False document

A false document is a form of verisimilitude that attempts to create a sense of authenticity beyond the normal and expected suspension of disbelief for a work of art. The goal of a false document is to fool an audience into thinking that what is being presented is actually a fact.

In practice, false document effects can be achieved in many ways, including use of faked police reports, newspaper articles, bibliographical references, documentary footage or using the legal names of performers or writers in a fictional context. The effect can be extended outside of the confines of a text by supplementary material such as badges, I.D. cards, diaries, letters or other artifacts.

By intentionally blurring boundaries between fiction and fact, false documents present complex and perhaps insoluble ethical questions. In some cases, the difference between a great artistic achievement and a stunning forgery is slim. Sometimes the false document technique can be the subject of a work instead of its technique, though these two approaches are not mutually exclusive as many texts which engage falseness do so both on the literal and the thematic level.

A false document is usually created simply as an artistic exercise, but occasionally are promoted in conjunction with a criminal enterprise like fraud, forgery or a confidence game. A false document should not be confused with a mockumentary, an admittedly fictional film presented in the manner of a documentary.

Origin of the false document technique

One of the earliest examples of the technique is the 16th century chivalric romance Amadis of Gaul (1508, Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo).

False documents in film

The Semidocumentary film making technique popularized in the 1950s used documentary techniques.

The 1973 film The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (And the 2003 Remake) claims to be based on true events, but this is not the case. It is, in reality, only loosely inspired by crimes committed by Ed Gein.

The 1974 film Macon County Line claims to be true but it is fiction.

Peter Jackson's 1995 film Forgotten Silver was billed and introduced as a serious documentary, purporting to tell the story of 'forgotten' New Zealand filmmaker Colin McKenzie. A large portion of the viewing audience were fooled until the directors revealed they were "only joking".

A disclaimer before the 1996 film Fargo makes the claim that it is based on a true story, but this was refuted by its creators, the Coen brothers, saying that people would more readily believe something outlandish if told that it actually happened, per the "truth is stranger than fiction" idiom.

When the 1999 film The Blair Witch Project was released, the extensive marketing campaign claimed it to be a real documentary, compiled from footage discovered abandoned in a forest.

The 2008 film Cloverfield purports to be video footage shot by witnesses of a monster attacking New York City and recovered by the Army as evidence. It begins with a title screen claiming the footage was found in "US Site 447, formerly known as Central Park." However, the enormous scale of the disaster shown in the movie makes it impossible that viewers would consider the movie to be true.

False documents in art

Orson Welles' F for Fake is a prime example of a film which is both about falsification (art forgery and the journalism surrounding art forgery) as well as having falsified moments within the film. The movie follows the exploits of a famous art forger, his biographer Clifford Irving, and the subsequent fake autobiography of Howard Hughes that Irving tries to publish. The issues of veracity and forgery are explored in the film while at the same time, Welles tricks the audience by incorporating fake bits of narrative alongside the documentary footage.

Another artist who has run afoul of the technique is the artist JSG Boggs, whose life and work have been extensively explored by author and journalist Lawrence Weschler. Boggs draws currency with exceptional care and accuracy, but he only ever draws one side. He then attempts to buy things with the piece of paper upon which he has drawn the currency. His goal is to pass each bill for its face value in common transactions. He buys lunch, clothes, and lodging in this manner, and after the transactions are complete his bills fetch many times their face value on the art market along with accompanying evidence (receipts, photos, and the like) which prove the veracity of the actual transaction. Boggs does not make any money from the much larger art market value of his work. He only exists on the profit of the actual transaction. He has been arrested in many countries, and there is much controversy surrounding his work.

Mostly, however, the technique is employed in more mundane ways that hark back to its nineteenth century origins. Whether a particular piece of art is a false document, or is using false documentary techniques in a central way, is of course arguable. Usually, the character and extent of the use is examined.

False documents, fakery and forgery

Documentary filmmaking, and other attempts at actual documentation, can wittingly and unwittingly participate in the form as its goals of authenticity are so closely aligned with direct false documentation (that is, in both cases there is an element of authenticity and an element of narrative fudging). In Schwarzenegger's Pumping Iron, for example, Arnold talks about how his father died in the months preceding a major body building competition. He uses this anecdote to illustrate how important the final months before a competition are to a truly dedicated bodybuilder. He says that, though his father's funeral was set during the penultimate month, he did not attend because he could not be distracted from training. However, in the companion book it is revealed that at the time of printing, Arnold's father had not died. It does not say the story was a lie, it merely provides contrary evidence. Schwarzenegger was executive producer of both the film and the companion book. It has been theorized by Professor Sally Robinson that Schwarzenegger was intentionally undermining his own narrative, effectively creating a mildly self-deprecating re-examination of his own obsessions for perfection at any cost. In the end, whether Arnold intentionally fabricated the story for a desired effect is left to the audience (in interviews associated with the re-release of the film, he says he did).

The Protocols of the Elders of Zion

In the case of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion there is a very interesting complexity. It is an alleged record which was published and printed for the first time in 1903. The alleged original manuscript has long since disappeared, and conflicting, and inconsistent, testimony and witness reports about it have been presented at the Berne Trial in 1934 and 1935. Nevertheless, it has been established that it was a fabrication created by the Tsar's secret police, the Okhrana. Furthermore, it has been established that a substantial portion of it were taken, without citation, from a 1864 satire on Napoleon III by one Maurice Joly (his French language work titled, Dialogue in Hell Between Machiavelli and Montesquieu) - so that it also constitutes plagiarism. Nevertheless, it has been repeatedly reproduced, in typescript and printed form, by its often anonymous editors as an alleged authentic document taken or stolen from some vaguely identified Jewish and Masonic organization. As such, it was presented to Russian Empire censors (1903, 1905, 1906, 1911) who passed it along for publication. Similarly, it was presented to various government officials, military and diplomatic, in the United States and in Europe (1919-1920), in opposition to the Russian Revolution, and to influence the terms of the peace settlement which resulted in the Treaty of Versailles. Accordingly, this work, which now only exists in the world as a reproduction, has all the elements of a false document. Since it is difficult to imagine a typesetter working without a manuscript, we must assume that one existed. But since this original forged item has long since disappeared, the crimes of fraudulently and repeatedly submitting such a false document as authentic not only cannot be prosecuted, but cannot be studied by historians or subjected to the rigorous requirements of forensics.

False documents in theory

False documents in fiction

Several fiction writers use the technique of inventing a piece of literature or non-fiction and referring to this work as if it actually existed, typically by quoting from the work.

Blurring the line of reality and fiction is an important component of horror, mystery, detective, science fiction and fantasy narratives due to their unusual demands on verisimilitude; a typically descriptive narrative form may not engender in the reader the necessary sense of wonder and danger. For this reason, false documentary techniques have been in use for at least as long as these literary genres have existed. Frankenstein draws heavily on a forged document feel, as do Dracula, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and many of the works of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire is a particularly elaborate variation.

The following is a partial list of false supporting documents in fiction:

  • Miguel de Cervantes claims that all the chapters but the first in Don Quixote are translated from an Arabic manuscript by Cide Hamete Benengeli. He is parodying a plot device of chivalry books. For instance, Joanot Martorell in the introductory letter to Tirant lo Blanc claims to be not the creator of a fiction, but the translator of an English historical manuscript.
  • Robert Graves' novel I, Claudius, is written as a recently-discovered autobiography penned by the late Emperor.
  • Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe was supposedly the autobiography of the title character, an English castaway who spent 28 years on a remote island. The account was presented as a factual event, in a genre called histories. It was based on the real castaway Alexander Selkirk.
  • Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels was originally attributed to "Lemuel Gulliver", a ship's surgeon, and purported to be a factual account of four of his sea voyages. It even includes a rather irate bogus note from Gulliver to his publisher. It may be debatable whether the book is an example of a False Document, but is included because it initially bore little or no indication that it was a work of fiction.
  • The Ossian cycle of ancient Celtic poetry supposedly rediscovered and published in 1760 was actually written in the eighteenth century, possibly based on some fragments of earlier verses.
  • Voltaire's play Candide purports to be assembled from the notes of a deceased "Monsieur le docteur Ralph", likely due to the fact that the play pokes fun at most of the powers of Europe at the time.
  • Bram Stoker's novel Dracula is told in the form of numerous documents, including journals and newspaper articles. A brief introduction claims that they are all real.
  • Italo Calvino's novel If On a Winter's Night a Traveller deals extensively with the concepts surrounding false documents, including serially representing the contents of the novel itself as a false document.
  • The Anno Dracula stories and novels of Kim Newman use many of these same false sources.
  • The Necronomicon appearing in the works of H. P. Lovecraft.
  • The King in Yellow appearing in the book of the same name by Robert W. Chambers purports to be an actual play that is capable of driving the reader insane.
  • Both the books Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them and Quidditch Through the Ages, which were written by Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling as a way to raise funds for Comic Relief U.K., are written as reference books for the wizarding world. The books, which are referenced many times in the Harry Potter books, even have footnotes about other books, which do no exist, for future reading, and a foreword by Albus Dumbledore, which explains why they are releasing the book to a muggle audience. Fantastic Beasts also has "written in" commentary by both Harry and Ron.
  • Neil Gaiman, in the first issue of his comic Sandman, introduced the grimoire titled Grimorium Magdelene.
  • In the The Club Dumas, author Arturo Pérez-Reverte introduced the grimoire the The Nine Doors of the Kingdom of Shadows (also called The Ninth Gate) as well as the Delomalanicon.
  • Author William Goldman claims in his book The Princess Bride that the story he tells is an abridged version of the Florinese literary masterpiece by the great (and fictional) S. Morgenstern.
  • Fritz Leiber's novella Our Lady of Darkness revolves around the secret occult studies of fictional author/occultist Thibaut de Castries and his book Megapolisomancy: A New Science of Cities.
  • The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco pretends to be a recovered manuscript.
  • First Encyclopaedia of Tlön appearing in the short story "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" by Jorge Luis Borges, plus several other fictional books invented by the same author, including an entire bibliography for the fictional author Pierre Menard.
  • Several works of the fictional author Fanshawe appearing in Paul Auster's The Locked Room in The New York Trilogy.
  • The Red Book of Westmarch and a surviving copy of it called The Thain's Book, portions of which were "translated" by J. R. R. Tolkien into his books The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien also physically fabricated several pages of another fictional book, the "Book of Mazarbul".
  • Never Whistle While You're Pissing is the work of the fictional character Hagbard Celine in the Illuminatus! Trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson.
  • Michael Crichton's Eaters of the Dead is a fabricated recreation of the Old English epic Beowulf in the form of a scholastic translation of Ahmad ibn Fadlan's tenth century manuscript. Many of his other novels, such as The Andromeda Strain and Jurassic Park, also incorporated large quantities of fabricated scientific documents in the form of diagrams, DNA sequences, footnotes and bibliography.
  • Business historian Robert Sobel wrote For Want of a Nail, a fictional history of an alternate North America which included hundreds of fictional footnotes and a bibliography listing over a hundred fictional histories and biographies.
  • Dozens of fictional footnotes referencing events, books of magical scholarship, and biographies in Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, the debut novel by Susanna Clarke.
  • Milorad Pavić's Dictionary of the Khazars is a work of fiction in the form of three fictional encyclopedias, which incorporate viewpoints that provide inconsistent descriptions of the events they describe.
  • A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs claims to be the manuscript of John Carter relating his adventures on Mars, except for the first chapter explaining how the manuscript was received. Burroughs has also used this technique extensively in his other novels, particularly the tales of Pellucidar.
  • House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski is a work of fiction revolving around the discovery of a manuscript critiquing a documentary called The Navidson Record and its effects on both its author and editor.
  • The Third Policeman and The Dalkey Archive by Flann O'Brien contains not only quotes from the works of a fictitious Irish philosopher named de Selby, but also has numerous footnotes and references to other fictitious authors writing about de Selby and his books.
  • The Flashman books by George MacDonald Fraser are supposedly edited versions of the title character's memoirs.
  • The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams is named for a fictional galactic encyclopedia that one of the main characters works for. The book also frequently quotes the fictional Guide.
  • The roleplaying game Spaceship Zero presents itself as being based on a non-existent television show, which is based on a non-existent radio play, all of which are to be adapted into a non-existent film. The hoax has been generally accepted in a number of reviews of the title.
  • Philip K. Dick's novel The Man in the High Castle features a (banned) fictional work called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, which purports to describe how things might have transpired after World War II if the Allied side had won (in the reality of the book, the Axis powers triumphed).
  • The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova purports to be a book by the main character, and further contains a number of other letters, books, and maps relating to Dracula and the main character's friends and family.
  • Isaac Asimov's Encyclopedia Galactica as presented in The Foundation Series is an attempt to compile all human knowledge in order to preserve it following the collapse of the Galactic Empire in the far future. An "excerpt" from it introduces each chapter of each book in the series.
  • Isaac Asimov's story The Endochronic Properties of Resublimated Thiotimoline is a fictional research paper about a compound that dissolves before being added to water that cites only and entirely false sources.
  • Stephen King's novel, Carrie, includes many excerpts from a fictional committee's findings on the events in the novel, as well as excerpts from a book on the events in the novel titled The Shadow Exploded.
  • Dean Koontz' novels included quotations from The Book of Counted Sorrows, which did not exist until, at the urging of his fans, he created it.
  • Jack Higgins based his book The Eagle Has Landed on alleged research into a German abduction plot in the Second World War. Higgins writes in the first person of finding the graves of 13 German paratroopers in an English churchyard, an event known not to have actually occurred, and claims that the book stems from his research into actual events.
  • Nathaniel Hawthorne's book The Scarlet Letter opens with an account of the author himself finding the letter and records which tell the story of Hester Prynne, which is narrated in the rest of the book. The existence of the records has never been proven; the opening is generally considered to be a literary device.
  • Margaret Atwood's novel The Handmaid's Tale closes with a chapter set at a conference taking place some time after the events of the rest of the book, in which scholars question the authenticity of the earlier manuscript.
  • The comic book limited series Watchmen makes extensive use of the technique, including one character's autobiography, magazine interviews with several characters, psychiatric reports and even a fictional comic book within the comic book.
  • James Gurney's Dinotopia: Land Apart from Time is based on the premise that it is the diary of Arthur Dennison, who gets shipwrecked on the island of Dinotopia.
  • Nick Bantock's series of Griffin and Sabine works consist of a series of letters and postcards between the two main characters.
  • The Tattooed Map, a novel by Barbara Hodgson also published by Raincoast Books, reads as a journal being kept by the protagonists as they travel to Morocco, complete with hardwritten notes, photos and magazine cutouts from the journey.
  • The books in Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events conclude with supposed letters from Snicket himself to his editor, containing a summary of his submitted manuscript for the following book in the series. Since Lemony Snicket is both the fictional narrator of the stories as well as the author's pseudonym, it creates a false sense that the stories are written from truth.
  • The Screwtape Letters, written by C. S. Lewis, is purported to be a series of missives from a demonic teacher at a college to his protégé.
  • The Zombie Survival Guide, by Max Brooks, presents itself as a survival manual in the event of a zombie outbreak. It includes citations of scientific studies performed on zombies, details on the sort of preparation one can make to guard against attacks, and historical examples of zombie outbreaks. It concludes with blank pages which the owner is meant to use as a journal, should they endure a zombie outbreak, lending the book a stronger, if satiric, kind of realism. Brooks' later work, World War Z, uses false interviews to create a mockumentary account of a worldwide zombie outbreak.
  • "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar," by Edgar Allan Poe, about a mesmerist who puts a man in a suspended hypnotic state at the moment of death. It was published without claiming to be fictional, and many at the time of publication (1845), took it to be a factual account.
  • Each chapter in Frank Herbert's science fiction novels Whipping Star, The Dosadi Experiment, and Dune variously begin with an aphorism, an excerpt from an official report (or even a manual), a quotation from a book about the events of the novel, etc.

A special case is represented by two examples fashioned to represent traditional academic scientific publications:

False documents in games

In video games, the adventure genre has most frequently given rise to the use of false documents to create a sense of immersion. The feelies pioneered by text adventure company Infocom include many examples, such as blueprints, maps, documents, and publications designed within the context of each game's fictional setting. A more recent development, the alternate reality game, is intrinsically tied to the concept; an ARG may exist solely as a collection of false documents that build a fictional storyline and puzzles connected to it.

A prominent example of false document in the videogame genre is the Resident Evil series, which, from the first installment, uses newspaper clippings and television news reports that report the alleged cannibalistic murder of the victims found in the Arklay Mountain region. While the rest of the series does not do this as much as the first, there are still a few cases that it happens, such as the opening sequence of Resident Evil 4.

A viral marketing campaign ran prior to the release of Shadow of the Colossus, stating the Colossi were actual real statues found by explorers and tourists.

False documents in cross-marketing

There is a long history of producers creating tie-in material to promote and merchandise movies and television shows. Tie-in materials as far-ranging as toys, games, lunch boxes, clothing and so on have all been created and in some cases generate as much or more revenue as the original programming. One big merchandising arena is publishing. In most cases such material is not considered canon within the show's mythology; however, in some instances the books, magazines, etc. are specifically designed by the creators to be canonical. With the rise of the Internet, in-canon online material has become more prominent.

The following is a list of "false document" in-canon supplemental material:

Additionally, a set of trading cards was produced which are also canon.

  • Bad Twin ISBN 1-4013-0276-9 is a canon tie-in novel for the TV series Lost

False documents in politics

A forged document, the Zinoviev Letter brought about the downfall of the first Labour Government in Britain. It was likely forged by SIS, the secret service now known as MI6. Conspiracies within secret intelligence services have occurred more recently, and led Harold Wilson in the 1960s to put in place rules to prevent phone tapping of members of parliament for example.


A number of hoaxes have involved false documents:

False documents as a field of study

False documents were recently the topic of a graduate level seminar in the humanities at the University of Michigan. The seminar was taught by Professor Eileen Pollack. While the form has existed for at least two hundred years, focused study is fairly recent.

See also


Curtis Peebles (1994). Watch the Skies: A Chronicle of the Flying Saucer Myth, Smithsonian Institution, ISBN 1-56098-343-4

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