"Once I dreamt I was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering around, happy with myself and doing as I pleased. I didn't know I was myself. Suddenly I woke up and there I was, solid and unmistakably myself. But I didn't know if I was myself who had dreamt I was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was me."
When a story introduces the possibility of worlds within worlds
, be they a Lotus-Eater Machine
or perfectly lucid dreams, there will always be a nagging doubt in the back of a viewer's mind whether the story is real (that is to say, at the highest possible level of reality inside the work of fiction) or if they aren't dreaming or "still plugged in".
This serves as a source of mystery and speculation in a story. Did the heroes really break the spell cast by the Master of Illusion
, or are they all imagining it? Did they escape the Convenient Coma
that trapped them in a Happy Place
... or merely trade a perfect illusory world for a more realistic one? These doubts may never be resolved until a Sequel
comes out or Word of God
clarifies it. Sometimes, the ambiguity works in favor of the story, leaving it open to interpretation.
Much like the other Schrödinger tropes
, this plot point can also serve as an Author's Saving Throw
by retroactively making it All Just a Dream
or a Dream Within a Dream
. Or if the author really
wants to mess with us, end the movie or film on a Downer Ending
, with a fading shot of the character's dying
or still comatose body trapped in the illusion.
The trope name is a reference to a poem by the 4th century BC Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi
, a Taoist philosopher who influenced Chinese Buddhism. It refers also to Erwin Schrödinger's thought experiment relating to quantum uncertainty
. If you can't tell, we like to be well balanced in our geekery
on this wiki.
Compare: Everyone Is Jesus in Purgatory
and Dream Apocalypse
. Compare also Opening a Can of Clones
, which has this effect regarding a character's uniqueness. Contrast Or Was It a Dream?
. See also: Unreliable Narrator
, Mental World
, Cuckoo Nest
, Dying Dream
, Through the Eyes of Madness
, The Ending Changes Everything
, and Brainwashed
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Anime & Manga
Films — Animated
- Waking Life is a series of psychedelic sequences which mostly feature the main character as an observer, and many of them segue with him waking up yet again.
- The Reveal of The Lego Movie pushes it into this territory because while it turns out the movie is all being played out by a child, we see nearly all of it from the perspectives of the Lego figurines. While the scene with Emmet moving on his own proves that they have minds of their own, it's not known to what extent they have free will or influence.
Films — Live-Action
- Star Trek: Generations. Captain Picard and Dr. Soran, the villain, enter the Nexus, a dimension of eternal pleasure that shapes itself to your desires. Picard is told by a mental projection of Guinan that he can use it to travel anywhere in time, and so he goes back right before Soran blew up the sun that destroyed the planet they were on and the Enterprise. It's entirely plausible that Picard never did leave the Nexus, and that he still exists there to continue his voyages in his own perfect reality. And if he did really travel through time and stopped Soran, whether the Soran that entered the Nexus in the alternate timeline is actually still there. In fact, see the Trek Wild Mass Guessing page for more interpretation of this.
- Taxi Driver shows our sociopathic "hero" getting great praise for his shoot out, right after being probably gunned down. Even if he really did live, you can bet he's still crazy.
- A large chunk of another Scorsese-De Niro film, The King Of Comedy, can be interpreted as a product of its protagonist's imagination.
- Total Recall (1990): Is it a memory implant gone awry, or all real, or the way story implanted in the memory playing out correctly? In the short story We Can Remember It for You Wholesale that inspired this (can't say based on, can't even say very, very loosely based on), it did really happen.
- The Thirteenth Floor (which is based on the novel Simulacron-3) has someone invent an artificial virtual reality world at the beginning, then reveal that their world is also a virtual reality world.
- The Matrix. Particularly at the end of the second movie when Neo was able to stop a machine with his mind in what was supposed to be the real world when nobody had shown powers in the real world before, fans speculated that the "real world" might just have been another layer of the matrix used to control rebellious minds. One of the comics also references the Trope Namer in a short comic where a monk or something beats up some agents.
- The deleted scenes of X2: X-Men United show that Jason didn't just make Xavier think he was back at the institute, he made him think that he succeeded in convincing Jason to let him escape from the Lotus-Eater Machine.
- As Brazil unfolds, the line between the real world and Sam's dreams gets progressively blurrier. The final scene reveals that Sam's escape was a delusion, likely brought on by the trauma of being tortured by his friend Jack.
- That is Terry Gilliam's original ending, now restored. As originally released in the US, the releasing company cut the final scene that reveals the true ending, and leaves the impression that the happy ending of Sam's delusion is real.
- E Xisten Z. How many levels of this virtual reality are there? And how do you know when you're in real life?
- Minority Report: Did John Anderton clear his name or was the ending of the film just a dream he was having in his containment cell?
