November 17, 2010

Taboo against spoilers is a sign of low-quality products and vapid consumers

Did anybody enjoy The Passion of the Christ less because they knew that Jesus was going to get crucified? Or did having such an easily predicted ending prevent Titanic from breaking box office records? Obviously not -- so why is there such a hysteria about revealing "spoilers"? It is now even worse than when it was confined only to movies; now every reviewer of video games is spooked about blurting out spoilers, lest the army of gamer dorks desert him and ruin his chances of being an internet celebrity.

Some part of the enjoyment of a movie, book, or video game is remaining in suspense and feeling the shock when a secret is finally explained. But in any narrative worth wading through, this is only a small part, hence the appeal of plowing through them over and over if they're that good. Therefore, the panic about revealing spoilers means that this is the only possible source of enjoyment -- don't rob us of what little potential is there!

Now, enjoyment is a function of both the product and the consumer. Maybe spoiler-phobia means the product is otherwise garbage and its sole appeal is a shocking reveal. However, it could also mean the product is pretty good, but the mindset and personality of the consumer is so incapable of appreciating any aspect other than the acquisition of new information, as though following narratives were like flipping through someone else's PowerPoint slideshow for the gist and the all-important "take-home message."

Steve Sailer guessed that spoiler-phobia began in full force with the release of The Sixth Sense, and there was indeed a real hysteria about that one. Here's one example from an NYT review:

At first, the doctor doesn't believe the boy. But then, well, let's not take the story any further lest its colossally sentimental payoff be compromised.

The first appearance in the NYT of the term "spoilers" in this sense actually came earlier that year, referring to newly added scenes to the original Star Wars movies when they were re-released in theaters. has an entry from some jargon databank that shows it appearing on Usenet in 1995.

So, like all other infuriating aspects of today's culture, spoiler-phobia began just after the violence level began plummeting in the early-mid 1990s, causing everyone to focus on more trivial matters, throwing overboard their earlier appreciation for the grand and the sublime. Again, that could be due to the movies themselves becoming more empty, the audience members becoming more airheaded, or both (yep).

Even though the exact term "spoilers" doesn't appear earlier, perhaps the same panic appeared but using different words, as with the Sixth Sense review above. Note: not just a lack of spoilers, but a conscious paranoia about even hinting at spoilers, and a clear declaration that there will be no spoilers in the review. I tried looking for NYT articles on The Empire Strikes Back and Psycho from the year they came out, but they're all behind a paywall. I could do a Lexis-Nexis search, but I don't care that much about this topic. Someone else can go for it.

I have little personal experience to relate from the movie culture of the 1980s and before, as I either wasn't born or watched more movies on home video than in the theater (though I saw lots there too). I don't recall any such paranoia, though. There was one popular video game, however, that had a shocking plot reveal at the end -- that the bounty hunter who's been kicking alien butt is really a woman under the suit of armor -- and yet there was no hysteria about it. In fact, one of the first password codes that we learned for Metroid put us far enough into the game that this plot point had already been revealed -- you start off playing in plain clothes and no armor, and it's clear that it's a woman.

Even as late as 1995, I don't recall any spoiler-phobia about a shocking twist in Super Metroid where one of the aliens who you'd been destroying in the first game now comes to your aid right as you're about to be killed, sacrificing itself for you. Back before video games attempted pathetically to imitate movies, though, no one played them for the narrative, so spoiler panic was ruled out for that reason alone.


  1. Perhaps no one worried about spoilers prior to the 90s because the media was not so widespread, and there was no such thing as the internet. Or perhaps people weren't dicks and kept their mouths shut instead of acting like schoolgirl's with secrets and blurting the endings out in smug superiority.

    Although it could also be simply the fact that modern movies are absolute bullshit that are created solely with the box office revenue in mind and they don't care if audiences ever want to watch the movie again, so long as they splurged to see it at the cinemas when it first came out.

    - Breeze

  2. Great post.

    I believe the whole obsession about not revealing certain plot twists began in earnest with 1991's "The Crying Game", where it turned out the she was a he. The whole thing was PC trans / homo propaganda, and the media dutifully complied.

    It has never mattered to me if a review reveals critical plot information; in fact, back at a school library in the late 90s, I used to read a British film-industry magazine, whose name I've long forgotten, which provided detailed synopses of current movies, which I enjoyed, because if a movie was interesting enough, I'd still want to see it - in fact, the review would make me want to - but if the story looked stupid, I was able to get that story in an essay I could read in five minutes, and spend nothing on it, rather than several dollars and ninety minutes.

