Calm down about those Game of Thrones spoilers: there’s more to a story than its ending

Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 adaptation of Romeo and Juliet was a significant cinematic experience for 12-year-old me. The lush aesthetics, the baroque-meets-alt rock-meets-pop soundtrack, baby-faced Leonardo DiCaprio – it all mingled to ignite a fierce, burning passion that could only be expressed through an entire bedroom wall plastered with magazine clippings.

Of course, we know the ending to Romeo and Juliet going in. It’s right there in the prologue, even if we somehow miss how large those star-crossed lovers loom in the public consciousness. But knowing how it ends (spoiler alert: they both die) didn’t detract from the experience of watching it unfold onscreen. In today’s spoiler-phobic culture, this is worth reflecting on. The suspense in those final moments is still potent and every time I re-watch it I hope that, somehow, this time they’ll live.

Not only do I not mind spoilers, I seek them out. I’ll read the end of a thriller before the beginning, or check out the Wikipedia entry for a film I plan to see. Even worse, I lurk on Game of Thrones subreddits reading episode leaks.

Not only do I not mind spoilers, I seek them out. I’ll read the end of a thriller before the beginning, or check out the Wikipedia entry for a film I plan to see. Even worse, I lurk on Game of Thrones subreddits reading episode leaks.

The security in knowing how a story will pan out enhances my enjoyment and frees me up to watch the finer details without trying to anticipate plot turns along the way. It’s about the journey, not the destination. In fact, I think the word ‘spoiler’ is a misnomer, because so-called spoilers spoil nothing.

This isn’t just my opinion. A 2011 study published in the journal Psychological Science details how subjects were given 12 short stories to read, by authors including Agatha Christie and Roald Dahl. Some were given the original texts, while others received spoiler paragraphs to be read in conjunction with each story.

Guess who enjoyed the stories more? In the researchers’ words, “subjects significantly preferred spoiled over unspoiled stories”. This held true even for the stories that had “ironic-twist” endings, suggesting that we don’t need to be oblivious to a tale’s twist to enjoy it.

The researchers’ theory on why this might be the case mirrors my own experience: “People’s ability to reread stories with undiminished pleasure, and to read stories in which the genre strongly implies the ending, suggests that suspense regarding the outcome may not be critical to enjoyment and may even impair pleasure by distracting attention from a story’s relevant details and aesthetic qualities.”

Nonetheless, (many) people hate spoilers. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve asked someone if they’ve watched Breaking Bad or The Sopranos, only to receive a frantic-sounding answer along the lines of, “yes but I’m only up to season four so no spoilers!”

There’s no question that deliberately revealing an ending or plot point to someone without their permission is poor form, but did we always care this much? No, it seems spoiler-phobia – like so many of contemporary society’s mores – flourished with The Internet.

The word ‘spoiler’ first appeared in print in a 1971 National Lampoon article (in which comedy writer Douglas Kenney basically listed a bunch of famous movie spoilers), but it didn’t really take off until social media became ubiquitous and information could appear in front of your eyes without warning.

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These days, spoiler anxiety has grown so strong that some people complain about them not only in relation to fictional works, but real-life events, such as true crime podcasts and the Olympics.

Go online on a Monday right after an episode from Game of Thrones’ final season has aired, and people will be yelling at each other on Twitter: half of them furious that they’ve inadvertently been spoiled, the rest annoyed they’re being told not to tweet about a huge pop culture phenomenon in real time, rather than the spoiler-averse simply staying offline.

Meanwhile spoilers were incorporated into the marketing campaign for Avengers: Endgame, in a savvy lean-in to this climate. On April 25, the official Twitter account for the Marvel franchise posted a promo of its cast members wagging their fingers and ordering audiences, “don’t spoil the endgame”.

Acknowledging the idea of a statute of limitations, Endgame’s directors later joked that the film’s spoiler embargo lifted two weeks after its release. (Even so, when the studio dropped the Spider-Man: Far From Home trailer earlier this week, they made sure to include a disclaimer that it contains Endgame nuggets.)

The irony is, if we weren’t so bothered by spoilers, we’d hear a lot less about them. The more fixated the public is on them, the more attention they receive.

The irony is, if we weren’t so bothered by spoilers, we’d hear a lot less about them. The more fixated the public is on them, the more attention they receive.

Several months ago, a supposed outline of season eight of Game of Thrones was posted on Reddit. It got little attention, until the season’s third episode appeared to validate it. All of a sudden, the fandom revisited the post and went into collective meltdown. Casual show watchers would have been none the wiser – but then outlets such as news.com.au and the Daily Mail reported on the issue, potentially spoiling people who would have been otherwise oblivious. They did this because it would get them clicks, and it gets them clicks because spoilers are controversial.

I can see where the anti-spoiler folks are coming from. Surprise can be fun. But it’s possible that we’re putting too much emphasis on the element of shock, and undervaluing other aspects of storytelling that are just as, if not more, important.

As Lindsay King-Miller wrote for Vice, being overly focused on spoiler warnings can detract from discourse around creative works. Engaging with others on topics that a particular show or film touches on is often key to consuming art. Media is often at its most topical when just released, and it’s frustrating to have those conversations stifled because everyone hasn’t gotten around to seeing something yet.

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