|See also:||meta, head canon, tinhatting|
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Fan theories are interpretations, predictions, analyses and speculations about a given canon's unexplained details or mysteries. Some theories concern and/or are motivated by shipping but plenty are focused on gen elements within the canon.
Tinhatting is a related but often distinct phenomenon, in which fans believe that their real-life OTP is forced to keep the true nature of their relationship a secret due to industry or social pressure.
Responses to Fan Theories from Creators and Critics
Fan theories are often shared on social media platforms, where they may be encountered by both fellow fans and The Powers That Be. Creator responses to fan theories vary, from the playfully encouraging to the outright antagonistic. As fan communities on platforms like Reddit and Twitter play host to increasingly visible conversations about future plot developments in ongoing film franchies and television series, creators and professional critics alike have questioned the role and impact of fan theorizing.
Some fans and critics have expressed frustration with the trend of creators seeming to prioritize surprising fans over following storylines to their logical conclusions, just for the sake of not validating a fan theory.
Why is every piece of media now about “surprise! bet you didn’t see that coming” instead of themes, character arcs, internal logic, and consistency in writing?
It’s okay if your audience (especially hardcore fans) predicts your story. It means that they picked up the clues you put in, understood the themes you were trying to convey, empathised with the characters…
How is that a bad thing?
Instead each piece of media feels like it’s written by a marketing team that is looking at the latest statistics for TRP ratings and box-office collections.
- Westworld writers beg fans to stop guessing the twists and forcing rewrites by Eleanor Bley Griffiths, posted to radiotimes.com on March 27, 2017
- The Reddit Conundrum: Showrunners Shouldn’t Change Their Stories Based on Fan Predictions, posted to Pajiba.com on May 10, 2019
Fan theories about the mysteries of Lost abounded. Critic Kayleigh Donaldson noted:
Lost was not the first high-concept mystery show to break out into the mainstream in American pop culture - hello, Twin Peaks, please come in - but it signalled a shift in how viewers consumed such stories and discussed them as part of a larger conversation. That first season just dominated our screens in a way that many of us had never experienced before. I knew people in my high school who shared literal notes on the show so they could discuss them. [...]
The show never really retained the sheer thrill and captive audience of that first season, partly because it became abundantly clear that JJ Abrams and company really had no solution to the problems they created. For them, the hook was in creating mysteries and then abandoning all intent of answering them.
Kayleigh Donaldson, 2019
In the aftermath of the series finale, Vulture critic Willa Paskin remarked that the ending closely resembled a fan theory that the creators had denied early on:
Sure, Abrams and Lindelof weren’t totally lying: The island itself was probably not purgatory! But the finale did involve afterlife issues in a more fundamental way than either suggest. So, all of you, the ones who watched the first episode of Lost and said, “Hey! I bet this is purgatory” and then spent the next six years fighting with people about how you were still right, even though no less than J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof said you were wrong? Well, you were sort of wrong, but not as wrong as other people!
Willa Paskin, 2010
In 2021, Wandavision showrunner Jac Schaeffer talked about being addicted to reading fan theories:
“Yes, I’m doing it compulsively,” Schaeffer says. “It’s actually a bit of a problem and it’s true. There are theories that are surprisingly close and there are theories that are just insane, but in a way that sometimes I’m like, ‘Wow, I can’t even think of that.’ But then there’s a lot that no one is theorizing (about) because there’s no way for them to predict what might be in the cards.”
But Schaeffer admits that she enjoys reading the speculation that’s out there, adding, “It’s a really fun game and more than anything it’s gratifying because it means that people care and as a storyteller, that’s all you ever want is for there to be an audience who cares.”
Don Kaye, 2021
The first season of the television show Westworld had been the subject of much fan speculation - so much so that some professional TV critics speculated that all the fan theories had "ruined" the show. Writing for Vox, critic Emily VanDerWerff observed:
A handful of TV critics have recently written about how fan theorizing — and its omnipresence online — has essentially made it impossible to talk about Westworld as anything but a collection of the top theories. Discussion has largely become uncoupled from theme and character and focused mostly on trying to guess what will happen next.
Emily VanDerWerff, 2016
In the same article, VanDerWerff also quoted scholar Myles McNutt's analysis of the same phenomenon:
Google Trends shows that the specific idea of “Westworld theories” was not something that predated the show’s premiere, garnering little-to-no search activity in the weeks leading up to its debut. This discourse’s presence in pre-written coverage represents an effort by websites to turn Westworld into another consistent traffic-generating series in the vein of Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead. Treating the show as a puzzle justifies not only weekly reviews and interviews when episodes air on Sunday, but also updates throughout the week aggregating fan theories from Reddit, responding to theories presented on other outlets, or generating new theories entirely.
Myles McNutt, 2016
Examples of Fan Theories
- Fallen London: A great many theories regarding the exact identities of the Fallen Cities and their various inhabitants
- Harry Potter:
- Knight2King, also known as Ronbledore or the "Ron Is Dumbledore" theory
- Draco Malfoy is a werewolf
- Various theories proposed in Ultimate Unofficial Guide to the Mysteries of Harry Potter, such as "Snape is a vampire", "Remus Lupin is actually James Potter", "Harry is descended from Godric Gryffindor", "Harry is immune to poison", etc.
- High School Musical:
- Purgatory Theory
- See also: 15 'Lost' Fan Theories Better Than What They Gave Us In The Last Season on Thethings.com, 2020
- Marvel Cinematic Universe:
- Pixar: The Pixar Theory
- Panic! at the Disco: The Ryden Sun and Moon Theory
- Riverdale: Alice Cooper is a witch by Tumblr user betty-and-jughead
- Sherlock (TV series): The Johnlock Conspiracy
- Smallville: Chlois Theory
- Star vs. the Forces of Evil: Trans girl Marco
- A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones: R + L = J (confirmed in canon on the television series)
- Star Wars: Darth Jar Jar
- The Walking Dead: Old Man Carl Theory
- The X-Files: Wifegate
Fan Theories and Misdirection
- Thelostspecial.com, a troll Sherlock website aiming to mess with TJLC fans by posting fake clues fans attempted to connect to their fan theories
- r/FanTheories, a Reddit page with 467,170 subscribers.
- Pop Theories, a website dedicated to fan theories. Users can vote for and discuss theories, and follow films, television shows, novels or comic books they like.
- The Game Theorists, a Youtube channel with over 10 million subscribers (as of June 2018) covering and creating theories about video games
- The SuperCarlinBrothers YouTube channel that specializes in Harry Potter, MCU, Star Wars, Pixar, and Disney fan theories.
- eldritch-crone tumblr post, 2019 (60K notes as of Oct 2021)
- The Reddit Conundrum: Showrunners Shouldn’t Change Their Stories Based on Fan Predictions, posted to Pajiba.com May 10, 2019
- The Lost Purgatory Theory: Not Entirely Wrong by Willa Paskin on Vulture.com, May 24, 2010
- Why WandaVision’s Showrunner Likes Reading Fan Theories by Don Kaye, posted Feb 4, 2021 to denofgeek.com
- Online theorizing ruined too many TV shows in 2016 by Emily VanDerWerff for Vox. Posted on December 2, 2016. Retrieved on June 3, 2018.
- Monetizing the Maze: How the Internet Covers Westworld by Myles McNutt for Flow Journal. Posted on November 22, 2016. Retrieved on June 3, 2018.
- The Game Theorists Youtube page