See, J.J. Abrams made me do it.
During the director's now-famous TED Talk, delivered at the peak of Lost's popularity in 2007, he declared, "Mystery is the catalyst for imagination." The less we're told about a story, he believed, the deeper we'll invest in the characters, emotional arcs, and (theoretical) reveal. Abrams said he'd picked up that way of thinking as a kid, thanks to sealed packages filled with unknown tricks and trinkets called "mystery boxes" that his grandfather would buy him at a local magic store.
The anticipation of seeing what was inside the boxes thrilled Abrams as much as the hidden contents themselves. He grew to feel the same way about movies and television shows. "Mystery boxes are everywhere in what I do," he said. "What are stories but mystery boxes?" He cited Star Wars as an example. "You got the droids, they meet the woman. Who's that? We don't know. Mystery box! She wants to find Obi-Wan Kenobi, he's her only hope -- but who the hell's Obi-Wan Kenobi? Mystery box! So then you go, and [Luke] meets Ben Kenobi -- Ben Kenobi is Obi-Wan Kenobi. Holy shit!"
We, the passionate consumers of pop culture, crave those "holy shit!" moments. But at a time when headlines, videos, and poorly timed GIFs infiltrate our news feeds and threaten to deflate the next big twist, they’ve become downright sacred. We can preface our social-media conversations with "NO SPOILERS!" and damn those who fail as much as we want. What counts as a spoiler? The rolling definition adds to the unwieldy culture. It becomes downright illogical when our "holy shit" cravings take hold. We want to find out who dies on Game of Thrones a week early -- we just don't want the wrong people to tell us. We want to know what happens in Gone Girl so we can talk the talk and save $15 -- just don't blow the ending for us. When one person’s spoiler is another’s old news, how can anything survive?
One possibility: hire J.J. Abrams. On October 30, 2012, enabled by its $4 billion purchase of LucasFilm, Walt Disney Pictures announced plans to make the seventh film in the beloved sci-fi franchise, and a few months later handed Abrams the keys. When I heard the news, this part of his TED talk came to mind: "What's a bigger mystery box than a movie theater? You go to a theater, you're just so excited to see anything. The moment the lights go down is often the best part, and you're full of that amazing moment of excited anticipation... You're along for the ride, because you're willing to give yourself to it."
Could I give myself over to Star Wars VII? Could I relinquish -- vanquish, even? -- spoiler culture in its schizophrenic form, so that I might cling to the mystery box in my hands as the theater lights dimmed? I answered Abrams' implied call to arms with a perfect, idiotic challenge: for the next three years, I would avoid absolutely every possible spoiler about the movie.
No trailers. No posters. No commercials. No interviews. No gossip blurbs. No glossy photo spreads. No teasing screenshots. No half-baked rumors. No Tumblr-optimized GIFs. No banner ads broadcasting an arsenal of action figures. No tie-in Chex Mix bags slapped with the villain's face. No spoilers.
I knew what was coming. I had to outrun it all. I would be that guy because avoiding spoilers is basically showing up to your friends barbecue and announcing you've gone lacto-ovo vegetarian. Early on, a colleague passed along a link to a tweet from Abrams' Bad Robot production company. It was a photo of the Episode VII script. I could not click it.
"I promise it will not spoil it for you."
"I am not looking."
"It is the exterior of a bound screenplay."
Spoiler-dodging, as you may glean from the countless "DUDE, WTF!!" comments cluttering your choice social media, is tiresome. As friends noted early on, my profession made this an especially ridiculous trial. Fair. The easy solution would have been to move to Ted Kaczynski's abandoned cabin in Montana and live a hermit life until pre-sale tickets were up for grabs, but life was a priority. And with no such thing as "getting off the Internet" in 2015, workarounds were a must. I un-bookmarked websites frequented for confectionary amusement. I muted and unfollowed friends with crossover interests. I spent $10 for a Twitter app that blocked key phrases like "Chewbacca," "lightsaber," and "SW" (apologies to Tilda SWinton and Taylor SWift, collateral damage in the purge). A Facebook plug-in disabled all things Star Wars from my feed, reducing the platform to a numbing stream of cat photos, self-help confessions, and chain-letter re-shares.
