I’ve long thought that the ability of spoilers to ruin movies and novels is overstated. Don’t get me wrong, someone who watches The Sixth Sense for the first time deserves the surprise that that Bruce Willis was dead, so you shouldn’t be an ass about it and tell anyone about to watch Citizen Kane for the first time that Rosebud was his sled. But I tend to like intentional spoilers. Shakespeare wrote this in the prologue of Romeo and Juliet:
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents’ strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark’d love,
And the continuance of their parents’ rage,
Which, but their children’s end, nought could remove,
Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.
Likewise, in the very first episode of How I met Your Mother, we learn that Ted does not marry Robin. Nevertheless, the whole first season is dedicated to his pursuit of her, and the entire second season is about their relationship, which ends in the season 2 finale. Does knowing that Romeo and Juliet die, or that Robin and Ted don’t end up together, ruin these experiences? I say that the advanced knowledge makes them better. It’s that much more agonizing and tragic when you see the multiple opportunities that could have prevented R&J’s demise. Likewise, there is a certain poignancy to watching the early stages of a doomed relationship.
That’s just my view of course, and there’s a difference between stories in which the author intended for you to learn the ending first vs. those in which they did not. However, now SCIENCE comes along to back me up. In today’s issue of Science that just posted, I see the following summary of an article published in Psychological Science:
Story spoilers “ruin” the ending of a tale and leave people with a bad taste in their mouth—right? Wrong, say psychologist Nicholas Christenfeld and colleagues at the University of California, San Diego. The team assessed how readers responded to having the ending spoiled for a variety of short stories in three genres of literature, including mysteries, ironic-twist tales (such as Anton Chekhov’s “The Bet” and Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”), and literary classics (such as Stephen Crane’s “A Dark-Brown Dog”).
The team asked more than 800 test subjects to read three different tales within a genre—each with a different “spoiler” condition. For one piece, the readers learned the ending of the story right at the beginning; in a second, the spoiler was threaded into the tale; and in the last, the reader remained unspoiled throughout. After each reading, subjects were asked to rate their enjoyment of the story on a scale of 1 to 10.
To the researchers’ surprise, spoilers didn’t lessen readers’ enjoyment, but significantly increased it, they report in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science. “Lots of people find this counterintuitive,” Christenfeld says, but “one’s sense that the critical thing about reading is getting to the end and discovering what happens is wrong.”
The results may help explain why many people still enjoy books, movies, and shows the second or third time around. And the results may also call into question how much people like surprises: Engagement champagne and birthday cake might taste even sweeter if they were spoiled.
It’s very interesting to me that they deliberately picked stories in which the ending is supposed to be a surprise, and yet those who heard the spoiler first reported more enjoyment.