You know that we're as close as can be, man
Well, here's another clue for you all;
The walrus was Paul!"
Sub-trope of Mind Screw where the creators are intentionally trying to confound explanation. Whether they're poking fun at the fans' tendency to explain and codify everything, trying to express that Real Life doesn't always have clear-cut answers, amusing themselves, or simply more interested in evoking a mood than communicating a specific message, they'll make the weirdest, most incomprehensible work they can.
Often used to subvert What Do You Mean, It's Not Didactic?, by means of not having any deeper meaning. A frequent story element of a Mockstery Tale. Compare Faux Symbolism, where it's merely "throw some meaning at a wall and hope it sticks", Criminal Mind Games, when this is done in-story to throw the pursuers off-track, and Cow Tools. Contrast The Chris Carter Effect. See also Shrug of God and Teasing Creator. For a whole setting comprised of those, see World of Mysteries.
The trope name comes from a line in a song by The Beatles called "Glass Onion", which is referring to a song on the preceding album called "I Am The Walrus", which notably was sung by John Lennon, not Paul McCartney.
- Revolutionary Girl Utena: like many surreal anime series, was put together to promote differing interpretations and discussion. Ikuhara trusts the fans to do analyses on themselves, though, which results in him more or less pretending to know nothing in interviews, often blatantly lying about "not having thought" about some of the most basic parts of the show. For example, the ending of the movie (in which Utena turns into a car) fits with what cars mean in the show (adulthood), but Ikuni's official explanation is "I wanted to see a beautiful girl turn into a car." The Shadow Play Girls embody this most of all because you can never tell whether they're legitimate symbolism or parodies.
- Serial Experiments Lain is this. A lot of what goes on in the series has multiple interpretations. One of the producers of the series has said he wanted American people to understand the show differently from Japanese people. He was dismayed to discover that foreigners interpreted it the same way the Japanese audience did.
- Neon Genesis Evangelion: Word of God stated numerous times that this work was generally designed with Mind Screw first, plot second. This became more and more apparent in later episodes with all of the symbolism and Freudian imagery splattered all over the place in such disjointed fashion, mainly in the form of jump cuts. And the ending. Never forget the ending.
- The whole basis of Dada, which was gibberish and nonsense meant to infuriate everyone who came across it.
- Jackson Pollock's legendary "dribble" style of painting evoked many debates that persist, even after his death, to this day regarding their meaning. When asked some paintings' meanings, Pollock would often describe his definition of the painting in an outlandish fashion.
- Want to know what Peter Milligan's Shade, the Changing Man is actually about? According to Milligan: "hair". The worrying thing is that there's some evidence (Shade goes through a few Expository Hairstyle Changes, and Kathy has an Important Haircut) to support this, and he did also write a comic called Hewligan's Haircut with Gorillaz cofounder Jamie Hewlett...
- The first half of Grant Morrison's Batman run put heavy emphasis on the Joker utilizing a black and red color scheme. Compounded with the appearance of the criminal group known as the Black Glove, Batman begins to obsess over the real meaning behind the Joker's colors and their true purpose. The Joker eventually admits the use of red and black didn't signify anything important at all. He thinks he might've been inspired from when he beat Jason Todd with a crowbar, but admits he only made it look like the colors were important because he knew Batman would go nuts over it. In this, Grant Morrison's admitting he was trolling the readers who kept obsessing over finding hidden meanings in every little thing he wrote in this story.
- David Lynch's works are explicitly this. So much to the point where if anyone on the set of Inland Empire asked him what's the plot/symbolism/whatever, he'd quote a passage from an Asian text that meant, "We make our own meanings."
"We are like the spider. We weave our life and then move along in it. We are like the dreamer who dreams and then lives in the dream. This is true for the entire universe."
- 2001: A Space Odyssey: There is enough contradiction between the book and movie to allow for multiple interpretations anyway, as Kubrick was not involved with the former and Clarke never had the last say on anything in the latter (his script having been changed a lot).
