Movies and Conduct: A Payne Fund Study

Chapter 8: Emotional Possession: Thrill and Excitement

Herbert Blumer

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MANY people have witnessed the excitement shown by children while watching certain kinds of pictures. This is another form of emotional possession which we wish to consider because of its prominence in motion-picture experience. Usually the child when seeing a picture which is exciting to him becomes quite animated and is likely to vent his feelings in shouting or in vigorous physical movement. Anyone who has witnessed the behavior of children at a small neighborhood theater during the children's matinée needs not to be told about this form of excitement. Particularly, during the showing of the so-called serial or chapter pictures one gets undisguised expressions of intense emotions, requiring no refined instruments for their detection. The shouting of the children when the opening scene of the serial is flashed upon the screen, their groans when the heroine or hero is in extreme danger, the din of their shouts when either is freed—these are familiar observations. The heightened feeling of children under such circumstances equals in intensity if not in loudness of expression the collective excitement displayed at "pep meetings" or football games.


It is important to consider the excitement induced in children by motion pictures. A typical description of this kind of conduct shown by children while witnessing thrill-

( 118) -ing or exciting pictures is given in the following account. A trained investigator accompanied a little sister and two nephews (Dick and Roy) over a period of weeks to the weekly installment of serial pictures. Some typical illustrations of his careful observations are given. Speaking of the closing parts of the serial "Pirates of Panama" he writes:

The minute the name of the serial was flashed on the screen a terrific storm of shouting and whistling filled the theater. Each time the madman nearly hurled the hero over the cliff groans could be heard, and I noticed that my sister and Dick seemed to be holding their breath, and then sighing in relief when the hero survived. Roy again was quiet. When the hero threw the madman over the cliff the theater was filled with ear-piercing noise. The children seemed to pay little attention to the scenes which did not contain the danger element. They talked about the fights while the happy-ending love scenes were on the screen.

Speaking of the first episode of "The King of the Congo" he says:

Whenever the gorilla appeared on the scene or anyone was in danger of attack by ferocious animals, my sister hid her face and refused to watch the picture. I looked around and saw several other girls and small boys doing this also. Strangely enough Roy showed no hesitancy about watching these scenes and rather enjoyed them. Dick seemed merely excited, but not either afraid or pleased. The atmosphere seemed tense and the children in general seemed to express their emotions either by groaning when the hero was in danger, or shouting "Yay" and whistling when he miraculously escaped from it.

Speaking of a scene in the second episode of this serial he writes:

When the elephant, which was a pet of the heroine, broke out the bars of a window the children clapped their hands and shouted "YEA." They also did this when the elephant lifted the hero and heroine up so they could climb through the window.

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My sister shuddered when the gorilla approached the heroine after she had fainted. I noticed three little boys of about four years of age turn around and look back while this was on the screen, and I heard one of them ask an older companion if the girl was all right yet. In this scene the girl was saved by the crooks and here the children cheered for the crooks.

In response to an exciting scene in a subsequent episode, he says:

In the opening scene my sister acted as she had previously done and hid from the sight of the gorilla choking the hero. When I told her that he was safe she clapped her hands and laughed as the girl fired a couple of shots at the fleeing gorilla. Roy did not hide from the scene as he used to, and when I questioned him about the gorilla he said that he knew someone would save the hero. This seemed strange to me because he was affected by the rest of the suspense scenes. Dick was excited over the scene as were most all of the children, but his reactions were rather of the jumping up and down type than hiding from it.

Speaking of one of the later episodes he says:

The children cheered as the hero escaped from the gang of crooks and then when he read the note from the heroine they groaned, and Dick turned to me and said "Gee, he's one of those crooks" (referring to Mr. Smith). Again cheers broke loose when the hero was running to the temple. I did not see anyone turn away from the picture when the gorilla was chasing the heroine, and I attribute this to the fact that the heroine was making some effort to get away this time and was not standing helpless or fainting as she had previously done. The other scene to which the children reacted was the fight on the edge of the lion pit. As would be expected they clapped and cheered when the hero was on top and remained silent while the crook was winning. As they fell off the edge Roy said, "I'll bet it ends here," and Dick said "Sure." They seem to be able to see through the serials to a certain extent yet they enjoy them and go back for more.

