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False document

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Title: False document  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Subject: Michael Crichton, Reference desk/Archives/Humanities/2008 July 15, Front de l'Indépendance, Reference desk/Archives/Entertainment/2014 August 3, Faux Soir
Collection: False Documents, Narratology
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

False document

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 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 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 1
  • In business 2
    • Material certificates 2.1
    • Safety certificates 2.2
  • In film 3
  • In art 4
  • False documents, fakery and forgery 5
    • The Protocols of the Elders of Zion 5.1
  • In fiction 6
    • Novels 6.1
    • Multiple works by individual authors 6.2
    • Special cases 6.3
  • In games 7
  • In cross-marketing 8
  • In politics 9
  • Hoaxes 10
  • As a field of study 11
  • See also 12
  • References 13

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.

Safety certificates

Similarly, parts, systems, and processes for high-valued operations may have their 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.

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 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."

In art

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

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, 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:



  • 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.


  • 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.

Dictionary of the Khazars

The Dirty Dozen

  • The climax of the novel by E.M. Nathanson is presented in the form of an official military report. In the film based on the novel, The Dirty Dozen, the climactic attack on a German chateau is done as an elaborate action sequence. The official military report appears as a brief voice-over narration in the final scene.


  • 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.

Don Quixote


  • 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.

For Want of a Nail

  • 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 Glory of the Empire

  • 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.

Gulliver's Travels

  • 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 Handmaid's Tale

  • 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.

House of Leaves

  • 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.

How is This Going to Continue

  • 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.

I Claudius

If On a Winter's Night a Traveller

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

The King in Yellow

The Name of the Rose

Robinson Crusoe

The Scarlet Letter

  • 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.

The Screwtape Letters

Lemony Snicket

  • 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.

Multiple works by individual authors

Isaac Asimov

  • 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. Also by Asimov is the Foundation series which has quotes from the fictitious _Encyclopedia Galactica_.

Nick Bantock

Jorge Luis Borges

Michael Crichton

J.K. Rowling

  • 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.

J.R.R. Tolkien'

Edgar Rice Burroughs

Flann O'Brien

Dean Koontz

Special cases

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.

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

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, leading Harold Wilson to put in place rules to prevent in the 1960s 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


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