Spoilers are nothing new, but they’re infesting the world – yet can we ever really learn to live with them?.
SPOILER ALERT! It’s a familiar exhortation within film discourse, roaring with the startling urgency of an air raid siren. In a medium perfected to stir our emotions, is any feature of cinema more terrifying than the plot spoiler? If you’ve ever looked forward to seeing the latest blockbuster, you may recognise a peculiar sense of dread as you flee spoilers with the frenzy of a teenage protagonist in a nocturnal woodland chase.
Spoilers, we commonly understand, are bad. Or at least, that’s what the name suggests. But they’re also an inescapable feature of film and popular culture. In an online world where everyone has a platform, and in which information can be transmitted globally within seconds, the spoiler casts an ever-increasing shadow. So, is it time we learned to embrace spoilers – or at the very least, examine why we fear them?
Spoilers, of course, predate the internet by several decades. As a pioneer of film, it seems fitting that Alfred Hitchcock should have been an early exponent of the spoiler warning. In the marketing and distribution of Psycho, he took great care in safeguarding the secrecy of the plot. In an idiosyncratically direct address, Hitchcock would implore his audience not to divulge spoilers. Publicity posters for the film were strikingly dictatorial. ‘If you can’t keep a secret, please stay away from people until after you see Psycho,’ decreed one. ‘After you see Psycho, don’t give away the ending. It’s the only one we have,’ commanded another.
That the focus of the publicity should be on the preservation of plot secrecy rather than any other aspect is striking. The true villain to be feared was not, it seemed, the knife-wielding voyeur on the other side of the shower curtain. Rather, it was your spoiler-wielding friend who’d seen the film ahead of you.
Another poster depicted Hitchcock gesturing sternly to his watch. ‘It is required that you see Psycho from the very beginning,’ the headline read. While this sentiment may not seem radical to a modern audience, it offers an insight into the prevailing spoiler psychology of the time.
Before Psycho, cinema start times were little more than a vague suggestion. Audiences would typically drift in whenever they wanted and, if they were sufficiently intrigued by the plot, stay for the next screening. Hitchcock’s innovation was to mandate that cinemas prevent entry to latecomers, and this soon became standard behaviour.
These days, we’re all familiar with the concept of plot spoilers, but do we really need to worry about them? According to Nicholas Christenfeld, a psychology professor at the University of California, prior knowledge of a story’s ending can enhance your enjoyment. The term ‘spoiler’, in this case, would be a misnomer.
Christenfeld conducted a study in which the subjects were given short stories to read from three separate genres: mysteries, stories with a twist ending, and literary tales with a neat resolution. The subjects were split into two groups, one of which would be given spoilers prior to reading the stories. They were then asked to rate their enjoyment of the tales. The twist ending, in this case, was that the group who’d been given spoilers rated the stories more highly. In his 2011 study published by the University of California, Christenfeld explained, “across all three genres, spoilers were actually enhancers. The term is wrong.”
So, is it more enjoyable to watch a film if you already know the ending? Here, Christenfeld refers to the various film genres in which the narrative conventions dictate a particular ending. For example, the romcom in which the couple get together. “The point is, really we’re not watching these things for the ending. I point out to the sceptics, people watch these movies more than once happily, and often with increasing pleasure.”
Discussing a particular film with a twist ending, Christenfeld explains that “if you know the ending as you watch it, you can understand what the filmmaker is doing. You get to see this broader view, and essentially understand the story more fluently.”
Essentially, Christenfeld argues, the plot exists in service of the film, rather than as a feature to be enjoyed on its own merits. “The plot is in some ways like a coathanger, displaying a garment. If it’s just a crumpled heap of fabric on the floor, you couldn’t admire the garment. A plot is just the structure that lets you do the interesting narrative components – maybe even knowing the ending is useful because it allows you to focus on these other parts, or to understand how it’s unfolding.”
Does this mean we’re wrong to fear spoilers? If the plot is simply a distraction, wouldn’t we enjoy the film more if we just got spoilers out of the way?
For many of us, part of the joy of seeing a film is in being surprised – experiencing plot twists as they happen in front of us on a huge screen in HD and surround sound, rather than through a mouthful of beer and crisps from your mate down the pub. And while many films can become more enjoyable on second and subsequent viewings, that’s not to detract from the unspoiled first experience.
Occasionally, you’ll see a film with a twist ending that makes you reassess everything you saw up to that point. An ending that impels you to re-watch the film with your brand-new perspective. There’s a particular joy to be derived from two such disparate viewing experiences that would always be denied to you if you knew the plot details beforehand.
Most of us have probably had a film spoiled for us, and it’s unlikely that anyone is going to be retrospectively persuaded that they were wrong to be annoyed. If you’ve been denied the unspoiled experience of a particular film – especially one that has a twist ending – you can’t get that back. So, in the interests of common decency, shouldn’t we just keep our spoilers to ourselves?
A reasonable sentiment, but can we agree what constitutes a spoiler? Consider the romcom that ends with the couple getting together. Most of us may consider this an obvious denouement, but is everyone familiar with the conventions of the genre?
And there are other boundaries to consider. Are you discussing the film you’ve just seen with someone who’s relaxed about spoilers, bar the most sensational plot twist? Or are you inflicting your enthusiasm on someone who prefers to go in blind, avoiding trailers and preview articles?
Discussing movies, then, can be a minefield. Fortunately, we’re on safer ground with older films. The decades-old classics that everyone has seen. After all, the film has been around long enough – if you wanted to see a 50-year-old film, you’d have done so already, right?
Well, not necessarily. Saying that a film is 50 years old is not the same as saying you’ve had 50 years in which to watch that film. Particularly if you’re 20. As a film ages, it may achieve classic status. But every film will always be new to someone somewhere.
Perhaps we need some formal rules of engagement about when it’s safe to discuss a film. There’s guidance available on returning to undischarged fireworks and nuclear waste sites, so why not film spoilers?
Maybe there is. According to a survey conducted by the online retailer Music Magpie, it’s acceptable to discuss a film’s plot ten days after the theatrical release date. So, if you’re itching to discuss the latest blockbuster, you can take guidance from a mean average extrapolated from a poll. Proceed with caution, though, as 34% of those surveyed said that they’d fallen out with a friend, family member or colleague for sharing a spoiler.
It’s worth considering that spoilers can apply to personal relationships as well as films. Yes, you may have loved the latest Marvel blockbuster, and yes, you may be desperate to discuss it in full spoiler-rich detail. But is it really worth losing your best friend, partner, family or home over? An unlikely scenario, perhaps, but you’d struggle to prove that it’s never happened.
The joy of a great film doesn’t always end when the final credits roll, as further fun can be had from dissecting it afterwards with your friends – or with like-minded strangers online. But while the shared love (or in some cases hate) for a film can be a fantastic social adhesive, it also has the potential for conflict and division.
So, the next time you see the words ‘SPOILER ALERT! ’, remember what’s at stake. Your future happiness may depend on it.
Lead image: BigStock
Thank you for visiting! If you’d like to support our attempts to make a non-clickbaity movie website:
Buy our Film Stories and Film Stories Junior print magazines here.
Become a Patron here.