Call for Comments: Mystery Boxes, Spoilers, and Fandoms

From Hannah: Before I was on the show, we received a suggestion for a show topic on how popular culture fandoms react to spoilers from listener Jessi Bencloski. Spoilers are tricky, especially in big fandoms such as Harry PotterLost, Star Wars, and Game of Thrones. Part of what drives (or drove) those fandoms, especially once fan communities emerged online, was the discussion of what could happen next but also the careful avoidance of true spoilers. At the same time, these same fandoms thrive on (at least certain types) of spoilers: who is returning for the next film/season, vague hints from spoiler websites like TVLine about future plot developments, etc. And, besides striking the balance between theorizing/discussion and outright spoiling, we of course have questions of how long should we wait to talk about spoilers? Should I not reveal the plot twist in Jane Eyre to new readers, even though it was published in 1847? If a show is predicated on twists like The Good Place (the best show currently on television), is it worse to spoil it than something like Superstore?

There seem to be two main, but opposed, views on spoilers. The first is that if you’re spoiled — especially on big twists — you’ll enjoy the content much less. Things that are supposed to be scary won’t be as scary, for instance. The marketing team for J.J. Abrams’s The Force Awakens did a nice of job of showing only glimpses of the new Star Wars film. There was plenty for fans to theorize over, without seeing the whole plot of the movie, like in trailers such as Batman v. Superman. (I haven’t seen it, but I don’t really need to now, do I?) As someone who was spoiled on the final confrontation on the Astronomy tower in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, I personally know just how annoying spoilers can be (especially when someone yells it to you out of spite).

J.J. Abrams, who co-created Lost and is a large part of the new Star Wars trilogy, has a concept of the mystery box that is related to this question of spoilers. A mystery, Abrams said in his TED talk, “is the catalyst of imagination … there are times when mystery is more important than knowledge.” There is infinite possibility in the mystery, new stuff or even the subversion of typical narrative is what draws us in. Narratives, Abrams says, are all mystery boxes.

But just as knowing what happened in the sixth Harry Potter book didn’t ruin my experience reading it, there have been studies that have shown that spoilers don’t ruin fan experience. In our genre episode, we talked about how specific genres follow certain tropes. We want to know that romance novels will follow a certain plot line. Part of the benefit of being “spoiled” (and part of the reason why studios so often release movie trailers with what could be seen as big reveals) is so you don’t waste time with something that you won’t like or expecting a specific type of narrative and getting something else. If our enjoyment is predicated on novelty, why do we rewatch Lost, reread Harry Potter or Agatha Christie novels, or go back to Watchmen? And it’s possible that our opinions change over time after repeat viewings or readings.

So that’s what I have. We could honestly debate what counts as a spoiler (at least in terms of what requires a tag or preface). Should spoilers have expiration dates? How should fans handle discussion amongst themselves? What is the balance between maintaining the mystery of a piece of entertainment and making sure you want to invest time in it? Are there some types of media where spoilers are more okay than others?

From Mav: Hannah makes some really good points, but I’d add that I think the idea of spoilers as a major cultural phenomenon seems relatively recent. That is, I think they always existed, but I think that there are a lot of weird things about the present that make spoilers more culturally relevant.

The first is that we control TV now, rather than it controlling us. In the old days of serialized television (and before that radio) things came on when they came on and if you missed it, you waited six months til rerun season, and if you missed it the second time… you were shit out of luck. Consequently, TV moved slow. From week to week serialized shows didn’t change very much; there was a lot of recapping. Especially with the morning daily soap operas. Even on the weekly evening shows, big things basically happened once or twice a season, and if you cared about the show, you were there to watch it when it aired. After all, you don’t want to be the only one who doesn’t get to find out who shot J.R. do you? Do you?!?! I didn’t think so.

Because no one wanted to miss it… and no one did. Because that’s the other thing that was important about serialized TV back then. When a big event happened, it was BIG! They called it water cooler television, because the next day at work, everyone would be crowded around in the break room discussing what exactly had happened. It was a spoiler discussion. And if you hadn’t seen the episode, you wanted to be a part of it. You wanted to hear every single word. After all, you sure as hell weren’t going to avoid every detail about the show for the next six months. You relied on the discussion for recap purposes.

