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Apophenia Plot

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Picture of a hunched old lady holding a dog
And telling you what to do
Seemingly random arrangement of turbid material
Telling you what to do
It's only tea leaves, stop being dramatic
Next thing you'll be saying that
I've been hallucinating you all along
They Might Be Giants, "Apophenia"

Humans have a distressing tendency to see patterns where there are none. Known formally as apophenia, people who fall victim to this will find themselves finding connections in unrelated events or objects, assigning deep meanings to things that — at best — are totally irrelevant.

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While often seen among gamblers, it's perhaps most commonly encountered as a hallmark of the Conspiracy Theorist and The Paranoiac — in which even the most innocuous sequence of events is regarded as a sign of a vast and sinister web of conspiracies out to destroy the world, overthrow the government, rob your family, or maybe just drive you insane... when in reality, of course, it's just a random cluster of events.

Basically, an Apophenia Plot is a type of a "Shaggy Dog" Story, where a string of random unrelated events is misinterpreted as having some hidden meaning, often having to do with secrets and conspiracies. This trope is often encountered in children's literature and kids' animated shows, parodying the genre clichés of adult adventure or thriller stories.

Of course, in more adult stories, it's not uncommon for people who are following this self-inflicted wild goose chase to end up stumbling upon a real conspiracy in the process, leaving the masterminds behind this sinister plot utterly bewildered when they find themselves confronted by some gibbering lunatic screaming about the black van that's been following them around all day.

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Commonly exhibited by characters who are either Right for the Wrong Reasons or just Entertainingly Wrong. Expect Not What It Looks Like and a possible case of Insane Troll Logic to be involved. Sometimes ends with some kind of Real After All moment. Compare The Cuckoolander Was Right.

Compare Mockstery Tale, Mockspiracy, and Paranoid Thriller.


Examples:

    open/close all folders 

    Anime & Manga 
  • Durarara!!: In an OVA, Walker starts believing an alien invasion has started on Earth, as the events occurring around him match the plot of a story he was making. In reality, there is no invasion and it was a conflict involving several mixed-up bags, the Awakusu fighting with a rival outfit, and Izaya messing with Shizuo.

