Motivations for Suicide in the Movies: External and Internal Forces

Motivations for Suicide in the Movies: External and Internal Forces
Brooke J. Cannon, Ph.D.
(From the Turkish electronic publication Psinema  2008 Issue 5).

Motives for suicide have long been explored, resulting in a variety of theories and categorizations.  Menninger (1938, as cited by Leenaars, Lester, & Heims, 1996) identified three main motives:  to die (anger at self), to be killed (anger at others), and to be dead (escape from unbearable pain).  Others have applied concepts such as self-perception (Baumeister, 1990), loss of love and failure to achieve (Canetto & Lester, 2002), and psychological, relational, somatic, and spiritual motives (Rogers, Bromley, McNalley, & Lester, 2007).  Holden, Kerr, Mendonca, and Velamoor (1998) simplified motives into Extrapunitive/Manipulative and Internal Perturbations.   For this consideration of suicide motives in film, the broad categories of External/Internal will be used, with associated subcategories explored, as well.  These categories, as well as sample films, are included in the accompanying Table.


Given the nature of movie-viewing, it is much easier to understand and see actions and events happening to a person, than to have a good perception of the character’s internal motivations.  Many suicides in the movies occur during high action, with the audience not necessarily considering the character’s death as suicide.  Films where the characters are Avoiding Earthly Punishment, for example, often have a “you’ll never take me alive” storyline.  Criminals surrounded by police may choose to go down shooting, rather than face punishment for their crimes.  Although caused by police officers, these deaths are not in the same category as what is now called “suicide by cop.”  Films such as Chattahoochee and Falling Down reflect such events, where the characters provoke the police into fatal shootings; the motivations of these characters, however, would fit within the Internal categories to be discussed below. 

Consistent with world events, there now are films portraying the lives and deaths of suicide bombers (e.g., Paradise Now).  In these cases, the characters’ suicides are motivated by A Greater Cause, giving their lives for religious beliefs.  Similarly, many war-related films portray valiant actions in the face of certain death, motivated by adherence to a cause.  In some cases, the suicide is a result of an allegiance to a person and a way of being, such as in the wonderful Japanese film, Chushinguru, chronicling the story of 47 faithful samurai who avenge their master’s death before committing suicide.

Other examples of Self Sacrifice are common in films (more so than in real life).  Frequently we see a noble character acting in an altruistic way to save others.  In action films, such as Aliens and King Kong, characters sacrifice themselves in order to allow others to escape.  Although there may be alternative interpretations, one might look at Maude’s death in Harold and Maude as a self-sacrifice to allow Harold to have a more normal, age-appropriate life.  Invitation to a Suicidehas the main character selling tickets to his suicide by hanging, in an effort to make money to prevent disaster from happening to others.  In contrast to other films where the characters realize that others are better off if they do not commit suicide (e.g., It’s a Wonderful Life), Donnie Darkorealizes the opposite is true.

A final External motivation is prompted by a desire To Provoke Response by Others.  For example, the manipulative, insecure former silent film star in the classic Sunset Boulevard makes a suicide attempt in response to perceived abandonment, in the hopes of getting her lover to come back to her.  We see a similar feigned suicide in Fatal Attraction (one of the best “jump out of your seat” scenes in film).  Also seeking a response from others, Solieri, in Amadeus, attempts to gain the immortality he could not achieve through music by claiming to have poisoned Mozart before then committing suicide.  The Virgin Suicides, a terrific film demonstrating the difficulty in determining others’ motivations for suicide, provokes not only responses from the characters’ friends as they continued to ponder the events decades later, but also from the film’s viewers, as we attempt to understand the girls’ motives.


From a psychological perspective, we are most familiar with internal motivations for suicide.  Rogers et al.’s (2007) content analysis of suicide notes found severe psychological pain to be the most common theme (55%).  The second most common theme was related to interpersonal issues; loss of loved ones or relationships was reported in 35% of the notes analyzed (Rogers et al.).  Physical disability or other somatic concerns was the third most common theme (Rogers et al.). 

Unbearable psychological pain may result from Self-Deprecation.  We see such self-loathing arising in films as characters confront their own failings.  Colonel Frank Fitts, in American Beauty, hates homosexuals.  He first has to confront the schema-challenging belief that his son is gay and then, it appears, he becomes aware of his own homosexuality, leading to his suicide.  Being unsuccessful, failing to achieve, are common motives typically depicted for men in movies.  Death of a Salesman, Little Miss Sunshine, and Groundhog Day all portray men who turn to suicide in response to disappointment in themselves.

