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Delusion Conclusion

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"The events of this game are absolutely, one-hundred percent canonical, unless you didn't like them. In that case it was all a dream."

So, you've produced a great story with an amazing set of protagonists and memorable villains. The setting was pretty realistic, but you thought you'd spice up the narrative or add a new level of depth with some unexplained magic, cartoony antics (even if your work is itself a cartoon), sci-fi tech, spooky backdrop, or even a sudden genre shift.

As a whole, your work was well-received, and that means fan theories will start popping up about your work. However, you might notice that a few theories have one thing in common: they speculate that it was All Just a Dream, a Dying Dream, that the protagonist(s) were Dead All Along, or that everything we saw was secretly Through the Eyes of Madness. Thus, a good chunk of the plot — or maybe the entire plot — didn't actually happen.

The rule of Delusion Conclusion states that audiences will try to Hand Wave any supernatural or contradictory activity in an otherwise realistic setting by claiming said activity was exaggerated, or a hallucination experienced by the main character or narrator, even though the author of the work had no intention of that at all. These theories are often backed up by unintended coincidences, such as a small, concentrated setpiece with few or no bystanders, bystanders not reacting in a proper manner if at all, whether or not this was intentional or an oversight, the author accidentally forgetting a piece of their own story's lore and being misinterpreted as intentional, or Deus Ex Machinas and other abrupt developments that suspiciously appear a little too convenient for the protagonist even if the work never implies those events to be Too Good To Be True. Delusion Conclusions are also a common means of applying Fanon Discontinuity to any series installment, plot development, or Fan-Disliked Explanation that fans disagree with, as the above quote mentions.

Though rarely damaging to the work at all, the Delusion Conclusion is sometimes a sign that an author has left too much information out, unintentionally created an Ambiguous Situation by not properly defining the setting, or inspired a little too much doubt in the main character's sanity (deliberately or otherwise). The story setting doesn't have to be modern and/or cartoonish for this to take place, although it most commonly pops up here.

Compare with Unreliable Narrator where any ambiguity or lack of information is intentional and certain parts of the story are generally acknowledged to be true. Contrast with Killed Off for Real, where the author leaves no doubt about a character's mortal state, and both All Just a Dream and That Was Not a Dream where the setting actually is (or isn't) an illusion and is absolutely intentionally painted that way, in the end at least. Compare Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane where a story suggests that something supernatural might have happened, but leaves the door open to realistic interpretations. When the villain gaslights the hero into thinking this is the case, see Cuckoo Nest. When the characters pretend someone else is dreaming, see Dream Deception.

See Opening a Can of Clones for when this skeptical outlook becomes so prevalent among sections of the fanbase that they stop taking anything which happens in the story seriously, and thereby lose interest in the work altogether.

A Sub-Trope of Epileptic Trees.


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    Anime and Manga 
  • 5 Centimeters per Second: Between the Alien Sky-featuring, obviously otherworldly dreams with an Akari-lookalike Takaki has in his teenage years, the Contrived Coincidence of Akari and Takaki just happening to go through the exact same railway crossing at the same time in the neighborhood they used to play in as children, the ending Fully Automatic Clip Show having "One More Time, One More Chance" playing over it with the lyrics talking about looking for someone that the singer knows won't actually be there, as well as the Akari that Takaki encounters at the end simply walking away from the railway crossing without waiting to offer so much as a word of acknowledgement to the old friend/former love that he was, even after having had her memory of him jogged not long ago, a number of fans have come to the conclusion that there was no Akari there at all, merely an Identical Stranger or hallucination. The manga adaptation's addition of a few panels of an illusory young Akari waving goodbye as he's walking away immediately afterwards, something that simply couldn't happen in reality, does absolutely nothing to deny this.
  • Adolescence of Utena is one of the more credible cases of this, as even if the film is 100% real, it's still mostly running on dream-logic and the Rule of Symbolism. The most common variant is that it's actually a Stealth Sequel to the original series, taking place inside Utena's head, which explains a lot of the film's changes—certain characters become far more or less sympathetic in proportion to how much Utena liked them, for instance.
  • A particularly persistent theory of Captain Tsubasa is that the main character fell off the moving truck in the first episode and has been in a coma since. Some people even claim that the "real" ending of the anime has him waking up and finding he has no legs.
  • There's a theory based on Crayon Shin-chan which explains how the titular character doesn't seem to age, even after two decades of publication: that Shin-chan was actually based on a dead child who died at age 5 in a car accident, and the entire series is actually Shin-chan's mother Misae reminiscing of the happy times she could have with her deceased child, via crayon drawings (hence the title).
  • An early Nichijou episode sees Yuuko, Mio, and Mai stuck on a broken elevator and undergoing Heroic BSoD. Although later episodes make it clear that they got out eventually, we never actually see how. This resulted in fans speculating that subsequent episodes were actually the Dying Dream of one of the trio stuck on the elevator.
  • Some fans of Pokémon: The Series speculate that Ash Ketchum has been in a coma ever since Pikachu electrocuted him in the first episode (or struck by lightning at the end of the same episode), and that every adventure he's experienced since then was All Just a Dream — as "evidenced" by the fact that Ash has never been seen to age in the years since then.
  • The Yusei Coma Theory does this for the latter half of Yu-Gi-Oh! 5Ds. It mostly doubles as a critique of that part of the series, noting things like the jettisoning of occult elements, every character except Yusei's closest friends Jack and Crow being Demoted to Extra, the class struggle being completely resolved, and Yusei's transformation into a flawless, universally-beloved Invincible Hero who is the only character allowed to be successful, as both elements of Seasonal Rot and things that make perfect sense from the perspective of Yusei's personal fantasy.

    Comic Books 
  • V for Vendetta:
    • Though not widely accepted, one theory suggests that the events of the book are just the revenge fantasies of the concentration camp inmate who becomes V.
    • Another theory holds that the events of the series are real, but V is imaginary - his background either an elaborate fiction or borrowed from someone else. In other words, Evey was V all along and her interactions with "V" were just hallucinations keeping her from noticing her own disassociative identity as he gradually molded her into a replacement.

