How Spoilers Work

Does "The Usual Suspects" still deserve a spoiler warning for its awesome twist?
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It seems like the obvious way to start an article about spoilers is to spill the beans about how it'll end. But if we're going to do that, then we must adhere to current convention and slap the words "spoiler alert" in front. Also following convention, we'll write the phrase like this: SPOILER ALERT; or like this: spoiler alert!; or like this: **SPOILER ALERT** just in case. This fully alerts you, the reader, to the probability that in the following paragraph you'll learn the major twist in the argument put forth, making it entirely possible that you'll have no interest in reading further.

Having read those fateful words, you're on your own. The article and its author are off the hook, hands fully washed of all responsibility for ruining your reading experience. If you choose to read on, the flavor of anticipation could suddenly go stale, the page might darken before your eyes and you'll possibly find your attention wandering to other HowStuffWorks topics.


On the other hand, the spoiler might have the opposite effect. Say, for instance, that you read the following (SPOILER ALERT!): "Studies indicate it's possible that spoilers aren't as rotten as you think." Now the urge to continue reading the article stems from a desire to know not what it's going to say but how it's going to say it.

It could be argued that, in this case, the spoiler has morphed into a sophisticated form of "teaser." But it's not. By accident or design, a spoiler can spoil because it forks over vital information a little too early. A teaser is designed to entice you, to whet your appetite for information, to seduce you into reading further. A teaser would read, "Do spoilers really spoil?" And the answer would be: Maybe they do, maybe they don't. To find out, you'll have to read on.


Best Before: April 1971

Alfred Hitchcock would've approved of today's spoiler-warning-happy media culture.
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Back in 362 B.C.E. as Mantinean soldiers prepared to engage with Theban forces during the Battle of Mantinea, a small drama unfolded. One soldier turned to his neighbor and said, "You know, this really reminds me of that scene near the end of the 'Odyssey' where Odysseus gets ready to slaughter all his wife's suitors." His neighbor's face fell. "Oh great!" he said. "Thanks for ruining it for me."

The neighbor's demoralization could be one of the reasons why the Thebans were able to drive through the Mantinean phalanx, representing one of the earliest consequences of not providing a **Spoiler Alert**. However (SPOILER ALERT), although the Thebans won the battle, they ultimately sued for peace because their leaders died.


Were foot soldiers in Ancient Greece really guilty of spoiling epic storylines for one another? Hard to say. What we do know is that upon the 1960 release of "Psycho," Alfred Hitchcock pleaded with viewers not to give away the ending since it was the only one he had.

That was a good line, but you'll notice Hitchcock didn't use words like "spoiler" or "spoiling." That first-use distinction goes to one Doug Kenney, who in 1971 penned an inflammatory article titled "Spoilers" for the satirical magazine "National Lampoon." Therein, he proposed to save readers both time and money by spoiling the plots of as many books and movies as he could manage.

After that, the term "spoiler" began to take root in popular culture. In 1979, a book reviewer in the sci-fi magazine "Destinies," for instance, began adding "spoiler warnings" before revealing key plot points in his reviews [source: Freeman].

But it was electronic media that eventually provided the ideal environment for the idea of "spoilers" to flourish. In 1979 an electronic mailing list called "SF-Lovers" hosted by MIT's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory saw a flurry of discussions about the first Star Trek movie. The moderator started adding spoiler warnings to the communications. And in 1982 it was the second Star Trek movie, "The Wrath of Khan," that inspired the first known use of the term "spoiler alert" on an early form of Internet discussion group [source: Zimmer].

Fast-forward to July 2010 when TV critic Alessandra Stanley published a now-infamous article about "Mad Men" in which she mentioned key plot points of the show's fourth season WITHOUT a spoiler alert warning. The outrage was astronomical. The show's creator professed himself to be "shocked." Other journalists pilloried her; she was branded "despicable" by "New York" magazine [source: Freeman]. The idea of spoilers had reached its zenith, so embedded in the cultural etiquette were they that to flout the rules governing them was to risk public shaming.


Spoiler Etiquette

Maybe just one or two spoilers could've helped the "Seinfeld" finale audience stave off some disappointment.
Joseph Del Valle/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

On May 14 of the year 1998, 76 million people were passing the time doing something that now seems as arcane as cheering gladiators at the Coliseum: They were all watching TV at the exact same time. The show was the last episode of "Seinfeld."

