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Cannot Tell Fiction from Reality

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"Jesus Christ, Joe. You've been playing way too much Skyrim, haven't you?"

Abed: By the power vested in me, I declare you... cancelled.
Jeff: Oh, good, Abed, cancel us! And while you're at it, why don't you take your cutesy "I can't tell life from TV" gimmick with you! It’s very Season 1.
Abed: I can tell TV from life, Jeff. TV makes sense. It has structure, logic, rules. And likeable leading men. In life, we have this. We have you.

Okay, so you start to be unable to tell the difference between fiction and reality. Often you will think a TV show is real, or believe you are actually in the show. You could be a Loony Fan who hallucinates things, a very small child who merely believes whatever they are told, or maybe a big Manchild. You might just lack the ability to understand that fiction is merely fiction, and naively apply it to real life without necessarily imagining anything and/or being eccentric and still happily unaware of what they're seeing or doing in hindsight.

This trope can either be Played for Laughs or Played for Drama. The dramatic versions can often come with a moral about not watching too many shows or not thinking stuff in shows is safe to do.

When the "reality" of the work is acknowledged in-universe, see This Is Reality.

Needless to say, this is indeed Truth in Television for some people, some of which even make laws, often for various reasons. For the sake of not accidentally offending anyone though, we won't be talking about that.

Related tropes:

A Super-Trope to:



In-Universe Examples Only:

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    Anime & Manga 
  • A minor, one-shot example occurs in an issue of Crayon Shin-chan. Hiroshi was supposed to meet a distant client one afternoon but arrives a few hours too early, so decides to kill time by sneaking off to watch a movie. Unfortunately, the only film in the theater that fits his time-slot is a murder-mystery about a family plotting to murder their husband for insurance money, which freaks out Hiroshi so badly that when he returns home at night, he thought his family is plotting to murder him too. Like thinking Misae had poisoned his drink like the wife in the movie did (he's actually having a bad fever that didn't develop until returning home) and freaking out when seeing Shin-Chan playing with a toy katana until he passes out (while having flashbacks of the movie's scenes where the daughter graphically stabs her father dead).
  • Detroit Metal City: The band's entire fanbase. None of them ever consider that the band are just regular joes dressing up and taking on scene personas, and will repeatedly Fail Spot Checks or rationalize a different explanation whenever the mask starts cracking.
  • Since the daycare kids in Gakuen Babysitters are just toddlers, they often can't differentiate what they see in books or on television from reality. Taka believes superheroes are real since he once met the actors from a Sentai show he watches while they were in costume, and Kirin spends a whole chapter trying to fly on a broom so she can become a witch. Kazuma is shown to be scared of his father Kousuke at first since he saw a movie where Kousuke played a kidnapper, and later on the kids all become convinced that Kousuke is now a villain after they see him playing a Hero Killer on a Toku show they all watch. After Asahi intervenes, they're slowly starting to learn that actors are different from the characters they play.
  • In Miss Kobayashi's Dragon Maid, Tohru and Kanna end up believing that humans on Earth can fire energy blasts and perform feats of superhuman strength after watching "The Ma·rix" on TV. To be fair, they come from a World of Badass where such things are commonplace.
  • Pokémon Chronicles: In "We're No Angels!", a village regularly watches an old TV show about a team of superheroes called Team Righteous and believe it is news footage of real heroes. When Team Rocket shows up, since they are Identical Strangers to the actors, the villagers believe they are Team Righteous.
  • Ramen Fighter Miki has Akihiko Ohta who watchs the last episode of the Sentai Star Rangers show, where a crying girl asks for help to the Red Ranger, and he manages to make her smile at the end of the episode. Next morning, when a crying Wakana asks for help to find Toshiyuki, Akihiko Jumped at the Call envisioning himself as the Red Ranger, her bicycle as a Ranger Motorcycle, and assigning Ranger's code names to the rest of the core cast, recruiting them into the search... and acting like a true Lord Error-Prone.
  • On Yu-Gi-Oh! ZEXAL, Astral briefly had this problem, thinking the science-fiction program DD Esper Star Robin was real. (He can be excused, being an Innocent Alien at the time.) Later, however, Fuya Okudaira (the star of the show) develops this problem after being corrupted by a Number, believing he actually is the character he portrays.

    Asian Animation 
  • In Simple Samosa, Vada, who is The Baby of the Bunch in Samosa's group, is implied to be too young to be able to discern Samosa's exaggerated tales as fictictious, whereas Samosa's other friends Dhokla and Jalebi can distinguish them as fake from a mile away. In the series' first episode, "Sumo Momo", Vada believes Samosa's story about defeating not one, but two of his favorite professional wrestler, Sumo Momo, apparently not recognizing that there's only one Sumo Momo in this show's reality.

    Comic Books 
  • Wonder Woman (1987): When Kris Lazarus' grieving father attempts to bring him back as an AI the one thing he seemed to get right was Kris' addiction to gaming. However he failed to put any protection between "Kris"'s housing and his laboratory where he was doing Hard Light AI experiments or give "Kris" any stimulation to keep him from getting incredibly bored so Kris started manufacturing superheroes and villains thinking it a game when they were actually hard light constructs doing damage in the real world.