Over many months, I’d devolve into a skittish paranoid who bolts out of pre-screening entertainment, declines Star Wars-related writing assignments to keep up this nonsense, and browse the web with one hand blocking the screen, alway cautious of a Star Wars-themed banner. That’s what you do if you want to check the front page of The New York Times without catching a glimpse of the Force Awakens poster. In the final weeks, with Episode VII mania at its loudest, I installed an pop-up blockade that dimmed the screen and flashed a warning whenever the crawler hit a webpage mentioning Star Wars. Which was Every. Fucking. Page.
Star Wars fans were ready to talk about Star Wars before there was even Star Wars to talk about. When rumors swirled, my early filters weren’t ready to weed out "possible" Episode VII actors like Alex Pettyfer (remember him?), Benedict Cumberbatch, and Zac Efron, who The Guardian went so far as to report was "in talks" for a major role. I said "thanks, no thanks" to a high school friend who forwarded me word that Emperor Palpatine might rise from the dead for the sequel (I never read the actual article and immediately disabled Facebook chat -- lesson learned). Star Wars' gluttony of "what ifs?" were emblazoned across dinky fan sites and major news outlets alike. A few would even turn out to be real spoilers.
If it sounds juvenile and slight, realize that we’re 100 years into the industry-talk-as-entertainment conversation. In a September 1914 issue of Movie Pictorial, one of the many film magazines providing a window into a star-studded new medium, described the scene of a bustling set. "While the armies of Europe are compelling the attention of the world, quite an unknown to the people of Boston there has been re-enacted during the past week some of the events that stirred the world during the American revolutionary period." The film was Charles Brabin's The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere. For decades, trade and celebrity reporting shared space in these publications. One could expect a preview of Dorothy McGuire’s Claudia, and just a few pages later, tidbits on Jimmy Stewart’s return from his WWII tour.
Genre magazines attuned those living vicarious Hollywood lives towards the fictional. Forrest Ackerman’s 1958 mag Famous Monsters of Filmland to build fandom around monster makers like Ray Harryhausen; Cinefantastique penned scholarly behind-the-scenes profiles on B-movie subjects; and Starlog, imagined for Star Trek obsessives, started looking to the past and present. In its November 1976 issue, the magazine’s second, Starlog reported on 20th Century Fox’s upcoming Star Wars, the story of "Luke Starkiller" and a Galactic War general played by Sir Alec Guinness. "Without any parts of the film even previewed yet, some critics have already heralded Star Wars as, '...everything in science fiction you've always wanted to see on the screen but knew no one would ever put there."
Last Thanksgiving, while struggling through a turkey coma, I received a text message: "GET OFF THE INTERNET." Disney had taken advantage of everyone’s four-day weekend to release the first trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens (a title reveal I'd successfully avoided until the killjoy that is my Apple TV’s movie poster-parading screensaver spilled the unwanted beans). Not watching a trailer is easy. At home, you look the other way. In a movie theater, you put your head down, cover your ears, and hum a steady, noise-cancelling LALALALALALA until it's out of sight. Any pressure is FOMO-related. And there is FOMO. After tipping me off to the trailer, the same friend started texting reactions from the peanut gallery. The trailer was "stunning." Flashes of the action in it took cues from classic Star Wars. Scant character moments made grown men and women weep. Abrams' film was a year away, and already having its first cultural moment. The world basked in it. I did not.
Star Wars is not a movie. Spotlight, Trainwreck, even Mission: Impossible 5 -- movies. The Force Awakens, The Avengers, and shows like The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones are blown out beyond their frames. They offer genuine "holy shit!" moments before and after their actual finished products. Because Starlog and imitators helped replace movie stars with spoilers. Character arcs are painstakingly documented like they're moments from Cary Grant’s career. Costumes from The Force Awakens command an entire Vanity Fair photo spread (which I hope to see one day -- by strict instruction, my fiancée tossed our copy before I could stumble upon it). Why would Entertainment Weekly devote time and effort to revealing The Force Awakens’ characters? The same reason Photoplay magazine spent the 1940s wringing every microscopic detail from Dorothy Mackaill movies. Spoilers transport us to Hollywood, give us ownership of its creations, and game-ify our entertainment. When DC Comics and Warner Bros. announced a nine-year slate of superhero movies starting with 2016's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, many wondered if it was the end a moviedom. Others saw a colorful circus brimming with creative machinations.
