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What Happens Next

***Spoilers*** ***Spoilers*** ***Spoilers***

Here in the valley between the television season’s cliffhangers and the ascent into summer blockbusters, spoilers are plentiful—and those who wish to remain unaware are on high alert. From 2008, a look at the many ways spoilers spoil everything. (Warning: Spoilers ahead.)

Credit: Brian Neudorff

Warning: This article contains spoilers for the following: Return of the Jedi (major), the first season of Survivor (massive), Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (moderate), and Captain America (he’s dead). Also, this disclaimer itself kind of spoils the article, in that it tells you ahead of time what will be discussed. Yeah, sorry about that.

 

It’s the morning of Friday, May 27, 1983, and my excitement is growing. Two days ago, Return of the Jedi premiered in theaters around the nation; tomorrow my best friend and I are going to see the film at Seattle’s ginormous Cinerama.

It is difficult to overstate the magnitude of the occasion. I was six when Star Wars was released, and had since devoted my life to the worship of all things Lucas. Watched the first two films a dozen times apiece: check. Read the novelizations: check. Endured The Star Wars Holiday Special on TV: check. Acquired Star Wars-themed posters, action figures, play sets, toys, comic books, bed sheets, lunch pails, LPs, and clothing: check, check, yes, to all.

Indeed, the notion that one’s life might not revolve around Star Wars was as alien to me as a Stennes Shifter. At one point I read in Bantha Tracks (The Official Star Wars Fan Club Newsletter, duh) that Lucas was planning two additional Star Wars trilogies, with the final film in the nonology slated to be released in 2012; shortly thereafter, I solemnly expressed my condolences to my grandmother, lamenting that she was unlikely to live to see all nine installments.

But this is not a day for such morbidity. My simple goal is to weather the crippling anticipation for 24 more hours, try to sleep at least two hours tonight, and then, tomorrow, finally, to revel in the final chapter of the greatest motion picture series of all time, ever, forever.

This morning, before school, I shuffle into the kitchen wearing my PJs to grab a quick bowl of Corn Pops. The TV is on, tuned to one of those live three-hour morning news programs; across from the host are three children, sitting on a couch. I pour my cereal, paying little attention to the show—that is, until I hear someone utter the magic word: “Chewbacca.”

My interest piqued, I hustle back to the television. These three lucky bastards, I soon learn, are amongst those who got to see the Return of the Jedi the day it opened (A Wednesday! A school night!), and are volunteering their opinions on the film. As none of the children are particularly garrulous, the host keeps prompting them with questions such as “How long did you wait in line?” and “Who is your favorite character?”

In response to this latter query, the child in the middle of the loveseat—a wholesome, freckle-faced boy of perhaps 10—confesses a love of Darth Vader. “Really?” asks the host playfully. “Even though he is so bad?”

“But in this movie he was kind of good,” the boy rebuts matter-of-factly. “Because in the end he, like, saves Luke Skywalker and kills the emperor.”

On the set there is an awkward pause. Then the host chuckles nervously. “Oh…I, uhhh…haha. I don’t think you were supposed to say that.”

Meanwhile, in Renton, Wash., I do as Darth Vader himself will do 22 years later in Revenge of the Sith. I throw back my head and cry “noooooooooo!!!!”

 

Seventeen years later, Aug. 23, 2000, I’m riding the bus home from work, returning to my apartment in north Seattle. I am trying to read a book but am constantly distracted by the woman across the aisle from me yammering into her cell phone. This is several years before we, as a people, become acclimated to people in public spaces bellowing details about their personal lives into the ether, and I am not alone in my annoyance. The woman seems completely oblivious to the dirty glances and irritated sighs of those around her, though, as she forges on with her conversation.

She is talking about Survivor. This is unsurprising, insofar as the entire nation is currently obsessed with the first season of the reality show. It’s possible that I’m the only person on this bus who is not a devotee. Even my girlfriend is hooked and, a few days ago, she made me promise to watch the season finale with her. Remembering this, it belatedly occurs to me that the program airs tonight.

