Note: This essay contains explicit spoilers for The Sixth Sense and The Empire Strikes Back, and vague spoilers for Breaking Bad.
I was 14 when The Sixth Sense came out. At that point in my life, I hadn't seen a whole lot of films that really moved me. I'd seen plenty that I enjoyed well enough, but the ending of that film affected me real deeply. Not just because it was extremely well-executed, but because I was completely bamboozled by the ending. It made me want to revisit the film several times over, which I did until we had to bring it back to Video City a few days later.
Even though the ending of that film has become one of the iconic twists of our time, by the time it came out on home video I was still none the wiser. This was largely due to the fact that I was young, and social networks weren't around. The flow of information came at a much slower pace, and on a more personal level. When I wanted to discuss the ending of The Sixth Sense, I engaged with particular people about it, and the opportunity for having something ruined was minimal.
Spoilers are like land mines. You come upon one and it will ruin your shit, and you don't know it's a land mine until after you step on it. Historically, you could count on clearly-marked signs warning you of mines in the area. Nowadays, with the advent of social media and our always-connected society, these land mines have begun to pop up everywhere, and as a result, spoilers are becoming harder and harder to avoid. Not only that, but film critics have, bafflingly, begun to side with those who are keen to spoil vs. the spoiler-averse.
What the hell is a spoiler?
While I'm sure the definition of a spoiler differs from person to person, I'll give you mine: I like to define a spoiler as a piece of information that changes how a person experiences something they haven't experienced yet. It's a VERY broad definition, I know, but for the sake of consistency, let's operate under the assumption that this is what a spoiler is.
If I were to bring it in line with what I assume is how most people define a spoiler, I'd define it as an out-of-context reveal of plot points that the viewer may not want to know. The problem with this is that it's difficult to know what someone may or may not want to know, which is one of the inherent problems with spoiler culture (an "I don't care about spoilers so why should you" mentality). So let's just go back to the original definition and stick with it for the duration of this essay.
A spoiler is a piece of information that changes how a person experiences something they haven't experienced yet. This can be anything that one would define as an experience. Eating an especially delicious slice of pizza, falling in love, seeing your kid walk for the first time... All of these things are experiences, no matter how benign or important they are, and all of them are spoilable in some fashion.
Watching a film is also an experience; or it should be if the writer is doing their job. It should be many experiences. A good film has the power to swallow you whole and captivate you for a few hours with its story. Told well, a film can make you feel like you're seeing your kid walk for the first time, or that you've fallen in love, or that you're eating the best pizza ever.
Feelings. That's what it's really about. Emotions, and emotional response. That's where the heart of the cinematic experience lies. It's taking a bunch of people sitting in a room facing the same direction and making them elicit true feelings from a bunch of flickering images and sound. What movie spoilers do is rob the viewer of the experience of having these feelings genuinely for themselves, as the author intended. It's giving the viewer more insight than they should have before engaging with the story, which can be a benefit to some, but is a detriment to most.
Of course, eating pizza, falling in love, and seeing your kid walk are different from seeing a film. The point I'm trying to make is that an experience is an experience, and all experiences can be ruined in some way. There really isn't anything we can compare movie/story spoilers to, because there's not much else I can think of where "getting more insight" can ruin the experience. A slice of pizza can be spoiled by dropping it on the ground, not cooking it long enough, or having pineapple for a topping, but you can't really spoil a pizza by describing the ingredients or telling someone how great it tastes in vivid detail.
To further drill down into what spoilers are, I think that they can be one of two things. There are plot spoilers ("Bruce Willis was dead the whole time!"), and there are emotional spoilers ("You won't believe the crazy twist ending of The Sixth Sense!"). Both of these types of spoilers do the same thing: They permanently change (and sometimes ruin) the storytelling experience for the audience. If we can agree that the success of a story depends on its ability to elicit a genuine emotional response from the viewer, then we can surmise that whether it's the moment itself or the emotional context that's spoiled, it changes the experience for the viewer.
A.V. Club user ZZZ described it best:
"Hearing plot point and details and quotes out of context is like listening to music and trying to get into it while someone sits next to you and recites the lyrics a few seconds before they come up in the song in a dull monotone. It doesn't ruin the song because you wanted to be surprised by the lyrics, it ruins it because that's not what the song is supposed to sound like. It ruins the "journey" as much as if not more than the "destination." You're not supposed to be watching the Sixth Sense knowing that Bruce Willis is dead the whole time, not because the end of the movie is the only important part, but because you're meant to relate to the character as a living person. It radically changes how you view the character if you don't think he's alive."
So why do we spoil and want to be spoiled?
I used the term "spoiler culture" earlier on purpose. There is unquestionably a cultural component to this whole thing, and I think that it helps explain people's desires to spoil and be spoiled.
If I can wax societal for a moment, I think that there's a certain undeniable coolness associated with being in on something before everyone else is. It's the driving force behind (at least the idea of) the hipster movement. It's what drives people to line up for weeks to get the new iPhone, or go see a movie at midnight on a weeknight. There's a personal and social superiority associated with having experienced something before others have.