And yes, I eluded the name-dropping news thanks to quick-thinking friend and an extensive keyword-block list. Only now do I know what a “Kylo Ren” is.
Creatives like J.J. Abrams, Christopher Nolan, and Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner aren't taking the fission of classic blockbustering and mega-franchise-building too well. They cling to the days of Steven Spielberg and James Cameron printing scripts in red ink and building fortresses to protect their production secrets. Even in 2007, before Marvel Studios and its Iron Man series ignited Hollywood with grand ambition. Abrams' "mystery box" speech felt reactive to a mainstream spoiler culture proliferated by Internet. Having been roasted by the movement's chieftains didn't help.
In September 2002, Ain't It Cool News, a digital successor to movie magazines of the '70s, '80s, and '90s, eviscerated a leaked version of Abrams script for a planned Superman reboot. In detailing its every creative decision, writer Drew McWeeny called it "a disaster of nearly epic proportions" and invoked Star Wars - Episode I, a film whose script the site had praised years earlier and come to sour on. The Superman project would never come to fruition, and the TED Talk became Abrams' Howard Beale–Network moment. The miraculous Cloverfield, produced entirely under the radar, would be his beacon of hope (even while fueling spoiler sleuths). Fandom was the enemy of the "holy shit!" spirit, his victory seemed to say. And that determination to cast fandom as the enemy of "holy shit!" spirit would bite him in the ass in attempts to hide the identity of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness -- a half-baked reveal savvy Trek buffs easily snuffed out.
Resistance and misunderstanding from creators turned the curious into snarling dogs that only the industry can feed. It's an ouroboros of spoilerage. Like celebrity gossip, guys like Abrams who resisted the popularity of their properties helped sensationalize movie talk. Variety employees compete against comic book-movie scoopsters to expose villain agendas that people would eventually see on screen. Paparazzi armed with drone cameras encircle sets to nab the perfect frame of a costumed character (maybe Abrams wasn’t so crazy about the cloak thing…). And movie studios race to beat spoilery reveals like Jennifer Lopez selling her baby photos to People -- anything to control the narrative. Fans won't restrain themselves, and the people making money off of it certainly won't, either.
The TMZ-ing of watercooler talk is only matched in aggression by Hollywood's commodification of spoilers into product, and our willingness to buy in. Here’s what I could not avoid in the final six months: a Star Wars takeover of Instagram’s new aspect ratios; a collection of Star Wars Bitmoji; an inescapable West Side Highway billboard for Disney Infinity featuring all your soon-to-be-favorite Force Awakens characters; and ESPN’s offer for custom "droid jerseys" to adopt for my fantasy football team. I know what BB-8 is thanks to #ForceFriday, a global toy event starring YouTube unpacking video nuts (and one of those hashtags I didn’t have the foresight to block.) The Star Wars legacy was built on toys. Kenner sales fueled the sequels and '80s kids knew the entire plot to Empire Strikes Back thanks to Topps cards (minus the ultimate "holy shit!" moment: "No... I am your father!"). It was fun, and Disney hoped it could be again. But now brand-devotion bounced off the walls of an echo chamber. The grown men and women who wept over the trailer now wept over missing out on a $20 action figure for a movie they'd become fully invested in. How it appeared to the modest spoiler-reader, I don't know. For someone trying to preserve a movie "the Abrams way," I felt trapped in a trash compactor of my own design, a dianoga, posing as Disney CEO Bob Iger, wrapping around my legs.
