Dealing With Disaster Through Cinematherapy

By Lara Gabrielle Fowler

As we struggle to make sense of the unthinkable events in Boston yesterday, we find ourselves coming together as a country and a world to participate in collective grieving, as so often happens when a tragedy of this scale occurs.

It is a time when people who need to get away from the gruesome footage and detailed descriptions often feel trapped, as all the television channels are showing the scene and all the radio stations describing it. The images are psychologically more than most of us can handle. When the events of September 11, 2001 occurred, my father instructed me not to turn on the television, as the images would scar me for life. Yesterday, I heeded my father’s advice from 12 years ago and have not turned on the television or radio. It is more than I wish to subject upon myself.

There is a movement in psychology right now called “cinematherapy,” in which those seeking comfort from grief, loss, stress, and numerous other issues, are given a list of movies to view to assist them in their journey toward recovery. I am not a psychologist, and I do not pretend to know the precise methodology behind cinematherapy. However, a good many of us involve ourselves in cinematherapy without giving it a second thought. Movies have the inherent ability to make us feel intense emotions, and in times of trial and despair, they can lift us up and make us feel better about the state of the world. They can even inspire us to change our world view, or to help those in need.

Here is a short list of movie classics that may help in our own collective journey toward healing from events that are beyond our comprehension. They are worth a look when we need an outlet for indescribable feelings.


A love story set in the days prior to the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The earthquake and subsequent fire occur toward the end of the movie, and the ending scene features the joy at the fire’s extinguishing cries of “We’ll build a new San Francisco!” as the cast marches confidently and valiantly down toward the city to the tune of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” An exquisite and inspiring ending that shows the strength of the human spirit in the face of disaster.

2) SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959)

Named the #1 funniest movie of all time by the American Film Institute, Some Like it Hot is legendary for its screwball humor. Two men witness the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, and dress in drag to escape the mob by hiding out in an all-girls jazz band. If you’re one of those few who have not seen it, you are in for a big treat. It will make you howl with laughter, something that we all need in days like these.

3) THE THIN MAN (1934)

I know that this may seem like an odd choice for this list of movies, but aside from the fact that I personally enjoy this movie, I have a purpose for including it here. For some reason, The Thin Man seems to have strangely curative properties. I thought I was alone in my tendency to turn on The Thin Man after a long or stressful day, or when I’m feeling down. But in talking to other film fans, I learned that they have the same ritual. The Thin Man seems to be everyone’s go-to movie for comfort. Go figure, but it works.

4) MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS (1944)

Musicals were created to raise spirits during the Depression, and continued to inspire long after the Depression was over. No matter what the country was going through, our musicals helped us get through it. I would personally suggest Meet Me in St. Louis, a movie that was conceived to help wartime audiences maintain a sense of home and family in the face of terrible events overseas. The number “You and I” is particularly touching as a reminder of love and solidarity, placed in the movie as a comforting message to soldiers.

Any of these movies are worth a watch any time, but especially if one is struggling to come to terms with something saddening or distressing.

See you next time.


12 responses to “Dealing With Disaster Through Cinematherapy

  1. Lara, ironically enough, I happened to be watching the novel-centric, Boston-based romantic comedy ALEX AND EMMA when the tragic news of the Boston Marathon explosions came through. I agree with the concept of “cinematherapy.” In fact, I’m a native New Yorker, and when the terrible events of September 11th, 2001 broke out, our family found ourselves taking comfort in remembering our area in happier times. I love your excellent suggestions, especially THE THIN MAN, considering it’s set in NYC during Christmas season. Here’s hoping and praying (or whatever gives you comfort) for justice and better days to come!

  2. Thank you, Dorian. I think cinematherapy is monumentally important. And how ironic and somehow sweet that you were watching Alex and Emma when the news broke. It’s as though the universe wanted you to remember Boston as it was before this terrible news. Thanks so much for reading 🙂

  3. Interesting that “cinematheraphy” is a hot topic in psychology right now. Maybe it’s just because I’m a film freak, but I always turn to old favorites for comfort. I feel like it’s something we’ve always engaged in (in America in particular — I’m not as knowledgeable about film history elsewhere), such as with the release of musicals during the Depression as you mentioned.

    This is a really nice list. I haven’t seen ‘San Francisco,’ but I love your other three choices. I’ll have to track down a copy.

  4. Yes, I find it interesting too. When I first learned about it, I thought “Well, I do that all the time anyway!” I think that might be why psychologists have started to examine it and expand upon what we do naturally. You must see “San Francisco”! It’s pretty widely available I think, I’m pretty sure it’s on Netflix.

  5. Cool, I have Netflix! I’ll add it to my queue 🙂

  6. I’ve seen every movie on your list and I love each one equally. Great choices! I couldn’t agree with you more on this issue 😀

  7. Lara, Thank you so much for this. tms


  8. Thank you, I’m so glad you like them and that you liked the post. Those movies are great, aren’t they?

  9. I’m so glad you liked the post, ms 🙂

  10. Great advice to just switch off when horrible things dominate the news. I was glad to have done that when Boston happened. Unfortunately I didn’t do it 9/11, which is also my birthday. I watched hours of coverage, and I think it did scar me. I actually never realized that until I read your post. Your dad was so right. We don’t need all that detail, or to see videos that show every bit of the tragedy, to stay informed. I do think I need a movie though, so thanks for the inspiration.

  11. Hi Lara,

    Thanks for that thoughtful and compassionate list. A nice way to cope with the horrors of this week.

    By the way (I know, horrible segue), I nominated you for a Liebster Award over on my blog.

  12. Thank you for sharing this list and the importance of cinematherapy as we all grieve and try to heal together. Like some of your other readers, I have not seen San Francisco so I just placed a hold on it at my local library (I didn’t see it on Netflix streaming). There’s nothing better than “discovering” a good classic film for the first time.

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