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These observations are substantiated not only by what the casual observer may witness in the behavior of children at a serial but also in the accounts which older boys and girls write in recalling their own childhood experiences. Here are some typical accounts:

Male, 20, white, college sophomore.—All during the week I waited eagerly for Friday night. Groups of us boys would get together to talk over and attempt to guess how the hero or heroine would escape that disaster which seemed inevitable at the end of the last episode. Although we knew quite well he would escape, we could not and did not wish to believe that there was no danger. It was the thrill we wanted and it was the thrill we got when a group of cowboys tore down the mountain-side at a "break-neck" speed hot in pursuit of a few desperadoes. In the show we (always a bunch of boys) shouted and clapped, wholly absorbed by the daring acts, narrow escapes, and intrigues of the villain or hero.

Male, 20, white, college sophomore.—Perhaps the earliest type of motion picture I can remember is the serial. This old type of thriller, usually consisting of ten parts, was shown every Saturday at the neighborhood theater. All the children of the district used to attend and then followed one glorious week during which each scene of the episode was enacted out in our backyards. We had grand times playing "lion men" and Tarzans. During the showing of the picture itself we used to be worked up to a terrific high state of emotion, yelling at the hero when danger was near, hissing at the villain, and heaving sighs of relief when the danger was past. The serial was nearly the sole object for going to the movies for me and for most of the children in the good old days when I was seven or eight years old.

Male, 19, white, college sophomore.—Did you ever visit a Saturday afternoon show and feel like cursing or beating the little shouting and screaming ruffians who raised the roof off the theater every time the picture became exciting? Well, I was once one of those little ruffians. The actors were fairly living on the screen before me, and like the rest of the children in the show I could not control my emotions.

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It is interesting to notice that the thrilling serial picture has a peculiar relation to the excitement of the child. Contrary to the usual motion picture which finishes with a rounding out of the plot, the serial installment stops abruptly at a high level of suspense. Instead of leading the excited feelings of the child to a state of quiescence or satisfaction, the serial ends at the point where they are keyed up to the highest pitch. The result is to put the youthful spectator under the spell of suspense, sometimes of frenzy or panic, which persists for a week, only to be renewed at the next installment.[1] Just what permanent effects come from this persisting expectancy or keyed-up state of the mind cannot be declared with any certainty from our materials although there is no question but that the effects are important, even though obscure. Some of the less ultimate effects on the mind are obvious, such as the preoccupation of the child with the precarious situation in which his favorites have been left at the end of an installment; his anxiety over their safety; his curiosity and reflection as to how they will escape; his excited conversation during the week with his companions on how the escape will occur in short, the difficulty he has in freeing his mind from the thoughts of the picture. Our interest here, however, is not in the effects on the mind, however intriguing and important they are, but in the immediate expressions of the excitement aroused by the "thrillers."


THE excitement experienced by the children usually takes two expressions, that of enthusiasm and that of an-

( 122) -guish, depending upon the nature of the scenes witnessed. When the favorite characters, such as the heroine or the "good guy," escape from danger or triumph in combat there is usually an outburst of cheering, of clapping, of whistling, a jumping up and down in one's seat, a throwing of caps and other objects into the air, and occasionally a scuffling with one's companions. When the heroine or hero is in danger, when the "bad guy" or bad character is about to inflict injury on them, one sees the other kind of expression in children. The clutching of the seat, the wringing of caps or handkerchiefs, the uttering of groans, the biting of finger nails and of lips, the covering of one's eyes so as not to see the picture all of these are not infrequent during the scenes of intense suspense.[2] Illustrations of this kind of inhibited excitement appear in the following accounts:

Female, 21, while, college junior.—One Saturday afternoon when I was about twelve years old, my brother took me to the show. I don't recall the name of the feature picture, in which Pearl White was the heroine. The serial which was continued from the previous Saturday commenced with a scene in which the heroine was being strangled by the villain who had sneaky, narrow eyes. That was sufficient in itself. I refused to see the remainder of the picture and asked my brother to leave. He, however, was a serial fan and paid little if any attention to my request. Since I didn't choose to sacrifice my share of the remaining candy, I buried my head in my hands and asked my brother to inform me when it would be over; but at the most tense moments when the audience would shout with approval or disapproval and stamp their feet on the floor, I would remove my hands from over my eyes and glance at the screen for only a second, and then resume my former position.

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Female, 20, white, Jewish-Gentile, college sophomore.—I remember coming home from each installment of the serial "thriller" very much excited and with my nails all bitten off. I always look back on this movie experience with regret and sorrow that it ever took place, for I can never forget how frantic I used to get watching this picture in all its horror. It was ever my promise that when I went the next Sunday afternoon I would remain perfectly calm; but this never happened—I was an impulsive, nervous child beyond whose power it was to view it all unmoved.