    Comic Strips 
  • Briefly shows up in Big Nate. Nate, while trying to figure out where in his backyard he buried a homemade time capsule, explains what happened while burying it. Francis interrupts partway through to point out that he's just describing the plot of Holes.
    Nate: Oh. That explains the presence of Shia LaBeouf.
    Francis: [thinking] He gets confused easily.
  • Jason Fox from FoxTrot has shades of this; while he's a highly intelligent Child Prodigy, he's also such a hardcore nerd that he sometimes seems to forget that his favorite fantasy and sci-fi series aren't actually real. This leads to moments such as trying to get a job with the FBI's "X-Files" division or getting upset that The Lord of the Rings movies didn't use actual Ringwraiths.

    Fan Works 
  • In At The Food Court, after Ash suffers critical brain damage and has a psychotic break, he comes to believe that stuffed animals are living, breathing Pokemon, that he is still on a Pokemon journey, that fast-food mascots are either Team Rocket or undiscovered Pokemon, and that Jessie and James's children are miniature versions of them. These are all part of his delusions.
  • In the For Better or for Worse fanfic The New Retcons, this sums up Elly Patterson's insanity in a nutshell; more to the point, she can't tell the past from the present and thinks she's in the 1980s in 2008.
  • In The Parselmouth of Gryffindor, this seems to be the main cause of the Quibbler's… inaccuracies. Chapter 20 shows that Mr Lovegood apparently took The Wizard of Oz at face value, deeming it a groundbreaking documentary on the wrongdoings of the American Dark Wizard Oz.
  • In Partially Kissed Hero, Harry is able to trick all of Hogwarts into believing that The Lord of the Rings is ancient magical history by showing the films in class (even though they wouldn’t be released for eight years) and also that Muggles are able to copy magic by showing Ghostbusters (1984). This is despite the existence of half-bloods and Muggle-borns who are aware of Muggle life, and also despite the fact that wizards are shown to have their own fiction, which they know is such.
  • In The Victors Project series, Loomer from Fall Into the River is revealed to believe that the Hunger Games he's a tribute in is a video game that he was playing when he came over, which leads to him saving the man characters life while trying to recreate The Quest.

    Films — Animation 
  • Bolt has the titular character believe the TV show he stars in is real as is the director's intention until he accidentally escaped the film set and got lost.
  • Coco: When Miguel brings up how a line Ernesto said in real life while he was alive was the same as something he says in a movie and extrapolating that Ernesto murdered the person he said it to just like in the film, Héctor accuses Miguel (and then Ernesto accuses Héctor) of being unable to distinguish movies from real life. Though in this case, Miguel is right.
  • Toy Story:
    • Buzz Lightyear from Toy Story is a Living Toy that believes he's the actual character the toyline is based on. He realizes otherwise when he sees the commercial at Sid's house advertising for Buzz Lightyears. Zurg and the Toy-Barn Buzz Lightyear suffer from this in the second movie. It carries over into promotional media as Buzz still thinks that he is the real deal. Supplemental material reveals that for some reason this is the case with all space toys, unlike everyone else.
    • Toy Story That Time Forgot has a similar situation with the "Battlesaurs" toys, who haven't been played with yet and are lost in their own backstories. The Cleric knows this however and chooses to keep his comrades in the dark to avoid an Identity Breakdown, but everyone learns of their true nature and get played with in the end.
      Woody: Trixie! The Battlesaurs aren't playing! They've never been played with! They don't even know they're toys!

    Films — Live-Action 
  • The Adventures Of Captain Zoom In Outer Space has the arrogant star of a 1950s TV show abducted by a race thinking he's his heroic character. When he tries to explain he's an actor, they're ready to kill him as they assume the only people who would lie about what they are are spies. The actor quickly pretends he was merely "testing" them as he plays his role to save his own life.
  • In Galaxy Quest, the Thermians have no concept of fiction, and were only recently introduced to the concepts of lying and deception courtesy of the Big Bad, a Galactic Conqueror who exploited their ignorance of these concepts to nearly wipe out their entire race. They think that the Galaxy Quest episodes they found in Earth's transmissions are "historical documents" of an actual space crew traveling the galaxy, and mourn for "those poor people" trapped on Gilligan's Island. Once the Big Bad watches the "historical documents" for himself, he knows exactly what they really are and takes sadistic glee in forcing the actors to come clean.
    Sarris: This is a moment I will treasure. Explain to him who you all really are. [grabs Nesmith and drags him over to Mathesar] Tell him! Explain!
    Nesmith: Mathesar, the-uh... there's no such person as Captain Taggart. My name is Jason Nesmith. I am, uh... an actor. We're all actors.
    Sarris: He doesn't understand. Explain as you would a child.
    Nesmith: We, uh... we pretended. [beat] We lied.
    Mathesar: [sad noise]
    Sarris: Yes! You understand that, don't you, Mathesar?
    • After the crew ends up saving the day, Mathesar laughs at their "clever ruse" of "pretending" as if they were merely actors.
  • Ghost from Ginger Snaps Unleashed seems to have difficulty differentiating between reality and her comic books. She seems to think she's living in some kind of horror comic where she's the villain.
  • Sergius Alexander in The Last Command is a former Tsarist Russian general who barely escaped Red October and is now eking out a meager existence as a Hollywood film extra. He's cast in a movie about the Russian Revolution, appropriately enough. After getting dressed up in his general's uniform again, put in a trench warfare set, and told to harangue his mutinous soldiers, Sergius snaps. Thinking he's back in 1917 and fighting the revolutionaries, he grabs the Imperial Russian flag and tells his men to charge forward to "victory". Then he collapses and dies.
  • Mazes and Monsters has this with Tom Hanks losing his mind and thinking he's in a Dungeons & Dragons-type game.
  • In the movie Nurse Betty, after a woman sees her husband murdered she has a brain snap and believes she's a character from her favorite soap opera, moving to California to work at the fictional hospital she now believes she works in.
  • European colonists in The Piano stage a play of Bluebeard; tribesmen in the audience, evidently not acquainted with the concept of plays, think the Bluebeard character really is murdering his wife, so they rush the stage and attack the hapless actor.
  • The Science of Sleep has the main character Stephane unable to distinguish his dreams from reality. The film is presented in a way that it's difficult for the audience to tell what is real and what is imagined.

