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Skepticism Failure

Senator Stampingston: Gentlemen, it's clear that we're in a universally precarious situation. Dethklok has summoned a troll.
General Crozier: That's impossible, there's no such thing as trolls.
Senator Stampingston: Then how do you explain the dead unicorns? (The screen behind him shows butchered unicorns)

The paranormal has a way of creeping into TV shows, even those which don't have a paranormal premise. In real life, being neither strongly skeptical nor accepting of various paranormal forces is the default, and usually a better option than either dogmatic belief or dogmatic skepticism. On TV, characters are far less likely to express any doubt, and those who are skeptical are often treated as naive or ignorant, and the plot will go out of its way to prove them wrong.

For example, a character receives a psychic reading which foretells tragedy. He spends the rest of the episode actively worried about it. Various details foreseen by the psychic are borne out in the episode. A character who challenges the legitimacy of Psychic Powers will often be confronted with at least one detail he can't explain how the psychic knew.

This also comes into play in shows that deal regularly with paranormal subjects. Characters who don't believe in aliens, magic, or whatever, are presented as hopelessly naive. Even when they're proven right about the main conflict being a hoax, something about the situation will turn out to be Real After All.

Ironically the more heavily focused on the paranormal a show is, the less likely this seems to be the case. In settings with a Masquerade ordinary people are often depicted as being so utterly skeptical that clear evidence of paranormal goings on is dismissed with a flimsy and wildly implausible 'rational' explanation, which itself is a form of skepticism failure.

There is Truth in Television in that people do believe in "mystical" things without proof. It just depends on exactly which things and who is being asked to believe.

Compare Arbitrary Skepticism, If Jesus Then Aliens, Flat Earth Atheist, Religious Russian Roulette, How Unscientific!, and Skeptic No Longer. The most common manifestation of this trope is Psychic Dreams for Everyone. Compare also with Apathy Killed the Cat, where people are curiously un-inquisitive about fantastic things and events.

Contrast with Invisible to Normals and Weirdness Censor in which an alien, a robot and a werewolf can be having a fight in right front of someone's nose and still be ignored or dismissed. Also contrast Puff of Logic, when skepticism causes the subject to be erased from existence.

Examples

Anime and Manga
  • In anime, ghosts are a fact of life. Whoever doubts it will be proven wrong before the end of the episode. The only major exceptions are detective series, which are full of fake ghosts, and series where there's one type of supernatural creature as a premise of the show, and the "ghost" is one of those in disguise.
    • Anime in general holds this trope up due to the underlying Shinto belief system, which has multiple gods and magic forces. In nearly all anime/manga/games, when an event can be attributed to the supernatural, it is rarely questioned due to this cultural system. However, there are exceptions...
  • City Hunter II—an anime which features lots of A-Team Firing but no science fiction or fantasy elements, has a girl in episodes 41-42 who can read minds with perfect accuracy.
  • Kyon in Haruhi Suzumiya experienced this trope when he realizes that aliens, espers, and time-travellers exist. He now regularly spends much of his time in damage control to make sure more of this weirdness doesn't manifest — i.e. he tries to prevent Skepticism Failure in the local unconscious Reality Warper, Haruhi in case she ends up destroying the world accidentally.
  • Seto Kaiba from Yu-Gi-Oh! is a shining example of a disbeliever to the point of seeing the past, his ancestor, and still brushing it off as fake.
  • This Ugly Yet Beautiful World: Everybody is surprisingly easily convinced that Hikari and Akari are aliens. Also, nobody bats an eyelid when Hikari's servant, a Ridiculously Human Robot, shows up.
  • An episode of xxxHOLIC had Watanuki being tricked by his friends into thinking the house he and his friends were staying at was haunted (in an attempt to make him realise he can ask them for help). At the end of the episode they admitted to staging everything, except putting a blue flower in the kitchen when they first arrived. The episode ends with Watanuki looking up at the house to see the real ghost looking out at them.
    • One episode, Watanuki nearly got killed because he cut his toe nails at night.

ComicBooks
  • DC plays with this trope with Batman. A lot. Here's one priceless conversation from JLA 55#:
    Nightwing: She's the one, right?
    Batman: Latest in a growing line of fortune tellers and "psychics" reportedly stalked by ectoplasmic entities.
    Nightwing: It's OK to use the word "ghosts," you know.
    Batman: If I believed in them, Nightwing, I suppose I could.
    Nightwing: Funny. Let's play word association. The Spectre. Samsara. Deadman...

