The Science of Spoilers and the Truths About Twists

By  · Published on March 24th, 2013

Less than two years ago, scientists at UC San Diego made the “discovery” that spoilers don’t matter. Not only did they find that stories aren’t ruined by knowing the ending but that people prefer stories when they know the ending. That sounded like hogwash to a lot of us, and to a degree the study was faulted. For one thing, it doesn’t really apply to anything but short stories, as that’s the only medium employed. And on top of that, these short stories weren’t of much significance to the participating subjects. The people weren’t invested in the stories, which makes a huge difference according to a more in-depth look at spoilers in a new article at The Atlantic. Change the studied medium to a series finale of a TV show the subjects had been watching for years (or at least many seasons’ worth of episodes), and you’ll surely see different results.

Even then, there are always a number of factors to consider. One thing the UCSD study got correct, not that it was a revelation, is that good storytelling throughout is more important than plot, especially a plot’s conclusion. That is what matters most to enjoyment, regardless of the medium, and what makes us return to certain stories over and over. But if you consider the way we relate to stories, the return to some works can also be more akin to revisiting our past, thinking back on a memory or watching an old home movie. Even if you’re re-reading or re-watching in order to see the clues or causes leading to a twist you hadn’t foreseen, that’s simply like looking back and trying to work out what events led to where you wound up in life. The first time is about the present experience; revisiting is about the past; spoilers tell us the future…

I’m no psychologist, only someone who pays attention to all areas of movies, including the actual storytelling content and the responses to these works before and after they’ve been seen. And I’m aware of how people react to the concept of knowing the future. Not all of us, but many would love to see the future if it shows something good. Nobody wants to look ahead only to find out they die soon or that something else terrible happens. It may be similar to how many people enjoy a story they are certain will have a happy ending. It’s not a spoiler to say the couple ends up together at the end of the rom-com but it is a spoiler to say one of them dies. Part is, of course, about expectations and deviations from the norm. Another part must have to do with our relationship with the mystery of death. But if the twist is just that the couple go separate ways, many won’t be interested in watching that movie, even if they would still be interested if they know for certain that the couple live together happily ever after.

Again, however, if the storytelling is good enough the end doesn’t matter. While it was probably a big deal at the time that Alvy and Annie don’t end up together at the end of Annie Hall, now it’s not an issue. You can dislike Woody Allen’s movie for what it is, but it’s not going to be ruined for you if you know its end, because you’re meant to be entertained by the 90 minutes of comedy, insight and narrative pieces leading up to the end, not the framework of the simple, uninteresting plot.

Rather than keep on with paragraph after paragraph on different considerations of when spoilers are significant and when they’re not, I’ve decided to list out the many theories and known truths about spoilers pulled from the Atlantic piece and from my own observations over many years of dealing with them professionally. Feel free to add anything to the I’m overlooking or challenge any of it with hypothesis or proof of your own.

1. Spoilers take us out of a story, according to psychologist Thalia Goldstein (in the Atlantic piece). The part of our brain that enjoys a story as if it were really happening, as in escapism, is disrupted by the reminder of the artificiality and plot as well as the awareness of “the future.”

2. Spoilers are more frustrating the more we’re invested in the story. This mostly has to do with something we’ve spent a long time watching or reading. Knowing how a book ends before you start reading it has less of an impact than being spoiled while you’re already well into it. The same goes for a TV series. Awareness of how The Wire ends before you’ve started the series now shouldn’t affect your interest in starting it primarily to see how good it is all the way through. But if you start it before being spoiled by any plot points or end and then hear them, that is indeed annoying.

3. Spoilers can ruin the enjoyment of anticipation. Similar to the investment with and in a story is the investment for a story. This is where movies can really come in, since our investment in the actual content is so much shorter in time than that of books and TV series. But anticipation is also an investment. And Hollywood has long been able to build on that, whether through trailers, magazine previews and even more so once the Internet came along and they could keep people intrigued from announcement through release, with tons of non-spoilery news and teases in between. Buzz-building contributes, too. We would not be as invested in Spring Breakers, for example, if people weren’t talking so much about it, but thanks to the acclaim and some secrecy about it the anticipation is high and being spoiled about how it ends bursts some of that bubble.

4. Knowing there’s a twist can add to anticipation. Yes, a twist, whether at the end or even near the beginning, can add both appeal and anticipation to films that maybe would be tough sells otherwise. Examples of films many of us saw just because there was a twist include Psycho, The Crying Game, The Sixth Sense (and most Shyamalan films since), The Usual Suspects, The Others, Primal Fear, Memento (and most Nolan films since) and Oldboy. These films, and plenty others, have an extra level of excitement. Just tell someone you’ve got a secret and you’ll have their attention and increased anticipation the longer you keep the secret from them. Of course, twists can be disappointing, and so some people want to know beforehand if a twist is going to be worth the time spent getting to it. The fact that there are more cheesy twist endings than good ones has only made us more wary.

