Movies can make a deep psychological, even spiritual impact on the viewer. One of the most enduring series of films developed to date, Star Wars, was designed by producer George Lucas with captivating spiritual sub-themes revolving around the struggle between good and evil.
According to Lucas, part of his purpose in creating Star Wars was to move young people to think about the deeper questions of life. Lucas' own spiritual persuasions of Protestant Christianity and Buddhism are reflected in the characters and sub-themes of the original Star Wars movie (1977). One viewer of the 1977 Star Wars film states that he thought about the spiritual themes of Star Wars for weeks after first seeing the film as a teen.
History of the development of films and movies in the United States
Modern technology gave birth to the movie history in a West Orange, New Jersey in Thomas Edison Studios. Edison first featured his films publicly in 1894, and in 1896, he had produced the first story movie, "The Kiss" which both shocked and bonded audiences to motion pictures as a way of life (Classic Movie Gab. 2010, April 11).
The development of photography in the 1800s led to the gradual introduction of moving picture primitive at first, the technology would leap from and jump ocean borders from the U.S. to France and Britain.
Prior to the development of photography and movies, and before baseball became a popular sport in the United States (the "national pastime became such during and after the civil war), drawing was a way of life for most children and young adults. The average child and teen during the early to mid-1800s had a skill in drawing which was close to being professional by today's standards. Because you couldn't yet take a photograph and because there were so few serious distractions, pianos in the parlor as well as drawing and art were very common pastimes in the United States and Europe.
Because photography produces a lifelike replica, and as its commercial appeal grew, it displaced drawing as a pastime. Movies furthered that trend, and baseball filled up the free-time of millions of children, fathers and adolescents that used to be spent in drawing or, especially for females, playing piano.
Edison Studios first real movie, the "Widow's Kiss" featured the first passionate kiss ever seen on screen. They kissed, and kissed, and kissed.... Nothing like that had ever been seen before by audiences. At first there was protest. However, once the initial shock subsided, the passionate kiss remained a part of films from that early date in 1896, through the Silent Films era, and into the Hollywood era, on until today.
Passionate kissing in film, such as in Dances With Wolves, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, even children-oriented movies like Big (1988), with Tom Hanks, where Hanks as man-boy undresses his soon to be sex-partner to her underwear came to be accepted as a normal part of family entertainment. The protesters of 1896 quieted and the passionate kiss remained forever a standard draw for Hollywood films.
Kissing and love making in movies elicits emotions from the viewer. In the book Research Agendas in the Sociology of Emotions author Norman K. Denzin of the Institute of Communications Research at the University of Illinois notes that viewers watching kissing and love scenes sometimes view themselves as participants rather than spectators.
Greta Garbo and John Gilbert starred in five films together from 1926 to 1933: "Flesh And The Devil" in 1926, "Love" in 1927, "A Woman Of Affairs" in 1928, "A Man's Man" in 1929, and "Queen Christina" in 1933. They had an on and off real-life relationship during that time period.
Movies can arouse emotions which lead to behaviors in imitation of or in response to the desire evoked by the movie.
Watching a love scene in a 1933 movie, one viewer recalls, "When we left" seeing Greta Garbo or Clara Bow "I'd go home and dream about them". After one show with his "girl", "we left the show in a daze. We talked about that picture for two or three weeks. We would make love to each other like the actors in the film did. (Blumer, 1933)."
A female college student said that the "loving making" in Classic Hollywood films "sets up a fantasy love scene in which I am the heroin." "It decidedly makes me want to be kissed and fondled", and therefore influenced her actions with young men she dated (Kemper, T. 1990).
Movie History: First Movie With a Plot - Violence in Movies
While movies prior to 1903 featured short stories, the first movie with a real plot was produced by Edison Studios in 1903, "The Great Train Robbery", which, true to its theme, included robbery and in the end a bloody massacre. It concludes with a bandit pointing his gun at the camera (the audience) (Prince, S. 2003. p.24). It is considered to be the root of violent movies in the 20th century. Thousands of movies were turned out by scores of movie studios in the United States, France and Britain from 1897 through 1914 on all imaginable themes and styles.
Do movies affect our mood, judgments, worldview, or way of thinking?