  3. Another movie in which spoilers was an issue: "Basic Instinct" (1992). The movie's plot centered around a sociopath sapphist character and offended lesbians, who protested the movie. One of their tactics involved picketing the movie theatres and yelling out who-dun-it spoiler to prospective ticket-buyers.

    A funny twist on that is that the movie ends on an ambigiuous note, never making it completely clear who the real killer is.

    A spoiler-proof movie.

  4. It all started with the Crying Game.

  5. so if you hadn't read this novel, and someone revealed the spectral hound of the baskervilles was just a doggy w/ glow in the dark powder on it, you would have no issue with it?

  6. Perhaps the low point of the anti-spoiler hysteria involved Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby. Regular news reports jumped on the reveal-no-spoilers bandwagon that until then had been largely the fiefdom of movie reviews.

    The movie's main point was that the woman boxer whom Eastwood trained became completely paralyzed, lost the will to live, and got him to assist her with suicide. An advocacy group for the severely disabled, the wonderfully named Not Dead Yet, issued statements condemning the movie's viewpoint. News reports mentioned the existence of a protest, but were so wary of revealing spoilers that they did not specify the nature of the protest or even name the group involved.


  7. I don't think the insinuation that wanting to have a conclusion withheld is fairly described as hysterical, nor is it a sign that the narrative is trash and/or that the viewer is trash.

    I regularly record NFL games and watch them later in the day, not because football's sole appeal is what it reveals about the standings or because I'm incapable of appreciating anything other than who gets the win, but because it takes away from the overall experience. I'll still watch Briggs and Urlacher in Miami whether the Bears stay on top of the north or not. I'd prefer not know until the end of the game, though.

    That you wouldn't structure your argument around a sports contest hints at a significant reason for the rise in spoiler-phobia over the last 15 years. Sports have always been spoiled immediately. The assumption is that you take it in in real-time, or you don't take it in at all and instead settle for highlights on SportsCenter. Episodes of TV series used to exist in the same way. Now, though, viewers of TV shows are not beholden to see something at the time it is slated to air--they are easily able to access it at their own convenience, by buying entire seasons on DVD, viewing them on youtube, etc (to a lesser extent this applies to sports as well). In the past, after the show or event aired, if you missed it, it could be fairly assumed you would never see it (at least not anytime in the near future), so revealing the narrative wasn't nearly as big of a deal. It was as though if you didn't read the book within a specific time frame, all you had access to were the Cliff's Notes--no harm in reading them in such a situation. But if you are able to pick up the book at your own leisure, your aversion to the Cliff's Notes prior to reading the book yourself is understandable.

  8. While the term "spoiler" may have been born in 1995, the disdain for it obviously predates that time. In the Simpsons episode "I Married Marge", aired in '91, a teenage Homer enrages a line of moviegoers when he expresses his surprise at the ending of The Empire Strikes Back to Marge. The difference then was that unless you went seeking a movie's conclusion, you wouldn't find it (absent some loud-mouthed jerk blabbing about it without solicitation). Fast-forward to the age of Google, blogs, and social networks and the chance of having something spoiled is everywhere and unpredictable. It can be difficult to escape from. Spoiler warnings have become a necessity because of technological change. That seems a sufficient explanation to me.

    Regarding video games, I think you have it exactly backwards. The aversion to spoilers is a sign of how much more stimulating narratives have become and how video gaming has evolved to the point of realizing the same character depth, philosophical speculation, cultural and historical referencing, and moral instruction that movies do.

  9. The revelation that Samus is a girl is the ideal illustration of a vapid 'shocker'. It has no bearing on anything else to the gameplayer. The tragic role reversals of Tidus and Yuna, in contrast, is richly teased out over 40 hours (another reason video games, and rpgs specifically, are so spoiler-adverse--when it comes to time and depth invested in a narrative, other forms of entertainment pale by comparison), building steadily but so subtly that at the story's conclusion it still leaves the gameplayer reeling. Tidus is initially an ego maniacal, vain sports star; Yuna a prophet-like, almost messianic young woman guided by the Fayth (angels) toward the ultimate (and presumably preordained) sacrifice as a means of joining Sin and removing it from the world. As it turns out, it is Tidus who inevitably must be sacrificed. Tidus, of course, struggles mightily with this, but so does Yuna, not just because someone else must suffer what was thought to be her fate, but because she must come to terms with the realization that what she believed to be the culmination of her existence was an illusion, and that her new reality was entirely at odds with everything she'd lived for up to that point. There are enormous statements made about religion and its interaction with both society and the individual made in the game. That is just one of many remarkable elements of the narrative. Knowing as much in advance negatively alters the experience of the game far more than knowing Samus' sex does (although neither spoiler makes the games unplayable by any stretch--they survive on far more than their narratives).


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