I glance at my watch. It’s 6:45. The show begins in a little over an hour.

Suddenly, Cell Phone Lady’s conversation becomes disjointed, as if the person on the other end were interacting with a third party. “Right now?” CPL asks. “Who is talking? What is she saying? Hold the phone up, let me hear.”

Finally, mercifully, CPL shuts her goddamned yap for a moment. She still has the phone pinned to her ear though, listening intently. The hackles of those around her slowly go down; I am finally able to return my attention to my novel.

Then, alarmingly, CPL bellows loud enough for everyone on the bus to hear. “Richard??! Omigod I can’t believe he won—I fucking hate that guy!!”

For a split-second you can see everyone on the bus doing the math: Survivor starts at 8:00 p.m. in every time zone; it’s a two-hour finale; right now it’s 6:50, which makes it 9:50 on the East Coast. So if she was on the phone with someone in New York…

People turn in their seats. A murmur ripples through the crowd. Realizing her faux pas, CPL whispers some hasty goodbyes and squirrels the phone away in her purse as quickly as possible. And as people begin shouting, I think, “Wow—I am actually going to see someone get murdered.”

An hour later I sit in front of my television alongside my girlfriend, shrugging my shoulders and feigning ignorance when she asks who I think will win.

 

I hate spoilers. Hate them. Loathe them, even. Abhor. They are my archnemeses, my stock reply to the stock question, “What are your pet peeves?”

So great is my fear of spoilers that I live in a self-constructed cocoon designed to prevent Media Foreknowledge. I don’t read reviews, news articles, or press releases for films I intend to see, and even refuse to watch the trailers.

Even before Freckly McBlabbermouth ruined Jedi, I was the sort of kid who wouldn’t dream of searching for Christmas presents before Dec. 25, the sort who would actually read the last chapter of a Hardy Boys novel last. Feel free to attribute this characteristic to maturity beyond my years and admirable self-control, rather than to a fundamental failure of imagination that prevents me from enjoying something unless presented exactly as the creator intended.

So great is my fear of spoilers that I live in a self-constructed cocoon designed to prevent Media Foreknowledge. I don’t read reviews, news articles, or press releases for films I intend to see, and even refuse to watch the trailers. I don’t read the back of books, the inside dust jackets, or introductions. I have, over the course of many years, systematically bullied my friends into not speaking of those television programs to which I am not up to date.

I have, in short, become an enormous pain in the ass to all who have the misfortune to know me. But I think it’s worth it. Not only did I not know the secret behind The Usual Suspects, Memento, The Sixth Sense, or Fight Club when I saw them in the theater, I didn’t even know these films had secrets until the moment they were revealed. I managed to watch the Sopranos finale two years after its air date without a clue of what would transpire. I have abandoned any number of video games because of my obstinate refusal to consult walkthroughs, but those few I do finish feel oh, so satisfying.

 

Sadly, it’s becoming ever more difficult to remain a perma-naïf in the face of two recent phenomena. The first, of course, is the internet, where one person can, with a few hastily typed words, ruin everything for everyone everywhere at once.

And while low-level flamewars are a fairly common online occurrence, a well-placed spoiler can instantly turn a bunch of mild-mannered nerds into a frothing mob, batshit insane with rage. Metafilter.com, a popular internet discussion forum, transmogrifies into a barroom brawl about once every six months—whenever someone initiates a conversation about a movie or TV show and, in doing so, drops a spoiler into the topic title (i.e., where it is visible on the front page of the site and in the RSS feed). Sides inevitably form in the resultant fracas, with half the crowd insisting that spoilers should always (always, ALWAYS!) be preceded by a spoiler alert, while the other half chimes in with dismissive comments regarding panties and the bunching thereof. In one such incident, Metafilter members cried foul when the crux of the 1992 film The Crying Game appeared in a title; in response, one poster dryly opined that “15 years is well past the spoiler expiration date.”

