More Than Mortal

The science of the human quest for meaning, significance, and self-transcendence.

Why We Really Go to The Movies

New research finds a surprising reason why major movies appeal to us.

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A few days ago, I listened to a news story about the popularity of superhero movies. People can’t seem to get enough of these films, and so every year Hollywood cranks more of them out. (I have to admit, I am pretty pumped to see the new X-Men movie.)

Superhero movies offer a way for us to briefly escape the stress of daily life. Interestingly, though, studies suggest that our fear of death may be one reason we're fascinated by stories about superhuman powers—particularly those that involve the power of flight.

Dr. Florette Cohen, a psychologist at the College of Staten Island, and her colleagues proposed that humans fantasize about flying, in part, because such fantasies offer a way for us to feel free from our mortal constraints.

First, the researchers observed that people across a wide range of cultures have long been fascinated with magical beings that have the power of flight—and that this power is often associated with immortality. Angels fly, for example, and many believe that when people die their souls exit the body and fly off to heaven.

Flight symbolizes transcendence.

Cohen and her research team then conducted a number of experiments to test the theory that our attraction to flying is motivated by insecurities about death. They asked some study participants to briefly think about mortality, and others to think about another topic not related to death. They then had all participants complete a questionnaire about how much they like to imagine being able to fly. And indeed, participants who had thought about death reported a greater interest in flight fantasy.

Other studies in this research program indicated that these flight fantasies reduced people’s awareness of death by making them temporarily feel free from their mortal limits.

Part of the appeal of superheroes is that they are less vulnerable to death than us ordinary humans. They are less fragile. They allow us to imagine what it would be like to be more than mortal. Our ancestors painted mythical flying beings on cave walls. Perhaps our version of this activity is going to the movies to see Superman or another hero defy the laws of nature. Humans have probably always enjoyed imagining what it would be like to be liberated from our mortal constraints—and we probably always will.

Clay Routledge is an associate professor of Psychology at North Dakota State University.

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