- Fourteen Oh Eight: The whole movie plays with this concept a lot but especially when the main character (as well as the viewing audience) is tricked into thinking that he escapes the hotel room and has returned to a normal life before he realizes that it was all a vicious illusion. This arguably comes to an end when he burns the place down and escapes, but there's still the feeling that too could possibly be an illusion. Only in the theatrical ending, though. In the director's cut it's clear he burned the entire room down, though at the cost of his life.
- The final Mind Screw of American Psycho is that Bateman himself is unsure how many of his experiences are real or imagined.
- The big brain hump of Mulholland Dr. is you don't know which is real; the last half hour, or everything preceding it? Considering that the former is surreal and bizarre, while the latter is mundane and somewhat explains why a disturbed person might dream up the former to escape her reality, Occam's Razor says the last half-hour.
- Mystic River itself isn't an example, but at the end one of the characters proposes this as a possibility: The recent events are too bizarre for it to be reality, so what if it's all a dream that he is/they are having to shut out a darker reality: that all three of them were kidnapped and still being molested.
- This is the entire premise of Jacob's Ladder, too. The main character keeps bouncing back and forth between two realities, each of which shares some people and places in common, but both of which seem to have demons in them as well. It's finally shown that he had died in Vietnam, and this was all just an in-your-head Purgatory.
- This is a concern in Inception, so those involved take precautions. It's also the cliffhanger ending
- In Repo Men, we are told throughout the Company has produced a device that can create a idyllic fantasy dream for someone on a life support machine. When the palm tree that is featured in its advert appears for 'real', we discover the entire second half of the film had been a fabrication to placate the conscience of the lead's best friend.
- The Lovely Bones, to a very small and brief degree, when Susie Salmon is attacked by George Harvey in the underground trap, she is seen running from the scene as though she has escaped and is running for her life. It is not until a little later we realise that she is actually dead and this is her ghost's immediate projection of what she wanted to happen. She had actually been killed in the underground lair, but she has no recollection of the event happening. This is absent in the original book version, where Susie remembers everything exactly how it happened, and describes it in painful detail.
- Mr. Nobody. From a two-hour film, the most popular conclusion is that only around twenty minutes of it actually happened.
- Eyes Wide Shut. Very subtle hints in the movie provide clues that Dr. Harford dreamed up the events of the movie.
- In Gozu, when the hero wakes from a nightmare he finds the letter that was handed to him in the dream. Is this just another illusion? Or wasn't it a dream in the first place?
- Terry Pratchett loves to reference this one. Once he combined this trope with the Butterfly of Doom in some kind of mega-metaphor involving butterflies.
- House of Leaves has tons of this. There are multiple layers of narration; Johnny is editing a text written by Zampano about The Navidson Record, which is a movie made by Navidson about the house. Throughout the book, there are hints that Zampano or Johnny are altering or completely fabricating things, or that Zampano made up the film, or that Johnny made up both Zampano and the film, or that Johnny himself is also made up.
- The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K Dick involves a plot to Take Over the World through hallucinogens that in theory could take a thousand years to wear off. Every main character takes the drugs at one point or another, more than once a seeming recovery is merely hallucinated. By the end, it's virtually impossible to decide what's "real" and what's not.
- The complete mind screw ending of The Man in the High Castle which seems to somehow end in our world.
- In Ubik, the line between the living and the dead existing in "half-life" becomes blurred in the end, after having been seemingly resolved.
- Dick, who was also the author of the original short story "The Minority Report" and the story that inspired Total Recall, among many others of this type, could be said to owe his whole career to this trope. To a certain extent, his whole life orbited around this trope.
- In the Alice in Wonderland sequel, Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass, the question is repeatedly brought up as to whether this is all the Red King's dream, and what might happen if the Red King wakes up while Alice is still in it.
"So, either I've been dreaming about Sylvie," I said to myself, "and this is the reality. Or else I've really been with Sylvie, and this is a dream! Is Life itself a dream, I wonder?"
- This is basically the plot of The Red King, the second novel in the Star Trek: Titan series. The novel features an eponymous intelligence, which resides within a protouniverse overlapping with our own. As a result of this overlap, its expansion threatens several worlds with destruction. The legends of many local races' speak of the protouniverse, or at least the associated intelligence. They describe it as a sleeping dreamer, the surrounding region of space being the content of the dream. The expansion and its resultant destruction is therefore supposedly the dream coming to an end as the being begins to wake. Frane, a native of the Neyel (whose world is part of the threatened region), describes the myth to the Titan's crew:
"And when it wakes, it ceases to dream. But all the worlds that surround it are part of that dream. Like Newaerth, the first world to vanish as the Sleeper begins stirring from its long ages of slumber".
