Ruin spoiler shows for you

Read more dangerous: spoiler alert!

Spoilers have already killed a Harry Potter fan, they violate the netiquette and yet cannot be exterminated. A journey through their history, from Usenet to modern spoilers.

Anyone who saw the opening film "Gravity" at the Venice Film Festival on Wednesday knows that George Clooney will bless the time in it after less than half of the film. Many who have to wait for the film to hit the cinemas already know it - not all of them voluntarily. On Thursday, for example, it was in the “press”, and a colleague angrily asked at the editorial conference: “Does that have to be?!”

Yes, does it have to be? The answers to this couldn't be more different. Ridiculous, say many critics, when it comes to enjoying a film, it's about something else, and you can't write well if you have to hold crucial content. For others, the betrayal of such important events as the death or survival of the hero is a “spoiler”, derived from the word “to spoil”: it spoils, it ruins the film experience.

One of the no-gos on the net. And spoilers are now one of the biggest no-gos on the Internet. You violate one of the few etiquette rules that have emerged on the Internet: Never reveal anything that might take away the fun of a bestseller, the long-awaited new season of a series or the latest blockbuster.

If you do, you will encounter a concentrated anger in discussion forums about books, computer games or films, the extent and vehemence of which is astonishing. It almost seems as if one can get any imaginable information at any point in time at any point in the world, the tense waiting has become more precious than ever.

Usenet birthplace. No wonder that the term "spoiler" goes back to the beginnings of the Internet. Entries in the discussion of the Internet forerunner Usenet from the early 1980s show that avoiding spoilers or at least encrypting them technically was part of the netiquette very early on. In the 1990s, the "Spoiler Alert" set up in American popular culture, with these words one warned of possibly unwanted information. Nevertheless, in recent years it has happened again and again that even the most renowned journalists incur public anger because they had revealed too much about the new season of "Mad Men" or even revealed that Darth Vader from "Star Wars" was the Luke Skywalker's father.

Since series are no longer viewed by everyone on television at the same time, but everyone can download them from the Internet and watch them at some point - in some cases even before they are first broadcast on TV - the problem has been addressed. Many spoiler scandals also arise from series being broadcast in different countries at different times. The second part of the fifth and final season of “Breaking Bad” will not be shown in German until October, and it has been in English since August.

The film industry unwillingly produces some spoilers itself. As in May this year, when the official Facebook page of the series “How I Met your Mother” published a photo of the mother of Ted's children. Four hours before that, the episode that revealed the mother's identity had been broadcast in the USA, but the German station Pro7 was still a long way from that. Thousands of German fans complained.

What to do? Long before spoiler warnings became common on the Internet, the First German Television reported the Bundesliga results on a text board for a while before the start of the weekly sports show. Spectators who wanted to keep up the tension were asked to close their eyes. At a Harry Potter fan congress, on the other hand, participants who had not yet read the latest book were able to put on a card with the inscription "I have not read the book". Finally, on the Internet, the warning “beware of spoilers” seems to be a simple remedy.

Probably the most famous US film critic Roger Ebert, who died this year, also pleaded in a basic article in 2005 for avoiding or warning spoilers: "We have no right to spoil the experience of others, to be as surprised as we were."

To put it nicely - however, Ebert could not hold out his resolution to spare the readers with spoilers, as angry Internet comments on his articles show. One reason for this is that certain information about the plot is often needed to justify ratings. Another reason is that there is by no means a consensus as to the point at which information about a film or series is a spoiler at all. Where is the limit to "too much"?

The spoilernoia. Or the other way around: Where does the spoilernoia begin? Because the fear of spoilers on the net, like fan culture in general, has taken on traits of collective hysteria in recent years. Four years ago, a Harry Potter fan even committed suicide after accidentally learning too much about the plot of the film "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" in a mall. The novel was already four years old. Other fans accused author J.K. Rowling claims to have placed spoilers in the last Potter novel because he answers all the questions in the previous volumes and reveals too much about the further fate of the characters. Rowling could at least have put a spoiler alert on the cover, one reader complained.

The worst spoiler police is the film industry. And that although it also regularly produces the largest spoilers - in the form of trailers. Because these should be more and more effective, they also reveal more and more of the action highlights. An exception is France, where only the first half of the film is used as trailer material.

