Spoilers have bothered people ever since Dickens. That’s not going to stop now

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Another cultural discussion about spoilers is upon us, with a chunk of online discourse devoted to their definition and their statute of limitations. That’s because Avengers: Endgame, the climax to three phases and 11 years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, has come along at the same time as the final series of Game of Thrones, and new series of Star Trek and Line of Duty.

The galaxy-brain take on all this is to declare that caring about knowing what happens in fiction in advance is laughably unsophisticated. As such, the concerns of anyone who does so can be dismissed.

There are two arguments commonly used to support this take. The first is that concern about spoilers is a recent phenomenon, and part of a broader infantilisation of culture. The second is an assertion that anything which is lessened by having elements of its plot known in advance is not worth bothering with anyway. Something which is “good” lasts, so the details of many good things (the twist in Murder on the Orient Express; the identity of Rosebud) are often known in advance, without spoiling the enjoyment. Audiences engage and re-engage with material of lasting worth for pleasures more rarefied and esoteric than plain, silly old “what happens”.

The phrase “spoiler warning” seems to originate in the proto-internet of Usenet and was appended to discussions of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) in the days immediately after its release. By 1991 the idea was cemented enough for The Simpsons, already one of the biggest television series on the planet, to do a celebrated gag about it, with a flashback showing Homer blowing the plot twist from Star Wars The Empire Strikes Back (1981) for those queuing outside a cinema. 

Neither of those is recent, but there are plenty of earlier examples of de facto spoiler warnings. The trailer for Psycho (1960) has Hitchcock warning viewers not to reveal the ending, even as he lies to conceal the plot. Agatha Christie’s 1952 play The Mousetrap asks the audience not to reveal whodunnit at its conclusion. (Christie disliked plot points from her work being discussed in reviews.) Invoking the “statute of limitations” question from earlier, when Paul Merton joked about the end of The Mousetrap on television in 1994, the BBC received complaints from people who had tickets for it the following week.

Some would argue that none of the above qualify as good enough works of art to dismiss their second objection to spoiler culture, although The Empire Strikes Back, The Wrath of Khan and Psycho have grown, not diminished, in stature since original release, and The Mousetrap, still on in London’s West End, must be doing something right. In each case, the work’s authors (however defined) demonstrably preferred as much of the audience as possible to come to their stories unencumbered with foreknowledge. This is unsurprising: nobody ever wrote anything hoping its contents would be outlined to interested parties via someone else’s third hand account rather than through their own work.

I have lost count of the number of introductions I have sat through at film festivals where an invited guest has felt unable to say anything beyond pleasantries until after the screening, because they want you to see work they’re proud of before they tell you about it.

The introductions to Penguin Classics have drily advised readers that “New readers are advised that this introduction makes detail of the plot explicit” since before I was an undergraduate, and exactly because their editions of something explicitly described as “the world’s best books” serve multiple audiences with multiple needs.

It’s well attested that in 1841 crowds gathered to buy imported copies of the issue of Dickens’ magazine Master Humphrey's’ Clock, in which the final episode of The Old Curiosity Shop was printed. They wanted to know what happened, but they wanted to discover that by reading the story and as soon as possible, because plot points are, for most, more satisfying in situ. If we can quickly define the difference between story and plot as “what happens” and “how it happens”, (offending all Russian formalists by trivialising fabula and syuzhet along the way) the reason that person doesn’t want Avengers: Endgame spoiled isn’t because they crassly only care about plot: it’s for the same reason hundreds of people found themselves waiting for magazines to be unloaded onto a New York dock. Because they want to see plot in context. If they only cared about plot, they’d just read a synopsis. Or ask a friend. Or go on social media more than four seconds after its premiere.

The idea that plot can never matter is an obvious reductio ad absurdum, eliding plot with surprise, and surprise with shock. It’s the affectation that the controlled release of story is a cheap trick rather than a long established art: Aristotle thought plot (as mythos) the most important aspect of drama, while not being the whole of drama. That’s obviously true: soap opera attracts huge audiences, but is little returned to, because it almost entirely consists of forward momentum, of plot and revelation. It remains to be seen whether Game of Thrones has any rewatch value once it is played out, in exactly the way that The West Wing doesn’t.

To dismiss spoilers is to say there aren’t different, legitimate methods and processes of experience. Anecdotally, some find knowing plot details in advance makes some fiction, regardless of media, less stressful to consume (perhaps reflecting Derrida’s description of plot as “an instrument of torture”). Twenty years ago, it was obvious to me what the twist of The Sixth Sense was from its trailer, and without knowing it even was a film with a twist. This meant the first time I saw it I was watching it as others might on a subsequent viewing. I enjoyed that process – but would I have gotten more out of it had I not known? I can’t tell you. Someone who saw the film unsullied first, and then returned to it probably could. Because if you really do think you can appreciate something in a more exalted manner once you know what happens in it and how it happens, you can always watch it or read it again. Not knowing and knowing are pleasures that can be enjoyed successively. Knowing and not knowing aren’t.

Months used to pass between US and UK film releases: these days widespread simultaneous release strategies means it’s a matter of hours, and with the UK tradition of films opening on Thursdays or even Wednesdays in large cities, spoiler traffic across the Atlantic is not always one way. Although there is certainly something ridiculous about avoiding the morning news in a UK undergoing a protracted political crisis because a television programme was nominally aired at 2am in simulcast with its US screening, and that means its contents are fair game.

In 1980, the mystery of who shot JR could be preserved for Dallas’ UK audience by the BBC showing the episode the day after it screened in America: because it was less than twenty four hours, the papers had already gone to press. In a world of 24 hour global news and social media, and a smartphone in every pocket, it seems impossible that it was ever so simple. (Although as no one now remembered the answers to that question, perhaps in this instance it was not even worth that effort.)

We talk about spoilers and their consequences more now, yes. That’s annoying for both those who want to avoid them and those who can’t understand why anyone would. But it’s also not because plot or what spoils it has changed. It hasn’t. Everything else has.

James Cooray Smith is freelance writer specialising in TV and film history.