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Compelled to be repelled? Why movies like “Saltburn” may make you cringe and love it

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If you haven’t felt uncomfortable watching them, you may have felt that way hearing about the bathtub scene, the grave scene and other moments in the movie “Saltburn.” Given the film’s hype, you wouldn’t have experienced that feeling alone. 

But why would moviegoers be compelled to be repelled? Aren’t they somewhat polar reactions? Not necessarily. Northeastern University film and media experts say that films and other artwork that provoke extreme discomfort — some might say that make you cringe — can be a way to safely experience and assert control over such feelings.

“I think it has to do a lot with testing the limits of our own familiars — wanting to be OK with things and doing it through this other lens (of art) is how you can do it,” says Julia Hechtman, associate chair and teaching professor in the department of art and design at Northeastern and an expert on horror films. “It’s like a desensitization.”

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