“Spoiler expiration dates” come up again and again in these donnybrooks, but always in the abstract. The idea was fleshed out earlier this year in “Vulture”—the online arts, entertainment, and gossip column of New York Magazine—after the writers used a headline to trumpet the death of a character from the television program The Wire. After offering a spirited defense of spoilers (“Suck it up, America,” was their conclusion. “And watch the damn shows.”), they helpfully provided “Official Vulture Statutes of Limitations on Pop-Culture Spoilers.” Reality shows were considered fair game immediately; serial TV shows could be spoiled within a few days of their airing; the embargo on book spoilers went as late as six months after the date of publication; and they selflessly promised to provide opera spoilers “never.”

 

And then there’s the Harry Potter series. At times it seemed as though the internet was designed and implemented for a single purpose: to ruin the books for a generation of fans.

When Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was published in 1997, the alarming rate at which people flocked to the series was matched only by the mass of humanity trundling up the on-ramp to the Information Superhighway. By the time the penultimate installment of the book rolled around in 2005, the web—having perfected the art of spoilage on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 24, and a host of reality-television shows—was ready, a list of secrets in one hand, a bullhorn in the other.

Even before Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince hit the bookstores, news of a pivotal character’s demise was disseminated wildly and viciously across the web. A popular YouTube video showed a man cruising by a bookstore at midnight on the day of the book’s release, screaming the crucial detail at the line of youngsters queued up outside. The spoiler gained such prominence that it quickly became a catchphrase, making its way onto T-shirts and bumper stickers.

Spoilermongers, armed with the juicy details days before those who actually cared about the characters, headed to online forums and physical bookstores to share what they’d learned with the blissfully ignorant.

Scholastic, the book’s publisher, took no such chances with the final novel in the series. Only a handful of people were allowed to read the manuscript prior to publication; the trucks used to ship the books to retail outlets were fitted with GPS units to ensure they stayed on course; stores signed blood-oaths promising to keep copies sealed and away from the public until 12:01 a.m. on the appointed day; the publisher even refused to send advanced review copies to newspapers and magazines.

And yet, somehow, the entire book (in the form of scanned pages) made its way to file-sharing sites in the week before the book’s release. Spoilermongers, armed with the juicy details days before those who actually cared about the characters, headed to online forums and physical bookstores to share what they’d learned with the blissfully ignorant.

Even those without ill intentions were accused of betrayal by outraged Pottermaniacs. When the New York Times reviewed Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows two days before the book’s official publication date, they were besieged with email lambasting their decision. Even the author, J.K. Rowling, weighed in: “I am staggered that some American newspapers have decided to publish purported spoilers in the form of reviews,” she said. “In complete disregard of the wishes of literally millions of readers, particularly children.” The outcry was such that the Times’ readers’ representative, Clark Hoyt, was forced to defend the paper in his weekly column: “Our feeling is that once a book is offered up for sale at any public, retail outlet, and we purchase a copy legally and openly, we are free to review it.”

I contacted Mr. Hoyt to ask if, in the year since the debacle, he or the Times had entertained second thoughts about their decision to review the book early. “I do not believe that any newspaper is obligated to observe unilateral embargoes or release dates imposed by publishers,” he responded, adding: “The front-page review that appeared in the newspaper did not give away the ending of the book or any substantial details about it that might have destroyed the reading pleasure of Potter fans. If it had, I would have felt entirely differently about the matter.”

 

Even I was accused of leaking Harry Potter spoilers.

On July 20, 2007—the day before Deathly Hallows was released—I posted a humor piece to my blog, mocking both the breathless anticipation for the forthcoming novel and those who took pleasure in spoiling it for others:

Greetings from Amazon.com.

We thought you would like to know that we are preparing the following items for shipment:

------------------------------------------------------------

Qty Item

------------------------------------------------------------

1 Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

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Yes sir, tomorrow is the big day. July 21. The release of the final installment in the Harry Potter seventology, or whatever the hell it’s called.

