How Bad Do Spoilers Spoil?: A Super Scientific Study

By  · Published on March 20th, 2014

Sony Pictures Classics

In this corner of the world, and in this particular industry, spoilers are an unforgivable sin. They are tantamount to murder, to crimes against humanity, to leaving a flaming bag of poop on a clean and unsullied doorstep. I myself once nearly punched a computer screen after the wrong series of clicks led me to a leaked Breaking Bad spoiler.

So an article like “Why I Refuse to Watch Movies Without Spoilers,” sticks out ‐ partly because it’s so radically against the grain, and partly because it’s already been featured on this site, in a Required Reading last week. In the piece, one Esther Inglis-Arkell argues against the great status quo of the pop culture world. She spoils it all. Other than the occasional half-hour TV comedy, she’ll pre-read the ending to anything and everything she consumes, claiming it to be the better experience. Obviously, to get the best idea of her argument, you should just read the piece, but here’s a quick summary anyway:

What do spoilers do? They:

Strange, yes. But also strangely intriguing. So I took it upon myself to test this theory; to try out this “everything must be spoiled” way of life. By living in someone else’s shoes (shoes I already know the ending to), I might ascertain if there’s really something to this bewildering notion. Here’s the test I set up.

  1. Find two films of a similar ilk that I have not seen previously.
  2. Read the Wikipedia summary for one of them.
  3. Watch both, to compare the experience of an unspoiled mystery to a spoiled one.

For my two like-minded films, I chose The Secret in Their Eyes and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (Swedish original, not American remake). Both are crime thrillers where the lead character is a writer-type (a judiciary official working on a novel, a journalist). Both writers investigate a decades-old cold case with the help of a female love interest. Both cold cases involve brutal sexual violence. Both films were produced outside the US, and released in 2009. They’re not identical, but for the purposes of The Great Spoiler Test, they’d do. Dragon Tattoo, I had already read much about (but never seen), so that film got the spoiler. Secret in Their Eyes, I knew almost nothing about (besides the basic premise). That was watched clean.

With that, let’s begin. And, seriously, the words “spoilers” and “spoiling” are in the title, so expect an endless deluge of ruined endings among the words written below. Specifically: The Secret in Their Eyes, True Detective and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

Unspoiled: The Secret in Their Eyes

What the unspoiled film offers is obvious: a surprise. And The Secret in Their Eyes has plenty of those, in varying sizes. Plot twists, character deaths, hey-that-guy’s-peeing-on-the-sidewalk jokes. They all catch the viewer off guard, and in my experience, those are positives. The suspense and the shock add to the film. But to Inglis-Arkell, they’re negatives, and debating personal taste (surprise is good/surprise is bad) won’t really get us anywhere.

However, here’s something that’s not just he said/she said: often, surprises can develop character. One who reads a detailed spoiler of The Secret in Their Eyes will know that Ricardo Morales, husband to the murder victim, loved his wife deeply and became a little obsessive after her death. It says it right there on Wikipedia, that he had an “obsession with the murder case.” And that’s how the spoiled would learn of his heartfelt passion.

But film is a visual medium, and the film demonstrates Ricardo’s love in a visual manner. When he pours over albums of his wife’s photos we see his face (a key theme in the film is judging someone’s true colors by looking in his/her eyes), and we see photo after photo of the smiling, happy woman he can never see again in the flesh. A first impression is important, and for the unspoiled, that first impression of Ricardo is a poignant visual note. For the spoiled, it’s a few plain words written by some third party not involved with the film. Those plain words diminish the first impression a filmmaker tries to create.

As I examined Ricardo and deduced that he really, really loved his wife, I found myself doing something else: inhabiting the role of detective. It’s an integral part of the mystery genre, that the audience investigates the case alongside the hero, trying to figure out the ending before he/she can (or, at least, before the movie ends). When our intrepid hero, Esposito, describes Ricardo’s heartbreak, it’s with the following line:

“You should see his eyes. They’re in a state of pure love.”

And while he’s saying it, the camera leans into Judge Irene (Esposito’s partner in crime-solving). She’s staring at him, eyes wide with what could only be described as “pure love.” The film doesn’t make her affections obvious for quite a while, but if you’ve got eyes, it’s more than clear.

And at the climax, when present-day Esposito speaks to present-day Morales, the Sherlock Holmeses in the audience should all know something’s up. Esposito is on the attack; Morales is overly defensive; there are only five minutes left in the movie. There’s a giant neon arrow pointing towards Morales. We know it and Esposito knows it, and now all we need is some kind of proof.

