After the fifth episode of Game of Thrones (The Door) last week, I started pondering what it is that makes us so emotional seeing a beloved character die on screen. After all, we know that when a character dies on TV or in the movies, it’s not real. It’s not like the actor who plays that character actually dies. What then, is it, that makes us so emotional when a beloved character passes away? Now, I’m not a psychologist nor do I have some degree in human behavior but I think I may be able to explain what it is that makes us feel so much for these characters and it comes down to, in my personal understanding, a few fundamental aspects that, when coalesced together, elicits the raw emotion that we experience.
First being scene composition. Now this arguably works better in visual mediums than it does in books simply because you have both auditory and visual stimuli to help you. The way a scene is shot and executed is vitally important. If the scene was not properly lit, you wouldn’t be able to see anything and the impact of what is trying to be conveyed is lost. If incorrect camera angles are used you may not even understand what is going on and again, the impact of the scene is lost. But when the lighting is spot on, the camera has been placed in the most optimum positions and the music swells up into great crescendos and washes over you like a wave, that is when all the raw emotion is unleashed from inside you and culminates in this wonderful and/or sorrowful moment of exhilaration.
However, none of that matters if there is absolutely no emotional investment by the audience. To explain what I mean by emotional investment, I am going to use Hodor and Game of Thrones as an example. If you have been watching Game Of Thrones since the beginning, you’ve most probably invested roughly six years of your life in this show. That’s a significant amount of time. So, for six years, you watch these characters on screen. You experience their trials and tribulations. You are essentially on a journey with these characters and over time, they become less like characters and more like real, living people. And when something devastating happens to them, it’s as if that devastating act has befallen you as well. As a reader of many books, this effect is compounded as you are now in the head space of the characters (usually when POV chapters are used) and when a tragic act comes to pass, you are experiencing this act first hand and so the emotional impact affects you at exactly the same time and manner as it does the character. And that is the crux of emotional investment. You have spent (read: invested) so much time and learnt so much about these characters that, to you, they are no longer characters. They are living, breathing people that exist and whatever act befalls them, be it negative or positive, will affect you in much the same way as it affects them.
Now, what I have sort of downplayed so far is the impact that music has in these moments of emotional exhilaration. Because a scene can be composed as perfectly as humanely possible and you could have invested your entire life in this character but without the musical accompaniment, the moment could fall flat on its face. This is not to say that every great emotional scene needs a musical accompaniment, some situations call for dead silence or white noise, however, in most circumstances, the musical accompaniment is not only needed but is a necessity. Again, take the Hodor scene from last weeks episode. Without that mournful Game of Thrones theme playing softly in the background, I’d argue quite vehemently, that the scene would not have had the same level of emotional impact. You may still have been sad but would you have experienced that raw burst of mortifying pain and horror? I’d argue not.
So far, I’ve based a great amount of this discussion on scenes that brought about emotional devastation and horror but what about scenes that elicit moments of pride or excitement? That exhilaration of adrenaline just before a massive attack, like the one in Lord of the Rings on the Pelennor fields when Theoden and the people of Rohan charge the massive army of orcs that lay siege to Minas Tirith. These are the scenes that give us goosebumps and make us sit on the edge of our seats and cheer the protagonists on. These are the scenes that every person who has ever watched anything in their lives, looks forward to. These are the scenes that make pop culture great.
So what makes these scenes so emotionally grand? Of course scene composition plays a massive role here, again and emotional investment is needed, to a degree but there has to be a third aspect. One that is able to make us feel this massive exhilaration of emotion and that is, what I believe to be, a primal human desire to see the protagonist in a commanding and powerful position. When Theoden is above the Pelenor fields, he is in a position of power and is about to charge the enemy. When the dwarves and elves charge the goblins and orcs outside Erebor in the Battle of the Five Armies, our protagonists are in power; they are going head first into battle to defeat the enemy. When Goku transforms into a SSJ 3 and attacks Kid Buu, we feel his power within us, we are with him all the way, urging him on in battle to defeat the evil. In all these situations, the soundtrack swells up in massive crescendos and builds up to a climactic crash of symphonic harmony as we see our heroes take on the big bad and, at least initially, attain a sense of victory. And that is when we experience this great burst of unadulterated emotion as we get goosebumps all over our bodies. We experience a rush of adrenaline as we finally see our heroes take on their enemies, full of pride and honour and valor.
And in the end, that is what is comes down to. As humans, we were designed to feel emotion and even though the characters we see on the screen may not necessarily be real, or are just a charade acted out by another human, we cannot help but get attached and develop feelings for them.