Hollywood's hold on spoilers impacts our watching habits. Half a year after the first trailer for Star Wars, I buried my head in the sand to ride out commotion surrounding the film's second look. When the "full" trailer arrived this past October, I sat with my back turned to a silent television in the ultimate act of look-like-an-idiot defiance. Then the teases picked up. And the TV spots. Word from the outside praised Disney's reserved efforts. "It's all the same footage!" people admitted, which didn't stop anyone from watching, though stood in contrast to what I expected to occur behind me: teasers for teasers for teasers for trailers for movies. The only people watching the eighth Ant-Man TV spot on YouTube are the ones who pray they'll find a modicum of "holy shit!" to discover and light up the day. Spoilerphobes suffer from the same inception: The only people convinced there are such things as "Bones spoilers" are the ones who’ve been explicitly told "BEWARE OF BONES SPOILERS!!" Last September, Netflix weaponized the spoiler by declaring it dead. The big death in House of Cards season two killed it -- you either marathon on opening night or suffer the consequences. In its "Living with Spoilers" campaign, the company reported that 76 percent of Americans say "spoilers are simply a fact of life." Thirteen percent said hearing spoilers made them "more interested in a show." So much for the "holy shit!" moment. A Netflix series is homework for class you didn't sign up for.
Spoilers started as a privilege and became the currency of the privileged. We knew how absurd the entire notion was when National Lampoon writer Doug Kenney coined the term in his April 1971 piece "Spoilers," in which he prevented twist-based trauma by ruining the endings of 86 movies. But maybe Kenney was on to something. In the same decade, author Spider Robinson paired "spoiler" with "alert" to warn readers of Destinies magazine that this month's "Spider vs the Hax of Sol III" column was just for those in the know. Internet sleuths believe the first use of "spoiler alert" was a 1982 Usenet thread dedicated to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan: [sic] "regarding Spock's parting gesture to McCoy, it wouldn't surprize me if that's how they bring him back (if they do); but then, i have a low opinion of ST's script(s). Spock's farewell to Kirk sounded pretty final to me."
Created to build an inclusive space, spoilers now provoke distrust and anger and fear and "holy shit!" reactions of the wrong color. If it sounds slight, consider: Star Wars movies come and go. Behavior lingers. Just a few short days before The Force Awakens opened, Redditors launched a PSA thread to spread awareness of a group of trolls who were spamming comment threads, Facebook groups, and Twitter Star Wars mentions with spoilers for the movie. Just imagine what they'll do when they catch wind of real life.
In an interview published in the November issue of Wired -- located by a friend, graciously sifted through for quotes by my fiancée -- Abrams sheds the skin of TED Talk J.J. "There’s a positive side to keeping quiet," he said. "You can protect the audience from spoilers or certain moments that, in a way, obviate the movie experience. But on the other hand, you risk being seen as coy or as a withholding shithead." According to Abrams, it was he who chose to release a teaser a year out. "It felt like, as a fan of Star Wars, if I could see even the littlest thing I’d be psyched a year out." He's also aware of the glut of Star Wars merch and tie-ins. If kids were going to dress up as [Force Awakens character name] and [Force Awakens villain name] for Halloween -- and they did, I think, though I was too busy covering my face to know for sure -- Abrams wanted to know it was part of the vision. "What does that character say as a toy in that particular line of action figures, as opposed to that one? We want to preserve some of the rarefied air of the actual experience and not open all the windows so it all just gets depleted."
This let a little air out of my experiment -- I wasn't even missing that much, it seemed. Abrams atoned; maybe lying to Star Trek fans about his Star Trek movies didn't make sense, and maybe it made sense to show the spectrum of Star Wars fans -- those who mount Empire Strikes Back posters on their walls, those who've read every Timothy Zahn Expanded Universe novel, those who subscribe to "Jedi" as a religion -- a sign of understanding that Star Wars is shared. All accounts suggest Abrams stuck to his word. Classic iconography did most of the talking. Obligatory press stops were cryptic and, let's be real, pointless. Those who went looking could piece together most of the plot; the rest were fine with Han Solo's few lines turning them to jelly. Hype was in the air -- even my culture-abstaining parents were in the Force Awakens loop -- but this was a middle ground. The mystery box could hang partly open.