This concept, the “audience as detective” embodiment, is a fundamental part of the mystery genre. Take Inglis-Arkell’s example of True Detective. True Detective fans were so intent on cracking the case that they went above and beyond (and insane), transforming into real-life detectives. People on message boards ran a sketch of the killer against photos of the cast members. People not on message boards uncovered new evidence ‐ an audition tape that revealed the lawnmower man’s full name, nailing him down as a member of the ritual deer-antlered cult-killing family. Actual detective work.

So what happens when this key part of the genre is taken away?

Spoiled: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

If “no spoilers means more surprises” was obvious, this will be too: spoiling the movie kills all sense of surprise, along with any tension in the early portions of Dragon Tattoo. Intrepid hero Mikael Blomkvist gets shat on by most of society all at once, badmouthed and ruined and sentenced to jail time. Ideally, seeing a protagonist get treated like garbage makes his/her eventual rise to greatness that much more potent (see also: Hot Fuzz and District 9, two films that are 95% frustrating garbage-treatment, then a single, beautifully cathartic action scene). But I found I didn’t really care about Blomkvist’s predicament. I know the billionaire who sent him to jail will be publicly shamed and lose all his money and die (is that a bit much?) in like two and a half hours, so I’m not really worried about Blomkvist the way I should be.

In her spoiler-love declaration, Inglis-Arkell describes the unspoiled experience as frustrating. She becomes impatient not knowing what happens, and “[can’t] enjoy experience of it happening.” But in my case, at least, the opposite occurs. Knowing what happens turns a movie into a checklist, with each scene another unenthusiastic check mark.

Ironically enough, having spoiled the movie to avoid skip-to-the-end fever, I now want to skip to the end. The in-between bits no longer hold enough interest when I know what happens in all of them. I want to see big reveals and the fights and the car chase and the tearful reunion at the end, because at least those moments have enough built-in pathos that they’re still enjoyable post-spoiler.

Also ironic is the moment in Dragon Tattoo that’s more suspenseful post-spoiler (or, at least I assume it is ‐ I can’t really go back and watch it unspoiled now). The minutes before Lisbeth’s long and graphic rape scene go from “scenes in a movie” (which they would be if I didn’t know what was coming) to I know what happens next and I don’t want to see this no no no no should I fast-forward oh goddamnit it’s starting already. Like the first uphill climb of a roller coaster, if that roller coaster were constructed from terrifyingly uncomfortable feelings.

But again, that’s my personal take. Less subjective is that the spoiler obliterates the idea of “audience as detective.” Instead, the audience is God, more or less. Someone who’s asked to solve a mystery, then handed a magic sheet of paper with every characters’ motives and future actions written on it. We don’t work alongside Blomkvist, as the genre dictates, but rather sit above him. He finds a clue and we know what he’ll do with it. He has a theory and we know if it’s a good start or a false flag. He stares at a portrait of the missing Harriet, and asks “What happened to you?” while a dramatic string cue plays. We point to our magic paper and say, “That.” Check.

Frankly, the whole thing is not an experience I recommend. Inglis-Arkell may swear by the spoiler, but most movies aren’t designed with spoilers in mind. If filmmakers wanted us to know the ending in advance, they’d put the ends of their movies in the first five minutes. Not every film, book, and TV show is Sunset Boulevard. In the specific case of the mystery/detective/thriller genre (whatever you want to call it), the foundation of our experience gets blown the hell out, and what’s left is a weird patchwork of smaller moments that don’t really add up to a full experience.

Obviously, there are situations where a spoiler is beneficial, or even necessary. If you’re watching something from an academic perspective for example. If you want to analyze The Secret in Their Eyes in the context of Argentina’s Dirty War (the when and where of the film’s flashbacks), you’ll need to know all the ins and outs beforehand so they don’t distract. Although who knows why you’d be doing dry academic analysis for fun in the first place (maybe you live in an alternate universe where “fun” is an angry college professor in a tweed jacket).

If you’re watching Dragon Tattoo to see how it compares to the book, obviously you’ve read the book and know the ending. Or if you just want to know the twist ending to Generic Horror Sequel 4 without the shame of spending money on it (full disclosure: I do this all the time). There are reasons to spoil. But “spoilers = good” seems like an exception to the rule, rather than the rule itself.

Unless you think I should have put all of this in the first paragraph.

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