A few weeks ago, I agreed to see a movie I’d heard nothing about. Kristen Stewart was in it; this was all I needed to know. The film was Personal Shopper, in which Stewart plays a sullenly hip assistant to an older actress, not unlike her role in Clouds of Sils Maria — both movies were written and directed by Olivier Assayas. I liked Clouds, but I hated Personal Shopper. So did everyone I saw it with: my girlfriend and another couple, Caroline and Laura. (I tell you our entire viewing party was queer women only because there is no demographic more likely to give any Kristen Stewart vehicle the benefit of the doubt.) It wasn’t just us, either; people around us shifted uncomfortably in their seats, and snickered at lines not meant to be funny. A scene revealing a series of incoming text messages meant to incur dread made my theater giggle, not gasp. I felt okay about whispering baffled feedback to my seatmates — “I’m sorry, did the ghost just ride the elevator?” — because I could hear other people’s confused and incredulous murmurs too. It was as if our entire theater took a silent, psychic vote, and together ruled Personal Shopper very bad.
When we left the theater, I Googled reviews for the movie, and was surprised to find a pretty positive critical reception (80 percent on Rotten Tomatoes). Were we crazy not to like it? Whose taste was bad: the critics, or an entire audience at the Sunday matinee? I asked another trusted friend who’d seen the movie what she thought, and she said she liked it. Then I asked her how her theater had reacted to it — did they laugh? She said no. They were quiet, almost reverent. I wondered if our divergent crowds had affected our ability to enjoy the movie.
The answer, apparently, is “more than you think.” We’ve all seen a blockbuster comedy that seemed funnier among a raucous crowd than it did upon a second rewatch at home, but this phenomenon isn’t just social — it’s biological. According to research done by psychologist Uri Hasson, movies can have a synchronizing effect on human brains. People in a theater tend to blink at the same time, and in some cases, fMRI scans revealed that viewers’ brains were active in the same areas, at the same times, when watching the same movie together. This unifying effect is particularly pronounced in highly cinematic films — movies that make heavy use of quick cuts and camera angles meant to direct our attention, like Gravity, or Mad Max: Fury Road. Hasson admits these effects don’t necessarily speak to the quality of the film, or our enjoyment of it, but they do suggest a tendency toward like-mindedness in the movie theater. A group of people watching the same movie are, after all, responding to a set of shared stimuli.
Then, too, there is the human tendency to mirror the emotions of those around us. A.J. Marsden, assistant professor of psychology at Beacon College, refers to my Personal Shopper experience as a kind of “emotional contagion” — meaning that human beings are always transmitting our emotions to those around us, to be picked up unknowingly, and sometimes unwillingly.
“If you’re in a theater and everybody in there is just rolling and having a good time, chances are, those positive emotions are going to rub off on you, and you’re going to enjoy it more than if you were in a quiet theater or by yourself,” says Marsden. Even in a dark, ostensibly quiet room, we are constantly picking up cues from the people around us: Hearing even one quiet giggle or muffled sob can affect the way we process the movie in front of us. For my theaterful of Personal Shopper viewers, it might have been over from the first skeptical “Ha!” From there on out, everything was (inadvertently) hilarious.
Part of this behavior is more or less assimilationist: People want to share the popular reaction of the group around them. “You want to fit in, you want to be part of the social crowd,” says Marsden. “You don’t want to be an outsider.” I tell her this sounds a lot like middle school, but she says it’s something closer to survivalism. “In order for us to survive we have to understand what other people are thinking and feeling,” she says. “It’s a form of empathy or emotional intelligence.” In a way, it’s also a coping mechanism — by laughing with my fellow audience members, I bonded with them, and I enjoyed our shared experience more than I would have if I’d had to sit through it in silence. When I saw Deadpool — a truly awful movie, I don’t care what anyone says — the mutual eye-rolling and sighing shared between my girlfriend and me made sitting through it tolerable.
For me, I don’t think a silent, adoring theater would have been enough to save Personal Shopper — a crowd’s reaction might supplement or enhance your own when they align, but when the two don’t match up, you’re more likely to leave the theater feeling contrarian or confused. “If the general vibe of the group doesn’t match up with how you feel or what you believe, you can actually go the other way and become very reactive against the crowd,” says Marsden. Either way, you get to leave the theater feeling sure that you’re right, and your taste is impeccable. How nice is that?