  • It's a major plot point for Ako Tamaki in And You Thought There Is Never a Girl Online?. She's not completely delusional, but she does have difficulty telling the difference between real life and her favorite MMORPG to the point that she tries to use a vending machine via an imaginary overlay menu and considers having a real-life boyfriend to be a downgrade from him being her in-game husband.
  • In the seventh Artemis Fowl book, Artemis develops a Split Personality. "Orion" has all of Artemis' memories, but they're all equally secondhand, so that the plot of a fairy tale seems as real to him as Artemis' actual experiences. He mostly spends his page-time annoying the others, treating them like side characters in a more traditional fantasy novel.
  • Diplomatic Act is a 1998 novel written by Peter Jurasik, who played Londo on Babylon 5. The plot is thus obvious: An actor who plays an alien diplomat on a TV show is taken into space by a race who thinks he's his character and needs his "wisdom" to solve a crisis before it erupts into war. He has to play along while a member of the race takes his place on his "space station" and swiftly discovers he's just an actor. Notable is that the reason they fall for this is that it's indicated fiction is a purely human concept in the universe.
  • Discworld:
    • At the start of Wyrd Sisters, Granny Weatherwax has no idea what a theatre is, and is horrified when she sees a man get murdered right in front of her. By the end of the book, she understands how theatre works, she just hates it.
    • In Jingo, when Lieutenant Hornett is trying to tell Lord Rust why none of his military precedents apply to the current situation, he has to explain that the Seven Heroes of Hergen and their defeat of 700 Big-Footed People was just a nursery story. An outraged Rust responds "Are you calling my nurse a liar, boy?" When Hornett backs down, Rust also cites the precedent of Baron Mimbledrone's fight against the armies of Plum Pudding Country.
  • In one of the Doctor Who Eighth Doctor Adventures books, there's a footnote that mentions that due to traumatic events that also caused him to lose his memory, the Doctor went a bit extra-batty for a while and started getting weird ideas about underwear from Superman, and suicidal depression from tragic soap operas.
  • Don Quixote of La Mancha, the protagonist of the eponymous classical Spanish novel by Miguel Cervantez, from whose name the word "quixotic" was derived, is obsessed with chivalric romance to the point that he deludes himself into thinking he can become a knight from those old stories. His most well-known moment of this is when he attempts to fight some windmills that he thinks are evil giants.
  • Foucault's Pendulum: The main characters, Milanese book editors who cook up a scheme to publish crowd-sourced occult manuscripts, start to believe their own bullshit as coincidences pile up and the seductive allure of their made-up plan makes too much sense.
  • The clones in Galaxy of Fear have a version of this defect. Stranded on Dantooine, some have made a "spaceship" out of leaves and sticks and such. It's not Bamboo Technology, it's basically something like a kid would build, except on a larger scale. The clones all sincerely believe it's a real spaceship and as soon as they have all the parts and finish it will start working. The protagonists are highly dismayed to realize this, but are too unnerved to try very hard to talk them out of it.
  • The Haruhi Suzumiya novels and anime have a downplayed case in The Sigh of Haruhi Suzumiya. The eponymous character, who unbeknownst to her is a Reality Warper, is creating and directing an (awful) amateur movie about the supernatural. And though she can consciously tell fiction from reality, she’s affecting the world to resemble the movie, including making Mikuru shoot incredibly destructive Eye Beams (an ability her character has, but she herself does not) on the set, or making a cat playing a Familiar into an actual Talking Animal that can wax philosophical about how the sounds he’s making may be taken by humans as appropriate responses. Also, at one point in the shooting she loses it and actually expects Mikuru to shoot eye beams in reality. At the end everything is resolved by having Haruhi read the This Is a Work of Fiction disclaimer a few times for good measure.
  • The Hoka stories are practically built around this trope. The teddy-bear-like Hokas constantly act out scenes from human literature because they have a fuzzy grasp of what's real and what's fictional. And they really don't care anyway.
  • The Island of the Day Before: Roberto, a 17th century man marooned on a deserted ship, starts writing a book about how his secret twin (whom he made up) has been toying with him his entire life, but the loneliness and isolation drives him to believe that his secret twin is real and is responsible for his current situation.
  • In The Last Resort by Jan Carson, this is one of the symptoms of Martha's dementia. Her husband John is worried enough that taking her back to the caravan park has resulted in her talking as though their daughters are there and still children, including reading The Water-Babies to nobody. He's even more worried when he realises that the reason she keeps talking about taking the girls swimming is because she's started thinking The Water Babies is real.
  • While cut from the film version of Maverick, the novelization notes that the legendary Marshal Zane Cooper is a fictional character In-Universe, and is the star of a number of novels. The Commodore only knew that Cooper was famous and featured in a bunch of books, and assumed that they were the sort of cheap "biographies" that blended fact, fiction, and speculation about real life Western outlaws such as Billy the Kid or lawmen like Wyatt Earp and were churned out during their lifetimes. At the end both "Cooper" and Brett Maverick get a good chuckle out tricking the Commodore with such a ruse.
  • The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco (for a given definition of "fiction", since Eco was an atheist): the killer is driven by religious fervor to carry out murders resembling the circumstances of the Book of Revelation, while around him the monastery bickers about highly esoteric Christian minutiae, such as whether Jesus Christ owned his own clothes or not, to feed their politicized agendas by pointing to the Bible for evidence. The hero is a Franciscan friar who tries — and often fails — to teach people it's okay to be skeptical about the things we read in books.
  • Just a single aspect of Annie Wilkes's whole insane mindset in Misery. Many fans can relate to the nightmare of having their favourite fictional character being Killed Off for Real, but when Annie reads Paul's final Misery story and learns of the character's ultimate fate, Annie basically freaks her shit and attacks him, almost reacting as if he just murdered a real person.
  • Nim's Island: At several points, it's clear that Nim doesn't understand the difference between fiction and reality, even stating her belief that the boy from the tourist group isn't actually real. While you could argue that it's simply an over-active imagination, it doesn't really paint a good picture for her mental health overall.
  • In Peter Pan, the title character is so interminably childish that he sometimes can't tell games from reality (which, to be fair, are pretty similar in Never Land). When the Lost Boys can't find anything to eat, Peter makes everyone imagine that they're enjoying a huge feast; he can actually get sated by this, and becomes angry if anyone complains that they're still hungry. At another point, he and Wendy are pretending to be the Lost Boys' parents, and suddenly needs her to reassure him that's he's not really an adult father.
  • Christopher Anvil's short story "The Plateau" describes an invasion by a race of aliens unfamiliar with several human concepts, including the concept of fiction. The first alien scout sent to Earth gets hopelessly confused because he takes all of Earth's fictional stories as truthful documents and can't understand why they contradict each other. When an alien commander hears about "fiction" for the first time, he cannot comprehend what is the benefit in writing false "reports" and not even trying to pass them off as true. When two human prisoners realize that their alien captors believe "Shurlok Homes" to be a real individual, they promptly start role-playing as John Carter of Mars characters to fool the aliens into thinking that a Martian army exists.
  • In Red Diamond, Private Eye and its sequels by Mark Schorr, cab driver Simon Jaffe suffers a complete breakdown after his wife sells his precious collection of pulp magazines and he starts believing that he is a pulp detective called Red Diamond. As part of his delusion, he believes that many other fictional detectives are real and friends of his.
  • The Fnrrns in the Terra Trilogy have no concept of fiction, which is why their view of humans is not just of a very aggressive species, but one that has fought a lot of wars with species the Fnrrns have never heard of, and generally won. They get the idea eventually, though.