But technology changed that. In the post-DVR post streaming services world, no one really cares about WHEN the show comes on. You see it when you see it. And because you want to enjoy the show as it was meant to be seen, you really want to avoid anyone telling you anything about the show before you get to it. I just started watching Sabrina on Netflix yesterday… I’m only one episode in… and if anyone ruins this for me I will cut a bitch! Sure, in some respects that’s my fault. After all, the show “aired” like two weeks ago. But there’s just a lot of TV now and I have other things to do. I’m getting to it when I’m getting to it. And I’m a volatile and angry person… so, everyone needs to deal with my slowness… cuz I wasn’t kidding. I will cut you!

It’s also hypocritical. As we all know, Riverdale is the best show currently on television. And I’m completely caught up. But all the people I like to talk about Riverdale with are behind a week or more. I don’t want to spoil it for them… we live in a society. There are rules! So I’m denied my water cooler moment.

But it’s not just DVR that has made this difficult. After all, TV was always just kind of a special case. Because it was the one piece of media that we were all forced to consume at the same time for so long. Classically things were never like that. Movies and books came out and people watched or read them when they got around to them. And spoilers were never much of a problem. You read the book and then you said to your friends “hey, have you read Pride & Prejudice? No? Well, let me know when you do because I want to talk about the end!” And you waited… maybe you waited a week… maybe you waited five years. That’s just how it was until the television age. Even with movies, there was some of this. Gone with the Wind had an initial theatrical run of like three years. Wizard of Oz did much the same thing. Basically, there was a time from like 1939 to 1941 where every theater in the country was playing those films. You saw them when you saw them.

Having media that is new every week and required specific viewing times changed that. People got used to discussing things as soon as they came out, because anyone who didn’t see it… wasn’t going to. And this problem got worse with the Internet. Back when The Empire Strikes Back came out in 1980, Luke being Darth Vader’s son was a closely guarded secret. Most of the cast didn’t even know til they saw the film in the theaters. People didn’t even know to think about it because there’s nothing in A New Hope (or as we called it back in those days just Star Wars) that even implies there’s a mystery to solve. You just get to that part of the movie and all of a sudden it’s like “Holy Shit!?!?!? Did he just say what I thought he said?!?!?” And then you tell all of your friends “Oh my god, you HAVE to go see this movie.” If Empire came out today, you’d maybe have 24 hours after the premiere tops before Facebook and Twitter were full of people posting article links with headlines that said “Star Wars Twist: [SPOILER] is Luke Skywalker’s father” or “The shocking truth behind the revelation that [SPOILER] is Darth Vader’s son.” And if you have an IQ larger than your shoe size you’d just be like “well fuck.”

And that’s the key to the second thing. Back when those movies came out, news media was relatively limited. There were relatively few writers with the national or international access to be able to put their words out there for everyone to see. Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert loved  movies enough that they sure as hell weren’t going to ruin that surprise for anyone. But now, literally everyone in the world has the potential to reach more people with a message they type on their phone than any of the old three broadcast networks ever had. I don’t think it’s malicious, usually, People try to be good about it (or at least mostly… I never actually did it, but I admit I was at least tempted to buy the shirt from TshirtHell.com that announced what page of Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince Dumbledore dies on… but I never did).

But even when talking about spoilers in the abstract, people can’t help but reveal stuff. I figured out the twist to The Sixth Sense about 15 minutes or so into the movie. Part of this amazed people… a lot it is because of what I do… I know how to close read and analyze stuff and I do it subconsciously. That said, even though the internet was nice enough back in those days NOT to tell me what the twist was, I knew that there was a big twist going in, so I was primed to pay more attention than normal and “figure it out” even though I wasn’t really “trying to.” Often, the simple act of telling people that there is a twist to look for is sort of spoiler in and of itself.

And that sort of my biggest problem with what spoiler culture has become. It takes us back to the JJ Abrams mystery box theory that Hannah mentioned earlier. I have a big problem with Abrams’ theory. I think he gets his metaphor wrong. I agree with him on some level. There is something almost magical that comes from seeing a mystery unfold in a text. The problem is when the magic is reliant on not knowing what is inside of the mystery box. I maintain that if you know the twist to The Sixth Sense it becomes a really fucking boring movie. You maybe watch it a second time to see where all the pieces were that might tell you the answer. But after that, you’re done. There’s no point to watching that movie a third time EVER. And if you figure it out ten minutes in like I did, you’re bored as shit for the rest of the movie and it’s not even really worth a second watch.