A study by Joseph P. Forgas and Stephanie Moylan of the University of New South Wales explored that question, considering four angles: political judgments, expectations about the future, judgments of responsibility and guilt, and quality-of-life judgments.
Their study found that movies do significantly affect viewpoint and mood based on the affective quality or mood promoted by the film. In cases where the film was optimistic or happy, judgments of the viewer afterwards on these four life-viewpoints were generally positive. When viewers watched a sad or aggressive film, their mood and judgment biases were generally negative.
Interestingly, these results proved to be consistent regardless of the demographic background of those interviewed, suggesting that the phenomenon is universal rather than isolated to specific social constructs (Forgas, Moylan. 1987, December).
Horror movies are as old as movies themselves, the first coming shortly after Edison's foray into the realm of sexual titillation, violence and film. Horror movies are described as "unsettling" movies, movies that endeavor to elicit response of fear, disgust, repugnance and horror from the viewer. Darkness is the backdrop and terror the emotion.
In 1896 early cinematographer Georges Mèliès produced a short film entitled The House of the Devil (Le Manoir du Diable), featuring a bat that flies into a castle, transforming into Mephistopheles, a blood-sucking vampire. A successive film in 1898 by Mèliès was entitled "The Cave of Demons" (La Caverne Maudite). Mèliès went on to produce some 500 films, giving audiences an exciting, spine-tingling glimpse of the world of devils, demons, and the macabre, albeit within the safe hands of the movie theater armrests.
Frankenstein, a novel from Mary Shelly in 1818, became the first Frankenstein movie and was produced by Edison Studios in the Bronx in 1910. The Silent era saw several adaptations of this theme, including "Life Without Soul", a sequel by Edison Studios. The most famous adaptation of the film was in 1931 by Universal Studios featuring Boris Karloff as the monster. "Frankenstein (1931) represented a significant escalation of screen violence" states Stephen Prince in Classical Film Violence (Prince. 2003. p.53), and in the same work horror historian David Skal is referenced as marking the "horror film" of 1931 as "the most lasting and influential invention" of that time period.
Beyond the violence, Frankentstein's opening scene featured stealing a body from a graveyard, with tools to saw apart the corpse. The intention is the draw in the audience with this macabre scene, and illicit a horrific response. While Frankenstein appears tame to us hardened movie veterans over 80 years later, for audiences of that time period, it hit a nerve beyond anything they had seen previously.
In the 1930s and 40s there were approximately eight Frankenstein-themed movies, and from 1957 to 1974 seven. Frankenstein remains a popular and enduring theme in television, cartoons films, comedies, and parodies until this day.
"Horror movies brought a new level of sadistic violence to popular culture."
Stephen Prince in Classical Film Violence (2003)
One of the other famous early horror movies was produced prior to World War I in 1913 by German filmmakers and featured the theme of the Jewish bad-good monster legend "Der Golem." Golem was a solidly built clay man that was created to save the ghetto. However, when his job is accomplished, he refuses to cease existing, runs amok, eventually to be defeated by a little girl. A sequel was produced in 1920.
The Cabinet of Dr Caligari was an early horror film created in 1919, and is dubbed "the grandaddy of all horror films", depicted puppet humans controlled by a sadistic madman (Wilson, K.).
Vampire movies evolved into their present familiar form by 1922 in Germany, with "Nosferatu", with the grotesque Max Schreck, representing the Count Orlok of Transylvanian history and legend, becoming the most frightening vampire and vampire film to date, curling his long fingernails around the limbs of a series of hapless victims (Bullen, A.).
The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1923 starred Lon Chaney, the first American horror-film movie star. Universal Studios produced the most successful horror movie production company, and in the 1930s it iconized the American horror movie genre, with "Frankenstein" at the forefront (1931), "Dracula" coming in a close second (1931), and a menacing come-to-life "Mummy" to round off the threesome (1932).
Alfred Hitchcock was a master of suspense. A "Psychological Analysis of Alfred Hitchcock's Movies" states that he elicits "provocation" and "anxiety", which results in capturing the audience's "attention and concentration" when viewing his films. Some of the most memorable scenes in Hitchcock films leave deeply embedded memories in the human psyche.
