Memories of that overzealous English teacher, who forced you to accept that every character, every scene and every action had a deep inner meaning have led to widespread fear on the part of readers and viewers everywhere that every tale secretly contains some other story being told in subtext. The end result of this is a state of mind that interprets every plot as an allegory for the rebuilding of one's soul, every setting as a manifestation of purgatory, and every protagonist as a stand-in for the Christ: Everyone Is Jesus In Purgatory!
Rampant paranoia results from this state; one cannot look at anything without being suspicious that this is some kind of allegory brainwashing you into learning An Aesopagainst your will. Is that box of Corntos one character is handing another a mere confection or is it a blessing from On High, manna sent from a merciful God? Or wait... it could be a Deal with the Devil; short-term pleasure resulting in permanent bodily ruination! Or maybe it's a scathing indictment of the Corn Industry's influence on American snack foods! What Do You Mean, It's Not Symbolic? Thus the Epileptic Trees are planted.
The concept of "the Death of the Author" has helped this state of affairs as it encourages everyone to insist that their pet theories are entirely valid (with or without justification), regardless of how many times the author of the text clearly states his or her intentions in writing the work, or, as in many cases, that the pet theory absolutely isn't the state of affairs at all. Death of the Author is effective because Word of God isn't always reliable; the author him/herself can decide the works means different (even contradictory) things and if there are multiple authors, it's perfectly possible for them to disagree on what the work means and so whoever came up with the concept of "Death of the Author" has a good point. This is what literary Postmodernism is about.
This often arises from the improper conflation of symbolism (which doesn't imply a one-to-one correspondence and doesn't need to have one and only one meaning that can be stated in a simple declarative sentence) and allegory (which implies a one-to-one correspondence and a stated specific meaning).
The Mind Screw series loves this state of mind. It cultivates it intentionally and takes advantage of it every chance it gets.
See Freud Was Right (for sexual/phallic, subconscious symbolism), Getting Crap Past the Radar (for crowdsourced sexual/phallic, subconscious symbolism), What Do You Mean, It's Not Political? (for political symbolism), and Wild Mass Guessing if you really want to blow your mind. Compare Messianic Archetype for characters with more obvious parallels to a Christ figure. Not to be confused with Everyone Is Satan in Hell, where something good is portrayed as bad, (relevant that it is not confused due to the popularity of "everyone is Dante in hell" as an alternate form of this) and Draco in Leather Pants when something bad is portrayed as good.
Compare Faux Symbolism and The Walrus Was Paul. Contrast Rule of Symbolism.
FLCL has enough confusing symbolism to fall into this, but it also features an in-story example that doubles as Self-Deprecation for Gainax. In episode 2, Kamon is rambling about having a robot in their house, and Naota explains to Haruko that his father "once wrote a book on the deep mysteries of Eva."
Many Fullmetal Alchemist fans believe that the religion of Ishval was based off modern Islam, due to the Ishvallans' dark skin and the Arabian Nights-esque setting they lived in. Hiromu Arakawa (the creator of the manga) has stated that she based it off of the Ainu, an ethnic group that were driven from Honshu and live on Hokkaido, where Arakawa was born. A similar theory is that Ishval was based off of Ishvara, a Hindu concept of monotheism.
Haibane Renmei was made to induce this kind of thing. Though they take a lot of the fun out by making the 'purgatory' part so literal and obvious. That aside, Yoshitoshi ABe also doesn't seem to be much of a fan of the Word of God approach, encouraging viewers to come to their own conclusions about the specifics of the symbolism.
Yoshitoshi ABe was involved with Serial Experiments Lain, Haibane Renmei, and Texhnolyze. The person behind the story concepts was in fact the producer, Yasuyuki Ueda. The only one of the three where ABe contributed more than character designs was his pet project, Haibane Renmei. Ueda and ABe later joked about this, saying that Niea 7 and Haibane Renmei proved that ABe was the earnest and hardworking one.
Higurashi: When They Cry: Furude Hanyu? Jesus in Purgatory. Or, rather, Jesus in samsara. What happens if God needs forgiveness too? Is a partly-human, self-sacrificial deity really that much better than the blood-thirsty gods of old, or does that just create new problems? What if no one even realizes there's been a change?
Neon Genesis Evangelion. Angels fight humans and create cross shaped explosions. There's talk of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the NERV logo is the name covered in part by a fig leaf with the creed "God's in his heaven; all is right with the world." What does it mean? Who knows. See Mind Screw above.
Anno has made some statements on what it all means: absolutely nothing. The Christian imagery was put in solely to give the show an edge over other mecha anime (this was before they decided to include psychoanalysis of the cast). Which is weird, because they actually got most of the mythology right (in particular, Adam and Lilith).
One Piece has spawned a good example of this trope:
Franky was born a carpenter, the 'son of a pirate', we never actually see his father, who is a nonentity in his life. He builds ships to destroy sea monsters, representing mankind's sins in their desire for progress. These ships also represent those created to serve him, i.e. the apostles. Naturally, a strong authority: Marines vs Romans, causes betrayal among the apostles, and Tom dies, who represents Franky's human aspects. Afterward, Franky dies through martyrdom (struck by a train is similar to crucifixion if you think about it) and disappears for a length of time, after which he rises from the dead better then ever.
Puella Magi Madoka Magica due to the Faustian overtones. Let's see... self-sacrificial All-Loving Herowho disappears to save humanity from despair, a girl who makes a Deal with the Devilin order to save her best friend from damnation, a Weasel Mascotand Star Fish Alien in disguise who regularly promises a wish in exchange for their souls and eventual damnation, also coupled by the fact that the finale showed on Good Friday, of all days. note The final episode wasn't originally planned to air on Good Friday; it was delayed to avoid a too soon situation after the earthquake that hit Japan just before the second to last episode was scheduled to air.