Guilt may lead some to suicide as a form of Self-Punishment.  The teenage Conrad Jarrett becomes suicidal after being wracked by guilt related to the death of his brother in Ordinary People.  In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the wicked Nurse Ratched taunts the fragile psychiatric patient, Billy, to the point of suicide, engendering guilt over his recent actions (“What would your mother think?”).  We see a similar course of events in Girl, Interrupted, as Lisa bullies Daisy, insinuating that Daisy has an incestuous relationship with her father, also culminating in Daisy’s suicide caused, presumably, by her sense of guilt and shame. 

Most frequently, we see film characters unable to cope with their life circumstances, they cannot cope With the Situation.  There typically are many issues at play, all uncontrollable, insurmountable, and hopeless.  Brooks, in The Shawshank Redemption, could not cope with life outside prison.  Kathy, in The House of Sand and Fog, could not handle the loss of her home (some might also question if there is an external motive here – To Provoke Response by Others).  Others struggle With the Loss of Love.  From Romeo and Juliet to the Marilyn Monroe film, Don’t Bother to Knock, we see the destructive power of lost love. 

Suicidal ideation arising from one’s inability to cope With Disability raises issues about the importance of quality of life, such as in Whose Life Is It, Anyway?, and society’s role in creating the psychological pain felt by those who appear different (e.g., The Elephant Man).  Although there is increased awareness of the potential impact of media portrayals of suicide, it is interesting to note the presence of a suicide attempt in a popular Disney film:  Pinocchio.  Cursed with donkey ears and a tail further quashes his desire to no longer be “disabled” (i.e., made of wood) and to instead be “a real boy.”  No longer able to cope, Pinocchio ties his tail around a rock and plunges into the sea. 


Paralleling real life, the motives for fictional suicides as portrayed in film are varied.  Some are easy to determine, many others are open for interpretation.  Just as in the various studies of suicide notes, when it comes to studying suicidal motivation, we can identify common themes, but understanding an individual’s motives continues to be elusive, especially for those left behind to wonder why.


Baumeister, R. F. (1990).  Suicide as escape from self.  Psychological Review, 97, 90-113.
Canetto, S. S., & Lester, D. R. (2002). Love and achievement motives in women’s and men’s suicide notes. The Journal of Psychology, 136, 573-576.
Holden, R. R., Kerr, P. S., Mendonca, J. D., & Velamoor, V. R. (1998). Are some motives more linked to suicide motives than others? Journal of Clinical Psychology, 54, 569-576.
Rogers, J. R., Bromley, J. L., McNalley, C. J., & Lester, D. (2007). Content analysis of suicide notes as a test of the motivational component of the existential-constructivist model of suicide. Journal of Counseling and Development, 85, 182-188.



Film Examples

I)  External  
     A)  Avoid Earthly Punishment A Few Good Men; Bonnie and Clyde; Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid; Shawshank Redemption (Samuel); Thelma and Louise
      B)  For a Cause  Chushinguru;  Day Night Day Night; The Exorcist; The Last SamuraiParadise Now;Suicide Killers
      C)  Self Sacrifice to Benefit Others  Aliens;  Alien 3Donnie Darko; The Great Escape; Harold and Maude (Maude);Invitation to a SuicideThe Iron Giant;  King Kong; LeonTerminator 2
      D)  To Provoke Responses from Others  Amadeus; Anna KareninaBad Timing; Fatal AttractionHarold and Maude (Harold); Sunset Boulevard; The Virgin Suicides
 II)  Internal  
      A)  Self-Deprecation  American Beauty (Frank); Ben HurDeath of a SalesmanDeer Hunter; Groundhog Day;It’s a Wonderful LifeLittle Miss Sunshine
      B)  Self-Punishment  Breaking the Waves; Ordinary PeopleGirl, Interrupted (Daisy);  House of Sand and Fog(Massoud); One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
      C)  Unable to Cope  
      1)  With a Situation  Better Off Dead; Dead Poets Society; Forrest Gump; Full Metal JacketGirl, Interrupted(Susanna); The Hours; House of Sand and Fog (Kathy); Shawshank Redemption(Brooks); The Virgin Suicides
      2)  With the Loss of Love  An Officer and a Gentleman (Sid); Don’t Bother to KnockDouble Suicide; He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not; Lethal Weapon;Romeo and Juliet
      3)  With a Disability  The Elephant ManFrankenstein; Pinocchio;‘Night, MotherOne True Thing; Whose Life Is It, Anyway