The 1960s brought a new type of horror movie to the screen, that of reprehensible deeds developed in a menacing plot, with a bloody sprinkling of violence and terror. "Peeping Tom" by Michael Powell, and Alfred Hitchock style of psychological thrill, film evil, capsulated in films such as "Psycho", spawned the psychological thrillers, Hitchcock's claim to fame during the 1960s.
Hitchcock delighted in building suspense, presenting impossible choices, hiding the true nature of characters, deliberately attempting to capture and twist the mind of the audience, even as he was twisting the minds of his characters.
Flasafia, Khorashabd and Khorashadc in the article "Psychological Analysis of Alfred Hitchcock's Movies" state that "Hitchcock provides a simulated situation on the foundation of meticulous arousal for his audiences" and that Hitchcock elicits both "provocation and anxiety to excite the audiences." The state of arousal elicited from Hitchcock films results in "attention and concentration" while viewing the film. In this manner, Hitchcock is able to "dominate" "the human psyche, and imparts his message to them. Whatever the message is, it goes through the people's unconscious via identification."
Hitchcock successfully hid the true evil nature of well-developed and likable characters, until the last possible moment, created a tension by a technique similar to putting a glass of water in front of a thirsty man, just out of the reach of his fingers, allowing him to strain to grope for the water, while the audience looks on trying to strain along to help the victim, but unable physically to do so.
There may be evidence that the memories and emotions of watching a Hitchcock movie, for example, may go beyond the present. Of Hitchcock's The Birds one viewer said, "the movie has instilled a permanent fear in me." The viewer was a hunter, and the movie created a fear in him of touching a bird that he had shot. Another viewer talks about her "phobia of taking a shower" attributing it to viewing the movie Psycho; five years later she stills turns her head around the shower curtain in fear of the imminent knife of death (Prince, S. p.65).
The 1970s saw the birth of truly demonic movies such as "The Exorcist" (1973) and "The Omen" (1976), preceded by "Rosemary's Baby" in the 1960s. "Jaws" in 1975 was a horror movie, directed by Steven Spielberg, which adults and children could enjoy together, with a happy ending as the monster-shark is finally destroyed against-all-odds by a an average-guy hero who blows him to bits with a rifle and scuba tank turned bomb.
Suspense and terror in the movie Jaws made it a memorable and riveting film, one that hits close to home for anyone who swims in the ocean.
Some of the psychological elements of "Jaws" that made it such a memorable film were:
1. the enemy you cannot see (hidden in the dark waters that we frequent in the summer)
2. the realism --a real sea creature is the killer; the event actually took place in Matwan Creek, New Jersey in 1916 when four people were killed over a period of 12 days (Blake, S.).
3. The unforgettable pulsing score of the film's described as "sinister, simple phrasing" creating a mode of fear and suspense.
4. There is only one enemy, the enemy is 100% evil and shows mercy to no one. The good guys are sitting ducks.
5. Jaws is in his element, we are out of our element (BBC Radio: Natural Histories).
Mainstream Hollywood produced exciting disaster/horror movies in the 1970s such as The Towering Inferno (1974), which proved to be premoniscent to the actual towering inferno which occurred on September 11, 2001 when 3,000 were killed in the World Trade Center bombing in downtown New York. (The Twin Towers were actually completed (April 1973) around the time of the filming of the Towering Inferno).
The 1980s brought horror movies popular with teens and children such as "Halloween", "Friday the 13th", and "A Nightmare on Elm Street", "Chainsaw Massacre" films, which have had broad appeal among young people and children until this day. Most children, in fact, some as young as kindergarten and preschool, in the inner cities but most likely across the board, indulge in horror movies of this type.
Walt Disney actually introduced horror movies to children. A film-buff himself, one of his first flicks was a horror-spoof of dancing skeletons (1929) "The Skeleton Dance", a Silly Symphonies animated short, voted one of the 50 Greatest Cartoons of all time by the animation industry in 1994.
A clip from the movie-short was later used for a movie with Mickey Mouse, "Haunted House", in which Mickey, sheltered in the haunted house, is forced to play music for the dancing skeletons. Bambi (1942) is listed by Time Magazine as one of the top 25 Horror Movies of all time (off-site).
