Spoiler Warnings — A Necessary Part of the Social Contract

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was the source of much spoiler controversy when first published in 2005, and again when adapted to the screen in 2009. Photo: Warner Bros.

A couple years ago, I was enrolled in a Gothic literature class, and I took some heat from the professor because I hadn’t read the foreword of the book we had just started. (As I recall, the book was Ann Radcliffe’s 1791 novel The Romance of the Forest.)

My defense was simple. Forewords and introductions have a tendency to contain spoilers, and I wished to avoid them. The professor seemed surprised by this explanation, so I elaborated on why it’s important to me to avoid spoilers. Reading is not just a passive experience for me. I’m constantly trying to piece the clues together, constantly trying to correctly guess the ending before I get to it. It’s curious, because I’m someone who values character far more than plot — but I can’t help it. Some significant part of my enjoyment from any given novel comes from playing this guessing game.

It should go without saying that spoilers ruin this aspect of reading. Does it ruin the novel for me altogether? No, of course not. But it does ruin that one element for me.

And it’s not just about enjoyment. As a writer of fiction, people (my friends, because, well, I haven’t been published yet) often ask me where I get my ideas. Inspiration comes from many sources, but one of those sources is from reading novels and watching movies and trying to puzzle out the endings. Often I guess correctly, and that offers a little thrill. But guessing wrong is thrilling in its own way, too — because I then take those failed guesses and incorporate those ideas into my own writing. In this way, spoilers not only affect my enjoyment of a film or novel, they can actually inhibit the creative spark.

I’m very pro-active about avoiding spoilers. This week, I didn’t get a chance to see Avengers: Endgame until Wednesday, almost a full week since it opened in theaters. I took several precautions. On Medium, I avoided all articles about the film. On Reddit, I avoided the movie subreddits and stuck to the political ones, and even then I only read the headlines — going into the comments was far too risky. Likewise, I stayed away from Youtube’s comments section (which is probably a good rule just in general). I stayed off Twitter entirely.

Even with these precautions, though, I still encountered a mild spoiler for Avengers: Endgame in not just one but two Medium article headlines.

Over the last few years, there has been some pushback against the people who “whine” about spoilers. A study by the University of California claimed that spoilers actually increase enjoyment rather diminishing it (a spurious conclusion based on the design of the experiment, I would say).

It’s common to see headlines like this Wired article “Spoilers Don’t Actually Spoil Anything,” or this Vox article titled “Spoiler Paranoia is Ruining Pop Culture” (which has since been retitled to more neutral territory), or this Vice article “Stop Caring So Goddam Much About Spoilers.”

The conclusion is inescapable: there’s a certain subset of the population that is really, really tired of the lengths to which many of us go to avoid spoilers.

What these people are really saying is this: “I don’t understand why spoilers bother you. They don’t bother me. Lighten up!”

What they’re saying is: “You enjoy this thing differently than I do. You should try to be more like me.”

But people enjoy things for different reasons. Two people can look up at the stars and be in awe of them for two very different reasons. Maybe the first sees it as an example of God’s beauty and grace, and feels an overwhelming sense that she is loved; the second person has no belief in God, but she looks up and sees thousands of stars and feels humbled by her smallness next to the vastness of space. They are both feeling something akin to religious awe, for very different reasons.

Likewise, we don’t all experience movies or books or TV the same way. When I watch a movie, I’m a very active participant. I give the movie my undivided attention. My dad watches a movie and he’s constantly talking over it.

I don’t watch sports. They’re uninteresting to me. A lot of people do care about them, though, for reasons I’ll never understand. But you don’t see me cornering my relatives on Thanksgiving and lecturing them about how stupid it is that they care so much about football.

We’re all different, unique people. Some of us don’t mind spoilers. Some of us do. Those of you who don’t: stop trying to change those of us who do.

The remainder of this piece is a rebuttal to the article “Spoiler Alerts Need to Die.”

I came across this article earlier today, and started writing this piece in response to it. Initially it was just as a comment on Alex’s article, but it kept growing and growing until I decided this need to be an article in itself. So here it is.

In his article, Alex puts forth many arguments against the social pressure to avoid spoiling things for other people. Among them are appeals to freedom of speech and the bold claim that movie producers have an insidious motive in attempting to stamp out spoilers — they don’t want you telling people that their movies are bad. These arguments struck me as misguided at best and oftentimes contradictory. Let’s take a look at some of them.

“If you see me sitting on the bus enjoying the sixth book in the Harry Potter series and you unceremoniously walk up to me and tell me the surprise ending that ‘Snape kills Dumbledore,’ then you are, indeed, being malicious and spiteful.

“The Internet has taken this logic one step further and asserted that talking about a work in-depth at any capacity online is the same thing as being that man on the bus.”

This is a very black-and-white statement, when, as in most things, the truth lies in the shades of gray. I’ll say that I think there absolutely are situations where that man-on-a-bus analogy is applicable.

