When I was in high school, I discovered that a friend of mine always read the last chapter of a book first. I found this unfathomable. “How can you possibly enjoy the story when you already know how it’s going to end?” I asked her. “I enjoy finding out how they get to the ending,” she said.
I couldn’t wrap my head around this. It just wasn’t how stories were supposed to go. Aren’t you supposed to start at the beginning, and end at the end, enjoying all of the twists, turns and revelations that come along the way?
I was (and still am) the exact opposite of my friend. Like most people, I avoid spoilers like the plague. I’ll never forget the time my wife spoiled a major character’s death on The Wire for me. Not knowing where I was in HBO’s gritty crime drama series, she mentioned an NPR interview with an actor who died on the show and had since gone on to other projects.
When I noticed that actor in his next project, I knew his character’s end was coming in the show. I was devastated for weeks. We now don’t talk about any book, movie, or TV show until we’re absolutely sure that the other person is completely done with it. She sometimes won’t even answer my basic questions about a story if she thinks I might one day read or watch it myself.
In our social media-saturated world, spoiler alerts have become as ubiquitous as media itself. The prospect of going into a new book, movie, or television show and being genuinely surprised at the ending or a mid-story twist is fundamental to many people’s enjoyment of that piece of art.
Media outlets have seen such backlash over unintentionally revealing spoilers that they’ve created careful procedures on how to properly handle them. “It’s always a balance when it comes to spoilers,” Rachel Simon, movies editor at Bustle, told me in an email.
“We’re very careful not to spoil anything before a movie’s release date, but after that arrives, we do publish posts with spoilers to answer questions or analyze important scenes,” Simon says. “Still, we always make sure to include a spoiler alert early on and not reveal too much in headlines or photos…We’ve seen and understand the backlash spoiler-filled posts can get, and we try our best not to contribute in any way.”
Last summer, Vulture film critic Matt Zoller Seitz conducted a poll to see where people stood on the subject of spoilers. “The data is…well, let’s just say it’s not what this author expected, considering the number of times I’ve been chastised for revealing plot twists in films and TV series,” he writes in the article summarizing his findings.
In the poll, 61 percent of respondents said that just one week after the new release of a movie is an acceptable length of time to wait before revealing major plot points on social media. Perhaps most surprisingly, the poll also placed the burden of avoiding spoilers on the spoilee rather than the spoiler.
Seventy-six percent of respondents agreed that someone who hasn’t seen a new television show, movie, or sports game should stay off social media if they don’t want what happens ruined for them.
Simon agrees with these results. “It’s frustrating when you end up seeing something you tried to avoid,” she says. “But in the age of binge-watching and SEO-based content, outlets can’t be blamed for posting about the content everyone is talking about as long as enough time has passed. If you’re behind on a movie/show and worried about spoilers, your best bet is just to avoid Googling it or reading tweets about it until you’re caught up—better safe than sorry.”
But the question is, do spoilers actually ruin our enjoyment of a story? Perhaps not, according to this 2011 study from the University of California, San Diego. In the experiment, one of relatively few on spoilers, subjects were given three different short stories to read out of an anthology. One was spoiled by a paragraph that revealed the outcome before the story started, one was completely unspoiled, and one included the spoiler-y paragraph as the opening paragraph of the text itself.
Subjects then rated the stories on a scale from 1 to 10 in 30 categories. In all three experiments, subjects preferred spoiled stories to the unspoiled ones. This seems to go against everything we understand about spoilers. My high school friend would feel vindicated.
To try and figure out why being spoiled on something might be appealing, I spoke with Thalia Goldstein, PhD, assistant professor of Applied Developmental Psychology at George Mason University. Goldstein’s work and research centers on fiction, imagination, theater, acting and pretend play. When I told her about my friend, Goldstein admitted she does the same thing.
“I will often do something like go to Wikipedia and look up the plot summary of a movie that I’m about to watch so that I know what happens,” she says. “It’s because it allows me to relax into the story, and enjoy it moment by moment. When I don’t know what’s going to happen…I tend to spend a lot of time hypothesis testing. I [think] about, ‘Well what could happen?’ or ‘What does that character mean?’… or ‘Have I missed a foreshadowing clue somewhere?’”
Knowing how the story turns out, Goldstein says, allows her to relax into the story more and enjoy its finer points, like character and plot development. But Goldstein admits that this is her personal preference and that she’s in the minority on spoilers. “I definitely think that most people don’t want to know the ending,” she says.
Goldstein attributes our need to avoid spoilers to what she calls the paradox of “benign masochism.” As a general rule, people try to avoid, or at least dread, intense emotions like sadness, loneliness, anger, bitterness, or fear in their daily lives. Yet we seek, and even crave, these emotions in our stories.
“Horror films are very, very popular,” Goldstein says. “We love tearjerkers—everyone is watching This Is Us and talking about how they cry at the end of every episode. The paradox of benign masochism is that we don’t like all of these negative reactions in real life, but we do like them in our media, and isn’t that weird?”
Goldstein believes that the reason we seek out these emotions in our stories is because we can experience them in a controlled way. “We just want our art to cause us to feel something,” she says. “It’s about the safe, intense emotion—that’s what I think we’re all seeking from our media.” Feeling these emotions in our stories feels safe because, once we’re done with the story, we have the option to move on.
“I think that people might feel that being spoiled on something will ruin their ability to feel that intense surprise, or to feel a sense of joy at their own cleverness, or joy at their own ability to figure out a plot point or to solve a mystery,” Goldstein says. “And so I think people are worried that spoilers might prevent them from being able to experience those intense emotions.”
She adds, “That being said, most kids and adults like to read the same book over and over again, or watch the same movie over and over again, or watch television, for example, that’s so formulaic that you know exactly what’s going to happen by the end.”
Sitcoms, for example, are constructed specifically to bring the audience comfort and formula. The strength of a story is often indicated by how often it can be revisited without getting boring. “There are some stories that sort of fall apart with multiple viewings,” Goldstein says. “[But] there are other stories that stand the test of the time, and there’s always something new to find in it.”
Shakespeare’s plays are great examples of narratives that can be endlessly adapted. No matter how often we’ve read Hamlet, there’s always some new take or performance of it that people find intriguing. For me, knowing how the story will end actually enhances my enjoyment of Shakespeare since it allows me to focus on what on Earth the characters are saying.
Regardless of how you feel about spoilers, both Simon and Goldstein believe that whether or not you avoid them comes down to personal choice. “For some people like myself, getting spoiled always feels disappointing, regardless of what benefits knowing the ending might give,” Simon says. “But if other people enjoy knowing spoilers and not stressing over what’s to come, that’s fine! To each their own.”
What’s more, Goldstein says it might be worth re-thinking whether or not spoilers are actually that important. “I truly believe that stories are deeply important to people, and it is how we explain ourselves and understand ourselves, but in the end, we really are just talking about television,” she says.
“There are lots of other things happening in the world right now that are very worthwhile getting upset about, and whether or not you got spoiled on your TV show is probably not one of them.”
Still, she adds that we do use art as a way to escape the world, and it can often feel like we’re getting robbed of that opportunity when a story is spoiled. “I would personally encourage people, if you do get spoiled on something, try watching it anyway,” she says. Do an experiment to test what your enjoyment actually hinges on. If you already know the narrative, is it now going to bore you? Is the fun in trying to figure something out, or in being surprised by what happens? Or is it just in spending time with the characters?
“Then make the personal decision about whether or not you really do need to stay off Twitter until you get through your backlog of shows,” Goldstein says. She personally feels the results may surprise you. “I don’t know if everyone will actually dislike their shows as much as they think they will when they get spoiled,” she says.