The producers had gone to great lengths to keep the plot a secret, and expectations were high. Too high, maybe. Co-creator and writer Larry David later said he regretted the secrecy because it meant everybody was bound to be disappointed. And we were. The finale turned out to be really bad. But that's not the point. The point is that we live in a different world now.


Here in the second decade of the second millennium, we all watch TV (if it can still be called TV) on our own schedules. And because some of the new producers like Netflix put out entire seasons all at once, some of us "binge watch" entire seasons in a matter of days (hopefully not in a single sitting — that just sounds unhealthy). And since we've all become individual broadcasters of our opinions thanks to Twitter and its ilk, we can instantly disseminate our thoughts on what we've seen to the four corners of the Earth at the touch of a few buttons. In other words, just one undisciplined (or malicious) viewer can spoil the next season of "Game of Thrones" for the entire planet.

So what are the rules governing spoilers? Is there a prescribed etiquette for talking about the stuff we watch? (And read; although, let's be honest, spoilers are mostly linked to viewing culture — readers don't tend to get as worked up about this stuff.) Actually there is: The good people at online entertainment news source Vulture have laid out some simple, but specific, rules for dealing with spoilers.

According to the Official Vulture Statutes of Limitations on Pop-Culture Spoilers, reality TV shows get no respect whatsoever. Everyone is free to spoil them as soon as an episode is over. However, with narrative TV, journalists must wait a day after a show has aired in its normal time slot before publishing any unmarked spoilers in the body of an article, and three entire days before allowing a spoiler to appear in a headline. When discussing movies, no spoilers are permitted in an article's text until the Monday after the opening night. We should wait an entire month before letting a movie spoiler slip into a headline. Plays get a month, books three months and operas a century.


Spoiler Suits

"Survivor" loser Russell Hantz got in a spot of trouble for selling spoilers to a blogger.
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Maybe you're finally just getting around to watching this HBO show about dragons and whatnot, and you're midway through the first season when somebody happens to tell you about the terrible thing that's going to happen to your favorite character's head. Suddenly you're in a horrible funk. Is there any point in watching the remaining episodes? Is there any point in anything anymore? Can you sue this worthless blabbermouth for ruining your life?

No. Or, yes and no, but really no. Yes, because in theory you can sue anybody for anything. But is there any likelihood you would win? That's where the no comes in, because no, there's no chance. The usual invocation of the First Amendment aside, you'd need to be able to show that you really, really suffered in some way, and plot disclosure just doesn't meet the necessary legal standards, because, as we all know, the American justice system is deeply flawed.


But wait, wait, wait, hang on now, there might just be a way. It all depends on who spilled. Did you get your unsolicited information from someone named Sean Bean? Or Lena Headey? Or Peter Dinklage? These are specific names. Specifically, they're the names of actors in "Game of Thrones." That's because if your informer is a GoT cast or crew member or anybody who signed a production contract for the show, they also very likely signed a non-disclosure agreement. And if they signed it and then disclosed something to you, you would have grounds to sue them — although you'd have to get in line behind HBO.

The point isn't just academic. In 2011 CBS sued a man named Jim Early for posting spoilers about the reality show "Survivor" on a website called "Survivor Sucks." The spoilers accurately gave away key information about two seasons of the show. The network dropped the suit when Early revealed that his source was a cast member of the show named Russel Hantz. Before joining "Survivor," Hantz signed a non-disclosure agreement that punished any breach with a $5 million fine [source: Dehnart]. Hantz appeared on subsequent seasons of the show and whether he was ever forced to pay up remains unknown.

It's not clear whether reality shows are particularly prone to spoilers or reality show producers are particularly litigious, but for whatever reason, suing for spoiling is a reality show thing. In 2011 a man named Stephen Carbone was peacefully running a website called dedicated to updates and spoilers about reality TV, when he discovered he was being sued by ABC, the makers of "The Bachelor" and "The Bachelorette."

The claim was that Carbone was contacting cast members of the show and offering them money to breach their confidentiality agreements [source: Gardner]. There's been no further word on the outcome of that kerfuffle either, leading one to deduce the point of these lawsuits might not be to win or even settle, but rather to scare. Well, consider us scared. We're saying nothing. What happens to Ned Stark at the end of "Game of Thrones?" I dunno.


