What's the Saddest Movie Scene of the Last 16 Years?

Slate's Culture Blog
July 26 2011 1:31 PM

Give Science a Hand: What’s The Saddest Movie Scene of the Last 16 Years?

The 1979 boxing film The Champ is primarily notable for two things: Introducing the world to Rick (nee Ricky) Schroder, and having the saddest two-minutes-and-fifty-one seconds on film:  

Smithsonian.com’s Richard Chin reports that, in the late 1980s, psychology professor Robert Levenson and then-graduate student James Gross began looking for film clips that would reliably elicit emotions from test subjects. (In the past, scientists employed a variety of dicey, less-than-precise tactics, such as giving their subjects electric shocks or cookies, or exposing them to hydrogen sulfide—a.k.a “fart spray.”) Levenson and Gross spent years researching, combing through 250 films and testing their final contenders with nearly 500 undergraduates. The key was finding clips that could stand on their own, without any context, and would evoke a single, strong emotion.


Besides The Champ, Levenson and Gross found that the scene where Bambi’s mom dies was a dependable tearjerker. A scene from Pink Flamingos (described in the paper as “Person eats dog faeces”) and a clip of an arm being amputated were the champions of “Disgust.” The full list of clips is at the bottom of this post.

It’s a solid list—but it’s already 16 years old. So what’s the saddest three minutes of film you’ve seen since 1995? List your nominees in the comment field. Who knows, maybe you’ll have a chance to influence psychological experiments for the next decade-and-a-half—Robert Levenson, one of the paper’s original authors, has agreed to weigh in on the top suggestions.

Here are some Slate staffers’ nominees to get you started. Note that these clips may contain spoilers.

Finding Nemo (2003)


We’ll also accept nominees in any of the other categories—here’s one for “disgust,” from 2003’s Oldboy. Fair warning: Avoid if you’ve just finished lunch.

Here are the 16 clips named in Levenson and Gross's orignal study:

Still from "The Champ" courtesy of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM)

The Champ: "Boy cries at father's death"
Bambi: Bambi's mother dies

My Bodyguard: "Bully scene"
Cry Freedom: "Police abuse protestors"

When Harry Met Sally: Sally fakes an orgasm at a restaurant
An unspecified clip from Robin Williams Live

Pink Flamingos: "Person eats dog faeces"
Stock clip of an arm being amputated

The Shining: Boy sees twins in the hallway
Silence of the Lambs: "Basement chase scene"

A stock clip of waves
A stock clip of a beach scene

Capricorn One: "Agents burst through the door"
Sea of Love: "Person startled by pigeons"

A stock clip of abstract shapes
A stock clip of color bars

[H/t to Vulture and Moviefone]


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