The possibility to let your characters witness or even participate in events that actually happened
, is probably one of the most appealing aspects of Historical Fiction
, Time Travel
stories and the like. But sometimes it can be quite hard to shoehorn your characters in, if you don't want to sacrifice too much of historical accuracy
. Especially if your character doesn't quite fit into the historical setting, because he is a Ninja Pirate Zombie Robot
The solution: Take a famous historical event that is shrouded in mystery, an event of which not many details are publicly known. Then fill the gap of historical records with whatever you want, this way "revealing" what actually happened. This adds the bonus that everyone likes a good mystery (and its eventual solution).
Depending on the tone and genre of your work, your "explanation" can range from mundane
, over humorous
, to absolutely fantastic
The Been There, Shaped History
person likes to cause these events. Of course Historical Domain Characters
as well as fictional Public Domain Characters
may be involved too. Perhaps they did even use a Public Domain Artifact
Anyway, in the end you can proudly claim that your story is Very Loosely Based on a True Story
Closely related to Historical In-Joke
. Can also overlap with Beethoven Was an Alien Spy
, when the focus lies on specific historical individuals. Often happens at, and tightly involves, a Landmark of Lore
. Also, at least one of this events is a must-have for any Conspiracy Kitchen Sink
story worth its salt.
Note that sometimes mysteries get solved, or even debunked as not having been that mysterious in the first place. In this case the work either was written in a time before the solution/debunking
, or the writer didn't get the memo, or he's just using Artistic License
Stock Unsolved Mysteries that have their own trope pages:
Stock Unsolved Mysteries without their own pages, and examples thereof:
- Mysterious murder cases.
- The gruesome unsolved murder of Elizabeth Short, nicknamed "Black Dahlia", 1947 in Los Angeles.
- Is a major part of the plot in L.A. Noire. (It turns out that the killer was the half-brother of a very highly-placed politician, so after you find and kill him, the whole matter is sealed up and quieted down.)
- Was also the plot of an episode of Hunter.
- In the '90s adventure game Black Dahlia, it turned out to be part of an ancient magical ritual carried out by Nazis.
- And then, of course, there's the book Black Dahlia, and the movie adaptation.
- In the ninth episode of American Horror Story: Murder House, Elizabeth Short is shown to be one of several victims of the "Murder House".
- David Fincher's film Zodiac strongly suggests that a real suspect in the officially unsolved Zodiac Killings was the guilty party.
- The Grant Morrison/Daniel Vallely comic book Bible John: A Forensic Meditation is a surreal, hallucinogenic speculation on the unidentified Serial Killer's possible motivations.
- Edgar Allan Poe's story The Mystery of Marie Roget, shows his detective protagonist C. Auguste Dupin solve a real unsolved murder receiving tremendous newspaper coverage at the time. Most students of the case now accept a different solution.
- Seven Psychopaths reveal that three serial killers who were never caught (the Zodiac Killer, the Phantom Killer and the Cleveland Torso Murderer) were in fact killed by a couple of Serial Killer Killers.
- The Axeman of New Orleans, a serial killer present in New Orleans in the late 1910's but was never caught appear in American Horror Story: Coven. The night he threatened to murder anyone who wasn't playing jazz music in their home, he attacked a witch coven and was killed for his troubles.
- Mysterious disappearances.
- The disappearance of the British peer Lord Lucan in 1974, shortly after his children's nanny was murdered.
- In Jake Arnott's The Long Firm, Harry Stark is strongly implied to have been involved, but no details are revealed.
- The disappearance of the American labor union leader Jimmy Hoffa in 1975. The FBI are still looking for his body.
- In Bruce Almighty, Bruce uses his godlike powers to find the body in order to advance his journalistic career.
- In the movie Nothing But Trouble, it is discovered that Hoffa ended up in the town of Valkenvania, a likely victim of the rather cruel, unusual, and deadly punishments meted out by the local justice system there.
- The movie Hoffa, starring Jack Nicholson, suggests that he was assassinated by one of his mob allies after Hoffa threatened to reveal their connections.
- In The Adventures of Pete & Pete, when Little Pete is tunneling under his house to escape from being grounded, he finds a wallet, looks at it and exclaims, "Hoffa!"
- The case of Benjamin Bathurst, who disappeared from his hotel one day in 1809. (The actual truth is quite prosaic: Contemporary documents make it clear that he was almost certainly just mugged. Some of his personal belongings were even found during the search for him. It only became a mysterious mystery because of one particular account that made it sound like he'd disappeared into thin air in front of witnesses.)
