We should probably chill out about spoilers

The idea of a spoiler is more of a drag than the reality of one. Such a view is heresy and will only serve to provoke a stream of anecdotes about how an individual story was ruined by a spoiler and what a terrible shame it was that the purity of the first experience was sullied because there were no police to stop the malice, nay, violence of the spoiler. But if we’re honest, our response to spoilers is much more a product of conditioning than a natural aversion to them. Spoilers are annoying, but the efforts to police them are worse and actually do spoil our enjoyment.

Some readers will never move past their own individual anecdotal experience, so here is mine. The first time I watched Se7en it was because my dad recorded it from a TV screening. I started it up and saw Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman shaving their chests to put microphones on. What followed was possibly the most intense, amazing, and bewildering openings to a film I have ever seen before or sense. This was followed by an insane opening credits sequence that looked like an end credits sequence but rolling backwards. How had I not heard of this opener before? What mad genius made such a thing? Anyone familiar with the film knows that this is not how it opens, and that the mad genius could be identified by continuing to read the credits that seemed to be running longer than usual with “The Hearts Filthy Lesson” playing to completion. My dad had recorded at the wrong time and I had just seen the closing 20 minutes of the film. Se7en is a great thriller with a wild twist and I can say that the show is just as good the second time around. All that the spoiler did was give me a hell of an anecdote to share.

“This may be all well and good for you, but I had someone told me the ending of…” comes the reply. And this is the problem with anecdotes. Everyone is going to believe that they are special and nobody is convinced by a statement of individual preferences unless they align with theirs. What matters more is that the current conventions surrounding spoilers get in the way of sharing and discussing stories and so are due for revision.

Everyone has had the experience of discussing a favourite story only to have someone in the group shriek “no spoilers!” Thought it was your turn in the conversation to share an interesting insight on a topic of mutual interest? Think again, the spoiler-averse friend is in charge now, and you’re going to talk about the weather. Definitions for spoilers always seem to expand to fit whatever suits the aggrieved party, and so if conversations about stories happen at all, they are always couched in endless preambles about spoilers or obfuscated beyond reason to minimize the risk of dealing with a tantrum. Tantrums, and the measures designed to mitigate them, are costly, and so we talk about stories less than we would naturally want to. It simply isn’t worth the hassle.

There are few times when major plot details are essential to making a point about a story. Details tend to come up in two cases: a discussion of the story itself, or an example that uses the story as an illustration. It is rare to open a discussion about a story without establishing whether or not the other participants are familiar with it (just as it is strange to go into detail on any subject without establishing some kind of common ground). Illustrations also establish some common ground, usually in the from of “have you seen…?” If the participants haven’t, it is usually followed by a request for permission to talk about the story if the example is a particularly good one. Nobody needs to shout or stop up their ears, the system just works.

Even without the protection of social conventions, the element of surprise is overrated in most stories. Se7en has an excellent and surprising ending, and yet the circumstances under which it was ‘spoiled’ were far more memorable for me and could only have happened the first viewing. A common heuristic is that good endings are “surprising but inevitable” but the nature of the surprise is less about pulling the rug out from under the audience than it is avoiding the kind of action that invites the question “why didn’t they do that in the first place?” High quality stories survive the revelation of plot details while low quality stories may only have the surprise going for them. Simply put, bad stories suffer more than good ones, and so what exactly are we trying to protect?

However, there are a number of films that are well regarded and still benefit from secrecy. In these cases the public has managed to self regulate. The Avengers: Infinity War seems to be a recent example that had a tacit understanding of what should or shouldn’t be discussed. Further back, Eastern Promises seems to have benefited from omertà among critics and the closest The Crying Game got to public discussion of spoilers was some speculation as to how Oscar nominations might be handled. In both the micro and macro cases the story loving public has shown it is capable of enjoying and discussing stories in a way that allows others to get the most from the experience without the need for tantrums.