Other Disney movies such as "The Little Mermaid" and "Sleeping Beauty" feature terrifying scenes or scenes of spirit-horror and violence. Disney simply took a genre of film-making which had been developed for decades and incorporated these elements into his children's cartoons and animated fairy tale versions for marketing to children.
Why Horror Movies are So Appealing
Why are horror movies of such broad appeal? The themes of our nightmares, the psychological thrillers and terror, the high level of focus, raise the dopamine level of our brains, providing a type of pleasure; our minds are riveted, our attention is captured, albeit through the our basest instincts, and it forces us towards undivided attention.
We escape the world around us completely, and for 1 1/2 hours, nothing else matters. We can twist and squirm in our seats, feel scared, afraid, terrorized, but remain in perfect safety at the same time, in the low risk zones of a comfortable, air-conditioned movie theater, or our own living rooms.
Horror movies and the characters therein, are etched upon our conscious and subconscious. While watching the horror movie, our fear level is raised, our sense of revulsion of the demonic is captivated, and at the same time the inner fascination with the idea that it somehow might have a basis in reality, absorbs our imagination.
We can contemplate and absorb the macabre, gently sucking on soda and indulging in popcorn, putting ourselves in dire danger, and we walk away feeling as if we accomplished something brave and daring.
Do horror and violent movies result in like or violent acts from impressionable viewers? Film critic Astrid Bullen argues "no". "Horror films actually have the opposite effect on normal people — sick minds will commit atrocities anyway. Watching horror films lets us encounter our secret fears, share them with other viewers, and eliminate the terror by meeting it head-on."
Stephen Prince in the book Classical Film Violence: Designing and Regulating Brutality in Hollywood Cinema, 1930-1968 presents anecdotal evidence that violent movies are imitated in acts of violence by otherwise "normal" people. Reasons for watching movies differ from person to person, and the effect of films on individuals also differs. However Prince refers to one study of movies' effects on 43,000 persons concluding "The consensus among researchers in this area...some viewers...behave aggressively" as as direct result of watching violent movies, "is so strong" that it is indisputable (Prince. S. p.281).
Hollywood and India Bollywood Movies
What is Bollywood? BBC News explains that Bollywood is the nickname given to the Indian film industry, a play on the word Hollywood. "B" for Bombay, now Mumbai, capital of the India film industry. Global Bollywood: Travels of Hindi Song and Dance notes that "Bollywood movies and their signature song-and-dance spectacles are an aesthetic familiar to people around the world."
Anthropologist and India film expert Tejaswini Ganti describes Bollywood as the "dominant global term to refer to the prolific Hindi language film industry in Bombay" (Mumbai as of 1995). Typical Bollywood movies are noted for "music, dance routines, melodrama, lavish production values and an emphasis on stars and spectacle."
Classic Hollywood and Bollywood were twins and today's Bollywood film industry pumps out 150-200 highly developed feature movies per year. (Because these movies are then translated into 20 Indian languages, the total output of films produced by Indian film industry reaches between 800-1000 films per year). This compares with about 500 Hollywood movies released annually.
Bollywood movies are extremely visual and musical, often filmed against backdrops of breathtaking Himalayan mountains, or in such exotic places as Kashmir or Darjeeling--like the spicy cuisine of India renown, they are a visual feast.
Music and dance scenes are an essential element of this escapist genre of film-making that has come to be known as Bollywood. While musicals were popular in Hollywood during the 1940s through the 1960s, the musical-dance elements of Bollywood movies remain standard.
While Bollywood generically refers to the India film industry, it refers more specifically to a specific style of film-making, aimed at attracting huge box office success. Therefore, we need to delineate between Bollywood style movies with other more serious forms of India cinema.
New York Times movie critic Vaibhav Sharma refers to Bollywood as "traditionally escapist fare", while differentiating Bollywood with what appears to be a "fresh crop of filmmakers is ushering Indian movies in a new direction." That direction often pits socially traditional conservative India values with a modern generation influenced by the West, many of whom have tasted life away from India and family restrictions.