If you’re writing an article about last night’s episode of Game of Thrones, then I fully expect there to be spoilers for that episode contained within. I know better than to click on that article and start reading it. If I do click on it, and I get spoiled anyway, that’s not your fault. That’s my fault for being an idiot, and if I try to complain about it, then that’s just me being a dick.

On the other hand: What if your Game of Thrones article contains a major spoiler for something unrelated, like Avengers: Endgame? The reader is there to read about Game of Thrones. Avengers spoilers were not expected, and if you did not give your readers a spoiler warning at the beginning of the article, then YOU are the one who is being a dick. You are being the man on the bus.

Or: What if your Game of Thrones article contains spoilers not just in the article, but in the headline of the article? In this situation, you are taking the element of choice out of people’s hands. If they click on your article and spoil themselves, that’s their fault. If your spoiler-filled headline shows up in their feed, and you ruin something without that reader ever having made the choice to read your article, then again, YOU are the one who is being a dick. You are the man on the bus.

Things get a little murky when we move into the realm of social media, where there is no such thing as headlines which act as barriers to entry. The entire post is just out there. It’s a Wild West of spoiler-filled territory. So what’s the social protocol on social media sites?

Me personally, I avoid any kind of spoiler talk in the public sphere. Online, I keep spoiler talk restricted to DMs or to strictly designated arenas of discussion. I do become mildly annoyed when I come across someone else blatantly talking about spoilers out in the open on social media. But at the same time, if I am spoiled because of something I see on Twitter, I mostly blame myself. Because I should have known better.

If there’s some multimedia you’re keen on not having spoiled, you would be wise to stay away from Twitter and Facebook until you’ve consumed that media.

“If a piece of media is, indeed, best enjoyed blind, then wouldn’t that hold true for older works as well? Why would age make the hiding of key details less important? […] The real purpose of a spoiler warning […] is the prestige of experiencing important cultural moments. Spoiler warnings protect people from missing out, and that function has nothing to do with politeness, but with preserving social capital.”

No, I reject this idea that spoiler warnings are about social capital. It’s just politeness. When I hold a door for someone, it’s not because I’m trying to accrue social capital. I’m not trying to improve my social standing. I’m just trying to do something nice for another person.

But there are limitations on the lengths we’re expected to go to out of politeness, and this is where the expiration date on spoiler warnings comes into play.

Suppose I’m in a coffee shop and I ask a stranger to watch my things while I run to the restroom. If I’m only gone five minutes, that’s a reasonable ask. The burden I’m placing on the stranger is minor in exchange for the benefit I’m getting out of it. But if I’m gone two hours, that’s not quite so reasonable. Suddenly that’s placing a much larger burden on this complete stranger.

Likewise, spoiler warnings are a polite cultural acknowledgment that not everyone is immediately caught up on all the latest movies and shows, and most of us don’t like to have plot details ruined. It’s a quid pro quo. You don’t spoil this movie for me, and I won’t spoil that book for you.

I argue that it does hold true that older works are better enjoyed going in blind, just as much as newer works are.

Example: I was a kid in the 90s, and my parents hated Star Wars. They refused to buy me the VHS tapes, and they refused to even rent them from Blockbuster. But I was obsessed, and their denials only fueled my obsession. You see, I had seen five minutes of Episode IV playing on the FOX channel one Sunday afternoon — just five minutes of these two droids walking across a desert, before I had to turn off the TV and head to my grandmother’s house for Sunday dinner. I was about six years old and it was the most magical thing I had ever seen.

For years after that, I only caught bits and pieces of the movies on TV. As a result, pop culture spoiled the nature of Luke and Vader’s relationship long before I had the opportunity to watch Empire Strikes Back in full for the first time. And my enjoyment of the film was diminished for it. Don’t get me wrong. I still love the movie. But I don’t rank it above Episode IV, the way a lot of Star Wars fans do. And I probably would if I had seen it unspoiled.

It’s the same with The Usual Suspects. That’s a film whose enjoyment hinges on the twist ending. That twist was spoiled for me by pop culture, and so I didn’t particularly enjoy the film, even back when I was a huge Kevin Spacey fan. To this day, it strikes me as an overrated and mediocre film. But I would probably think much better of it if the ending had not been spoiled.

So yes, spoilers can ruin an older work just like they can a newer work. Or if not ruin, then at least diminish our enjoyment of them. Does that mean there should be a permanent moratorium on all spoilers, then? Well, no. It’s generally accepted that there is an expiration date where it’s permissible to start talking about spoilers. Now, we don’t all agree on just how soon that expiration date should come, but we do agree that it exists.

Age makes spoiler warnings less necessary for one simple reason — if someone cared enough to not get spoiled, they would have made time to watch it by some point or other.

