Read Spoilers First So You Can Watch a Horror Movie Without Feeling Terrible

Read Spoilers First So You Can Watch a Horror Movie Without Feeling Terrible
Screenshot: Midsommar/A24, Fair Use

The general consensus is that everybody hates spoilers, and if you spoil a movie or TV show online, you are a bad person. I tend to agree. It’s a small thing to not be careless about dropping a big plot reveal, on social media or elsewhere (a movie blogger I’ve followed for 20 years decided to ruin the new James Bond movie in a headline before it even came out; more accurately he’s now a movie blogger I used to follow). Spoiling something thoughtlessly is, as they say, a real arsehole move.

But there’s one instance in which I am pro-spoiler nearly every time, and that’s when I’m watching a horror movie. It’s not that I don’t like horror; it’s just that watching it makes me feel bad. But if I read the spoilers first, I feel less bad, and I can actually concentrate on the plot, and the pacing, and the cinematography, and the music — you know, the “movie” part of a movie — instead of the gaping chasm of anxiety opening within me.

This jibes with the results of an oft-cited study that showed people tend to report enjoying a narrative more if they experience it already knowing what’s going to happen. The results held true for participants who were asked to read one of three types of stories — a mystery, an O. Henry-type ironic twist tale, and “literary fiction with a neat resolution”; as the researcher, Nicholas Christenfeld of UC San Diego, put it: “The point is, really we’re not watching these things for the ending. I point out to the sceptics, people watch these movies more than once happily, and often with increasing pleasure.”

I do realise that the twists and scares are kind of the point with horror, perhaps more than most genres, and certainly I see the value in a killer twist (no pun intended), but some movies are nastier than others. Encountering the big reveal in The Sixth Sense on opening weekend is a great movie memory; trying to ward off a stress cramp as Hereditary built to its wild crescendo, less so. But in subsequent viewings of both films, I found the former no less enjoyable, and the latter much more enjoyable. In each case, knowing what was going to happen made it easier to appreciate what the movies were doing aside from punching me repeatedly in the gut.

In fact, it was during my first, unpleasant viewing of Midsommar — director Ari Aster’s followup to Hereditary — that I realised I could essentially turn my first, tense viewing into that second, more relaxed viewing instantly by pausing the film and reading the plot summary on Wikipedia. I did just that, and once I knew how everything turned out, I was able to take in the rest without wanting to barf the entire time. Maybe this isn’t what the director intended, but it worked out much better for me.

Not everyone is onboard with this plan. Lifehacker US’ Editor-in-Chief Jordan Calhoun, for one, balks at my strategy; if you watch movies with friends, he claims, the experience of the unspoiled will somehow be tainted by their proximity to the spoiled — the former will be able to tell when something scary is or isn’t going to happen based on the body language and reactions of the latter. (This argument seems dubious to me, perhaps because I mostly watch movies with only my wife, who is usually looking at her phone.) But this is only likely to be a problem if you exclusively watch movies none of your viewing group has seen and you know each other well enough to pick up on such subtle queues. (If that’s the case, well, good for you, Mr. or Ms. or Mx. I Have So Many Friends.)

This isn’t a tool one must pull out of the box every time. I find it’s most useful for films that are more viscerally reliant on drawn-out tension (see: Aster’s body of work, or the surprisingly effective Zoom-based demonic possession flick Host). I’ll probably not resort to it for, say, Scream 5, because that franchise is too self-aware to be truly scary. But if I did, that would be fine — certainly I’ve seen the other Scream films often enough, and with no diminishing returns. In the end, if someone asks me “Do you like scary movies?” I want to be able to respond with an emphatic yes.

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