Film
  • Leap of Faith (1992) shows fraud and skepticism versus "real miracles".
  • Night of the Demon (1957) walks a very noble line past this trope with a skeptical protagonist who approaches situations in a reasonable way right to the resolution of the film.
  • The protagonist of 1408 is deeply skeptical right up until he realizes he's in a ghost story.
  • In The Reaping, Hilary Swank's Hollywood Atheist character is a professional debunker of miracles, who's pretty much shown to be a fool for her lack of belief. One particularly bad example is her claiming that listeria is responsible for a variety of things including a river turning red and maggots instantly appearing on a barbecue grill, which no real life debunker would be quick to do.

Literature
  • A running theme in The Sookie Stackhouse Mysteries is that Sookie is a telepath, a fact she hides with mixed results. But most of the people of Bon Temps, up to and including her own brother, would rather believe "Crazy Ol' Sookie" just has a knack for reading people's body language than accept the fact that they have no privacy around her.
    • Averted in the series based on the books, where those who don't know her mistake Sookie for stupid, but those close to her know she hears thoughts.
  • Judge Dee often proclaims that he is not an impious man, as not believing in the supernatural was positively irreligious in Imperial China. However he temperamentally prefers natural explanations for apparently ghostly phenomena and usually finds one. Usually. There are however distinct indications that the Judge himself is 'psychic'. Certainly he is extremely sensitive to atmosphere, often sensing evil before he even knows there's been a crime.
  • The doctor known as Mr. Chillingworth in the penny dreadful Varney the Vampire plays this role, both with regard to the vampire and the literal interpretation of the Bible.
  • The Dresden Files has this in spades - basically any recurring character has to have this - except Sanya, a parody of the Straw Atheist archetype who survived possession (most of the puppets end their careers more abruptly), and is now employed by God. note 
    • Dresden's theory is that the supernatural is damn terrifying, and it's a pretty normal reaction to not want to believe it. Like just about everything in the series, it's plausible to a paranoia-inducing extent. Possibly corroborated by Murphy's PoV short story Aftermath, where she mentions that she's terrified of Let's Get Dangerous Dresden, and if any muggle were to acknowledge the reality, they'd feel they'd have to kill him preemptively.
    • The majority of the Fey go to war "over" Chicago? Storms.
    • Necromancer showdown on Chicago campuses? Hallucinations from poisoned food.
    • Butters had this - in his first interaction with the supernatural he continues to point out impossibilites during a car chase involving Necromancers, wind magic, and zombies. Harry invokes this trope, and Butters has a brief BSOD.
    • It's a sign of how bad things get when even the muggles start to shed this trope.
  • In the Wheel of Time, this mixes with superstition in wacky and zany ways. People will believe the absurd of Aes Sedai, and not the mundane. Aes Sedai openly acknowledge that they have no idea how ter'angreal from the last Age work... and refuse to believe in new discoveries or rediscoveries. Nobody believes Mat about the gholam, despite the presence of magic and previously-unknown artifacts. Admittedly, they haven't been seen in 3000 years and appear to be made of magic, but still, from someone who controls people who can call thunder from the sky, fire from their hands, and rip the earth asunder, it's a little absurd.