    Live-Action TV 
  • A Running Gag in one episode of The Adventures of Lano and Woodley . Frank brings up a memory of a holiday at the beach, claiming that Col had an affair with a married woman while her husband was away. Col is confused until Frank mentions, "the war", and realises he's remembering Summer of '42. Frank later brings up "a movie" about two pizza guys getting beaten up by hoodlums, which in fact happened to them only days ago.
  • One episode of Barney Miller features a lady asking the detectives for a welfare check on some neighbors, but the "neighbors" turn out to be Soap Opera characters in her TV. Although not written by Reinhold Weege, this episode may have been the inspiration for the later Night Court episode.
  • In Blackadder, Prince George is so dim-witted that he doesn't realize play actors are just playing pretend. According to Blackadder in "Sense and Senility", he once ruined a performance of Julius Caesar by shouting "Look behind you, Mr. Caesar!" during the assassination scene, and we see another performance where he attempts to call the guards to arrest a killer.
  • Abed in Community is often accused of this trope, with several characters questioning whether or not he can recognize what is or is not real. However, throughout most of the series he can distinguish TV from reality, but uses TV as a filter to understand reality. It gets weird in the final season when it seems that he does completely succumb and lose his grip on reality, culminating in "Basic RV Repair and Palmistry". Though it is not referred to as such, Abed has a psychotic break and believes that he literally can change the past by having a "flashback" to earlier events. This puts himself and others in actual danger, and they need to resolve the situation by playing into his delusion, claiming that the present is a flashback from the future.
  • Criminal Minds:
    • The episode "True Night" had a serial killer, played by Frankie Muniz, who worked as a comic book artist. He went crazy after gangbangers killed his girlfriend and hunted them down one by one under the delusion that he was a vigilante from one of his comics. Possibly an inversion though, as it's suggested that he may have created the comic book character based on the delusion. He also seems to be completely unaware of the murders except while under the delusion, and they catch him because he recreated the scenes in his comic without realizing it.
    • In "Uncanny Valley," the UnSub is a Psychopathic Womanchild named Samantha who's been kidnapping young women who resemble a set of dolls she had as a little girl; she dresses them up so they look identical to the toys, paralyzes them with an IV solution, and holds them captive to play tea party with her. It's eventually revealed that Samantha's father sexually abused her and used electroshock therapy to keep her from telling anyone, which warped her mind so badly that she lost the ability to distinguish truth from fiction. As such, she thinks the women she's kidnapping are her dolls come to life and can't understand that she's doing anything wrong. Once Reid learns the truth and gets the real dolls back to Samantha, she immediately becomes docile and allows her latest victims to be rescued.
  • An episode of CSI: Cyber has the team tracking down some hackers who are pulling off crimes inspired by the first-person shooter video games they play. One tries to escape by leaping across a roof and falls hard, breaking his legs. The team realize the guy was so used to pulling the move in the game that he honestly thought it would work in real life as well and that the rest of the gang had come to see shooting people are just "gaining points".
  • Inverted in Drake & Josh Go Hollywood: Walter wasn't aware Titanic (1997) was based on a true story.
  • Doctor Who: Played for Drama in "The Unicorn and the Wasp," a Mystery Episode based on the works of Agatha Christie (who appears as a character). The Tenth Doctor and Donna show up at the mansion of the Eddisons, a wealthy British family, where murders begin occurring in rapid succession. Donna immediately points out the incredibly slim odds of stumbling on a murder mystery while Agatha Christie herself is around, and the Doctor agrees. He eventually determines that Lady Eddison was impregnated by a Vespiform—a gigantic wasp-like alien—in human form decades ago; the Vespiform gave her a psychically-empowered necklace as a gift before drowning. Lady Eddison recalls that she was recently wearing the necklace while reading one of Christie's novels; that same evening, the human-Vespiform hybrid (Reverend Golightly, a local priest) awakened to his alien heritage while dealing with some local vandals. Since Lady Eddison and Golightly were bonded at that precise moment, the reverend now believes that life should resemble a murder mystery novel, and began to act accordingly.
  • Father Ted: Father Dougal apparently needs to keep a chart explaining what's real and what isn't. The "fictional" column includes "Magnum, P.I." and "non-Catholic gods". Ironically, despite being a priest, he's skeptical about the existence of God.
  • On The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Will gets into a fight with a drunk guy dressed like Nicky's favorite TV character. Nicky naturally refuses to accept this was just a guy in a suit and Ashley warns Will of telling him the truth. Downplayed in that Will thought Shaft was based on a real story.
    Ashley: Didn't you ever have a huge hero when you grew up?
    Will: Yeah. Shaft!
    Ashley: Okay, so do you remember how you felt when you found out Shaft wasn't real?
    Will: (staring in confusion) Wh..what are you talking about? Shaft, that was a real guy!
  • Joey of Friends had to deal with a fan (played by Brooke Shields) who thought he was actually Dr. Drake Ramoray, the character he played on Days of Our Lives. In an earlier episode his photograph is used for a public health poster about STDs which leads to all of Manhattan assuming he has one.
  • In Frontline, after Mike insults the Greek community live on air, Jan's approach to damage control is to have him interview Con the Fruiterer. Brian has to explain to her that Con isn't Greek, he's a sketch comedy character played by Mark Mitchell. "Oh, so that's the joke!"
  • A recurring theme on The Grinder is everything Dean knows about the law comes from the writers of his TV legal drama. He thus doesn't grasp how complex it really is and that in real life, some of his antics won't work.
    • Dean is prone to doing overly dramatic bits like sweeping items off a desk or yelling in court, not realizing how weird that looks.
    • Dean is convinced lawyer Claire's disdain hides her attraction and they're engaging in a Will They or Won't They? banter. That she honestly isn't attracted to him never occurs to him.
  • In The IT Crowd, Douglas Reynholm believes that Sherlock Holmes was a real person. And that the Elephant Man was fictional.
  • Misfits has a character whose "superpower" is that he believes himself to be in a Grand Theft Auto pastiche. Sequences from his vision show that he imagines everyone around him to be characters in the game, believing Simon to be his current mission's endboss and Kelly to be his traitorous ex-girlfriend. Later appearances have him aware of what's happened and actively trying to keep his mind planted in reality.
  • NCIS has an episode where a serial killer started targeting people that McGee had featured as characters in his book because he was convinced that the book was real and that the individuals in question were plotting to kill Agent McGee's fictional counterpart.
    • A Season 14 episode had a guy who killed three people by freezing them with liquid nitrogen. He was honestly convinced that he managed to find out how to keep people cryogenetically frozen and that he could unthaw his "test subjects" with no ill effects.
    Killer: Cancer patients. I could put them into a state of hibernation. And when science has cured cancer, my test subjects can live healthy, productive, lives.
    Gibbs: They're not test subjects! A couple of homeless guys, and you froze them while they were still alive!
    Killer: I had to. If you wait until they're dead, you can never bring them back.
  • Night Court:
    • An elderly lady couldn't tell TV wasn't real anymore, and brought a grenade to the court to try to free a guy in jail who was a character in a Soap Opera.
    • Another episode had a friend of Buddy's, whose problem wasn't so much that he couldn't tell fiction from reality, but that the concept of fiction, lies, opinions or anything other than true, objective reality was alien to him, and he was rendered essentially catatonic due to his inability to tell what was actually real, since both sides of every argument seemed equally valid to him.
  • In Once Upon a Time, Emma first thinks this about Henry with his book, before she finds out the events it tells really are true.
  • In the Star Trek: Voyager episode "Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy", some aliens perform some sort of hack on the Doctor's program to try and steal information, only to accidentally intercept several of his (comically self-indulgent) idle daydreams and sexual fantasies. Several hilarious misunderstandings ensue before one of them finally catches on.
  • The Twilight Zone (1959):
    • In "Execution", the temporally displaced Joe Caswell mistakes a scene from a TV Western for reality. When the TV cowboy pulls his gun, Caswell shoots the television.
    • In "Once Upon a Time", the likewise temporally displaced Woodrow Mulligan sees a man on television, which he mistakes for a window, while in Jack's Fix-It Shop. Believing that the man is talking to him when he warns another character that someone can't be trusted, he becomes concerned that the repairman is up to something. Rollo sets him straight, though Mulligan still does not understand what television is.
    • Discussed in "What's in the Box". Dr. Saltman believes that Joe Britt seeing himself kill his wife Phyllis on television is a delusion caused by an inability to distinguish between TV and his own life.
  • In the first season of Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place, there was a Running Gag of a restaurant patron with a Crazy Memory, who would tell stories about his past, all of which were plots of movies.

