Film & TV Muse

Why do we watch old favourites on repeat?

Malu Rocha explains how going back to old films and tv shows can be a rewarding emotional experience.

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Image Credit: E4

Having The Office on repeat as background noise, celebrating Christmas year after year by watching Elf with your family and re-watching the entire 10 seasons of Friends over summer (oops) are surprisingly not uncommon feats. Some people find real comfort in watching the same films and tv shows multiple times and researchers have theorised that it can even become a positive nostalgic experience.

Of course, some things will never change. People are always going to queue around the block for the release of the newest Star Wars film, and kids are always going to rush to theatres to be the first ones to see Disney’s next big classic. By all means, do partake in these events and in fact I actively encourage you to do so because this is what keeps the heart of cinema alive. But I’m not here to talk about that; I’m here to talk about why Back to the Future and Die Hard are consistently on top of ‘Most Rewatchable Films’ lists, and why such lists even exist.

Online streaming services have become a relentless super-machine of content production, exposing us to a limitless array of entertainment just a click of a button away. I’d like to think I’m not the only one that feels somewhat overwhelmed when I open Netflix to find a new film or tv show to watch because I feel obliged to take advantage and consume it all at once. The seemingly endless pile of new titles added everyday combined with the new(ish) feature where trailers automatically play when you hover over them, have made browsing Netflix a chore in itself.

Unless you’re an extremely dedicated person and don’t use the ‘My List’ feature as a black hole for films you could one day potentially venture to watch, odds are you probably waste at least a good twenty minutes deciding what to spend the next two hours of your life on. The problem is that there are simply too many options to choose from.

It’s somewhat counterintuitive to think that the more options we have, the more likely we are to be indecisive, but that is exactly what a study conducted by professor Sheena Iyengar at Columbia University proves. It concludes that having too many alternatives often leads to us feeling dissatisfied once we actually do choose something because we’re inclined to think that the other option (another film/tv show in this case) would have been better.

To put it simply, making decisions can be hard. After browsing unsuccessfully for a while, some people are likely to settle for a rerun. Why? Because an old favourite will never disappoint.

Re-watching old films can become a symbolic ritual over the years. Some people look forward to Christmas not because of the celebrations or the gatherings, but because they know the BBC will show reruns of Home Alone, and hopefully I’m not the first to say that there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Watching Love Actually every December 24th has become so familiar to some people, to the point where it becomes a sort of ‘comfort food’ for the eyes.

A certain sense of power comes with knowing what’s going to happen next. When John McClane is on that rooftop about to jump with a fire hose wrapped around his waist, we all cheer him on because we know for a fact that he’s going to make it. And when he (drumroll) does make it, we feel accomplished and share his success. When Ross, Chandler and Rachel are carrying that humongous sofa up the back stairs we’re anxiously waiting for Ross’s burst of impatience. When he finally does yell the iconic “Pivot!” phrase, it comes as an immense fulfilment.

Because we know exactly what’s going to happen, we get this weird conjuring sensation where it feels like the characters are taking our commands. Author of 'On Repeat', Elizabeth Margulis, calls this a ‘conjuring power’, and says that although it’s all in our heads, the satisfaction from it is enormous and it can only exist because of repetitive viewing.

On the other hand, one might argue that the reason we enjoy seeing the same film or tv show over and over again is because repetition breeds affection. We tend to enjoy something more if we’ve been previously exposed to it. Scientists call this the ‘mere exposure effect’, which explains that familiar things are easier to process. Therefore, if by any chance you’ve seen The Parent Trap over fifteen times (like me) it’ll sound like music to your ears.

But probably the main reason as to why many people love re-watching their favourite films and tv shows is because it becomes a nostalgic experience that makes them feel all warm and fuzzy inside. And surprisingly I don’t just mean figuratively. A recent study found that nostalgia can often manifest itself as warm, physical comfort. Back in the 17th century when the Greeks coined the term nostalgia (originating from nostos meaning homecoming and algos meaning pain) it was considered a dubious disease. It has since become a fuelling power for pop culture and the entertainment industry.

An easy way to travel back in time is to watch your favourite childhood film. The sentimental memories associated with watching that film over the years when you were growing up will come flooding back and fill you with fondness. This autobiographical nostalgia that comes with re-watching things you once loved (and still love) is likely to provoke a very calming and soothing effect on you. Besides, you’re likely to feel proud of yourself for choosing that one movie 10 years ago that was worth re-watching.

This satisfaction combined with the positive effects of nostalgia become an irresistible combination for your brain even though some people might say you’re wasting your time watching the same film you just saw last week. But is this a good enough reason to keep coming back to familiar characters and stories all the time?

We know the good guy will always win, that the monster will be defeated and that the cute couple will kiss after the big fight; we already know how these films end. So why do we invest so much time in them even though the element of surprise is gone?

Although you’re likely to pick up a few details you missed here and there, this lack of surprise is precisely what translates to comfort for some people. Knowing the ending beforehand guarantees that you’ll have the emotional payoff that you’re expecting.

This means that watching the same thing multiple times gives you a calming effect hat researches Cristel Russell and Sidney Levy have termed as ‘experiential control’, which provides you ‘emotional regulation’. Because you’ve seen that film or tv show before, you already know how the story is going to end, which means that you already know how you’ll feel when it ends. Whether it’s happiness, relief, sadness or anger, this emotional payoff is something that only old favourites can guarantee.

This means that re-watching something is basically a simple way of controlling your emotions when they get a bit out of range. It can become really therapeutic, especially if you’re feeling anxious. Psychologist Pamela Rutledge confirms this as she explains that watching the same entertainment piece multiple times reaffirms that there is order in the world and that it ‘can create a sense of safety and comfort on a primal level.’

No wonder children can easily spend hours watching the same cartoon on loop; they are subject to the same emotional satisfactions that we are, and so much more. A while ago, Netflix revealed that a mysterious UK user had watched the same film an eye-popping 357 times over the course of a year. As it turns out, the user was none other than a one-year-old baby obsessed with The Bee Movie, whose mother claimed that he was more attentive and relaxed whenever the film was playing.

The reason why children want to watch the same film for the billionth time is the same reason why they ask for that one bedtime story every night; they long for routines and guidelines. Children learn through repetition and their brains consolidate information better when they’re exposed to it several times. In this way, their brains start forming connections between the patterns that they are exposed to on repeat, giving them more and more meaning through time, which helps them improve their language and better understand the world around them. Therefore, for children (and for adults too) watching a film over and over again is so much more than a simple pastime; it gives us a sense of security and well-being.

Whenever you feel that intense urge to watch the entire Harry Potter series over the course of a weekend and are looking for some validation, rest assured that you’re not wasting your time; re-watching films and tv shows can be an easy form of self-care. So next time you catch yourself unsuccessfully browsing for hours, remember that it’s okay to settle for an old favourite; you’ll thank yourself later.

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