Spoilers Are Good, Actually

I’m going to be playing Devil’s Advocate for this, so don’t take what I say at face value. All opinion pieces and arguments are meant to be taken with a grain of salt, but especially if they are presented solely for argument’s sake. The point of this article is to provoke thought on the subject matter. That is the entire point. Alright, that aside, and yes I do realize (and quite frankly revel) in the irony of this, but one more disclaimer:

Spoilers ahead for The Magnus Archives (2016-2021) and She-Ra (2018).

Spoilers are descriptions of important plot developments or twists that typically reduce surprise or suspense for readers, viewers, listeners, or other consumers of story media. The perceived problem with spoilers is that knowing what will happen will spoil the story, ruin plot twists and vastly reduce the impact of the story. It is generally believed that spoilers make the story objectively worse. That’s taken as fact. I believe it to be wrong.

For starters, I’d like to make a clear distinction. I am not arguing for unwanted spoilers, or for intentionally spreading spoilers in an attempt to ruin the experience for someone. That is definitely not “good, actually” and I do not endorse it. Choice is important. I am specifically arguing against the stigma of spoilers, arguing for individuals to be more likely to make the choice to see spoilers. I am arguing that they do not objectively ruin stories, and can better inform a potential audience.

My first argument centers around rewatchability, to borrow terminology from film and television. If a story is good, it has rewatch value. Even having experienced the plot before, you should be able to experience it again without it being totally ruined. If you can do that, then you can experience it for the first time knowing what’s going to happen. If you can’t do that, if knowing the plot will make it bad, or else if removing the surprise makes it unenjoyable, then what value does the story actually have? I’d argue that any story worth a first watch is also worthy of rewatching, and that any story with rewatchability fundamentally cannot be harmed by spoilers, let alone ruined.

Rewatches are insightful, in their own way, as well. They help you spot things you didn’t notice before. Knowing the characters, knowing the setting, knowing the plot, it helps you see everything clearer. You may miss important subtext or plot points, because you’re trying so hard to understand what’s going on, or who’s who. Knowing the shape of it helps, greatly. Additionally, it helps you to find clues, bits of foreshadowing that make the plot much better. However, you need to already have an understanding of the story to do any of that, and you can’t do that without either spoilers or a previous go through.

Take, for example, the 2018 reboot of She-Ra. I went into it knowing the end. I was aware that Catra would have a redemption arc and join the heroes, and I was aware that it would end with a romance between Adora and Catra. This was a spoiler, in every sense of the word. But it didn’t sway me from watching the show. It actually convinced me to watch the show. Without it, I don’t think I ever would have. With it, I looked out for character development with both Catra and Adora, that could lead into the redemption arc and romance.

The spoiler allowed me to look out for subtleties and relevant indicators from the very beginning, and allowed me to better understand and appreciate the ending. By knowing what would happen, I was allowed to see how it happened, instead of being surprised by it. It gave me a unique perspective that made the show a lot more enjoyable. Definitively, spoilers did not harm my experience, but actually helped it. I also didn’t have problems figuring out the shape of the plot, because I already knew the two most central characters and some general ideas, so my energy could be focused on enjoying it rather than figuring it out.

One point that this anecdote brings up is the idea that knowing what is to come can help in a different way, by convincing the consumer to take the step and actually read the book or watch the movie, etc. She-Ra was a show I never would have watched before, and even if I would have, I would probably have been deterred by some of the more cliche or tropey aspects. However, knowing the romance subplot, knowing the redemption arc, knowing the characters, pushed me to watch it. That sort of appeal was impossible without spoilers. In this case, spoilers can become central to someone’s enjoyment of media, central to not just understanding it but actually experiencing it in the first place.

The main counterpoint that can be made here is one that I’d like to tie specifically to mystery and horror plots, because they are the strongest examples of it and also counterpoints of their own, thetically. The entire mystery genre is built off of the unknown and the thrill of finding out. The clues, the foreshadowing, etc. The horror genre is built on the unknown just the same, but it is sometimes detached completely from finding out at all. One can easily see how the concept of spoilers could destroy the very foundations of these two genres, and, as a rule, any story based on the same ideas.

