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A conspiracy or a secret society that is implied to exist, but actually does not.

This trope has been Launched!
Proposed By:
JustTroper on Aug 26th 2017 at 10:12:52 AM
Last Edited By:
JustTroper on Sep 1st 2017 at 5:30:24 AM
Name Space: Main
Page Type: trope

Plots that involve conspiracy theories and secret societies hidden beneath the veneer of everyday life treat them in different ways. Some play it completely straight, while others imply or bluntly state that the conspiracy that seemed to be behind the whole plot does not really exist: it was either an elaborate hoax, a joke staged by the protagonist's friends and loved ones, a hallucination of a mentally ill protagonist, or something even darker.

A frequent plot element of Mockstery Tale; may overlap with Milkman Conspiracy. Also compare "Scooby-Doo" Hoax, in which the storyline seems to have supernatural elements, but they are actually fake.

Contains spoilers; read at your own caution.


Examples:

Film

  • According to the most popular interpretation of Mulholland Dr., the omniscient Hollywood conspiracy involving mafia, men on black limos, and a mysterious wheelchair-bound kingpin Mr. Roque was just a dream of a failed actress who attempted to reimagine her life in a positive light.
  • In Jacob's Ladder, the titular Vietnam veteran believes that he's being pursued by government agents who want to suppress the truth about the use of psychedelic drugs during the war. The drug story may or may not be true, but the conspiracy itself is just a Dying Dream of the protagonist who never actually made it out of Vietnam.
  • A Beautiful Mind initially looks like a spy thriller movie about a scientist who assisted Pentagon in combating a nefarious Soviet conspiracy, but then it's revealed that the scientist is actually schizophrenic; the spy movie-like scenes were all in his head.
  • In Passengers (2008), a number of passengers who survived a plane crash start to disappear one by one; the protagonist (a grief counselor who conducts therapy for them) believes that an airplane consipracy may be killing them off to cover up their guilt for the crash. It turns out that Claire was also one of the passengers, and they were all in afterlife (nobody survived the crash actually); people who they thought were pursuing them were actually dead loved ones helping them to move on.
  • In Shutter Island, US Marshall Teddy Daniels investigates the disappearance of a patient from the remote mental clinic, Ashecliffe Hospital. As the investigation continues, he finds that the hospital staff are hiding something from him, and suspects that the head doctor is conducting horrible experiments on unwilling patients. In reality, "Teddy Daniels" is actually Andrew Laeddis, a patient at that same hospital. The only experiment happening is the doctors indulging Laeddis's delusions of investigating a conspiracy, in hopes that Laeddis would realize the truth and be cured after his fantasy played out to the end.
  • Naked Lunch is about a "conspiracy" involving fantastic monsters and talking typewriters that exists only in the drugged mind of the protagonist.

Literature

  • The mysterious underground postal delivery service Trystero from The Crying of Lot 49 may be either a delusion of Oedipa or an elaborate joke by her former husband. Or it may be real after all.
  • Umberto Eco
    • Foucault's Pendulum. The protagonists invent a centuries-old conspiracy involving Rosicrucians, Templars, Masons and other secret organizations to parody the real-life conspiracy theorists. Zig-Zagged however, since the real occultists and conspiracy theorists take the story at face value, and actually create the secret society that the protagonists made up.
    • The Prague Cemetery describes a fictionalized story how such a hoax, called Protocols of the Elders of Zion, was created in real life (see "Real Life" section).
  • One of the scenes in The Magus by John Fowles implies that all the events in the novel were the workings of some secret society of psychotherapists who perform elaborate psychological experiments on people; however, it turns out to be a ruse, just like everything before it.
  • The Nightwatchmen from Special Topics In Calamity Physics may or may not be this.