Rozen Maiden. Rozen is the immortal creator of the Rozen Maidens, bestowing upon them Rosa Mysticas (souls). His face is never shown, and he is consistently bathed in white light when he is. (In other words, they couldn't make it any more obvious that he is God-like if they tried.) He disappears as soon as he makes the seven maidens, telling his creations that they have to kill each other until one remains to become the perfect girl-Alice.
Tenchi Muyo!: Anybody who was part of the (in)famous Tenchi FF mailing list at the proper time will remember one Mr. Grey, who argued that Tenchi Muyo! was all an allegory for an obscure form of Zen Taoism. According to Grey, Ryoko and Ayeka were each half a universe, Ryoko represented the Altruist, and Tenchi represented the goat.
Kamina Died For Your Sins. He is inspiration to his small group of followers but not accepted in his hometown; He dies via Heroic Sacrifice and then comes back from the dead with new abilities and saves his followers when they attack a rebellious and demon faction.
The 2001 Turner Prize was won by Martin Creed. His exhibit consisted of an empty room with a light turning on and off. When asked to explain his creation he stated that it was an empty room with a light turning on and off. He seemed bemused by any suggestions that it symbolized anything deeper, yet that didn't stop people from theorizing.
Superman is not really Superman. He's a stand-in for someone else.
He's Jesus. For instance, consider this quote from Superman-The Movie: "They can be a great people, Kal-El, they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you... my only son". Also, Clark reveals he is 33 years old in Man of Steel.
In the future of Legion of Super Heroes, where Superman is the inspiration for the heroes of the day, it's even more so. The animated series even has him end up getting a crown of Kryptonite from his own personal Judas.
Parodied in MAD`s parody of Watchmen, where Big Figure and his goons attempt to work out what's going to happen next by analyzing the comic's 'direct, concomitant parallelisms' as pertaining to an owl mask on a previous page. They come up with lots of deep, meaningful suggestions, but are cut off by Nite Owl's Owlship crashing through the wall◊.
Somebody came up with the idea that the Fantastic Four represent the four elements (Thing is Earth, Invisible Woman is Air, Human Torch is Fire (duh), and Mr. Fantastic is Water). This sounds like something that was developed retroactively. Stan Lee has no problem with being labeled a genius, so he hasn't discouraged this. It's lampshaded in the "Ultimate" version. The specific reasons why are in their entry in Four Element Ensemble
When John Byrne took over the title in the 80s, one of his first issues features the Four fighting four elementals, who were ordered not to face their counterparts, thus making the mapping explicit. Neil Gaiman later took advantage of the scheme for his 1602 version of the Fantastic Four.
In an in-universe example, in Equestria: A History Revealed, the Lemony Narrator considers everything to be a symbol. Even certain word choice from ancient sources. She spent three paragraphs analyzing the meaning behind the inclusion of the word hellfire before concluding that it meant an evil fire.
Pinkie: Brace yourself, Scootaloo. We’re gonna figure out the subtext.
Scootaloo: What’s subtext?
Pinkie: Rarity explained it to me once. It’s what the story’s really about even though it’s about something else. So even though the words in the script might say they’re about a vegetable garden and a troublesome bunny rabbit, the story’s really about the rise of nihilism within the proletariat. You can tell because of the bit with the watermelon. It’s not your fault for not seeing it. I can’t believe they’d give something so advanced to your class.
The Land Before Time: In a particularly horrifying interpretation of the film. Click if you want to never be able to watch this movie again The earthquake near the beginning was a result of the Cretaceous–Tertiary extinction event, AKA the extinction of the dinosaurs. Meaning everyone was Dead All Along. The film is their journey through purgatory towards heaven, represented by the Great Valley. The dinosaur that comforts Littlefoot directly after his mother's death is an angel trying to get him to overcome his anger over his mother's death, for which he blames both her and (secretly) himself. The lava field is where Cera overcomes her sin of excessive pride, and where the rest of the group learns that there are no "shortcuts" to heaven, and that they must go on the path set for them, and have faith in it, or they'll never get there. The Sharptooth is representative of the kids' fear of their own mortality, and by killing him, they have finally let go of all of their earthly attachments, aside from Littlefoot, who still has guilt for the death of his mother. When he finally accepts her death, he finds the Great Valley, along with everyone else, where the rest of their families are waiting for them in the afterlife.
There is a very popular theory that gained a lot of ground is that not only are all the Pixar films in the same universe, but they are actually all a part of one very long overarching plot about the evolution of and a war between humans, animals and machines, that almost leads to the apocalypse, called "The Pixar Theory." Read at your own risk.
Films — Live-Action
Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. Given its open-endedness (especially compared with the Stephen King novel it's based on), this film is a Rorschach test for most commentators. There could be religious allegory or it could be about the Cold War, the Holocaust, the genocide of Native Americans, a pontification on mankind's predilection for violence through the ages, or a commentary on the breakdown of the family, the crisis of masculinity, the state of modern America and its ideologies, sexism, racism, or the dominance of big business. A documentary has been made about different interpretations of the film, called Room 237.
Literature-to-film example: during pre-production for the 2005 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Marilyn Manson expressed interest in playing the role of Willy Wonka, and outlined his theory that Wonka was Satan, tempting and leading the damned souls (the children) into Hell.
David Lynchencourages people to come up with their own theories on Eraserhead. The Lady in the Radiator is frequently interpreted as Death, Henry is the everyman, and the Man in the Planet is either Satan or God but nobody can agree what the Baby is.