    Comic Books 
  • In The Simpsons story The Perplexing Puzzle of the Springfield Puma, the Springfield school puma statue gets stolen while Principal Skinner is on a business trip. The investigation gets increasingly bizarre, with nearly everyone having weird motives to steal the statue (from a teacher whose aunt was mauled by a puma to a student who believes that the statue is a jewel-encrusted treasure repainted to look like plaster, obviously parodying the genre clichés of noir stories like The Maltese Falcon). Eventually it is revealed that Skinner took the statue himself to keep it safe.
  • Batman (Grant Morrison) features the Joker invoking this on purpose just to screw with Batman's head. Throughout the first half of the run, the colors red and black keep popping up everywhere. The Joker repeatedly uses this color scheme, from using a special toxin released by combining red and black roses to painting his nails red and black. Batman agonizes over the significance of the colors, from symbolism to a potential bigger scheme that the Joker's trying to employ through them. The Joker later admits that there was no big scheme and name-drops apophenia. He knew that Batman would obsess over the colors because Batman obsesses over everything that the Joker does, trying to find deeper meaning behind his actions. While usually he does have some nefarious reason behind the most insignificant aspects of his criminal schemes, this time his only reason was to gaslight Batman into believing there was one.
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    Films — Live-Action 
  • In Accident, The Brain is an "accident choreographer" who specializes in killing people by arranging freak "accidents". During one of his assignments, something goes wrong and an actual freak accident results in one of his men being run over by a bus. The circumstances of this accident are so similar to the ones he arranges that the Brain becomes convinced that this was a deliberate attack aimed at him. His obsession drives him into paranoia, but as the viewer learns there never was a conspiracy, this really was just a freak accident.
  • The film Homicide (not to be confused with Homicide: Life on the Street) is about a Jewish homicide detective who investigates the murder of an old woman who in her younger days was involved with Zionist gun-running and is drawn into involvement with Mossad and violent attacks on neo-Nazis. The final revelation is that the murder was probably coincidental, as were all the elements that made him think it was related to politics and the old woman's past.
  • Hot Fuzz features a pre-climax sequence where Nicholas Angel delves into the newspaper archives and strings together proof that Simon Skinner committed all the "accidents" that have occurred over the course of the movie for the sake of a property deal that might have ended his supermarket monopoly over Sanford; the victims were either in on the deal or knew about it and needed to be silenced. All well and good... except Skinner has an airtight alibi. A few scenes later, it's revealed that the property deal theory is bunk: the Neighborhood Watch Alliance (of which Skinner is a member) had the victims killed simply because they had become an embarrassment to Sanford — either through bad acting, annoying laughs, ugly houses, terrible journalism, or an attempt to take their talents to another village.
  • The Number 23 is the story of Walter Sparrow and his sudden obsession with the number 23 and how everything apparently traces back to it. He ends up uncovering his own repressed memories of committing murder.
  • The Oxford Murders has the protagonist investigate a string of murders, with the killer leaving paper notes with strange drawings. The protagonist theorizes that all the victims were targeted because they were terminally ill, and the drawings are Pythagorean symbols. At the very end, it's revealed that the serial killer never existed: the first victim was murdered by her own daughter, and an Oxford professor covered up for her by making up the paper sheet with a symbol story. As the main character made up his theory about terminally ill victims, the professor went along with it and framed two natural deaths as murders.
  • Much of the chaos in Revenge of the Musketeers stems from two pieces of paper that are circulating: a laundry list and a really bad romantic poem. However, because the various factions involved are already paranoid and looking for hidden messages, they keep interpreting these documents to mean all kinds of things that they don't.
  • A Serious Man: Larry Gopnik is a Jewish mathematics professor trying to make sense of all the random events seemingly conspiring to ruin his life, such as a neighbor suing him, his wife leaving him for a friend, a neighbor who may be trying to seduce him, and someone sending his university covert letters trying to deny him tenure. A story about a hidden message in a man's teeth gets him believing it all may be God trying to tell him something. By the end of the film, not only is there no message, but his situation only goes From Bad to Worse.
  • Played With in The Stupids: the protagonists invent a bizarre conspiracy theory from everyday details, involving a villain who plans to steal all the mail and garbage from America. However, while they attempt to thwart the "sinister plot", they inadvertently uncover a very real sinister plot involving terrorists and contraband weaponry.
  • Subverted in Under the Silver Lake: initially it looks like the main character, who is a slacker obsessed with conspiracy theories, is inventing the "mystery" to keep himself amused. He makes bizarre connections between the disappearance of a local girl, the death of a millionaire, creepy urban legends of Los Angeles, video games, drawings on cereal boxes, etc. However, eventually he does discover a conspiracy... either that or he eventually goes off his rails.