"If you understood 2001 completely, we failed. We wanted to raise more questions than we answered." — Arthur C. Clarke
- Certain of David Cronenberg's films, particularly Videodrome and its Spiritual Successor eXistenZ, both of which blend reality and fantasy to the point that there's no real way of telling what's going on by the end.
- The Tokyo driving sequence in Andrei Tarkovsky's film Solaris. This four-minute black-and-white sequence consists solely of Burton and his son driving aimlessly through 70s downtown Tokyo.
- Though likely a case of Shoot the Money. Tarkovsky wanted to film a World Expo being hosted in Tokyo for the film, but didn't make it there in time (travel visas and the like), so just shot the drive-around sequence as something that'd feel reasonably modern compared to then-Soviet lifestyles.
- A Serious Man aggressively and deliberately pursues this trope, to the befuddlement of viewers and critics everywhere. Some argue that several of The Coen Brothers' other films, particularly The Big Lebowski and Barton Fink, exhibit this as well. Very appropriately The Big Lebowski has a scene where a character mishears Lennon instead of Lenin and goes on saying "I am the Walrus" for a while.
- Subverted by Donnie Darko, which features a director's cut that explains every possible ambiguity in the original film... which more than a few people couldn't understand either. Double Subversion? But played straight in that the commentary reveals that even the writers don't know what's up with Frank the Bunny or who or what is manipulating Donnie throughout the movie. Apparently it's God... or aliens. Whatever.
- Southland Tales. Director Richard Kelly (who also did the equally convoluted Donnie Darko) has admitted that he made the plot so convoluted that almost no meaning can be extracted from it. It includes Time Travel, the impending end of the world, Orwellian dystopia, revolutionary new energy sources which will change the world, Neo-Marxist terrorists, an actor who seems destined to be the new Messiah, and a government conspiracy all colliding in Los Angeles aka the Southland.
- According to the director of Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday, the infamous beard shaving scene was there just to provoke the confused, conversation-sparking reaction that it did.
- The clearest statements anyone has ever got from Quentin Tarantino himself and his collaborators regarding the contents of the mysterious glowing suitcase in Pulp Fiction all unequivocally agree that the whole thing was just there for the sake of providing a mystery. Tarantino has said that in hindsight even adding the glow was a mistake, since it gave an implication of what it was, even if extremely vague (Gold? Something supernatural?). Word of God stated:
"Originally the briefcase contained [the] diamonds [from Reservoir Dogs]. But that just seemed too boring and predictable. So it was decided that the contents of the briefcase were never to be seen. This way each audience member would fill in the blank with their own ultimate contents. All you were supposed to know was that it was 'so beautiful.' (from an interview for Roger Ebert's "Questions for the Movie Answer Man").
- Inception is clearly designed to provide ammunition for numerous different interpretations of the ending (and the whole film). Christopher Nolan has said very little about the movie due to this. The only thing he's ever really said about it is that he views the ending as real but that he's biased because he's a sentimental father of four himself and that his view shouldn't stop anyone from interpreting it another way.
- In Blade Runner, there is intentional ambiguity over whether or not Deckard is a replicant, clearly meant to leave the audience thinking. Unusually for this trope, the creators have actually weighed in on the matter, and they disagree. Ridley Scott says he is, Harrison Ford says he isn't, and various special cuts have made it less ambiguous in both directions.
- This and Faux Symbolism are mercilessly lampooned in the famous What Do You Mean, It's Not Didactic? "art gallery" scene from L.A. Story. Two characters have an extensive intellectual discussion about... a painting of a red rectangle.
- Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan: In his introduction, Khan makes a show of removing his left-hand glove, but leaves his right-hand glove on for the rest of the movie. According to director Nicholas Meyer, this was meant to provoke this reaction. When people ask for an explanation, he likes to reply, "Why do you think he left one glove on?"