5. Knowing there’s a twist can be almost a bigger spoiler than knowing the twist. Going into a mystery is one thing, and part of the appeal is in fact the attempt by the audience to solve the plot before or along with the detective. Sometimes, however, being aware of a twist, especially of the ironic sort that’s become overly popular in the last 15 years, makes the clues stand out way too plainly. The Sixth Sense and The Village are two great examples where I know people aware there was a twist figured out the twist really early on and then couldn’t enjoy the rest of the film. That could be an issue with Shyamalan as a storyteller, though, and some of the twists he works with. Figuring out the twist with Unbreakable isn’t as harmful to the story because the story is interesting for other reasons besides that ending, unlike the other two. Much of the fun of a twist is the surprise element, and knowing a surprise is coming even if you don’t know the exact nature of the surprise turns it into suspense. Suspense isn’t necessarily bad, it’s just different.

6. Being told something is a spoiler or contains spoilers is itself the real spoiler. Ever watched a movie trailer or seen a publicity image for a film that many critics have already seen, but the general public hasn’t, and some of those critics then point out that there are spoilers in that thing you just saw? Well, they’re the bad guys, not the people who marketed the film. In this case what you don’t know won’t hurt you unless you have a really good memory for such things. Most trailers are so fast, and most people don’t pick through them with a fine tooth comb, so seeing a quick flash of some plot point or twist isn’t going to spoil that something for the average viewer. Maybe we’ll recall it during the movie, but then it doesn’t matter. It’s about to happen very shortly anyway (or just happened). But being made aware that this something is a big deal or twist months in advance will ruin the experience of encountering it in the movie. So yeah, movie bloggers are often the very problem they mean to complain about.

7. Spoilers are tempting. Very tempting. Obviously, since the tension of curiosity and anticipation and suspense is mistaken for (or at least figuratively assigned as) being lethal, the act of spoiling things for ourselves is a soothing if not actually life-saving measure. Some of us are stronger willed than others. We don’t push the button that says “don’t push,” we don’t open the box that’s said to have all the world’s evils trapped inside, we don’t cheat on our spouses. Others are easily tempted by such things, and it’s become more and more lucrative for movie sites to offer up spoilers for those interested. It’s like putting strip clubs out near the airport that more easily attracts the businessman away from his family than were it located across town. Of course there are the people who seek out spoilers and can find them, but there are also those who might not be tempted unless they’re already here for other reasons, reading more generally about movies and TV, who stumble across a post offering the spoilers to the upcoming season of Mad Men or the plot of Star Trek Into Darkness. Hey, a little peek won’t hurt, right? Just the tip of the post won’t ruin anything…

8. Spoilers contribute to the humdrum life. Basically, spoilers spoil life. The more our technology advances, the more we have trouble just l-i-v-i-n. That’s good for the people who want to know which roads to take literally on the way to their destination, GPS alerting them of traffic or accidents or whatnot. And a lot of life’s spoilers have been around for a while, both good and bad. Weather forecasts. Day planners. Medical tools that can foresee our death from cancer. A lot of us go about life knowing what our days will be like in advance, and we like that control (well, not the knowing our expiration date part). But it can be boring, especially for conversation. Fortunately we have entertainment to talk about. And sports, which have a higher promise of pleasure the more unpredictable the game (and in general, ballgames can’t be spoiled in advance). But being spoiled about entertainment is another sort of control, or command, over a part of your life, especially if the spoiler is intentionally sought. And water cooler discussion is better if you had the same experience as the others in the conversation. Whether you’re talking about a revelation of something that you all saw the night before or theorizing what will happen in the future (with a game, movie or TV series), it’s better to be on the same page as everyone else. Not way ahead of them.

9. Spoilers are everywhere. They’re hard to avoid. The other day I went on Wikipedia to learn a tiny thing about an actress on Doctor Who and was spoiled about something involving her character that I haven’t gotten to yet. Now I’m just waiting for it to be revealed, and it’s not going to be as shocking to me when it comes. But whatever, I’m a few years behind on the show. I get that there’s a statute of limitations and that even Wikipedia isn’t bound by those anyway. Still, the windows are decreasing all the time thanks to “the rules” being ignored or unknown. We have to stay off Twitter and Facebook and away from co-workers and friends and not watch the news or leave the house. Any time we want to experience a story that’s not brand new we have to hide away from all possible danger until we’re through it (I picture Devon Sawa in the cabin near the end of Final Destination trying to avoid all possible accidents). And sticking to experiencing stuff as soon as it happens isn’t even enough, especially if you’re in a later time zone or don’t live in a city where a movie is showing on opening day or a country that doesn’t get the British TV show until months later.

10. Spoilers will eventually be the norm (unless J.J. saves us?). They’ll be everywhere but nowhere because we won’t think about them any more than we think about calendars. Life and fiction alike will be laid out so plainly, and we won’t care. Yes, there will still be some elite persons that get to experience things differently. The rich people who don’t have to think about time and where they’re going in it. And the special people who go to Sundance and Cannes or otherwise see some things in advance that we’d never heard anything about before – indie stuff that doesn’t get promoted and prodded every second until it arrives at the multiplex. Of course, those special people will then promote and prod those discoveries afterwards so that they become as plain (and spoiled) to the commoners as anything else. Or, maybe J.J. Abrams will truly unlock the box (or has already) that manages to keep all other boxes closed. He’s doing a fine job with keeping most of Star Trek Into Darkness in the darkness, but how long will his methods work? And will anyone come after him with such great powers? I guess there are two ways it can go. And even if I knew for sure about the future of spoilers, I’m not so sure I should spoil it for you anyway. Let’s just see what happens.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.