11.23.2021 09:00 AM
SPOILER ALERT: Spoiler Alerts Are Making Us All Stupid
If you think they’re protecting the experience of experiencing art, you’re more deluded than you know.
Illustration: Sam Whitney; Getty Images
Roger Ebert was a dick. Is, in death, still a dick. Back in 1989, he reviewed, among other things, Dead Poets Society. He gave it two stars—but that’s not the worst of it. The worst of it was this: “The father is a strict, unyielding taskmaster, and the son, lacking the will to defy him, kills himself.” Kills himself? When I read that as a kid, excited for a screening at school the next day, I assured myself the suicide would happen at the beginning of the movie. Wrong. Said son, Neil, kills himself much nearer the end. So I spent most of class knowing it would—waiting for it to—happen. I’ve never forgiven Ebert for that unforgivable, as we now call it, spoiler.
I, like everyone, hate spoilers. They’re a special kind of soul-crushing. You do everything you can to avoid them, only to fall victim to a stray tweet, a loaded headline, an overeager Wikipedia editor. Or, on occasion, a devilish prank. On the day the last Harry Potter book came out—July 21, 2007—someone called my cell phone at 3 in the morning. For whatever reason, I answered. There was heavy breathing, and then two sickeningly voice-distorted words: “Hermione dies.” Click. Psychologists would refer to this as formative trauma. To this day, I have no idea who it was.
Hermione does not, of course, die. She very much lives, and goes on to snog Ron till some unwritten, presumably much-further-off death does them part. But how was I to know that? I read all of Deathly Hallows convinced that this—no, this—wait, here it comes—surely it must be now!—would be the part where Hermione would finally snuff it. Such is the proleptic agony of the enspoiled condition. Spoilers loom like shadows over a story, blotting out the light of possibility, ever announcing, Thanos-like, their horrible inevitability.
There’s only one tool in the fight against that darkness, and you know it well: the SPOILER ALERT! The phrase dates back to the ’80s, when early computer geeks came online and realized some of their newfound peers had seen more Star Trek and read more comics than they had. In order to protect themselves from unwanted knowledge—like just how inevitable Thanos might be—they requested spoilers be formally alerted. Nearly half a century later, the practice has become so commonplace in nearly all writing about film, books, and TV that to make even coded references to possible major plot points is to prod the social internet into attack mode. We are all living, in other words, in the shadow of some teenage nerd’s angst.
Well, now I think I hate spoiler alerts.
The obvious question spoiler alerts raise is this: What’s so scary about knowing what happens? About knowing, ultimately, how it ends? Nobody freaks out about beginnings. Actually, that’s not true. Beginnings freak people out for separate reasons. Think about artists, perpetually unsure of how to start their sure-to-be-great work. The intro of a song, the opening shot of a film, a journalist’s lede—you can practically see the blood beading at their temples as they struggle to commit to one path or another. The fantasy writer Patrick Rothfuss went through something like 40 drafts of the first page of his book The Name of the Wind. Janet Malcolm did a version of the same thing when she profiled the artist David Salle. In the end, that’s all she published in The New Yorker: “Forty-One False Starts.” We’re a society obsessed with origin stories, with beginnings.
But beginnings aren’t, in the end, real. They’re a device, a deception, nothing more: some anecdote or observation picked out and propagandized for your instant ensnarement. They are, as a result, fairly effective. If you’re still reading this, it’s probably because I called Roger Ebert a dick in the first line. Do I really think he’s a dick? I did when I was a kid. Now? Not so much. The older I get, the more I think he was right about everything. Dead Poets Society is, at best, a two-star movie.
Going back to Ebert’s review now, I see it for what it is. It’s about the movie’s “manipulative instincts,” and to critique them, Neil’s suicide must be mentioned. The death “would have had a greater impact for me,” Ebert wrote, “if it had seemed like a spontaneous human cry of despair, rather than like a meticulously written and photographed set piece.” Yes, he could’ve warned us at the top that the review would “contain spoilers”—a practice he would succumb to in later years, no doubt at the knifepoint of social media—but good criticism should not cater to our childish fears of spoiled pleasures, with disclaimers and warnings and other acts of silly self-debasement. It should honestly evaluate a work of art in its entirety, and you can’t do that without talking about what happens. Besides, it’s not even clear that spoilers really do ruin one’s experience of art. So what if you know Neil’s gonna off himself? We know Romeo and Juliet do; doesn’t mean we skip the show. On the contrary, when the burden of plot is relieved, you’re free to observe the ways in which a story is told, the choices and foreshadowing and subtle manipulations: the things that make art truly artistic.
But very few of us wish to think and talk in those terms; we’re all too jumpy at the merest suggestion of uninvited information. So we protect artless plot contrivances as sacred—as if the ending of, say, Dune will surprise anyone (except for the part where Paul’s son dies)—but dismiss artful criticism as obscene. The result is a culture not only obsessed with beginnings but, in an equal-opposite way, terrified of endings. So those endings get worse and worse, if not downright impossible. Maybe if Rothfuss hadn’t spent so much time on the first page of Name of the Wind, he’d know how to end his trilogy. (It’s been 10 years since book two.) Our fear of endings extends even to the biggest story of them all: this godforsaken global pandemic. When did it start? March 2020. It began before that, of course. Weeks, if not months, if not years, before. But March 2020 marked the beginning. The beginning of lockdown. The manufactured beginning of the story. The beginning of the end.
Stupid phrase, the beginning of the end. It presupposes an ending, when that’s anything but a given. When will the pandemic actually end? Nobody knows. Certain people won’t even let their minds go there. They’d rather cling to the plot of it all, without thinking any of it through. No spoilers, please! Endings are scary, and that’s why we have spoiler alerts. They distract us from having to contemplate the thing we fear most, the fear of the ultimate end: of death itself.