The psychology behind why we love bad films so much

“It makes you feel like an expert film critic.”

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Once a month, London’s Prince Charles Cinema is home to a cacophony of raucous laughter from a room full of people. Many of them interject occasionally to yell a particular line of dialogue and others throw spoons in the general direction of the screen. The film they are watching is The Room, which is generally regarded as one of the worst films ever made.

Despite its obvious lack of quality, The Room is a cult phenomenon that has spawned dozens of YouTube compilation videos and awards season prestige picture The Disaster Artist, starring James Franco, which explores the real life of the bizarre, enigmatic man behind the whole spectacle, Tommy Wiseau. Screenings of the film regularly sell more tickets than the average multiplex blockbuster and Wiseau has legions of fans who queue for hours to take selfies.

The Room is the ultimate example of movie making often referred to as “so bad, it’s good”. It is filled with non-sequitur dialogue, mysteriously discarded plot threads and toe-curling sex scenes set to excruciating R&B music. The Room and its notorious bedfellows are films people flock to see precisely because they are bad, like a 90-minute Christmas cracker joke or a silly pun pasted next to a picture of a dog and retweeted thousands of times online.

The same is true of other infamous examples of “so bad, it’s good” cinema. Troll 2, which bears no relation to any film named Troll and actually features goblins rather than the eponymous creatures, has gained a real cult following since its release in 1990. The film’s child star, Michael Stephenson, went on to direct documentary Best Worst Movie, which traced the film’s rise to the status of camp classic. Such is the popularity of these films that franchises like Sharknado have made money from a deliberate embrace of the “so bad, it’s good” ethos.

Audiences are innately drawn towards the spectacle of bad films like The Room, Sharknado and Troll 2, says Dr Adam Galpin, senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Salford.

“These films are humorous because they are incredulously awful and you can’t believe that anyone could produce something that bad and think it’s OK,” he says. “The other thing is it gives you a sense of superiority and a sense of mastery and competence because if you can recognise why it’s bad, you have expertise in this area of film consumption. It makes you feel like an expert film critic.”

Galpin says the fascination with a truly bad film can be passed on in the same way that viral content spreads on social media. There’s a communal feel to sharing the experience of a bad film, in the same way as a meme on Facebook or Twitter.

He adds: “There’s something in there about the experience of sharing emotions, which has been demonstrated in loads of other areas of media. If something gives you an emotional experience, you have an innate drive to share that with people.”

This fascination with communal viewing of “so bad, it’s good” films leads to the kind of repeat performances that have become the stock-in-trade of venues like the Prince Charles,. Wiseau himself, along with co-star Greg Sestero, to attend a number of screenings.

Timon Singh runs screenings of notorious bad films, including The Room, Birdemic and Troll 2 as the founder of the Bristol Bad Film Club. Their monthly events often sell out the Bristol Improv Theatre, filling it with more than 120 patrons who want to experience the unique spectacle of a terrible film.

Singh says the cult success of The Room is largely down to Wiseau’s decision to work “against every cinematic rule that had been established” and push towards his own ideas, against the advice of those around him.

He adds: “Bad films are generally one person’s vision. One person who often decides to do the opposite of what the film industry generally does, in order to share their unique vision with the world. Bad films are often someone’s dream that, despite their earnestness, failed to translate to screen in the way they hoped.”

Whether it’s a result of morbid fascination or a genuine love for auteurs whose ambition exceeds their talent, there’s something that keeps movie fans fascinated with “so bad, it’s good” films. Like motorists rubbernecking as they pass the scene of a crash, film fans continue to flock to see the worst of the cinematic medium — and throw spoons at it.