When was the last time you shed a tear while watching a film? Can you recall the specific scene? Many describe this as a “good cry.” How can a cry be good? Many people have pent up emotions from various events in life. Art can evoke an emotional release of these emotions also known as catharsis. Catharsis can be an overwhelmingly emotional experience. Film’s that create catharsis can move an audience to tears while also leaving them completely satisfied. What is catharsis and how is this possible? Let’s find out.

What is catharsis?

Catharsis literary definition

Catharsis is a term widely used throughout art and its origins date as far back as art itself. What is the meaning of catharsis? Let’s define catharsis and analyze how its origins have led to the catharsis definition we have today.


What is catharsis?

Catharsis is the release and relief of strong or repressed emotions. The term “catharsis” derives from the Greek word katharsis meaning “purification” or “cleansing.” In the realm of psychology, the American Psychological Association defines catharsis as "the discharge of effects connected to traumatic events that had previously been repressed by bringing these events back into consciousness and re-experiencing them."

As it applies to film and art, emotional catharsis can be the result of the emotional effect of a tragic drama. Heroes in cathartic films often experience a cathartic release that leads to a restoration.

What is catharsis composed of in storytelling?

  • Emotional build up
  • Relatable experiences
  • Connection to characters
  • Moving performances

What does catharsis mean?

History of emotional catharsis

What is the meaning of catharsis? To answer this question we must take a look back. The term catharsis is as old as the Ancient Greeks. The Ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, described catharsis as the emotional purge of fear and pity aroused by tragedy. 

The term was then adopted by psychoanalysts Sigmund Freud and Josef Bruer. For them, catharsis was a therapeutic technique used to reduce a psychological complex by recalling it to conscious awareness and allowing it to be expressed.  

Today, however, the term has become more synonymous with art. People often describe art that evokes emotion as cathartic. Music, plays, novels, and film can have cathartic components that tie in to the psychology of the audience. Art can elicit an emotional cathartic release in an audience by connecting to their personal experiences.

What is Catharsis?  •  The Importance of Cathartic Art

Cathartic art often reflects our own experiences. It allows us to connect to the art and the artist in a deeper way. One of the best mediums to create cathartic art is film. 

Emotional catharsis in cinema

What is catharsis in film?

Various art forms can create catharsis. Music, novels, and plays can be incredibly emotional. But there are specific qualities to the medium of film that allows it to effectively elicit an emotional response in an audience.

The first quality is the film’s ability to condense time. Through editing, film can allow weeks, months, even years to unfold before us over a matter of seconds. When done effectively, films can connect audiences to characters within a short span of time. 

When an audience connects to a character, everything that character experiences becomes much more emotional. The best technique to do this is the montage. Montage condenses time and events to create a narrative sequence. This montage from Pixar’s Up, connects us to these characters, only to have tragedy befall them.

Up  •  Catharsis Example

What is so incredible about this montage is how it elicits so much emotion in the first ten minutes of the film. The reason being the emotions of love and grief are a part of the human experience. Humans have an innate connection to both of these emotions. The filmmakers use both to build our emotions up and release them at an incredibly cathartic moment.

Film is also an incredibly visual medium. It allows us to see characters experience emotions. Sure plays are visual as well, but film utilizes the close up shot. This allows us to see the details of a character's emotions, further eliciting an emotional response in us. 

In Good Will Hunting, Will has a cathartic moment as he releases his repressed emotions to his friend and psychologist. He builds up emotions by establishing Will’s abusive childhood and the effects of it on his life. Take a look at this catharsis example as well as brilliant performance and execution.

Good Will Hunting  •  Emotional Catharsis Example

The audience's ability to visually witness his cathartic moment up close through filmmaking, creates a cathartic moment for both Will and the audience. We imported the Good Will Hunting script to StudioBinder's Screenwriting Software to see how this scene plays out in screenplay.

Good Will Hunting 'It's Not Your Fault Scene'  •  Read Full Scene

Naturally, for this scene to hit the emotional peak it does, we need to recognize everything that lead up to the moment. Remember, the greater the build-up and repression, the greater the release. 

What is catharsis used for

The value of catharsis

When asked about Marvel movies, director Martin Scorsese famously compared them to theme parks stating, “It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.” Whether you agree with Scorsese or not, there is something to be said about the different experiences film can create.

Some films are completely escapist, allowing audiences to escape from reality for at least an hour. And there is tremendous value in these types of films. Nonetheless, there is a distinct difference.

Martin Scorsese on Marvel Movies

Other films, however, are a more internal experience. Like Scorsese says, film can convey emotional and psychological experiences. This is a distinct characteristic of Scorsese’s directing style. What is the meaning of catharsis? Why is it so important in cinema? Through catharsis, films can connect to an audience on an intimate level.

Cathartic films often linger. They not only affect how we see the world, but quite possibly how we see ourselves. The value of catharsis in a film does not concern the size of the audience, but rather how the film stays with the audience there after.


The Purpose of Conflict in Story

Catharsis can make a film incredibly memorable and moving. However, some films can function without it. One device that every story must have is conflict. What is conflict and what is its purpose? We examine the definition of conflict and how stories use it in the next article.

Up Next: Conflict in Story →
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