Are Spoilers Really Rotten?

Knowing Luke and Leia's family tree adds a bit of dramatic irony -- or comedy, if you're yelling "Incest!!" at the screen when they kiss.
Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty images

All this suing, all this anxiety and secrecy about spoilers ... is it worth it? Is the desire to watch a show or read a book so tenuous that a single piece of leaked information can destroy everything? Hmm. Well, when you put it like that, maybe not. But can we move beyond an anecdotal hunch and find some science to back up the idea that everybody should just relax a bit?

Why yes, we can. As it turns out, some enterprising researchers at UC San Diego asked themselves the very same questions. Then they asked a bevy of undergraduates. They gathered said youths and gave them some short stories to read. Some of the stories were spoiled with prefaces that gave away plot twists, and some were completely unspoiled. The surprising result (SPOILER ALERT): Readers reported enjoying the stories more if they knew what was going to happen [source: Lehrer]. Why? The report doesn't explain this. But we can guess.


If you know that Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia are siblings, and that Darth Vader is their father (sorry, but the statute of limitations is definitely up on that one), watching "A New Hope" is actually more fun because there's an increased tension between what we know and what the characters know. When Luke and Leia kiss, we can yell "Incest!" at the screen. And we can get even angrier with Vader for unwittingly trying to shoot down his own son at the climax of the film.

If you're a Jane Austen fan, you reread "Pride and Prejudice" even though you're fully aware that Elizabeth Bennet eventually marries Mr. Darcy. In fact, that knowledge might even enhance your enjoyment of the book, since you can relax and enjoy all the artful dodginess Austen deploys in getting her protagonists to that fateful point.

Indeed, after all the flap about spoilers in past years, it seems the tide might finally be turning against the whole idea. Netflix has created a site called "Living with Spoilers," in which they propose that spoilers are fun, and we should embrace rather than shun them.

So maybe the best way of watching "Breaking Bad" is to start at the end and work your way backward (the first episode is worth the wait). In that spirit, if you've just crawled out from under the proverbial rock and are wondering whether Frodo ever does get that ring into Mount Doom, the answer is (spoiler): Sort of.


Lots More Information

Author's Note: How Spoilers Work

As somebody who routinely starts a novel by reading the final pages, I've never understood all the angst about spoilers. And when it comes to TV, well, I can't go back to those bad old days of sweating for a year before finding out what happens next season. I'd rather wait until the whole show is done and watch all the seasons back to back. Of course, sleep and work and family tend to interfere with nonstop viewing, but luckily one can turn to helpful snitches on the Internet to get the necessary dirt.

Related Articles

More Great Links

  • Dehnart, Andy. "Survivor Spy Exposed." The Daily Beast. Jan. 31, 2011. (Jan. 29, 2016)
  • Ellis, Jennifer. "Can I Sue Someone for Giving Me Spoilers?" Quora. Oct. 19, 2015. (Jan. 29, 2016)
  • Freeman, Nate. "The History and Use of 'Spoiler Alert.'" The Awl. July 27, 2010. (Jan. 21, 2016)
  • Gardner, Eriq. "'Bachelor' Producers Sue Spoiler Website for Soliciting Info Leaks from Contestants." The Hollywood Reporter. Dec. 7, 2011. (Jan. 21, 2016)
  • Kois, Dan. "Spoilers: In Defense of the American Watercooler." Vulture. March 13, 2008. (Jan. 16, 2016)
  • Kois, Dan. "Spoilers: The Official Vulture Statutes of Limitations." Vulture. March 13, 2008. (Jan. 21, 2016)
  • Lehrer, Jonah. "Spoilers Don't Spoil Anything." Wired. Aug. 10, 2011. (Jan. 21, 2016)
  • Newman, Michael. "Spoilers." Zigzigger. March 13, 2008. (Jan. 21, 2016)
  • Orionight. "'Reply 1988' Production Team Considers Legal Action Against Those Who Leak Spoilers." Soompi. Jan. 9, 2016. (Jan. 21, 2016)
  • Zimmer, Ben. "Spoiler Alert! Revealing the Origins of the 'Spoiler.'" Visual Thesaurus. Oct. 14, 2014. (Jan. 21, 2016)