Don’t Be Diabolical: History and Best Practices for Spoilers in Modern Media

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It used to be easier to avoid spoilers. In a time before Twitter and the internet- a simpler but less connected time – you could go weeks, days, even years without hearing about the big twist ending in a TV show or movie (mostly.) But these days, even though spoiler culture is at a peak, viewers might find themselves actively dodging spoilers and still failing. 

Arguably the biggest TV show at the time of this writing is Succession, a show about a media mogul and his family. One episode of the final season marked the death of a central character, a plot twist that ultimately set the tone for the remainder of the series. Many fans might have missed this pivotal episode or recorded it hoping to catch up a few days later. 

First Things First, R.I.P. Logan Roy

Unfortunately for those people, it was not enough. The LA Times posted an obituary for this fictional character, a move that put the publication in some hot water with late-viewing fans of the show. Many people were outraged that this moment was spoiled for them before they got to watch the episode themselves. Even the Times had to acknowledge that the backlash was deserved.

The Times realized that they broke the number one rule of being an ethical media consumer: no matter what, don’t spoil the ending. Unfortunately, they realized it too late and had to take some well-deserved heat. 

Here’s the thing: the rules about spoilers aren’t always so cut-and-dry. Media is meant to be experienced and shared, sure. But how long is it appropriate to wait before finally being able to talk about shows and movies freely? We know the Times messed up by posting the obituary the day after the show aired when it was reasonable to assume that many fans hadn’t yet seen it.

But are we still not allowed to talk about the end of Gone Girl or Inception? Is it gauche to mention in casual conversation that it was Maggie who shot Mr. Burns and that “Rosebud” was the name of Citizen Kane’s sled? How do we properly acknowledge the importance of spoilers without keeping our heads in the sand? 

To fully understand the best practices for spoilers in our modern age, we must start at the beginning. While the internet age has accelerated the growth of spoiler culture, the urge to avoid them might go back further than you think. 

The Origin of Spoilers

The fear of spoilers deterring audiences from watching films predates the use of the term itself. The 1926 silent film The Bat played a message at the beginning of the film, asking viewers not to reveal the identity of “The Bat,” claiming, “Future audiences will fully enjoy this mystery play if left to find out for themselves.” 

The end credits of the French film “Les Diaboliques” (1955) featured a similar note from the film's director, imploring audiences: “Don’t be diabolical” and ruin the interest your friends might have in seeing the movie by telling them the ending. This messaging — as well as the rest of “Les Diaboliques,” served as an inspiration for Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.

Widely considered one of the greatest films of all time, Psycho might have set the stage for spoiler culture in modern society. Movie theaters were not allowed to admit audiences to see the movie after the start of the performance. In many ads leading up to the film’s release, Hitchcock would himself say, “If you can’t keep a secret, please stay away from people after you see ‘Psycho.’” 

National Lampoon Magazine, which is often at the forefront of pop culture history, has the distinction of being the first written use of the word “spoiler” as we know it today. In an April 1971 issue of the magazine, an article written by humorist Doug Kenney featured the endings to multiple movies with famous plot twists.

Among the movies he “spoiled” included Psycho and Citizen Kane, two movies with notable plot twists. However, back then, Kenney wasn’t considered to be “ruining” the endings of these stories but instead was providing a service. He offered the ending of already years-old movies to bridge the gaps in pop culture knowledge. Readers could now join in on water cooler conversations without having to actually watch the movie. 

This proved to be a double-edged sword. Spoilers existed so people didn’t have to watch the movie or show. Therefore, if you’ve been spoiled, whether on purpose or by accident, you might feel less motivated to watch it for yourself. People soon became more aware of spoilers and many opt to avoid them altogether in favor of experiencing the media for themselves.

Thusly, spoiler culture was born. And from the National Lampoon, of all things! 

“No, I Am Your Father.”