    Literature 
  • Apathy and Other Small Victories: Shane is a suspect in the apparent murder of his only real friend, a deaf woman named Marlene, and since he didn't actually do it and, more importantly, doesn't want to go to prison, he sets out to try and figure out who the actual culprit is. Because Shane is an alcoholic whose sole experience in detective work consists of watching too many detective movies, and because he happens to be a Weirdness Magnet, he becomes convinced that Marlene's death was tied to some big conspiracy involving her abusive husband, a wannabe coke dealer (who's actually selling Ritalin, but can't tell the difference), and a neighbor who may or may not be in a sexual relationship with a guinea pig. The reality turns out to be way more mundane: She slipped and fell in the shower and suffered a fatal head injury.
  • Evolution: Mother is one of the first humans to develop an understanding of cause and effect, and a lifetime spent cogitating about complex causal chains eventually leads her to believe that there is a direct intent behind everything. Even if doesn't know the specific mechanisms by which something happened, nothing happens by chance — after all, just because an antelope skewered by a spear doesn't see the hidden hunter, its death was still planned and determined by a hidden intelligence. As the story puts it, she essentially becomes the first conspiracy theorist. This is portrayed as a mixed blessing overall — while it leads her to becoming incredibly paranoid and deluded (she sees possible traitors everywhere, and murdered her own aunt out of a belief that she caused the illness that killed Mother's son), it also allows her to create relatively complex technology, develop sophisticated survival strategies, and order her tribal society in a manner much more complex than her less mentally adept tribemates could.
  • Foucault's Pendulum: Zig-Zagged. A conspiracy theorist shows the main characters a mysterious manuscript, which he believes to be a secret plan of the Templars, along with a number of cryptographic clues. Soon after that, the conspiracy theorist disappears, implying he's been murdered and that he was actually up to something, and the protagonists start inventing their own conspiracy theory based on the document, just for amusement. Eventually it turns out that the document was actually an old grocery list, and the cryptograms were created by another conspiracy theorist also for fun. However, the fake theory made up by the protagonists ends up sounding too real and attracts a bunch of occult whackjobs and far-right terrorists.
  • The Magicians: Early in The Magician's Land, Quentin Coldwater is called home from his work at Brakebills by the news that his father has died. While there, Quentin grows fixated on the idea that his unassuming dad must have been a magician like him, reasoning that nobody could possibly be that boring. The theorizing incorporates everything from his father's lack of involvement in Quentin's life to his refusal to let him attend a chess tournament when he was a kid, from his habit of keeping an unstrung banjo in his room to his obsession with Jeff Goldblum movies, and eventually forces Quentin to search his father's study from top to bottom for further evidence. He thinks he's hit paydirt when he stumbles upon a box of old index cards drawn with strange tables of indecipherable data, believing it to be some kind of magical cipher. He quickly realizes that the data tables are just stats from his dad's old fantasy golf league; turns out that Quentin's father was just an Indubitably Uninteresting Individual who didn't feel any real attachment to his son, and Quentin was just grasping at straws for something — anything — they might have in common.
  • The Name of the Rose: The murders taking place across the abbey are believed to be Signs of the End Times, as each death seemingly corresponds to one of the Seven Trumpets in the Book of Revelation: Adelmo fell from a tower in a hailstorm, Venantius is apparently drowned in a vat of blood, Berengar drowns in his bath, Severinus is brained to death with an armillary sphere, and a dying Malachi even mentions something that had "the power of a thousand scorpions." The more rational William of Baskerville suspects that a Theme Serial Killer is at work. However, in the finale, he realizes that most of the deaths invoked Revelation purely by coincidence, and curses himself for being so easily misled by nonexistent patterns. In order of appearance: Adelmo committed suicide, Severinus was beaten to death with the sphere by Malachi because it was the first thing within arm's reach, and Venantius, Berengar, and Malachi all unwittingly poisoned themselves by reading the MacGuffin, a treasured book that the Big Bad had laced with poison in order to keep its secrets safe.
  • Signs and Symbols is a short story by Vladimir Nabokov with a simple plot. An elderly couple goes to visit their son in a sanatorium where he was committed with a serious case of apophenia that led him to paranoid schizophrenia. They learn he has attempted but failed suicide, go home, and that night the phone rings three times. That's it. The kicker is that the story is full of minute details and (possibly) Faux Symbolism designed to make the reader search the text for patterns and hidden meanings.
  • A Touch Of Jen: After Alicia's death, Remy becomes convinced that everything that happens to him is a result of the universe sending signs to his destiny. This ultimately culminates in him going to Jen's apartment to kill Horus.
  • The Crying of Lot 49 is about a woman who may have stumbled on an Ancient Conspiracy, may have spotted some patterns where there are none, or may have been lead on a wild goose chase as a posthumous prank by her dead ex. The novel ends seconds before she finds out for sure.

