SPOILERS are in season for film and TV viewers, whether they want them or not. With Avengers: Endgame just released, and the eighth and final season of Game of Thrones having settled into viewers’ drawing rooms, many long-time fans of either or both series are making a conscious effort to avoid being presented with spoilers, or revelations about key plot points. On the other hand, some series fans have been actually searching and asking for spoilers. This may seem a contradiction when a spoiler by definition “spoils” a film or an episode, but the fact is that a divide exists.
Do spoilers ruin one’s viewing experience, or do they, in fact, enhance it? There is no clear answer, given that viewers themselves disagree. So do the findings of research, it appears. The impact of spoilers on enjoyment, if any, has been the subject of a number of studies over the years, and these have come up with contradictory findings.
Spoilers have been a subject of discussion immediately before and after the screening last month of the first episode of the final GoT season last month, and particularly before and after the release last week of Avengers: Endgame, the final film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe series.
GoT Season 08 Episode 01 premiered in New York City a week ahead of the screening, but those viewers avoided outing spoilers, Harper’s Bazaar reported then. Cast members have been credited with holding on to secrets, as well as reported to have released fake spoilers. On the other hand, a website called spoiled.io has come up with the offer of sending GoT spoilers (for a payment) to any mobile number that it is provided with.
The Endgame plot was allegedly leaked in the middle of last month, leading to a flood of supposed spoilers on social media. Ahead of the release, the film’s directors @Russo_Brothers tweeted to viewers: “#Don’tSpoilTheEndgame”. After the release, Google searches for “how to avoid spoilers” reached a record high, The Guardian reported. Yet the contradiction has continued, with a number of social media users posting requests for spoilers. And when some of the earliest viewers have obliged by revealing which characters will die and which will live — many others have done so without being asked — they have upset several viewers who were next in queue. In Hong Kong, a man was reportedly assaulted outside a theatre for yelling out spoilers on Endgame.
Enjoyment spoiled, unspoiled
With studies frequently contradicting one another, two researchers sought to make sense of these contradictions by analysing together the results of several previous studies, including their own, along with the results of three new experiments. “Taken as whole,” researchers Benjamin Johnson of Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and Judith Rosenbaum of the University of Maine wrote in their paper, published in the journal Media Psychology last July, “the findings illustrate that… spoilers for television and film appear to have quite small and qualified effects on audience responses to these programs.”
The experiments included the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2015) and episodes from Game of Thrones Season 05, screened in 2015. In one experiment, they asked participants to view clips of various films and TV episodes, and presented them with text introductions, some with spoilers and some without. In another, participants were presented spoiled or unspoiled summaries of other films. In the third experiment, the participants answered a questionnaire on GoT Season 05.
The studies sought to analyse a wide range of the effect of spoilers. For example, they found that a spoiler may enhance the enjoyment of those who viewed a clip from a fantasy thriller film — a genre that includes Endgame — but may make a comedy clipless enjoyable. In the GoT experiment, spoilers were found to have limited effect. For viewers familiar with the literary source, A Song of Ice and Fire by George R R Martin, consistency with the original made the viewing experience more enjoyable, the researchers found.
The authors acknowledged that “an intricate web of variables appear to play a role in the impact that spoilers have on enjoyment”. In conclusion, they noted: “Future research needs to further extricate the role played by each of these variables, shedding further light on when, why, and how telling someone ‘how it ends’ really matters.”
So, does it matter?
Spoilers about Endgame could well be relevant only for the time being. Historically, spoilers come with a shelf life, with the most significant illustration being Psycho (1960). Alfred Hitchcock’s classic is credited with pioneering the anti-spoiler campaign, having marketed itself with taglines such as “Don’t give away the ending. It’s the only one we have”, and “If you can’t keep a secret, please stay away from people after you see Psycho”. Today, the ending of Psycho is so well-known that it cannot be called a spoiler. And yet, it continues to be appreciated by generation after generation of new viewers.