Oh man, you must be excited. I bet you can’t wait to get your hands on this book.

Me, I’ve had my hands on the book pretty much continuously for the last week, preparing all these orders for shipment. In fact, I’m holding your copy as I write this.

It’s kind of funny, when you think of it: You’ve been looking forward to this book for a decade, probably pre-ordered the thing a year ago; and here I am, some warehouse-working Muddle (or whatever you call us), who doesn’t know Hogwarts from genital warts, with the book 24 hours before you.

That’s a little something called irony. You’ll appreciate it when you get older. Assuming you’re not some 37-year-old guy who lives with his parents and can recite the d20 stats for a gelatinous cube off the top of his head.

Well, don’t you worry. This book will be on your doorstep tomorrow afternoon, ready to read.

I, of course, could read the book--YOUR book--right now.

And I gotta admit, it WOULD be fun to be one of the first people in the world to know how it all ends.

Hmm. So, maybe I’ll just read the last page…

OH MY GOD I CANNOT BELIEVE IT!! IT WAS ALL A DREAM???!

Hah hah. I’m just yanking your chain. That’s not how it ends. Or maybe it IS, and I’m just saying it’s not so you’ll be doubly surprised when you finish it. You never know.

I really did read the last page, though. The final word is “haberdashery.” You can verify that when you get the book. Tomorrow. A full day after I had it.

I gotta tell ya, though: Now that I know how it ends, I kind of want to read the whole thing. If I start right now, I could probably finish it and get this book in the mail to you by Wednesday. You wouldn’t mind waiting a few extra days, would you?

Also, I dog-ear pages to save my place. I hope that’s OK.

j/k. I wouldn’t really read this book. 1,000 words about fairies? Yeah, no. Besides, who has the time? Some of us have to work for a living. For instance, I bust my hump 60 hours a week schlepping your books around.

Besides, I’d rather see the movie anyway. That chick who plays Hermione is smoking hot. I’d quidditch, if you know what I’m sayin’.

All right, settle down. I’m putting your precious doorstop in the box now. If you’ve explored the links on the Your Account page but still need assistance with your order, you’ll find links to e-mail or call Amazon.com Customer Service in our Help department at http://www.amazon.com/help/

Thank you for shopping with us.

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Amazon.com… and you’re done!

http://www.amazon.com/

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P.s. Dobby dies.

 

Dobby is a secondary character in the novels, an obnoxious “house-elf” I marked for death specifically because I couldn’t imagine anyone mourning his loss. Still, worried that some people might think the piece contained spoilers, I added a short disclaimer: “For the record, I have not read the new Harry Potter book.”

And yet, three days later, I received this email:

I used to enjoy your writing, and thought your Harry Potter post was especially funny—up till last night, that is. I was just over halfway through reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows at the time my opinion changed.

Next time, try actually reading the book BEFORE claiming a post about it is “spoiler-free.”

My reaction to this missive was sheer indignation. You dare accuse me—me, Matthew Baldwin, Keeper of the Holy Secrets—of promulgating spoilers? Preposterous! Outrageous! At long last, random person from the internet, have you no shame?

I replied, and laid out my counter-argument:

That’s ridiculous. My piece COULDN’T have contained spoilers, because I had not read the book—and you knew that. In my opinion, something can only be considered a true spoiler if it meets two conditions:

  1. It reveals a true fact about the narrative; and
  2. The person hearing the spoiler knows (or, at least, believes) that the person revealing the spoiler knows it to be true.

After all, you surely had discussions with your friends concerning Harry Potter 7 prior to its release, during which you speculated as to what might happen. (“Maybe Harry will die,” “Maybe Voldemort will die,” etc.) Did those predictions which came to pass become retroactive spoilers as well? Of course not, because you knew that, at the time those guesses were made, they were just that: guesses. That they were later validated changes nothing.

My post was even less of a spoiler than such speculations, because I wasn’t even making informed guesses—I was just writing whatever I thought would be funniest.