In the book Bollywood: A Guidebook to Popular Hindi Cinema anthropologist Tejaswini Ganti explains that many of the early popular movies of Indian cinema developed Hindu religious mythological themes, a tradition that has continued through recent decades. While mythological films are no longer prolifically produced today, the tradition persists in Indian television, where serials based on themes are still very popular.
While a Hollywood love film might devote a large part of the film to engaging dialogue before the romance is cinched, Bollywood often bypasses elaborate dialogue in favor of a gradual love-progression in four or five developing dance scenes, taking the couple from mildly interested to confirmed lovers.
India Hindu culture has always embraced an underlying sensuality, with sensual gods such as Krishna, who came down from the heavens and cohabited with a virtual harem of women, and stone temple reliefs with sculptures from Hindu legends featuring exaggerated female body parts that accentuated the sexuality of women.
While the Asian-Indian culture is typically modest about its sexuality, Bollywood movies from the 1960s and as early as its silent movie predecessors, have featured the sensual and provocative dance numbers that have become the hallmark of modern Bollywood productions.
The sexuality of Bollywood has historically been low-key, reflecting taboos of the religious culture: the frisky government official feeling up the knee of the heroin, low-key brothels, courtesans, and prostitution as sub-themes amidst larger plots, provocative dancing, and love triangles.
In the earlier days of Indian film making the Indian tradition of the courtesan became a enchanting theme of Indian cinema, India having a longstanding fascination with this profession. The courtesan in early Indian cinema, while sexual, was never allowed to be explicit. Modern Bollywood still develops the courtesan as a character in its films, and many Indian female film stars have made their dramatic entrance into Bollywood playing that role.
Another female role in Bollywood film, the vamp, unlike the vamps of classic Hollywood film, was clearly dilineated from the chaste heroin. In today's Bollywood, however, the role of the vamp and heroin are blurred, where the heroin is allowed to express her sexuality beyond the traditional social norms.
In the past seven to ten years culturally conservative standards where even on-screen kissing was taboo, have been gradually supplanted by a more-advert sexuality where unrated Bollywood movies feature lovemaking scenes straddle a boundary beyond that of an explicit R-rated American film.
While women have always been objectified in Hollywood, from the days of Theda Bara and Clara Bow in early American silent movies through Greta Garbo, Bridget Bardot, Marilyn Monroe, and other Hollywood sex symbols to the present, and Bollywood similarly is known for its objectification of women, especially in modern productions, Hindustani Times asks, "Is Bollywood Objectifying Men Now?" noting numerous popular and current Bollywood movies giving equal body eye candy time to male Bollywood stars.
In the same way that Hollywood has become a way of life for Westerners, Bollywood is an even greater part of the daily lives of those from an Asian-Indian background. About 14 million persons in India go to the cinema daily according to the BBC.
Movies and Pseudo-spirituality
Fantasy movies that are laced with a form of spirituality can beckon the spiritual side of our hearts to join with the light or dark side of the force, as it were. A teenager who is just beginning to explore the world of spirituality, can just as easily bond with The Two Towers of Tolkien, with his magic rings and mythology, as he can with The Bible, Torah, or Koran.
The Star Wars fantasy, similar to Tolkien's trilogy of mythologically spiritual books, is laced with a spirituality that can prove to be fascinating. In much the same way, male inner city teens discuss the finer points of Bruce Wayne's double-life in the Batman fantasy, with serious contemplation, and difficulty for an observer to discern whether the conversation is about a real person or fictional character.
Star Wars is like a religion within itself, "The Force" parallels the Christian "Holy Spirit" in guiding the heroes in their conquest over evil. The supremely cute warrior-teacher Yoda, is master of the religion of the good-side of The Force. More than a teacher, Yoda is a type of priest who guides the young Luke Skywalker on his sacred mission in the fight against the evil.
In the book, Catching Light: Looking for God in the Movies, author Roy M. Anker comments on "what turns out to be quite the spiritual journey" when Luke Skywalker meets Jedi knight, Obi-Wan Kenob, as noted in Christianity Today. Joel Hodge, a lecturer in Theology at Australian Catholic University, develops the idea of spirituality in Star Wars in the article, How 'Star Wars' answers our biggest religious questions: The movies take on -- and subvert -- Christian themes.
