On Spoilers

When I say that I don’t care about spoilers, people seem to think I’m not telling the truth.

“He claims he doesn’t care if we talk about Game of Thrones before he’s seen it,” my family thinks, “but Sam has a long and annoying habit of staking out intentionally contrarian viewpoints, so this is probably one of those. In actuality, he is riven by the fear of spoilers. Consumed by it. As are we all.”

It’s true. I do have that habit, and I’m working on it, because it is annoying. But this isn’t one of those times. I would never violate somebody else’s right not to be spoiled because of my beliefs that spoilers don’t matter, but for me personally, I really, literally don’t care if you tell me about the plot beats of new books, movies, TV shows, or video games before I’ve read them.

A recent Vox article about spoiler paranoia has inspired me to expand on my opinion here. That piece’s thesis is pretty simple, if you don’t want to read the whole thing: as evidenced by the bizarre filming process of Avengers: Endgame, bending over backwards not to spoil things leads everyone to jump through hoops that make movies worse.

The idea that fear of spoilers is changing the way movies get made is especially galling to me, and I can express why in five simple words: to me, ruining stories doesn’t ruin them.

The Potter Example

Let me set a scene. It’s July 20, 2007, and you’re standing in line to get your copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows when it gets into the bookstore at midnight (as long as we’re time-traveling, you might as well imagine it’s a Borders). As you’re leaving the story with your copy under your arm, a guy drives by with his window down.

“Harry is a horcrux!” he yells. “He dies but gets better and then he marries Ginny! Fred and Hedwig don’t make it! Snape wanted to bone Harry’s mom!”

And other such charming phrases. For maximum visual irony, his car has a spoiler on it. Before you can shoot out his tires, he’s screaming onto the interstate to spread chaos elsewhere.

Here’s my question. At this point, knowing many of the book’s major reveals, do you toss it in the garbage?

Of course you don’t. Below, I’d like to list the reasons why.

1. You can’t be sure the spoiler is telling the truth

You probably aren’t in the habit of believing everything people scream at you from moving cars. But you also don’t believe everything you read on the internet, or even that you hear in person–you may love your friends, but you still tune out Dave when he starts talking about chemtrails.

Spoilers, though, are granted a weird exemption from skepticism. We’re so annoyed that somebody has ruined the ending for us that we don’t stop to ask whether they know what they’re talking about. This is important wisdom not just for enjoying pop culture but for navigating the entire world in 2019: a statement is not automatically true just because it is upsetting to hear.

When we get to the story ourselves, we can actually preserve a lot of the suspense and surprise by remembering that it’s still an open question whether the spoiler was at all correct. Fans who saw The Empire Strikes Back in its original theatrical run frequently reported that when Darth Vader claimed to be Luke’s father, they straight-up didn’t believe him. Now, it’s our generation’s turn to cultivate the spine to tell Darth Vader he can shove it.

2. There are other reasons to experience stories than to find out what happens next

Yes, I do understand this is a major source of enjoyment for readers and viewers. It is for me too. And I also understand how many people identify with the Russian scientist who stabbed his colleague for telling him the endings of books, even though that was likely a product of madness from the Antarctic isolation. This point, though, is really critical, and I believe everyone gets it, even if we don’t talk about it much.

Harry Potter and his friends are beloved characters. We enjoy spending time with them. We like luxuriating in their magical world. We cheer for the themes of protecting the helpless, fighting for equality, and living meaningful lives. All of these are things that are not damaged, in any way, by knowing beforehand that Harry is a horcrux.

Some of the greatest works of Western literature, including the poems of Homer and the tragedies of Shakespeare, ruin their own endings in the first lines. By line 15 of the Odyssey, we know that Odysseus’s crew will be killed after slaughtering cattle belonging to the sun god; by the same point in Romeo and Juliet, we know that the title characters will die and thereby end the fighting between their families.

Similarly, nobody who buys a ticket for an action movie is in any doubt about whether it will end with the protagonist bringing the villain to justice. You know the ending of the story going in, and you still sit down, because there’s so much more in a good story than a few major plot beats, and it’s all so much harder to ruin.

I’ve harped on this before, but I’m going to keep repeating it whether anyone likes it or not. The difference between a story and a surprise is the difference between a Vegas magic show and your friend who does card tricks when they’re drunk. The reason we all stopped caring about M. Night Shyamalan movies is that nobody gave a crap about anything that happened before the reveal.

To really beat this into the ground, if the best value to be gotten from stories was from the steady reveal of plot beats, nobody would ever reread books.

3. Being spoiled does take something from the experience, but it adds more than it takes

A series of studies conducted at UC San Diego suggested that people actually derive greater enjoyment from a story when they’ve been spoiled. The researchers theorized that knowing the plot beforehand allows a reader or viewer to appreciate everything else in the story more, because they aren’t distracted by waiting to find out what happens. In other words, watching a movie again to appreciate all the subtle hints at the twist ending is just as pleasurable if it’s your first viewing.

There is definitely a thrill that can’t be replicated that comes from discovering new twists as they happen, but to me, that’s a very small part of the experience of being told a story. That’s what makes it so frustrating that spoiler culture privileges it above everything else. If you love something, says spoiler culture, what you care about is what happens next. And so, the natural connections people forge around things that should be beloved cultural touchstones–the very foundations of nerd culture–are limited by the necessity of tiptoeing around what should be the least important part of those stories.

4. Even so, don’t spoil things for people

I want to be absolutely clear about this. If what people want is not to be told what happens at the end of the next installment of their favorite story, nobody has the right to decide otherwise–I don’t get to decide what’s good for someone else against their will, ever, and I don’t have the right to decide what beliefs do and don’t count as legit.

I’m just hoping that, eventually, spoiler culture will die down on its own. It’s frustrating and limiting, and in a small but real way, devalues what I love.

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