Donnie Darko is never interpreted the same way by any two people, with interpretations going all over the allegorical scale. Which is hilarious because Writer/Director Richard Kelly has stated that he didn't create the movie with any particular allegories or "depth" intended, and that (to him) it's just a science fiction movie, plain and simple. Naturally, the creators specifically telling people they're wrong has never stopped fandom before. This has lead to an interesting relation between the theatrical cut and the director's cut: the theatrical cut is open to interpretation, the director's cut is the director's interpretation.
Pulp Fiction possesses several plot points that are subject to this; one revolves around the mysterious glowing contents of Marcellus Wallace's briefcase that are never explained (with one popular theory being that it is Wallace's soul, which he bought back from Mr. S. and another being the reason for a band-aid that is prominently displayed on Wallace's bald head as it is filmed from the back. The first is merely a plot MacGuffin that Tarantino never bothered to explain; the second is merely a result of actor Ving Rhames (who played Wallace) cutting the back of his head whilst shaving it and requiring a band-aid to stop the bleeding. Let's face it: it's cooler if you give it cosmic overtones. Tarantino's official response about the briefcase was a fairly lackluster "whatever the audience wants it to be." For the record, it was originally supposed to be the diamonds from Reservoir Dogs, but Tarantino decided to leave it deliberately ambiguous for the sake of this type of discussion.
The final scene of (fittingly enough) Jesus Christ Superstar, the film, shows a shepherd walking through the desert. Some thought it was supposed to symbolize Jesus's resurrection, which was not itself featured with the movie (and the play it was based on). However, it was not one of the actors but a real shepherd, who just happened to walk by when the crew was filming, and they decided to leave him in. This could mean they had some plot-based reason for leaving him in or didn't want to bother editing him out.
Roy Batty in Blade Runner is rather Christlike, in that he saves Deckard in the end. If so, he's a very Gnostic Christ, with Tyrell as a fallible and imperfect God. It needs to be pointed out that Deckard is saved from death by Roy Batty's bloody, nail-pierced hand. After Deckard is safe from danger, Batty "gives up his spirit" by letting go of the white dove he's been clutching. Say what you will about professors over-analyzing for symbolism, but this film's Jesus Christ posing is obvious and intentional, so consider also Messianic Archetype.
Signs' initially rage-inducing ending is improved by this sort of interpretation. Consider for a moment that water per se is never explicitly stated to be the invaders' Achilles' Heel - a television newscast on the subject only refers to something along the lines of "an esoteric method discovered in the Middle East," the birthplace of the major Abrahamic religions. Moreover, the only water that is shown to harm the invaders has been handled by a priest, and is only effective after he begins to resolve his crisis of faith. That would tend to suggest that the "aliens" in question are, in fact, demons (which makes the whole "creeping around in the shadows and screwing with people instead of death-raying the entire planet" thing a lot more reasonable), and are subdued by holy water and (presumably) similar religious articles. The considerable volumes of work in which folklorists draw numerous parallels between the superstitions of antiquity and the modern UFO phenomenon helps this interpretation. Intentional or not, it makes the movie seem less stupid. Now if only holy water worked that way......
Bill Murray's Groundhog Day stands as Hollywood's sole Buddhist message movie. As Phil (short for 'philosopher', obviously, a common name for the Buddha), Murray eventually realizes what takes many lifetimes to understand; namely, that every cycle of birth-death-rebirth (every 'day') is always the same, over and over, depressing, painful, and bound by karma (i.e.- how you've treated others in the past), until you awaken and make a conscious choice to change that destiny. It's interesting that Phil takes the Tantric path, initially using the opportunity of being 'reborn' every morning to simply fulfill all desires, and therefore, to ultimately purge himself of them. Still, over who knows how many 'days' — how many lifetimes of days — he eventually comes to see the connectedness of all things, the sacredness of all life, and the joy to be found in knowledge, wisdom, and simply making a difference in the lives of others. By his own effort, and even against his initial nature, over many lifetimes he achieves Enlightenment, and is able to move on. Plus, that scene where he lets the groundhog drive the truck is freakin hilarious.
An argument has been made that the Twilight series was Meyer subconsciously writing a Mormon treatise (short version: Edward is Joseph Smith, vampires are Mormons, werewolves are Lamanites, and all women are good for is having babies. Long version here). That would make this series the Themepark Version of Mormonism.
Literally true in the case of the western Purgatory, in that the title town contains a number of wild west legends, all seeking redemption.
Fans of the movie version of Sin City often wondered if the three protagonists were one and the same. Marv was the real character with John Hartigan as his Author Avatar made up by his own delusions while in a near-death experience. Dwight is Marv "with a new face" after faking his death. A lot of this came about because much of Dwight's backstory was alluded to but not explained (his story was essentially a sequel to his Origin Story from the comics). Comic fans explained that these were, indeed three separate characters that were featured in different stories published years apart and in a different order.
Kontroll is set in the Budapest Metro (the underground railway). In the final scene, Szofi (previously seen wearing a bear suit) is wearing a dress in Virgin Mary blue, with wings on the back, and she accompanies protagonist Bulcsu up the escalator which has blue daylight streaming down from above. This might change the viewer's interpretation of the rest of the film.
Tim Burton's Beetlejuice (1988) can be interpreted as a conflict between Heaven and Hell, although the metaphors are heavily cloaked. The name "Betelgeuse" - at least as pronounced in the movie - sounds a lot like "Beelzebub", the ancient mocking Hebrew name for the Devil (literally meaning "Lord of the Flies", and Betelgeuse does indeed have a connection to insects). Also like Lucifer, Betelgeuse is named after a star. But what clinches the argument is Juno telling the Maitlands that Betelgeuse was once her assistant, but went off on his own because he thought he could be a better "bio-exorcist" - a story that has very interesting parallels to Paradise Lost. (By the way, this explains why Betelgeuse loves watching The Exorcist so much; it's about him!) And yes, this would mean that Juno is supposed to be God (and, in fact, she is named after the chief goddess in Roman mythology). While this doesn't exactly square with the implication that Juno was a suicidal chain-smoker who was forced to become a civil servant in the afterlife as punishment, it's entirely possible that she is merely appearing to her fellow case-workers in A Form You Are Comfortable With. Also, why do you think the whorehouse is called "Dante's Inferno Room"?