However, let’s consider the idea of suspense. Alfred Hitchcock’s bomb theory is a perfect analogy. Let’s say a viewer is watching a room full of people. After a few minutes of conversation, a bomb blows up. The viewer is surprised, and this feeds into their emotional reaction to the theme. However, let’s say the same scenario occurs - a room full of people, a few minutes of conversation, and a bomb - but in this version, the viewer is told there is a bomb and it will blow up. This creates suspense, which feeds into the plot very well and creates a different emotional reaction.[1]

This makes sense. It is important to identify the emotions and their causes, and how knowing the future will affect it. According to Hitchcock, the second scenario is more engaging, because they take a more active role in the story by knowing what’s going to happen. Now let’s say the same for mystery, or horror. Let’s say a reader (using books as the example) is reading a story and in the end finds out some incredible twist, one that dramatically alters the plot. There is surprise, and an emotional reaction, like the bomb scenario. However, what if a reader knows that twist is going to happen? The build-up is a lot more captivating, because you’re waiting to see when it will happen and how it will happen, and you’re trying to see if there are any warning signs. There’s suspense, and it allows a reader to feel closer to a text by simply knowing the ending.

That doesn’t address the entire argument for a mystery plot, however, because it creates a problem. Is it still a mystery, if you know the answer? Yes, because that’s not the point. It’s a mystery for the characters, not for the reader. As a matter of personal preference, some people like to play along as if they’re the detectives, but in no way is that an essential component of the plot. Indeed, the benefits of spoilers of clarity, new perspectives, watching for and correctly interpreting foreshadowing, are much more satisfying with a mystery plot because it thrives on that.

As for horror? Alfred Hitchcock comes in handy once again. His 1948 article “Let ‘Em Play God” covers suspense as well, putting forth the idea that allowing the audience to know everything that will happen is essential to “thrillers, dark mysteries, and chillers” all because the audience “know[s] what fate is facing the poor actors.” He argues that it allows the audience to focus on how the characters are reacting to the situation, and what they think about it. That, he believes, is integral to the story, implying that it has more value than the audience putting itself in the same position.[2] I tend to agree. Omniscience and an inability to act on the knowledge as a duo makes for great horror. If it works when a writer implements it, then it should certainly work when an audience implements it.

Take The Magnus Archives as an example. It is a horror-mystery podcast, meaning it fits both examined genres. In a relevant questions and answers section at the end of season one, writer and voice actor Jonathan Sims says the biggest challenge he faced with writing the series was balancing horror with mystery. He says, “Because they both rely on the unknown so heavily. And so the unknown feeds the horror and entices the mystery. But as it goes on, the mystery needs to be, it needs to get answers, otherwise you feel cheated, whereas the horror needs to stay unknown, because if you get all the answers to what the horror is, it’s no longer scary, and if everything stays unknown and horrific, then you don’t get any answers to the mystery.”[3]

Sims balances this really well. We get some answers, the answers to the major questions - Who killed Gertrude Robinson? What’s up with the house on Hill Top Road? What is the significance of Jon’s lighter? What is Elias Bouchard’s plan? Why does Jon seem to embody the fear of everyone whose statement he reads? Why do the statements gravitate towards certain categories of experiences? But we don’t get answers to a lot more questions. Much of the subtler mystery behind each statement is still unknown. We end up knowing next to nothing about the entities, and their manifestations, and how that works. We only have a loose idea of the idea of an ‘avatar’ and even that is proven wrong. Hell, there’s an entire episode set in the fearscape of the post-change world that is dedicated to calling a fool anyone who attempted to fit fear into neat little boxes.[4]

Now let’s consider this: What if someone went into it knowing all the answers? As someone who is, shall we say, spoiler-prone, I can serve as a smaller scale example. By the end of season one of The Magnus Archives I had managed to find out that Elias was actually Jonah Magnus, that there are fourteen entities that divide the fear into specific categories, what each entity was, which one the Magnus Institute was working for, and what the house at Hill Top Road actually was. I even knew the ending, the entire events of the grand finale, as well as the huge reveal at the end of the penultimate season. I wasn’t fully aware of everything, of course, and there were still some surprises, some twists, but I knew the shape of it right from the start. I even knew about Jon and Martin’s romance.