Besides, consider the inverse. What if I had prefaced my post with “I HAVE read the book and can assure you that this post contains no spoilers.” Then if the last line still read “Dobby dies” you would have known for a fact that Dobby DOESN’T die. And that would have been an actual spoiler.

In fact, I’d argue that the only way to discuss a book without revealing spoilers—either by commission or omission—is to have not read it.

I didn’t really expect a reply. It was obvious that I was correct, my logic impeccable. Really, the only possible response was contrition for her slanderous charges.

Instead:

You make some interesting points, but I think you’re focusing on the intent of the so-called “spoiler,” not the result, i.e. the “spoilage.” Consider:

  • Did your comment spoil my reading experience? Yes.
  • Was my experience any less spoiled because you didn’t know your comment was true? No.
  • Was my experience any less spoiled because you really, truly, honestly, swear to God didn’t mean to spoil the experience for anyone? No.
  • Was my experience any less spoiled because I knew your comment was true only by accident? Nope again.

Your joke that the series was “all a dream” did not spoil my reading experience, because only a ninny would believe something like that (and I’m no ninny).

But “Dobby dies” was entirely plausible—you had a 50 percent chance of being right, after all. And from the moment Dobby was mentioned in the book, I was expecting him to die, because you’d planted that thought in my head. Even though you’d said you hadn’t read the book, when it finally happened I felt like I’d known it would for a week.

Your comment “spoiled”; it was therefore a “spoiler.”

 

What mystifies me about my angered emailer and those who complained to the New York Times is why they were reading anything relating to a Harry Potter novel in the days before its release. When I come across even a fleeting mention of a book, TV show, or movie I don’t want spoiled, I have trained myself to quickly close my eyes, turn my head away from the monitor, jab the shutdown button on my PC, yank the plug from the wall, pull my shirt over my head, and evacuate the premises in an urgent but orderly fashion.

Because, let’s be honest: What were Potterheads who read the Times’s Harry Potter review looking for if not some indication of the things to come? A non-fan might read a review to decide if they should take the plunge, or simply to learn more about this cultural phenomenon, but when you’re already a devotee, when you already know you’re going to read the book and love it, reading a review strikes me as nothing short of peeking. It’s as if these people actively sought spoilers and then became enraged when those they encountered were not of the kind or degree that they had hoped for, the whole debacle a classic case of “why didn’t you protect me from myself?!”

Which brings me to the second recent phenomenon that has greatly complicated life for spoilerphobes like me: the rise of spoiler culture, an ever-growing community of people who actively seek out additional information about shows, movies, books, and other forms of narrative entertainment to which they have become addicted.

Because it’s not as if the only spoilers on the internet these days are those planted by trolls and divulged by the careless. Entire sites are devoted to the collection and categorization of spoilers, and for just about every medium imaginable. Several sites post complete synopses of current movies, competing amongst themselves to be the first to blab all the details about the latest blockbuster. Comic books are discussed and dissected days before the issues actually hit the newsstands. There are even sites that specialize in “dirtsheets,” which reveal details—some tantalizingly vague, others blatant—about events slated to transpire in upcoming professional wrestling matches.

And nothing has been so exhaustively analyzed as the television show Lost, which is to spoilers what milkshakes are to boys in the yard. Entire sites are devoted to discussion of this show alone, the message boards full-to-bursting with theories, predictions, debate, and trivia.

Of course, Lost is uniquely suited to spoiling. Where Seinfeld was a “show about nothing,” Lost is a show about secrets, with the very premise of the show unknown even after four seasons. Every episode introduces new mysteries, turns assumptions on their head, and ends with a cliffhanger. The ensemble cast is sufficiently large to allow the regular and routine snuffing of secondary characters, and the very few points of absolute certainty allow for extensive and frequent revision of the universe in which the show is set.