In one of his books, I Have Landed, Stephen Jay Gould discussed how many critics thought there was a symbolic meaning to the references to butterflies in Vladimir Nabokov's novels.
Brazilian writer and "jazz musician" Luis Fernando Verissimo once wrote a essay in which he claimed that the Walrus and the Carpenter from Alice in Wonderland were metaphors for Buddha and Jesus (one being fat, and the other, a carpenter), and the oysters they brainwashed represented the followers of both religions.
This claim is put forth by Loki, the exiled Angel of Death, in Dogma, in his attempt to convince a nun that God does not exist. He wins and tells her to buy herself a nice dress and go find a man...or woman.
From Wikipedia: "In The Annotated Alice, Martin Gardner noted that when Lewis Carroll gave the manuscript for Through the Looking-Glass to illustrator John Tenniel, he gave him the choice of drawing a carpenter, a butterfly, or a baronet (since each word would fit the poem's meter). Tenniel chose the carpenter. Because of this, the carpenter's significance in the poem is probably not in his profession. Although the two characters of the poem were interpreted later as two political types, there is no indication of what Carroll may have intended; Gardner cautions the reader that there isn't too much intended symbolism in the Alice books; the books were made for the imagination of children, not the analysis of "mad people". (Others have claimed that they're clearly about logic, but the imagination of children part is certainly a nice side dish.)
Listen to Carroll's Duchess from the first book:
Duchess: There's a moral in everything, if only you can find it.
The seven Chronicles of Narnia have been claimed to be An Aesop focusing on one of the Seven Deadly Sins. This just goes to show that this trope applies even when there's plenty of real, valid symbolism, allegory, and "supposition" to choose from. Later still, a book was published saying that each novel corresponds with one of the seven heavens of the medieval cosmos.
C. S. Lewis has specified how the books compare with Christianity: "The Magician's Nephew tells the Creation and how evil entered Narnia, The Lion etc. — the Crucifixion and Resurrection, Prince Caspian — restoration of the true religion after a corruption, The Horse and His Boy — the calling and conversion of the heathen, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader — the spiritual life (especially in Reepicheep), The Silver Chair — the continuing war against the powers of darkness, The Last Battle — the coming of Antichrist (the ape). The end of the world and the last judgement." (Source)
The Greek poet and Literature Nobel Prize winner Odysseas Elytis once attended a celebration in his honor, where samples of his work were read and then had their meaning analyzed in detail by distinguished scholars. When his turn came to speak and thank everybody, he put his tongue in his cheek and gave special credit to the scholars for finding more depth to his poetry than even he had thought of.
In-universe example: When Vogon Jeltz asks Arthur and Ford what they thought of his poetry, they attempt to save their own necks by going into excruciatingly sycophantic analytical detail. At one point they comment that the poem serves to "counterpoint the surrealism of the underlying metaphor." Jeltz doesn't buy it, and sentences them to being tossed out the airlock, grumbling: "'... counterpoint the surrealism of the underlying metaphor.'... Death's too good for them."
John Granger teaches a class, and wrote two whole books, on how the series can be seen as a fully Christian work filled to the brim with symbolism culled from classic authors the likes of which Tolkien and Lewis were reading in their heyday. Whether he is right or wrong, it could be too much of a coincidence that all the good guys are on the team with the lion mascot and all the bad guys are on the team with the serpent mascot (which commonly represents Satan). There's also this, which "argues" that Harry is The Antichrist.
Harry Potter for Seekers is an entire website devoted to the alchemical and spiritual symbolism in Harry Potter, as if it's a genuine discipline of mysticism. One page evaluates the symbolism of the characters. Take the lead protagonist, for example:
"Harry...symbolizes the new soul force in the seeker who wants to go the Path of Alchemical Transformation resulting in total liberation. Harry...will break all seven chains tying the seeker to the universe of time and space, and he will defeat the root-force of the fallen universe that dwells within the seeker."
"Minerva symbolises the divine force that conducts the process of transfiguring the mortal imperfect human being into a perfect child of God."
Rowling addressed this in a 2007 interview with Time magazine. She said that she used Christian themes because it was what she was familiar with, but that the themes could apply to any religion. "I did not set out to convert anyone to Christianity. I wasn't trying to do what C. S. Lewis did."
In Lord of the Flies, is Simon Jesus? Is the lack of girls on the island proof that boys are evil and therefore Eve is not at fault? One thing is for sure: the name of the demon Beelzebub (בעל זבוב or Baʿal Zəbûb in Hebrew) from The Bible literally means "Lord of the Flies". note The name Beelzebub may be a dig at the Philistine deity of the city of Ekron, whose name might originally have been Baal-zebul ("Lord of Lords", or "Lord of the Heavens"). According to this theory, the Israelites satirized this deity by renaming him "Lord of the flies".
Unsurprisingly, Neal Stephensonhangs a lampshade on this trope by having several of his characters explicitly identify themselves with figures from ancient and classical mythology (e.g. Hiro and Juanita in Literature/Snow Crash are Enki and Inana fron Sumerian mythology, and Danial and Eliza in The Baroque Cycle are Pluto and Hermes from Greco-Roman mythology).
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz works beautifully as a metaphor of the Search For Enlightenment. The heroine wants to Get Home (to return to her innocent past), her companions are hoping to find Wisdom, Love, or Power: the Teacher turns out to be a fraud, and the final moral is - what else? - she had the way to get her wish with her all along.
