In June, I noticed that people online were in a froth over the upcoming finale of The Leftovers, which was in its third and final season. The show sounded intriguing — and it seemed like I was missing out on a lot of TV references — so I decided to watch the pilot.
Then, I read the synopsis of every episode for all three seasons on Wikipedia.
Then, I read all of the available episode recaps from one of my favorite TV critics, Alan Sepinwall.
Then, I binged the episodes in an attempt to catch up with the rest of the world — but when the finale aired on June 4, 2017 and I still had three episodes remaining, I couldn’t wait to find out what happened. I read the spoilers for the finale, and then I went back and finished the show.
I realize this may sound insane to many people, but I’ve been reading spoilers for nearly 20 years. I remember first encountering the term “spoiler” around 1998 in the context of professional wrestling. The WWE, which was then called the WWF, would often tape fights a week in advance to air on Monday Night RAW. Some fans who attended the live event would return home, type up the results, and publish them online with *******SPOILERS******* plastered across the top of the page. I always read them. And then I would watch the show on the following Monday, even though I already knew who won which bouts, what plot twists unfolded, and which titles changed hands.
I still read wrestling spoilers, even though I don’t watch professional wrestling anymore. I also read movie spoilers, TV spoilers, and novel summaries for things I watch or read, intend to watch or read, or never intend to watch or read. When Alien: Covenant was released this past spring, I read the entire plot on Wikipedia. I love the Alien franchise. But I still haven’t seen the movie.
With the rise of “peak TV,” and the subsequent flooding of the internet with television recaps, reviews, quick hits, and think pieces, spoilers have become a subject of heated debate. The general sentiment seems to be: “Don’t be a jerk. No spoilers.”
For me, spoilers don’t spoil anything. I was completely hooked on The Leftovers. I followed Kevin Garvey, played by Justin Theroux, on his journey from small town police chief to explorer of the afterlife. For each crisis of faith that Matt Jamison (Christopher Eccleston) endured, I was rapt with attention. I fell in love with the fiercely independent and beautiful Nora Durst (Carrie Coon). And even though I knew what was coming, I was still left with a feeling of deep sadness and vague joy when the last scene ended and the final credits began.
There are other people like me who seek out spoilers. Kim Ukura, a book blogger and community newspaper editor living in the Twin Cities, wrote an essay in 2013 for Book Riot about her spoiler addiction. Her habit started as a teenager with the Harry Potter series. “Ahead of each new release, I'd look for any news I could find about what might be in the book,” she told me via email. “I remember trying to figure out which significant character died in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince because I just really wanted to know who it was.” She believes “having some particular questions answered ahead of reading a book or finishing a TV series” allows her to enjoy the plot more.
Sebastian Starcevic, a journalist living in Australia, has written about his passion for spoilers as well. “I was actually sitting in the movie theater the other day watching a horror movie. I initially decided I wouldn't spoil the movie for myself so I could enjoy it the way it was intended,” he told me over email. “By the first jump scare, though, I was skimming the Wikipedia page to find out who the serial killer was.“
The Movie Spoiler, a website dedicated to summarizing the endings to films currently in theaters, launched in 1999 and gets about 15,000 unique views each day, according to founder Dan Kaiser. “I hear that people only read the first half of the spoiler, just to see if [a movie] is worth seeing or not, without having the ending ruined. For horror movies, I get a lot of people who don't like being scared or startled, so they read up ahead of time to ease their fears,” Kaiser told me in an email. But there is also that irresistible pull in his readers to just find out what happens. “Many people simply have a need to know ahead of time...I can’t explain it, but I’m glad I can be of service.”
There has been some research into why certain people like to spoil things for themselves. In 2011, professors Nicholas Christenfeld and Jonathan Leavitt of the University of California San Diego, met with over 800 people and gave them a range of short stories, from authors such as Roald Dahl to Agatha Christie to John Updike, to read. Christenfeld and Leavitt provided some of the stories in their original form while others had spoilers as a preface or embedded within the text. They found that, as Christenfeld put it, spoilers had an “enhancing” effect on a subject’s enjoyment of a particular story.
“After the study came out, there [were people] who Google movie plots that said, ‘Finally!’,” Christenfeld told me. “But of course there was the larger population who disagreed with me, and insisted so even in the face of empirical data.”
After the study was published, various news outlets picked it up. James Poniewozik, the current chief television critic at The New York Times, cited the study in a 2012 essay for Time titled “Don’t fear the spoiler” in which he looked at both the pro- and anti-spoiler sides. “I can’t really think of a time when my enjoyment of an honestly good story was ruined by knowing what would happen in the end,” he wrote.
“I can’t explain it, but I’m glad I can be of service.”