  • Flight of the Conchords: The Prime Minister of New Zealand has trouble distinguishing fiction from reality. When he sees two people dressed as Elton John at a party, he believes that it's a glitch in The Matrix.
  • In "Foxy's Tale", a fan song for Five Nights At Freddys, Foxy the Pirate Fox, an animatronic for entertaining kids designed after a pirate, suffers from a delusional belief that he really used to be a pirate in the past. This belief slowly drove him mad, causing him to attack someone (possibly referring to the Bite of 87).
  • Paramore’s “Brick by Boring Brick”: A little girl is in a fairytale world that turns creepy and falls into a grave when she tries to escape. This is made clear in the lyrics “Keep your feet on the ground when your head’s in the clouds” and “You built up a world of magic because your real life is tragic”. In other words, it’s okay to pretend but don’t get carried away.

    Puppet Shows 

    Tabletop Games 
  • This is an occupational hazard of low Clarity in Changeling: The Lost. You just escaped from a World Gone Mad where literally anything was possible because of the lack of proper reality and everything really was out to get you, so if you can't center yourself well enough, even when you're back in stable reality you start believing that anything you see or hear is real and directly applicable to yourself.
  • This is the definition of Unmada in Genius: The Transgression. A Genius's Wonders by definition work on some sort of fake science; anything works, and contradictory theories can produce equally viable Wonders. Most Inspired are aware that that normal science is the real deal and that they're doing Magic Powered Pseudo Science, but Unmada have forgotten this and believe that whatever crackpot theories that they've cooked up are how the world really works, while everyone else is wrong. Unmada also exude an 'Unmada Field' that subtly edits reality to emphasize their personal worldview and de-emphasize the real world. So if an Unmada believes the Earth is flat, then you might not be able to detect the Earth's curvature around their house. The Lemurian faction is composed of Unmada who have made rough agreements (though no two Unmada's worldviews will completely match) as to how they think the world went wrong:
    • The Atomists think people made a mistake when they abandoned the idea that technology could solve all the world's problems, with the name coming from people realizing that nuclear power wasn't perfect and caused its own problems just like all other energy sources.
    • The Etherites think the world's big mistake was in disproving certain popular theories (which ones depend on the Etherite), with the Lumiferous Ether (the source of their name) being a common one.
    • Mechanists think that the Big Mistake was in believing in chaos, chance, and free will.
    • Phenomenologists think that Reality went wrong by existing; to Phenomenologists, reality should be something that individuals decide for themselves. They tend to reject their own reality whenever they feel like it, which makes them the closest to the vanilla trope as to them, there's no such thing as fiction, just realities you like and realities too inconvenient to believe in.
    • Oracles believe that Reality became wrong when it let them be wrong; moral fundementalists to a tee, they think that whatever new fact/philosophy replaced the one they happened to believe in (some of them are still pissed that Copernicus proved the Earth orbited the sun, that Aristotle's theories replaced Plato's, or that Taoist alchemy was wrong about mercury) is false by definition.

  • This is one interpretation of the end of Pagliacci, when Canio, an actor in a play about a man finding out his wife is having an affair, confronts his actual real-life wife, who coincidentally is also having an affair. After breaking down and stabbing her (and her secret lover) to death on stage, he remarks "The comedy is finished!", implying that he is now unable to tell theatre from reality, and believes that the murder was the culmination of the play which he was performing.

    Video Games 
  • Omega in Final Fantasy XIV is said to collect all available knowledge, but is unaware of the distinction between fact and fiction. This is irrelevant to it, since it has the power to shape life into being by manipulating aether. As long as it is logical, it's real to Omega.
  • Among the random civilians you meet in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is a homeless man who thinks he's a superhero named Quantum Man, he brags of his "abilities" and claims among other things that your punches are mere mosquito bites to him.
  • Ichiban Kasuga of Yakuza: Like a Dragon is such a big fan of Dragon Quest that he visualizes himself as a Dragon Quest hero, and all the enemies he fights throughout the game are various RPG inspired beings with special attacks and status buffs. It's Played for Laughs and everyone else thinks Ichiban's a weirdo for looking at the world like this, but his friends at least are willing to humor him. Perhaps best exemplified by this exchange when Mabuchi activates his Crimson Aura during a boss battle:
    Adachi: Ooo, Mabuchi's gettin' serious now.
    Kasuga: Yeah, I think he's in a bad mood. Is that literally fire coming out of him?
    Adachi: That's your gamer brain talkin' again, but fire or not-oh, he's angry as hell!

    Visual Novels 
  • Red from Nameless - The One Thing You Must Recall - is a doll that has been turned human designed to be an action hero. As such, he treats life like he's the main hero in a Sentai show and the rest of his friends are fellow Sentai.
  • Takuji from Wonderful Everyday suffers from 'delusions'. It's usually obvious to the player when one is occurring, but he seriously believes a lot of what is told to him during these. Many of these delusions are H-scenes during his chapter, because of the kind of person he is...

    Web Animation 
  • FreedomToons: In "Gun Control with Piers and Cenk", Dr. Mac calls on Piers Morgan and Cenk Uygur to help him name several firearms that they want banned. They list a bunch of fictional guns from games such as Halo and Call of Duty: World at War.