J. R. R. Tolkien. Poor, poor Tolkien. You can't write a successful good-versus-evil story in the twentieth century without every other English High School teacher hijacking it for a lesson on metaphors. He stated in the introduction of the first volume that no, it's not an allegory of any kind (and he disliked straightforward allegories anyway), and doubly no, not one on fascism, The Bomb or what have you. Doesn't stop some teachers who cite The Inklings, the informal group of literary scholars of which he was a member, and included people like Charles Williams (notorious for allegory) and C.S. Lewis (notorious Christian convert).
Some people also seem to think that the West into which Frodo & Co eventually go is only allegorical. While it can be construed as symbolic (see the quote below), it's also very much a physical place (as explained in the Appendices and The Silmarillion). Yes, it's a place. Where the angels and High Elves live, and the dead rest in the ever-expanding Halls of Mandos.
"To Bilbo and Frodo the special grace is granted to go with the Elves they loved – an Arthurian ending, in which it is, of course, not made explicit whether this is an 'allegory' of death, or a mode of healing and restoration leading to a return." J.R.R Tolkien, Morgoth's Ring, pp 365-6
Tolkien drew a distinction between "allegory" and "applicable." The fact that a story has parallels with a real life event doesn't mean the parallels can't be legitimately drawn, but it doesn't justify "explaining" the story by the parallels. Nor does it mean the author intended the parallels.
François Rabelais's Gargantua has a preface that mocks the reader who looks for any hidden meaning, and then encourages them to dig deeper to find the wisdom in the book. The "hidden wisdom" is probably to sit back and enjoy the damn book.
The Divine Comedy has everyone as Jesus in Purgatory, and one third of it takes place in Purgatory. The other two thirds are Hell and Heaven.
Joseph Heller's expy in his semi-autobiographical novel argues that people only see a connection between Ulysses and The Odyssey because James Joyce personally explained it to everyone who wasn't running away while covering their ears.
Nostradamus's Prophecies was made to invoke this trope. Its content is so random and meaningless that commentators can read whatever they want in it.
The Power of Five: Matt's story is suspiciously similar to the life of Jesus Christ. Born with special powers according to some higher plan, destined to save the world from The Legions of Hell and their very Satan-like leader, leads a small group of followers of whom the closest to him is named Pedro ('Peter' in Spanish), accepts his destiny despite wishing there was another way, betrayed by one of his companions, flogged and beaten and hung up to be jeered at, died, came back and ascended to Heaven right in front of his friends.
An in-universe example occurs in Stephen King's It: when Bill Denbrough follows a writing course in college, he gets an instructor who keeps insisting that each story has deeper meanings and messages, be it political, religious etc. One day Bill has enough and finally stands up to his instructor, asking him point blank if it has ever occurred to him that sometimes a story can be just a story, without socio-anything. His instructor disagrees.
Stephen King promotes taking advantage of this in your own works in On Writing; his message there is, don't shoehorn in symbolism, instead look at your draft and polish up what naturally shows up as a recurring theme to make it really stand out. He uses the recurring motif of blood in Carrie as an example. In short: If you see not-actually-symbolism showing up prominently, encourage it to grow and make it actual symbolism.
Isaac Asimov's (very) short story, The Immortal Bard, features William Shakespeare being brought to modern times by means of a time machine. He expresses amazement at the amount of crap people have made up about his work in the intervening 400 years; the chap who built the time machine enrolls him in a modern Shakespeare class, and he fails.
Zilpha Keatley Snyder's Green-Sky Trilogy has Raamo, the young Ol-zhaan priest who while denying that he is holy, becomes increasingly otherworldly throughout the books, until the inevitable happens and he plunges into the abyss with the weapon he brought there to destroy. The two races of Green-sky unite and make peace in his name. Readers complained, and an amazing video game sequel ensued.
A Song of Ice and Fire has numerous prophesies, strange dreams, vivid imagery, and a fully-stocked Chekhov's Armoury. Naturally, parts of the fanbase have tried to derive meaning from nearly every word, from Animal Motifs and Messianic Archetypes to off-hand comments and what the characters eat for dinner. They're actually quite creative with what they come up with, such as the infamous "Corn Code", when fans speculated that the repetition of certain words, especially the squawking of Joer Morment's pet raven, was actually a cryptogram that they could use to predict events in the series.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer had many examples of subtext and allegory, which led naturally to some overanalysis by the fans.
One theory involves each season representing one of the seven steps on the path to Buddhist Nirvana (originally posted between seasons 6 and 7, with an amendment after the finale).
Because Joss Whedon knows his audience he enforces this in the season 4 Dream Sequence episode: everything in the characters' dreams has a meaning. You can read something into absolutely everything... except for the man with the cheese. This hasn't stopped some from trying to prove otherwise. There's nothing Joss loves more than Jossing fans.
Ashes to Ashes: the weird thing is that the truth turns out to be the trope title minus the Jesus part. Except that by the end Gene Hunt kind of is Jesus. According to the finale, yep, everyone was in a copper's purgatory, and Gene was the gatekeeper.
LOST is a series with much deep meaning and symbolism, but many fans take it too far. This is, after all, the fandom where the name for Epileptic Trees came from. There are even theories that include this exact trope title, which have already been discredited by the Word of God and the show itself, as the survivors escape alive into the outside world, plus characters come to the Island from what is clearly an existent world. Yet people still claim they are in Purgatory.
Everyone is Jesus indeed. There's...
The omniscient character
The omniscient character's son, whom she sends to the island to die to save it.
The baby born with a prophecy.
The character who looks like Jesus, dies arms spread then gets resurrected.
The character named Christian Shepherd.
The god who dies.