- Prometheus practically runs wall-to-wall with this trope, with many of the ambiguities doubling as both Sequel Hook and Continuity Nod to Alien. Who are the Engineers? Why did they create humans? Why do they want to kill us? What was the creature that came out of Shaw's stomach? What was that last monster and why did it look so much like the Xenomorph? And so on.
- The Illuminatus! Trilogy: Robert Anton Wilson has said the whole point was to pile up enough conspiracy theories so that no one could be sure what was 'true' by the end.
- James Joyce said he hoped Ulysses would "keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and thats the only way of ensuring ones immortality."
- Alice in Wonderland: The riddle "How is a raven like a writing desk?" as posed to Alice by the Hatter. The Hatter did not know the answer to the riddle, and it was never revealed. A Riddle for the Ages indeed. A great many letters to Lewis Carroll requesting an answer to this madness-inducing question returned replies that there was no answer, which was the point of the riddle. Carroll added in a preface to a new edition of the story:
- "Enquiries have been so often addressed to me, as to whether any answer to the Hatter's Riddle can be imagined, that I may as well put on record here what seems to me to be a fairly appropriate answer, viz: 'Because it can produce a few notes, tho they are very flat; and it is nevar put with the wrong end in front!' This, however, is merely an afterthought; the Riddle, as originally invented, had no answer at all."
- A Series of Unfortunate Events gets this way toward the end, with the Lemony Narrator outright admitting that there are no straight answers, and we must keep on questioning.
- This is a major theme of Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49. A woman finds a piece of graffiti on a bathroom wall that prompts her to investigate what is either an Ancient Conspiracy, an elaborate hoax by her dead ex, or her own desire to be a detective.
- Similar to the Joyce examples (and it may have helped inspire them) is the second part of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Faust. The poet said in a letter to a friend toward the end of his life that all he had left to do was "wrap a few mantle folds around it so that it may remain an altogether evident riddle." Much earlier than that, he poked fun at his scholarly interpreters for their "allegorizing of this dramatic-humorous nonsense [the witch's arithmetic of Faust, Part I], which has never gone very well. One should indulge in such jokes more often when one is young." As the icing on the cake, he once summed up the ethos of this approach in a single sentence: "The more incommensurable a work of art, the better." In the scholars' defense, since the play begins and ends in heaven, one can hardly blame them for their Everyone Is Jesus in Purgatory-style intellectual acrobatics.
- The Notes at the end of The Waste Land, which aren't necessarily as helpful as one might like. Easy to imagine T. S. Eliot having a chuckle at the expense of the critics. In The Frontiers of Criticism, he claimed he padded them in order to fill out the book "with the result that they became the remarkable exposition of bogus scholarship that is still on view to-day".
- Alternately and/or concurrently played straight, subverted, inverted, lampshaded and transcended in the works of Philip K. Dick.
- Spectra: A Book of Poetic Experiments was written as a pseudonymous parody of a poetry movement called Imagism and contained quite a bit of deliberate nonsense.
Cream is better than lemon
In tea at breakfast.
I think of tigers as eating lemons.
Thank God this tea comes from the greengrocer,
Not from Ceylon.
- BBC's Robin Hood has a scene in season 2 in which Sir Guy has a dream where Marian massages his shoulder and says that she "Should have let [him] take care of [her]" then Marian turns into Allan who says "I'm your boy" "I should've let you take care of me". The scene pleased many slash fans, but the writers admitted that it was just to get people talking.
- The ending to The Prisoner (1967). Patrick McGoohan wanted people to scratch their heads and cudgel their brains out trying to understand the final episode. He did too good a job — apparently disgruntled or just plain confused fans showed up at his house demanding to know what it was all about.
- In the season 4 finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Joss Whedon placed a weirdo with cheese spouting nonsense lines in each of the four main characters' dreams. Although the rest of the episode is heavy with symbolism, he specifically wanted something in each dream sequence that meant absolutely nothing whatsoever. This doesn't stop fans from trying to explain it anyway.