In nearly three years of avoidance, only one spoiler stung. Earlier this month, in the home stretch of Star Wars celibacy, I made the poor decision to watch a colleague’s "year in movies" video. The montage was fantastic, but between snippets of indies and Best Picture hopefuls, the Millennium Falcon barrel-rolled through the sky. This was the first time I had seen The Force Awakens in motion. I had come across (and had x’ed out of with Wyatt Earp–gunslinging speed) still frames of Attack the Block’s John Boyega and Actress-Whose-Name-I-Can’t-Really-Remember-but-Looks-a-Lot-Like-Natalie-Portman (OK, I looked it up: Daisy Ridley!). This was different. Seeing the Falcon in flight zapped a bolt through my body. That was cool -- fleetingly cool. I had an immediate urge to rewind and tap that nostalgic, kinetic energy a second time. But there was defeat there, too. This was a moment for a dark theater, on a big screen, with a packed room quietly gasping as it played out in full. Instead, here was a moment isolated, primed for commercials and never-ending GIF loops. I got sucked in.
Abrams called mystery the catalyst for imagination. After two years of defensive action, I learned there's only one true spoiler: motion. Let the people talk; grafting a spoiler warning -- not hints of twists and turns, but spoiler alerts -- on a vibrant work of pop art reduces it to a set of Cliff Notes. We become plot-obsessed when no amount of third-act reveals or freeze framed imagery can taint pure, cinematic performance, be it the acting nuance or a CGI spaceship.
The beauty of Star Wars '77 was basic narrative working in tandem with what George Lucas really cared about: speed, color, sound, and design. We yelp "holy shit!" at Obi-Wan's reveal because we've been free-falling through the visual manifestation of crazy for 20 minutes and, finally, something makes sense. A moving image can be spoiled, but only voluntarily. Read everything on The Avengers and you won't be prepared for the Hulk punching Thor in the face. Overanalyze the productions of Mad Max: Fury Road and the Fantastic Four reboot and you'll still only know which one's a disaster after you see them. The word spoiler comes from the Latin "spolium," or the skin stripped away from a hunted-down animal. This remains applicable; shaving down a beast like Star Wars is part of the experience. Just don't cut the meat, the velocity, the timbre, and the humanity that only motion pictures can capture.
And The Force Awakens had plenty to show.
I finally took in The Force Awakens at a New York theater packed with fans. The excitement was palpable, making the two hours spent waiting for the movie to start were among the most painful of the entire gauntlet. To my left, a kid wearing an Episode VII-branded T-shirt ran through the new character names with his dad. Behind me, a local TV personality wondered aloud whether Anakin Skywalker would make an appearance in the film. May the Force be with me... May the Force be with me...
Five panic attacks and zero spoilers later, the lights dimmed, the LucasFilm logo sparkled across the screen, John Williams’ classic theme swelled, and any remaining paranoia melted away. I gave myself over to Abrams’ reinvention. And then it was over -- three years of work and two hours of payoff. My reaction was mixed: I met and loved its heroine, Rey, and her wily cohort Finn. The new menagerie of oddities was up to snuff with the previous six movies. There was still a Millennium Falcon moment that knocked me out. Still, the action felt a little stiff. A number of reveals enraged me to no end. All in all, very solid. When I left the theater, I sounded off on the planets and villains and all the fantastical details. Most were met with "Yeah, we knew that." But the temperature of the room was burning hot. People loved it. They had seen the new Star Wars. I had seen a movie. We were in total agreement over one thing: there were “holy shit!” moments, ranging from clever to jaw-dropping, with Abrams' signature mystery-box trolling stringing us along until Episode VIII.
Specifics? Oh, I couldn’t possibly spoil.
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Matt Patches is Thrillist’s Entertainment Editor. He previously wrote for Grantland, Esquire.com, Vulture, The Hollywood Reporter, and The Guardian. He is very happy to return to normalcy. Find him on Twitter @misterpatches.