"The End" reveals that everyone, after they die, will end up as Jesus in Purgatory. The "flash-sideways" timeline turned out to be a flash-forward to a "meeting place" of sorts, where the cast of the show was already dead and had to find each other and remember their past life on the island before they could move on to the next/afterlife.
The episode of Cheers entitled "The Triangle" features an in-universe one centering around the Wile-Coyote as part of the patrons' larger debate.
Right before he dies, Dalek Sec says "My Daleks, understand this. If you choose death and destruction then death and destruction will also choose you" which sounds familiar. Oh, and he said it right before he was killed by the people he was trying to, in the words of the Doctor, "lead from the darkness."
Eleven "saves the soul of a rich man" in "A Christmas Carol". Ten is supposed to be Madame de Pompadour's angel.
There are plenty of suggestions of a religious subtext in Russell T Davies' work, from the obvious The Second Coming to the Host in the Doctor Who story "Voyage of the Damned" to (some say) the Doctor almost turning into Jesus in "Last of the Time Lords". Not to mention the Resurrection Glove (and a guest appearance by Death) in Torchwood. (Whether most of this is supposed to mean anything, however, is a different question.)
Parodied in the Supernatural episode "Hunter Heroici". Castiel watches a Road Runner cartoon and becomes convinced it is religious allegory.
A theory that the cast represent the seven deadly sins: Mary Ann is envy, the Professor is pride, Ginger is lust, Mr. Howell is greed, Mrs. Howell is sloth, the Skipper is both gluttony and wrath, and Gilligan himself is Satan. An alternate form of the theory assigns Gilligan gluttony (either because he constantly eats but never gets fat, or because all he does is take up space) and leaves the Skipper with just wrath.
Keep an eye out for wacky theories about Christian allegory in In the Night Garden. Makka Pakka lives in a cave, and garages his scooter in another cave, rolling a round stone in front to close the entrance (like Christ's tomb). He also goes around washing everyone's faces (John the Baptist). Igglepiggle goes out in a boat (sermon from the boat/"fishers of men"). Upsy Daisy (Mary Magdalen). The Pinky-Ponk (merkabah). And so on. The point is that the creators of In the Night Garden are all old enough to have had compulsory religious education at school, and have all the Christian imagery floating about in their heads, waiting to slip out into a programme concept.
In The Sopranos episodes "Join the Club" and "Mayham," Tony Soprano, while in a coma, dreams of himself as a salesman who loses his wallet and takes the identity of Kevin Finnerty. Numerous fan theories have suggested the dream was Purgatory, which Tony was visiting. Note that while series creator David Chase has Jossed all theories of the significance of the "Kevin Finnerty" name, he has neither confirmed nor denied the Purgatory theory regarding the dream itself.
Parodied on MST3K. At the end of Bloodlust, the villain ends up nailed to one of his own trophy stands, causing Tom Servo to quip "Why this symbolism? Did Christ hunt people on deserted islands?"
Of all the shows likely to avoid such theories, you might expect Seinfeld to be one of them. You'd be wrong. Interpretations of the final episode have claimed that the airplane on which the four leads were flying crashed, killing them all. Their trial was actually a stand-in for their judgment in the afterlife, and their prison sentence represents a very lengthy stay in Purgatory.
Community, Abed's idea for a viral video for Shirley's church was a film about a filmmaker who was making a film about Jesus who realized that he himself was Jesus was having a film made about him.
In "Course Listing Unavailable", it's revealed Greendale was actually an insane asylum that the group all were kept at for 3 years. After initially being fooled, they realise that's ridiculous, and this trope is tried out on them; apparently the entire study group is in purgatory, being watched by the devil;
Jeff: Troy, stop letting him make you realise things.
Parodied in an episode when Abed took a class on Whos The Boss and the professor insisted on interpreting the sitcom this way. See here.
Any of the various outlandish interpretations of the lyrics of "Come Together", such as what "toe-jam football" is.
"Helter Skelter" and the rest of the White Album, along with several other Beatles songs, are all a huge (and tragic) example of this. The song was written about nothing (or a playground slide, or maybe The Roman Empire), but Charles Manson built up this whole mythology around it about how it was prophecy and so on. Then he went around murdering people to fulfill the prophecy. Turns out it wasn't any of that at all...
When John Lennon received a letter from a student about an English class at his former High School analyzing the lyrics of the band's songs, he was so amused that he set out to write the most confusing and absurd song he could come up with that still had a valid meaning to interpret. He titled the song I Am The Walrus.
The song "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" is often interpreted to be about using LSD, as the three nouns in the title form the same acronym and it describes some trippy imagery. John Lennon claimed he wrote it about a drawing his son made, and even provided the drawing to prove it.
"Particle Man". Is it a pastiche of superhero comics, an allegory for the struggle between science and religion, or just a goofy little song by They Might Be Giants? The TMBG Wiki actually has an "interpretation" section for each of the band's songs.
Go to any Pet Shop Boys fan forum and ask who the title character of "Birthday Boy" is. The replies will either be Jesus, Matthew Shepard, or both.
XTC's "The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead" has often been interpreted as an allegory about Jesus, John Lennon, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., etc. The music video particularly plays up Jesus and JFK comparisons.
The song "Don't You Worry Child" by Swedish House Mafia have been interpreted by some Christian groups as being about man's relationship with God, and has even been covered by Christian group Anthem Lights, who also added a reference to Psalm 139.
My father said, "Don't you worry, don't you worry, child See, Heaven's got a plan for you
In Peanuts, a common theory is that Linus' belief in the Great Pumpkin is a way of making fun of Christian evangelism, because there's no evidence for the Great Pumpkin's existence, and Linus tries to convince people he's real. The fact that Linus often quotes from the Bible adds more fuel, as does the strip where Linus travels from door to door asking people if they've heard of the Great Pumpkin, in the manner of a Jehovah's Witness; when Peppermint Patty decided to believe in the Great Pumpkin (she needed a new baseball glove) Marcie called Linus and told him that he had "a disciple". This has been officially Jossed, with Charles Schulz claiming that the only inspiration for the Great Pumpkin was that he thought it would be funny if a character believed in a Santa Claus-like figure for Halloween.