- The mystery of the sailing ship Mary Celeste, whose entire crew did vanish in 1872 somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean. The current favourite realistic theory involves an alcohol explosion.
- In the Doctor Who serial The Chase, the crew were killed by Daleks.
- Sapphire And Steel referred to the Mary Celeste affair as a past assignment, in Assignment 1. Sapphire, Steel, and Lead were apparently involved.
- The Goon Show (The Mystery of the Marie Celeste (solved))
- "J. Habakuk Jephson's Statement", a short story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
- In 1990, the Gibraltarian author Sam Benady published Sherlock Holmes in Gibraltar, a set of two short stories set in the pre-Watson days. In the first one, The Abandoned Brigantine, Sherlock Holmes solves the mystery of the Mary Celeste.
- The 1945 disappearance of Flight 19, usually linked to the Bermuda Triangle.
- The unknown fate of author, journalist and satirist Ambrose Bierce, who vanished somewhere in Mexico in 1913 after time spent accompanying Pancho Villa's army as an observer.
- The third From Dusk Till Dawn film attributes his disappearance to a run-in with vampires.
- Robert A. Heinlein's novella "Lost Legacy" has Bierce surviving into the future and participating in a war to control humanity's nascent psychic abilities.
- In Dance in the Vampire Bund he turns up as a vampire, although the circumstances of his transformation and how he became a confidant of Mina Tepes remains unknown.
- Carlos Fuentes's novel The Old Gringo is a fictionalized account of Bierce's disappearance which was later adapted into the film Old Gringo (1989).
- The disappearance of the Roanoke Colony, an English colony in what is now North Carolina, a generation before the sailing of the Mayflower. An additional point of interest is that among the disappeared colonists was the child Virginia Dare, the first English child born in America. The cryptic word "Croatoan", inscribed on a tree in the colony, is frequently expounded upon.
- The Roanoke Colony features in Marvel 1602, and Virginia Dare is a significant character.
- The Doctor Who Missing Adventures novel The Empire of Glass offers an alien-abduction explanation.
- The Roanoke Colony mystery was a significant part of the Myth Arc of the TV series Freakylinks.
- 100 Bullets has the disappearance of the Roanoke Colony be the work of The Trust, as the colonists refused to cede to the Trust's plans of pulling the strings of the American experiment.
- The backstory of Werewolf: The Apocalypse has Roanoke wiped out when the Eater of Souls woke up. The word "Croatoan," famously found etched into a tree, was the name of the Native American werewolf tribe that gave their lives to put the thing back down.
- The short story "Ezekiel" by Desmond Warzel explains where they went, and why.
- Grant Morrison's Seven Soldiers features the present-day descendants of the colony living in an underground town. The reason for their disappearance: an immortal, dethroned, time-traveling king from a future Earth mated with their women and got them to hide underground, so that his former wife (the current monarch of the future Earth) wouldn't notice them, and that their descendants would one day help him overthrow her. Also, the underground town is inexplicably located close to a New York City Subway tunnel.
- A Crossover between Batman and Spawn uses this as the backstory of the Big Bad, a demon called Croatoan who intends to circumscribe Gotham with a massive pentagram pattern like he did the Roanoke colony (which nobody noticed because nobody flew a weather balloon up there) and condemn all its souls to Hell.
- Andre Linoge, the Big Bad of Stephen King's Storm Of The Century, claims to have caused the disappearance and death of the Roanoke Colony by forcing all its citizens to drown themselves in the sea when they would not "give him what he wants", and intends to repeat the tragedy on Little Tall Island. The word "Croatoan" is invoked by a later Driven to Suicide member of the town, but is never fully explained.
- Old Virginia, a Cthulhu Mythos short story by Laird Barron, had the colony fall victim to an Eldritch Abomination.
- Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter reveals it as the result of a vampire attack.
- Supernatural attributes it to a demonic-originated Hate Plague.
- The disappearance of the so-called "Jewels of Helen" excavated from the ruins of Troy was the subject of the Elizabeth Peters novel Trojan Gold. (The mystery has since been solved, but that was after the novel's publication).
- The disappearance of "The Princes in the Tower", the children of Edward IV whose uncle and Lord Protector Richard of Gloucester had them declared illegitimate to clear his way to the throne. (If you think you've spotted a likely suspect already, you're not alone, although "Ricardians" point the finger at his successor, Henry VII.)
- Shakespeare's Richard III has them murdered by assassins sent by Richard.
- In Kim Newman's Anno Dracula short story "Vampire Romance," they're killed by Richard himself, who happens to be a vampire.
- The Philadelphia Experiment, allegedly conducted by the US Navy in 1943, involving the destroyer escort USS Eldridge turning invisible and being teleported.
- The appropriately titled movie The Philadelphia Experiment.
- Part of the backstory of RASL.
- The Astounding, the Amazing and the Unknown by Paul Malmont, in which Pulp Magazine sci-fi writers have been tasked by the US Government in World War II with creating Death Rays and other such miracle weapons. Robert A. Heinlein creates the experiment as an all-done-with-mirrors (and a model) illusion in order to get an Obstructive Bureaucrat off his back. Meanwhile the crew of the real Eldridge gets drunk, leading the bureaucrat to assume from their vomiting and odd behaviour on their return that the experiment has driven them mad. This gives Heinlein's team the excuse to say that further tests will be aborted until they've fixed the problem.
- The exact cause of Monumental Damage (if not known with certainty), like how the Great Sphinx of Giza lost its nose, the Venus de Milo her arms, or what made the Tower of Pisa lean.
- The exact cause of famous city-devastating fires. (Rome 64, London 1666, Chicago 1871, ect.)
- A German novel called Der Funke des Chronos deals with Time Travel and the Hamburg fire of 1842.
- The Great Fire of London is a plot point in The Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson. While it isn't exactly presented as something mysterious, one character (the father of Daniel Waterhouse) firmly believes that this is the Apocalypse. He dies in the fire and thus never learns his error.
- Doctor Who has covered both Rome (Nero did it, having been given the idea when the Doctor accidentally set fire to a map of Rome by focusing sunlight through his reading glasses) and London (accidentally started during a showdown with aliens planning to wipe out humanity). The Doctor Who Expanded Universe has also done Chicago (accidentally started during another showdown with a different set of invading aliens).
- Colony collapse disorder. The sudden vanishing of worker bees from their hives across the world (leaving even their queens behind), first reported in 2006. No conclusive explanation has yet been found.
- The X-Files used the bees as an integral part of the Government Conspiracy's Evil Plan (to spread the deadly alien virus), about a decade before the CCD was first reported. However, the feral bee population across the world has been rapidly diminishing since 1972... and incidentally, said Government Conspiracy was founded in 1973.
- The Secret World trailers contain the Arc Words "The Bees Are Returning" (among other things), which is currently believed to have to do with the CCD.
- Doctor Who used it as a running joke throughout series 4. It ends with the revelation that the vanishing bees were actually aliens who became aware of what the Daleks planned to do to Earth.
- The strange fate of Edgar Allan Poe: Fell Off The Wagon and died of alcohol poisoning? Contracted cholera or rabies? Suicide? Victim of voting fraud due to being in the wrong place at the wrong time? (No, really.) No one knows.
- Documents and artifacts that contain writing that no one can read or decipher. Most famous example:
Works dealing with more than one example of this trope:
- Ancient Aliens. Not a spoiler: everything will be aliens, somehow.
- The Various Star Trek incarnations did a few, be it Jack the Ripper, (TOS), Roswell (DS9) or Amelia Earhart (VOY).
- In Assassin's Creed, every weird event and person from Adam and Eve to Jesus to King Arthur to Rasputin to Tunguska are explained by the Precursor technology left behind which inspired all the religions in the world.
- Matthew Reilly's Jack West series of novels do this quite a bit. For example, the plot of the first book revolves around the real life mystery of what happened to the missing capstone on the Great Pyramid of Giza.
- Doctor Who is intimately familiar with this trope. For example the disappearance of Agatha Christie was given a supernatural explanation in "The Unicorn and the Wasp".
- The X-Files, being an epic Conspiracy Kitchen Sink and all.
- The comic book series Planetary has this in almost every issue.
- xkcd had a strip dedicated to this trope, referencing Amelia Earhart, the Roanoke Colony, Franklin's lost expedition, and Jimmy Hoffa.
- In The Missing series by Margaret Peterson Haddix, it turns out that future entrepreneurs went back in time to take many of the most famous missing children of history, such as Anastasia, the Lindbergh baby, or Virginia Dare.
- The Secret Histories series, as befits its secret agent sorcery-and-superscience setting, has this in spades- the being originally known as Jack the Ripper turns up in several books, while the third book The Spy Who Haunted Me challenges the protagonist to solve six classic unsolved mysteries: the Loch Ness Monster; Bigfoot; a Russian "science city", not far from Tunguska (although The Tunguska Event is covered in another book), in which everyone spontaneously killed each other and/or themselves; the Philadelphia Experiment; and Roswell.