I’d like to explain why I like to avoid spoilers.
My definition of art is something created by human agency with the intention of eliciting an emotional response from the viewer/reader/listener/participant/etc. This isn’t an unassailable definition, but as an artist and professional performer it’s a pretty handy guide. It also lets me enjoy art that comes my way.
What is important to understand is that the emotional response doesn’t have to be a single kind, or even a positive kind. Joy and laughter is what most comedies aim for, but if all you get is laughs, there’s not much about it that will stick with you in the long term. That’s why comedies try to bring out other emotional responses. Romantic comedies want you to feel warm and fuzzy, others want you to feel uncomfortable in gross-out scenes. One of the strongest emotional responses I’ve had from a comedy recently was watching Bridesmaids, and one scene in which two of the bridesmaids are trying to outdo each other with speeches about the bride had me cringing. I literally had to stop the movie for a few minutes to let myself calm down. It was awesome!
Other comedies, like Groundhog Day, bring the laughs, but also brings about a sense of pathos, and even a sense dread, and makes you think about the futility of life. That, by the end, you are full of compassion and hope for the future is the genius of the movie, and why it is considered a classic.
This all seems pretty obvious, and knowing what is going to happen in advance in most comedies isn’t going to spoil much of your enjoyment. However, there are a few emotions that fiction is no longer able to instill if you know what is coming.
The most obvious is surprise. This is the easiest too, and done well, the least susceptible to spoilers. The movie Final Destination had trailers with scenes not from the movie itself, but featuring audience members jumping out their seats while watching the movie for the first time. I knew it was a movie about people living longer than they should, and death catching up with them one by one. Also, before seeing the movie, I’d heard conversations where people said “Holy shit! The scene with the bus is amazing!”
Great, I thought. Now I won’t be surprised. All I have to do is watch out for a bus, and then I can get ready for…
And if you’ve seen Final Destination, you’ll know how just unprepared I was for the death involving the bus. Even me telling you a bus is involved in one of the deaths isn’t going to spoil it for you, because it is so surprising. That is the genius of that movie, and why there are now a whole slew of sequels (none of which I’ve felt any urge to watch).
The only way to spoil that individual scene is to have seen the movie before. Or, in this case, to have seen that scene before. Which is why the trailer for the movie never showed that scene at all!
Unfortunately, many movie distributers aren’t this kind, and include all kinds of otherwise surprising things in their movie trailers. Which is why I avoid trailers. If I hear the movie is good, I’ll probably get round to watching it eventually. I take long flights all the time, and can fit in four movies while traveling to America or back. On cruise ships there are always recent releases playing, and at home I catch up with anything I’ve missed on DVD.
I love to be shocked by fiction. Characters are going about their lives, or on an adventure, and suddenly something happens or is revealed, and everything changes. This could be for good, but it works far better if it is for the worst.
Unfortunately, unlike a good surprise, a shock can be spoiled if you know what is going to be revealed. Or more to the point, if you understand what is going to be revealed. The difference is subtle.
My name is Luke, so throughout life I’ve put up with people telling me they were my father, normally with a deep voice and heavy breathing. Even before I ever saw The Empire Strikes Back, people would tell me that they were my father. I understood it was a Star Wars reference, but didn’t understand what they really meant. I’d grown up with Star Wars: A New Hope, but Empire Strikes Back wasn’t shown on TV in the UK until the mid eighties, and then only at Christmas, so it was a while until I caught up with it. Then, aged about six or seven, I watched Empire Strike Back for the first time and holy shit!
Of course, I hadn’t understood the shocking reveal because I was just a stupid kid. The shock of it was no less meaningful though!
Now I’m not so much of a stupid kid. If I hear something about any story, be it a movie or TV show, I can usually work out, even before beginning to watch it, what the shocking reveal will probably be. Which is why, if possible, I try to avoid reading or hearing those spoilers.
Years ago I watched the first few seasons of Dexter, up to the end of season 3. Everyone said “Season 4 is the best, and the ending is such a shock!” But they were always sensitive not to spoil it, and I’m thankful for it. I avoided learning anything about it, and any news or discussion about anything beyond season 3.
Over the course of a few months I rewatched the first three seasons along with my girlfriend. I enjoyed them again, but in a different way, and found it fun to experience the surprising and shocking events vicariously through the person sitting next to me. We struck out into season 4, and everything was new.
Then we reached the last scene of the last episode of season 4. I knew a shock was coming, but I didn’t know what. As it turned out, it was way more shocking than anything I had thought up, and way more shocking than anything my girlfriend and I had wished for to shake things up for the characters involved. It was literally so shocking that we had to put on the first episode of season 5 immediately, just to make sure it wasn’t a dream sequence or a trick by the show producers.
And the shock stayed with me! I even had trouble sleeping that and the next few nights as I imagined something similar happening in my life.
It felt glorious. I love the fact that a TV show could make me feel something so visceral. It is one of those peak experience I crave in life. This happens so rarely with TV and movies, but I cherish it when it does, and I avoid spoilers because I want to have these experiences again in the future.
The final reason I like to avoid spoilers, and try not to spoil things for other people, is that I like to be made to feel stupid. And on the other hand, I like to be made to feel intelligent.
Great works of TV and film stand up to repeat viewing, even if there is a twist ending. A twist can be shocking or surprising, but it also works on an intellectual level. Aiming to effect someone intellectually can be part of a work of art, but if that is the sole reason, for me it falls more into the category of lesson, teaching material, political propaganda, etc. However, clever artists use the intellect of the viewer/listener to move their emotions.
So the twist is different to the shock. It relies on the viewer having come to one conclusion, and then the narrative exposing that conclusion as false, and revealing one that fits all the presented facts, and then explains so many more.
An effective twist can elicit two distinct responses. The first is “Oh, how stupid I am! I should have seen all that, but I was totally blind!”
From the buzz about The Sixth Sense, it seemed that 95% of people had this same response. And everyone loved being made to feel stupid. Being tricked, when you knowingly participate in the tricker, feels really good. This is why people enjoy magic shows. They know magic is bullshit, and that the performer is using tricks and mirrors and magnets, but they love the feeling of being fooled.
My experience with The Sixth Sense was different. Two girls had a very loud conversation right next to me, and blatantly explained the twist ending, covering many of the relevant points along the way, before I understood what they were talking about. Then I cottoned on, and groaned.
When I went to see the movie at the cinema, I enjoyed the movie well enough, and jumped at some of the shocks, but the twist had very little effect on me. Some of tricks had passed me by, but I’d caught many of the others.
I was robbed of the feeling that I was stupid. Knowing the twist spoiled that element that I could have otherwise enjoyed.
Thankfully there are plenty more twists that make me feel stupid. The Prestige worked great for me in that case, and on so many levels, because all the way through the movie they are telling you that you are being tricked, and explaining the trick right in front of your eyes, and you still miss it.
Or at least I did. And if you worked out the twist without knowing it in advance? Well, that’s the last reason I like to avoid spoilers.
I like to work things out for myself. Making people feel intelligent is opposite reaction to a good twist, and by intelligent I mean the combination of mental ability and relevant knowledge or expereince. If everyone guesses the twist ending, it’s not really a twist. If nobody guesses the twist ending, it’s probably comes too much out of nowhere, isn’t set up properly, and falls more into the shock category.
However, if between 80% and 90% of people are surprised, and 10% to 20% of people say “Oh, I worked it out from this, this, and this” you’ve probably done a good job.
And the 20% of people who worked it out feel clever. Knowing that they’ve used their intellect as the artist hoped, and are rewarded by the artist by the feeling of superiority over the other 80%, even if that superiority is only knowing just that little bit more about specific trivial things.
As much as I like being in the 80% of people who get the satisfaction of being tricked by the twist, I just as much enjoy working out the twist before it arrives. Who knows if I’d have had this kind of enjoyment with The Sixth Sense? Maybe. I do know that when I watched Unbreakable, I did work out the twist, although I fell asleep before the end, and then had to wind back to see if I was right or not. And I guessed the twist in The Village too, though enjoyed that all the way through to the end.
I like to be tricked by movies, but if I was tricked every time, it might get tiresome. I understand why some people don’t like being made to feel stupid by a movie, so if it is spoiled for them they don’t have to worry about it any more. I also suspect that many people who already know a twist like to tell themselves that if they didn’t already know it, they would have worked it out themselves. To be honest, many of the twists I know in advance seem trivial to work out. But then how can I be the judge of that? The only way to really test my intelligence is to go in not knowing, and seeing how the chips fall.
So there you have it. That is why I avoid spoilers. I like to be surprised, to be shocked, to be made to feel stupid, and to be made to feel intelligent. As an artist, these emotional responses are just some of the wide range I like to elicit, and as a reviewer they are experiences I like to leave open as options for my listeners to enjoy.