Miriam Traore heard about the movie “It” this year and thought the killer-clown adaptation looked interesting. So Ms. Traore, a 33-year-old project manager and Jazzercise instructor in San Francisco, did what she always does when a horror flick intrigues her: She skipped the theater and went on Wikipedia.
“I want to know what the story is. I don’t want the story told to me necessarily,” said Ms. Traore, who hasn’t seen a horror movie in ages but recently read the plots to “Amityville Horror,” “The Boy,” “Halloween 3,” “Split” and “mother!”
“I thought I was the only one who did this,” she said.
Like a babysitter on Elm Street, she is not alone.
Scaredy cats across the country have found refuge—and a perverse pleasure—in reading the plots to horror movies on Wikipedia, where users who have actually stomached the fright fests relay all the grisly details in totally bloodless prose. The internet has become a minefield of spoilers for movies and television shows, but sites like Wikipedia, Internet Movie Database (IMDb) and TheMovieSpoiler.com have given rise to an unlikely hobby for the morbidly curious but deathly afraid. Their reading lists have grown longer than ever, after hits like “Get Out” and “It” made 2017 a banner year for the genre.
“I get freaked out really easily,” said James Shoop, a 30-year-old mushroom farmer in Franklinton, La. “But I’m interested in the plot.” Mr. Shoop has read the plot summaries of every movie in the “Saw” series—down to the inventive torture devices introduced throughout—but can’t say what its main villain looks like.
Grace Doble, a 22-year-old recent college graduate from Amherst, Mass., avoids reading scary summaries late at night. She lists the hobby on her Tinder profile, alongside another favorite pastime: Watching videos of bird calls, despite not being a birder herself.
Prospective dates used the information as an opening line, asking why she read scary-movie plots. “I would say I get really scared of horror movies, but I am a really, really curious person.”
Plot-summary readers say they’re drawn to the spoilers for various reasons. Some want to keep up as horror films have broken into the mainstream. Others have spent decades avoiding scary movies, and view the Wikipedia entries as a chance to confront the phobia within the safe confines of a bare-bones, community-sourced description.
“Some of [the reading] is cultural competence,” said Caitlin Pierson, a 29-year-old adjunct professor in Orlando and avid plot-summary reader. When friends talk about horror movies, “you can’t just stare at them,” she said.
Ms. Pierson traces her hobby to seven years ago, when she was flipping channels and glimpsed a scene from the 2006 haunted town movie, “Silent Hill.” Since then, she’s kept up with summaries for both installments of the series and expanded her reading to include any movie she thinks might be too scary or sad to digest.
“Sometimes I get scared when reading them, sometimes sad,” she said. Rarely does she feel the need to explore further: “Usually after I read about it, I’m good.”
Wikipedia is a safe outlet for the easily spooked, since horrific cinematic moments are told in deliberately anodyne prose.
The shower scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” for instance, unfolds on screen as a three-minute sequence featuring 78 separate shots, screeching violins and an unblinking Janet Leigh corpse.
Here’s how Wikipedia describes the action: “As she is showering, a shadowy figure comes in and stabs her to death with a chef’s knife.”
Anything more flowery is unnecessary, said Nick Bond, a NASA mission support scientist in Severna Park, Md., who watches horror movies and updates Wikipedia summaries in his spare time.
“Subjective details are not only extraneous, but in fact kind of inappropriate,” said Mr. Bond.
Horror-movie screenwriters find themselves confused by the plot-summary appeal.
“It’s like trying to explain an earthquake to someone who’s only seen a printout from a [seismometer],” said Marcus Dunstan, a writer on several installments of the “Saw” series.
His writing partner, Patrick Melton, described the Wikipedia practice as “something my mom would do.”
Some frightened viewers use online summaries to ease themselves into the horror.
Tiffany Daniels, a 33-year-old hair stylist in Olympia, Wash., loved the zombie series “The Walking Dead” but couldn’t stand the suspense.
“I could feel my chest tightening. I would be short of breath,” she said.
Then she discovered a trick. Since she lives on the West Coast, she watches a new episode three hours after viewers in the east. That’s enough time to log onto the Facebook group “Walking Dead Spoilers,” where East Coast viewers have already outlined the surprises in store. Then she’s prepped for the hour of television to come, “rather than put myself through torture,” she said.
Those brave enough to enter the theater have other new tools at their disposal.
About two years ago, Anthony Wilson, a supermarket employee in Christchurch, New Zealand, launched WheresTheJump.com, a website that tracks every “jump scare” in horror movies.
Mr. Wilson, who grew up closing his eyes at the slightest bit of on-screen terror, has watched nearly 400 horror movies with his cellphone stopwatch on, ready to log the precise moment when a music cue or shocking image hits the screen to jolt viewers in their seats. His website lists each jump-scare moment down to the second, so viewers know it’s coming.
Mr. Wilson logged 20 jump-scares in the 135 minutes of “It,” furiously writing brief descriptions from the back row of the theater. “I was stressing out a bit because I was trying to keep track of them all,” he said.
In the past year, traffic to the site has grown about 50% to 200,000 page views a month, and Mr. Wilson is developing an app that would cause a moviegoer’s phone to vibrate in warning ahead of each jump scare.
After years of reading horror-movie plot summaries, Mr. Shoop, the mushroom farmer, is considering “taking the plunge” and watching two movies he’s heard are especially good: “It Follows” and “The Babadook.” He’s not expecting too many surprises—he’s read the plot summaries of both.
“I just want to see how it all plays out on screen,” he said.