"It's not the story, but the recognition," says film researcher Dr. Brenda Austin-Smith of the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada. "Through interviews with women who admit to crying at movies, it turns out that it is the identification with characters' situations within the films and not the inherent sadness of the stories that makes us cry."
Austin-Smith explains that some story lines are designed specifically to generate certain emotions, such as "tear-jerker" melodramas. However, when asked about their reactions to the films, movie-goers said that what really got to them were the similarities between the characters' lives and their own.
"To a person who has experienced them firsthand, on-screen characters who lose a child, go through a bitter divorce or endure an illness may make us relive our own experiences through these fictional people," Austin-Smith notes. "Reminding us of our own problems can create major emotional responses in us."
As an example, one recent movie, The Hours, had a variety of characters whose personal lives struck chords with its audience.
Austin-Smith also found that young women just as likely to cry than those of older generations, and that age alone was not a good predictor of how a film may affect us. Furthermore, gender is not always a factor.
"Men do cry at films, too," Austin-Smith adds, "but our culture won't allow them to do so readily or easily in public places. Although, if it's a 'war buddy' film, society is more willing to let men cry at them, as a patriotic or gallant gesture."