When to Talk to Your Child About Spoilers

By  · Published on October 29th, 2015

Buena Vista Pictures

The other day, New York Post film critic Lou Lemenick tweeted an image of a lobby card for the 1952 Humphrey Bogart film Deadline – U.S.A., noting that the still featured on the card gives away the ending. Of course, that promotional item is from a time before spoilers were a thing – nearly a decade ahead of Alfred Hitchcock’s “no late admission” rule for Psycho – when moviegoers would enter a screening at any time and then (maybe) sit through to watch the beginning, and whatever else they had missed, after watching the ending. It’s difficult for us to imagine seeing a movie that way today. If we’re an adult, that is. I realized recently that my son does it all the time, only at home with an animated feature watched on cable.

Children are able to enjoy movies the way they used to be enjoyed. My three-year-old son will rarely see something for the first time from the start. This is because we don’t rent anything for him or set up screen time based on TV guide listings. It’s often whatever is already on television that we deem appropriate at some random instance when we decide he is allowed to watch something. Recent titles of introduction include installments of the Ice Age and Madagascar series. For the former franchise, he hasn’t seen the first movie, because that’s not one of the three broadcast recently on FX. So it’s not just that he doesn’t mind starting a movie in the middle. He can start a series in the middle, as well.

I don’t know when he will find out about spoilers. But I fear for his little heart. It’s not that animated movies for kids don’t have them. Dumbo doesn’t learn he can fly until the end of his movie (still one of my son’s favorites), though I suppose that’s not a twist since that’s the whole point of Dumbo – but he didn’t know that. Pinocchio becomes a real boy. Sleeping Beauty wakes up. In Ice Age: Continental Drift, Manny the mammoth reunites with his family and herd. In most of the movies he watches everyone lives happily ever after. Does he get the bigger picture of the narratives even when he starts midway and sees the beginning later? I’m not sure. All I know is he loves to watch these movies in any way he can.

For me, it’s easy to understand at what age spoilers became a big deal. I grew up in the 1980s, and as a cable television addict, I watched a lot of movies the same way my son watches them now, the way people saw movies in the theater back in the day. I saw Planet of the Apes out of order, and same with Friday the 13th. But there weren’t a lot of other plot twists or shocking endings then. And those that existed weren’t a big deal anymore. I knew of the shower scene in Psycho before I saw the movie. I think I knew Darth Vader was Luke’s father before seeing The Empire Strikes Back, maybe because I probably saw Return of the Jedi first. Or was a more conscious watcher when that came out than when Empire did.

Surprise plot twists and twist endings came into vogue around the time I became a teenager, first with The Crying Game and then mid-1990s movies The Usual Suspects, Primal Fear and Se7en. It was like they arrived alongside puberty. In the 20 years since, there have been a lot more, particularly propelled by the works of M. Night Shyamalan, Christopher Nolan and J.J. Abrams (with his damn mystery box thing) and how their movies have received a lot of attention because of their twists. But now, thanks to spoiler culture on the internet, almost every big movie is treated as if it’s another Psycho or The Sixth Sense. As if we couldn’t enjoy Avengers: Age of Ultron if we tuned in just for the climactic battle then later caught up with its lead-up plot points.

I’m going to be taking my son to more and more movies now (he’s looking forward to The Peanuts Movie especially), and I know he’s not necessarily ready to sit still for 80–90 minutes, even if he did make it all the way through Inside Out (I think it helped that we had big comfy leather recliner chairs). And I wish theaters still welcomed customers to come at any time and leave and then return at any time to see the rest. It’s possible he’ll be restless and want to leave early. It’s very possible he’ll cause us to be late and miss the start anyway. Kids his age do not understand showtimes or anything else of appointment nature any more than they get what a spoiler is. Theaters once got into a trend of having baby-permitted screenings. Where’s the theater that accommodates toddler and other small children viewing habits? Where’s the theater that will let us come and go as we please for kids’ movies?

Hopefully I never really have to talk to my kids about spoilers. I want them to understand that good movies are good regardless of how much of the story you know ahead of time but also that it’s great to go into any movie cold, too. That’s a difficult contradiction to explain, even to grown-ups. I don’t want movies ruined for them but I also don’t want them to get mad if they are. That’s an emotional conflict that can’t be taught or protected against. Mostly, I don’t want the internet to make them sick of the movies the way it’s close to doing for me after all these years.

Hey, you know how we love everything about 1980s movies? What about how we enjoyed movies in the 1980s? Can we go back to not making a big deal about spoilers the way we didn’t back then? You’ll feel like you’re a kid again.

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.