All of this was reassuring. Aside from reading spoilers, I also have a habit of reading the same books and watching the same television shows over and over again. If given a chance to watch a new series on Netflix or an old, random episode of Mad Men I’ve seen over a dozen times, chances are I’ll pick the episode of Mad Men. If given the choice of reading the latest Michael Chabon book or The Sun Also Rises for the tenth time, I’ll most likely go with Hemingway. Plot doesn’t matter to me. The characters, the mood of a story, the language, and dialogue are what I tend to care about.
But I felt my impulse to read spoilers was tied to something else besides appreciation of craft. Today, with so many shows to watch, books and articles to read, and movies to remember to see, quickly digesting the spoilers is a means of staying up to speed while also conserving your time. On the internet, there is an unceasing cultural conversation going on each day and it can be overwhelming or disorienting to keep up with all of the references.
“Even someone like me, who watches TV series for a living has to do a lot triage,” Poniewozik told me. “So, in that sense, I think reading reviews and reading coverage of a series can be a useful way to know and to at least make a guess at, ‘Is this going to be something that will satisfy my experience out of watching?’”
William Levine, an associate professor of psychological science at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, followed up on Christenfeld and Leavitt’s research. In 2016, he published a study his undergraduate students undertook to replicate Christenfeld and Leavitt’s findings as well as see if they could get their subjects fully invested in the stories and then spoil the plots for them to approximate what it would be like to have a twist in Game of Thrones spoiled. Levine’s results were mixed. There was no clear evidence that spoilers enhanced a story rather than ruining it for the reader or viewer.
But Levine, like me, also reads spoilers, specifically for Top Chef. He reads the spoilers because, for him, the show isn’t about who wins or loses. “I find it much more fun to watch the individuals and their bantering and their fighting and becoming friends. It’s almost like the competition is irrelevant on those reality shows. At least for me.”
I presented him with my proposed rationale for spoilers — that they are a means of saving time. He didn’t quite agree. “I think it’s mostly socially driven,” he told me. “If Netflix drops a series, the entire thing is available immediately. A lot of people don’t have time to binge watch it the first day it comes out, but people are talking about it very quickly anyway.”
An affinity for spoilers could be a manifestation of a need for closure, one researcher told me.
That said, there may be a fundamental difference between a person who reads spoilers and a person who avoids them, he said. That difference may have to do with something called “need for closure,” which is the focus of a project he’s working on with a student.
“It’s a measure that’s supposed to index how much a person can deal with things that are open and not clear about how they are going to end versus things that are closed and clear and wrapped up,” he said. “And we’re measuring this and we’re going to see if that’s related to the way they react to the spoilers.” Levine is hoping to complete the research this year and publish a study in 2018.
“Need for closure” or NFC was a term coined by psychologists Arie Kruglanski and Donna Webster, who developed a scale to measure it in 1994.
Their research was a means of finding “a necessary mechanism that all people have that prevents them from forever information seeking and articulating a firm belief.” Kruglanski told me when we spoke over the phone. Kruglanski and Webster wanted to “define the specific questions, the specific items that lead to the need for closure, the need for certainty, the need for firm opinions.”
An affinity for spoilers could be a manifestation of a NFC, Kruglanski told me.
“Spoilers provide closure. Waiting for a whole lengthy novel or lengthy TV show is trying for a person who needs closure. Therefore, finding out what it amounts to is immediately gratifying the need for closure,” Kruglanski said. “I am high on the need for closure and when I was reading books as a child, I would quickly go to the end to find out how they ended. This is a typical response of a person high on the need for closure.”
I took an online version of the NFC test, which asked me to respond to a series of statements (“I don't like situations that are uncertain,” “I always see many possible solutions to problems I face”) with a number from 1 to 6 that corresponded to a scale ranging from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree.” The test took about 10 minutes. The result said I have a “moderate need for closure,” which doesn’t really explain why I spend 30 minutes on Tuesday mornings reading about the results from an episode of Monday Night Raw that I didn’t watch.
If it wasn’t the need for closure, then what explained my drive to immediately find out what happened on The Leftovers as soon as I had watched one episode? Was it, as professor Levine had explained, just the basic desire to be social and feel the rewards of being a part of the conversation? Or was it, as James Poniewozik had described, merely a way of performing “triage” on how I was spending my time enjoying TV and movies when there is seemingly an unlimited supply of things to watch and keep up with, and a limited amount of time in the day?
After all the research and all of the interviews about spoilers were done, one comment stuck with me. When I spoke to professor Christenfeld, he told me about a colleague who is a big sports fan but never watches the games in real time. “He records sports games because he can’t stand the anxiety of whether his team won or lost,” Christenfeld said. “He’ll go back and watch them after he knows the result.”
I can understand how the anxiety of watching a game can be excruciating, especially when the stakes are high. But I stumbled into some cognitive dissonance: Even though I’m a lifelong spoiler addict, I could never watch a game this way. In sports, there is always an unlikely hero, a miraculous kick return for a touchdown, a buzzer beater, something amazing you haven’t quite seen before. How could you not want to witness every moment of it first hand? That’s just insane.