    Live-Action TV 
  • In The Alienist, Dr. Laszlo Kreizler has a gift for stringing together evidence in order to construct detailed psychological profiles, but his unchecked biases often lead to the profiles being far off the mark. In the first season, his attempt to tie the murder of his former patient to a string of murders leads to the wrong suspect, with terrible results, and in the second season, he tries too hard to make a plausible case against a crooked doctor against whom he has a grudge, while missing the real killer, a ward nurse who happened to work for the doctor but was acting out her own agenda.
  • The second episode of Alphas featured an Alpha whose Disability Superpower is apophenia that enables him to set up complicated Rube Goldberg Device-like sequences. The problem is that he literally cannot grasp the concept of coincidence - his powers manifested at a young age, and he believes everyone sees things as he does -and attributes every bad thing that happens to him to malice, and uses his ability to murder those he believes slighted him.
  • The Brittas Empire: In "Body Language", Colin is convinced that there are aliens in the centre due to a string of unrelated coincidences (namely a giant ice cube crashing into the centre, two of Ben's friends, who are wearing costumes, escaping from the cupboard, Gavin suffering from ocular hypertension, and a poor choice of words from everyone).
  • One episode of Burn Notice sees Michael being hired by an apopheniac who has stumbled upon an actual conspiracy to sell the names of covert operatives to hostile foreign powers. Unfortunately for Michael, the client stumbled upon the conspiracy while looking for proof that his bosses were aliens, and thus Michael and his team must sift through the client's "evidence" to find the actual evidence.
  • The Community episode "Competitive Ecology" has Chang create a laughably small Conspiracy Wall with only a couple pieces of "evidence" linked by a single piece of yarn while investigating an imagined conspiracy. Despite this, the yarn proves to be a fire hazard and the evidence board as well as part of the school cafeteria burns down.
  • In the Farscape episode "They've Got a Secret", a cascade of disasters breaks out all over Moya: the freezer breaks down, chemical levels surge randomly, environmental control goes haywire, the DRDs get aggressive, Pilot loses consciousness, and Moya herself becomes increasingly violent. Based on all the evidence, Crichton theorizes that Moya's come down with some kind of biomechanoid virus — though even Aeryn remarks that this is a bit of a hasty conclusion to jump to. At the end of the episode, he's proved wrong: Moya is pregnant. All the malfunctions were due to her diverting power to her offspring; the DRDs got aggressive because Crichton was trespassing on an area dangerously close to her baby; Moya became violent because the crew resisted her efforts to keep her child safe and she had no way of communicating what was happening. Fortunately, the situation is resolved peacefully before anyone suffers any permanent damage.
  • Midsomer Murders:
    • One episode features a Conspiracy Theorist who believes a local university has ties to the Illuminati and are secretly controlling the world, and aren't afraid to kill people who get too close to the truth. He is right that they kill people (he ends up among their victims), but it's for far more mundane reasons than world domination: the school actually depends on its alumni getting cushy diplomatic jobs in foreign countries, smuggling art and precious statues back to Britain via diplomatic channels, and then the school uses the art to keep funding itself.
    • There's another, even more mundane one in the same episode where the school canteen gets its food from a local high-end restaurant for cheap.
  • In one episode of Monk, the local garbagemen's union goes on strike, and the resulting trash pileups around the city cause Monk's obsessive-compulsive disorder to go haywire, resulting in him seeing conspiracies everywhere, like being convinced that the murder of the week was committed by Alice Cooper as part of a plot to... acquire a used easy chair because he happened to see a poster advertising an Alice Cooper concert in the same place as an ad offering a used easy chair. Eventually, Capt. Stottlemeyer arranges for Monk to spend time in a completely germ-free room, bringing him back to normal long enough to solve the mystery of the week, which also helps end the garbage strike.
  • Downplayed example in the first season of Search Party: four friends are investigating the disappearance of a college acquaintance, and keep encountering clues hinting at darker events and conspiracies. In the end, it turns out that the "victim" simply ran away from her responsibilities for a while, and all the dark conspiracies are coincidences or exaggerations of some sort. The actual mystery is real, in that the girl is missing, but the circumstances of her disappearance are extremely mundane.
  • In the Star Trek: Voyager episode "The Voyager Conspiracy", Seven of Nine modifies her alcove to download information directly into her brain — which proves to be more than her brain can handle, and she starts forming it into patterns to try and make sense of it all. While the first scenario she constructs turns out to be correct (the ship is infested with fleas), she then veers into paranoid conspiracy theories strung together out of various events in the show's history. First she thinks Voyager is conspiring with the Cardassians to conquer the Delta Quadrant, then that the Maquis are plotting to use the quadrant as a base to attack Cardassia and the Federation, then finally that Voyager was sent to capture her so they could dissect her for tactical information on the Borg.
  • Invoked in the third season of Stranger Things, when Joyce notices the magnets on her fridge - and then the ones at the hardware store where she works - are constantly losing their strength and falling off. She visits her son's science teacher to ask why that might be, and he gives a number of mundane reasons why this might be happening, and tells her that she's probably only noticing it happening more often because of apophenia. He is, of course, wrong, and there really is something sinister going on.
  • Superstore: In "Myrtle", Glenn becomes convinced that the recently deceased Myrtle is trying to contact him from beyond the grave because he keeps finding items around the store that are tangentially related to her interests. For example, he finds a Mr. Clean bottle and remarks that Myrtle had a "celebrity crush" on Mr. Clean. He even ends up paying his pastor $1,000 to get her into Heaven after his pastor claims that her "contacting" him is a sign that she's stuck in limbo. The employees try to dissuade his anxieties by rigging the virtual Myrtle greeter to say "Don't worry, I'm in Heaven now," and while he doesn't buy it as a message from Myrtle, he does accept that she's probably in a better place.

