Given the volatile outcry that accompanied the cliffhanger ending of The Walking Dead’s season six finale, it’s safe to say that the feelings of a sizable percentage of the show’s online fan base about AMC and the show’s top creators have been lukewarm at best. So it came as no surprise that when AMC decided to issue a cease and desist letter to The Spoiling Dead Fans, the show’s largest online spoiler site, rage almost instantaneously erupted. Fan outcry that AMC would want to shut down a site that has consistently and accurately spoiled key narrative developments is significant in what it suggests about fandom, ownership, and the way middle America consumes horror.
Before we discuss any of those things, though, let me be crystal clear. While I believe that AMC was within its rights to issue the cease and desist, I in no way excuse or support the harassment detailed by The Spoiling Dead Fans. If the abuse detailed in their post on that matter, which you should read here, is factually accurate, and I have no reason to believe that it is not, then AMC’s actions are a clear abuse of power and should be dealt with accordingly.
It’s also important that we define what actually constitutes a spoiler. A spoiler is not the same thing as conjecture. There is absolutely nothing stopping people from debating who is at the wrong end of Negan’s bat. Rather, the issue at hand, and the reason for AMC’s lawsuit, concerns confirmed intel that is derived either from copyright protected materials such as scripts or from revelations by people who have signed non-disclosure agreements. Given that The Spoiling Dead Fans has provided detailed episode synopses prior to episodes airing, it is more than likely that they have access to materials and/or credible accounts and that the knowledge they are sharing is no longer conjecture because it has been confirmed by a source.
With those caveats in mind, I think it is worthwhile to consider more broadly how spoilers ruin the horror experience. The Walking Dead is a curious pop culture juggernaut in that its pedigree is unabashedly horror while many of its viewers are not fans of the genre. And it may be this disconnect that is fueling a great deal of the Internet rage being hurled at AMC for deigning to protect its investment.
For those of us who enjoy an authentic horror experience, the idea that you would intentionally spoil the element of surprise is stupefying. The ability to shock an audience and to circumvent expectation is vital in how a horror narrative is constructed. In Abject Terrors: Surveying the Modern and Postmodern Horror Film, Tony Magistrale argues that, in horror, surprise is “deliberately designed to control how the audience will react.” In other words, shock is a vital aspect of the narrative design. Consider for a moment how surprise was used to great effect in films such as April Fool’s Day, Deep Blue Sea, The Mist or Audition. Would any of these films have resonated as effectively as they did if audiences had gone into the film knowing the twists and turns that awaited them? When Alfred Hitchcock famously ordered audience members not to reveal the ending of Psycho, he did so because he understood the essential link between shock and horror.
What then are we to make of those viewers who seek actively to erase that link?
The most frequent argument I hear from my friends who enjoy spoilers is that if you don’t want to know, don’t journey to a spoiler site. While I appreciate the sentiment of responsibility for what you consume, that’s not quite the way the Internet, specifically social media, operates. Why does your right as a fan to know supersede my right as a fan not to know?
But the real harm of spoiler sites is not that people crave advanced knowledge of story or even that spoiler engagement is never confined to the spoiler site. Images, rants, cryptic tweets and the like make their way to every other social media outlet and are impossible to avoid. As a fan who actively seeks to avoid spoilers, this annoys me to no end but is likely unavoidable.
No, the real harm of spoiler sites is that they upend the storytelling process and disrupt the creative vision. Obviously any discussion about fandom and ownership is a prickly one. As a fan who enjoys consuming creative fandom (fan fiction, fan vids, etc.) I understand the desire to want to “fix” storylines you find problematic or to engage beloved characters in new ways. But the impulse that drives creative engagement with a text is not the same one that drives spoiler sites. Spoilers don’t reimagine a writer’s vision for the story being told as much as it thwarts it outright.
Spoiler sites aren’t so much intended to be a place for fans to gather and share conjecture over what might happen, but to confirm, in detail if possible, what is going to happen. The distinction is an important one because it speaks to a sense of entitlement that often accompanies fandom.
One of the more popular arguments for spoilers concerns triggering. Pro-Spoiler advocates claim that knowing in advance what is going to transpire in the story eliminates the emotional duress they experience worrying about the fates of their favorite characters. And to be honest, that is not something I easily dismiss. I remember vividly the heart palpitations that kept me awake on the eve of Carnivale’s second season finale when I became convinced that Iris Crowe was about to meet a grisly end. Television dramas ask you to become invested in the characters and so it should come as no surprise when viewers heed this call. But ultimately the argument that spoilers reduce agitation and worry falls apart because the truth is that viewers who are emotionally invested have another option. They can wait until the episode airs and then determine for themselves whether this is media they feel comfortable consuming. But to disrupt the narrative for viewers seeking to partake of an authentic horror and storytelling experience is at best shortsighted and at worst reeks of entitlement.
Crafting a television show, especially a horror one, is not for the faint of heart as audiences are already so jaded that coming up with anything that feels new or surprising is an almost Herculean task. Spoiler sites make that objective even more difficult.