The writer asked 232 children in the fourth, fifth, and sixth grades of two of the public schools in Chicago, " Do you ever bite your finger nails while excited, cover your eyes, or hide your face while at a show?" Of the 232 children, 65 per cent spoke of experiences at the movies in which they had done this. The remaining 35 per cent were unable to recall instances of such behavior. Ninety-seven, or 64 per cent, of the 150 who responded in the affirmative spoke of biting their nails (luring the witnessing of exciting pictures. Seventy-five, or 50 per cent, gave instances of covering their eyes or hiding their faces; some, of course, spoke of doing both of these actions.

These accounts and figures yield us the familiar picture of emotional transportation and the accompanying difficulty of ordinary control. To witness children at close range during exciting pictures and to speak to them subsequently about their behavior convinces one that they are laboring under the same kind of emotional possession of which we have previously been speaking. The child is carried away by the excitement. Many, as in the case of the girl whose account is given above, resolve not to get excited, not to wring their garments or bite their finger nails, yet during the intense scenes they are unable to resist the impulse. It is true, of course, that part of the impetus to the excitement is communicated by the conduct

( 124) of other children quite as much as from what is seen in the picture. The overpowering influence of emotional possession and the consequent loss of self-restraint are, however, very evident.

The ways in which the excitement aroused by motion pictures may carry over into conduct are varied. One vigorous expression is in the form of conversation. To see and to listen to the talk of children as they come out of the theater impresses one strongly as to the intensity of their feelings. Another manifestation is the excited playing or reënaction of what has just been witnessed; still further, scuffling, pushing, and similar forms of vigorous physical activity. The children act "wild," so to speak. These and other forms of conduct reflect the excitement which children may experience from witnessing certain kinds of motion pictures.


IT is quite common for the children after witnessing a thrilling movie to feel adventuresome, brave, daring, and even "tough." In response to the questionnaire distributed to 1200 grade-school children in Chicago, approximately 30 per cent declared that they "wanted to do something brave and daring" after seeing an exciting movie. About 8 per cent declared that they wanted to act "tough and fight some one." In the case of the first of these two items, there is little difference in the proportion of boys and girls; in the case of the second the boys are about eight times as frequent as the girls. It is interesting to notice, incidentally, that this feeling of being "tough" and the readiness to fight as a result of witnessing exciting movies is much more common among the boys from areas of high delinquency than in the case of those from other communities in Chicago. About 14 per cent of the grade-school

( 125) boys from schools in the former spoke of having this feeling as opposed to approximately 4 per cent of the boys in the latter.

Following are a few interview accounts as given by boys living in an area of high delinquency who speak of this "tough" and pugnacious feeling resulting from the witnessing of exciting pictures:

The tough guy in de "Hole in the Wall" made me feel tough. I tried to act like de tough guy in dis picture. He was husky and he was supposed to be a gangster and he hid in a fortune-telling place. He used to take people into this place when he had it in for dem and he would kill dem. When I go outside I tried to act just like he was. I saw a guy pickin on some kids and I told him to cut it out. He got tough and socked me and we had it out.

De "Big House" made me feel like I was a tough guy. I felt just like Machine Gun Butch. I felt just like he was in de picture, like I could take a guy and knock him down.

When I see an exciting picture I jump up and down. I feel just like supposing I'd do someting brave and daring like dat.

When I see an exciting picture I get all nervoused up. I don't know what to do den. Sometimes I feel big and tough and if a guy comes up to me I bang! punch him in de nose witout even askin him what he wants.

When I see an exciting picture I sometimes feel scared and shivery. Sometimes I feel big and tough after I've seen a movie. Bob Steel always makes me feel brave.

We went to a show on Madison Street and we saw a crook picture, when we got outside we turned up our coat collars and acted tough like we were stickin up guys.

I felt like a big shot, like I was ten times as strong and tough as I really am.

As in the case of the other kinds of emotion which we have considered, usually the feelings of excitement in children are short-lived. While he is in the mood of excitement the boy, however, may be ready to do things from which normally he would shrink or which he would ordinarily

( 126) hesitate to do; sometimes acts which assume the proportion of delinquency. Discussion of this point is reserved for the volume Movies, Delinquency, and Crime.

Here it suffices to again draw the reader's attention to the incitement of impulse, the sweep of feeling, and the readiness to yield to impulses—the features which we have seen in the case of fright and sorrow and passionate love.