And there's that word again. Experience. Experience is attractive. It's knowledge. It's impressive. It deepens and strengthens your character, figuratively in real life, and literally in video games. It inspires curiosity. It commands respect. It's exotic. Who's the more interesting person to talk to, the wanderlust dude with a trendy name who's travelled across the country for a month to get to where he is today, or the guy who wakes up, goes to work, comes home, takes a shit, and goes to bed every day?
Being first at something, and having experience, no matter how trivial, is a badge of honor among some crowds. It says "I was on the cutting edge of this thing before everyone else was." But when you get right down to it, the important thing isn't when you experience something, it's how. "Better late than never" is a popular idiom for a reason. It's one thing to rub peoples' noses in the fact that you did something before them, that's just harmless ribbing. But to take it a step further and ruin or otherwise take away the experience for them is irresponsible, permanent, and frankly, pretty dickish.
Why is this so important?
It isn't, if you don't care about the media you consume. But some people DO care. I'd argue that a lot of people care, actually. The problem is, the people who don't care about spoilers have been going about not caring in an increasingly snobbish fashion, often directly in response to "anti-spoiler zealots" like me, as Todd VanDerWerff calls us in his delightful write-up on AV Club. Warning, DO NOT read it if you haven't seen Breaking Bad, since he gives away the ending in the very first line:
I can't even concede to "seeing his point," because the points he's making are just terrible, and the way he goes about making them are even worse. He argues that his series-spoiling opening line isn't a spoiler because:
"Breaking Bad tells you from episode one[...] where Walter is headed. This is explicitly a tragedy, and tragedies are constructed so we have at least a vague sense of where things are headed." (emphasis mine)
I mean sure, it's pretty easy to say that now, months after the show ended. That doesn't mean it's obvious for other people who haven't had a chance to see the show yet. Why would you permanently take away their opportunity to experience that for themselves? I'm sure VanDerWerff spent his years with Breaking Bad wondering how it would end, just like the rest of us did, so for him to rob that from people who haven't seen the show yet is a remarkably shitty thing to do (especially as a widely-read film critic).
Furthermore, his argument that anti-spoiler culture is detrimental to criticism comes off as insular, classist whining, and makes me think that maybe this new breed of neckbeard movie critics should either get new jobs or become better writers. Reviewing a film without giving away plot details is not difficult. It's even less difficult to provide your readers with a spoiler warning, so please spare us all the complaining about how hard your job of sharing your opinion of movies is.
Barring acquiring new writing talent, might I posit that these spoilerphiliac internet critics just do what I did at the very top of this essay? I mean seriously, is writing a spoiler alert THAT difficult to do? It doesn't take away from whatever it is you're writing, and it gives people who haven't seen the film yet a chance to scamper away without stepping on a landmine. And honestly, for me a spoiler alert makes me want to revisit your review later once I've seen the film, since I know that I have a place to go to read (hopefully) thoughtful criticism about it, and that it's written by a person who at least appears to care about spoilers.
As someone who isn't paid to watch and write about movies and TV shows, it's not easy for me to see everything the moment it airs. In this ever-shifting digital landscape, I imagine that's true for most people. With DVRs and digital downloads becoming more and more normal, it's a small wonder that any of us watch shows when they actually air these days. And let's not forget our international friends, who are rarely able to access movies and shows at the same time as us, but still have the same access to the internet that everyone else has.
There's a great quote about writing spoilers by a certain film critic that I think these guys should take note of:
"The characters in movies do not always do what we would do. Sometimes they make choices that offend us. That is their right. It is our right to disagree with them. It is not our right, however, to destroy for others the experience of being as surprised by those choices as we were. A few years ago, I began to notice "spoiler warnings" on Web-based movie reviews -- a shorthand way of informing the reader that a key plot point was about to be revealed. Having heard from more than a few readers accusing me of telling too much of the story, I began using such warnings in my reviews."
- Roger Ebert
So when is it cool to talk about spoilers?
This, I think, is the fundamental question that plagues spoiler culture. Or, at least, I assume so. Otherwise, I can fathom no reason why paid cinephiles would subject their readers to experience-ruining articles like the one linked above.
For most people, I think writing about spoilers on a publicly or otherwise globally-reachable webpage is acceptable at any point, so long as you issue a warning beforehand. I see no need to elaborate any further on this point. It puts the control in the reader's hands, and allows these poor, oppressed film critics to write whatever they want without fear of repercussion. Boom. Done.
However, if I can take it a step further, I would posit that it really shouldn't ever be acceptable to openly talk about spoilers at any point in time, and should be frowned upon.
Let me pre-counter-argue the point I'm sure you're making in your head right now and ask this question: Why is it okay to ruin a storytelling experience for someone just because you experienced it first?
