The rise of the spoiler alert.
In all forms of media, the spoiler alert has barreled into common usage. It has become necessary because we’re living in an age when information is diffused at such a violent pace. With the privilege of speed comes great sensitivity.
We no longer read books or watch TV shows and movies for their gestalt; art is now only as powerful as the emotions it exploits. It’s a tragic state of affairs, but it’s likely to get even worse. It’s now within reason to get litigious over spoiling. The blogger “Reality Steve” Carbone, whose website has a section dedicated to reality-show spoilers, has been sued not once but twice for ruining certain seasons of ABC’s The Bachelor and its equally insipid sister show, The Bachelorette.
And it’s not just the abyss that is reality TV, but narrative entertainment as well. According to a Facebook page called the Spoiling Dead, which is dedicated to posting spoilers about The Walking Dead, AMC, the show’s network, threatened legal action for posting accurate predictions about characters on the show. A post there reads “Basically what it all comes down to is if we post our Lucille Victim prediction and we’re right, AMC says they will sue us.” It seems only a matter of time before the Supreme Court will be ruling on spoilers, making it illegal to reveal the ending of An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (Farquhar never escaped) or The Gift of the Magi (do I even have to tell you?).
In 1957, Witness for the Prosecution, a film based on a story by Agatha Christie, came to theaters with an ending that packs a wallop, even by today’s standards. (It’s also, you may be relieved to learn, too complicated to spoil in a short parenthetical.) As the final credits roll, a disembodied voice implores the audience to be discreet. “The management of this theater suggests that for the greater entertainment of your friends who have not yet seen the picture, you will not divulge to anyone the secret of the ending of Witness for the Prosecution.” Almost sixty years later, I wonder, has the statute of limitations on this proto–spoiler alert run out? The answer is no.
The semaphore of the spoiler alert, which is now peppered throughout think pieces and reviews in august publications like The New Yorker and the Times, has become as familiar as the neuroses it buoys. The phrase is as infantile to read as it to hear said, and it’s now deployed in the real world without a glimmer of irony. I know, because I was recently scolded for revealing what terrible thing—of the many—Donald Trump had said during a Republican presidential debate. “Wow. Thanks for ruining it,” I was told by a friend of a friend over a group dinner. He hadn’t been home the night before but had it in mind to watch the highlights reel. Alas, his plans changed. I had spoiled it for him.
Some pills are hard to swallow, but I can attest that spoilers are good, that they should be embraced. The Bruce-Willis-is-dead-the-whole-time twist in The Sixth Sense was all anyone could talk about in the summer of 1999—I guess no one had seen Jacob’s Ladder at the time—and I went into the theater knowing beforehand. I also knew what was in the box in Seven (Gwyneth Paltrow’s head) and that in The Usual Suspects Kevin Spacey is Keyser Söze. Despite knowing, I enjoyed them all the same, as much as anyone else. It would be impossible not to. The characters, the dialogue, the mood are what I remember and are the elements that make them infinitely rewatchable.
Knowing the twist should give us comfort. It promotes greater appreciation in the midst of discovery—and the best things in life will excite whether you know what’s going to happen or not. It’s the form that draws and leaves the indelible impression.
And life is too delicate, too uncertain to let unravel because of a ruined surprise. It requires us to rub shoulders with tragedy, a fact we conveniently ignore. Spoilers, and the ireful response they elicit, aren’t really about the serials of escape we obsess over, but death itself—the only one that matters.
My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer six months after I was born. The doctors gave her another six months. Spoiler alert: she lived to see my third birthday and died soon thereafter. Death is the biggest plot twist of all. To be aware of precisely when and how it will happen would be the ultimate spoiler. Acknowledging this permits us to bask in the known.
Charles Curkin is the senior editor of Surface and a contributor to the New York Times.