WE may think of the cases given in the last four chapters as so many witnesses on the stand. They testify to the power of motion pictures in arousing states of emotion which some individuals experience difficulty in resisting. By skillful and dramatic presentation which grasps the attention of the observer and plays upon his impulses, motion pictures seem able to lessen reflective judgment and ordinary self-control, to stir impulses and facilitate their expression. This is most pronounced, of course, in the case of spectators who are already disposed to act along certain lines. The nervous child, the romantically inclined young girl, the young man "hair-triggered" on sex, the excitable boy, the boy who wants to be daring and "tough," persons with a bad or a sad conscience—all these, as the instances suggest, in witnessing pictures which play upon their respective tendencies are particularly likely to yield to incited impulse. _The psychological characteristics of emotional possession, as we may infer them from the accounts given, are essentially a stirring up of feeling, a release of impulse, and a fixation of imagery. The individual is so preoccupied with the picture that its imagery becomes his own. The impulses, which correspond to the images, are called into play and encouraged, and the individual seems swept by intense feelings. The main ways in which emotional pos

(127) -session expresses itself seem also to be clear from the instances which we have given. There are easily discerned physical expressions such as the shouting, jumping, and excited movement occasioned by the witnessing of "thrillers"; such as the shrinking and avoidance in the case of fright; such as the weeping in the case of sadness; such as the sighing and breathing and fondling in the case of romantic or passionate love. Emotional possession may also show its presence in the field of perception. In states of fright the individual perceives strange objects—the slight noise, the flicker of the light, the crossing shadow are magnified by his perception far beyond their real significance. In sadness and love one's world takes on a new hue. A more interesting expression of emotional possession is in the readiness to act; the readiness to flee, to hide, to seek protection in the case of fright; to be good, to be compassionate, to be kind in the case of sorrow; to be daring and to act "tough," to move around in the case of excitement; and to enter into touch relations in the case of love.

To have induced emotional possession is a mark of the effectiveness of dramatic art. This is precisely what the dramatist endeavors to achieve—to grip the observer and to gain control over him so that he becomes malleable to the touch of what is presented. This is probably also what the movie-goer seeks: a picture which has a "kick" to it, one that literally jolts him out of himself, one that figuratively pierces his shell, dissolves his existing feelings and attitudes, and sets his impulses and imagery in a new direction. The more an individual is disposed along a certain direction the easier he succumbs to the drama moving in that direction.

Usually this state of emotional possession, when it is aroused y motion pictures, is transient or short-lived. The old state usually reappears, feelings and attitudes usually crystallize

( 128) again in the old mold, and awakened impulse and vivid imagery usually lose their keenness. This return is probably never complete—although in the majority of the accounts of emotional possession which have been found in this study there is no information to show that the return is not complete.

Even though emotional possession be usually transient, and to that extent perhaps not ordinarily significant in the life of the individual, it may under certain circumstances be crucial in one's career. While under its influence the individual may be quite likely to experience temptation along the lines of awakened impulse, and because of relaxed self-control to succumb to such temptations.

If the situation is such that incited impulse cannot be easily translated into overt conduct, or if the individual with the aid of his standards can check such overt expression, the impulses are likely to work themselves out in the field of day-dreams or fantasy. Since some attention has already been given in this study to this area of influence, no further reference need be made here.

Finally, we should not fail to see, despite the usual transitoriness of emotional possession, that occasionally it may leave some enduring effect upon the individual. The instances which we have given in the case of fright and sorrow will be recalled. Individuals may be affected by an intense emotional experience for some time, and the memory of it may tend to arouse something of the earlier feeling. Also, under the stress of the emotional condition the individual may form an abiding resolution or decision. He may, as in the case of some people who witnessed "Beau Geste" or "Over the Hill," adopt some enduring intention to follow and to resolve on a new line of conduct. We shall have occasion to deal later with some of these more lasting influences which arise in states of emotional possession.


  1. It is humorous or pathetic—depending on one's point of view—to discover that at the performance when the concluding installment of a serial is given there is usually introduced the first episode of a new serial. The child must not have a let-down in suspense!
  2. It is of some interest to notice that the distance between suspense and horror is short. Where there is possibility of escape there is suspense; where the hero or heroine are in danger and cannot escape there is likely to be agony or terror. Children have been subject to needless torture by the failure to recognize this simple point in constructing the plot and scenes of the "thrillers."

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