False document  

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This page False document is part of the fiction series.Illustration: Screenshot from A Trip to the Moon (1902) Georges Méliès
This page False document is part of the fiction series.
Illustration: Screenshot from A Trip to the Moon (1902) Georges Méliès

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A false document is a technique employed to create verisimilitude in a work of fiction. By inventing and inserting documents that appear to be factual, an author tries 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 convince an audience that what is being presented is factual.

In practice, false-document effects can be achieved in many ways. Tactics have included the following: fake police reports, newspaper articles, bibliographical references, documentary footage, or using the legal names of performers or writers in a fictional context. Supplementary material such as badges, identity cards (IC), diaries, letters or artifacts can also be included, and this extends the exercise beyond the confines of the text.

False documents intentionally blur the boundaries between fiction and fact, and, in some cases, the difference between an artistic achievement and a convincing forgery is slight. Sometimes the false-document technique can be the subject of a work instead of the technique behind the work itself; however, these two approaches are not mutually exclusive, as many texts that engage "falseness" operate on both a literal and thematic level.

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


Origin of the technique

One of the earliest examples of the technique can be found in the 16th century chivalric romance, Amadis of Gaul (1508), written by Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo. Montalvo claimed to have discovered sections of a story that he had written himself.

In business

Forged documents in business are typically for financial gain.

Material certificates

A material's certification, essentially a report of its composition and properties, may be forged. A low-property material, produced for lower cost, may be passed as a higher-property material, which has a higher price. The difference becomes illicit profit. Counterfeit fasteners have low-strength alloys or inferior production processes, but are sold as high-strength fasteners. Western Titanium sold low-grade titanium alloy as high-grade, by forging its material certification.

Safety certificates

Similarly, parts, systems, and processes for high-valued operations may have their quality-assurance documents forged. Substandard items may be cheaper or simply more readily available. Nuclear power plants in Japan and Korea have found components with forged safety documents.

See also: Mission Assurance

See also: Information Assurance

In film

The 1978 British comedy film The Rutles was done in the style of rock documentary which treated the fake band The Rutles as if they were a real band. It included mock-ups of album covers and other ephemera as well as fake videos. It also included figures such as Mick Jagger, and Paul Simon as themselves, although it also included other members of The Rolling Stones and The Beatles playing various characters as well as numerous recognizable comedy actors, so there was no real intent to fool the audience. The success of the project did, however, lead to the fictional group recording two hit records and actually performing live concerts. The film would start a genre of its own, called mockumentary, and become hugely influential on later similar films, such as This is Spinal Tap and Hard Core Logo.

The 1983 Woody Allen film Zelig was an elaborate mix of real newsreel footage from the 1930s and fake footage mixed together with fake interviews with real actors playing themselves as well as actors playing roles to tell the story of the Allen character and presented as a documentary. Although the film looks realistic, the intent was not to actually fool the audience who would have been in on the joke.

The 1992 mockumentary Bob Roberts was also a political mystery filmed as a fake documentary. This time, there was no soundtrack album in spite of the importance of music in the film, as the film's writer, director and star Tim Robbins was concerned that the politically right-wing content would be taken too seriously and used by actual right-wing politicians.

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."

The 1996 Canadian film Hard Core Logo, about a punk band, was done in the style of a documentary. As part of the film's promotional campaign, some ads were placed in music magazines from fake music collectors claiming to be looking for albums from the band. In lieu of a proper soundtrack album, the filmmakers instead produced an album called A Tribute to Hard Core Logo which pretended to be a tribute album to the non-existent band. One of the bands on the album, The Headstones, featured singer Hugh Dillon, who also starred in the movie as a singer of the fictional band. Most of the bands who actually did appear as themselves in the movie, such as Art Bergman, The Modernettes and D.O.A., were not on the fake tribute album. A proper soundtrack album would be released much later. The fictional band's music was done by a real band named "Swamp Baby" with vocals by Dillon. The film also features rock journalists and DJs as themselves.

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. After the film's success, a soundtrack album was produced which was supposed to be made up of music one of the characters had on her walkman when she "disappeared," although the film itself has little music in it.

The 2004 film C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America is a political satire which explores issues of slavery and racism by assuming that the American Civil War was won by the Confederacy. The film is presented as a BBC television documentary which includes false television ads for racist products which, at the end of the movie, are revealed to have been real at some point in the 20th Century.

2005 Canadian film The Life and Hard Times of Guy Terrifico, about a country rock singer, was also done as a fake documentary with appearances by Kris Kristofferson, Ronnie Hawkins, Merle Haggard and Levon Helm playing themselves. The film was also released with a soundtrack album which pretended to be a genuine album from the fictional singer. There was also a promotional campaign with magazine ads and posters which implied that the character was real.

The 2006 film The Death of a President was filmed in the style of a television documentary, filmed years after the event, to tell the story of the fictional assassination of U.S. President George W. Bush, and the aftermath, to realistic effect.

The 2008 film Cloverfield purports to be video footage shot by witnesses of a monster attacking New York City, and recovered by the US 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 without independent news reports to corroborate its story.

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.

Artist JSG Boggs's 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. Boggs does not make any money from the much larger art market value of his work, only from reselling the goods bought, the change and receipts and other such materials. He has been arrested in many countries, and there is much controversy surrounding his work.

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 bodybuilding 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

The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is an alleged secret document which was published and printed for the first time in 1903. The alleged original manuscript has long since disappeared. Conflicting and inconsistent testimony and witness reports about it were 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 was taken, without citation, from an 1864 satire on Napoleon III by one Maurice Joly (his French language work, The 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 the major elements of a false document.

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, Edgar Allan Poe 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 chapters but the first in Don Quixote are translated from an Arabic manuscript by Cide Hamete Benengeli, 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 published as a true story, in a genre called histories. It was, however, fiction inspired by events in the life of Alexander Selkirk.
  • Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels was originally attributed to "Lemuel Gulliver", the main character, and was apparently an autobiographical account of four of his sea voyages. It includes a memorandum from Gulliver to his publisher.
  • The Ossian cycle of ancient Celtic poetry supposedly rediscovered and published in 1760 by Scottish poet James Macpherson was actually written in the eighteenth century, possibly based on some fragments of earlier verses.
  • Voltaire's novel Candide purports to be assembled from the notes of a deceased "Monsieur le docteur Ralph", likely because the novel 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 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, 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 not 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 handwritten marginal commentary by both Harry and Ron. The Harry Potter books themselves also contain fictional documents and books, such as The Tales of Beedle the Bard, which was later created in a similar fashion to Fantastic Beasts and Quidditch Through the Ages. Other false documents that appear in the books include articles from The Daily Prophet, a wizarding world newspaper which usually referenced events that were pertinent to the plots of the books, and The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore, a "tell-all" book which became pertinent to the plot of the final book in the Harry Potter series.
  • In The Club Dumas, author Arturo Pérez-Reverte describes in detail the grimoires The Nine Doors of the Kingdom of Shadows and 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 S. Morgenstern.
  • The 1977 book Gnomes by Wil Huygen and Rien Poortvliet was written as a nature study of gnomes and their way of life presented as fact.
  • 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. The story partly concerns the discovery of Aristotle's book on Comedy, which is in fact a lost book.
  • Jorge Luis Borges created a number of false documents scattered throughout his works, including the First Encyclopaedia of Tlön that appears in the short story "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius", the entire bibliography for the fictional author Pierre Menard, and an imaginary novel purportedly written by Bombay lawyer Mir Bahadur Ali entitled The Approach to Al-Mu'tasim, which was "reviewed" by Borges in his story of the same name. Borges' analysis of metafiction in the essay "When Fiction Lives in Fiction" deals extensively with the teleological nature of false documents.
  • George Orwell's dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four includes selections from a banned fictional book The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, which citizens of Oceania are forbidden to read. Orwell also uses the technique of false document in an appendix to the same novel, titled "The Principles of Newspeak", in which Orwell offers a linguistic guide to Oceania's official language, Newspeak, from the perspective of the country's ruling party, along with policy prescriptions for how the language may develop in the future.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • The 1971 novel "La Gloire de l'Empire" ("The Glory of the Empire") by Jean d'Ormesson is a deadpan history of the imaginary Empire and its influence on literature and art, complete with citations to a host of real and fictional sources, and a footnote referring to itself.
  • 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 novel taking the form of a commentary on a discussion of a documentary film called The Navidson Record. Although it contains extensive footnotes to both real and imagined books, academic papers, scientific reports, films, and television broadcasts, neither The Navidson Record nor the discussion on it actually exist.
  • 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 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 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's 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.
  • 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.
  • How Is This Going to Continue?, a novel by James Chapman, presents itself as the libretto to a musical work by a composer whose (fictional) entry in The Grove Dictionary of Music is quoted at length. The apparatus is supported by extensive source notes, some of which refer to non-existent sources. Moreover, much of the book consists of false quotations by famous musicians, intermingled with actual quotations and with quotes by fictional characters.
  • 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.
  • Either/Or, an influential philosophical text by Søren Kierkegaard, purports to be a collection of texts discovered and edited by Kierkegaard's pseudonymous author Victor Eremita. In it are contained the writings of an "Aesthete" (called A), as well as the letters of a Judge Vilhelm (called B), both found accidentally by Eremita in an antique writing desk. An additional layer to the book includes the famous "Seducer's Diary", itself supposedly discovered by the Aesthete.

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

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.

In Role Playing Games, a false document is often created by a Game Master as a mean to achieve more immersion in the game, often in conjunction with props.

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.

In politics

A forged document, the Zinoviev Letter brought about the downfall of the first Labour Government in Britain. 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:

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, the focused study of it is fairly recent.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "False document" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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