    Comic Strips 
  • Some readers of Calvin and Hobbes theorize the main character may be suffering from schizophrenia or a related mental illness, seeing as Hobbes appears as real for him, but everyone else sees him as a stuffed tiger - plus he has quite the imagination. It's never made clear if Hobbes is real or simply Calvin's fantasy, since some aspects are difficult to explain, while series author Bill Watterson has famously refused to clarify one way or another- the closest he's come to doing was in the 20th Anniversary book, where he said that Hobbes is neither a doll that magically comes to life when Calvin is around nor strictly a product of Calvin's overactive imagination... which does nothing to disprove that he’s a delusion.
  • Garfield
    • In one arc, the title cat kept snapping back and forth between hallucinations where the house had been abandoned and hallucinations that Jon had come back with food only to switch back to the "abandoned" one. While the entire thing was All Just a Dream, it's since spawned a popular theory that every strip since then is Garfield's Dying Dream as he slowly starves to death.
    • It's been speculated that Garfield isn't real and Jon is hallucinating. This theory has been championed by Garfield Minus Garfield, a webcomic featuring every character except Jon being removed from the original strips, creating a parallel universe in which Jon is a delusional schizophrenic talking to people only he can see.

    Fan Works 
  • In Somewhere Only We Know, the reality of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic exists only in the imagination of Dash, an elderly mare abused by her human owners. Rarity is a fancy carriage horse forced to wear a painful bearing rein and Applejack is an overworked cart horse. The fates of Pinkie, Fluttershy and Twilight are unknown, although Pinkie's fate is implied to be less bad, since she was sold to a family with children.
  • Flawed Crystals for the most part is an Alternate Continuity where the Crystal Gems succeed in shattering the Diamonds but end up corrupted themselves. All the characters are in character, though changes are made due to it being a Dark Fic. The final dungeon is built on the premise that the final story arc in Steven Universe and its canon ending is a delusional fantasy Steven made up after having a psychotic break due to being unable to cope with his mother shattering Pink Diamond and him deciding he wants everyone to get along even if it means that the Diamond's wrongs and their victim's grievances are sweeped under the carpet.

