Why Do We Hate Spoilers?

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When George Lucas announced a reboot of his acclaimed Star Wars film franchise, fans of the films went to great lengths to be the first to see the next series of adventures in a galaxy far, far away. Within minutes of the movie’s release, the internet was awash with a flurry of users posting spoilers about the plot of the movie to many who were eagerly awaiting details, and an equally furious backlash of users outraged at the notion that the secrets of the movie were ruined before they had a chance to see the film themselves. This curious reaction that has occurred countless times throughout the course of major motion picture, novel, or video game releases begs the question: why do we hate spoilers so much?

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Human beings love predicting things. Skilled predictors, or at least those who masqueraded as such, held entire occupations based around this trait. This is the reason that almost every major human civilization throughout ancient history had some sort of shaman, mystic, or some other form of particularly clairvoyantly gifted individual who was in charge of predicting the good (or bad) fortunes for the rest of their tribe or village. Uncertainty causes fear, one of the most unpleasant emotions we have the displeasure of experiencing, so we try our best to avoid environments or situations that cause fear. We’re naturally afraid of the dark, foreign countries, or even new people.

But fear or uncertainty produced in a controlled environment is actually enjoyable thanks to the cocktail of neurotransmitters released after our fear has been extinguished by a rush of relief that overcomes our senses. Horror movies, haunted houses, and amusement parks all lend their success to this principle. As long as we are physically safe, uncertainty is an exciting feeling for us, even if we’re watching a movie that’s not particularly scary.

The best filmmakers, writers, and video game designers have taken notice of our desire for a little bit of uncertainty, as it is one of the key components of creating a compelling narrative. In fact, the most enticing movies that seem to fly by despite being well over 2 hours long must strike a balance between action, fear, romance, comedy, and drama. By balancing out the various emotions elicited by these various elements while maintaining a certain level of uncertainty as to what will happen, films keep us engrossed in their story.

However, If someone spoils the ending and pulls back the curtain on the plot, the mysticism of the film is soon stripped away. If we go into a movie already knowing the ending, we think that we simply won’t enjoy it as much because our ability to be sucked into the plot line will be greatly diminished. And so we get furious at spoilers. Or so we think…

What’s interesting is that our anger may be all for nothing. Researchers at UCSD have determined that spoilers do not ruin books or movies for us; they actually help to enhance our experience. Why? Well if the plot of a story is revealed to us, we know how it ends and the major events that take place along the way. What isn’t ruined is the relationship we build with the characters throughout the movie, and we can in fact build deeper connections with the characters in the story as result.

Art forms such as film, literature, or theatre offer a sort of therapy to us as we seek to deal with our inner desires or insecurities. They help us to better understand ourselves and recognize that even our heroes on the screen can have faults. If we know what events will transpire during the story, we can ignore cataloging that information and analyze the elements of the narrative on a deeper level. We simply get more out of a story when we re-read or re-watch it.

There’s a reason many of us have a favourite book or movie that can revisit time and time again and still get the same enjoyment level, if not more, out of the experience. We notice more things – subtle cues or elements of foreshadowing – that we missed the first time around because we weren’t armed with the knowledge of the entire plot.

Our perspectives change over time, so our experience watching a movie like Star Wars as a kid will be vastly different than our experience as an adult. As a child we may have remembered the movie as a cool story about good vs. evil. As an adult, we’re able to draw on a diverse array of themes explored in the movie and this only enhances the experience for us. Even watching movies or reading books a few months apart can have radically different effects given the new knowledge and perspectives we could obtain in that time.

Despite all of this, it’s perfectly natural for us to be angry at someone who spoils a movie or book for us. We take great pride in our own ideas about how a story will unfold, and when those thoughts are interrupted by unwanted new information, we’re bound to get a little annoyed. Keeping that in mind, there’s no use exercising caution to avoid having a story spoiled; despite what your initial reaction will tell you, your first experience through the narrative will likely be better than if the ending wasn’t spoiled. Oh, and Snape kills Dumbledore.