Tuesday, July 27th, 2010

The History and Use of "Spoiler Alert"

Stanley spoiled, viewers boiledIn her July 14 article about the premiere of the fourth season of "Mad Men," Alessandra Stanley neglected to include a phrase that precedes potentially revealing facts in film and TV reviews: "spoiler alert." Fans read ahead and the damage was done. A certain string of words made moot a device key to the operation of the "Mad Men" universe-the ignorance on the part of the audience of how much time has lapsed between the previous season and the current one-and she did not give readers the choice of whether or not they wanted to know before the episode aired. The information was placed casually in the middle of a sentence-and so, for some, the fun of the anticipation had been ruined, and something would be taken away from the original viewing experience. Betrayal! Stanley had broken the unspoken agreement.

The outrage was widespread. Matthew Weiner, the show's creator, told the Hollywood Reporter that he was "shocked" and that  "A lot of people told me they were blindsided by [the Stanley article]." Writing for Variety, Brian Lowry called out Stanley for "ignoring their plea to avoid spoilers-without so much as a word of warning." New York magazine placed "Alessandra Stanley spoils pretty much everything in the 'Mad Men' season premiere" far on the "despicable" side of its Approval Matrix.

These past two weeks have seen the "spoiler alert" construction hit zeitgeist heights, thanks to the reaction pieces about "Mad Men" and Inception, two projects defined by a massive effort to keep their plots a secret. Both hedged their bets on the fact that people would be more interested the less they knew, pushing writers toward frequent use of the "spoiler alert" tag if they had been privy to these works before-and even some time after-their public release. In his Times article about the reaction to Inception, A.O. Scott said, "The discourse is marked by the ritualistic incantation of two words that may at this point be redundant: spoiler alert."

In a Washington Post article from Dec. 6, 1994 about "the branching fibers of the Internet," Amy E. Schwartz claims that, despite "the Net's still-sparse cultural possibilities" a new language was being born on the few threads that then existed. "On movie buffs' discussion lists, for instance, there is wide use of the term 'spoiler alert,' which is a warning inserted before any comment that would give away a film's ending." The Usenet archives compiled on the Google Groups page reveals that nerds were bandying about the phrase as early as June 8 1982, when a commenter placed "[SPOILER ALERT]" before mentioning a detail about Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The movie had been released just four days earlier, so he assumed many had not yet seen it.

By the time the Internet began writing at length about "Survivor" in 2000, it was commonplace to warn readers of the spoilers that gave away information about who was going to get kicked off the island. Roger Ebert issued something of a referendum on the practice of "spoiling" movies for viewers in a 2005 article, detailing his anger with critics who give too much away and explaining his decision to issue "spoiler warnings" in his reviews after seeing them used online.

Now, with every blog writing a weekly recap of every show-shows that are more often than not TiVO'd or DVR'd and watched the next day-the phrase "spoiler alert" is inescapable. It's even approaching redundancy, as Scott suggested-yes, we know that your "True Blood" post will give away all those incredibly important plot points essential to your enjoyment of that masterwork of television. You don't have to tell us anymore.

Except… for when you do. We absorb an immense amount of information each day, and there's no way to clear out an entire bundle of RSS feeds without coming across something-an article, or a tweet, an email, anything-that gives away a key element of a TV show or movie you've been planning to see. We're not going to watch every show when it airs, so when we come across the recaps in a dozen blogs, we need some heads up if something's going to be spilled. So put in those two words, even if they seem redundant. Because if you do-spoiler alert!-it might save someone's Sunday night.

51 Comments / Post A Comment

Sproing (#561)

You click on a link that says True Blood/Mad Men/your favorite show here, you roll the dice. The burden of spoilage falls on the spoiled, says I.

And Stanley, much as I dislike her stuff, gave away nothing of note.

David Cho (#3)

I mean, "of note" is different for everyone. Seems like the warning is a fair way to tell someone to vacate the premises.

I agree. If you click on a post labeled "Review" or "Preview," that indicates that there will be a discussion of what happened in the movie or episode. And if you are upset about it, why are you reading about a show you don't want to know about, exactly?