    Films — Animation 
  • Turning Red: Several viewers upon seeing the surreal presentation of the incident at the Daisy Mart, thought that it must be a nightmare Mei is having and were only convinced otherwise after Mei is shown at home reacting to it as an actual event and not as a dream.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • 28 Days Later canonically ends with Jim surviving long enough to be rescued from post-apocalyptic Britain along with Selena and Hannah; however, the presence of a deleted ending in which Jim dies from the gunshot wound inflicted in the finale has led some viewers to theorize that the happy canonical ending is just a Dying Dream or perhaps even an afterlife.
  • Given the film's notoriously trippy ending, it's not surprising that some viewers have interpreted the final act of 2001: A Space Odyssey as some kind of delusion experienced by David Bowman; some even claim that it's actually due to Bowman running out of oxygen and hallucinating as he slowly dies of asphyxiation in space. Both the novel and the film sequel eventually explain that David has actually transcended physical existence to become the godlike Star Child, though these are not universally accepted.
  • Alien: While admittedly a pretty fringe theory, there is a section of the fanbase who were so dissatisfied with the later sequels that they would prefer to think that these were just nightmares Ripley had while in hypersleep. Depending on how much of a "purist" we're talking about, even Aliens might get the boot.
  • The ending of A.I.: Artificial Intelligence proved a point of contention for some audiences, especially given the "aliens" that arrive to rescue David from the frozen ocean in the Distant Finale. As such, some viewers have interpreted this as some kind of Dying Dream David experienced as his batteries finally ran down; others go oven further by suggesting that David was never rescued by Joe after his first plunge into the ocean, and instead began breaking down the moment he hit salt water - resulting in another Dying Dream.
  • The Blair Witch Project never actually shows a witch or supernatural event blatantly happening, leaving the film just that little bit open. All that's confirmed is that Heather, Josh and Mike disappeared in the woods. That has led to some fans theorising that the forest isn't actually an Eldritch Location and the students simply got lost and convinced themselves they were being hunted by the Blair Witch. (Or, as Film Theory proposed, Josh and Mike murdered Heather, then fled the scene.) An early draft of the screenplay did have the whole thing turn out to be a prank by the locals.
  • A very common interpretation of the short film "Castello Cavalcanti" is that main character Jed Cavalcanti died after crashing his car into the town square and that he's in an Afterlife Antechamber taking on the form of his ancestral town, the phone call he makes to his wife and brother-in-law is a final goodbye to them, and that the bus out of town is going to take him to the real afterlife. One of the most commonly-cited pieces of evidence to back this theory up is that when Jed realizes he's in his ancestral town, he refers to the townspeople as being his ancestors, rather than his relatives as would be the normal response.
  • The Dark Knight Rises ends with Alfred witnessing Bruce in a happy relationship with Selena Kyle despite having last been seen performing a Heroic Sacrifice to save Gotham from a nuclear bomb; given that Alfred had previously admitted that he'd always hoped that Bruce could give up on being Batman so he could live a life of his own - and that this scene is almost identical to the Imagine Spot that accompanied Alfred's explanation - some fans interpreted the scene as a hallucination or a wishful dream.
  • The Descent:
    • The sudden introduction of cave-dwelling monsters has resulted in some viewers theorizing that Sarah suffered a psychotic break from the stress of being trapped underground and is actually killing her friends. The evidence consists of the trauma Sarah suffered in the car crash that killed her husband and daughter, and the fact that she is seen taking pills before leaving the cabin. Admittedly, Sarah does suffer Sanity Slippage, Mercy Kills Beth, and later cripples Juno so she can't escape, but her friends also encounter the Crawlers long before she rejoins them, so it's a bit of a stretch. The sequel thoroughly Josses this idea, but it follows on from the ending of the American cut of the film, in which the final twist revealing that Sarah's escape was All Just a Dream, setting up a Bolivian Army Ending, is excised. Fans of the film who regard the American ending as non-canon usually feel the same about its sequel for following on from such.
    • Other viewers go even further and speculate that Sarah was left comatose and fatally wounded in the car crash at the start of the film, and the rest of the story is just a Dying Dream that only ends when she finally accepts her fate — as "symbolized" by her calmly sitting down with a hallucination of her daughter and waiting for the Crawlers to find her. Again, the sequel Josses this, but for the reasons listed above, not all fans accept it as canon.
  • Some theorists believe that the team's inexplicable turn of bad fortune in Ghostbusters II is either a Dying Dream or an actual journey through purgatory: the theory claims that crossing the streams in the ending of the first movie ended up killing the Ghostbusters, forcing them into hellish shared mental experience/afterlife in which they have to go through the same humiliating struggle for credibility they experienced in the first movie. Depending on the theorist, the finale — in which Viggo the Carpathian's portrait is replaced by a painting of the Ghostbusters portrayed as saints — is either their escape from purgatory or the happy conclusion to the dream.
  • Glorious: Although the movie leans towards the Cosmic Horror Story aspects being true on their face, it's possible to interpret it as being Through the Eyes of Madness. Wes is a deranged Serial Killer suffering a massive hangover after killing his latest victim and may be psychotic. Only he and one other person (Gary) interact with Ghatanothoa. Wes and Ghatanothoa share many similarities, both being creatures of pure destruction with complex relationships with their fathers. Ghat is also polite, witty, and kind of a cool dude who just needs to be "satisfied"—presumably this is how Wes views himself. At the end, Wes saves the universe by ripping out his own liver and the bathroom returns to normal. No Gary guts or blood on the walls (it's unclear if Gary even exists, as the camera deliberately avoids showing whether his vehicle is still in the parking lot). As he lays dying, Wes tries to delude himself into thinking he's a hero, before his inner voice reminds him that there truly is no place in the world for him.
  • One popular theory about Grease is that it's Sandy's dying dream as she drowns on the beach, explaining a few oddities, like Danny claiming he saved her life in "Summer Nights". The ending with the flying car, then, is where she finally starts to suffer from pre-death Sanity Slippage. Olivia Newton-John thought this theory was quite amusing, claiming it made the film into "the first Zombie musical".
  • Owing to the contentious reputation of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, a common theory is that the whole thing is Indy's Dying Dream after the infamous 'nuking the fridge' scene.
  • Due to Joker not attempting to differentiate between Arthur's imagination and reality (such as The Reveal that his relationship with his neighbor Sophie was all in his head), some viewers have interpreted many of the later scenes (or even the entire movie) as similarly being a fantasy he dreamed up where nearly everyone that wronged him is dead and he finally gets the cheering audience he always wanted. It certainly fits in with the Joker's common portrayal of an ambiguous and inconsistent backstory.
  • Ken Park features a subplot in which Shawn is revealed to be having an affair with his girlfriend's mother; given that Shawn is the only one of the four protagonists who isn't being abused or committing abuse in some way, a few viewers wondered if his plot was meant to be imaginary. In his review, Kyle Kalgren was briefly convinced that Shawn's sexual exploits were all just unrealistic teenage fantasies, only to become depressed as he realized that these scenes were meant to be taken at face value.
  • The Matrix is already partly set in a computer-generated dream world; however, following the events of The Matrix Reloaded, some fans began theorizing that the post-apocalyptic real world was also a simulation, given that Neo is somehow able to use his powers outside the Matrix. Despite being jossed by the sequel in which it was explained that this was actually due to Neo's connection to the Source, this didn't prove very popular with audiences, and the theory is still making the rounds.
  • The ending of Minority Report was considered by some viewers to be a little too happy to be realistic, given how well the villain had secured victory up until then; as a result, a popular theory claims that Anderton was never rescued from the Cryo-Prison in the climax and imagined the happy ending while under the Lotus-Eater Machine-like effects of containment. After all, Gideon stating that "all your dreams come true" when you're in cryosleep had to be there for a reason, right?
  • The ending of Miracle Mile: As depicted, the call Harry took was real, and nuclear war does occur. However, it really makes more sense that Harry is just having a nightmare. First, the crazy part starts while he’s oversleeping. After he takes the call, he goes into the diner and the Landa character seems to confirm the call is true because she used to date someone that worked at the RAND Corporation. Right. Later, Harry wheels Julie across Park La Brea in a shopping cart. Harry’s entire ordeal features typical nightmare tropes, particularly when you are really in a hurry to get somewhere yet can’t even seem to leave. But beyond that, way too much happens within the hour they have. Wilson’s side story could not have occurred in the 15 or so minutes it does, which includes a SWAT team deployment. That Wilson even shows up again in Harry’s story is unlikely, and it makes very little sense that Harry and Julie take the time to go see what’s going on with Wilson’s cop car crashing into the building. Further, no matter how smart and connected Landa is, there’s no way all the stuff on the top of the skyscraper could have been collected in the time shown.
  • The Muppet Movie: Tough Pigs has done this twice. First with a spoof fan theory in their Buzz Pigs Clickbait Gag revamp for April Fools' Day 2015, which proposes that Kermit doesn't exist and Fozzie is hallucinating him. Then in 2019 "Crazy Fan Theory: The Muppets Die at the End of The Muppet Movie" suggests they were all killed by the falling sets, and the final rainbow is them "going into the light", then takes it further by suggesting they all died earlier in the film, before they even met.
  • The fantastical elements of Pan's Labyrinth are sometimes interpreted as Ofelia's attempts to escape the brutality of Francoist Spain by retreating into her imagination, especially since Captain Vidal can't see the Faun when he finally catches up with her in the finale. It's also not uncommon for Ofelia's happy ending to be reinterpreted as a Dying Dream - even by viewers who take the fantasy aspects at face value. However, Word of God is that the supernatural elements are real and the Faun was just Invisible to Normals.
  • Return to Oz actually begins with Dorothy being packed off to a mental hospital for primitive electroshock therapy, so it's no surprise that some viewers interpret her adventure across the ruined Land of Oz as being imaginary, as was the case with the original movie.
  • It's not uncommon for some viewers of The Shining to interpret the haunting at the Overlook Hotel as a combination of Danny's imagination and Jack's escalating madness... though this doesn't explain the Shining exhibited by Mr Halloran. The sequel Doctor Sleep completely josses this idea, unambiguously presenting the supernatural as real.
  • Completely inverted in some interpretations of Shutter Island. The finale reveals that US Marshall Teddy Daniels is actually a mental patient by the name of Andrew Laeddis, and the trail of conspiracy theories he's been following across the island — from the missing patient to the super-soldier experiments conducted at the lighthouse — are all just part of Laeddis' fantasy. However, even though the film ends with Laeddis finally acknowledging the truth, some viewers believe that the conspiracy theory was real and the Laeddis identity was just a delusion forced on Daniels by his psychiatrists.
  • In the climax of Star Trek: Generations, Captain Picard and Doctor Soran both enter the Nexus, a cosmic Lotus-Eater Machine, while the crew of the Enterprise is killed by an exploding star. Picard almost immediately breaks free from his happy illusion, teams up with Captain Kirk, and travels back in time to stop Soran before he could finish his plan. Because of the nature of the Nexus, it's a pretty common theory that Picard rescuing his crew and going off on other merry adventures is just a part of his perfect fantasy world.
  • Titanic:
    • Though not the most popular theory, there are a few who claim Jack Dawson never actually existed and was merely conceived as a coping mechanism by Rose, who was about to be forced upon an Unwanted Spouse by her family. A prominent justification is how Mr. Lovejoy inexplicably stopped pursuing Jack and Rose once they got to the cargo hold, and how (relatively) unconcerned Rose's family seemed to be with Jack's social rank as a penniless artist, even inviting him to dinner with them. Made Hilarious in Hindsight when near the end of the interview, Lovett tells Rose that there was no "J. Dawson" on the passenger or crew manifests; Word of God claims the name was made up, but by coincidence, there actually was a J. Dawson who died aboard the Titanic.
    • A more extreme version of this theory holds that Rose not only made up Jack Dawson, but that she was never even on the Titanic in the first! The entire 1912 sequence which makes up the majority of the film is told by an Old Rose to Brock Lovett and his crew in the Framing Device, with even Rose's granddaughter initially doubting her claim to be the woman in the picture. Thus, some viewers conclude that Rose Calvert is just a senile 100-year old woman with an overactive imagination and Rose DeWitt-Bukater is a different person who actually died on the ship.
  • Total Recall (1990) actively plays with the idea that Quaid might just be trapped in a Lotus-Eater Machine after he visited Rekall for a fictional holiday to Mars as a secret agent. Halfway through the film, he's approached by a man who tries to convince him of this idea, only for Quaid to reject his offer with a Boom, Headshot!, figuring he's working for the bad guys from his Overly-Nervous Flop Sweat while Quaid was deciding on his choice, something that he probably wouldn't have displayed if he was either communicating with Quaid from outside the simulation or a new character inserted into the simulation for the sole purpose of delivering Quaid the above message. However, there are many elements which have led viewers to conclude that it was really All Just a Dream, including Melina's face and the alien artifacts being visible on the Rekall computers and "blue sky on Mars" mentioned by one of the technicians, and the representative who visits Quaid tells him that if he doesn't snap out of his delusion, "the walls of reality will come crashing down, one minute you'll be the last hope of the Martian resistance, the next you'll be Cohaagen's bosom buddy!", all of which proceed to happen. The film also gets noticeably stranger and more surreal as time goes on, which encourages the "his mind is breaking down" idea. Then there's disagreement on whether Quaid suffered a "schizoid embolism" and was lobotomized at the end, or whether his Rekall vacation worked as intended and he simply woke up at the end.
  • Some viewers believe that the fantastical events of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory are just Charlie Bucket's dream of what it might be like inside Willy Wonka's famous factory. Apparently, the inclusion of magical confectionery was considered too farfetched after spending the first third of the movie on a relatively realistic setting, given that the film did not adapt the original novel's fantastical elements taking place outside the factory, like Prince Pondicherry's chocolate palace. Consequently, Wonka's musical number "Pure Imagination" was believed to be a hidden clue that Charlie — impoverished, depressed and desperate to make a better life for his family — dreamed up his discovery of a golden ticket and everything that followed.
  • The VVitch, despite featuring some pretty blatant magical elements, is largely focused on the collapse of an isolated Puritan family due to pride, tainted crops, religious dogma and family tensions, with the supernatural threat remaining largely unseen until the end — and then only following a pretty vicious case of Sanity Slippage. As such, one theory suggests that the Witch was just a hallucination brought about by eating the fungus-contaminated crops, especially since ergot poisoning is now a widely-accepted explanation for the paranoia that caused the Salem Witch Trials. The director himself has invoked the Death of the Author on the matter, stating that while he personally believes the supernatural elements to be real, a rational explanation is equally valid.
  • Some people who viewed Yesterday (2019) have theorized that half of the entire film was just Jack in a coma after being hit by the bus, and that the 12-second blackout never happened.

  • In the climax of A Clockwork Orange, Alex seemingly kills himself by jumping out of a window. From here, Alex experiences an impressive shift in luck: he not only wakes up in hospital, but his brainwashing is undone, the lodger that had taken his place conveniently arrested due to an incident, his parents allow Alex back home, the government that brainwashed him has lost its chance, and the old men who were torturing him have been arrested. He's even given a well-paying government job and is ultimately inspired to settle down in the final chapter. Because of this miraculous recovery, some readers choose to believe that Alex died in his suicide attempt and that the final two chapters are his Dying Dream where he gets everything he wants including a chance to lead a happy life.
  • Not so surprisingly, there are a few theorists who believe that all the magic and wonder of Harry Potter exists only in the mind of the protagonist, and the story of the Boy-Who-Lived struggling to learn wizardry and defeat Voldemort is actually just the story of an orphan inventing an elaborate fantasy life to escape the abusive household he's been brought up in.
  • In In the Night Kitchen, the narrator says that Mickey really did fall out of his clothes and make a plane out of dough and then help make cake, but many have speculated that it was a dream.
  • When Johnny and the Bomb ended with Kirsty remembering the adventure, some posters on were taken aback by this unambiguous statement that the weird things that happen to Johnny actually happen, having seen the books as Johnny retreating into fantasy due to his parents' Trying Times. Terry Pratchett pointed out that there was always evidence Johnny's adventures had actually happened and added "I can't be having with that pernicious rubbish. 'Window' books, they are called: young Sid has big problems at home, so in his dreams he battles a dragon, and this gives him the strength to deal with the problems — as if imagination and fantasy were some kind of medicines. ... There are natural explanations for a lot of the things that happen in the books, if you are desperate to find them (and people will sometimes go through some serious mental gymnastics to avoid changing their preconceived ideas about the universe)."
  • The author of The Magicians has said that part of the reason he wrote the sequels was to refute all the theorists who were convinced that all the magic in the first book was actually a series of psychotic hallucinations and that Quentin had killed himself at the end. The fact that Quentin genuinely struggled with severe depression only encouraged such theorists.
  • A common reading of Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis is that Gregor Samsa didn't actually transform into a bug, but suffered some kind of psychological break and is convinced he did. This is one of the more convincing ones, since not only was Samsa under immense stress due to a serious work schedule and being forced to act as breadwinner for his parents, but nobody in the story reacts as if anything supernatural is occurring; Gregor's parents never consider, say, selling him to the zoo or letting scientists have a look at him, and are content (if increasingly irritated and impatient) to leave him as the Madwoman in the Attic.
  • The Nitpicker's Guide for Next Generation Trekkers offers this as a theory about Star Trek: The Next Generation, based on a graphics error in the episode "Brothers". During the episode Data takes control of the ship and sets a complicated password to prevent the rest of the crew from regaining control. However, the password that the ship's computer screen displays in response is different from what Data actually says. The book's author suggests that this error might have prevented the crew from ever regaining control of the ship, thus leading to the death of a sick child, at which point Data went insane and imagined the remainder of the series.
  • Since the narrator of The War of the Worlds (1898) says that going insane would be a mercy now that the Martians are almost certainly going to win and exterminate or enslave humanity, and only after then do the Martians all die from a completely unforeshadowed vulnerability to terrestrial bacteria, a theory has arisen that he actually did go mad and the rest of the book is his hallucination of mankind victorious and safe. This theory is so famous that practically every literary critic who discusses the book brings it up as a possibility, often claiming that it’s more plausible than what really happens.
    • By the same author, there is a theory that The Sleeper Awakes is a Dying Dream, and that Graham falls into the ravine in Chapter 1. There’s a bit more evidence for this one, but not much, and it’s purely academic since Graham dies at the end anyway.
  • The Pendragon Adventure: Because of how sudden and contradictory the ending is, many people believe Bobby was put in Lifelight to live out the perfect, normal life he wanted to be able to return to before having to return to Solara, and that as Press originally said, the rest of the cast have to stay where they ended up and rebuild the worlds that Saint Dane destroyed.

    Live-Action TV 
  • American Horror Story: Asylum ends with a flashback to Lana Winters' first visit to Briarcliff in the pilot episode, during which Sister Jude comments that "you like to dream big" and that the two of them won't meet again. Some viewers took this to mean that everything that happened from that point onward — Lana's incarceration at Briarcliff, her encounter with Bloody Face, the Nazi Mad Scientist, the possession of Sister Mary Eunice, the alien abductions and Lana's career as a world-famous journalist - was either her deranged imagination or a work of fiction she wrote about the incident years after the fact. However, subsequent seasons of American Horror Story joss this theory via tie-in elements, such as Lana being a famous journalist and the villains of the season being confirmed as real.
  • At the time of release, some fans floated the theory that the final episode of Breaking Bad all took place in Walter White's head, possibly a Dying Dream as he died of hypothermia in the stolen car at the beginning of the episode. While the episode contains no supernatural elements, some parts seem a bit cartoonish and contrived (a remote-control-operated M60, Badger and Skinny Pete using laser pointers to pose as snipers), and the episode has a Wish-Fulfillment feel about it, as Walter arranges a scheme to financially provide for his family without them knowing he's involved, gets revenge on all those who had wronged him, and heroically rescues Jesse, which makes a jarring contrast with the tragic, bleak tone of the episode "Ozymandias". This theory has largely been discarded since the release of El Camino, a sequel film which picks up exactly where the episode left off.
  • The Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode "Normal Again" infamously implied that the whole series was the result of Buffy hallucinating while in a mental hospital.
  • It's been a running joke in the Doctor Who fandom that dissatisfied fans decide to write off developments they dislike by positing that all events after some point take place only in the Doctor's imagination: For example, that the Sixth Doctor never left the Matrix in "The Ultimate Foe", or the Fourth never left the Matrix in "The Deadly Assassin", or the Second never left the Land of Fiction in "The Mind Robber". Gareth Roberts, noted Season 17 fan, deliberately created another of these points in the last Doctor Who Missing Adventures novel, which is set at the end of Season 17, and apparently ends with the Doctor and Romana leaving the "real" universe with no way to return.
  • A post doing the rounds on social media suggested that Friends "should have" ended with the reveal that Pheobe was actually still living on the streets, and had been watching these people through the window of Central Perk and creating elaborate scenarios where they were friends, but had no idea who they actually were.
  • Game of Thrones:
    • Some fans left disappointed with the way the plot developed post-season 4 have been known to jokingly theorize that the increasingly illogical plot elements seen from this point onward are just delusions: in one case, the scene in "Kill The Boy" where Tyrion is dragged underwater by the Stone Men and then rescued off-screen is the starting point for a theory claiming that the rest of the series was a Dying Dream Tyrion experienced as he slowly drowned.
    • Another popular variation on this theory claims that Arya died in "The Bells"; because her Plot Armor had become a point of irritation to some viewers, the theory holds that one of the many moments in which she somehow survived being incinerated by dragonfire or crushed to death actually ended up killing her. The inexplicable white horse seen carrying her out of the ruins of King's Landing is actually a psychopomp delivering her to the afterlife, further justified by the fact that the horse mysteriously vanishes in the next episode. As such, the final episode of the season is Arya in heaven, being rewarded with a scenario in which her murderer is punished, her family is given everything they wanted, and she gets to live a happy escapist life as an explorer.
  • Despite the overwhelming evidence for the supernatural in The Haunting of Hill House, some viewers suggest that the ghosts and other supernatural activity within the house are just hallucinations after all. However, rather than insisting on a diagnosis of mental illness as Steve does, some propose that the visions were actually brought about by exposure to the black mold infesting the house.
  • After the finale of Killing Eve, many fans theorized that a surprise ninth episode of Season 4 would air the following Sunday, and that Villanelle would not really be dead, given that the following Sunday was Easter, with the false episode even briefly appearing on IMDB before being removed.
  • Legion (2017) actually kicks off with the main character in a mental hospital as a result of his psychic powers being misdiagnosed as schizophrenia, so it's no surprise that some viewers interpret the admittedly rather bizarre events of the show as being a result of David's mental illness. In the first season finale, the Devil with the Yellow Eyes traps David and the main characters inside a psychic recreation of the asylum, deliberately muddling things even further.
  • The Magicians begins with Quentin Coldwater leaving a mental hospital... so some commentators wondered if Quentin's adventures at Brakebills would end with him awakening to find himself still there — especially after he ends up getting plunged into a Lotus-Eater Machine-like dream of the asylum. Ironically, in the original novels, Quentin reflects that Brakebills seems too good to be true and fully expects to wake up and find that his time studying magic was just "a fanboy hallucination," though to his relief he's ultimately proved wrong.
  • It's an interesting coincidence that most of the crazier sci-fi things on Red Dwarf — Backwards universes, shapeshifters, teleporters, time machines, Kryten's new personality — all happened after the crew entered that total immersion video game, "Better Than Life". Since then, their lives had been fun and interesting, with the universe as their sandbox. Did they ever actually leave it? (The fact some of the stuff that happens to them isn't fun doesn't disprove the theory — it's established in the episode that Rimmer's subconcious uses the game to punish him.)
  • This is the crux of the now-infamous Apple Tree Yard theory: with the fourth and final season of Sherlock being highly contested at best, a small group of hardcore fans came to believe that the events within couldn't possibly be real, given that it features such things as Sherlock having a heretofore-unknown sister who turns out to be the ultimate villain. So, using the hallucinatory episode "The Abominable Bride" as a basis, the theory claimed that Watson had been left comatose by a gunshot to the head in the penultimate episode and the events of "The Final Problem" were all just dreams experienced by Watson over the course of his coma. All well and good, up until the theorists began to believe that there was actually a hidden fourth episode in which Watson would wake up, the reality of the situation would be revealed, he and Sherlock would end up in love, and the two would live happily ever after... and through a trail of "evidence" too nonsensical to describe in a single paragraph, they came to believe that this hidden fourth episode was the first episode of the BBC thriller series Apple Tree Yard. Suffice it to say that actually watching this episode debunked the theory quite soundly.
  • Some viewers of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt have theorized that the entire series takes place in Kimmy's imagination, hence all the breaks from reality and all the cartoonish concepts in the show.
  • Some viewers suggest that The X-Files takes place in Mulder's head, providing him a fantasy world in which the conspiracies he believes in are real and he always turns out to be correct. One interesting aspect is that this would also count as Mulder's evolving fantasy of Dana Scully.


    Video Games 
  • In Alice: Madness Returns, the line between the real world and the imaginary realm of Wonderland begins to blur towards the end of the story as the Infernal Train takes a toll on Alice's sanity; as such, some players speculate that the villain of the story unveiled in the final chapters namely Doctor Angus Bumby, Alice's psychiatrist is actually innocent of the crimes Alice remembers him committing, and she merely imagined the scene where he gloats over raping her sister and killing her family.
  • BioShock Infinite:
    • Though not a common theory, one suggested interpretation of the game's events is that Booker was never picked up by the Luteces, and in reality he's just drunkenly imagining a scenario in which he can atone for selling his daughter to Comstock. One variation goes further and holds that nothing in the game was real, and that Booker has been hallucinating since the death of his wife and child right up until he finally drowns himself in despair, "explaining" the ending of the game.
    • Some detractors of Burial at Sea have argued that the entire experience is just one of Elizabeth's nightmares, a theory somewhat exacerbated by the fact that she spends most of the DLC having actual nightmares, hallucinating her dead father, making extremely questionable decisions, or encountering things that don't make sense by the rules established within the main game. For good measure, fanfics have actually been made from this perspective: After The Burial reimagines Elizabeth's experiences as a drug trip experienced during a drunken visit to Rapture.
  • Invoked and parodied in Crash Bandicoot 4: It's About Time. In the game's introduction, the narrator states that the game is 100% canonical, unless you didn't like it, in which case this trope is in effect.
  • Fallout:
    • Given that Fallout: New Vegas begins with the Courier getting shot in the head, some players have interpreted the "Wild Wasteland" trait as hallucinations caused by the ensuing brain damage. Others believe that the events of "Dead Money" and "Old World Blues" are also hallucinations... and some go even further and theorize that the entire game is just nothing more than a wish-fulfillment fantasy experienced by the Courier as he lies dying.
    • Fallout 4 has the fan theory that the Sole Survivor is a synth, meaning that at least some parts of the game, particularly the entire pre-war intro, must be false memories implanted in their programming.
  • David Cage's Fahrenheit was hit hard with this thanks to the game's rushed development. The story supposedly concerns everyman Lucas Kane being mind-controlled into committing a murder, then gaining superpowers and using them to stop the world-dominating conspiracy that framed him... but because Executive Meddling led to bewildering plot elements being hurried into the game with little foreshadowing or explanation, the narrative gradually becomes more and more incoherent — not helped by the fact that David Cage has a very strange approach to writing characters and dialogue. As a result, many players including Geek Remix and Two Best Friends Play regard Lucas as a schizophrenic serial-killing pedophile hallucinating the events of the game.
  • Final Fantasy VIII has the infamous "Squall is Dead" theory. At the end of Disc 1, Squall gets impaled by an icicle fired by the Sorceress Edea and falls off a ledge, seemingly to his death; Disc 2 starts with him waking up with his seemingly-fatal wounds completely healed, and the plot starts veering into Mind Screw territory from there on. Some fans interpret this as the rest of the game being a Dying Dream. However, the theory was Jossed by Yoshinori Kitase during an interview.
  • Heavy Rain, also written by David Cage, ended up becoming a victim of this trope as well. Because no explanation is given concerning Agent Norman Jayden's ARI glasses, players like Geek Remix have speculated that they're a figment of his imagination - partly because Jayden is canonically portrayed as a drug addict who hallucinates in several scenes, but mostly because this explanation makes as much sense as anything else in the game. It's been confirmed that a lot of explanatory scenes were arbitrarily cut from the game, so the explanation behind the shades may have ended up becoming a casualty as well.
  • The Legend of Zelda:
    • Among fans who reject Nintendo's official timeline for the series, one common interpretation is that the series, as a "legend", is actually a series of retellings of the same basic story about the hero Link. Apart from the series title, the main point in support of this theory is a recurring plot structure that occurs in numerous games in the series: Link is first tasked with collecting three specific items, then acquires the Master Sword at around the same time as a major plot twist, followed by collecting a different set of items which opens the way to the final battle. If the theory were true, it would bring into question whether any of the games actually happened in-universe as portrayed, or if they're all just corruptions of an unknown "true story".
    • One popular fan interpretation of The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask (which became especially widespread after Game Theory made a video about it) is that Link dies during the opening sequence in the Lost Woods, meaning the remainder of the game, and all of Termina, is nothing but a Dying Dream. Each of the game's lands, and the actions of the people there, thus represent a different stage of grief: Clock Town is Denial (the citizens refuse to acknowledge that the Moon is going to fall and destroy them), Woodfall is Anger (the Deku Scrubs are furious at their poisoned swamp and take it out on the innocent monkeys), Snowhead is Bargaining (the Gorons try all manner of deals and schemes to stop the freezing winter that is killing them), Great Bay is Depression (Lulu, and the rest of the Zora, have fallen into an apathetic mourning since the ocean was cursed), and Ikana Canyon is Acceptance (the dead there are brought back to life by Majora's curse, but realize that they shouldn't be alive and make peace with their fates). Link helping each group move on is actually a form of self-reflective therapy, and by saving the world, he comes to terms with his own death and passes on. While this has been Jossed by Word of God, it remains a hotly-debated topic whenever the game is discussed.
  • Limbo possesses an extremely minimalist plot, so it's no surprise that it's open to this kind of interpretation: some believe that the boy's journey to find his sister is all just a nightmare; some believe that the boy is hallucinating, the various horrors being exaggerated versions of things he feared - spiders, bullies, and so on - and that the scene in which he's reunited with his sister symbolizes his recover; a popular theory holds that the scene witnessed the main menu after completing the game - featuring the boy and his sister lying dead in the ruins of their treehouse - is the only real event in the entire story, making it a Dying Dream.
  • The same goes for Little Nightmares, which left some players a little bit confused as to what the plot was actually about given that there's no dialog and only a handful of clues as to what's going on in the Maw. However, given the fact that Six begins the story by awakening from a nightmare and - if she dies - respawns by snapping awake, it's been theorized that it was All Just a Dream Within A Dream. More specific interpretations actually give specific reasons for the dream, one of the most popular being that it's the a result of an abusive family - due to another theory claiming that the Lady is actually Six's mother.
  • A popular (though officially Jossed) fan theory surrounding Mass Effect 3's infamous ending suggests that Shepard has been slowly indoctrinated by the Reapers over the course of the series (the third game especially), and that everything that happens after either being hit by Harbinger's laser or, alternatively, the final encounter against the Illusive Man, is entirely in their head, with Shepard's highly unlikely survival in the rubble in the Destroy ending at high War Readiness actually being them coming to their senses after the Reapers were destroyed by the Alliance.
  • The Park has been perceived by many as a harrowing tale of mental illness in which the supernatural elements, the monster stalking the main character and even Atlantic Island Park are merely symptoms of Lorraine Mailard's escalating madness. The fact that Lorraine has actually been treated for depression only muddies the waters further. However, The Park is actually a spinoff of The Secret World and all the magical elements were meant to be taken as real, to the point that Lorraine turns up in a Halloween event, having been imbued with immortality and magical powers. It's just that the casual gaming audience didn't get the memo.
  • SOMA begins with player character Simon Jarrett being diagnosed with life-threatening brain damage following a car crash; as such, some Let's Players - like Kim Richards - initially chose to interpret his unexpected voyage to the future via a brain-scan as a hallucinatory journey into his own psyche. As it turns out, the Simon you play following the scan is actually a digital copy downloaded into a robot body almost a century after the prologue; the real Simon died decades ago. In another case, when Catherine reveals her efforts to create an Artificial Afterlife and send it into space aboard the ARK, other players began interpreting the game as Simon's experience within the ARK itself.
  • Spec Ops: The Line features Captain Walker suffering numerous hallucinations as the events of the game start to take a toll on his sanity, with the game ultimately acknowledging that he's parted ways with reality altogether. However, the fact that unusual elements appear long before any of the sanity-breaking scenes, some theorize that Walker is actually reliving the events of the game in his own nightmares, or that he has secretly been grappling with mental illness for much longer than suspected. One of the strangest variants of this - supported by the lead writer, incidentally - holds that Walker and his team died in the helicopter crash during the In Medias Res intro, and the rest of the game is actually a Dying Dream where Walker has to relive his crimes; everything after the repetition of the helicopter crash is Walker descending Hell - evidenced by Konrad's remark of "Welcome to Hell" during the Willy Pete bombing.
  • Upon learning that Torque of The Suffering doesn't actually transform into a monster while in Insanity Mode, some players choose to interpret his struggle to escape Carnate Island as being purely imaginary, claiming that the monsters are all just hostile guards and inmates. Nevermind the fact that the friendly inmates and guards can see said monsters...
  • Super Mario Bros. games — particularly those since the release of the 1985 platformer — are often theorised (probably jokingly) to be Mario's drug-fueled hallucinations or Dying Dream, with common arguments being based on the popular misconceptions that he smashes bricks with his head when jumping and eats mushrooms to grow in size. These theories almost always hinge on the Early-Installment Weirdness present before the 1985 entry; the earlier arcade games such as Donkey Kong, Mario Bros., and Wrecking Crew all took place in more grounded urban settings with Mario and Luigi appearing as blue-collar workers, but everything after the aforementioned Super Mario Bros. would take place in more zanier ones with magical Power-Ups, mushroom people, anthropomorphic turtles, and other fantastical elements. This led many to argue that the arcade games are the only "real" events of the series during which the brothers were presumably still alive, sober, and sane, best illustrated by Mashed's "Luigi's Nightmare" animation.

