Spoilers have a long history, going back to the time when some Greek theater-goer shouted “That’s Oedipus’s mom!” But spoilers didn’t use to be so intensely despised as they are today. The new, fierce hatred of spoilers is associated with the Golden Age of television and the ubiquity of DVR/Netflix/Hulu, and the like. Today, most people have their own personal “horror story” about the time when they were subject to the most unfair, unjust, outrageous, and unforgivable spoiler.
A first definition of spoiler might be revealing any information about a work of fiction (in any form, such as a book, TV show, or movie) to someone who hasn’t encountered it. But this isn’t quite good enough. It wouldn’t be a spoiler to say “The next Star Trek movie will include a Vulcan.” Nor would it be a spoiler to say, “The story of Shawshank Redemption comes from a short story by Stephen King.” There has to be something at least a bit unexpected or unpredictable about the information, and it has to be important to the content of the work. And you could perpetrate a spoiler by divulging information about something other than a work of fiction, for example details of a sports game, to someone who has tivoed the game but not yet watched it.
Timing and other matters of context may make the difference between a spoiler and a non-spoiler. It could be a spoiler to say “There’s a Vulcan in the next Star Trek movie” if spoken to someone raised in North Korea and knowing absolutely nothing about Star Trek. It can also be a spoiler to say something about a movie or TV show when it’s new, and not a spoiler when it has been around for some years.
This raises the distinction between “personal spoilers” and “impersonal spoilers.” Personal spoilers are spoilers for some particular individual, because of their circumstances. You should never give personal spoilers (such as when someone says that they have never seen a particular movie, even though the plot is common knowledge. You can’t tell them the plot).
Sometimes facts other than facts about a story can be spoilers, because they allow people to deduce something about the story. To reveal that a certain actor is not taking part in shooting the next episode may allow someone to jump to conclusions about the story. Spoilers need not be specific; they can be very vague. If you told someone there was a big surprise ending to The Sixth Sense or Fight Club, that might spoil these movies for people who haven’t seen them.
You can spoil by mentioning things that are common knowledge, if someone has missed out on that knowledge (“Luke and Darth Vader are related”), but you usually can’t be blamed for this. People have some obligation to keep up. This means that in general you can’t be blamed for spoilers about stories that are old. “Both Romeo and Juliet are dead at the end” could be a spoiler for someone, but you can’t be blamed for it. This is a rule that’s often observed: many publications have regulations forbidding the release of some types of spoilers for a precisely fixed time after a movie release.
However, some spoilers never expire, either because the plot twist is so vital or the work is so significant. So, if you’re talking to young kids, you probably should never say “Darth Vader is Luke’s father,” “Norman Bates is Mother,” “Dorothy’s trip to Oz was all a dream,” “All the passengers on the Orient Express collaborated in the murder,” “in The Murder of Roger Akroyd, the narrator did it,” “Soylent Green is people,” “To Serve Man is a cookbook,” and finally, what many consider to be the greatest and worst spoiler of them all, “The Planet of the Apes is really Earth.”
Some famous “spoilers” are not true spoilers. It’s not going to spoil Citizen Kane for anyone to say “Rosebud is his sled.” This piece of information is not truly significant. It’s more of a McGuffin than a plot twist.
A paradox about spoiling is that people often enjoy a work of fiction such as a Sherlock Holmes story over and over again. They remember the outline of the story, and who did the murder, but this doesn’t stop them re-reading. This demonstrates that the spoilage generated by spoilers is less than we might imagine.
It’s bad to spoil, but how bad? People do seem to exaggerate the dreadfulness of spoiling, compared with other examples of inconsiderateness or rudeness.
Are there occasions when it’s morally required to spoil? Yes, you might want to dissuade someone from watching or reading something you believed might harm them somehow. Also, you might issue a spoiler in order to save the world from a terrorist attack (Yes, this is a philosophy book, so it has to include at least one totally absurd example). A more doubtful case is deliberate spoiling as a protest, as occurred with Basic Instinct.
The book ends with three spoiler lists: the Most Outrageous Spoiler “Horror Stories”; the Greatest Spoilers of All Time; and the Greatest Spoilers in Philosophy.
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About the Author
Richard Greene is a professor of philosophy at Weber State University. He has edited or co-edited sixteen books on popular culture and philosophy, including Twin Peaks and Philosophy: That's Damn Fine Philosophy! and American Horror Story and Philosophy: Life Is but a Nightmare.
Table of Contents
A Few Words of Warning xi
Spoilers Topics Revealed in This Book xiii
Part I The Metaphysics of Spoilers 1
1 A Brief History of Spoilers 3
2 What Are Spoilers? 15
3 Things that Can Never Be Spoiled 31
4 What Else Can Be Spoiled? 45
5 Vagueness and Spoilers 57
Part II The Ethics of Spoilers 69
6 Is It Bad to Spoil? 71
7 The Badness of Spoiling 83
8 When Is It Wrong to Spoil? 99
9 When You Should Spoil 113
10 The Timing of Spoilers 125
11 The Ethics of Spoiler Alerts 141
Part III The Pragmatics of Spoilers 153
12 Paradoxes of Spoiling 155
13 Spoiling Remakes and Some Other Tricky Cases 165
14 Are Our Reactions to Spoilers Justified? 177
15 Culture, Relativism, and Spoilers 187
16 What to Do When You Encounter Someone Who Spoils 199
The Lists 207
Appendix 1 The Thirty Greatest Spoilers of All Time 209
Appendix 2 Spoiler Horror Stories 217
Appendix 3 The 100 Greatest Philosophical Spoilers 225