Tuned In

Dead Tree Alert: Don’t Fear the Spoiler

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In roughly another week, the Olympics begin. And since they will be taking place several hours ahead of any U.S. time zone, will be streamed live online by NBC (at least for anyone with cable or satellite) and will be reported on instantly via Web and social media, they’ll undoubtedly be greeted by the signal cry of the Internet era: Dude! Spoiler-alert that crap!

The Olympics, in other words, are entering the Age of Spoiler Hysteria, a phenomenon well familiar to anyone who follows pop culture (say, for instance, pre-coverage of The Dark Knight Rises). In my new column in the Olympics issue of TIME (subscription required), I argue that spoilers, much-feared and -fretted-over, are a phantom menace. They don’t spoil anything–or at least not as much as you think–and may even make experiencing a story better:

Despite the sugar rush that a shocking “reveal” offers–and from Inception to Lost, pop culture today is reveal-crazy–that’s not what lingers from a good story. It’s Luke leaving his ruined farm on Tatooine and seeking his destiny in Star Wars; Carrie Mathison chasing her demons in Homeland; Don Draper distilling heartbreak into an ad-campaign pitch on Mad Men. What finally mattered about The Sopranos was not the surprise ending but what it meant, what Tony deserved and how we responded to everything that came before it. Any story that can be ruined by giving away the ending wasn’t worth your time in the first place. Does anyone refuse to see Romeo and Juliet again because we know they [spoiler] themselves?

This isn’t another attempt to codify The Official Rules for Spoilers. (Dan Kois already did that brilliantly.) I do believe people have every right to talk about things they’ve seen on Twitter, and that it’s my responsibility to stay off if I care that badly about being spoiled. And I believe that not only should critics be able to discuss plot points in reviews (something that used to be a given but now apparently requires “SPOILER ALERT” in flashing letters) but that giving evidence and examples is a requirement of criticism. I also believe in being considerate; a little warning for an out-of-the-blue reference to something recent won’t kill you. But that’s my opinion, not the law.

Also, I don’t mean to say that if you’re bothered by spoilers, you’re wrong. I don’t like being spoiled on something out of the blue, either. And as I wrote recently about bingeing on TV seasons, I resist the idea that there is a right and a wrong way to watch TV.

But I do think that, as technology has made delayed viewing easier and spoilers more accessible (or unavoidable), people have increasingly, and unnecessarily developed a hair-trigger defensiveness about spoilers. As a critic (and simply someone who reads a lot of movie, book and TV reviews) I definitely find more people reacting to the tiniest advance details and plot descriptions as if the critic had revealed The Final Prophecy at Fatima. And yet as a lay viewer, not just as a critic, I can’t really think of a time when my enjoyment of an honestly good story was ruined by knowing what would happen at the end.

Do I think that what’s true for me is true for everyone? No. But I suspect it’s true for more people than realize it, and not just because of the University of California study that found that subjects enjoyed spoiled stories more than unspoiled ones. Hearing a spoiler takes away the one-time-only discovery of a twist or an ending, and when that happens to you without your consent, it feels like a violation.

An unwanted spoiler does take something away, but not, I think, the pleasure of actually reading or watching a story. Rather, it takes away from the anticipation before watching it–wondering who dies, whether they’ll get off the Island. It takes away the tantalizing sensation of realizing that, in just a few weeks or days or hours, you’ll know this thing that you do not now know. But it doesn’t take away the myriad surprises on the way to getting there, the thrills and pleasures of watching a story play out. If a spoiler could spoil what’s truly good about a story, why would you ever rewatch a movie?

Why that is is intriguing, and I can’t say I have a complete answer. I think there’s some analogy to Hitchcock’s theory of suspense: that knowing a terrible thing is going to happen is far more terrifying than not knowing it’s going to happen. And as I say in the column, knowing the ending frees you from obsessing over the what of a story and lets you appreciate the more important how and why. Fixating on “twists” and “reveals”–an excessive obsession and crutch of TV and movies today–treats stories like Rubik’s Cubes: solve them, and you’re done.

Another theory I have, and one I had to cut from the piece for space reasons, is that knowing a spoiler allows you to experience a story the way a child does. The first fairytales we hear are predictable. They follow rigid formats and they have built-in rules for our protection: good guys will win, problems will resolve happily. You know that, but does it keep you from enjoying the story? Just the opposite. Only as adults do we start thinking of narratives as problems to master, as problems to solve, as antagonists to outsmart. Whereas toddlers our response to a “spoiled” story is: Again! Again!

I repeat: I know not everybody sees it this way! Not even all kids. Tuned In Jr. avoids spoilers whenever he can. But his younger brother–Tuned In Jr. Jr.–is absolutely hungry to hear spoilers for movies he hasn’t seen, and he pumped a friend ruthlessly for Harry Potter spoilers while we were in the middle of reading the books. I can only guess, but it may be that being freed of some anxieties (will Harry be OK? what happens to Voldemort?) made hearing the story more fun, not less.

Older brother, on the other hand, is in the middle of reading The Lord of the Rings for the first time, and recently a friend of his let slip what happens at Mount Doom in The Return of the King. He was annoyed, but he kept reading–he just got past the Battle of Helm’s Deep–and he’s loving it.

All of which is to say, if you truly hate spoilers, that’s your business, but don’t let it take over your life. What’s truly worth appreciating in a good story is unspoilable. And a story that can be ruined by a spoiler was already spoiled to begin with.