It Was All A Dream (Or: Turns Out Spoilers Are Good For You)

Jul 26, 2012
Originally published on July 26, 2012 6:24 pm

Chances are, if you're a regular reader of this blog you've read (or perhaps even posted) an incredibly vitriolic comment or two accusing the writer of the despicable crime of spoilers.

Well, here's a surprise twist: Spoilers might actually make reading stories more enjoyable, according to a study conducted by researchers at the University of California San Diego. They gave their subjects short stories they hadn't read before, spoiling one group of readers but not others. So for example, when the assignment was Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery," some readers were informed about its joltingly morbid ending. Others weren't.

It turns out that most of the people for whom the story was "spoiled" reported enjoying it more than those who read it unprepared. This doesn't surprise TV critic James Poniewozik, who stood up for spoilers in his Time magazine column last week.

"It's much more terrifying to know that something horrible is about to happen than not to know it's about to happen," he tells NPR, citing Alfred Hitchock's theory of suspense.

Poniewozik points out that increased cultural outrage over spoilers has a lot to do with today's technology. The way we watch TV has changed. More people delay watching their shows, turning to Hulu or their DVRs right as others are taking to Twitter and Facebook to write about, and often spoil, the episode.

East Coasters routinely ruin big reveals for their friends lagging behind in other time zones. Plus, Poniewozik says, in a TV world desperately competing for ratings, the success of ABC's Lost created an over-reliance on shocking twists.

Spoiler defenders point out that great writing and well-developed characters can't be spoiled. That's why people read Anna Karenina even though they know about, um, the train.

But Dan Kois disagrees. He's written about spoilers extensively for New York magazine and Slate, and he argues that you can't compare literature to TV when it comes to spoilers.

"I feel like a novel cannot offer the same kind of visceral shock and pleasure that a great plot twist in a visual medium usually can," he says.

Spoilers can compensate in other ways, though, at least according to movie director Kevin Smith, a self-proclaimed spoiler lover. (Spoilers is even the name of his movie review show on Hulu.) He's a classic fanboy; a voracious consumer of all information about the shows and movies he cares about.

One time, Smith tells NPR, he and his wife were watching a TV show they both adored, and Smith knew a big reveal was about to happen. He'd read about it on Twitter. So he casually pretended to predict it, impressing his wife.

"You are so smart!" she exclaimed.

"But really, it had been spoiled for me," Smith admits.

If you don't want to be spoiled, Smith has a simple solution. It's so easy. Don't go on Twitter.

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Twitter has 140 million active users. That's a lot. But it doesn't mean there aren't downsides to Twitter. Just ask Eddie Murphy. His death has been a trending topic at least twice. Another downside, people who spoil TV shows by tweeting their plot twists.

Spoilers might be the bane of Twitter, but NPR's Neda Ulaby has this shocking surprise ending. Spoilers may not be such a bad thing, after all.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Can you imagine if Twitter had been around in 1980 when a nation collectively wondered who shot J.R.?


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: It was you, Kristin, who shot J.R.

ULABY: Every "Dallas" fan on the east coast would have immediately ruined the reveal for everyone from Alabama to Alaska by Facebooking or tweeting. Spoilers have become enough of a preoccupation for a university to study them.

Psychology professor Nicholas Christenfeld of the University of California, San Diego. He examined what effect spoilers have on people's enjoyment of stories.

NICHOLAS CHRISTENFELD: So we chose various quite famous short stories, had people come in and, in one condition, we spoiled them beforehand without using the word spoiler.

ULABY: So, for example, subjects who had not already read the classic short story by Shirley Jackson would get handed "The Lottery." Some were told about its morbid conclusion in advance.

CHRISTENFELD: In this lottery, people draw to see who will stoned to death at the end.

ULABY: Appropriately, the spoiler study had a surprise twist, Christenfeld learned.

CHRISTENFELD: Spoilers are, in fact, enhancers.

ULABY: It turns out, when people knew what was going to happen, reading the story was more enjoyable. That makes sense to Time magazine television critic, James Poniewozik.

JAMES PONIEWOZIK: It's much more terrifying to know that something horrible is about to happen than not to know that it's about to happen.

ULABY: That's Alfred Hitchcock's theory of suspense, Poniewozik says. It's not like the movie, "Psycho," gets ruined when you know in advance about the shower.



ULABY: Poniewozik says people are violently against spoilers now, partly because we started to use Facebook and Twitter right when the way we watch TV began to change. Now, people wait to watch shows on their DVRs or Hulu, but they still get angry when other people talk about those shows online.

Then you've got TV writers trying to ratchet up ratings in a competitive, overcrowded landscape.

PONIEWOZIK: There is a kind of overreliance on shocking twists and big reveals.

ULABY: For that, he says, is "Lost."


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I want you to know, Jack, you died for nothing.

ULABY: "Lost" found a subgenre of imitators that tried to hook viewers with plot twists, not great writing or characters. That's why people still read "Anna Karenina," even if they know the thing about the train.

But comparing literature and TV does not work for writer Dan Kois. His extensively investigated spoilers in New York magazine and Slate.

DAN KOIS: I feel like a novel cannot offer the same kind of visceral shock and pleasure that a great plot twist in a visual medium usually can.

ULABY: But there can be another kind of pleasure in a spoiler, says director Kevin Smith. His movie review show on Hulu is called "Spoilers."

KEVIN SMITH: I'm not one of those cats that's like, I need to be precious going in. To be honest with you, I'd want to know more. I'm voracious. I am the internet in as much as I'm like, feed me.

ULABY: Smith says a little advance knowledge can be useful.

SMITH: Me and the wife would always watch "Battlestar Galactica" and I read on Twitter in advance and, again, "Spoilers," if you still haven't watched "Battlestar Galactica," what Starbuck was.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I told you there were angels working amongst you. When will you believe me?

SMITH: And, you know, she - oh, my God. And I took advantage of that time because, seconds before it happened, I was like, I bet you she's an angel and then, all of a sudden, they say it. And she goes, like, you're so smart. But, you know, really, it had been spoiled for me.

ULABY: When Kevin Smith does not want to be spoiled, he has a simple solution. Just stay of Twitter. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.



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