I think a better metaphor would be a puzzle box. Or really any puzzle. When you have a jigsaw puzzle, you know what the end result is going to be. When you solve a Rubik’s cube, you know what it’s going to look like when you’re done. The fun is in getting there. There’s something magical about the process. Abrams’ problem is that he believes in the old magician’s adage (he even says so). Magic tricks, at least to him, work because you don’t know how the trick works. You want to believe that it’s really magic. You want the sense of wonder and astonishment that it provides. But I disagree. I was fascinated with stage magic and illusions when I was a kid. I read everything I could on it. So I know how a lot of the tricks work. But I still enjoy watching magic shows, because I like seeing the trick executed. I like enjoying the process. If I watch David Copperfield make the Statue of Liberty disappear, it’s amazing every time.

But the mystery box, as Abrams describes it, doesn’t do that. To him, all of the wonder comes ahead of time.. In fact, the wonder comes before the movie is even released. He tells you there’s going to be a box with a secret in it. He then goes out of his way to protect the box. It becomes a game between creator and fandom to see who can guess what’s in the box before the film is released.  Spoilers — or possible spoilers — become a part of the process. What can we guess about the new Star Wars movie based on this grainy set photo that someone took with their cell phone from six blocks away? What secrets can we derive about the next Marvel from cryptic comments by the cast and director on Twitter? The Russo Brothers have spent the last nine months guarding what the title of Avengers 4 even is just to make people guess about it. We live in a world where more care is put into crafting the box than the mystery.

And to me, that is the problem with spoiler culture. If the whole point is simply to wonder what’s in the box, once the contents have been revealed it simply doesn’t matter any more. But people have been reading Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot mysteries over and over for more than 100 years. The mysteries don’t change. We’re just excited to watch the well crafted mystery unfold. The fun isn’t in seeing what’s in the box. It’s in carefully unwrapping it ourselves and sharing that sense of wonder with other fans. It doesn’t really matter if someone “spoils” the surprise, if I can enjoy putting the puzzle together anyway. But in a sense, the culture putting an emphasis on getting the answer to the mystery and broadcasting that you are in the know, combined with the technology to allow you to make that discovery whenever you want, has made it nigh impossible to put an emphasis on the process.

Or at least that’s my theory. But as always, we want to know your thoughts. In addition to the things that Hannah asked above, I wonder what the value of the mystery is in the first place and do people honestly not watch/read something once it has been spoiled for you? And if so, does it affect your enjoyment of the piece?

4 Replies to “Call for Comments: Mystery Boxes, Spoilers, and Fandoms”

  1. When I suggested this, it was around the time that Cartoon Network spoiled some major plot developments in Steven Universe by accompanying some interviews with Rebecca Sugar with clips from then-unaired episodes. Fandom really split into two camps of “THIS IS SERIES-RUINING DOOOOOOOOOM” and “What? How the heck are we going to get from where the story is now, to THERE?” I was among the latter, though I’ll admit I typically have a high spoiler tolerance. I kind of have to be, because I am extremely slow to watch things. I found watching the varied reactions really interesting.

    I also thought about instances where I felt spoilers did or would have ruined an experience for me, and I also came up with M. Night Shyamalan films because in so many of them the “twist” is the only substance to the story. The characters and other events seem to exist entirely to get the viewer to The Big Unexpected Thing, with very little if any development in themselves.

    I guess it’s really the difference between a murder mystery where you’re supposed to figure out who the murderer is, vs one that shows you upfront who the murderer is, vs being shown who the murderer is upfront and watching Lt. Columbo annoy the murderer into confessing.

  2. My reason for avoiding spoilers is 80% selfish, in that I want to see if I can predict what will happen based on the clues I have picked up on. That’s the writer in me being arrogant. When I come across a big twist that works and I didn’t predict it I become obsessed with the formation of that particular story – why did that work, I must know! But as mentioned before because we can control when we see something, now there is a sense of shelving something and avoidance of spoilers can be tricky. When I cared about it, I had to stay off of social media to avoid leaks about Walking dead. Now, don’t care. So in the end I think a safe zone is defined by the property. A classic film or film series likely has been cited elsewhere, either in homages or satires, so too bad, it’s been 20 years. But it is upon the individual to avoid spoilers. Fans crave the desire to converse about it, and with a drop of a hat the caught up and still behind viewers can change places. Than it’s trick each other the way you want to be treated. Fandom respect – uh oh, that’s a whole other story…

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