  • Igor from Dork Tower has reached a point where his memory can no longer distinguish between events that happened in real life and those that happened in games.
  • Mark from Weregeek has such a powerful imagination that unless told something isn't real he will treat it like it is. This becomes apparent when It's found out the whole hunter/ geek conflict was just a Larp, and all the shadowy monsters were just people in cheap masks that from Mark's and the readers P.O.V looked totally real. When Joel hears this ( and that Mark apparently doesn't even remember their character creation process), he tells Mark to get psychological help, because there's no way he can adequately function in life, before realizing that Mark was faking at least some of it to mess with Joel in revenge for Joel dumping him into games before without telling him.

    Web Original 
  • In The Angry Joe Show, Joe plays Skyrim long enough that he thinks he's a Magic Knight, and goes to slay Corporate Commander with his armor and sword, but just has a foil helmet and a broom. Commander just calls security.
  • Not Always Right:
    • In this story, a woman in a Team Edward t-shirt accosts a librarian for wearing a "Save the Wolves" shirt for an animal charity event, since it "must" mean she's on Team Jacob. That's stupid, but not overly so. Then she's remonstrated with by another librarian wearing "animal eye" contact lenses, and concludes that the library doesn't just employ werewolf fans, but actual werewolves.
    • A tourist calls a store and demands to meet Walter White so he can buy meth. When the employee tells the tourist Walter is not real but a fictional character, the tourist refuses to believe him. The manager ends up giving the tourist a fake address to meet Walter — a police station.
    • This teenager thinks Wuxia TV shows are real, and if an actual martial arts school is telling him otherwise, that either means they're keeping the truth from outsiders or the secret manual has been lost again.

