Why I'm No Longer Afraid of Spoilers

Several days ago, I was browsing through the posts on the film blog Slashfilm when I came upon an intriguing article: a study has shown that spoilers can be good for you. Researchers at UC San Diego proved that when test subjects are allowed to read a short paragraph revealing the ending of a story, and then read through the entire text, they reported enjoying the stories more. That got me thinking: how applicable would these results be to media like film and television?

If we dove into all the “spoiler-ific” buzz surrounding upcoming projects, would we, as this study argues, enjoy movies and TV shows more?

I think the answer is yes – it is possible to gain a higher level of appreciation for a film or a television series through spoilers, because it helps connect the audience to the creators. Read on to find out why, and to leave your thoughts in the comments!

To help illustrate my point, I’m going to take you all the way back to the year 2000. I believe it was around then that images and news starting filtering out about the production of Star Wars: Episode II: Attack of the Clones. This was before Twitter, before Facebook, even before most of the film blogs and other media news sites. There was, however, an official site for the movie, which put out a lot of material prior to the release of the film: set photos, bios, plot summaries and additions to the online Star Wars encyclopedia, the “Databank”.

For its time, the film’s website was slick and well-designed, and being a major Star Wars fan, I drank in all the posts, sometimes going back to pages I had already viewed, just to let the content wash over me. All this sounds über-geeky, but the site was effectively a gigantic spoiler for me. By the time the film was released in 2002, I just about knew the film inside and out, before I even stepped into the theatre.

Now that I look back, I didn’t care – in fact, I believe it brought me to a higher level of appreciation. I had seen all the bits and pieces of the film in abstract online, and once I saw them come together in a finished form, I felt immersed in the world - an effect that some would argue is one of the ultimate goals of film.

Some fans believe that spoilers are evil. Websites now scream, “SPOILERS! SPOILERS! SPOILERS!” in advance of posts that include a lone spy image of a film set, or an interview with a member of the production. When you talk to friends about a much-anticipated film that you saw, they’ll cover their ears and holler, “LA LA LA! I can’t hear you!”, if only to avoid a minor plot detail. Obviously, everyone has different ideas about how they like to enjoy their screen time, but I don’t think spoilers are such a problem. How much can a film or TV episode really be “ruined” by a stray comment or image?

I have a feeling that a lot of people get caught up in the popular reaction to spoilers, rather than actually having their viewing experience affected. They respond as if knowledge about a film or TV show makes it impossible to lose themselves in the story, or to react adequately to a revelatory moment in a film. If the event is so special that you’re afraid to have it spoiled, doesn’t it also mean that it will have an effect on you no matter how many times you watch it?

There’s nothing like your “first time” seeing the long-awaited kiss or the best friend being betrayed. Nevertheless, I think that even if you saw that special scene by accident before the rest of the movie/episode, you’d still feel it was special, because it was connected to a complete film, with dozens of other, smaller moments.

In the UC San Diego study, the researchers concluded, “Once you know how it turns out, it’s cognitively easier – you’re more comfortable processing the information – and can focus on a deeper understanding of the story.” I’ve noticed this a number of times when I watch movies – especially classic films. These movies have been around long enough that the basic outline of the plot is known even by those who haven’t seen them.

A good example is The Godfather. I’ve known for about five years that Don Vito Corleone dies in that movie, but I didn’t get around to watching the movie until a few months ago. Even knowing that potential spoiler of a detail didn’t diminish my enjoyment. If anything, it heightened my awareness of the tension in some scenes – I was still on the edge of my seat, waiting to see how it would play out, and what the consequences would be to the characters and the film.

One thing I’ve realized about spoilers is that they can form a connection between the audience and the creators. Consider a movie or TV episode from a filmmaker’s point of view: to them, the entire work is “spoiled”, because they’ve been present at every stage of development. When individual viewers are exposed to details that might be considered spoilers, they’re essentially sharing in the movie-making experience, whether the revealed material is a set image, a leaked trailer, even a copy of the script.

I think it can actually be a positive experience. Knowing something trivial like which character dies in a movie prepares you for the basic structure of the movie, and makes you more receptive to the full package of the film. This includes all the lighting, editing, framing and symbolic choices the creators made to convey additional messages, beyond the simple fact that x is dead.

Next time a site has a spoiler-y post, check it out. It could just help you come to a better understanding of the film or program, and potentially enjoy it even more. Somehow, I don't think that will ruin anything.


Note: This doesn't mean I'll be including spoilers in my future reviews and articles. Despite how I feel about spoilers, I'll always respect the tastes of my readers.


How do you feel about spoilers? Do you avoid them at all costs, or are you ambivalent? Do you feel tempted to “ruin” films and TV shows for yourself by reading or viewing spoilers? Join the conversation in the comments below, or browse through the Professionally Incoherent film and TV archives:

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