    Video Games 
  • Given the setting, The Secret World includes a few of these:
    • Dave Screed is rightly afraid of the Illuminati, but lacks the ability to distinguish between the real information he's managed to unearth, the utter nonsense fed to him by Illuminati sources, and his own paranoid delusions, leading him to several false conclusions alongside the correct ones. For example, he's under the impression that the Illuminati have replaced his girlfriend with an android so he can be kept under surveillance, which he justifies through a number of bizarre details, including the number of times she went to the bathroom in a day, her use of the Kama Sutra in bed, and the fact that she was poking fun at the latest conspiracy theory. The kicker? Screed is being kept under Illuminati surveillance... by one of the members of his D&D group, who Screed doesn't even suspect. This fellow gamer turns out to be the Illuminati sysadmin.
    • In the mission "Dead Stories," your exploration of the FNF Clubhouse in Tokyo uncovers an angry note written by one of the young recruits; with the kids sealed inside the complex for their own safety in the wake of the terrorist bombing, the author is convinced that the entire Clubhouse was set up by Facebook in order to study the recruits, even believing that the dwindling food supplies and increasingly gloomy news reports have all been faked in order for Facebook to improve their algorithms. The note ends with the writer making a beeline for the Clubhouse's VIP area with the intentions of "bringing the fury" to Mark Zuckerberg. By now, of course, the player knows that the Clubhouse is actually run by a doomsday cult in service to godlike mollusks from beyond time and space. By the time you get there, the place is overrun by the Filth and everyone's dead or infected, so you can guess how well the attempt to bring the fury went.

    Web Comics 
  • In Scott McCloud's webcomic The Right Number, a man calling his girlfriend for a date night accidentally types her phone number one digit off, and ends up calling a woman who looks almost exactly like her who was also expecting a date (who never showed up.) The new woman laughs it off as a funny coincidence, but the man becomes obsessed with this, believing he's discovered some kind of grand unifying formula for determining people's traits based on their phone number.

