the feels. Why do we do this to ourselves? Why do (at least some of us) enjoy amazingly sad endings? I mean, I’ve written my fair share of them, but the mechanic of why they work still kind of puzzles me.
It somewhat makes me think of the movie Inside Out, where sadness is shown as being needed to heal. Of course, while Inside Out has a happy-in-the-end ending, it definitely has its moments that are complete gut-punches emotionally. They are what editor Deb Dixon from Bell Bridge Books calls “Big Black Moments,” places in a story where a character hits their lowest or is forced to face (or at least acknowledge) the consequences of their actions. They ground a story in reality and give it stakes, because even if we on some level know the protagonist is going to win, if we don’t understand what would happen if they didn’t, we can’t ever really appreciate the conflict of the story.
In contrast to most of Pixar’s catalog, I actually would bring up Ponyo as a counterpoint. I know a great many people who enjoyed Ponyo, but for me it really fell short mostly because I never once felt like there was a chance the story could take a turn for the bad. Constantly, secondary characters are going on and on about how The little boy has to accept Ponyo as magical, and the entire time you see them together, never do you get the slightest sense that this would be a problem, especially as Ponyo does strange weird stuff right in front of the boy the entire time, and he seems to think it is cool.
So yeah, no Big Black Moment, no investment in the story. But that still doesn’t take us to what the appeal is in an all out sad ending. When I wrote the play The Sunchasers, people loved the gut-punch make-you-cry moments, and the only thing I can fathom is that we love the feeling of catharsis, and if we can get it by proxy, we’ll take it. For the same reason adrenaline junkies can enjoy horror films (the survival rush without actually being in danger), I think catharsis junkies like sad stories. The feeling of surviving a loss can actually be an amazing high. And speaking from strictly a male perspective, the ability to feel deep, gut-wrenching sadness is almost a comfort, seeing as it is so taboo for men “to feel”, so it becomes a guilty pleasure too. A small strike of independence against a society that says I’m not allowed to cry when Hamilton calls after Eliza and says she the “Best of Wives and Best of Women”… *sniffle*