Live-Action TV
  • CSI: Crime Scene Investigation: the episode "Stalker" had a man who kept claiming that he was receiving visions related to the crime, and knew stuff that the CSIs hadn't released to the press. By the end of the episode, he's dead, and there's no explanation either way for how he knew what he did.
    • Almost this exact same story appears in an episode of Now and Again, an ill-fated science fiction series from the late 90's about a man who was rebuilt out of spare body parts by the government.
  • The early run of the 2000s Battlestar Galactica employed this trope in an ambiguous and unique way; several characters have had experiences that can be interpreted as prophetic or prescient, but whether they are in fact seeing the future or merely hallucinating was never explicitly revealed.
  • A major plot point of the second season of LOST revolves around characters being convinced to push a button every 108 minutes in order to save the world. Jack vehemently protests the belief that anything will happen if they don't push the button, and the others treat him as if he is being completely irrational. Locke later losing his faith in the button is also treated as a bad thing, even though evidence seems to suggest that the whole thing is a hoax. Now granted it turns out pushing the button was necessary, but there was nothing wrong with disbelieving on the available evidence, which remained true of their situation for the most part, up until the end of season 4 (when anything was now possible and should probably be believed).
  • In the MacGyver episode GX-1, MacGyver helps a Russian psychic who is portrayed as real, despite Mac's skepticism.
  • Seen in an episode of NUMB3RS where Charlie scoffs at a psychic who's brought in to work on a case; Charlie is treated as the unreasonable one, surprisingly for a show that focuses on math and logic in solving crimes.
    • He returns in a later episode. And like the CSI example above, by the end of the episode, he's dead, and everyone wonders if he was the real deal.
  • Touched by an Angel claims revolves around how God works in mysterious ways even when you don't believe it.
    • In one episode, God (represented or channeled by the main character) is "put on trial," but the opposing counsel falls victim to fallacious reasoning, both committing fallacies in his own arguments and being (especially for a trained lawyer) overly credulous of the opposition's reasoning. This in effect sets up the prosecuting attorney as a Strawman for the defendant.
  • Played straight in virtually every episode of The X-Files — in fact, it's the raison d'Ítre for Agent Scully, who remains skeptical of Agent Mulder's explanations throughout the series, despite the number of times Mulder is proved correct. However, after Mulder left the series, Agent Scully then became increasingly written as the more eager believer, with the newcomer to doubt her.
    • Subverted in the episode "Humbug" when Scully explains that she saw the killer, and what he was, but the local sheriff makes fun of her outlandish story (which the viewer knows happens to be true). Mulder, who had been skeptical of her theory himself, walks by and comments, "Now you know how I feel."
    • Also, it is implied that Scully, especially in the later seasons, remains skeptical on purpose to make Mulder come up with proof for his Epileptic Trees.
    • Whenever the subject was religion, especially miracles, Scully was the believer and Mulder the skeptic.
  • There was an episode of Diagnosis Murder where a series of people were murdered in methods that pointed to a vampire or something similar. It was all played as if the killer was mentally ill and only believed she was a vampire until she flew across the room at Dick Van Dyke. Very unusual for a show that was, as much as a TV show can be, very realistic.
  • In the finale of season 4 of NCIS, Tony's girlfriend Jeanne (a doctor) sees a little girl wandering around alone in the hospital several times, often close to people who end up dying soon. One coworker says she's seeing the Angel of Death, another says that it's just a regular girl separated from her parents. Near the end of the episode, the second coworker points out to Jeanne that the girl's parents found her. But when Jeanne looks, it's a different girl, leaving the mysterious first girl's identity unknown.
    • The Episode's title is Angel of Death.