This is a show that is so heavily focused on characters that were completely unaware of what was going on, on the idea that “Our world is made of choices . . . and very rarely do we truly know what any of them mean, but we make them nonetheless.”[5] The whole point was that they were unraveling a mystery, trying to understand something that they didn’t know, trying to piece things together from breadcrumbs. For something that is so strongly founded in the concept of not knowing what is going on and wanting to find out, it seems like knowing what is going on and even what it leads to would be very bad for the experience, right?

It wasn’t. I enjoyed The Magnus Archives immensely. It changed the way I looked at horror, and it helped me better understand my own fears. It inspired my own horror writing. My experience was so very amazing and personal. It wasn’t diminished by knowing what was going to happen. That only pushed me forward. Whenever I got stuck, got bored, wanted the plot to move quicker, it would only take me thinking about the great ending I desperately wanted to reach in order to motivate myself to keep moving. It benefited me greatly. And yes, it helped in all the other ways I’ve described.

I think we’ve built a media culture where surprise is more important than enjoyability, rewatchability, or making any sense. I mean, I haven’t seen Game of Thrones, or read the books, but I’ve heard that they took the show in a completely inorganic and nonsense direction because it was unexpected, and unfortunately I don’t find that hard to believe. In many examples of recent media, writers have explicitly and repeatedly chosen surprise over sensibility. Plot twists are introduced for the sake of plot twists, to make stories unexpected or unpredictable. They don’t add to the story at all, and they often take away from it. I think this culture is partially responsible for the unnecessary stigma around spoilers (or perhaps vice versa), and I think it’s pretty clear why that isn’t a good basis for such a thing.

Now that I’ve made my argument with personal anecdotes and my own conclusions and analysis, I’d like to conclude my argument by citing actual scientific research. Now, the reason I didn’t lead with this, the reason I didn’t specifically use it to set up my argument is because I want this opinion to stand on its own, and I want it to be enhanced by the scientific evidence, not dependent on it — because I discovered this source after I had come to this conclusion. This comes from a study by Nicholas Christenfeld and Jonathan Leavitt of UC San Diego’s psychology department.

Before the study, the researchers noted that the vast majority of people believed spoilers ruined an experience. However, it went on to collect data of reviews given across twelve stories, divided evenly into three categories - stories with ironic twist endings, mysteries, and literary stories. In all twelve stories, across all three categories, reviews were higher from those who had the ending spoiled than from those who didn’t. Generally speaking, spoilers led to a higher enjoyment rate.[6]

Interestingly, there’s a potential reason proposed. “This could be because readers enjoy reading expected endings, because knowing the ending allows them to appreciate aesthetic elements instead of guessing what will happen, or because knowing the ending increases fluency by enabling readers to correctly interpret clues and events.”[7] I agree. I think that conclusion makes total sense, even without the supporting data. I think spoilers are good, actually.

  1. Quote by Alfred Hitchcock: “There is a distinct difference between "suspens...”

  2. Hollywood Reporter (1948) - Let 'Em Play God - The Alfred Hitchcock Wiki

  3. MAGQA1 - MAG S1 Q&A • The Magnus Archives Transcripts Archive Archive A (Extremely Unofficial)

  4. MAG183 - Monument • The Magnus Archives Transcripts Archive Archive A (Extremely Unofficial)

  5. MAG092 - Nothing Beside Remains • The Magnus Archives Transcripts Archive Archive A (Extremely Unofficial)

  6. Spoiler alert: spoilers make you enjoy stories more | University of California

  7. The fluency of spoilers: Why giving away endings improves stories | John Benjamins