When the Olympic Games were taking place in China, for two weeks people around the world woke up every morning to “spoilers” of events that happened while they were sleeping. Who won gold in what discipline? And what were the scandals?
These revelations don’t bother me. After I became a mother, I developed a much lower tolerance for stress and tension. One way I deal with this is to embrace spoilers in books, TV shows and movies. If the action on the page or screen is too suspenseful, I go online to look up what happens next and release some of that tension.
I’m not alone, though the proliferation of spoiler warnings might suggest otherwise. Some people go out of their way to avoid finding out what would happen in a popular series or movie to the extent that they refuse to even watch teasers. But for others like film enthusiast Paulette Sharen, who lives in California, spoilers are part of a family tradition. “I grew up in a family where reading the end of a book or magazine first was a badge of honor, but it never ruined the fun,” she told me. She finds spoilers useful because they help her gauge whether the content is interesting enough for her to watch or read: “A story line that ends in violence does not make me want to consume. Likewise, an ending that features an unrealistic ‘happy ending’ isn't what I'm looking for either,” she said.
In my family, this is the reason the first page my mother skims through in any book is its last: If it turns out too gloomy, she might not want to read it. I do the same with movies and TV series.
Researchers have identified several reasons some of us like to find out what happens in a story before they’ve finished. If you’re averse to spoilers, consider these beneficial aspects — and perhaps you’ll feel better about having that ending ruined.
Spoilers help you understand the story and can create tension
When plot or character details are known, it can help readers or viewers process new information. “The information has a natural flow, which makes it easy to grasp without concentrating too hard,” said Eva Krockow, a psychologist at the University of Leicester who studies decision-making and wrote an article about spoilers for Psychology Today.
Aspiring book writers learn that they need to create tension that will keep the reader turning pages. This is often achieved by making the audience question whether the protagonist will reach their goal. But the same effect can be achieved by foreshadowing, a type of spoiler that can create what’s called pleasurable tension.
“Pleasurable tension refers to a state where you have different pieces of information that don’t fit together neatly,” Krockow told me. “Thinking about the context of spoilers in football games, this could mean that you have just started watching a game on catch-up and perceive one team to be much stronger than the other. Yet, from the news you already know that the other team ended up winning. This somewhat conflicting information can create tension and excitement, because you want to know what happened in the game to have allowed the weaker team to take the lead.”
That’s exactly how I feel reading spoilers for “Lucifer,” a Netflix fantasy drama series a friend recommended to me. I found the very idea of it intriguing. Lucifer Morningstar, the Devil himself, led a rebellion against God and was sent to hell as punishment. Except he got bored and took a vacation on Earth instead, where he opened a nightclub and ended up helping the Los Angeles Police Department. Before I watched it, I quickly went through what was going to happen in each season to get an overview. Knowing what would happen when a plot twist occurred was exciting because a scene I was eagerly anticipating finally came. And the ending is so surprising that being “spoiled” didn’t spoil my amazement. The most fun part, though, was discussing it with the friend who recommended it to me.
“Have you met Rory yet?” she would ask.
“No, not yet, but soon,” I’d reply because I knew who Rory was. For the readers of this article, knowing this character’s name won’t spoil anything because many characters join each season.
The psychologist and media expert Elizabeth L. Cohen at the University of West Virginia noticed that in the case of certain genres, such as fantasy and science fiction, spoilers don’t really tell the audience much (skip to the next paragraph if you want to avoid knowing anything about the “Dune” book and film franchise): “In three movies from now, he’s going to change into a sandworm, trust me,” she said about a character in “Dune.” But she doesn’t consider that much of a spoiler, and not just because the books have been around since 1965. “I really want to see how he becomes a sandworm because there is a lot that happens in between.”
Jonathan D. Leavitt and Nicholas Christenfeld explored pleasurable tension in the 2011 study “Story Spoilers Don’t Spoil Stories.” When study participants were told the outcome of the short story they were about to read (one example: “woman murders her husband with a frozen leg of lamb”), they reported being more satisfied with the overall experience compared with when they read a story unspoiled.
“Spoilers should really be called enhancers,” Christenfeld said in a 2017 interview with WNYC News, because of the enjoyment they can add.
Spoilers let you focus on other, less obvious elements of the story
“Because you don’t have to pay attention to what’s going to happen with the plot, you can pay attention to all these other things going on,” Cohen said. “And it that way, it can really enhance your appreciation of the story.”
Stories are so rich and complex that even if I know what’s going to happen, I still won’t know how a character will react, what music will play during the climactic moment or what will be the look on the protagonist’s face when they find out the truth about their powers. I still enjoy stories I spoil for myself. In fact, I might enjoy them even more because I am able to feel the thrill of recognition: I’d read about a plot twist, and then I could see it unfold.
In this way, Cohen said, finding out the whole plot of a book or movie isn’t all that different from rereading a book or re-watching a movie or an episode of TV.
Audiences might get the same sort of enhanced experience by watching a prequel or origin story. My children and I have been watching the 2008 series “Star Wars: The Clone Wars,” set between Episodes II and III of the film franchise, and we certainly are not doing it to find out what happens at the end because we already know. Instead, we can focus on new and exciting characters such as Ahsoka Tano and deepen our understanding of Anakin Skywalker’s slow but painful switch to the Dark Side.
Spoilers offer a sense of agency
Binge watching has become more common during the pandemic, and some people, myself included, will read a show’s synopsis while doing it. And no wonder: When so much in the world feels uncertain, knowing how a film or a book will end can give audiences a sense of peace and a feeling of control. For me, it also helps to make the decision to read the spoiler in the first place. I don't know what will happen in real life, but I at least can find out what happens in this story.
Olga Mecking is a writer living in the Netherlands and the author of “Niksen: Embracing the Dutch Art of Doing Nothing.”