- Gödel, Escher, Bach uses several of these, nesting several layers of drama. In one story, Achilles and the Tortoise are on an airship and start reading a book about themselves. The bad news is that the story doesn't "pop back" all the way to the last level, and the initial story is still left hanging. The good news is that the Tortoise and Achilles can move up to a previous level using popcorn.
- This is basically the entire premise of a Jostein Gaarder novel Sophie's World.
- Pedro Calderón de la Barca's Life is a Dream, a 17th-century Spanish play, deals with the conception of life as a dream particularly in the first act.
- Liar by Justine Larbalestier is told from the point of view of a compulsive liar, who lies to the reader. To make things worse, she even lies about her lies, most notably on the issue of whether Jordan is alive or not, or even if he's real.
- In Robert E. Howard's "The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune", the mirrors nearly trap Kull in another world.
For there are worlds beyond worlds, as Kull knows, and whether the wizard bewitched him by words or by mesmerism, vistas did open to the kings gaze beyond that strange door, and Kull is less sure of reality since he gazed into the mirrors of Tuzun Thune.
- Polaris by HPL is based on this entirely.
- The Goosebumps book I Live In Your Basement, to the point of being a Mind Screw.
- Stanislaw Lem did this in his novel The Futurological Congress. With hallucinogens being used as a war weapon, neither the protagonist or the reader is really sure when or if things get back to reality.
- Some Choose Your Own Adventure books had the results of really bad screw-ups followed by "it was all a dream". An egregious example is Space and Beyond; one ending has it be All Just a Dream; the rest of the endings say that it is not.
- Several times during the course of The Circle Series, Thomas Hunter actually asks himself whether he's dreaming or not. He never does figure out which he's actually living in.
- Stephen King's Pet Sematary includes a heart-wrenching scene in which the protagonist has exactly this kind of dream.
- The second series of Hawkmoon novels by Michael Moorcock start with the hero trying to be happy with his wife and young family but being haunted by the ghosts of his friends who died at the climax of the first series. It then switches around to him being comforted by those friends having recovered from a delusion caused by the death of his new wife instead.
- In Michael Flynn's The January Dancer, the Compelling Voice can make you forgot things. As a consequence, you can't be sure that anything you know really is true. Perhaps the person with the Dancer has taken over the galazy and you just don't realize because you've been ordered not to. Perhaps the Dancer made you think that you had destroyed it. Perhaps. . . .
- Not a dream, but Galaxy of Fear: The Nightmare Machine has the titular Nightmare Machine, a real-seeming simulation. A large chunk of the book, by the end, is revealed to have been simulated through it; the protagonists thought they had gone in for a minute, experienced a brief simulation, and left, but of course they had not.
- In Andre Norton's Storm Over Warlock, Thorvald wonders if they could tell whether meeting each other was another of the dreams.
- The Forever Knight tie-in novel, "Imitations of Mortality", has Nick having a series of dreams where he and other vampire characters are human, while the human characters are vampires. Each time he goes to sleep in one world, he wakes up in the other.
Live Action TV
- The opening lyrics of the "Bohemian Rhapsody" is a well-known example.
Is this the real life?
Is this just fantasy?
Caught in a landslide,
No escape from reality.
- Jonathan Coulton's song Creepy Doll ends something like this:
You decide that you've had enough
And you lock the doll in the wooden box
You put the box in the fireplace
Next to your bag of big city money.
As the smoke fills up your tiny room there's nothing you can do
And far too late you see the one inside the box is you.
- This is actually (or also) a reference to the original ghost story the song is based on, in which the doll drives its owner insane enough to try destroying it once and for all, and when they do, it takes over their body (or just vanishes, its mischief complete, depending on the retelling) and leaves the owner in the form of a new doll, ready to do the same to the next person who picks it up.
- William Shakespeare's ''The Taming of the Shrew" begins with a Framing Device of a drunk vagrant named Christopher Sly who passes out. A passing noble decides it would be good fun to mess with Sly's head and have all his servants pretend Sly is a lord when he wakes up, telling him that he was sick for like fifteen years or something. Sly asks himself "Do I dream? Or have I dream'd till now?"
- The same kind of plot is not unknown in the european theatre of that period : Compare with the Spanish play La Vida es sueńo (Calderon, 1635) and the lesser-known French play Le Songe des hommes eveillés (Des Brosses, 1646)
- In BIONICLE, a character asks the question of whether Metus is a snake dreaming he's an Agori or an Agori dreaming he's a snake.
- In this thingpart, is the boy hallucinating on a subway, is he hallucinating that he's playing with psychologist dolls, is he hallucinating that he's hallucinating on a subway, is he hallucinating that he's hallucinating on a subway from the other direction, is he not hallucinating at all and either the whole thing is a Mind Screw or the second through fourth panels or first through third panels are hypothetical, or doe the rabbit hole go even deeper in unseen panels?
