In this article:
- A good fictional story should seem believable to its audience and fully immerse the viewer in a fictional world that feels real.
- Probably the most famous instance of when an audience mistook fiction for reality is when Orson Welles delivered an adapted version of The War of the Worlds on a radio broadcast and caused mass hysteria in New Jersey in 1938.
- However, there have been plenty of similar instances throughout film history. Let’s look at 5 times that audiences mistook fictional movies for reality.
The hallmark of a good screenwriter is the ability to create a fictional story in which the characters, setting, plot, and dialogue all appear real in the minds of the audience. A good film immerses you fully and makes you part of the story from beginning to end.
In doing so, they allow you to escape from your real life for a short period of time and live in a world that’s more dramatic. However, some films take this concept to the next level. Some fictional movies have taken their audiences past the suspension of disbelief and have actually convinced them that what they’re watching is real.
The most famous instance of fiction being mistaken for reality is when Orson Welles and his colleagues broadcast a radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds on Mercury Theatre on the Air in 1938.
The broadcast took the 40-year-old novel and converted it into a fake news report about an alien invasion of New Jersey. And, while the hysteria that ensued has been vastly blown out of proportion over time, the broadcast was still believable enough to have hundreds of New Jersey residents rushing out of their houses or bunkering down in their basements in sheer panic.
Ever since this iconic incident, other creatives have strived to make their works as believable as Orson Welles’s monologue in 1938, to convince their audiences that their fictional stories have occurred in the real world. And many have succeeded.
5 Times Audiences Thought Fictional Movies Weren’t Fiction
1. The Blair Witch Project
While the found footage filming technique had been used before The Blair Witch Project came out in 1999, it had largely disappeared since its last use nearly 20 years earlier. And, for the young viewers who saw The Blair Witch Project in theatres, the technique was entirely new and horrifying.
The idea was to make the audience believe that the movie was the result of a series of tapes that were found in the woods and pieced together into a feature-length film. It worked.
Not only did the found footage technique make this movie extremely terrifying, it actually made some people believe that it was actually footage that someone found in the Black Hills outside Burkittsville, Maryland (where the movie was set).
This was aided by the fact that, after the movie’s release, articles started popping up all over the internet claiming that there actually was a witch residing in these woods. Things got so out of hand that people started traveling to Burkittsville to hike into the Black Hills and search for the witch.
2. Cannibal Holocaust
Despite having the most over-the-top name of any movie in Hollywood history, the 1980 film Cannibal Holocaust duped almost everyone who watched it into thinking it was real. Many credit this Italian film with being the first movie to utilize the found footage technique and, when it came out, that was something people simply couldn’t wrap their minds around.
The film follows a group of filmmakers who go missing when they journey into the Amazon rainforest to film a documentary about a tribe of cannibals.
From start to finish, this movie was unbelievably graphic, especially for the year 1980. In fact, the killings in the film were so believable that director Ruggero Deodato was arrested and put on trial for murder.
During the trial, Deodato was tasked with dispelling rumors that several actors had actually been murdered in the making of the film. Cannibal Holocaust was banned in Italy, Australia, and several other countries.
One of the crown jewels in the careers of the iconic Coen brothers is their 1996 black comedy crime thriller Fargo. This work of pure genius is understated, funny, chilling, and exhilarating all at the same time, much like real life can be.
In fact, in setting out to make this movie, the Coen brothers spent countless hours studying real crimes to try to make this film as believable as possible.
The brothers took that idea pretty far. The movie opens with a black screen donning the words: “This is a true story. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.”
Naturally, it’s pretty easy to see why audiences thought that Fargo depicted real events. It literally claims the story was true. In reality, there has never been any such crime story. When asked why they included this message at the beginning of the film, Ethan Coen responded, “We wanted to make a movie just in the genre of a true story movie. You don’t have to have a true story to make a true story movie.”
The 2004 epic biographical Western film Hidalgo stars Viggo Mortensen and follows the life story of American distance rider Frank Hopkins and his horse Hidalgo.
The movie, based on an autobiography written by the real Frank Hopkins, depicts Hopkins competing in and winning the “Ocean of Fire” horse race, falling in love, devouring locusts to survive, and releasing horses into the wilderness. The only problem is that none of it’s true.
Well, maybe some parts of it are true. However, many people have taken to fact-checking these claims from Frank Hopkins’s autobiography and have come to find that they are demonstrably untrue.
The “Ocean of Fire” race never existed, Hopkins was never in the U.S. Cavalry, and pretty much all of the other major claims in the book are false. So, it’s understandable why audiences would think that Hidalgo was a true story. However, in reality, it was decidedly fiction.
5. I’m Still Here
Without a doubt, Joaquin Phoenix is one of the most talented and versatile actors of our generation. From his recent performance in Joker to his depiction of the strange protagonist in Her to his role as the villain in Gladiator, Joaquin Phoenix has proven time and time again that he can defy all expectations and portray any type of character.
So, when he led the world to believe that he was quitting acting to become a mumble rapper, people were understandably upset.
Yes, Casey Affleck’s directorial debut I’m Still Here was supposedly a documentary following the life of famed actor Joaquin Phoenix as he transitioned from Hollywood into the world of hip-hop.
As he always does, Joaquin Phoenix fully immersed himself in the role and delivered a believable performance. However, this time, he also did so off-screen. In an infamous interview with David Letterman, Phoenix asserted that the events in the documentary were all true and that he was actually pursuing a career in mumble rap.
Director Casey Affleck also backed up these claims for weeks until the two finally decided to give up the act and admit the whole thing was a joke. But, for a while, there were quite a few viewers who believed that Phoenix had actually taken this new path in life.