Plots that involve conspiracy theories and secret societies hidden beneath the veneer of everyday life treat them in different ways. Some play it completely straight, while others imply or bluntly state that the conspiracy that seemed to be behind the whole plot does not really exist: it was either an elaborate hoax, a joke staged by the protagonist's friends and loved ones, a hallucination of a mentally ill protagonist, or something even darker.
Contains spoilers; read at your own caution.
- According to the most popular interpretation of Mulholland Dr., the omniscient Hollywood conspiracy involving mafia, men on black limos, and a mysterious wheelchair-bound kingpin Mr. Roque was just a dream of a failed actress who attempted to reimagine her life in a positive light.
- In Jacob's Ladder, the titular Vietnam veteran believes that he's being pursued by government agents who want to suppress the truth about the use of psychedelic drugs during the war. The drug story may or may not be true, but the conspiracy itself is just a Dying Dream of the protagonist who never actually made it out of Vietnam.
- A Beautiful Mind initially looks like a spy thriller movie about a scientist who assisted Pentagon in combating a nefarious Soviet conspiracy, but then it's revealed that the scientist is actually schizophrenic; the spy movie-like scenes were all in his head.
- In Passengers (2008), a number of passengers who survived a plane crash start to disappear one by one; the protagonist (a grief counselor who conducts therapy for them) believes that an airplane consipracy may be killing them off to cover up their guilt for the crash. It turns out that Claire was also one of the passengers, and they were all in afterlife (nobody survived the crash actually); people who they thought were pursuing them were actually dead loved ones helping them to move on.
- In Shutter Island, US Marshall Teddy Daniels investigates the disappearance of a patient from the remote mental clinic, Ashecliffe Hospital. As the investigation continues, he finds that the hospital staff are hiding something from him, and suspects that the head doctor is conducting horrible experiments on unwilling patients. In reality, "Teddy Daniels" is actually Andrew Laeddis, a patient at that same hospital. The only experiment happening is the doctors indulging Laeddis's delusions of investigating a conspiracy, in hopes that Laeddis would realize the truth and be cured after his fantasy played out to the end.
- Naked Lunch is about a "conspiracy" involving fantastic monsters and talking typewriters that exists only in the drugged mind of the protagonist.
- Played with in Wonder Woman (2017): Diana goes into World War One thinking that the whole conflict was brought about by a conspiracy led by Ares, the mortal-hating god of war. Ares is involved in the plot, but all he's doing is trying to prolong and escalate a war that had already started without him. The conspiracy Diana is chasing doesn't exist; it was always just a product of her imagination, formed because she was so young and idealistic that she couldn't understand why so many people would willingly throw their lives away in a pointless war.
- Defendor has the titular mentally ill Vigilante Man constantly on the lookout for a Super Villain called "Captain Industry", which he ends up believing is the leader of the local drug ring. While it is true that drug lords are bad (it's eventually showcased that the reason he started believing the "Captain Industry" thing is because of him overhearing a conversation about the "Captains of Industry"), they are not commanded by a Lex Luthor-esque mastermind and a lot of the comedy (and tragedy) of the film is his Wrong Genre Savvy.
- In Under the Silver Lake, an amateur sleuth discovers a mysterious conspiracy of rich people with the use of codes hidden in pop music, video game magazines, and cereal box pictures; however, there are some implications that the conspiracy may not really exist, and he's simply going insane.
- The mysterious underground postal delivery service Trystero from The Crying of Lot 49 may be either a delusion of Oedipa or an elaborate joke by her former husband. Or it may be real after all.
- Umberto Eco
- Foucault's Pendulum. The protagonists invent a centuries-old conspiracy involving Rosicrucians, Templars, Masons and other secret organizations to parody the real-life conspiracy theorists. Zig-Zagged however, since the real occultists and conspiracy theorists take the story at face value, and actually create the secret society that the protagonists made up.
- The Prague Cemetery describes a fictionalized story how such a hoax, called Protocols of the Elders of Zion, was created in real life (see "Real Life" section).
- One of the scenes in The Magus by John Fowles implies that all the events in the novel were the workings of some secret society of psychotherapists who perform elaborate psychological experiments on people; however, it turns out to be a ruse, just like everything before it.
- The Nightwatchmen from Special Topics In Calamity Physics may or may not be this.
- A throwaway line in the Eighth Doctor Adventures novel Trading Futures suggests that there are multiple groups which believe their own hype to the extent of thinking they're the Secret Masters of the World. Only one of them can be right, and it's most likely that none of them are.
- Double Subverted in one Midsomer Murders episode: a Conspiracy Theorist believes the Pudding Club (an association of college students and alumni, started when the students pooled their funds to afford desserts) is an Illuminati-esque organization that secretly controls the world. Naturally, this is dismissed by Barnaby, even when the theorist is murdered. It turns out the club is a conspiracy, but nothing so grand as to Take Over the World: the students tend to end up in diplomatic positions around the world, and use them to smuggle cultural artifacts back to the school, which sells them off to keep itself funded.
- In Paranoia supplement Acute Paranoia, a society called The International Workers of the World (Wobblies) was created because the people sent to investigate it kept being executed for failing to find it, so the latest group realized that if the society doesn't exist, then they should create it. They created it solely to spy on it, and then it was infiltrated by spies for other groups.
- By the midpoint of Firewatch, Henry and Delilah become increasingly convinced to have been unwitting test subjects in a secret government research of human behavior in long-term isolation. It turns out, however, that the "conspiracy" is a hoax perpetrated by a previous occupant of Henry's watchtower who attempts to drive them both mentally unstable and have them kicked out before they can discover evidence of his crimes.
- In the South Park episode The Mystery of the Unrinal Deuce plays with this. While 9/11 itself was indeed caused by al-Qaeda, the 9/11 Truth movement was started by the U.S. government as a way to scare American citizens into believing they really are that powerful and omniscient. This was also all part of the plan to cover up the episode's grand mystery of whoever was responsible for shitting in the school's urinal.
- The Priory of Sion was a hoax created by a Frenchman who claimed to be the descendant of the Merovingian bloodline; according to him, the Priory was a centuries-old secret society that protected the royal dynasty, and its Grand Masters included Leonardo da Vinci, Isaac Newton, Victor Hugo, and Jean Cocteau. The story served as basis for The Da Vinci Code.
- The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is a literary forgery describing an imaginary "Judeo-Masonic conspiracy" planning to take over the world; the details of the alleged conspiracy are borrowed directly from various antisemitic canards. It's one of the most infamous examples of this trope, since it has been used by Nazis to justify the Holocaust.