    Web Original 
  • As many tropers can attest, fan theories that categorize as Epileptic Trees can fall under the heading of this, especially in the case of media involving labyrinthine plots and heavily foreshadowed twists. For example, in the forums of Television Without Pity, certain theorists watching the third season of Game of Thrones were convinced that Jojen and Meera Reed were actually servants of the White Walkers, due to the mystery surrounding their Establishing Character Moment; the theory used everything from Summer trusting Jojen ("He must be warging him!") to the private conversations between Jojen and Bran ("he must be trying to brainwash him!"), from the fact that Jojen warned Bran that Hodor's panicked yelling would alert the Wildlings ("he wants to kill Hodor!") to the fact that Jojen is leading Bran Beyond the Wall ("he's taking him to the White Walkers!"). By the end of the season, the theorists were grumpily forced to accept the fact that Jojen and Meera are heroes; the mysteries around them were due to the fact that the showrunners had them randomly appear out of nowhere rather than formally introducing them as they were in the books. For added fun, some adherents to this theory were so adamant that Jojen had to be the secret villain of the season that the treachery of Walder Frey caught them completely off-guard.

    Web Videos 
  • Discussed by H Bomber Guy in his dissection of Sherlock: following the disastrous final episode of the show, some fans became absolutely convinced that there had to be a secret fourth episode of season four — and that it would take the form of Apple Tree Yard, a BBC drama appearing directly after Sherlock's conclusion. How did they reach this conclusion? Among other things, because the show's webpage led to a 404 error page (as in "episode 4.04"), the fact that the star of Apple Tree Yard was Emily Watson, a random scene featuring an apple tree being seen on the wallpaper, Sherlock saying "people always give up after three," and a promo image of Mark Gatiss holding up four fingers (which was probably just referring to the fourth season). All in all, people were disappointed when it turned out that Apple Tree Yard had nothing to do with Sherlock at all.