    Western Animation 
  • Arthur:
    • When Mary Moo Cow visits Elwood City, D.W. fantasizes that they will become best friends and she will live with Mary Moo Cow during the summer.
    • In "Attack of the Turbo Tibbles", the Tibble Twins become very obsessed with a cartoon called Terrific Turbo-Trooper Toy T-Bot Team. It gets to the point that they constantly pretend to be the main characters, dressing up as them and sometimes attempting to detach their heads from their bodies like the characters do on the show. The main lesson of the episode is that you can't do everything a cartoon character does since they aren't real.
  • A big part of why Bojack Horseman is so dysfunctional is because he thinks real life is like the sitcoms he used to watch as a kid and the one he starred in. He admits in "Free Churro" that everything he learned about being a good person he learned from watching television since his own parents were emotionally abusive and neglectful.
  • Darkwing Duck: In "Star-Crossed Circuits", D-2000's ability to distinguish between real life and the storyline of the soap opera Gosalyn and Honker showed her gets shaky after she gets showered with cola.
  • DuckTales (1987): Justified in the episode "Where No Duck Has Gone Before." Scrooge's nephews visit the set of a science-fiction TV show that Gyro has just finished "improving the special effects" for. Only Launchpad, who happened to be looking out a window and saw the Earth receding in the distance, realizes that they're on a functioning spaceship facing real aliens.
    Gyro: Well, you said to make it as realistic as possible, so I did.
  • DuckTales (2017): In the episode "Terror of the Terra-firmians!", after Launchpad McQuack watches a horror movie about mole monsters, he spends the entire episode thinking that the film's plot is true and fearing that one of his friends is a mole monster in disguise.
  • Family Guy:
    • When Peter crashes his car into the Quahog cable ground station, shutting down all TV, he goes a little crazy and straps a cardboard TV shaped box to himself to look at the world through. He then starts to think that everything he's seeing is a TV show.
    • Stewie decides to run away from home to England in order to live on Jolly Farm Revue, not realizing until he gets there that it's just a TV show. Justified, since evil genius or not he's still just a baby.
    • Mayor Adam West sends Quahog's police force to save fictional Joan Wilder's sister from Romancing the Stone.
    • In "Road to Rupert", when Peter loses his driver's license and can’t go to the Drunken Clam, he watches Cheers and tries to attack Norm (destroying the TV) after he "steals" his punchlines.
      Peter: He was talking to me, Norm. Quit stealing my punch lines, you fat drunk!
    • In "Road to the North Pole", Stewie has Brian take him to the North Pole so that he can kill Santa. Brian, who eventually gets sick of the lengths Stewie takes, tells Stewie that Santa doesn't exist. Stewie retorts by asking Brian if he thinks that Elmo, Curious George, and SpongeBob SquarePants don't exist either.
  • In one episode, Johnny Bravo gets set up with some VR equipment advertised to be so good the user won't be able to tell the game from reality. Cue Johnny going on a rampage through town as he plays the game. Eventually the VR game batteries run out... only for Pops to charge them up with jumper cables as the madness is getting pretty amusing.
  • The Kim Possible episode "The Fearless Ferret" has both actors who played the hero and a villain, believing the show they used to act in was for real.
  • Little Bear:
    • In "Lucy's Okay," when Emily, Little Bear and friends are all pretending that Emily's doll Lucy is dead, Duck spends the episode genuinely in tears, then starts bawling hysterically at Lucy's play-funeral. Afterwards, the others admit that they almost forgot they were pretending and felt sad too.
    • In "The Blueberry Picnic," the characters perform a play similar to Three Billy Goats Gruff, where Hen, Duck, Cat and Emily are each threatened by a troll (played by Little Bear) when they cross his bridge. In the audience, No-Feet worries each time one of his friends steps onto the bridge, but Owl reassures him that it's only a play... only to panic himself when Emily's turn comes.
  • In one episode of My Life as a Teenage Robot, Jenny gets hardware installed that lets her dream while she charges. The trouble happens when the system goes haywire, causing her to see the waking world around her as if she was still dreaming—she even goes as far as attacking her mother, who she sees as a diabolical Medusa figure.
  • The Owl House: In the Owl Pellets short "Art Lessons with Luz", Hooty thinks Luz's drawing of him is a rival house demon invading his territory and rips it to shreds. Afterwards, he thinks Luz's life-sized drawings of herself and King are the real deal and talks to them for hours on end without any reply. He usually won't make this mistake if he actually sees the art of him being made, such as when Lilith made an ice sculpture of him in "Escaping Expulsion" and he was impressed.
