A few years ago, UC San Diego psychology researchers Nicholas Christenfeld and Jonathan Leavitt published a study in Psychological Science that stated that being spoiled to a story not only doesn’t hurt the experience; it may actually IMPROVE it. In fact, the study showed that people who were spoiled about major plot points in advance ended up with higher happiness levels. This being the Internet, however, most people were skeptical. I believe the technical term most frequently heard with regard to the study was “BULLSH*T.”
But the more I thought about that study over the years, the more it made sense, and right now, television is proving it. How? Well, look at the two most popular dramas in all of television right now: The Walking Dead (28 million weekly viewers) and Game of Thrones (18 million weekly viewers). What do those two shows have in common? They’re based on books (or a comic book series, in the case of The Walking Dead). A large percentage of viewers of both shows have also read the source material, and it’s the book readers (especially in the case of Game of Thrones) who are, by and large, most passionate about the show. The irony in the book readers’ passion for the show is that, for the most part, they know what’s going to happen. They’ve been spoiled to many of the major plot points in those series, and yet, it doesn’t seem to hurt their viewing experience. Based on the passion they feel for their respective shows, I’d argue that they’re actually more invested in the series.
In fact, if Internet posts and commentary are any indication, book readers actually have a less happy viewing experience when they are surprised by a plot point that has been changed from the books. Hell, book readers were pissed off that one line had been changed a few episodes ago. Part of that is a natural loyalty to the source material, part of it is a belief that the source material may have been a better, and a very big part of it is being excited by what book readers know is about to come.
Here’s two examples from Game of Thrones that reinforce the point that spoilers don’t hurt the viewing experience (SPOILERS): First off, the Red Wedding episode. I am not a GoT book reader, but I knew — like most people — that something was coming, and when it came, it was shocking, but I don’t think anyone enjoyed the Red Wedding as much as the book readers. Non-book readers were shocked. Book readers were GIDDY. And the popularity of those reaction videos also proves just how much more those who knew what was coming enjoyed it: Book readers were ecstatic over the surprised reactions because they not only got to experience viewing it, they got to experience their friends’ shock.
On the other hand, in my line of work, I am very often spoiled to things, and it almost never bothers me, except it turned out, in this past episode of Game of Thrones. I knew that Ygritte was going to die (I didn’t know how), but it turned out that — in my opinion, anyway — the execution was so off on that scene that the only thing it really had going for it was the surprise. This, however, is not the fault of the spoiler: It was the fault of the writing and directing of that sequence. It was flat.
Something a friend of mine wrote on spoilers has always stuck with me:
The beauty of stories is in the process, in the intricate detail and movement of the pieces, of feeling the emotional drama assemble itself. Oh sure, you’re missing out on the surprise the first time around if you’re spoiled, but I don’t listen to stories in order to jump when the teller yells “boo!” unexpectedly. Knowing the ending actually makes a story more enjoyable, because it allows you to more fully see the pieces, to appreciate the movement that is happening as it happens.
That’s exactly why I didn’t like the Ygritte death; not because I’d been spoiled, but because the emotional drama wasn’t properly assembled. On the other hand, I think I might have enjoyed the Red Wedding even MORE if I’d known it was coming because I could’ve better appreciated the way Benioff and Weiss pieced it together. I’d also been spoiled on Oberyn’s death a couple of weeks ago, but they assembled that fight sequence so well that I still ended up both devastated and thrilled by it. It was just a great action sequence.
Surprises are fun, but they can also distract from the storytelling, especially when they are used to disguise bad storytelling. Being spoiled, on the other hand, often helps us to appreciate the best storytelling. That said, I’m not suggesting that everyone run out and spoil themselves on the rest of Game of Thrones, but I will say that I know much of what is coming in this Sunday’s season finale (because I clearly hang out with people who can’t keep it to themselves!), and yet I haven’t been this excited about an episode of TV since “Ozymandias.”