It is, in short, an absolute nightmare for anyone who needs to know what the hell is going on at any given time. And, perversely, it seems as though those sorts of people make up a huge portion of its audience. So, between episodes, they flock online, to the spoiler sites, hoping for hints of what’s going to happen next, or clarity on what just happened.

Many simply liked to regulate the flow of information, rather than rely on the show’s writers to do it for them; for these people, deciding how much information to learn about the future story, and when to hear it, was akin to pushing the button to receive another dose of painkiller, rather than waiting for the nurse to turn up again the following Wednesday night.

The enormous community of Lost fans, lurching around the internet in search of spoilers like zombies after brains, has even attracted academic interest. Particip@tions: International Journal of Audience Research recently featured an article entitled “Speculation on Spoilers: Lost Fandom, Narrative Consumption and Rethinking Textuality.” The two authors of the study were, like myself, Lost fans baffled by the allure of spoilers. Why on Earth would anyone voluntarily “ruin” for themselves a show based almost entirely on the thrill of the unexpected?

Surprisingly, they found not just one motivation, but many. Some respondents said that advanced knowledge of the big twists allowed them to stop wondering what was going to happen while watching and instead focus on the story. Others viewed the show as a huge puzzle, with the refusal to study all sources of information in trying to “solve” the show making as little sense as forgoing the dictionary when completing a crossword. And many simply liked to regulate the flow of information, rather than rely on the show’s writers to do it for them; for these people, deciding how much information to learn about the future story, and when to hear it, was akin to pushing the button to receive another dose of painkiller, rather than waiting for the nurse to turn up again the following Wednesday night.

Those who work in TV, however, have their own opinions on what motivates those seeking spoilers. “We live in a spoiler society,” said Survivor host Jeff Probst in an interview with Entertainment Weekly. “How many times does somebody ask, ‘Did you hear what happened?’ And you say, ‘No.’ In that little moment, that person with information has power. I’m 100 percent certain spoilers are as simple as that.” And Joss Whedon, the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, warned the New York Times that surprise, a sensation he describes as a “holy emotion,” is on the verge of extinction. “The more we dilute that with insider knowledge,” he says, “with previews that show too much, with spoilers, with making-of specials, the more we’re robbing ourselves of something we essentially need.” As Survivor and Buffy are two of the most spoiled programs of all time, Probst and Whedon presumably know of what they speak.

Sadly for Jeff and Joss and me, our “spoiler society” is here to stay. After all, a modern-day spoiler is as likely to come from the marketing department of a production studio as it is from a loudmouthed moron with a cell phone on the bus. Remember when Captain America died? Of course you do—you were probably “remembering” it before it even happened. That’s because the staff of Marvel Comics publicized the event relentlessly in the weeks before it took place, all but standing on street corners and shouting the news at passing motorists in an effort to bolster sales. Get ready for more of that.

People seeking spoilers are no longer viewed as an aberration, but as the consumers of a product. A few decades ago video-game designers learned that, if they laced their software with secrets, they could then sell the walkthroughs necessary to find them all. With more and more people watching TV shows on DVDs, or from DVRs, or as a downloaded video file, studios have learned to do something analogous: pack their shows with hints and clues, and then point out these “Easter eggs” via spoilers. Leaking nuggets of information between episodes, and huge chunks of story between seasons, also works wonders in stringing viewers along, keeping their appetite whetted even when the show is off the air.

More and more, the truth is out there (to paraphrase another show prone to spoilage). The trick for people who hate spoilers is to somehow avoid it, until the surprise can be discovered in its natural habitat. In one way I feel like I have been given a curse, the opposite of Cassandra’s: It’s not that I can see the future and no one will believe me, it’s that everyone else knows How It’s Going to End—and I can’t stop them from blurting it out.

biopic

TMN Contributing Writer Matthew Baldwin has haphazardly updated his site defective yeti for more than a decade. He is also responsible for Infinite Summer (an internet-wide reading of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest), A Month of Son (a blog about raising his autistic son), and Seattle Gamenight (a monthly tabletop gaming group). More by Matthew Baldwin