  • An episode of Stargate Atlantis puts the characters on both sides of this debate. The character of the week is able to show others his oracle visions. Rodney is at first skeptical, until the vision he has is proven exactly correct, just not his interpretation. All the visions are shown to be technically correct, though it is impossible to know exactly what the context is until the event comes to pass and various characters come over to the side of believing (more or less) as events play out.
  • The Bill had an episode called "Haunted" in which police officers on a stake-out in an allegedly haunted building recounted spooky but just-about-plausible things that happened to them (a lost girl with uncanny similarities to a murder victim; a woman who dies at the around same time as her psychotic and jealous husband, who left a message on her machine saying "I need you with me"), before ending with DS Stanton (the Agent Scully) quite definitely encountering a ghost.
    • Another episode set at Christmas revolved around Sgt. Boydon helping out a guy who eventually disappeared into thin air, with the definite implication being that he was a ghost.
  • In the circus episode of Murdoch Mysteries "Lady Minerva"'s fortune telling appeared to be genuine, predicting two murders before they occurred. (Although, since she knew more about the case than she was letting on, she may have "predicted" them more conventionally, but didn't want to say anything directly in case she was next).
  • My So-Called Life, "So-Called Angels." As Angela tries to help out her friend Ricky, who's just been kicked out of his house, she keeps running into a girl who gives her advice on how to help him. Finally, Angela's mother figures out that the girl's a ghost who froze to death years ago.
  • In different episodes of Psi Factor: Chronicles of the Paranormal, this is either played straight or subverted. In one episode, one of the investigators is temporarily replaced by an alien clone with reversed fingerprints. The entire team simply refuses to believe him when he returns to Earth and assume that he was drunk or just playing around. Heck, one of them assumed that it was a Doppelganger, preferring a supernatural explanation over aliens. In another episode, a rich elderly widow complains about her house being haunted. After the team do their investigation, they find out that there are no ghosts and that her family have set up a sound system and countless projectors in the house so that they could drive her insane and get her money.
  • In the Quantum Leap episode "A Portrait for Troian," Sam Beckett leaps into a paranormal investigator. Over the course of the episode, he plays the skeptic regarding the existence of ghosts, and Al plays the believer. By the end of the episode, he has proven the primary haunting is a hoax, but then discovers that one of the secondary characters was a ghost all along. This is enforced with a shot of the ghost vanishing.
    • In the episode "Blood Moon", Sam leaps into a man who appears to be a vampire. Sam spends the entire episode telling Al this is ridiculous...until he glances into a mirrored surface at the very end of the episode. You can guess what he doesn't see.
  • In the Castle episode "He's Dead, She's Dead" a psychic is murdered, and supposedly leaves a letter about her own murder for the police. Beckett is skeptical while Castle believes it wholeheartedly. In the end of the episode, everything is wrapped up, except for one tiny point in the letter that Castle reminds Beckett of that seems to indicate the letter actually was from the psychic, proving her amazing Psychic Powers.
    • There's also the mummy mystery episode. Castle is supposedly cursed for disturbing a mummy's casket, and murder victims have been killed by apparently unfortunate accidents. Castle has horrible luck throughout the episode, while Beckett is laughing the whole time.
      • Some of the 'bad luck' was deliberately caused by Beckett, Esposito and Ryan to freak Castle out.
  • In the Criminal Minds episode "Cold Comfort", a psychic mentions that the victim will be found near a rocky shoreline. She's actually found in the middle of the city, but then the skeptical team member looks out the window... and there's a huge ad with a rocky shoreline on it.
  • Bones:
    • Subverted in one episode, since the hints of supernatural activity (the ghost seen by Booth) was ultimately explained by a brain tumor. Save for the fact that Bones saw the same ghost.
    • Played straight in the season 5 premiere with the psychic who locates a mass grave. By the end of the episode, even Bones, the Agent Scully of the cast, is a believer.
    • Other instances where spooky stuff comes up, however rare, tend to turn into cases of Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane by the end.

Video Games
  • Saints Row 2 is a mostly mundane Wide Open Sandbox game where one of the rival gangs is the Sons of Samedi. For the most part, they just seem to be drug dealers who happen to worship the loa. Then you end up fighting one of their bosses, who has a voodoo doll that can make your character fall on his ass.
    • However, it's entirely possible that your character could have been drugged during the fight as voodoo practitioners allegedly use drugs to convince people what they're seeing is real, etc, and your character had already been doped at least once earlier in the game.

Western Animation
  • Played with in The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron, "The Phantom Of Retroland": Jimmy scoffs at the phantom that supposedly haunts an abandoned amusement park. However, Cindy points out that everyone knows it's fake, but only he would be such a party-pooper about it. At the end, after a string of impostors of the titular ghost, the real Phantom shows up.
    • This happens so often, it's probably a trope unto itself. The protagonists prove that the supernatural entity isn't real, but, at the last second, the audience is shown that it really is.
  • Avatar: The Last Airbender included an episode in which Sokka runs himself ragged trying to discredit a Fortuneteller that all the people of a town came to rely on. The problem was, she was always right... technically. Of course, this is specifically a world with mysticism of many stripes, so Sokka's main concern was that the town was letting predictions run their lives, up to the point where they would not escape from an erupting volcano because they were told it would be fine.
  • The South Park episode "The Biggest Douche In The Universe" had Stan say at the end that John Edward was a fraud and there were plenty of things in the real world that people could be fascinated by. It's a sort of strange message seeing as how the exact same episode featured Kenny's ghost being taken out of Cartman's body. An even weirder example is the episode "Dead Celebrities" where the Ghost Hunters come to look for ghosts and look like complete idiots for believing in ghosts, despite that fact that ghosts existing is the premise of the entire episode.
    • Belief in ghosts aside, they mostly mock John Edward for being a fraud, and the Ghost Hunters for jumping at shadows and imaginary noises.
  • An episode of Fillmore! involves a crime that takes place during the magic act at the school talent show. While working on the case, Fillmore tries to figure how the trick at the finale was done but kid who did the trick keeps shaking his head no. At the end it's implied he really did do the trick through magic.
  • Winston Zeddemore initially didn't believe in the supernatural when he applied to become one of The Real Ghostbusters, and only signed up because he was having trouble finding a job after getting out of the army. He quickly changes his mind once he starts seeing the ghosts and goblins for himself.
  • Brian from Family Guy is a Flat Earth Atheist, and the show seems to agree with him... which would hold more water if Brian hadn't met God and Jesus personally, and that Peter has died and met Death several times. Of course, the God and Jesus he runs into bear little resemblance to the religious figures beyond outfit and name. Then again, they're still shown to have genuine miraculous powers, and Brian never states that they aren't who they appear to be. Actually, he never comments on them at all, one way or the other.
  • The My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic episode "Feeling Pinkie Keen" is all about this, as Twilight Sparkle spends almost the entire episode trying to debunk Pinkie Pie's accident-predicting "Pinkie Sense", but eventually has to accept it as a real phenomenon that just defies her understanding.

Webcomics
  • Gunnerkrigg Court's Kat falls victim to this while discussing golems. Her friends include a ghost, a talking shadow, a fox god, and a descendant of a fire elemental, and has met multiple gods and fairies, besides.

Subversions and Aversions

Anime and Manga
  • Considering XxxHolic is a highly supernatural anime, this was a bit of a shocker. Yuuko thoroughly debunks a fake fortune teller, noting and disassembling her verbal sleights of hand and keen psychological tricks. However, they later go on to meet a real fortune teller, who is pretty much spot on legitimate.
    • There was an episode where Watanuki presumed that there was a supernatural cause for the problems of a young woman that he helped. He notice that light flashed from her shoulder and he presumed that it was the cause of the problems. When she met Ms. Yuuko, Yuuko explained to him that it's actually purely physiological and the light just reflected from a buckle on her shoulder bag.
  • Umineko no Naku Koro ni loves playing with this trope, with Battler, the main character, representing logic and order and Maria and Beatrice - depending on whether we're on or off the board - representing belief in magic and the inexplicable. Most of the other characters run around in the middle, and shift their orientations throughout the story.
  • In 20th Century Boys, the villains make all of humanity think it's faking increasingly outlandish threats: mass germ warfare, giant robot attacks, and finally aliens. The heroes are continually disgusted with how eagerly most people eat it up.

Comic Books
  • In the original comic, From Hell, by Alan Moore, one of the main characters reveals that he had been faking his psychic powers... yet every fake vision/prediction turned out to be true.

Film
  • Averted in Best in Show. While the book does have a psychic, it does not involve any predictions that need skeptical treatment.

Literature
  • While most of his friends believe in ghosts and a mind reading act, Tom is the one who reveals both to be frauds in the Great Brain books.
  • You wouldn't expect an exception in a series that's all about wizards, but Harry Potter nonetheless has Hermione Granger utterly unconvinced by any of Trelawney's predictions or the Lovegoods' beliefs in creatures that, even by Harry Potter standards, are bizarre. The only correct Trelawney predictions are the ones Hermione doesn't hear in the first place, and the Lovegoods are right about exactly one thing the heroes didn't already know about (the Deathly Hallows).
    • Harry Potter is an interesting case, because Hermione is technically right, the evidence for these theories is ridiculously slim. Heck, one is a children's fable, which nobody believes. At the same time, she is Muggle-born, so she must realize that according to most Muggles, the last 6 years of her life couldn't have happened, and they'd view her as hallucinating or lying if she told them.
      • Another example is when Harry reasons out his entire family tree, concluding that he's descended from a legendary trio of wizards. Hermione and Ron both think he's losing it. Granted, he was over-eager in his explanation, which was sort of hard to follow. But it was a sound argument nonetheless.

Live-Action TV
  • An interesting subversion comes up in The 4400 where the show starts off with an event (4400 missing persons who disappeared over a span of 60 years suddenly reappearing, not a day older than when they left, in a ball of light near Seattle) so spectacular and public that not even the most skeptical can deny what has happened, yet everyone remains fairly skeptical about what caused it and what it means until the plot shows up to answer some questions.
  • Subverted in an episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation where one investigator's firm belief in spontaneous human combustion — as both a phenomenon and the solution to a case — is debunked by a scientific experiment they conduct.
    • There was also an episode where a psychic got killed because she managed to divine the place a murder victim's body had been hidden, and the villain heard of this. In the end of the episode it was revealed that she had no supernatural knowledge, and her assessment of the victim's soul's current location (She is in 'Summerland') got misheard for 'Sommerlin', which was the area the body was hidden.
  • In one episode of House the patient claims to have been abducted by aliens. It turns out to be a hallucination, just as House repeatedly insisted.
    • House also had a patient who, ironically, was a Christian faith healer. House's adamant belief that the guy was a fraud (while the rest of the protagonists went from skepticism to doubt) turned out to be the key to identifying his disease.
    • Another episode had a woman who claims to be able to see the dead. It turned out she had ergotism.
    • Really, that's something that recurs in House with some regularity; House finds a perfectly rational explanation, but it's a big enough coincidence that the believers aren't convinced that it's not the supernatural at work.
      • There is an exception here; one patient comes in with a hallucination of Jesus (very vivid) and a host of other symptoms. The solution is found by ignoring the hallucination as a symptom, leaving the patient (a priest who had lost his faith) to believe it was divine intervention.
  • An episode of Monk had a psychic who mysteriously woke up in her car in front of a dead body. She attributed it to her Psychic Powers, which previously hadn't really accomplished everything, but Monk found a decidedly non-supernatural explanation by the end.
  • The show Psych is an inversion of this. The main character is a brilliant detective, but his superiors find it easier to believe that he can solve cases with psychic powers.
    • Also subverted in the episode "Psy vs. Psy", which features Shawn going up against the FBI's psychic, who's also a fake.
    • Played straight in a later episode when Shawn, Gus, and another guy go to a psychic while following a dead man's last few hours. After the psychic somehow manages to guess the bizarre idea in Shawn's head they tell her that the man she talked to the previous day was dead causing her to freak out and drops the Romanian accent. However, before the guys leave she looks at Shawn and Gus's friend and draws the Death Tarot card. Said friend is dead by the next commercial break.
  • On John Doe, a woman believes she's having psychic visions of a serial killer, and reveals key details on his methods and location. It turns out that she'd nearly been murdered by the killer herself, and had escaped, but suffered so much blood loss in the process that her brain retained nothing but fleeting memories of her close call.
  • The Mentalist is an interesting inversion of this: the main character, Patrick Jane, is a former TV psychic (and admitted fraud) who gave up that line of work after his insulting "psychic reading" of a serial killer wound up getting his family killed. The skills he picked up while faking psychic powers (a keen sense of observation and a good understanding of human nature) turn out to be quite useful for police work, though...
  • NCIS's Abby Sciuto occasionally floats a supernatural explanation for a death, because it would be cool, but eventually finds a mundane explanation. In one case, she made McGee collect corn stalks from a crop circle, and analyzed them for even the slightest anomaly, before she conceded they were fakes to throw investigators off.

Video Games
  • Scratches plays it with both sides: First, by reading the diaries and letters it is clear that the former owners of the mansion (where the game is set) were rational and intelligent people, subsequent findings show how they slowly began accepting supernatural explanations for everything that happened to them. The player character also starts experiencing strange unexplained phenomena culminating on fully embracing a supernatural solution, then a major twist occurs and a natural (and shocking) explanation presents. The Director's Cut goes even further by showing more evidence, but the final coda hints that there is still a missing piece while panning to the source of "the curse".
    • A secret non-canon bonus ending suggests that the events of the game are all in the player character's head, and that he, like James Blackwood before him, has gone crazy.

Western Animation
The Show Must Go WrongIndex FailureSpecial Effect Failure
Skeletons in the Coat ClosetSpeculative Fiction TropesSkeptic No Longer
leveLImageSource/Web ComicsSeparated by a Common Language

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