Like the stranger who agreed to watch my bag in the coffee shop: If I’m gone for five minutes, he’s just doing me a solid favor. If I’m gone two hours, I’m imposing an undue burden. The moratorium on spoilers works in the same fashion. You avoid talking spoilers for a few weeks, maybe even a few months. But eventually you reach the point where the burden outweighs the benefit. And that’s when the moratorium should be lifted.

It has nothing to do with social capital. It’s about not being a dick.

“The spoiler didn’t exist for most of our literary history. Massive epics didn’t ask their audience to keep an ending a secret. In fact, in a lot of cases ‘spoiling’ an ending upfront was one of the best ways for an author to get their audience members to engage with them in the first place. The play Romeo & Juliet tells you all the events in the opening monologue. We know Romeo and Juliet are going to kill themselves by line six.

“For the longest time, the same logic applied to films as well. In a 1976 New York Times article, for example, Director George Lucas was more than willing to discuss the entire plot of Star Wars: A New Hope months before it aired in theaters.

I don’t consider the Romeo and Juliet example a spoiler.

A poster can spoil a film. A trailer can spoil a film. A film’s writer/director can even spoil a film, in interviews. A film (or a play’s) opening few minutes cannot spoil the rest of the feature. A film’s opening few minutes are a part of the film, which means the film is designed to be watched with that information in mind. That’s not a spoiler.

As for the Star Wars example Alex cites, I don’t think that’s much of a spoiler, either. It’s no big surprise that the good guy saves the princess and blows up the bad guys’ superweapon. Most people could have told you that’s how the movie would end just from the trailer alone.

The modern analog of that would be if one of the Russo brothers came out and told audiences whether or not the Avengers are going to succeed in defeating Thanos. That wouldn’t be much of a spoiler. Everyone knew that certain things were going to happen by the end — we just didn’t know how we were going to get there, and which characters were going to be left standing when the dust settled.

I’ll counter Alex’s Star Wars example here with a Star Wars example of my own. Lucas may have revealed to the NY Times that the Death Star gets destroyed at the end of Episode IV, but he sure as hell wanted to keep certain things under wraps for the follow-up film. With Empire Strikes Back, Lucas went to great pains to preserve the secret of Luke and Vader’s relationship even from the most of the cast. During filming, the actor playing Vader (David Prowse) delivered a fake line written by George (“Obi-Wan killed your father!”); James Earl Jones dubbed in the real line we’re all familiar with in post.

According to Mark Hamill, there were only four people who knew that line was a fake prior to the movie’s release: himself, George Lucas, the director Irvin Kershner, and James Earl Jones. Hamill was not even allowed to tell Harrison Ford or Carrie Fisher.

In response to a quote from a film reviewer who says that critics and audiences at large do not have the right to spoil films, to destroy the experience of surprise for others, Alex had this to say:

“Really? Why not? Sure, some may consider it an asshole move, but that’s free speech for you. It’s ironic in a country so obsessed with interpreting “the right to free speech” in the broadest possible terms, that we seem willing to censor it for… entertainment?”

Framing this as a freedom of speech issue is extremely hyperbolic.

For one thing, the legal right to freedom of speech, as guaranteed by the US Constitution’s First Amendment, only protects you against censorship from the government. Meaning that you can’t be arrested for speaking your mind — and no one is talking about arresting people for spoiling movies.

There are some of us, though, myself included, who hold freedom of speech to be such a worthy ideal that we will defend it beyond the legal protections afforded by the Constitution. We stand against all forms of censorship, whether that be from the government or from private entities.

But even this form of freedom of speech doesn’t apply here. I’m not asking you to refrain from spoiler discussions. Just keep the spoilers out of your headline and properly label your articles with headings that contain spoiler warnings when necessary.

On social media, it would be ideal if you kept spoiler talk to private messages, but it’s not a deal breaker. As I said before, people should know that going on social media is taking a huge risk of being spoiled.

And the last point I want to make here is regarding those last two words of Alex’s: “For… entertainment?”

This may come as a shock, but for some of us, movies and books and TV are a little more meaningful than just entertainment. Fiction is my only real hobby, but to call it a hobby would be a gross understatement.

You know those sports nuts who memorize all the stats; who play the fantasy leagues; who say things like “We won last week” as if they’re on the team; who show up to the stadium in freezing weather with their shirts off and their faces and chest painted? That’s me, but for fiction.

I’ve been obsessed with novels since I picked up my first Goosebumps book at ten years old, and I’ve been obsessed with stories in general since I got my first glimpse of two droids walking across the sands of Tatooine when I was six.

I have no church. I worship no gods. Fiction is my religion. Stories are my scripture. Character development is my holy communion.

It’s not just entertainment for me. It’s something sacred. So when you spoil a story I’ve been looking forward to for a long time — in the case of Avengers Endgame, eleven years — it’s kind of like breaking into someone’s church and pissing on the altar.

It’s not going to keep me from coming back next week, but in the back of my mind, that unpleasant musky aroma is always faintly going to be there.

Writer.

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