Spoilers & Other (fictional) Atrocities
Updated: Dec 26, 2020
This is part of a #FridayFlashback series of rereleased essays. In this piece, published May 17 2019, I argue that the spoiler is an overrated idea. The following essay also contains spoilers for Million Dollar Baby, Romeo and Juliet, Don Quixote and Death Note.
Along time ago, 2005 to be precise, the late, great film critic Roger Ebert published an essay online entitled Critics Have No Right To Play Spoiler. Here, he fairly argued that spoiler warnings are a good idea as a matter of Internet etiquette. Indeed, so called netiquett is the origin of the now seemingly timeless concept of the spoiler. Ebert’s essay is a thoughtful piece and examines the idea of spoilers through the controversial movie Million Dollar Baby—the plot of which involves the assisted suicide of a recently disabled person.
Here, Ebert distinguishes two possible motives for spoiling the film. In his first example, he mentions Michael Medved’s politically motivated spoiler, which Ebert deemed unjustifiable. The second example is what we 2019 folk call a ‘trigger warning’, in this instance provided by the National Spinal Cord Injury Association (NSCIA), which was deemed entirely justifiable. Ebert, to my mind, is right to make this distinction. The NSCIA was worried about the infliction of unnecessary trauma on vulnerable people due to the film's contents, but Medved—who was motivated by more abstract ideals—had no right to ruin someone’s cinematic experience to further a personal belief, and one that wrongly insists art should only reflect the choices with which we agree. I say this as someone with chronic health conditions who objects to the idea that impulsive euthanasia is the proper response to either disability or chronic illness.
I begin with this preamble because I don’t take issue with spoiler warnings, unless there is good reason for a countervailing trigger warning. When people desire either type of precaution, these are foremost matters of manners; if I’m talking to someone whose just lost a loved one, I might be better to temper any provocative momento mori humour. If someone tells me they don’t want to know about the resolution of the popular anime Death Note, I will respect that desire—and if you don’t want to know that ending, I recommend that you stop reading.
While spoilers are a relatively new notion, there is nothing new about the idea that suspense is a useful tool for fiction. Indeed, Aristotle’s somewhat influential Poetics (c. 335 BC) makes a big deal about the device of creating a tense uncertainty over events through the careful control of information. Suspense, at least superficially, seems to depend then on a work of fiction not being spoiled for its audience. However, is that true? That is, can suspense still function after a work of fiction has been ‘spoiled’—either by a spoiler or by repeated viewing, reading or listening?
We think as if we are someone who does not know how the events will unfold, even if we factually do know. The paradox of suspense refers to the conundrum at the heart of the spoiler controversy: why is narrative tension often retained even after the events of a story’s ending are known to its audience. Here, I instinctively agree with Kendall L. Walton that the reason is to do with how immersion in a story causes the audience to enter a certain mindset. In the same way that we suspend disbelief about dragons when reading a high fantasy, we also think as if we are someone who does not know how the events will unfold, even when we factually do know. We psychologically suspend our knowledge.
Fortunately, thanks to a study by UC San Diego psychology professor Nicholas Christenfeld, we do not need to merely speculate on this. In fact, we have good reason to believe that ‘spoilers’ not only fail to spoil stories, but counterintuitively somehow often increase our enjoyment of them. Christenfeld’s work is compelling, not least because it explains a curious feature of a lot of literature and storytelling that existed long prior to the Internet’s obsession with spoilers. And that is what I will dub prolepsis and mythic repetitions.
If, like myself, you enjoy early modern literature, you might be familiar with proleptic book and chapter titles. Regular readers of my medium blogs (a veritable crowd, I’m sure), will know my fondness for the utopia genre, which has often exposed me to this species of title. I am also a fan of Cervantes’s great novel Don Quixote, which has titles such as ‘IN WHICH IS CONCLUDED AND FINISHED THE TERRIFIC BATTLE BETWEEN THE GALLANT BISCAYAN AND THE VALIANT MANCHEGAN’ and ‘OF THE STRANGE MANNER IN WHICH DON QUIXOTE OF LA MANCHA WAS CARRIED AWAY ENCHANTED, TOGETHER WITH OTHER REMARKABLE INCIDENTS’. I always smile when I see such prolepsis used in more contemporary novels, such as Douglas Lain’s wonderful Billy Moon.
Moreover, the stories of the distant past seem to assume familiarity rather than surprise. From religious fables to fairytales to mythologies, we find in storytelling’s roots a willingness to recycle, without significantly altering the general trajectory, a limited set of narrative arcs. We are not expected to suddenly become weary of the story of Jesus or Mohammed through repeated reading—quite the contrary. Nor, presumably, of Hercules or Gilgamesh. Given that, could it be that Christenfeld’s conclusions are only counterintuitive because of a recent fad, one not really anchored to the experience of encountering stories.
The perceptive amongst you might have noticed that Christenfeld’s conclusions seem to be more radical than what is implied by Walton’s answer to the paradox of suspense. After all, Walton might explain how a spoiler doesn’t spoil stories, but Christenfeld’s results suggest that spoilers enhance them. And to explain why that might be, I would suggest instead turning to the work of Robert J. Yanal and Raphaël Baroni. They imply that when we can precisely anticipate events, an entirely new form of enjoyment emerges, which Baroni calls rappel. This enjoyment can have two causes. First, rappel is the enjoyment of precognition, of that godlike knowledge of unfolding events, and that childlike love of repetition. Second, however, rappel can involve a new type of internal conflict in the audience, between what they know will happen, and what they desire to happen, and this conflict is itself enjoyable.
When I was in my mid-teens I enthusiastically watched Tetsuro Araki’s anime Death Note, an adaptation of Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata’s manga about a young man who finds a magical notebook belonging to a shinigami (death god), which kills anyone whose name is written within it. He uses the note to kill criminals and the corrupt, but is quickly opposed by Sherlock Holmes style detectives. The story is a supernatural cat-and-mouse thriller relying strongly on suspense. However, then I had to wait for the finale, and unable to contain my excitement, I read the ending on Wikipedia. The anti-hero is foiled, dies, and the world returns to normal.
I was horrified by my weakness. I had been enjoying this story for over a year. Death Note was, I believed, ruined. I doubt it will come as a revelation to you, dear reader, that really it was no more spoiled than had been Romeo and Juliet by my foreknowledge of the deaths of those titular star-crossed lovers. I still consider Death Note’s conclusion one of the strongest in anime. This is due to many factors: voice acting, animation, plot beats and so on. But also, as I realised then, because of how conflicted I felt about it. The protagonist was a monster, but one with whom the show seduces you into sympathy—knowing his fate, and the obvious justice of his end, but resisting it, produced a delightful ambivalence.
I wonder to what extent worrying about spoilers has ruined more narrative experiences than the spoilers themselves.
Since then, I have not always courted spoilers, but nor have I let them govern or define my experience of narratives. I doubt Medved ruined anyone’s first viewing of Million Dollar Baby, as Ebert feared. And I further doubt that the idea of the spoiler will endure, even if I continue to half-heatedly respect its role in polite, online discourse. In particular, I think the duty of art criticism (an imperative to the integrity of all artistic mediums) is more important than any duty to guard against spoilers (a minor faux pas with no serious consequences). Like most of what falls under netiquett, it’s a peculiarly naïve notion that has little purchase outside of this equally peculiar age of mass media and culture.
In fact, I wonder to what extent worrying about spoilers has ruined more narrative experiences than the spoilers themselves.
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