The spoiler phobia is not limited to the latest "cult products" in the entertainment industry. For a while, fairy tales and biblical stories were even given warnings in the English language Wikipedia. The fact that the entry to the English fairy tale classic "Three Little Pigs" got a spoiler alert led to a fundamental discussion. In the meantime, Wikipedia does without warnings, since a lexicon should provide comprehensive information.

Macbeth, a thriller? Outside of Wikipedia, however, the spoilernoia continues to spread - as in response to the unique phenomenon in human history that information is now more difficult to avoid than it is to obtain. Perhaps that is why crime is the most crisis-proof literary genre today, and suspense - the kind of tension that arises from temporary uncertainty that is eventually satisfactorily resolved - the standard of entertainment. The prototype for this attitude is the lady in James Thurber's short story "The Macbeth Murder Mystery" from the 1930s. She reads Shakespeare's Macbeth believing it was a crime story. In the end, she is certain: the real killer was Duncan, not Macbeth.

Natural talents like Agatha Christie instinctively knew how to create tension. Scientists are now also trying to develop recipes for the imagination to jump back and forth between doubt and expectation. In 2012, for example, economists at the University of Chicago presented a mathematical model of how one “can reveal information over a certain period of time in such a way that it results in maximum tension and surprise”. The results should be just as applicable to the writing of crime novels as to the presentation of election results, shows, auctions or sporting events.

Most of the history of literature, however, from myths to Grimm's fairy tales, lives not from uncertainty, but from the joy of the return of the expected. So if you don't assume that children have Alzheimer's, the question arises: How can a story be exciting if you already know how it will end?

Quite apart from the fact that it is often not the big moments of the plot, but many small surprises that keep the audience and listener "excited": You can also "cheer" on a character if you know exactly what is going on with it will happen; for example, watching Oedipus run to ruin. The attraction arises from the contrast between the knowledge of the viewer and the ignorance of the character.

Hitchcock's "Psycho" strategy. Another example is Hitchcock's "Psycho". Before the cinema release, Hitchcock had all available copies of the novel bought up because they could have betrayed the plot of the film - including the crucial punch line concerning the mother of the protagonist. Today, “Psycho” fans know exactly how things will continue and are still fascinated, in a different way. The conversation between Marion Crane and Norman Bates in his office is even more frightening when you know that Norman is about to stab her in the shower.
Anyone who takes a closer look at the inflationary spoiler warnings online will also notice that they are used as much as a lure as well as a deterrent. This corresponds to the diversity of consumer behavior. There are those people who would never turn a page in a novel, as well as the “end first” faction, who quickly skim the last page before reading it properly. This group finds a work more attractive when you know the end, because you can see more references and allusions as you read it. A US study from 2011 confirms this observation: In an experiment, test subjects were given a total of twelve short stories to read. They preferred those stories where the ending was revealed to them beforehand.

Of course, it was all about great literary texts by Roald Dahl, Agatha Christie or John Updike, for example. Would the test have turned out the same with bad literature? In the end, is a good work one that can take spoilers without getting worse? And is the film industry fighting spoilers so much because it wants to maintain the illusion that their increasingly indistinguishable products have surprising things to offer?

The "tension paradox".
However, even with not exactly demanding blockbusters, it turns out that fans keep looking at them. Scientists have dubbed this phenomenon of feeling tension even though you know what's going to happen, the “tension paradox”. Often the repeated experience of tension is simply an instinctive reaction to threatening situations. A more complicated explanation comes from the famous American art philosopher Noël Carroll. He believes that the tension of watching a movie over and over is related to the human ability to deceive oneself using one's imagination. Even if we know how a movie ends, he says, we can still imagine as we watch it that we don't know. Imagined uncertainty also creates tension.

But for many, it's not the same kind of tension that real uncertainty enables. Spoilernoia may overestimate the importance of not knowing, it may only be a small part of the enjoyment of the film: Those who want to be surprised should perhaps have a right to those two words that - used in moderation - do not hurt anyone, but save many frustration: Beware, spoilers!

("Die Presse", print edition, 01.09.2013)