    Western Animation 
  • American Dad!: In "Rough Trade", Stan and Roger trade places, and this creates a series of incidents that make it look like Stan is an abusive monster. First, Linda comes over to find Stan has become a slovenly drunk (since it's Roger's "job") and that Francine has a black eye (Roger accidentally hit her). Later, when the cops come over to investigate the domestic abuse tipoff, they find angry monkeys in the basement (Hayley was transporting them for her Animal Wrongs Group; Roger forgot to feed them), photos of Steve in his underwear (that he had Roger take to impress a girl he likes), and Francine claiming that she got a second black eye from tripping into the door (which was 100% true).
  • In the Archer episode "Double Deuce", Woodhouse reveals that he and the fellow members of his flying squadron set up a tontine during World War I, and due to compound interest, it's now worth at least a million dollars. So, when the last survivors begin dying off in mysterious circumstances, Woodhouse believes that the squadron's villainous second-in-command, Lieutenant Scripes, is trying to cash in on the money, driving Woodhouse to hole up in Archer's apartment with the only other survivor in an attempt to prepare for the worst. However, Scripes himself reveals that the "mysterious circumstances" were just exaggerated by the newspapers to drum up publicity; in reality, two of the victims died in their sleep of natural causes, one of them fell off a roof while trying to fix an antenna, and the other accidentally throttled himself to death in an Erotic Asphyxiation incident.
  • Bob's Burgers: In "I Get Psy-chic Out Of You", a series of coincidences leads Linda to think she's developed psychic powers.
  • Played With in a number of Hey Arnold! episodes ("Headless Cabbie", "Freeze Frame", "Haunted Train", etc.) that center around some paranormal urban legends or detective stories. As the main characters investigate, they find more and more evidence for it, but at the end of each episode, it turns out that all the "evidence" was just a string of everyday coincidences. However, at the very end it's implied that the story is actually true.
  • In the Johnny Bravo episode "The Day the Earth Didn't Move Around Very Much", Johnny believes that time has frozen for everyone but him because his alarm clock had been stopped at 12:00 due to a power outage and every time he sees anybody, they have each decided to stay completely still for one reason or another, like Little Suzy attempting to balance an egg on her nose or a construction worker falling in wet cement and thinking he'd sink in if he moved around. Johnny takes the opportunity to commit crimes thinking he wouldn't get caught.
  • The Loud House:
    • Subverted in "Family Bonding", where Lincoln thinks the neighbours are spies because they have an irrational hatred of cherries, one of them was acting strangely in the library, another apparently lied about garbage day, and they have a strange machine in their garage. It seems like it's going to be one of these since Jeff says that the device was for predicting the weather, but then it turns out they really are spies.
    • In "Home of the Fave", Lynn Sr. thinks his kids (except Luan) suspect him of playing favourites since they always look in his direction, or appear sad or angry whenever he's playing with one of them. Actually, Luna just broke her guitar pick, Lynn was disappointed because her favourite quarterback was injured, Lincoln was just looking at Lynn Sr. to acknowledge him, Lucy was just being herself, and Lola was just angry with the cashier at the supermarket. There was no reason given for Lori, Leni, Lana, Lisa, or Lily's unhappiness, but they assured Lynn Sr. that they didn't feel left out or think he was playing favourites.
  • In the cartoon version of Milly, Molly, the episode "Aunt Maude is an Alien" involves Humphrey thinking Maude is an alien because the girls said so, she grows enough vegetables for a whole crowd (and so might be catering to other aliens), she's grumpy, she makes muffins that improve one's focus (which suggests mind control), and he heard her claiming that she wanted to "zap them all" with a device. Actually, the girls were lying to scare Humphrey as punishment for being mean to their cats, the large garden was for a competition, the grumpiness is just a personality trait, and she was only going to zap bugs. At the end, he's convinced she isn't an alien but is still wary of the muffins.
  • In the Phineas and Ferb episode "Undercover Carl", Carl suspects that Phineas and Ferb are helping Doofenshmirtz, based on the fact that the name of their "Anti-Gravity Fun Launcher" is an anagram of "Evil Fanatic Hunt r Raygun" (Carl claims that the missing "E" is intentional, in order to mislead them), and that a voice recording of Phineas saying "Ferb, I know what we're gonna do today!" is a phonetic anagram of "Let's help Doofenshmirtz destroy the Tri-state area."
  • In The Simpsons, in "Home Sweet Homediddily-Dum-Doodily", Bart, Lisa, and Maggie are mistaken for being neglected and abused when the child workers walk in after a variety of unrelated circumstances (Grampa is left in charge of the kids, Lisa's shoes are taken away by bullies, Bart has head lice from playing with a monkey, there's a bunch of old newspapers on the table intended for the recycling plant). They're sent to live with their next-door neighbors the Flanders, as Homer and Marge are made to take a parenting class. Eventually, they pass and are able to get their kids back.
  • South Park: In "The Death of Eric Cartman", everyone becomes so sick of Cartman that they agree to never pay any more attention to him. When Cartman sees that nobody is responding to him, he convinces himself that he's died and become a ghost, a thought further "proven" when he sees men seemingly carrying away his dead body in a box (actually plumbers having replaced his toilet) and hears his mother sobbing (actually her having sex with one of the men). However, nobody told Butters about the pact, so when he greets him like always, Cartman assumes that he can see him and talk to ghosts.
  • In the SpongeBob SquarePants episode "Krab Borg", SpongeBob and Squidward become convinced that Mr. Krabs has been replaced by a robot doppelganger as part of a plot to Take Over the World. They kidnap Mr. Krabs and tie him up, demanding he reveal where the "real" Mr. Krabs is and refusing to believe him when he insists that he is Mr. Krabs. They instead begin interrogating Krabs' appliances in the belief that they're also robots, and smashing them when they "refuse" to talk. They finally realize their mistake when the threat of having his beloved cash register smashed causes Krabs to break down in tears, something SpongeBob earlier claimed robots couldn't do.

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