Some spoilers are as uniquely embedded into American culture as baseball and apple pie (Spoiler alert: you do NOT want to know what Jason Bigg’s character did to that apple pie.) Movies like Star Wars Episode V: Empire Strikes Back offered one of the greatest plot twists in cinema history when the main character Luke Skywalker, discovers that Darth Vader was indeed his long-lost pa, Anakin Skywalker. This was such an earth-shattering moment in pop culture history that people still talk about it forty years later. 

Spoilers are often known as well as their original source material, if not better. Fight Club, Planet of the Apes, and The Sixth Sense have all cemented their place in film history due in part to the shocking twist ending. Shows like Game of Thrones and Wandavision do the same, leaving audiences guessing with each episode who would make it out alive. 

Franchises like the Scream movies capitalized on the original shock of the first film’s plot twist, which added mystique to future films, urging audiences to see if they can try to guess who the killer is. Even the marketing of major blockbuster movies has delved thoroughly into spoiler culture.

The Russo Brothers, who are known for directing Avengers: Infinity War, released a campaign called “Thanos demands your silence,” urging people to keep the ending of the movie to themselves for a little while. 

Which begs the question: how long is a little while?

Spoiler Alert: Best Practices

 While there are some unwritten rules for being a courteous TV and film watcher, there is some debate about how long one should wait before “spoiling” an ending for others. For example, many fan pages on social media will not approve community posts with spoilers until a week has passed, or they will have a “spoiler thread” where users can post whatever they like as long as it doesn’t seep into the rest of the site. 

While there are very few precise rules, despite some outlets trying to wrangle with the nuance of spoiler culture, however, there are a few ways the average consumer can mitigate the risk of contributing to spoiler culture. 

  1. The golden rule: Wait one week for shows, and one month for movies. Let’s face it, not everybody has the same schedule. The average person can’t stay up until midnight to watch the latest Marvel release, and trying to avoid social media spoilers the next day can be tremendously difficult, even with keywords blocked. If it matters enough to you to try to avoid spoilers, it is your responsibility to try to see it during that time frame. 
  2. Only talk about endings with people who have already seen it. I might be the last human in the world to watch Game of Thrones, but I still don’t want the Red Wedding spoiled for me if I decide to watch it! If you’re concerned about spoiling your friend, just ask! They’ll tell you if they want to talk about it. 
  3. Block or mute keywords on social media. As a massive Marvel fan, I find myself blocking more accounts than I follow about my favorite heroes. This is because as films premiere, the internet can often be flooded with unwanted spoilers. I try to nip this in the bud by blocking all mentions of it on Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram. It’s not foolproof, but I’m sure it’s saved my skin more than once. Chrome even has an extension just for this purpose!
  4. Tag your spoilers. If you simply must discuss that pivotal scene from your favorite book or movie online, despite how long it’s been, you should always let readers know that a spoiler is incoming. Some platforms like Discord and Reddit even have mechanics preventing viewers from seeing a spoiler unless they click on it. If that’s not available, you can always notify readers with an old-fashioned, all-caps “SPOILER ALERT.” 
  5. Watch it with your friends. The best way to ensure you’re only talking about the show or movie with someone who has seen it is to watch it together. That way, you can talk about it right after it ends and dish about what happened (but make sure you don’t do it in earshot of others!) 

In today’s incredibly connected society, there is no way to avoid spoilers and spoiling with 100% accuracy. You and others around you will make mistakes, and people will be spoiled.

However, studies have proven that audiences that are deprived of major plot points don’t always enjoy the film more than people who have been spoiled. Even if this is the case, remember to be courteous to others and try to follow the best practices of spoiler culture as we head into this summer’s movie season.

Regardless of which side you’re on in the great war between Barbie and Oppenheimer, as long as you avoid spoilers, we can all emerge victorious. 

Author: Alexandria Love

Bio:

Alexandria Love is a writer, comedian, and actor from Oakland, California. She's been a featured stand-up comedian in numerous clubs and festivals. Her comedic writing is seen on Netflix, ABC, and NBC. She has contributed essays to an upcoming “She Series” book compiled by Karen Hellion. Alexandria currently resides in New York City.