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

I can understand if fans are a little bothered by this, but the creators? I guess I'm of the opinion that once your creation is out the door, it's at the mercy of the culture. There are a lot of rewards inherent in creating a narrative whose impact is based on secret knowledge, but there are risks as well. One of them, in a culture where everyone is commenting on everything, is that the secrets might get out before you want them to. Part of creating a narrative is eventually giving up control of it.

DoctorDisaster (#1,970)

Once, I was trying to decide whether I wanted to continue watching the DVDs of a show that I knew had been canceled in the middle of the next season. I asked a friend who had seen the whole series whether it reached a satisfying resolution, and she wouldn't tell me. I tried being more specific – "do they address this subplot? yes or no will do" – nothing. I even told her that I was just going to Google it anyway! So there are two ways to err on the spoiler question.

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

All of this spoiler talk puts me in mind of the twist ending at the climax of Thunderbolts #1. If anyone is losery enough to care about that sort of thing, let me know…

I loved that twist, and was so glad I read it when I was young enough to not look for internet spoilers, it's one of my favorite twists because it makes perfect sense as an evil scheme but was still a fresh non-obvious idea. The annual where they give all the background (and the entire first 2-3 years of the series) was also pretty excellent too.

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

@Skeletor I had two points (and it goes without saying, spoiler alert!) First, remember the way the frames of the last few pages of that issue were placed: you had the team in their headquarters, just hanging around, then starting on the top of the right-hand page, you saw Citizen V without his mask. That could have meant anything, of course, but then in the bottom panel you see him start to put on his Baron Zemo mask. Of course, you turn the page, and there's the shocking revelation. But I remember reading it, and as you flip to that penultimate page, you can't help but see, out of your peripheral vision, that unmistakable Baron Zemo mask. (And everyone knows if Zemo is around, the Masters of Evil aren't far behind.) It's an excellent twist and one of my all-time favorite books, but the big revelation kind of spoiled itself.

And secondly, in retrospect, the twist is what made the book. I bought it at the time just because, you know, I bought comic books. Do you remember trying to tell people about it? It's not like this was the new Avengers, cobbled together from heroes that everyone was familiar with. This was a group of characters that were all brand new and unknown. Once you read it and knew how awesome it was, it was incredibly difficult to get someone else excited about these no-name characters without saying "But they're actually the Masters of Evil!" Such are the perils of the surprise twist ending. It's the same way with all of them.

"Lighten up, Francis." It's a TV show/movie.

petejayhawk (#1,249)

Thank you. As an avid viewer of Lost, it was amazing how many people acted as if you gave away national security secrets if you as much as discussed the promo for the next week's episode. I enjoyed the show but didn't give a shit if some of the major plot points were inadvertently revealed to me beforehand.

If I wanted to be surprised, I wouldn't have been reading about the goddamn show in the first place. It was still enjoyable.

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

My roommates and I are watching the Wire on DVD, and I got into an argument that bordered on fisticuffs with one of them over whether we should read the synopsis at the start of each episode. I was in the "They wouldn't possibly spoil the episode on their own DVD, so let's just read the synopsis so we know what everyone's name is" camp. It was tense!

@boyofdestiny: Yes to this! I don't know what's wrong with HBO, but they do the same thing on the Deadwood DVDs, too. Those pre-episode synopses, if not explicitly spoiler-y, definitely fail the smell test.

Sproing (#561)

Shit, I once got slapped on a comment board for discussing the plot of the book Return of the King a few months before the movie came out. The book! Part of the most widely read trilogy in the English language! What matters to some people matters a whole lot, I guess, but I don't think I can be held liable if their darkness is cursed by my candle.

I refuse to believe that anyone who was enough of a nerd to be on the Internet as early as June 8, 1982 did not go and see Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan on opening night.

keisertroll (#1,117)


delrayser (#319)


keisertroll (#1,117)


katiebakes (#32)

I feel like Inception is borderline unspoilable given that even those who have seen it have no idea what just happened.

sunnyciegos (#551)

I was so spoiler-tense before seeing Inception last night that when the film ended, I thought I must have missed something. I thought this thing had a twist? There didn't appear to be any plot available to spoil. I haven't seen a movie where nothing happened for so long since "Waking Life."