- Twin Peaks, which despite its apparent Myth Arc, was simply David Lynch making things up as he went along.
- A Babylon 5 episode features Sheridan having a dream with all kinds of symbolism that actually means something... and Garibaldi with a bird on his shoulder, which was only put in because JMS thought it would be a funny thing to make the actor do.
- P J Hammond keeps saying that he never had any explanation for any events in Sapphire and Steel that didn't appear in the show's dialogue.
- The surreal comedy short Too Many Cooks has spawned all sorts of elaborate theories about its supposed hidden meanings, but Casper Kelly has specified that it was made to be a joke that goes on for way too long in order to confuse unfortunate viewers who happened across it during its original 4 AM airing. The increasingly bizarre things which happen during the short were simply added to make the joke longer, not to make a sophisticated statement about the state of modern television like many believe.
- The Beatles:
- "I Am the Walrus". They later turned this into an art form with "Glass Onion", the source for the Trope Namer, which consists almost entirely of cryptic Shout Outs to the group's earlier songs.
- It's safe to say it's not just "I Am the Walrus", but half the songs John Lennon wrote. His quote proves it: He was so fed up with fans trying to find hidden allusions in their songs (most notably, a music teacher was getting their students to decipher the songs) that he decided to write a completely nonsensical one — namely, "I Am the Walrus". Lennon allegedly said, "Let's see the fuckers figure that one out" after finishing it. Which, in an ironic twist, was still searched for "clues". But Lennon had the final word during his post-Beatles career when, in his song "God" he sang, "I was the walrus, but now, I'm John." Particularly tellingly, "I am the Walrus" is a significant part of the "Paul Is Dead" theory, due to Through the Looking-Glass associating them with deceit and murder, and a claim that walruses are a symbol of death in some Inuit cultures (they aren't).
- "Come Together" has the same origin.
- After making a particularly good point during a TV interview in regards to The Beatles' waning popularity among teeny-boppers, John Lennon looked directly into the camera and said: "Isn't that right, Harry?". Who's Harry? He doesn't exist. John randomly chose the name to keep the audience guessing.
- Veruca Salt parodied/homaged the "Glass Onion" example in the bridge to "Volcano Girls" — "Well here's another clue if you please/ the Seether's Louise", referring to a member of the band and the song "Seether", which had lyrics that were often debated over by fans. It was probably just meant as a tongue in cheek reference to interpretations rather than an actual mind screw though, as they'd already said in interviews that "the Seether" was a personification of anger. It's actually a very good homage to the original mind screw, though, right down to the misdirection (just as it was John and not Paul who sang lead on "I Am the Walrus," it was Nina and not Louise who sang lead on "Seether").
- Don McLean, when asked what the meaning of "American Pie" was, said something like, "It means I never have to work again." There is one thing mentioned in the song that's definite: "the day the music died," which refers to the plane crash that killed Ritchie Valens, Buddy Holly, and The Big Bopper. That, more than anything, is why this song has been picked to death.
- The progressive metal group tool runs off of this. They put a huge emphasis on personal interpretation of the imagery used in their songs, to the point where their most recent album, 2019's Fear Inoculum, is the only one that included the official lyrics. They even indulged in lying about the meaning of their songs, saying that they're a "tool" to understanding The Joyful Guide to Lachrymology (literally, "the science of crying") by Ronald P. Vincent. The book, author and science do not exist.
- David Bowie wrote most of his songs this way. When asked about the meaning of lyrics, he gave different answers, but towards the end of his life, he admitted that he sometimes just picked words out of magazines and strung them together because he liked the sound.
- Bob Dylan, when asked what his songs were about, replied "Oh some are about three minutes, some are about five minutes."
Interviewer: What's your message?
Dylan: [mortally offended] What's my message? [brandishes mercury light] Keep a cool head and always carry a light bulb!
- Much of composer Erik Satie's music poked fun at the idea that music needed to serve some grand purpose or be consciously about anything.
- Carly Simon has given many utterly contradictory hints over the years as to who the subject of "You're So Vain" is. She changes her answer to a different clue, each just as incompatible with the others, every decade or so. The likeliest explanation of the song is that she originally wrote it without intending it to be about any actual existing specific man, and was as delighted as she was surprised by all the endless speculation and debate, so she decided to take the misconception that the song refers to someone in particular and run with it for as long as she could. There is one guy, in the entire world, who knows for certain who the song is actually about. He won the answer in an auction, and Simon made him sign a nondisclosure agreement. It lasts at least until Simon dies.
- The singer Seal intentionally does not put out official lyrics to his songs, feeling that if someone realized the lyrics were something other than what they thought it was, it would rob them of what they feel the song's meaning is to them.
- Adriyel's "Natasha/Natalie" features lyrics such as "You're a person, and a concept / You're both and neither I suppose", insisting that "this audience will never know / what you mean and what you show" and referring to the narrator's fun times with the girl in question, despite the fact that the girl in question has never met him, doesn't know who he is, and apparently doesn't even speak English because she's from the Ukraine. The only definitely solved mystery is of the two names: in Russia and the Ukraine, the names Natasha and Natalie are interchangeable.
- Faith No More's "Epic" has inspired many theories about what in particular "it" is (The last half of the song is in fact just a refrain of "What is it? / It's it."). The most popular theories are "rape" and "style," showing just how vague and contradictory the lyrics are. Eventually, the song's writer mentioned in an interview that he just put together words that sound good, without any regard to meaning.
- Similarly to The Beatles, Bernie Taupin's poetic lyrics with Elton John, including Word Salad Lyrics like on "Levon" or "Take Me to the Pilot", were overanalyzed and misinterpreted. Bernie and Elton wrote the Caribou album track "Solar Prestige a Gammon" to, like "I Am the Walrus" before, mess with people's heads and parody the overanalyzing. And it, like "Walrus", was overanalyzed itself!
- "The Riddle" by Nik Kershaw has deliberately nonsensical lyrics which were chosen simply to fit the lyrics, combined with an equally-incoherent music video depicting The Riddler doing various bizarre things.
- The meaning of Michael Stipe's lyrics for R.E.M. - when they can be deciphered at all - have sometimes been: (a) criticised by Stipe for being totally inaccurate; (b) announced by Stipe as being meaningless and just conveying a mood; or (c) both (or neither) of these at different times.
- Jon Anderson of Yes has admitted that he usually wrote lyrics on the basis of the words sounding good, rather than of meaning anything when put together.
- Japanese Avant-Garde Black Metal band Sigh. From the liner notes to Hail Horror Hail: "This album is way beyond the conceived notion of how metal, or music, should be. In essence, it is a movie without pictures; a celluloid phantasmagoria. Accordingly, the film jumps, and another scene, seemingly unconnected with the previous context, is suddenly inserted in between frames. Every sound on this album is deliberate, and if you find that some parts of this album are strange, it isn't because the music is in itself strange, but because your conscious self is ill-equipped to comprehend the sounds produced on this recording." They have kept to this philosophy ever since. Their music is even stranger than this quote indicates; they are in fact one of the very strangest musical acts ever to emerge from Japan. Their music's still insanely catchy, though, especially by Black Metal standards.
- Interpol. Paul Banks has said in interviews that their Word Salad Lyrics were written to provide to a song's feel, rather than to have any real meaning. He does encourage personal interpretations of songs, though.
- Chris Cornell of Soundgarden admitted that most of his lyrics didn't have much literal meaning to them. They're just supposed to be evocative.
- The Trope Namer for Cow Tools comes from a The Far Side comic strip depicting a cow with some weird looking tools. Gary Larson actually got a lot of calls and letters asking what it meant. He said that it wasn't meant to mean anything and the joke was simply saying that cows would make weird looking tools.
- Henrik Ibsen made a rather obvious one in Peer Gynt from 1867. At the beginning of the fifth act, the title character is encountered by an enigmatic fellow, only labeled as "the unknown passenger". His apparent function is to freak out the main character, and the second time he shows up is while Peer Gynt hangs on for dear life on a capsized lifeboat. While Peer struggles to survive, the "passenger" chats away as if nothing bothered him, and the conversation gets weirder and weirder, until he just slips away, stating that Peer should not worry, because "one doesn`t die in the middle of the fifth act". This character, what or who he is, has been debated ever since the play was published, and nobody has gotten to a secure conclusion, as the lines in question points in many possible directions. It is quite possible that Ibsen yanked the audience`s chain here, just to make a sequence that would be screwy enough for everyone to be confused. For 150 years and counting.
- Game Boy Camera has some... highly disturbing images and sounds hidden in the game. Of note are the vandalised pictures of Nintendo employees, accompanied by a horrific sound and the caption, "who are you running from?". Why are they there? The developers are complete and utter trolls.
- Silent Hill: Even the stuff that's All There in the Manual doesn't help anyone make sense of the series. It's not meant to. Even the fans' most cherished theories have never received any confirmation more solid than a shrug or an inconclusive reply from the producers. Among other things, they claim that the only canonical conclusions to each game are the UFO Endings.
- The Mirror Lied: A complete and deliberate Mind Screw. To quote the author: "It has no defined story by me, that's certain — but its point is to be on the extreme end of the scale as far as ambiguity goes, for the sake of a possibly refreshing experiment of interpretation for some."
- Yume Nikki is a dialogue-free, non-linear journey through the dream world of a girl who won't go anywhere while awake except for her bedroom and adjacent balcony. Good luck getting any answers about what any of the dream symbols mean, what happened in the ending, or what the fuck is up with Uboa.
- OFF makes a few explanations for its madness, but they're either very wacky or very vague.
- Killer7, or any other game by Suda51.
- Murder Clown, a game about a poorly drawn MS Paint clown with a bag collecting children, with quotes about True Art by various famous people serving as loading screens between levels. People who know the author claim it was meant to be a parody of postmodern.
- Bad Milk, a rather rare and surreal game, has a point where there's a sentence that, listened to backwards, says The Walrus is Paul. While most things in the game make little sense, at least they're somewhat connected or are clues to something. It's not the case for this one.
- Andrew Hussie is well known for mercilessly toying with the concept of Word of God by trolling factoid-hungry fans, memorably claiming that the faces of Homestuck's trolls are actually collections of specialized genitalia that happen to look like an angry face to the human eye, and that all trolls have two penises, one for love and one for hate. When asked why he does this? "Because it's fun!"
- This completely random YouTube Poop, as evidenced by this conversation in the comments:
sfraser0: i don't get it.....CornIceProductions, the guy who made the video: I do
- The whole point of an Animutation is to be as nonsensical as possible, even the ones that have a plot. (For example, Holy Shit Ninjas! has a pretty understandable plot, but is peppered with a lot of nonsense)
- Ben Wheele's animations range from "bizarre and surreal" to "look like the nightmare of a schizophrenic Alzheimer's patient dying of fever while high on LSD"
- Æon Flux messes with your head constantly, and Peter Chung has gone out of his way not to explain anything, in hopes that the viewers will derive their own meanings. This approach eventually backfired badly on him, though. The plot of the film, almost universally considered terrible, had its genesis in the scriptwriters' own interpretation of one of the mind screwiest episodes of the series.
- Word of God says nothing in Drawn Together happens for any reason other than to be funny. There's very little that can be called Canon and you would go nuts trying to comprehend it.