Spoilers Alerts…In Pop Culture

Spoiler Alert


Spoiler Alert

I have never been too bothered by spoilers. Personally, I don’t think they ruin work. However, I have noticed that marketing for certain kinds of media has been emphasizing the protection of spoilers to a noticeable degree. I kind of wanted to discuss that, using three works where the protection of spoilers is a big deal.

Telling Will Break the Spell: Cursed Child and Spoilers

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is a four-act play that is produced in two parts. The first two acts are called Harry Potter and the Cursed Child Part 1 and the third and fourth are collectively known as Part 2 of same. It’s currently being produced on the West End and on Broadway.

In 2016, JK Rowling announced a campaign designed to “protect” fans from learning plot details from Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. JKR called this campaign #KeepTheSecrets. She even went to the point of calling people or websites who mentioned plot details #Wormtaily. If you somehow don’t know who Wormtail is, he sold out his best friends to the magic fascist knowing he’d kill them and their kid. I don’t think one can reasonably put discussing spoilers in that category, especially considering that the written play has been out for years.

Nearly three years after the show’s premiere, keeping its secrets are still emphasized. #KeepTheSecrets is displayed on the barriers outside. Oddly, the showbills (British term for playbills) remind patrons that learning who’s in the play could be a spoiler. If you see both parts in one day, you get a #KeeptheSecrets pin when you leave Part 1. I’m not really sure that it is necessary to keep these plot secrets for purity’s sake. People are generally allowed to know what plays are about. Hamlet is about a procrastinating prince, Twelve Angry Men is about deliberating jurors, etc.

When HPatCC was new, JKR called out websites for mentioning the smallest of plot points. That reaction felt bitter and pointless: just another battle between JKR and fandom. If I’m being honest, the stagecraft at HPatCC is better safeguarded than the plot, since I found the former to be more intriguing than the latter.

Although I think it’s fair to request that you don’t learn spoilers on an individual level, that doesn’t seem to be what HPatCC’s marketing plan is centered on. Instead, seeing HPatCC puts you in an “in” group whose secrets must be protected from everyone else for their own good. It seems a bit paternalistic for reasons I’ll get into later.

However, keeping secrets is not a new phenomenon in British theatre. In fact, this phrase seems taken from one of the most iconic British plays.

There is Nothing New Under the Sun: Spoilers and The Mousetrap

When it was announced that JKR wanted people to #KeepTheSecrets, I had to do a doubletake. In 2015, the year before, I had seen the long-running play The Mousetrap when studying abroad. The Mousetrap is a play by Agatha Christie. Christie is best known as the best-selling mystery novelist. It currently holds the record for longest-running West End play and has a 30+ year lead on the second place play.

The Mousetrap is a murder mystery that takes place in an English guest house. A number of characters assemble there during a snowstorm, and one of them is murdered. This play features a twist ending. In order to protect that ending from future theatergoers, audiences are asked to keep ending secret. This application of “keeping secrets” feels different than HPatCC for a number of reasons.

First is a matter of genre. Mystery stories are more focused on the surprise of the ending than other genres. People understand that romance books end with the main couple happily together. In mysteries, the who and the how and the why are all pieces that the reader ideally works out during the journey. Knowing those details changes the journey.

Another difference between The Mousetrap and HPatCC’s approach to spoilers is marketing. Even though HPatCC is not a murder mystery, it goes fairly hard with the anti-spoiler marketing. The Mousetrap’s marketing is more subdued in general, but also with regard to this. I also can’t forget that The Mousetrap came first, and the HPatCC version feels like a desperate knockoff to seem cool. Additionally, the short story The Mousetrap is based on was never published in the United Kingdom, so there has been some publishing effort to #KeeptheSecrets, unlike for HPatCC

#DontSpoiltheEndgame? Spoilers On a Larger Scale

Around a week before Avengers: Endgame was released in theaters, there was a leak. This leak horrified the directors, who then told fans #DontSpoiltheEndgame in a cynically heartfelt open letter. The film was released on 26 April 2019 and promptly made more money than can be conceived on a human level. Many people saw the film on its opening weekend, enough to claim that this movie was a modern cultural touchstone along the lines of Gone With the Wind (the film that has historically sold the most tickets). 10 days after the film was released in theaters, the spoiler ban was lifted.

Was #DontSpoiltheEndgame effective? Anecdotally, I would say not exactly. I heard of at least one person sharing a major spoiler when they knew that person had not seen the film. Additionally, I managed to scare up most of the major “twists” on the Internet before I saw the film. However, anecdotal failures aren’t a good reason to condemn the policy overall. Although I’m wary of marketing managing who can discuss plot details, I think Avengers: Endgame managed a few things well.

First, the spoiler ban didn’t seem to apply to websites. In my experience, websites usually label spoilers, so I think they can discuss spoilers so long as they’re not in the headline. Second, I didn’t see any condemnation for people or websites who discussed plot details. That sort of condemnation (as seen from JKR above) always feels hopelessly juvenile. Finally, I think the time limit worked. Obviously, a time limit doesn’t work for all kinds of media. Not everyone can go to the theater at the same time, nor does everyone read at the same rate. On the other hand, Twitter enjoys live-tweeting popular television shows. However, a lot of people saw the film in the first ten days, probably enough to justify that brief a time limit.

How Should We Handle Spoilers?

It’s really difficult to decide how much we should limit spoilers, especially in marketing. I think that The Mousetrap and Avengers: Endgame are closer to a spoiler marketing ideal than HPatCC. HPatCC’s marketing assumes that no one wants to hear about what happens in the show for any reason. However, some people may want to access spoilers for reasonable reasons.

First, some people are sensitive to certain kinds of content and may want to know about that kind of content before they try work. For example, some people need to know about triggers ahead of time or they may suffer mental health consequences. Author Seanan McGuire recently listed triggers for her recent novel and explained her reasoning, which can be applied to other works. Other people may not suffer those kinds of consequences, but want to know about certain kinds of things ahead of time as well. Without spoilers, I was glad to know about Thor’s framing in Avengers: Endgame before I saw the film.

The other reason I think people should be able to access spoilers if they want is that not everyone watches everything. I heard an anecdote about someone who recently caught up on Game of Thrones by reading Wikipedia. Some people want to understand the monoculture without investing the time they don’t have, and that’s perfectly fair. If I want to discuss who is in HPatCC without having seen it, I should be allowed.

Honestly, we can’t make capital-r Rules regarding how we should handle spoilers. We can only suggest guidelines. I have two guidelines that I would suggest that I think can be broadly applied:

Guideline 1: Try to remember that not everyone can participate in pop culture right away.
Guideline 2: Punishing people who discuss plot points is particularly pointless, especially if you’re marketing the pop culture

These guidelines may not work for everyone. They may be too lenient; I’m biased in favor of people who like reading spoilers. However, I do think that they are a reasonable starting point.

How do you think we should handle spoilers? Do you like looking up plot details ahead of time or do you want to go in without any idea of what’s going to happen? Talk about it in the comments!


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About the author

Siobhan Dempsey

Siobhan needs books to function, and therefore can infodump quite a lot about them, particularly when they're either science fiction or fantasy.

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