  • The Powerpuff Girls (1998): “Neighbor Hood” has Bubbles being scammed into sending money to a Mr. Rogers-esque TV show. She later learns that Daydream Lane is just a set after several reports of bank robbings cause suspicion, but the worst part is the actors are escaped convicts in costumes. Heck, Maid Mary isn’t even a woman, just a fat guy in a dress.
    • Later, the ever-naive Mayor claims that “television is your friend”, culminating in the Powerpuff Girls to recite a Madness Mantra of “all hail the great and all-knowing television”.
  • The Simpsons:
    • "Mayored to the Mob" sees the family at a sci-fi convention when a fight breaks out. Homer attempts to escape by going inside a prop that is part of the convention.
      Homer: Oh, how was I supposed to know it's not a real spaceship?
    • This is the major conflict of "Homer Goes to College"; Homer's main experience with college is what he's seen in movies, leading to him believing that College Is "High School, Part 2" where you take part in Wacky Fratboy Hijinks and teach mean old Dean Bitterman a lesson. As it turns out, he's completely wrong; the episode ends up being about a mostly realistic college with a likable and competent Dean and a student body that mostly just wants to be left alone to their studies. Homer's attempts to instigate Slobs Versus Snobs conflicts or elaborate pranks end up getting people expelled instead.
    • Even more directly in "The Front," when he and Marge get ready for their high school reunion and he looks forward to seeing "Potsie, Ralph Malph, the Fonz."
      Marge: Homer, that was Happy Days.
      Homer: No, they weren’t all happy days. Like the time Pinky Tuscadero crashed her motorcycle. Or the night I lost all my money to those card sharks and my dad Tom Bosley had to get it back.
    • In "Homie the Clown", Homer is playing the part of Krusty when the Krusty Burglar steals a burger. Homer, who doesn't know it's all an act, promptly beats the actor half to death. This traumatizes the children.
    • In "Homer Badman", after being interviewed by exploitative trash talk show Rock Bottom, he insists on meeting the previous subject Sasquatch, citing how he "likes his style". This causes the host to stare blankly at him while the stage manager promptly runs out of the room.
    • In "$pringfield", Lisa informs Homer about a bad dream she had about The Boogeyman. This prompts him to freak out, wake up Bart to tell him about its "presence" in the house (and freaking him out, too), and gather the children behind his and Marge's mattress as a barrier with a loaded shotgun. Bonus points for both Lisa herself admitting that it was absurd before telling him and there already being a large gunshot hole in the door before Marge returned home.
    • Parodied in "Don't Fear the Roofer", where Homer is sent into electro-convulsion therapy because someone he knows is mistaken as being an Imaginary Friend. Dr. Hibbert treats Homer as delusional for mistaking any fictional person for a real one, even if it's far from obvious.
      (Dr. Hibbert holds up photos of Bart, Itchy & Scratchy, and Robin Hood)
      Homer: Real. Not real. Real.
      Dr. Hibbert: Oh, sorry, Homer, but recent historical evidence indicates that Robin Hood did not actually exist.
      Homer: (yells in pain from electroshock) Fascinating. (yells again)
    • In "Cape Feare" When the family tries to figure out who's threating Bart, Abe Simpson suggests that they should hire "Matlock", because he believes that Matlock is a real person
      Abe: I say we call Matlock. He'll find the culprit. It's probably that evil Gavin MacLeod or George "Goober" Lindsey.
      Bart: Grandpa, Matlock's not real.
      Abe: Neither are my teeth, but I can still eat corn on the cob if someone cut it off and smushes it into a fine paste. Now that's good eating.
    • In "Selma's Choice" Marge attempts to recall a fond memory of her recently deceased Great Aunt Gladys, but the only image that comes to mind is a scene from the movie: "The Prince of Tides" where the characters are replaced by Aunt Gladys, Patty, Selma and herself. A fact that she quickly realizes.
      Marge: Oh, wait, that was Prince of Tides.
    • In "E Pluribus Wiggum" Lenny believes that Madonna was literally married to "Juan Peron".
      Carl: I could really go for some kind of military dictator, like, uh, Juan Peron. When he disappeared you, you stayed disappeared!
      Lenny: Plus, his wife was Madonna!
  • Totally Spies!: One episode involved a Loony Fan who kidnapped the star of a soap opera she was watching in an attempt to "save" him.


Video Example(s):


Crazy "Sarah Connor" Guy

When a taxi driver drops off Beef and Moon at a motel, the driver warns them about a crazy guy who thinks he's Sarah Connor from the Terminator and warns them to avoid him. Unfortunately, the crazy guy spots them and follows them and threatens to kills them because he thinks they're Terminators.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (6 votes)

Example of:

Main / StalkerWithoutACrush

Media sources: