Here's Why In-Flight Movies Make You Cry Like a Baby
Turns out a lot of people cry more at in-flight movies
Fortunately for my sense of self-worth, I have company as a dude who goes to pieces over a Clint Eastwood movie. Virgin America conducted a highly scientific study on its Facebook page a few years back that found 41% of men admit to crying at movies on airplanes. And 55% of people admit feeling heightened (sorry) emotions while flying. In response, Virgin began including “emotional health warnings” before some particularly loaded films on their flights. Among those: Gran Torino.
Anecdotally, I found way more people than expected experienced the same thing.
“Once during Mamma Mia!, I began sobbing uncontrollably loud, and was convinced the turkey sandwich I was eating had listeria,” says Tara, an expectant mother at the time. “I began sobbing because I thought I’d never get to sing songs to my daughter the way Meryl Streep was doing. I also once started crying during a Cheerios commercial on a flight, so I guess it doesn’t take much to set me off.”
Maybe you can chalk that one up to hormones. But this would not be the case for Kevin, a stocky 250-pound real estate broker who admitted to tearing up during a showing of Free Willy.
“I don’t know bro,” he tells me. “Free Willy is pretty emotional.”
A travel writer named Haley confides: “Two weeks ago I started bawling during Fast and the Furious 8. The guy next to me looked over and said, ‘You’ve gotta be kidding me’ and made fun of me for at least 10 minutes.”
Haley told of another time an older lady said she was too old to be crying at How to Train Your Dragon. Haley is 25.
“I ended up becoming friends with a couple because I was just straight-up ugly crying on a flight home from Australia,” Sonia, a hotel concierge, tells me. “They asked if I was OK and I told them, 'Yes, I’m just watching Moana.'"
A psychiatrist friend offers some insight, but not after his wife called him out for plane-crying at Inside Out and Monsters Inc.
“Being on an airplane means you’re traveling, and that often has some kind of sentimental value,” he says. “So if you think about it you are really primed to be more emotional. Traveling can increase oxytocin levels, especially when traveling with loved ones. It’s the same reason couples have more sex on vacation.”
The stress of flying fries your nerves
Nobody flying economy class in 2017 will describe air travel as “fun.” Even with TSA Precheck and Group 1 boarding, the stress of flying can grind down anyone’s emotional stability.
“By the time you sit down you’ve probably been stressed all day,” says Dr. Randi Mackintosh, a Tallahassee, Florida psychiatrist. “A lot has been building up. When you get up in the air, it might be the first time you’re realizing how the stress is impacting you.”
Between rushing through traffic, endless check-in lines, and the shuffle through TSA with a 45-pound duffel bag on your shoulder, just getting to a plane can put you at wits’ end. Sitting down and throwing on a mild animated feature might seem like a good way to decompress. But when Carl Fredricksen’s house starts lifting into the air, all that pent-up stress comes flying out through your tear ducts. And then you have to make up a lie to explain why daddy is welling up at Up!.
When Elijah Wolfson considered this question in an Atlantic essay, he noted the catharsis that simply settling into an airplane seat might represent. “You’ve finally reached the end of what was likely a full day of getting to the airport, and could have been weeks of preparing, or even years of an important life phase culminating in an end and new beginning,” he wrote. In a state like that, it’s no wonder a mushy-ass Cheerios commercial could tip an otherwise with-it person into a teary puddle.
The sky is a lonely place
Flying is kind of like the loneliness people describe while driving the 405 in LA: surrounded by people, but completely alone. Your seat becomes your own little universe, and because you have no distractions, you’re more apt to feel emotions you might not otherwise. With nothing to distract you, you’re completely engulfed in the movie and all the emotions it’s trying to elicit.
“Our feelings get neglected when we have distractions like work, catching up with friends, or email,” says Mackintosh. “Our distractions are minimized when flying and we’re forced to focus on the issues we’ve been dealing with or putting aside.”
Andy, an editor with an online publication, says emotions he doesn’t think about on the ground bloom when he’s watching movies in the air.
“If I’m going to see my family for the first time in a while, I‘ll be extra emotional already and shit sets me off,” he says. “Or if I miss my kid -- kid stuff gets me worked up.”
That solitude plays right into the hands of filmmakers. T.J. Martin, whose credits include one of the best documentaries of 2017 in LA 92 and the 2011 Oscar-winning documentary Undefeated, about a high school football team from the poor side of Memphis, says people tell him all the time they bawled their eyes out when they watched that film mid-flight.
“People on planes are listening on headphones,” he says. “For a filmmaker, that’s almost preferable to a theater because it creates such an immersive experience. I want to create a way to replicate the way I felt when I experienced something. The intention isn’t to make someone cry, necessarily. But in some cases, the isolation of being on a plane helps create that experience.”
For the record, right after Gran Torino I watched Undefeated. It did not end well for my last shreds of dignity.
At 30,000 feet, there's nowhere to hide
Though that smug little curtain at the front of the cabin might suggest otherwise, when we fly, we are all equal. We’re just a couple of hundred people in a big flying tube completely at the mercy of pilots and physical laws. Which means no matter how tough or how rich you are, you have to take a temperature of your own mortality.
“Whoever we are on the ground is all stripped away,” Mackintosh says. “We’re in a vulnerable position up there, and even people who are comfortable flying have some concern. And when we’re vulnerable, all our emotions get heightened.”
Sheer altitude might also play a role. A 1988 study found that the decreased oxygen and mild hypoxia one experiences at altitudes has a severe effect on moods. The same triggers that lead to full-blown fights over seat-reclining. This can not only lead to slap fights over seat-reclining and heartfelt applause when a pilot makes a routine landing in a rainstorm. It can also lead to guiltless sobbing at The Big Sick.
The high of travel is over, and your brain is crashing
Travel is often done for emotional reasons. There are obvious ones, like seeing a long-distance romantic partner or family living thousands of miles away. But it can be as simple as a bachelor party or traveling to your alma mater for a football game. Or just the simple thrill of seeing somewhere new and experiencing different things.
The rush your brain gets from anticipating a trip, then living it, can throw your neurotransmitters out of whack, and getting on a plane home can be a massive letdown. It might not cause you to cry as soon as you board -- but then you see the toys hold hands as they slide hopelessly toward a fiery end in the final scenes of Toy Story 3. Forgive your exhausted brain for hitting the cry button.
Alcohol might play a part
Another thing about vacations: Sometimes we indulge in vices we don’t when we’re at home. That’s not to say that your weekend trip to Buffalo was a like a weekend at Andy Dick’s. It’s just saying that, maybe, possibly, you drank a little more on vacation than you do at home. Or may have indulged in other substances. Or connected with a stranger you’ll never see again. The hangovers, comedowns, and emotional voids that come with that can seriously mess with your brain, and make Seabiscuit winning a few bucks for degenerate gamblers seem like the most miraculous moment in cinema.
“Alcohol is a depressant, and the body reacts as if we’re depressed when we drink,” says Mackintosh. “So consuming a lot of it means you’re more likely to express a sad emotion, like crying.”
Even a couple of glasses of wine are enough to set you off, since alcohol can feel like it hits harder at altitude. We’re not going to preach to you about how much you should drink while flying, but if you don’t want to cry, maybe lay off the pinot grigio.
Not everyone gets all weepy at in-flight movies, and despite all the anecdotal evidence nobody has ever seriously studied the phenomenon. But if you think you’re weird the next time you’re flying from Atlanta to Phoenix and you start crying at the reprise of “Rainbow Connection” at the end of The Muppet Movie, know you’re not alone. Though that probably wouldn’t stop Walt Kowalski from calling you a sissy.