Spoilers can be a means of enhancing our enjoyment of stories and it is wrong to assume they are undesirable in the first place. Everyone is busy, and the feeling of being too busy has been accelerated by the proliferation of programs and devices demanding our attention. A lot of us live in an odd state where we are so busy we can find time to binge watch an entire season of a series, while also feeling stressed out and unable to get everything we want done. Publishers and distributors need to entice us just enough to let our guard down to make time for their product. Trailers, posters, covers, and synopses are created for the purpose of letting us know a product is worth our time. Most, if not all, of these marketing devices contain spoilers. In fact, it is common to complain about a film that “all the good bits were in the trailer” or that a trailer “gave away part of the story.” This complaint is decades old. The first 30 minutes of Terminator 2: Judgement Day relies much more heavily on the ambiguity of the allegiance of the two time travelers than its predecessor, and yet none of the marketing for the film preserves the mystery. If the spoilers generated any comment at the time, it did not prevent the film from doing well financially, and the spoilers remain part of any promotion for a re-release or special screening.

Most of us simply will not watch a motion picture or read a book without some indication of whether or not it is worth our time. Sometimes an enticing cover or a pithy synopsis is enough, but, for the most part, we want a more substantive signal as to the merits of the story, and that means giving up plot details. There is nothing wrong with this. There are lots of stories that work with knowledge of the ending. Arguably entire genres exist because of it. Histories and biopics are more about the telling and the presentation than figuring out whether or not anyone makes it out of Dunkirk or if Lincoln gets the votes he needs. Knowledge of the events enhances the viewing. Psycho has a twist that arguably would count as a secret that should be preserved. Yet it is difficult to imagine anyone going into Psycho cold today as it, along with Rick’s decision at the end of Casablanca, have been lampooned incessantly since their releases. The spoilers become part of the conversation and a way we continue to enjoy these classics.

Our modern treatment of spoilers seems to run counter how people have historically engaged with stories. One of the oldest and most enduring images of story is people around a campfire asking to hear a particularly good one again. Invocations to the muse do not begin with spoiler alerts. Romeo and Juliet can’t even make it six lines without giving away the ending. The idea of the spoiler is a relatively modern one. Wikipedia credits a 1971 National Lampoon article with the first print usage, though its comedic intent suggests the idea had currency before.

Wikipedia itself does not provide spoiler warnings. Before 2007 it did, and, despite the fact it falls under the no disclaimer policy, the topic has its own page. Prior to the current policy there was a proliferation of spoiler warnings, extending to folklore, bible stories, and The Three Little Pigs. The effort to leave the reader in suspense about the reliability of porcine architecture proved to be the final straw and the spoiler policy changed. Wikipedia does not warn readers about profanity, “adult content”, or potential offense. The only exceptions to the disclaimer policy relate to the maintenance of Wikipedia. The idea that plot details are the one carve out to “a solid and longstanding consensus” regarding disclaimers is almost as funny as the conditions that brought about the end of this special status. Wikipedia is following the standards of any other scholarly publication and is not letting manufactured outrage get in the way of informing the intended audience.

We should follow Wikipedia’s example. Wikipedia remains informative, and the fact it presents spoilers without disclaimers goes by without comment. People do not say “spoiler alert” when linking Wikipedia, or recommending a book about a film or literature. We can continue to tie ourselves in knots, appeasing the whiniest among us, or we can discuss the things we like, enhancing our enjoyment and becoming more informed. Either the discussion of a plot is necessary to make your point or it isn’t. If someone isn’t familiar with the story, maybe another example is in order. Does a friend go out of their way to talk about plot details you’re unfamiliar with? Maybe stop talking about stories with them. The majority of human experience with stories hasn’t even considered the possibility that knowing the plot in advance might somehow ruin the experience. For modern stories that do benefit from a veil of ignorance, we have been able to keep those secrets hidden without some kind of central authority imposing order. It is time we recognize efforts to impose such an authority as a barrier to our enjoyment, not a protection.

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