SPOILER is not your ENEMY, but your best FRIEND

Spoilers can be a great test for the quality of a story. Thanks to them, we can check whether a given work has something more to offer us than just a surprising, one-off twist…

Jan Brzozowski

12 July 2023

A few years ago, during my first trip to the New Horizons festival in Wrocław, I was sitting in a cinema room with a friend and talking about a movie I had watched a few hours earlier – David Lowery’s Ghost Story. Without going into details about our conversation, we exchanged rather general observations regarding, above all, a rather intricate plot, taking place over hundreds of years. Unfortunately, the row behind us was a spectator who had not yet seen Lowery’s film. When we finished the discussion and started to mentally prepare ourselves for the next screening, the man leaned towards us and with a clear resentment in his voice said: “Sorry, did you just spoil the whole Ghost Story for me?”.

Of course, this short anecdote, like most stories, can be viewed from at least two sides. Did the anonymous viewer have the right to feel indignant that a few meters away someone was talking about a film he had seen at the festival? From his perspective, it must have been a crime – he accidentally learned the details of the plot of the title he was patiently waiting for; which he had, at least I suspect, a great desire to see. On the other hand: what to talk about at a film festival if not about the films you’ve watched? Presence at such an event should assume the possibility of being hit with a spoiler at any, absolutely any moment – it is enough that there are people nearby; other viewers who want to talk to each other. Occupational risk of a person interested in cinema.

ghost story

Spoilers are a natural part of the film-related discourse. Indeed, their lineage goes back much further than the birth of the tenth muse. Before cinema was created, the domain of spoilers (then not yet called in this way, the term itself was most likely coined only in the 1970s) was both literature and theater. Fear of them was inextricably linked to the phenomenon of episodic novels (proto-film narratives, in a sense heralding the advent of feature series), written by such authors as Charles Dickens or Alexandre Dumas. The fiercest readers were already waiting in the docks, waiting for the ships carrying the next shipment of their favorite stories – this way they received early, premiere access to the works of Dickens or Dumas. No malicious acquaintance from the market or a neighbor from the tenement house across the street could tell them the details of the plot. They were safe.

But can spoilers really spoil a well-told, engaging story? Jonathan D. Leavitt and Nicholas J. S. Christenfeld of the University of California, San Diego, pondered this at one time. In 2011, they conducted a very interesting experiment focused on three types of stories – detective stories, “with an ironic twist” and slightly more literary refinements (e.g. Chekhov and Carver). Each of them was presented to the readers (a group of over 700 people) in three different variants – openly spoiler, non-spoiler and covertly (in the opening paragraph, which is part of the text). After reading, each person rated their involvement in the story and receiving satisfaction on a scale of 1 to 10. The results were surprising to say the least.

spoiler chart

It turned out that spoilers do not spoil the story at all, on the contrary – they make the recipient get even greater, deeper satisfaction from it. Significantly higher results were achieved by those versions of the story, the details of which were presented to the readers before they started reading. If I were to try to explain this paradoxical phenomenon, I would say that it has to do with a change in perception. Knowing the ending of a given story allows us to focus on other elements than the plot, which, let’s face it, is only the tip of the iceberg. We can then approach a work of art in a more analytical way, derive satisfaction from discovering how it is constructed; in a word, we have a chance to become a more conscious reader/viewer. As Christenfeld himself noted, “If you’re on Highway 1 through Big Sur and you know the road really well, you can afford to look around and admire the sights, the otters dancing on the surface of the water.” If we do not know the road, well … naturally, we must focus on every bump and turn.

So we shouldn’t treat spoilers as our mortal enemies, avoid them at every turn, and demonize those who treat us with them without warning. A much healthier approach seems to me to be acceptance. We can still marvel at David Fincher’s Fight Club knowing that Tyler Durden and the Narrator are actually one person. Bryan Singer’s Usual suspects can still impress us, despite the fact that we discovered the secret of Keyser Söze’s identity a few hours before the first screening. Spoilers can be a great test for the quality of a story. Thanks to them, we can check whether a given work has something more to offer us than just a surprising, one-off plot twist. In this approach, spoilers have a chance to undergo a significant metamorphosis – they turn from enemies into the recipient’s best friends.

Janek Brzozowski

Jan Brzozowski

Permanently sleep-deprived, as he absorbs either westerns or new adventure cinema at night. A big fan of the acting skills of James Dean and Jimmy Stewart, and the beauty of Ryan Gosling and Elle Fanning. He is also interested in American and French literature, as well as soccer.

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