- Bob and George Can the characters change the past of the Megaman games so that the author never gets hooked on them and so never starts the strip? (Note that The Author is a character in the story, too.)
- The Dreamer relies heavily on this trope, as Beatrice and the audience is unsure whether or not her dreams are simply that, or an Alternate Universe.
- In Koan Of The Day, the guru begins to worry that he is merely a reflection in the lake.
- In Sinfest, Pooch is confused by memory — what if he's not really in the time he thinks he is, but in the future, remembering.
- In Freefall, Sam asks for all virtual reality to be turned off. Helix prankishly covers his eyes.
- The world of the Buildingverse (Roommates, Girls Next Door, Down the Street and Superintendent) is by definition recursive and mind screwy (things like fiction being real and also acknowledged to be fiction is normal) but there was also interaction with Inception and a full blown Lotus-Eater Machine. Even the readers routinely joke about their own possible fictionality.
- The Electric Wonderland story "The New Adventures of the Nettropolis Narvel" starts off with eponymous Narvel performing typical superheroic duties in cyberspace, only to abruptly find himself in a psych ward. He soon learns that he's not really a superhero, but a madman who lived his life in a simulation chamber to entertain viewers of a Venezuelan TV channel. However, Narvel eventually re-enters the life he led as a crimefighter, revealing that the world in which he had superpowers was nothing more than a simulation in a chamber in cyberspace.
- Spoofed in The Order of the Stick. Shortly after escaping from a Lotus-Eater Machine, Roy thanks Elan and says he did a good job. Elan panics and thinks he's still in the dream, and Haley has to assure him that Roy was being sincere.
- Bender in Futurama Lampshades this when the episode "Obsoletely Fabulous" turns out to be just a dream while he gets a compatibility upgrade:
Bender: "Uff. If that stuff wasn't real, how can I be sure anything is real? Is it not possible, nay, probable that my whole life is just a product of my or someone else's imagination?"
Clerk: "No, get out. Next!"
Bender then walks out into a world of magical beer fairies and cigar trees while whistling.
- "Anthology of Interest 1" shows several characters' theoretical scenarios playing out on the Professor's "What if" machine, only for it to be revealed at the end that the whole episode was one big "What if" scenario for Professor's Fing-longer invention shown at the beginning. This raises certain questions when the "What if" machine makes a repeat appearance in "Anthology of Interest 2".
- Played with in the Beavis and Butt-Head episode "Cow Tipping" when the duo are watching the Violent Femmes' video for "Nightmares". Beavis mentions that he had a "real scary" nightmare the night before where "everything sucked". Butt-Head replies "But Beavis, everything does suck!", causing Beavis to scream in terror under the "revelation" that he is still in said dream where "everything sucks". The rest of the scene involves Beavis doing this every time Butt-Head or Beavis himself mentions that something "sucks".
- The Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi is the Trope Codifier. Zhuangzi, however, did not think reality could be a dream. He was not Buddhist, idealist, rationalist, or (ontological) dualist. The short anecdote actually finishes "Zhōu and the Butterfly, there must be distinction. This is the 'becoming of things'." 'Becoming of things', 物化 "wůhuŕ", can also translated as 'transubstantiation,' 'objectification,' or 'being.' The point is not that life might be a dream but that the distinction between dreamer and dream, thinker and thought, subject and object, the distinction itself is ontologically fundamental (a philosophy similar to Descartes' "I think therefore I am"). While early Daoists did not have the same concept of consciousness as Continental philosophers this is really closer to Phenomenology than the popular Buddhist/idealist interpretation used in this trope.
- This trope probably derives from a dream commonly experienced during the earliest stages of deep mourning. In the dream the dead person is still alive, and it's explicitly stated in the dream (either by the dreamer or the deceased) that the "mourning" the dreamer has just gone through was nothing but a bad nightmare. The dreamer then awakes and suffers extreme confusion. It's common enough that journal articles and even a book have been written about it.
- A fairly common one is false awakening Which, if it happens enough, just gets annoying.
- Another fairly common dream/hallucination right after serious injury is that the injured person suffers the delusion that the injury didn't happen and continuing the remainder of their day in their dream (especially if passed out from pain). It can lead to a confused state when arriving in the hospital or coming back to reality in the ambulance.
- The personality disorder called Solipsism has the person believing everything around them is a figment of their imagination or similar. Most of these people are entirely normal-seeming folk who will treat the people around them civilly despite them being "unreal". Solipsism is also both a philosophical belief and a common argument against empiricist and sceptic philosophy (we can only know what our senses tell us and what we experience, but since we are often mistaken, and our senses decieve us sometimes, maybe we can't). The idea is that if you doubt everything, then what is left is total uncertainty, a life which is near-impossible to lead and one which most people would find utterly pointless. Philosophical solipsism can be summed up as "My mind is something I know for sure exists, but as for anything or anybody else..."