A darkly existential take on Linus and the Great Pumpkin can be found here.
A GarfieldHalloween storyline in 1989 depicted Garfield waking up and finding everyone and everything he knew to be gone and broken down. The storyline ended with Garfield embracing denial and suddenly Jon and Odie are back in front of him. A fan theory began on the Internet suggesting that every strip since that point has been Garfield slowly starving to death in his delusions or already dead. (Of course, if the former's the case, it's taking him a good goddamn long time to die.) Davis was made aware of those theories in 2006 and is reported to have laughed about them. In any case, if you read the postscript of the last strip in this series, it's pretty clear that the nightmare about Garfield being alone forever was just that - a nightmare, a product of his imagination. And his only escape was to embrace the hope that he would wake up, and thus shift his mental state back to normal, in a combination of Your Mind Makes It Real and Clap Your Hands If You Believe.
Not so much Jesus, but it's generally accepted amongst its (many) detractors that the entire population of Funky Winkerbean (and by extension, Crankshaft) is in Purgatory (Limbo is also accepted) and merely awaiting inevitable death.
Religion and Mythology
The Bible itself is subject to this, even in a literal sense, as many Old Testament figures, such as Moses, show parallels with Jesus. Certain theologist believe that these were prophetic foreshadowings for the Messiah, while skeptics believe that the New Testament was intentionally written to match these older stories. Even the writers of the gospels have this happening, where some of them, through narrative use of As the Good Book Says (although it's a different Good Book), claim that this event or that saying were to fulfil what had been said by the prophets beforehand. Some of them are significant stretches. Also, the New Testament writers' practice fits squarely into the tradition of Jewish midrash. For example, the Gospel of Mark begins with Jesus' baptism at which Jesus comes up from the water, the heavens are opened, a voice comes forth, and the spirit descends. This is clearly midrash on the creation story from Genesis 1 in which God's spirit hovers over water and God's voice summons the light. In so doing, Mark is making a theological point through narrative. In addition, common in the First Century CE was the use of typology as a way of understanding scripture (Isaac is seen as a type of Jesus, Elijah as a type of John the Baptist, etc.). In this way, the authors of the NT are not claiming literal prophecy/fulfillment as much as reminding the reader that what God has done before, God is doing again.
Most of the works of Shakespeare. Try asking your English teacher what Iago's motives are in Othello, and what Iago stands for. The obvious one is that he's Satan, which has a bit of weight to it. Another is that Iago is the author, trying to engineer a tragic play. Or maybe — just maybe — he's an intolerant redneck who has a problem working under a black man and a teetotaller, and suspects both of nailing his wife, like he says in the play.
Waiting for Godot is either an allegory of the Cold War, a collection of Jungian archetypes or an examination of human existence and the role of God, depending on who you ask. Godot himself is often thought as being God, largely because of his name and the fact that both him and God are described within the play as having a white beard. Samuel Beckett himself was very insistent about the fact that Godot was not God and if he meant Godot to be God he would have called him God.
Thief is utterly rife with symbolism, particularly symbols and language that make it clear that certain factions are meant to stand in for things we have in the real world, such as Christianity, science and, more obviously, nature worship. While these forces all have very clear-cut domains, in theory, the waters are so muddied that it is almost impossible to tell what the overall allegory is. The most you can really tell is that that the developers seemed to think that the early Christians persecuted the Pagans rather than vise-versa and that the world of Thief is apparently run by fanatics of various kinds who both create and solve all its problems.
Within the games themselves, the Keepers are an old order of sages who are trying to decipher ancient and cryptic prophecies, but even they don't really have a good clue what they are meaning, to the point that their different interpretations are starting to turn them against each other.
Final Fantasy X beats you over the head with "Yuna is Jesus" analogies every thirty seconds. She walks on water barefoot in the Kilika Sending scene; she speaks out against a corrupted hypocritical faith and begins her journey knowing she is going to die to save the world from Sin, for Christ's sake.
For an in-universe example of this, Fable I has the book "The Rotten Apple" seen as one Albion's premiere philosophical works. However, if the book is taken literally, it just gives good advice on fruit farming.
Final Fantasy VII: This trope goes a long way to explain the continuing fascination with its convoluted plot and psychologically damaged characters. Maybe it was all the references to Nordic myth, Jewish Kabbalah, and Judeo-Christian Faux Symbolism, maybe it was main hero's troubled past and unresolved Love Triangle, the abrupt and ambiguous Gainax Ending, or maybe it was just the bishonen with huge swords... but they're still arguing about this one, and the new games aren't clearing much up. The inspiration for this trope title comes from here, after all.
Chrono Trigger. Crono is Jesus, Marle is Mary Magdalene, and the entire game is simply rife with Biblical symbolism. It's true! This site says so! Then there's Lavos! Evil, fell from "heaven", has (in the english version) been manipulating humanity since it came to earth, causes the Apocalypse once it reveals itself, is powering the allegory to the Anti-Christ, spends all its time in the center of the Earth, the place where Hell is usually depicted. Come on! It's Satan! It's obviously Satan! Finally, we have the kingdom of Zeal; Overzealous people following what turns out to be the wrong deity? Yeah, that works.
The World Ends with You is a Everyone Is Jesus In Purgatory game as a whole. Subliminal messages and religious symbols can be found everywhere if you look hard enough, and the roles of characters in the plot can be delved into something much deeper. Not to mention the fact that Joshua is the Jesus figure whose name is literally "Jesus" in another language...
