Expert explains: Why the spoiler panic is based on a misunderstanding
A film scholar clarifies in an interview with the star about myths surrounding the topic of spoilers and provides insights into the current state of research. After all, spoilers are still a fairly recent phenomenon.
professor dr Simon Spiegel (44) is a Swiss film scholar and film critic. He teaches at the University of Zurich and is currently researching the topic of spoilers. In an interview with the star he explains why we shouldn’t be afraid of spoilers anymore and why nobody knew spoiler warnings 20 years ago.
star: Mr. Spiegel, at the moment you’re constantly reading “Warning, spoilers” and “Spoiler alert”. Has it always been like this?
Simon Spiegel: No, the fear of spoilers is a fairly recent phenomenon. In the English-speaking world, the term has been used for 20 years, in German perhaps for ten to 15. The spoiler topic picked up speed at the turn of the millennium. Social media has opened up completely new forms of communication: You can reach more people faster. In the past, you could just skip over a review in the newspaper. You read a tweet or a post by mistake much faster.
Does that have something to do with the increasing popularity of streaming services like Netflix and Co.?
I’ll put it this way: it’s not because it wasn’t possible to reveal the end of a film or a book in the past. But: How we consume films and series has changed. There is no longer this simultaneity. An example: everyone used to see the crime scene on Sunday evening and then talk about it. Today it’s different: some watch the new series at once, others split them up. This non-simultaneity holds more potential for spoilers. But the number of films and series with twists has also increased.
When did you first encounter spoilers?
I was fascinated by films since I was a teenager. Before I went to university, I read a lot about films, back then there was no streaming. I then saw a lot of the classics in the arthouse cinema. And of course I had already read a lot about most of them: what it is about, what the highlight is and why the film is known at all. But the fact that I knew in advance what was going to happen didn’t matter whether I thought the films were great or not.
It’s more about what takes me emotionally: What makes me collapse in the cinema chair with fear, what makes me cling to it with excitement? It’s about rhythm, about music, about the acting. It’s not the plot. The plot is not unimportant, but it is not crucial to the emotional experience.
So it’s other things than a plot twist that make a movie or a series good.
I daresay if a movie can be ruined by a spoiler, then it’s not a very good movie. It can’t be that I watch a 90 or 120 minute film or a whole series just because of the ending. It’s more about what happens along the way: the development of the characters or crazy stunts. That’s usually even more interesting than the ending. And favorite novels and favorite series are the best indication that prior knowledge is not a problem. On the contrary: You can watch and enjoy them again and again. And you might even discover a new detail every time that you hadn’t noticed before.
So where does the fear of spoilers come from?
The fear of spoilers is based on a mistake. The fear of spoilers is based on an assumption: the ideal situation is that I don’t know anything about the film in advance. But that’s wrong: I always have prior knowledge, more or less detailed. All popular entertainment works on the principle that as a viewer I get what I want. A genre such as crime thriller consists of nothing but stories that work according to the same principle. And nothing new is there. Some films even require prior knowledge. So spoilers don’t downsize films and series. You can even amplify the experience: knowing about the ending makes the story of Romeo and Juliet even more dramatic. It’s exactly the same with the Titanic. This is called dramatic irony. As a viewer, you have the foreknowledge that things are not going well with the main character.
Are there certain genres where spoilers are more common?
In my perception, the spoiler panic is limited to mainstream films where we already know what’s going on. What happens in the new Marvel, Star Wars or James Bond film is actually already clear in advance. James Bond always wants to save the world from a villain, there are always car chases. But in the art house realm, no one cares about spoilers, and that’s where the plot is less predictable and more often surprising and innovative. So: precisely where there are the fewest spoilers, the sensitivity to them is highest.
People who rant about spoilers would probably be very dissatisfied if a new Marvel movie or James Bond were different than what they’re used to.