I can't count the number of films whose endings I know from either pop culture or just general conversation. I've still never seen Citizen Kane, but I knew what Rosebud was years before I even cared about films (thank you to Family Guy's Peter Griffin for "saving me three long, boobless hours"). I of course knew that Darth Vader was Luke's father before seeing Empire Strikes Back, as did (I assume) most of my generation. Seriously, how many of us actually saw Star Wars WITHOUT knowing that going into it? I'd be willing to bet that none of us have. Know what else I'd be willing to bet? That if none of us knew that going into it, it would be a profoundly different moment to behold.
But we never had a chance. Pop culture is in our faces every microsecond of existence. We've been asked "dude how haven't you seen that yet?!" since the moment we left the womb. I don't even remember how I found out Vader was Luke's father, but somehow I knew it going into my first viewing of Empire. Why is this okay? On one hand, knowing Vader was Luke's father didn't diminish my enjoyment of the film, but I never really had the opportunity to view it any other way, the way the author intended. I was certainly too young to appreciate this when I saw it, but I can't help but wonder what kind of impact that moment would have had on me had I not known the twist going into it.
A.V. Club user apropostrophe writes:
"The thing about spoilers is, you can't go back and have a spoiler-free experience watching something. Ever. You can go back and admire the craft, enjoy the acting, study for foreshadowing, or whatever you want to do the second or third or fourth time, but you can't go back and *un*know the plot, or certain plot points."
Another more recent argument for why spoilers should be acceptable is because these critics posit that plot isn't important or interesting. I've unfortunately seen this line of thought bandied about from a few critics I otherwise fully respect, but I really take huge exception to this quote from VanDerWerff's AV Club article:
"Anti-spoiler zealots largely ignore craft, privileging plot above all else. But the plot is often the least interesting thing about a movie, TV show, or book."
First off, that is weapons-grade bullshit. If the film is a success, plot should serve as the connecting tissue between story and character, making everything a cohesive whole. I like to define plot as the stuff that happens when a character is faced with conflict, with the resulting narrative, and the larger meaning, emerging as the story. Very few filmmakers are able to pull off plotless cinema (Richard Linklater's Boyhood is a sterling example of plotless cinema done profoundly well), but the vast majority of great films are organically-plotted stories driven by character, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.
What VanDerWerff is doing is projecting a narrow and elitist ideology held only by a very insignificant fraction of young cinephiles, and using that as his rationale for giving away critical plot points to the masses. He argues that even though he completely spoils the final plot point of Breaking Bad in the first line of his article, he didn't supply any additional context, and therefore didn't really spoil anything. Films are a sum of their parts, and plot is absolutely integral to a story well-told, no matter how predictable it may or may not be. Your readers aren't idiots, and now anybody who hasn't seen Breaking Bad can look forward to knowing, definitively, how it will end. Sure, you may think that everyone has a "vague sense" of where things are going because of how it sets things up, but why remove all doubt and ruin it so blatantly? Why rob other people of the chance to experience it for themselves? Why ignore authorial intent just to make your reviews easier to write? And perhaps more importantly, why be such a dick about it?
So where does that leave us?
I've said it before but it bears repeating: It really isn't difficult to issue a spoiler warning to your readers. Whether you're a nobody on Facebook or a reviewer on A.V. Club. Posting a spoiler on the internet today is the equivalent of standing up in a crowded room in 1999 and shouting "BRUCE WILLIS WAS DEAD THE WHOLE TIME" to nobody in particular. Don't be that person.
My hope is that this exhaustive write-up will shed some light on what "anti-spoiler zealots" like me think about this whole thing. But, let's get personal for a second. Admittedly, I am probably as full of zeal as they get when it comes to spoilers. I don't even watch trailers anymore unless I'm at the cinema, and if it's for a film I really want to go into as unspoiled as possible, I ignore it as best I can. Seriously, I'm that guy.
How did that happen? How did I become such a fanatic about this topic?
Since I started this whole film thing, I've taken my film viewing very seriously. It doesn't make me a very good date, but I like to think that it makes me appreciate the artform a little better. Over the years, a lot of things have made me more wary about how I absorb the films I watch. It started with becoming more aware of how my emotions (re: hype) can cloud my judgment. I've been seduced by the hype machine way too many times over the years, and after seeing how often studios (and even some filmmakers) subvert or lie outright about their films to get people in the cinema, I just decided that I had enough and put myself on a marketing blackout.
And honestly, as hard as it is sometimes to not ride the hype train with my friends, I wouldn't watch films any other way now. Going anti-marketing and anti-spoiler has absolutely changed how I view films for the better. I am a blank slate for probably 90% of the media I ingest nowadays, whether it's a movie, tv show, video game, or album. I approach everything with as open a mind as possible, and it's wonderful.
If you think it sounds crazy, try it sometime. Try it on an upcoming film in production that you know you are going to see regardless. Avoid the marketing. Avoid studios selling it to you, and just see it with as little prior knowledge as you can. I guarantee the experience will be different, and probably better too.