Kevin Patterson (#5,933)

My enjoyment of a thing is not reduced by the knowing of what happens in advance.

melis (#1,854)

SECONDED. Am I the only one here who loves spoilers, seeks them out, and enjoys TV shows/movies/books more if I know what's going to happen beforehand?

stuff_is_things (#6,108)

Yes! Whenever I watch something mindfucky and don't know what's going to happen, I go into "figuring it out" overload (that guy's actually her brother! they're all dead! it's the future!) and can't enjoy the thing. This idea that an unspoiled plot is the key to artistic enjoyment has got to be a new thing — and isn't "plot-driven" usually a code word for trashy genre crap anyway? If you're only watching True Blood to be surprised when the latest mysterious stranger in Bon Temps turns out to be a supernatural creature of some kind, you're doing it wrong.

david h. (#5,700)

This seems like a good time to mention Vulture's Official Statutes of Limitations on Spoilers, written by Awl contributor Dan Kois:


See also:


I think it's mostly an expected risk if you choose to read something specifically about a show/movie. But ugh, there was a Gawker post a few years ago, I think, on a completely unrelated subject where the writer spoiled, with no warning, the critically important plot twist of a recent movie. It had already been out for a while (a few months, I think, but it's not like it was years), so the writer claimed that as an excuse for why people shouldn't be upset.

I can't for the life of me remember what the movie was now, but I did end up seeing it later, and I do remember that knowing the twist, while it didn't really "ruin" it for me, completely changed how I viewed the movie. (It really is driving me crazy that I can't remember the movie – does anyone remember this post I'm talking about?)

Anyway, this is a situation that just seems unnecessary, particularly in a context that had nothing to do with the movie, even if it had been out for a while. Just seems kind of intentionally rude.

permafrost (#2,735)

I remember this Gawker post but I can't remember which movie either. People just got all riled up in the comments even though the movie had been out for a while. Was it maybe one of the Harry Potters????

No, I haven't seen any of them. Seriously, I've now been googling lists of movies with twist endings to see if something jogs my memory, and I still can't remember. (What's going to happen is it will suddenly come to me at an inopportune moment, like when I'm on the treadmill at the gym, and I'll shout "that's it!!" out loud like an idiot. Because that is always what happens.)

goodiesfirst (#3,448)

I think you're referring to "Up In the Air," but that was more recent than a few years ago. I wasn't terribly irked but realized while watching the movie that I'd skimmed the Gawker post incorrectly and kept waiting for it to be revealed that George Clooney's character was married. Spolier Alert: He wasn't the married one.

YES, that's it. Thank you! Obviously my memory was quite a bit fuzzy on the whole thing.

But yeah, knowing that definitely changed how I saw the movie. I think I would have liked it better had I not known. (And haha, I hope no one reading this hasn't seen it, because now you've just spoiled it again!)

Oh wait, you did have a, wait for it, spoiler alert. Sometimes I make myself look dumb. (Also sometimes am dumb.)

petejayhawk (#1,249)

I knew what the "twist" of Up In The Air was and it didn't matter one bit.

mathnet (#27)

It was An Education, and Doree did it, and I got mad! http://gawker.com/5442692/lets-do-the-two+step-monogamy-shuffle-again

hockeymom (#143)

Does anyone remember the original spoiler movie…the Crying Game?

Ah yes, there it is – actually it was both of those, but I haven't seen An Education so I didn't remember that one (though I feel like I still want to be annoyed about that, should I ever end up seeing it – though maybe if I wait long enough, I'll forget again).

@hockeymom – I actually fell asleep in the theater during The Crying Game, and woke up right after the big reveal when everyone in the crowd started making noise about it. That was fun.

En Vague (#82)

… and Rosebud is a sled.

DoctorDisaster (#1,970)

Animaniacs spoiled that one already.

Andrew Gauthier (#3,713)

Recent headline from EW.com: "Glee exclusive: Cheynne Jackson is the new [spoiler alert]!" I guess this represents yet another step in the evolution of the phrase… http://bit.ly/bJnXMf

spanish bombs (#562)

But we find out how much time has passed rather quickly on Mad Men, and it's not really a major plot device or huge deal! (Or that the show is that good.)

