Audience   Media Industry and Consumers  

Spoilers Go Bump in the Night

For years, spoilers have been the bane of entertainment media audiences everywhere. The word itself has become almost synonymous with ruined enjoyment. But, are spoilers really that bad?

New research suggests that the effects of spoilers may be more complicated than initially thought. Some studies have revealed that spoilers can actually have a positive effect and enhance the audience’s enjoyment of a narrative. Others claim that spoilers, at most, have “modest and inconsistent effects on enjoyment and other audience responses.” In fact, whether or not spoilers actually spoil anything is largely uncertain.

But what about narratives that seemingly rely on maintaining suspense in order to be effective? Few film genres depend on the need for anticipation of the unknown like horror. Horror films are defined by their capacity to thrill audiences – but is a scary movie still scary even if the audience knows how it ends?

University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications Assistant Advertising Professor Benjamin Johnson and co-authors Angel Udvardi (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam), Allison Eden (Michigan State University), and Judith Rosenbaum (University of Maine) conducted an experimental study using horror films as a media focus. The researchers note that films in this genre are especially relevant because “the enjoyment of horror is linked in part to the uncertainty of not seeing certain violent events coming or not knowing who the next victim will be.”

“Spoilers are expected to undermine this uncertainty,” they write. However, surprising twists and sadistic turns aren’t the only reasons horror movie audiences enjoy the genre. Other elements including the thrill of seeing gratuitous violence and gore are also contributing factors, and ones that spoilers have little effect on. Because of this, the researchers sought to also use horror films as a means of exploring potential “alternate factors influencing the relationship between spoilers and audience responses.”

To do this, they conducted an online experiment to determine whether or not exposure to spoilers affected participants’ responses to one of four randomly assigned horror films. A final sample of 314 participants was collected from various social networks and forums dedicated to films and horror fandom. Participants were presented with a synopsis of their respective film from, then exposed to three scenes taken from each significant narrative arc of the film’s story (Acts 1, 2, and 3). Prior to viewing each scene, participants were given a short introduction which “provided basic context as well as the experimental manipulations.” These manipulations ensured that each participant was randomly assigned a “spoiled” or “unspoiled” text for each scene. Their findings – “Spoilers Go Bump in the Night” – were published in the Journal of Media Psychology.

Through this experimental design, the researchers aimed to test several hypotheses which attempted to differentiate between major and minor spoilers, as well as test for possible mediating factors which could influence their overall effects. They theorized that some spoilers may actually enhance the audience’s “processing fluency,” or the ease with which they understand the unfolding narrative. These minor spoilers were defined as those which only disclose “suspenseful scenes and scares.” Major spoilers, on the other hand, were deemed much more likely to “undermine suspense” and generate a negative reaction. These kinds of spoilers were ones that revealed major plot twists or the film’s conclusion. According to the researchers, “whereas minor spoilers about details and the progress of the story could help guide the viewer,” major spoilers were considered unlikely to provide this same benefit due to the fact that they provide little in terms of additional context or guidance.

The researchers found that “no significant main or indirect effects of spoilers were evident.” In other words, the commonly held belief that spoilers can ruin one’s enjoyment of entertainment media is largely exaggerated if not plainly untrue. They note that “the lack of moderated effects of spoilers for major plot points, and the general lack of main effects of spoilers, adds to growing evidence that spoilers produce small and inconsistent or qualified effects.” Because of this, they suggest that consumers of media, even horror films, should not be afraid of encountering potential spoilers online, in promotional materials, or even in critic reviews.

The researchers also acknowledged the limitations of their study, mainly their inability to accurate reproduce “in vivo reception” of spoilers. This frequently occurs when journalists and online audiences alike may quickly and inadvertently reveal spoilers for new releases or long-awaited installments in a series. Because of this and the limitation of human biases and memory recall, they state that “it is possible that the shortcomings of both methods mean that the impact of spoilers is never fully captured in research.” That being said, the results of this study and others like it offer implications and directions for further research, including explorations of additional genres.

“While the present study shows spoilers appear to have much weaker and conditional effects than widely believed, they could have positive potential for focusing some viewers on the impending twists, turns, and scares delivered by highly arousing media,” the researchers conclude. “Waiting for a scare that one knows is coming can make for an enjoyable moment.”

Posted: April 30, 2019
Tagged as: