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Fiction as Cover-Up

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Stokely: So they've just been setting us up over the years with their E.T.'s and their Men in Black movies, just so no one would believe it if it ever happened?
Casey: I think so.

We've all seen Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But what if these stories weren't false, but rather, made to distract people from the real aliens, government conspiracy and vampires?

This trope describes the use of stories to serve as a psychological smoke screen. If someone came up and said that small grey aliens with big eyes just abducted him, you'd probably dismiss him as watching too much TV. It's used in media to show how big the conspiracy is. The people in charge know that they can't keep a lid on it all the time, so they start to release fictional accounts of their exploits, so if they ever do get seen, people will not believe the witnesses.

Such a show is always popular, which isn't exactly reassuring about how much power the Conspiracy must have...

There are two main variations:

  • A specific show (or work) exists, which obscures the fact that the events in it are real.
  • A large number of works exist, which obscures the fact that the outlandish type of events they depict are, in fact, plausible, though they may or may not depict actual events.

Sub-Trope of Cassandra Gambit. See also Plausible Deniability, Literary Agent Hypothesis, Direct Line to the Author, and All Part of the Show. When the "fake fake show" is a direct part of the main plot, it's a Show Within a Show.


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    Comic Books 
  • This is the entire point of Hoax Hunters — they're paranormal investigators with a reality TV show, disproving supernatural phenomena wherever they find it. Naturally, the stuff they're debunking is basically always real; why cover it up when you can decry it? In a more straightforward example, Hoax Hunters Case Files reveals that the Hoax Hunters have at various times released fiction based on their cases, including comic books marketed towards children.
  • The one-shot The History of Marvel Comics portrays the staff of Marvel Comics as doing this in an unwitting fashion. For instance, their Iron Man comics are based on the in-universe Kayfabe that Iron Man is Tony Stark's bodyguard. Other comics published under the Marvel Comics name show more examples of this, such as Captain America being a dark-haired man named Roger Stevens, and the X-Men are a Suicide Squad-esque team of government agents so as to not offend the Marvel Universe's mutant-phobic public.
  • Zigzagged in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. On one hand, the titular league (and its predecessors and successors) are covered up as fiction by biographers, who are then passed off as fiction writers, e.g., William Shakespeare and H. G. Wells. On the other, many events (the Martian invasion), places (the nation of Qumar), and people (British government official Malcolm Tucker) are all presented as real to the public, nor is there any attempt to argue otherwise.
  • In Men in Black, Kay lets slip that The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) was a documentary about Earth's first treaty with extraterrestrials, and Space Invaders was made as a simulator in the event of interplanetary war.note 
  • In Wanted, when The Fraternity altered reality turned the superheroes into actors who played them in movies and TV shows. Superhero comics and movies are still being made by people who subconsciously remember the heroes.
  • The X-Files: In one of the tie-in comics produced by Topps, a man going on the talk show circuit claiming to be John Lawrence, one of the pilots of the famous Flight 19 that got lost in The Bermuda Triangle, is eventually revealed to be an actor playing an elaborate hoax. However, Mulder correctly deduces that the real reason behind the hoax is that the aliens really have sent Flight 19 back to Earth and The Conspiracy set the whole thing up so if any more of them turned up nobody would believe them.

    Fan Fiction 
  • Several The Sentinel fanfics have Blair writing up his Sentinel thesis as a novel or series of novels.
  • In A Time to Kill, the Doctor tells Donna that this is a fairly common practice. James Bond (who they've just met) and SGC both use it, and even he had a TV show once. Unfortunately, it got cancelled in the late '80s...
  • In the Harry Potter fic Who Needs Obliviators?, this is played with a bit: American Sentinels (Aurors) pass off any public magic use as filmshoots, instead of mind-wiping the Muggles.

    Film — Animated 
  • A particularly sinister one in Coco: One of Ernesto de la Cruz's films has a villain attempt to poison his character when he wants out of their partnership. The entire scene plays out exactly the way it did when he killed his former partner Hector, right down to the lines the villain says. If anyone tried to accuse de la Cruz of doing the same to Hector, then it could be reasonably stated they got the idea from fiction. It's further strengthened by the fact that Hector didn't realize he'd been poisoned until decades after his death when he saw the scene from the movie play out for the first time—he thought that he'd died of food poisoning.

    Film — Live-Action 

  • Doctor Who Expanded Universe
    • In Steven Moffat's first foray into Doctor Who lit, Continuity Errors, the Doctor himself is said to insert himself into the narratives of the worlds he helps. As a result it is impossible to convince the people of these worlds that a dangerous alien is among them (the guy explaining this has some issues) when they're too busy laughing at how cheap the effects are.
    • In the unofficial book I am the Doctor presented as the Doctor's autobiography, the last chapter is about how Ian and Barbara were involved in hushing up the Shoreditch Incident by helping to make two films about the Daleks, starring Peter Cushing.
  • The Dresden Files:
    • Inverted by the White Court of vampires, which arranged for the publication of Dracula in order to expose the rival Black Court vampires' secrets and vulnerabilities.
    • For a number of years this is how Karrin Murphy spends the majority of her time as a cop: explaining the wacky hijinks she and Dresden get into on approximately a yearly basis. She has the thankless job of turning vampires, sidhe, gods, and rogue wizards into something that isn't magic, like gas leaks or terrorists, and even once offers to call in muggle cavalry on "terrorists with high tech suits" at the airport. Harry comments that she could easily write novels, she gets so much practice with writing fiction.
    • Another weird variation is that some black magic rituals get weaker, the more often they're used so the White Council release Tomes of Eldritch Lore, such as the Necronomicon to the public in order to make the spells as weak as possible.
  • This is revealed to be the "truth" of James Bond, with a touch of Recursive Canon, in the novel You Only Live Twice: the obituary of Commander James Bond, RNVR, states that a series of popular novels have been implicitly approved (or tolerated) by Her Majesty's Secret Service to obfuscate the truth of his missions, although they've hewed dangerously close to "actual events" once or twice.
  • Inverted in Little Green Men, in which Majestic 12, rather than covering up abductions, actually stages them to drum up a belief in alien life, in order to justify maintaining spending for NASA. It turns out that the real truth that the Government is trying to conceal is that outer space is really, really boring.
  • In Isaac Asimov's "PatĂ© de foie gras", a group of scientists has found a goose who lays golden eggs; after testing every theory they could think of to figure out why, they decided to write about the exploit in hopes of getting advice from outside sources. Due to the need for secrecy, they published it as a fictional short story, safe in the knowledge that no one would believe it...
  • In A. Bertram Chandler's "The Proper Gander", the Aliens, finding that their ships have been spotted by Earth dwellers, proceed to "contact" gullible flying saucer believers, knowing that the rest of the people will not believe their stories. At the end, the one who made the "proper gander" pun is assigned to be a comedian making fun of the contact stories, anticipating that he will "make 'saucer' the dirtiest word in the English language."
  • In Quozl, a human friend of the rabbit-like aliens stranded on Earth produces a kiddie cartoon show about rabbit-like aliens stranded on Earth. Her brother confronts her about it, but she waves him off when she makes him realize that anyone claiming that cartoon characters actually live in a national park would never be taken seriously. As for the real Quozl, they discover the broadcasts and while they are insulted and feel used by her, they realize that trying to interfere with the broadcasts would do far more harm than good and instead insist on being secret creative consultants in order to make the situation more bearable and perhaps use it to their advantage when they come out of hiding.
  • In The Saga of Darren Shan, vampires spoke with Bram Stoker and convinced him to write his Dracula as the opposite of what a real vampire is like, to confuse humans.
  • Wars of the Realm: Early on in the first book, Teen Genius Ben voices his long-standing opinion that aliens do exist, and that the government is closer to discovering them than anyone realizes. Because of this, he also thinks that the media is being used to condition people to the idea that aliens will come to earth soon:
    Ben: Have you ever wondered why science, Hollywood, and so many publishers are investing billions of dollars on the notion of alien life? It has become a consistent and central theme in much of our culture....The influence is huge! I think we are being prepared.
    • This conversation is a foreshadowing of what happens later in the book—except the beings which Drew and Ben discover aren't exactly aliens, but rather angels and demons.
  • Zones of Thought: In A Deepness in the Sky, humans are hiding in orbit around a planet with a developing alien society, studying the aliens. At one point, the humans take a ship down to the planet's surface, and need to run their very bright afterburners for several thousand seconds in order to decelerate safely, but they don't want the planetary society to immediately realize a spaceship is landing, so they spam the planetary network with outlandish reports of yetis and nuclear explosions and, indeed, alien spacecraft, to discredit the few legitimate reports from official sources that realize a spacecraft has been sighted. (By the time they are ready to visit the planet, the humans have broken virtually all the aliens' cryptologic communication, and they can send messages over secure networks as well as public, which explains why government facilities can't just communicate on private, trusted networks.)

    Live-Action TV 
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Dracula got Stoker to write his book to pump up his street cred. Other vampires thought it was a really dick move, because it let the normal humans in on a lot of their secrets.
  • Stargate SG-1: The "Wormhole X-Treme!" show was written by a guy who had knowledge of the real Stargate program. The Pentagon acknowledged that it would prevent any future leaks of information about the program from ever being taken seriously. Subverting the popularity part, the show was apparently canceled after something like two episodes. But got a movie. Based on its DVD sales.
    • Apparently, this was a defictionalization of a fan theory claiming that the Stargate-verse itself is an example of this trope, with the shows being used to cover up a real-life Stargate program. There was actually a real (and now-declassified) "Stargate" program, only it involved research into remote viewing, and was ended in 1995 due to a failure to produce results. (Or so they say...) It was the inspiration for the book and film The Men Who Stare at Goats.
    • There's also apparently a door in the real life Cheyenne Mountain labeled "Stargate Command". It leads to a broom closet.
  • War of the Worlds (1988) is based on the premise that the invasion depicted in the 1953 film actually took place, but most people don't remember it due to a Weirdness Censor effect. In one episode, the characters visit Grover's Mill, New Jersey, where the 50th anniversary of the 1938 radio drama by Orson Welles is being celebrated. They learn that the 1938 invasion was also real (although it was defeated by the local militia, not by terrestrial microbes), and the government hired Welles to produce his broadcast as part of a cover-up.
  • The X-Files: The episode "Jose Chung's 'From Outer Space'" features a government conspiracy to fake alien encounters so that people won't take the real alien encounters seriously. To make things even harder to believe, they even employ Men in Black who heavily resemble celebrities, like Alex Trebek.

    Tabletop Games 
  • The basic premise of The Dracula Dossier (a campaign setting for Night's Black Agents) is that British Intelligence tried to recruit Dracula in the 1890s, he double-crossed them, and the novel Dracula is actually a heavily edited version of the after-action report, released as disinformation. Pelgrane has published Dracula Unredacted, which in-game is Stoker's original manuscript with notes made by three prior Intelligence analysts, which the PCs can read for clues.
  • GURPS:
    • In GURPS Illuminati University, the Conspiracy encourages the Weekly World News and similar publications to write up stories about conspiracy so that the Serious Press won't believe them.
    • In Black Ops, this is the justification given for why the rulebook has things statted up and advice on running games despite being framed as an in-universe document- if its leaked, it can be passed off as simply an RPG supplement.
  • In Halt Evil Doer!, the James Bond franchise is strongly implied to exist as a coverup of the setting's Bond Expy, Jacob Hunter. The current Jacob Hunter, who is a Composite Character of the Daniel Craig Bond and Jason Bourne finds it really tiresome.
  • In Mage: The Ascension, Mages can alter reality, but it can cause serious consequences due to humanity's collective (un)belief in anything unusual or supernatural. Pretending something is fiction or performance is one way to handle the strain on reality. This is made explicit with Sons of Ether (essentially mad scientists following science more based on passion and wild imagination than established rules of modern science), who are active and have followers, among others, in the sci-fi fandom.

    Video Games 
  • Deus Ex:
    • The conspiracy makes artificial life-forms called Grays that resemble the popular idea of aliens (round heads, gray skin) and is implied to let rumours about them circulate as a smokescreen for what they are really up to in the Area 51 facility. Some sources also claim that the Grays are clones grown from genetic material from the Roswell UFO, but nothing conclusive is given.
    • This is actually the purpose of the Midnight Sun tabloid. Joe Greene, agent of Majestic 12, writes sensational articles about the gray death virus that aren't quite the truth, but just close enough to discredit anyone trying to tell the public the real story.
  • Many Shin Megami Tensei fans take Persona 4's mention of a Raidou Kuzunoha movie as this. It would make it the only indication of any games in the series (beyond the direct sequels and Persona sub-series) to take place in the same (exact) universe. Ironically, the Raidou Kuzunoha reference was solely a product of the localization; in the original Japanese version, it was actually a reference to both the Kosuke Kindaichi mystery novels and the The Kindaichi Case Files manga/anime/live-action adaptations.
  • The Trails Series features in-universe novels that are usually obtained as collectibles, chapter-by-chapter. Most if not all of these novels are based on real events, with the "characters" playing a big role in later games. For example, the Carnelia series, featured in The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky, is loosely based on the adventures of a high-ranked Bracer named Toval ("Toby" in the book), who appears in The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel. The character "Carnelia" dies at the end of the book, but her real self is not only very much alive, she's the leader of a Church Militant order and even more badass than her fictional counterpart.

    Web Originals 
  • The twist of round one of Airlocked, now considered a Late-Arrival Spoiler, is that the Deadly Game the characters are put in is filmed, edited, and shown to aliens as fiction.
  • CollegeHumor: The conspiracy theory spoof video "Deceptive Deceptions" claims that Close Encounters of the Third Kind was made on the orders of Dick Cheney (at the time Congressman of Wyoming, where the movie was filmed) and his co-conspirators to cover up previous UFO landings.
  • As well as most of the Expy science fiction shows the main characters are fans of, in Fans!, even shows like Sesame Street are apparently constructs funded by the F.I.B to serve this purpose. The Count? Really a vampire. The other Muppets are up to something sinister, too. H. Ross Perot was one of them.
  • Inverted in the Paradise setting. In the years leading up to the dawning of The Unmasqued World, when the fact that some people were being transformed into Funny Animals stopped being Invisible to Normals, a greater-than-normal number of shows and stories featuring anthropomorphic animals were featured in popular entertainment — apparently to get the general public acclimated to seeing them around.
  • The SCP Foundation universe has a breakfast cereal parodying Cocoa Puffs called "Super Coco Pows". The Sonny the Cuckoo Bird parody, Bradbury Buzzard is based on SCP-1160. A giant bird that gets weaker the more people who know about it. Given that the Foundation's entire purpose is to preserve the Masquerade, the best way to keep it known but secret at the same time was to turn it into a cereal mascot.
  • The WarpZone Project runs with the idea of all fiction not being only cover-up, but the true stories of super-powered individuals. They contribute to an exploited Weirdness Censor in such a way that if someone actually runs into super-heroes or super-villains doing their usual super-hero and super-villain activities, the memories change into the impression of remembering a scene from a comic book or movie featuring the characters.
  • Slightly different take on the subject in the Whateley Universe. Famous horror writer Michael Waite's best-known book, "Incongruity", was a huge success. Michael Waite died. Sort of. He became 'Carmilla' who is prophesied to evolve into The Kellith and sweep humanity off the planet and replace humanity with its spawn. It turns out that "Incongruity" is really The First Book of The Kellith.
  • In a number of John C. Wright's online short stories, it is stated that all science fiction is records of actual events from the past, present and future, disguised as speculative fiction, and the annual meetings of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America is when authors are assigned authentic manuscripts and diaries to turn into publishable stories.

    Western Animation 
  • In Kim Possible, it turns out that Area 51 really is filled with aliens and captured spacecraft that the government is experimenting on, and the government deliberately leaked all the rumors and conspiracy theories to the public because they knew nobody would really believe it if "the truth" ever got out. Kim and Ron are understandably perturbed that they are being asked to help keep a secret that everybody already knows.
  • Men in Black: The Series, completing the trifecta started under Film and Comics, reveals that the MIB run a covert talent agency in LA that helps alien actors with getting roles in Hollywood movies. They saved cash for the make-up department by simply taking their human disguises off and playing themselves.
    • Sort of subverted; although the aliens in movies are real, the events of the movies aren't necessarily (J meets a Xenomorph Xerox who's bitter at being out of work, but is not actually a bad guy).
    • In the same episode, there's a subplot about the Worms trying to pitch a film about the MIB, starring the actors Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith; apparently, the Men in Black movie is an in-universe example of this trope!

    Real Life 
  • Some conspiracy theorists believe that films (especially ET) and other media featuring aliens are secretly meant to acclimate the public with extraterrestrials to ensure they will be welcomed enthusiastically when the government reveals their existence. Results thus far have been mixed.
  • During World War II, the FBI considered censoring American science fiction stories about atomic (or to use a popular term of the time "uranium") bombs and similar stories about nuclear physics. They decided to let the stories get published because the sudden absence of them after years of them would alert other nations that they were being censored because of real life research.
    • In the case of the science fiction story "Deadline", which featured a fairly accurate description of the atomic bomb — in 1944. Astounding editor John Campbell convinced the FBI agents who showed up at his office that attempting to pull the issue from distribution would only call attention to it.
    • Isaac Asimov asked a physicist friend for technical advice about such a bomb for one of his WWII era stories; the friend refused to discuss it. Asimov later learned that he had been part of the Manhattan Project.
    • Incidentally, in real-life, the USSR caught on to the existence of a US plan to build atomic weapons when articles on atomic research disappeared from science journals, as noted by Georgy Flyorov, who noted that it had been a popular topic in The '40s but overnight seemed to have disappeared. So most likely, if they had simply continued spinning disinformation in the science-journals and phased out the science-fiction, they might have succeeded for a while longer in hiding the secret.
  • A documentary in 2014, titled Mirage Men, alleges that the US government was actively involved in spreading conspiracy theories about extraterrestrials. The logic was that, if people (and hopefully the Soviets too) believed that the strange lights in the Nevada desert were visitors from outer space, then they'd pay less attention to the top-secret experimental aircraft that the Air Force was actually testing at Area 51, along with other black projects that the military was engaged in. (The cattle mutilations of the 1970s, for instance, were likely connected to an ill-advised experiment in "nuclear fracking".) Of course, this film could be just another layer of the cover-up...
  • UFO Abduction, an obscure 1989 found-footage film about an Alien Abduction, is to this day passed around among some ufologists (who refer to it as "the McPherson tape") as proof that aliens are here and kidnapping humans, complete with claims that the story of it being a fictional horror film was just damage control. (The story of how it wound up getting released at allnote  also played heavily into its mystique.) Years later, UPN and the film's director, Dean Alioto, remade it as Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County, which is, of course, also alleged to be part of the cover-up.
  • The satirical book The Report from Iron Mountain: On the Possibility & Desirability of Peace was presented as an authentic leaked government document upon its publication in 1972. It was, in fact, written by Leonard Lewin as a Stealth Parody of the Pentagon Papers and the attitudes of Washington think tanks like the RAND Corporation during The Vietnam War. To this day, it is passed around and republished by conspiracy theorists as proof that They are actively sabotaging world peace and wish to create a state of permanent warfare, rejecting Lewin's repeated statements of its true origin and intent as merely part of the cover-up.
  • In The Roman Republic, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, in the eyes of their enemies did this when during his time as dictator, Caesar ostentatiously participated in public ceremonies where Antony would present diadems to Caesar only for Caesar to turn it down. Most observers at the time, and later historians don't know what to make of this. The optimates often invoked the fear of "return of Kings" to justify brutally purging popularii reformers (such as the Gracchi) and Caesar and Antony might have been mocking and parodying that concept. Others however see this as Caesar testing the waters to see how the public would react to him claiming the Crown, as a way of testing whether he should make a play for the Crown, but using the guise of mockery and jest as a form of plausible deniability. In either case, his assassins and their defenders cited this as justification for murdering him, seeing these spectacles as a poor attempt to cover his ambitions.
  • Something similar to this concerns politically-charged writing. It's often been said that 'genre' writers are often allowed to get away with a lot more social, economic, and political commentary in their books, especially in authoritarian regimes as well as states with heavy censorship (such as Hollywood during The Hays Code or the theatre during the age of Elizabeth I) that seek to censor dissenting views, partly due to the Sci Fi Ghetto causing science fiction and fantasy to be frequently dismissed out of hand, and partly because such themes are harder to spot against the backdrop of a setting that isn't the 'real world'. Stanisław Lem mentioned this in one of his essays:
    I published [my serious predictions about the future of biology] in a German science-fiction anthology and found out ... that if one wants to hide a certain piece of information from the world and conceal it perfectly from everybody's sight, it should not be hidden in safes, dungeons, behind code-locks, or by burying at the graveyard at midnight; simply publish it as science fiction, in a million copies if you wish, and the Devil himself will not recognize it for what it is...
    • It's important however to qualify this since critics and writers often use anti-authoritarian readings, formed retrospectively, as a way to promote authors and works to new audiences as well as lend it a weight by exaggerating the political "rebellion" over aesthetic virtues. Science-fiction and genre fiction were highly popular in the USSR and Communist ideologues and officials tended to deprecate the snootiness towards genre fiction and popular fiction put forth in Western Europe at the time.
    • Likewise, all regimes, authoritarian and otherwise, do tend to allow artists some room to exist and work in, because they see art as propaganda, Bread and Circuses, public-relations, international prestige as well as genuine sincere enthusiasm and interest. Artists from the time of Virgil to William Shakespeare to the 20th and 21st Century in regimes like Iran, USSR and China have worked as propagandists on behalf of the state and while one can certainly find interesting elements and even aesthetic greatness in many such state art, that doesn't necessarily mean that it's subversive by default. It's also important to stress that all such genre subversions still exist in places where content was rigidly censored and carefully screened.
  • One rather literal example of fiction as cover-up is revealed in Gerard Jones' book Men of Tomorrow, which pointed out that the printing of American "pulp" fiction, science fiction, and comic books originated with front companies for gangsters distributing bootleg liquor during the Prohibition, and this later expanded to a front for other mafia activity. The founders of DC Comics, Harry Donnenfeld and Jack Liebowitz in particular, were former associates of gangsters such as Legs Diamond and Lucky Luciano, and the presses used to print comics by Timely Comics (later Marvel) and Fawcett Comics were all used by gangsters as fronts. Most notably, the author suggests that superhero comics were published with the most preachy moral virtues precisely so that nobody would suspect something as innocuous as Captain Marvel, Batman, or Superman could possibly be connected to something evil, which adds a disturbing meta-subtext that the superheroes have been working for the real-life supervillains the whole time.

Alternative Title(s): Masquerainment, Entertainment Assisted Masquerade