Hodge refers to Star Wars as "a rich, imaginative world of which one can become part", and that producer George Lucas's stated purpose was to "create a mythology that could provide moral guidance within the context of a renewed sense of spirituality and transcendence." For young people Lucas endeavored to awaken a certain kind of spirituality.
Describing himself as a "Buddhist Methodist", both Christian and Eastern religious influence is notable in the Star Wars movies. For many young people, their deepest attachment to any type of spirituality is through questions (and answers) aroused through movies. They do walk away with lessons that may stay with them for life.
Darth Vadar turns out to be a powerful Judas Iscariot-like character who has given in to the "dark side of The Force", turning out to be Luke's own father, but who continues to work loyally now for his new evil cause. Luke doesn't succumb to his father's attempt to woo him to the Dark Side, even as the master of the Dark Side of the Force, the supremely evil "Emperor", who theologian Joel Hodge refers to as "Satan", evil to the core, unlike Darth Vadar whose evil is tempered by certain misgivings, and who is controlled through terror by The Emperor.
The fantasy Star Wars, then, owes its popular appeal to a mixture of swashbuckling action, science fiction mystery, life and death terror, as well as a religious sub-theme which captures our hearts and imagination, with our desire to delve into the unknown and search for deeper meaning than our day to day, sometimes mundane, existence. It taps into our yearning for a higher purpose. Maybe there is a Luke Skywalker in all of us yet to be released.
Because adolescents often lack a solid foundation in spirituality, or are still groping for the spiritual side of life that they will carry with them through adulthood, movies can become a source of spiritual ponderance, a unique format of confusing boundaries between fantasy and reality. Pseudo-religion may being to form the basis of their questions about life, their ideas about life's purpose, about the spiritual world, and their connection to it. That "it's just a movie" doesn't really factor into the final product in the mind of a teenager or child.
"Lion King," like many Disney classic movies, exploits separation anxiety as an emotional hook. As reflected in the movie's advertising and bnd the movies primary purpose of entertaining, spiritual subthemes including the immortal soul and African animism raise questions of life and death in the minds of children.
Movies which offer spiritual enlightenment, or pseudo-spiritual themes, are imbibed by the youngest of children. Disney's "Lion King" is one example of a children's movie with a distinct religious character, embracing the animistic spirit world of the African tribe-peoples which inhabit East Africa. The father lion of the Lion King movie dies in a tragic accident, but his spirit lives on and guides his lion-son, eventually reaching immense and benevolent god-like proportions.
Movies may be assimilated on different levels. Some individuals may watch movies somewhat objectively, analytically, from a distance, skeptically or passively. For others, deep emotionally bonding and personal identity with films and film characters can leave a deep impression on one's persona. This can true of adults, teens, and children. Girls can especially become emotionally bonded to movie characters. Movies can have a deep impact on the personality and subconscious of those who tend to internalize the plots and bond with the characters.
While some might view a movie in the same way that some might look at fireworks, others become deeply involved, disturbed or enraptured, and it is for these types of persons that movies have the greatest emotional impact and for some movies may be a contributing factor in mood disorders, other mental health disorders, or even autism spectrum disorders.
Children's Movies, Separation Anxiety, and Childhood Depression
For some children, G-rated movies, designed for children, can contribute to depression or anxiety. Disney makes ample use of emotional ploys such as separation anxiety to capture children's interest. Every child may have a tinge of fear of being separated from their parents. Every child experiences a bit of separation anxiety on their first day of school, some more so than others. Disney movies make a business out of capturing the heart of children's worst fear, and then gently putting them back to safety.
Intense emotions, endearing characters, coupled with cartoon violence that are the backbone of the most popular children's movies, open and close the heart emotions of a child.
Children's movies such as Bambi, Dumbo, Pinocchio, Lion King, Wizard of Oz, and many others, are noted for emotional scenes and separation anxiety. Children's anxiety levels rise and fall with each scene, and linger on in the child's minds for months and even years to come. One viewer of the Wizard of Oz recalls, "That old witch scared me so much that I had recurring nightmares" for a month after seeing the film each time. "I would awake screaming and crying" (Prince, S. p.65).