Shadow as the First Coming of Christ - a virgin birth long ago, immortal, brought down from an untainted place to live among men, persecuted throughout his life while giving out wisdom beyond his years, and finally wrongly accused and made a scapegoat of for humans fouling up; he is betrayed by all he cares for and put into stasis for what might be forever, despite all he's done for us. He's held in stasis in the Crucifix position. He's even got a whore for a girlfriend!
Silver as the Second Coming of Christ, also a virgin birth (nobody knows his parents) he is once again coming to save us from our sins. He's completely innocent with powers beyond comprehension, coming from an unknown and rather horrible future and met with doubt. His close work with Shadow is also noted, and many people suspect Silver could be Shadow's son or grandson.
Mephiles as the Anti-Christ; he's copying Shadow despite how weak he is on his own, and is mistaken for him, and even wants his power. He creates copies of himself to serve him and try to destroy Shadow. He slaughters and tricks good people. He brings doubt and fear and death, and when he comes to power, he brings utter destruction in his wake.
The murder of Sonic being symbolic of the persecution of good people for standing up to evil people.
The four hedgehogs might also be considered as one of the more complex interpretations of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse - Conquest (Sonic, the White Horseman), Persecution (Shadow, the Red Horseman), Justice (Silver, the Black Horseman), and Death (Mephiles, the Pale Horseman). They've gathered to help humanity repent before its sins overwhelm the world; between the four of them this is something they actually succeed in doing.
There's a theory with popularity that says the Stone Tower temple of The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask is an allegory of the Tower of Babel. It also turns the mask into a punishment from the gods and Link into a messianic figure sent to "redeem" Termina from their "sins".
From Link literally being Jesus, to the Master Sword, the Moon Pearl and the Shadow Mirror symbolizing the imperial treasures of Japan (therefore making Hyrule, despite all evidence to the contrary, Japan), to absurd reasons why Link can't talk and overinterpratetion of Zelda's many Alter Egos as her having a Split Personality. It has all been there.
Final Fantasy Wiki theorises that the final battle of Final Fantasy VI is a direct allegory to Divine Comedy. The first part of the battle has you fighting a huge demon half submerged in ground, like how Satan is depicted in Inferno, thus making that part a symbolism for Hell. The second fight is against a multitude of suffering mortals, meaning the purgatory. The third fight has you face a pieta figure with Kefka in place of Jesus, representing Heaven. In the final, fourth part, you ascend above the clouds and Kefka himself comes to you, dressed in a toga, telling that he will destroy everything. Divine Comedy ends with Dante ascending to meet God, who tells him the meaning of life.
Just what the hell is Pokémon? Satanism (enslaving creatures), atheism (you can capture GOD), and so on. Word of God is ignored.
The Path can be (and was intended to be) interpreted in many ways. Is it a cautionary tale about the dangers of temptation in its many forms? Is it a metaphor for life and growing up? Are the girls the memories of the grandmother at different stages in her life?
One interpretation that the only reason that you can beat Giygas- who can't be damaged by anything-is because he is the final boss of a video game, and therefore, it is your duty to beat him. Hence, Paula's prayer command only really works when it reaches you, the player.
There are still people who purport a metaphorical "Giygas is a fetus" theory, despite the fact that Mother 1 clearly shows his origins (which many are unfamiliar with due to the game's No Export for You status).
Soldier: "You know, Captain, we drove through this whole city to find you. We... we saw things. If you don't mind me asking, what was it like? How did you survive all this?"
Walker: "Who said I did?"
From the dev's point of view, it was too effective at deceiving everyone; lots of players judged the game on the merits they would judge a typical war shooter, while the sort of gamer who would value it's dark plot and innovative narrative style would be turned off by it looking just like every other shooter following the leader.
An in-universe example occurs in Fallout: New Vegas, where Ulysses' obsession with the Courier revolves around finding a deeper meaning if everything they've done, due to his belief that the destruction of the Divide (which they were indirectly responsible for) simply couldn't have been just an accident.
In one Global Guardians story, superheroine-turned-new-author Battlecat is asked by a talk show host what Battlecat meant in one chapter when she talked about "fighting werewolves, vampires, and other monsters", and why pick those creatures as metaphors for the problems she faced. Battlecat responded that, no, she was talking about fighting real werewolves, vampires, and other monsters, and that there was no metaphor involved at all.
Crossing with Music, Rap Genius is a wiki for analyzing song lyrics, and some people decide to show off their interpreations. For instance, both David Bowie's "Space Oddity" and Elton John's "Rocket Man" are described as "parallels between drug use and space travel" (while both singers had Mushroom Samba phases, Bowie and lyricist Bernie Taupin said the songs were really just attempts to do an astronaut song).
Ursula K. Le Guin's famous "gerbil" rant was about this: "In many college English courses the words myth and symbol are given a tremendous charge of significance. You just ain't no good unless you can see a symbol hiding, like a scared gerbil, under every page. And in many creative writing courses the little beasts multiply, the place swarms with them. What does this Mean? What does that Symbolize? What is the Underlying Mythos? Kids come lurching out of such courses with a brain full of gerbils. And they sit down and write a lot of empty pomposity, under the impression that that's how Melville did it."
In religious scholarship, exegesis is when the reader/scholar analyzes the religious text as is, whereas eisegesis involves interpreting the text beyond, and even in spite of, what is stated or culturally or contextually implied. The latter, if taken too far, is considered an example of this trope.
Aleister Crowley once produced an exegesis of the hidden magical meaning contained in the Nursery Rhyme "Old Mother Hubbard".
I think I understand now. The Example Folders are there to symbolize the man's curious nature and endless desire for knowledge in pursuit of enlightenment.....