Now, Slate's recent article about Pale Fire… THERE was a missing spoiler alert. Does the outrage only apply to wannabe art?

bb (#295)

I don't know, I am pretty glad I got to find that part out as I watched the episode. You don't know if it's been a few weeks or a few months at first. But of course, that is why I avoided reading articles about it before the show aired.

stuff_is_things (#6,108)

Pale Fire the novel that was published in 1962?

michaelframe (#3,760)

I clicked on a Slate article which was purported to be an historical look at the whole Reno divorce thing that Betty was heading off to do at the end of season three. The first two sentences were:

"When the curtain fell on the third season of Mad Men, Betty Draper, our favorite housewife in crisis, was on her way to Reno to get a divorce. When we see her again this Sunday, it'll be a year later, and Betty will be divested of Don and married to Henry. "


I will admit to being somewhat miffed at this revelation(s) about Mad Men season four when the article was promoted as "a visit to the glamorous divorce ranches of the Mad Men era" and thus NOT specifically about the show. Even more frustrating was that the spoiler was in no way relevant to the article as all fans who had seen Mad Men season three already knew about the Reno divorce situation. Gah! I mean, I didn't smash my computer on the floor, but, still. Right?

petejayhawk (#1,249)

Who cares? The episode was still good.

michaelframe (#3,760)

You not caring doesn't negate others' opinions or make the issue moot. I'd have preferred to watch the episode with no idea about what was about to happen.

Pandemic Endemic (#3,825)

It would be awesome to have a Honda Civic with a really huge spoiler on the back (with mismatched paint!) and "SPOILER ALERT!" in Gothic letters across the rear window.

bb (#295)

I love you.

Mike Schiffer (#6,358)

Science fiction author and reviewer Spider Robinson was using spoiler warnings at least as early as 1979, in his column "Spider vs the Hax of Sol III" in _Destinies_ (a hybrid paperback book/SF magazine). For example, v. 1, no. 2, Jan-Feb '79, in a review of James P. Hogan's _Inherit the Stars_, after a couple of pages of nonspoiler review:

So _why_ did I fling the book across the room when I was done with it?

Two reasons, and the first of them involves committing a spoiler of sorts.


(I don't know if he originated the practice, or if he was following a precedent in SF fandom, but that's the direction I'd look in tracking it further back.)

rjnerd (#6,362)

The first instance of a spoiler alert in email, (and the first example of an email digest) dates to the original release of the first star trek movie 7 December 1979. (the motionless picture). The sf-lovers@mit-ai list had just celebrated its first year of operation. (none of this host.domain.tla stuff, there were only 256 slots in the host table, and MIT-AI was a KA-10, running ITS)

Roger Duffy, at the time, a humble, bearded, grad student, showed up at the lab that evening, and noticed that the mailer was running all the time, and local email wasn't getting delivered. He dug into the queue, (this was ITS after all, it wasn't going to stop him) and found it full of messages to the mailing list, including some spoilers (unmarked).

Since a lot of time got consumed with the initial handshake, sending one big message would be faster than the same sent as a bunch of little ones. Digests got invented. A bit of emacs hacking, (the original TECO version), and he had a basic set of digest creation macro's. He collected a batch of messages, and moved all the spoilers to the end of the digest, adding a big warning before the start of the messages. He even did a table of contents, and spell checked all the submissions, a job he was stuck with for the next several months.

Rw (#1,458)

That's what you get for reading articles about television.

Anarcissie (#3,748)

Actually, reading almost any review of any work of art before you encounter it directly and personally simply pollutes and damages your experience, whether it contains spoilers or not.

It might be possible to write a review that didn't do this, but it would have to be a work of art itself, and most reviewers are reviewers and not artists for a reason.

Mark McDermott (#6,853)

The National Lampoon used to have a column in its "True Facts" section called simply "Spoilers," in which they gave away the endings of current movies. This was around the time of E.T., I think, so contemporary with the growth of Usenet discussions.

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