Live Action TV

  • Double Subverted in one Midsomer Murders episode: a Conspiracy Theorist believes the Pudding Club (an association of college students and alumni, started when the students pooled their funds to afford desserts) is an Illuminati-esque organization that secretly controls the world. Naturally, this is dismissed by Barnaby, even when the theorist is murdered. It turns out the club is a conspiracy, but nothing so grand as World Domination: the students tend to end up in diplomatic positions around the world, and use them to smuggle cultural artifacts back to the school, which sells them off to keep itself funded.

Tabletop Games

Video Games

  • By the midpoint of Firewatch, Henry and Delilah become increasingly convinced to have been unwitting test subjects in a secret government research of human behavior in long-term isolation. It turns out, however, that the "conspiracy" is a hoax perpetrated by a previous occupant of Henry's watchtower who attempts to drive them both mentally unstable and have them kicked out before they can discover evidence of his crimes.

Real Life

  • The Priory of Sion was a hoax created by a Frenchman who claimed to be the descendant of the Merovingian bloodline; according to him, the Priory was a centuries-old secret society that protected the royal dynasty, and its Grand Masters included Leonardo da Vinci, Isaac Newton, Victor Hugo, and Jean Cocteau. The story served as basis for The Da Vinci Code.
  • The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is a literary forgery describing an imaginary "Judeo-Masonic conspiracy" planning to take over the world; the details of the alleged conspiracy are borrowed directly from various antisemitic canards. It's one of the most infamous examples of this trope, since it has been used by Nazis to justify the Holocaust.

Feedback: 8 replies

Aug 26th 2017 at 10:47:18 AM

In Paranoia, at least one secret society was created because the people sent to investigate it kept being executed for failing to find it, so the latest group realized that if the society doesn't exist, then they should create it.

Aug 27th 2017 at 4:29:37 AM

^ That was the International Workers of the World in the Paranoia supplement Acute Paranoia.

  • Corrected punctuation (added periods at the ends of sentences).
  • Examples section

Aug 27th 2017 at 10:29:25 AM

@Arivne: thanks! Added the Paranoia example.

Aug 27th 2017 at 10:29:25 AM

@Arivne: thanks! Added the Paranoia example.

Aug 27th 2017 at 2:22:14 PM

I'm gonna cover this up with spoiler tags, because the game is so recent, but feel free to remove them if you copy it over to the write up (since this trope is Spoilered Rotten by definition):

  • By the midpoint of Firewatch, Henry and Delilah become increasingly convinced to have been unwitting test subjects in a secret government research of human behavior in long-term isolation. It turns out, however, that the "conspiracy" is a hoax perpetrated by a previous occupant of Henry's watchtower who attempts to drive them both mentally unstable and have them kicked out before they can discover evidence of his crimes.

Aug 27th 2017 at 11:11:30 PM

Compare also the Scooby Doo Hoax, where events look supernatural, but turn out not to be.

Aug 29th 2017 at 12:09:23 PM

Film example. I'm not sure if it applies to the original book as well:

  • In Shutter Island, US Marshall Teddy Daniels investigates the disappearance of a patient from the remote mental clinic, Ashecliffe Hospital. As the investigation continues, he finds that the hospital staff are hiding something from him, and suspects that the head doctor is conducting horrible experiments on unwilling patients. In reality, "Teddy Daniels" is actually Andrew Laeddis, a patient at that same hospital. The only experiment happening is the doctors indulging Laeddis's delusions of investigating a conspiracy, in hopes that Laeddis would realize the truth and be cured after his fantasy played out to the end.

Aug 29th 2017 at 12:54:46 PM

Double Subverted in one Midsomer Murders episode: a Conspiracy Theorist believes the Pudding Club (an association of college students and alumni, started when the students pooled their funds to afford desserts) is an Illuminati-esque organization that secretly controls the world. Naturally, this is dismissed by Barnaby, even when the theorist is murdered. It turns out the club is a conspiracy, but nothing so grand as World Domination: the students tend to end up in diplomatic positions around the world, and use them to smuggle cultural artifacts back to the school, which sells them off to keep itself funded.

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