  • The Editing Room lampshades this trope during their Abridged Script for Pan, when Levi Miller and Lewis MacDougal suddenly discovered the Neverland entrance in the middle of an air raid.
    Hey, we’re doing this during a bombing, you KNOW thousands of internet fora are going to leap right into the "Levi got blown up and the rest of the movie was a dying dream" theory. Might as well keep 'em happy by choosing this exact moment for the movie to go completely bonkers.

    Web Animation 

    Western Animation 
  • Though mostly restricted to the first three seasons, several Adventure Time theories said that the lone human protagonist Finn only imagined the Land of Ooo, and him being a famous hero in it, due to everything from coma to schizophrenia to a coping mechanism for domestic abuse. It's rather Hilarious in Hindsight then that the official canon world is a far darker Crapsaccharine World devastated and reborn in eldritch nuclear fire and humans living under Big Brother in a self-imposed exile.
  • A fan theory for Bob's Burgers goes that the kids are dead and it's all in Bob's mind, which is sort of supported by the fact that Bob has hallucinated and had some surreal imaginings before, but Jossed when you see episodes focusing on the kids.
  • Some BoJack Horseman fans who were disappointed with the series finale interpret it as a continuation of BoJack's dream from the previous episode, believing he really did drown in his pool and the series finale is just his subconscious giving him closure with his friends before he dies.
  • This is a very common fan theory in the Codename: Kids Next Door fandom. Generally, it takes the idea that Numbuh 1 is actually sick with leukemia or cancer (explaining his baldness) and is dreaming the series as adventures he wants to have with his friends.
  • One prominent Ed, Edd n Eddy theory claims that the cul-de-sac the children live on is actually a purgatory, and that every child there died sometime after 1900. It was based mostly on the lack of adults seen (though extremely rare, arms and silhouettes of adults were present). Furthermore, the theory was expanded for the movie and claimed that the theme park where Eddy's brother worked and their journey there was actually a journey into Hell.
  • Family Guy: There’s one theory that suggests that Peter has completely lost all of his sanity and that the entire show takes place in his head. The theory goes that his family was once happy and healthy, but one day, Meg and Chris died in a car crash. Unable to cope with the loss, Lois committed suicide while she was still pregnant with Stewie. Unable to deal with the stress of his day-to-day life, Peter slowly lost his mind. This explains why he’s able to commit so many crimes and get away with them scot free. He takes out all of his anger on Meg, since he blames her for causing the whole mess, and Stewie hates Lois because she never gave him the chance to live a proper life.
  • One or two people wonder if The Loud House episodes centering on Luan going next-level on April Fool's Day are just dreams, partly because they worry that Luan is being too mean on those episodes, and partly because they want to explain why no-one's gotten any older.
  • A decently popular Phineas and Ferb theory is the idea that the title characters are either dead or never existed and everything that happens in the series is all in Candace's mind, generally as some form of a coping mechanism.
  • Since J.G. Quintel created and voiced the main character in both Regular Show (in which he voices Mordecai) and Close Enough (in which he voices Josh), a common joke is that Regular Show was just a long drug trip Josh had in which he imagined himself as a blue jay. Funnily enough, Mordecai actually originated as how a man imagined himself while on acid in 2 in the AM PM, though his name was Quintel.
  • One theory for Robot Chicken holds that the entire show is just a series of nightmares the copyrighted characters being parodied are having.
  • The Rugrats Theory is an infamous fan theory of Rugrats which states that the babies except for Dil are either dead (Tommy, Chuckie, the twins), or were taken away by child services (Kimi) and Angelica's imagining the whole thing. There's also the semi-popular theory that the episodes after "Visitors from Outer Space" are the delusions of Angelica trapped on the planet. Whether Susie is real or imagined depends on which version of the theory you're reading; one has her being the Direct Line to the Author.
  • The Simpsons:
    • One fan theory is that Homer is unconscious and dreaming the whole thing.
    • Another popular theory states that the first seasons of the show actually happened — but eventually, Homer dies, and the remainder of the adventures are a Dying Dream of him slowly slipping away. The evidence given includes Homer's conversation with God at the end of Season Four's "Homer the Heretic"; when he asks for the meaning of life, God replies that he'll have to wait until he dies, and when Homer whines that he wants to know now, the Almighty replies "You can't wait six months?" Sure enough, six months later, the episode "So It's Come to This: A Simpsons Clip Show" aired, which features Homer falling into a coma after Bart plays a prank on him. The "Homer is Dead" theory explains that the Simpson patriarch actually dies during this episode. It's commonly used as a justification for the show becoming Denser and Wackier over the years — the early seasons were more grounded in somewhat realistic plots, but as Homer's mind falls away further and further, increasingly bizarre events begin to occur.
    • Yet another theory suggests that the "Treehouse of Horror" episodes are all the result of nightmares being experienced by the eponymous family, as evidenced by the lack of continuity and the supernatural elements not featured in the main series. This actually was explicitly the case in Treehouse Of Horror II, aside from a rather confusing twist, though the rest of the early Treehouse of Horror episodes used different Framing Devices, most of which frame the stories as pure fiction or otherwise not real in-universe.
    • The "Homer is unconscious/in a coma/dead and dreaming the series" theories are actually referenced in the Season 34 episode "Lisa the Boy Scout", wherein a clip is shown of Homer waking up from a two-day long coma that he entered after jumping Springfield Gorge, and Marge gently tells him that the entire rest of the series had been All Just a Dream when Homer asks about the "more than 700 adventures" he and the family went on after that.
      Homer: (frantically) I never had a pet lobster?? I never went to space?! What about the Halloweens?!!
  • There's a fan theory which suggests that Teen Titans (2003) really happened, but Teen Titans Go! is all in Beast Boy's mind. (It would have to explain the crossover, though.)