Is there a greater cultural sin than a good story spoiled? The accepted modern posture is that knowing too much beforehand about the plot of a novel, a play, a movie, even a TV series, ruins the magic of experiencing it for the first time — renders it damaged goods, not worth one’s time or money. The phrase “spoiler alert” (with or without multiple exclamation points) has become a standard warning klaxon in news articles and on online comment boards. Media critics catch hellfire from readers if they reveal too much of what happens to whom and when. And we’ve all been insulted by movie trailers that play like Mini-Me versions of the features they’re supposedly selling.
I still remember idly flipping to the last page of an Agatha Christie novel as a teenager and being confronted by the name of the killer in the very last sentence. (Lesson learned, Dame Agatha; I’ll never peek again.) And as a working film critic, I navigate the shoals of information — how much is too much? how can I tell readers about the movie without saying what happens? — on a daily basis. It’s a given: Everyone hates spoilers.
Except when they don’t. Two researchers in the psychology department of the University of California at San Diego recently decided to test whether we really hate spoilers, or just like to say we do. What they found surprised them: The majority of people apparently like having a story spoiled for them. In fact, we may enjoy spoiled stories even more than the unspoiled versions. Is it true? Do we secretly crave predigested plots the way some foodies sneak Big Macs when no one’s looking?
The paper, published in the September issue of Psychological Science, presents the results of a series of experiments conducted by Jonathan D. Leavitt and Nicholas J. S. Christenfeld. The authors asked a large group of undergraduates to read classic short stories in three categories: literary works (such as Raymond Carver’s “The Calm”), mysteries (Agatha Christie’s “A Chess Problem”), and ironic-twist tales (Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”). Each student read one story in its original form, one with separate introductory material that laid out everything that was about to happen, and one with that same material simply incorporated as part of the text. Even surprise endings were given away.
Curiously, the test subjects favored the spoiled stories, sometimes significantly so. Even more paradoxically, it was the genres that seem to depend on surprise the most — mysteries and ironic-twist stories — that readers liked best when they already knew the ending.
“It seemed like a simple thing to demonstrate that if you completely ruin a story before people get into it, they’re not going to like it,” says Leavitt. “And we just couldn’t demonstrate that.”
Leavitt grants that almost everybody says they hate spoilers — himself included. “But then you ask them about their favorite movie and they’ve seen it 11 times. So they knew the ending the last 10 times.”
Beneath the seeming Psych 101 paradox, their findings suggest something important about what we actually want, or value, in art. How is it that I can still watch “The Godfather,” say, and get as lost in its violent ebb and flow as the first time I saw the film four decades ago? It’s not just a matter of Coppola’s art or Pacino’s craft, although there is that. I know full well what’s going to happen when Michael’s new bride starts the car or Sonny pulls up to the tollbooth, and so do you. Yet we easily suspend our memories and return to a virginal, pre-”Godfather” state. Or maybe something else is going on. Maybe we partition a powerful experience in our heads the better to cope with the emotions it calls up. An unspoiled story is a field full of landmines waiting to go off. That can be thrilling, but there’s also an upside to having those landmines go off before we take a step.
Perhaps nowhere is the tradeoff between spoiling and not spoiling as complicated as it is in the world of movie trailers, miniature films meant to impart information about a narrative while simultaneously convincing us to pay money for a longer version of it. It’s a delicate balancing act, and for many moviegoers one that almost always seems to fail: One of the most common complaints a film critic hears is that coming attractions give away too much plot.
According to the head of a long-established Hollywood advertising firm, though, those are exactly the trailers that people seem to want. The trailers that tell the most, he said in a recent interview, tend to test the best when shown to consumers ahead of time. (The creator of hundreds of movie previews and TV campaigns over the years, he prefers to remain anonymous for the sake of his clients.)
He personally wishes he could avoid the spoiler-trailer approach: “My favorite thing is to just tell the concept of the movie and then go nonlinear after that. Then you’re not showing anything in context. You’re just showing beautiful moments in the movie.”
But that’s apparently not enough to sell the film, so preview editors will often use the funniest jokes — “What do you want me to do? Show you the unfunny jokes?” asks the executive — and sometimes spoil crucial plot surprises to win potential viewers over. Consider the case of “Funny People,” the Adam Sandler comedy-drama about a movie star who is diagnosed with cancer and later goes into remission. The trailer had to reveal the latter development, says the executive, because who wants to pay for a movie where Adam Sandler dies of cancer? (Hold your comments, please.) Yet that revelation spoiled too much of the film for many moviegoers — “Funny People” regularly comes up as an egregious offender in online articles and comment boards on the subject of trailers. It was a Catch-22 from which the studio saw no effective escape.
In all the complaints about movie trailers, we lose sight of the fact that all of us regularly practice the art of spoiling. No one pays for a movie without knowing something about it via word of mouth, reading a movie review, or watching the trailer online. We do this even as we loudly stand up for the divine right to be taken by surprise.
No matter how much we claim to love that uncertainty, Leavitt and Christenfeld’s study indicates that spoilers provide some psychological relief, a way of dipping our toes in the ocean of fiction before diving in. Not knowing where a compelling story is going creates anxiety, and it’s that anxiety, Leavitt believes, that fuels the secret itch to cheat. “There are emotions we don’t like feeling in real life,” he says. “We feel them watching a movie, but without the anxiety it’s not as difficult to cope with. We feel safer. I feel that’s even more the case if you know where the story’s going — there’s not the dread or the fear that could spill over a little bit into real life.”
If a work of fiction is particularly well crafted — like “The Godfather” or like one of Leavitt’s recent favorite reads, Richard Russo’s “Straight Man” — it’s possible to fool ourselves into a temporary not-knowing while revisiting it, to lose ourselves in the story all over again even as part of our brains breathes a sigh of relief at knowing where the guard rails are. From that perspective, an unspoiled story may be just a hurdle we have to surmount in order to appreciate it later in greater comfort, the way we have to get used to certain foods, like artichokes or oysters.
It’s useful, sometimes, to look to children, especially when they’re still too young to know how they should feel about socially coded issues like this. A number of years ago, when I was writing a book about watching classic films with kids, I sat my younger daughter down with “The Nutty Professor” — the original 1963 version with Jerry Lewis. The movie’s a neurotic blat of Technicolor slapstick that’s both idiotic and very funny, and the centerpiece is the transformation scene, where the nerd chemist turns into the suave Buddy Love. The scary music, odd angles, and weird teeth freaked my daughter out so completely she made me fast-forward through to the next bit, and at the end of the movie, she shrugged and said the movie was just OK.
The next day she asked to see “The Nutty Professor” again, and then she watched it four more times before the week was out, and then she began to cough up bits of dialogue at odd times. Seven years later, she still cites it as one of her favorite movies, because it’s a known quantity. More than that, it was an initially unsettling experience over which she gained mastery.
Should I have spoiled that first viewing for her? She might have had an easier time if I had. But she might not treasure the movie as much, either. The jury’s still out over which experience is the richer one, but it’s clear that a spoiled story and an unspoiled story are two entirely different works, and we choose which one feels most comfortable whenever we head into the dark.Ty Burr is a film critic for the Globe. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.