[This is a post about spoilers. It will contain spoilers]
Remember when Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince first came out, and yelling “Snape kills Dumbledore!” being something like an evil meme? Something you would yell to ruin people’s lives, an attack reserved for the most devious of tricksters or most obnoxious of bullies? Wasn’t that a wild time? Do we still, collectively, feel that way about the tricky and weird business of “spoilers”?
Spoilers are called so because learning that bit of information supposedly spoils your experience with the story. “Snape kills Dumbledore” was the worst thing in the world you could announce to anybody when Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince came out, because Snape killing Dumbledore was a shocking and powerful moment in the story’s climax that, doubtless, would be much less shocking and powerful if you knew it was coming. I can attest to this logic: when reading A Storm of Swords, I was kind of prepared for Robb Stark to die. Simply by virtue of hanging around on the internet I’d gleaned that there was something called The Red Wedding and, while I didn’t know exactly what it entailed, I could assume from context that it wasn’t a particularly fun time for anyone. So when I got to Robb’s murder at said wedding in the book, I was like “ah, so that’s what that is.” I felt pain of course because I liked Robb a lot and terrible things happened to him, but the blow was unmistakeably softened.
And I know the blow was softened because I had an experience to directly compare it to: I knew Robb died at some point, but I didn’t know Catelyn did. So when Catelyn died it was an absolute unexpected gut-punch that made me damn near throw the book across the room (I’m glad I didn’t, though, because given the size and weight of A Storm of Swords it probably would’ve caused structural damage if it had hit a wall or piece of furniture).
So yeah, having big plot twists or climactic events spoiled for you does spoil the impact. A shocking event is notably less shocking when you know it’s coming, and often you can’t appreciate a clever twist as much if you know the truth of it already and can’t effectively get roped into the solving of the mystery, which is one of the reasons I envy those who could dive into any iteration of Fate/Stay Night not knowing Archer’s true identity. When Unlimited Blade Works was airing I saw YouTube videos and meta posts painstakingly putting together theories and evidence to discern who he was, and a lot of the pre-existing fandom were giggling into their hands because oh, those sweet naïve fools, but honestly I envied them. Archer’s true identity is a clever and exciting plot twist that has both emotional (character growth!) and physical (action scenes!) consequences, and sometimes I kind of wish I hadn’t gone in knowing the answer already, just to experience the guessing game as it was originally intended to be played.
Of course, if we’re on the subject of Fate (as, for some terrible reason, I so often am), it’s worth mentioning the prickly problem of prequels, which when paired with their source material basically exist to “spoil” each other. There’s much debate over which to watch first, given that Fate/Zero spoils massive plot twists for Fate/Stay Night, like Sakura and Rin being related, which you don’t find out until the final route of the game but is presented matter-of-factly in the prequel; and in effect Fate/Stay Night also spoils massive plot twists for Fate/Zero, like, you know, the fact that Zero’s hero fails miserably and everything blows the hell up. The same way that watching episodes I,II and III of Star Wars will “spoil” you for everything that’s meant to be a shocking reveal in episodes IV, V and VI (again, like who’s related to who), and indeed the original trilogy “spoils” the ending of the prequels (“uh, yeah, we know he’s his father…”).
Supposedly stories like this are meant to be watched in any order, which in itself is quite nifty, but if you go into anything like that you run into the weird problem of “spoiling” yourself simply by trying to enjoy the story in its parts. Maybe the true best way to avoid spoilers is to never watch or engage with any piece of media at all. If such a thing could work.
See, spoilers are like gossip about your ex—you know you’re probably better off going through life without it, but part of you is still like “tell me everything!!” People literally go to conventions and panels and ask actors and creators for spoilers—they say “what’s going to happen in season three? Is so-and-so really dead? Can you confirm this fan theory that characters A and B were really clones all along?” The internet is constantly flooded with speculation about what’s going to happen next in a new movie or new season, with everyone and their mother clamouring to know, when logically they don’t want to. It’s a weird oxymoron of fandom existence, and it’s led to creators straight up lying and baiting fans with false information just to feed these plot hyenas.
The Duffer brothers have reportedly said Eleven might not be coming back for Stranger Things season two, which got everyone into a tizzwazz, but come on. Eleven is integral to the story they’ve set up, not to mention a massive fan favourite, so they’re clearly talking out their rear in an effort to, I don’t know, throw people off the scent, or give them deliberately false “spoilers” so that fans are simultaneously appeased by being answered, and still get the full effect of whatever story they’re actually writing. (Note: since the time this post was drafted, Eleven has been confirmed to reappear, so there was most certainly some rear-talking on somebody’s part)
Which is an unnecessarily convoluted system when the easiest thing to do would be not ask. But people have a weird love-hate relationship with spoilers. Some people will scream in horror when anyone in their field of view even hints at what happens in an episode they haven’t seen yet, and others will leap onto every bit of leaked promo footage they can get their hands on. I am somehow both these people at once, so please know that I’m casting no particular judgement. What I do judge people for is complaining that good-hearted efforts like content warning systems are perpetuating the dread crime of spoiling and ought to not exist at all, because that just gets dumb really fast.
Sometimes, for valid reasons, people want to be “spoiled” for shocking and terrible twists in a show or book—someone saying gently “Hey, by the way this episode has a graphic sexual assault scene in it” is by all technicalities a spoiler, but for many it’s an incredibly welcome one, since then they can either a) know that it’s coming and so, as in the case of “spoiled” character deaths, the blow will be softened because the viewer has had time to emotionally prepare themselves, or b) know not to watch it at all, for the betterment of their mental health and/or general mood. In days of yore when I watched Game of Thrones, I got scared that it would throw nasty things like that in my face, and so I pre-read reviews so I knew what was going to happen. These reviews were full of “spoilers”, but they helped guide me through the series without getting any horrible shocks.
“But the shock is the point!” you might say. This, as I said at the start, is a valid argument. But in the weird territory of spoilers it all comes down to personal preference—some people want to go in blind and get the full unmarred experience, some people can’t emotionally afford to do that because, for example, a panic attack might be triggered. Content warnings are important, which is why we have those “rated PG, may contain violence” stickers on, you know, every piece of media legally produced and distributed for public consumption. And hey, some people just enjoy being “spoiled” because they do—as in most cases it’s a matter of being polite about it.
If you are going to talk loudly about plot elements that might render the media in question more effective if a reader didn’t know them, talk loudly quietly, or tell people you’re going to be talking loudly about them so anyone who doesn’t want to hear can run out of the room. If you despise spoilers in any form, block your ears or just make sure not to hang around people who might talk about them until you’ve seen or read the thing in question, and don’t be rude to those who are talking about the thing because “spoiling” certain elements of the thing might be beneficial to their emotional wellbeing. It’s an odd but relatively simple business.