Murdering Making a Murderer: the psychology of spoilers

17th January 2016

I’m in conflict. I both want to view Making a Murderer until the bitter end – I’m at episode 5 of 10 – and also want to listen to what the critics have to say about its amazing storytelling. 

The mangled life of Mister Steven Avery is the subject of this gripping Netflix Series, but the grip is beginning to lose traction by way of its mathematical opposite: a desire for the catharsis of perfect knowledge. When it comes to Making a Murderer, I both want not to know, and to know. 

To spoil or not to spoil, that is the question.

So, what is this thing called spoiling, which has so disciplined the way we live our cultural lives? Here’s what I think most of the time: the most interesting exposition and enjoyment of culture happens after all is revealed. ‘Spoiler Alert’ is good news, as it signifies the beginning of true insight.

And yet, I can’t shake a cranky worry: what will I miss by ruining, for all time, the ability to discover Avery’s fate for the first time? On such quandaries battles are fought.

Just last month, a guy exited the cinema in Bakersfield, California having seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and shouted a key plot twist to those lined up waiting to see the next showing. They promptly attacked and pummelled him.

“Within 15 seconds, he was on the ground getting his ass stomped”, said one eyewitness. 

Ok. Spoiler. The above story, carried widely in serious-minded media, was actually invented from thin air by a website called TheGoodLordAbove, dedicated to taking the piss. Goddammit! 

But the spoiler has a rich history in literature. Take Romeo and Juliet for example. In the prologue – those very first lines of the world’s most romantic tragedy – the plot is laid bare for all to hear. 

‘In fair Verona’ we hear, all of these terrible things will unspool, culminating in a ‘pair of star-crossed lovers’ who will ‘take their life’. Somehow, I don’t see that this prologue detracts at all from my enjoyment. Indeed, it acts as a harbinger; a little amuse bouche. It tells me to get settled, and to prepare for what is to come. A sort of ‘fasten your seat belts’ warning, in iambic pentameter. 

I once went to a staging of Julius Caesar with my friend, Sandy, and was recounting to her the overall story in the car on the way, as I had studied it in school. I came to the Ides of March and the murder plot, and she stopped me dead. 

‘Don’t tell me what happens!’, she cried.

We laughed about that. All of Europe may have had a different fate if that particular plot line were up for grabs. 

We live in a time where plot is revered. ‘What happens?’ is the pressing question of the age. Who marries who, smites who, kills who, loves who, leaves who. Mister Murdoch knows that suspense sells, even if the revelation of his latest wife-to-be resolves a question which few had posed. (I won’t reveal her first name, but it rhymes with ‘Bury‘).

Plot is the architecture of story, but it is not its flesh. I do not look at a beautiful face and see its skull. Because I know the mechanics of a piece of music, or grape, or novel, it does not impede my enjoyment of that thing, again and again and again. What’s a spoil between friends? Shakespeare expects that we will likely forget the lovers’ fate, despite his very best spoiling attempts:

“…….if you with patient ears attend, 
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.”

Could it be that spoilers do not impede enjoyment? This is explored in a rigorous piece of psychological experimentation , dating from 2011. Respondents were asked to read and rate four stories, three of which were spoiled to a greater or lesser degree. The level of spoiling was spread evenly across stories and respondents, so the readers’ enjoyment could be properly analysed. And the result? Well, it turns out that spoiled stories are more enjoyable, principally because of ‘perceptual fluency’. That is, that when one knows what’s happening, one’s aesthetic pleasure is heightened. 

This is the same mechanism which makes us want to see a favourite movie again and again, or a favourite ad, or a favourite comedian. No child cares about spoilers, as any parent at bedtime can attest. Indeed, many genres of literature are dedicated to the premise of guaranteed spoilers. RomComs thrive because the Rom is a certainty. (I recently heard the creator of Sex and the City decry Carrie’s ultimate fate, wrapped up in a neat little marriage, as a sellout of her essence. It was thought by the Hollywood dons, one suspects, that a happy ending was the only acceptable ending).

In our marketing world, we tend to put too much store by what is new. We venerate ‘discovery’ as the most precious gift. But is that really warranted? Do we place enough faith in the repeated enjoyment, and simplicity, and comfort, of known quantities?  Maybe we want to learn more about what we know, and not just some of what we don’t?

‘Spoiler’ is the vocabulary of a society hooked on sugar highs. Don’t tell me what happens. Don’t ruin it for me. I need to not know!  Admittedly, I am that sugar junky. I once unfriended a (real) friend on Facebook because she spoiled….wait for it…Downton Abbey. That was a heinous crime, which took me 12 months to forgive.

But I’ve reformed. I’ve decided that any great work of art can survive a spoiler. It is not the mechanics of what happens that most interests me, but rather, the flesh of how it all plays out. (The one rider I would mention is this: I want to decide what I spoil, and when. Let no one else take that choice away from me!)   

So screw it. I’ve invested enough in Mister Avery already. It’s time to indulge in the enjoyment of deconstructing the story-telling itself. I’m about to listen to innumerable spoiler podcasts

I’m about to murder Making a Murderer.

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