Why We Watch Movies – It All Comes Down To Biology


Joseph Campbell became the patron saint of screenwriters thanks to George Lucas famously using his theories when he created Star Wars. Campbell studied thousands of myths, parables, and legends, from all time periods, religions and cultures. In his book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, he related that all heroes, regardless of his culture of origin, took almost identical steps in each story, essentially telling us there was only one global story—and it grew out of our universal human biology.

I probed my thoughts on the evolutionary purpose of storytelling, a subject I had written a chapter about in my screenwriting book Riding the Alligator – strategies for a career in screenplay writing – and not getting eaten! I’ve always been determined to find the easiest way to create movies that work for audiences. And as a young documentary filmmaker, I got to hang out with Marshall McLuhan, the guru of communications.

McLuhan started me on an investigative path, pointing out that the audience watching a movie is lost in a trance—unaware of the world around them, unconsciously mimicking the expressions on the faces of the actors on the screen. Even more fascinating is that babies mimic the mouth movements of those around them from the moment of birth. Something reflective and emotionally important is going on.

If you asked the average studio executive, “What is the purpose of a movie?” Most would say a movie’s purpose is to entertain. But ask them, “What is the effect of that entertainment?” and you realize many studios may be making very expensive darts to throw at a target they may have never studied: the human brain.

Is there a biological bulls-eye? 

The first thing one has to realize is that we are a critter—a very, very cool mammal critter with a road map of genes that directs an amazing array of behavior. Our species has been living in social groups for millions of years, competing for mates, food, status in the tribe, and opportunities for our young to survive. And we, today, are the descendants of those who won those competitive battles, those who evolved to do nothing without a biological value, who fine-tuned a kind of evolutionary energy-efficiency.

Look down any row of a darkened movie theater. All the audience members you see have taken a lot of time and expense to get lost with the characters on that screen; it’s not surprising that Hollywood dubbed itself The Dream Factory. I call this viewing state a Learning Trance because I am convinced we acquire valuable survival information from watching others.

Only a bad movie wakes us up from our trance! In a bad movie, we don’t believe the authenticity of the actor’s behaviors and/or the plot fails to make sense. Stay with me—this stuff may get a little deep—but I really believe this knowledge is a powerful tool.

There is a recently discovered magic element in our brains that determines how we learn from these observations. They are called mirror neurons, parts of our gray matter that light up electrically when we watch others perform behaviors. In fact, our brains light up on MRIs in exactly the same parts as if we were actually physically experiencing these acts—like, say, a backflip at the Olympics, fighting an enemy, or searching out a soul mate.

Mirror neurons are a form of survival empathy. You can catch yourself using them as you’re watching at a movie. While the front part of your consciousness is focused on the immediate characters and their story, deeper inside your brain, you are learning and making calculations as you absorb the events that the characters experience and automatically recalibrate your instincts.

Would I go on that fishing boat with Robert Shaw? Would I volunteer to go to the Hunger Games instead of my sister? Would I go for the weekend to my girlfriend’s home – or would I GET OUT?

Mirror Neurons

In ancient times, we watched the alpha primate of our group lose his leadership battling rivals. As we did, our mirror neurons fired up, learning from what we observed and calibrating our own life moves without having to experience that cost. We can also spend a couple of hours with Shakespeare and learn the same lessons; et tu Brutus? Our mirror neurons can’t tell the difference between fiction and reality—they even fire up when we read books!

Philosophers say the biggest secret to powerful drama is conflict. Conflict can be any force that threatens to change the character’s emotional well-being or safety. We are magnetically drawn to conflict in stories. We are the spawn of generations of the lucky, cunning, fast, anxious, and the very observant; all survival traits that will carry on with our genes.

Change can mean opportunity as well as emotional or physical danger. It fine-tunes our survival instincts. I believe philosophers say there are only seven great plots because we only need a few to cover the main survival facets of human life. Mating, among them, is a primary one—only we call it “romance” and celebrate love stories that explore its obstacles. More than anything else, we are designed to reproduce and, in the majority, enjoy the method by which is it accomplished; some more than others.

Therefore, we pay an amazing amount of attention to the pursuit of sex. Those mirror neurons are probably the reason for the porn industry! And, more gently, we root for the Prince to marry Cinderella because Cinderella’s descendants (and thus her genes) have a better survival outcome in the better-fed and protected royal world.

Avoiding death is another major issue for all sentient creatures. That is why we feel compelled to sneak a peek as we slow down when passing a traffic accident—we often term it “morbid curiosity.” But it is an amazingly logical survival skill. What if Uncle Hominid dropped dead eating the berries given to him by his mate? Agatha Christie profited immensely from our morbid enjoyment of avoiding death!

Stories about humans escaping man-eating beasts have always triggered immense interest. Hence our deep-rooted fascination with The Meg, the Jurassic Parks and Aliens of the storytelling world—even though we aren’t likely to be attacked by creatures any more dangerous than a mosquito on any given day.

We can even have our survival instincts triggered by things that have never existed—goblins, ghouls, mutants, and aliens. The key to making these monsters successful is for them to have biological authenticity and a level of anthropomorphism. Our mirror neurons only help us gain from their insights if what we observe has mammalian truth to it. And that is why the Oscar goes mostly to the most believable actor/ actress.

If the action in a drama involves contrived writing or phony acting, our reality gut-check rejects it—and often angrily. It wastes our time. Drama critics pre-date the New York Times by millennia. I’ll bet the tribal elders who told crappy stories around the fire or the Viking chieftains who related bungled sagas had their equivalent of rotten cabbages thrown at them back in the day.

The Hero Factor

Heroes who aren’t afraid, who do not make mistakes, who don’t have an Achilles Heel, and just simply win, provide us with nothing to learn from their success. Success with no tactics is valueless to our analytical brain. Ah, but add a little Kryptonite and we pay attention. A lover who never loses “the girl” never has to change their mating tactics. That story gives us no strategy to plot our own romantic instincts. Happy stories with no loss or conflict do not hold us because we are designed to be problem solvers. We don’t waste time studying safe outcomes. We are drawn to struggle so that we can grow and better understand ourselves. A character’s flaws and losses engage us!

Several times, as producers, we have tested our studio movies and found that the “least liked” scene is where the hero is humiliated or beaten up by the villain. And then found ourselves fighting tooth-and-nail to keep the scene from being cut by the slavish executive who doesn’t understand. The more painfully the hero is repressed and looks like they will fail, the more exciting and satisfying the journey as the hero struggles to achieve their success! The hero needs to earn it.

Some big studio event movies today come close to biologically empty roller coaster rides because the characters have virtually no personality. They are hyper action avatars with no relatable emotional goals. But when we add biology, things hit home. Batman loses his parents and it motivates him. Luke faces the dark eminence of his father. Superman has to have his Lois Lane or we see him as an empty vessel.

Joseph Campbell said mankind needs new myths that transform as our societies and cultures evolve. These reinterpretations of the human spirit are even more valuable as technological revolutions make vast, disorienting changes to the world we live in. If we want to create movies that deeply affect people, that spark conversation at the water cooler, that audiences perceive as showing them new and valuable experiences, we need new definitions for how we find our spiritual and emotional values: Justice, love, compassion, sacrifice.

Our biology will not change. We will face the future with the learning instincts of our primate past. Our characters must be powerful but flawed, passionate but imperfect, underdogs, struggling in search of their spiritual purpose–be it, love, success or just a return to safety. Above all, they must be biologically truthful.

Therefore, Hollywood studios should be looking for unique stories that appeal to our biological instincts.


Pen Densham

Contributing Writer

Pen Densham rode into the movies at age 4 on a live alligator in one of his parents' theatrical shorts and started a love of cameras and story. He founded the Trilogy Entertainment Group with John Watson and recently took sole ownership. Their 16 feature films and over 280 hours of TV series, collaborating with some of Hollywood’s most creative filmmakers, like Bill Murray, Jeff Bridges, Ron Howard, grossed more than $1 billion dollars. When studios rejected Pen’s revisionist story for ROBIN HOOD PRINCE OF THIEVES, he wrote it anyway. As producers he and Watson shepherded their script, starring Kevin Costner, to be Warner’s largest grossing movie to that time. Pen has earned Oscar nominations and over 60 international awards. Among the features Pen has written and directed are his personal version of MOLL FLANDERS, starring Morgan Freeman &amp; Robin Wright and HOUDINI for TNT, starring Johnathon Schaech and Mark Ruffalo. Pen personally revived his favorite anthology TV shows THE OUTER LIMITS and THE TWILIGHT ZONE to award-winning TV runs. Pen is one of the Producers on LAST FULL MEASURE (2019) with Samuel L. Jackson, Sebastian Stan and Christopher Plummer. Pen authored a best-selling book on creative screenwriting: “Riding the Alligator”, recently published in Chinese. A free chapter can be downloaded at <a href="">Riding The Alligator</a>

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