One of the cool things about the internet is that every form of pop culture is basically available to anyone, and everyone gets to talk to fellow fans. You can watch anything you want, and nerd out over any interest, no matter how niche: Patton Oswalt’s dictum about “everything that ever was, available forever.” Consequently, though alternate readings of film predate Deckard-is-a-replicant, the internet is big on sharing fan theories, an alternate or supplemental narrative meant to enhance a fan’s enjoyment of a familiar story. Having seen copious articles about fan theories in humor magazines, listicle factories, film magazines, and online forums, I think I have my own meta-fan theory, Lorenzo’s theory of fan theories, and it is that any story can & will be made darker by someone theorizing that part of the story is a character’s mental creation brought about by some trauma, usually impending death.
The first time I heard the “story takes place within a soon-to-be-dead character’s head” idea was in 2006, when the “Garfield is dead” theory made its way around certain nerdier crevices of the internet. An atypically dark and depressing week of “Garfield” comics from Halloween, 1989 showed America’s most cynically anodyne Monday-hater trapped in an abandoned house, starving and alone. The “Garfield is dead” theory held that the subsequent two decades of syndicated napping were all the projection of the dying cat’s lasagna-and-affection deprived brain. This “Garfield” series made it to papers the year after the St. Elsewhere series finale famously implied that the show had taken place within the mind of an Autistic child.
With “Garfield,” the appeal of this theory makes sense. “Garfield” has a long history in the popular imagination—specifically as the inspiration for mercenary ancillary merchandise. Garfield’s bland salability was such that it inspired Berkeley Breathed’s lovable grotesque Bill the Cat, “a cartoon character that had zero—or even minus— merchandising appeal…who would send hordes of consumers screaming from their mall gift stores.” The 1989 “Garfield alone” series is very dark and deals with universal existential issues: it’s probably the widest gap between inoffensiveness of a character and darkness of subject matter since that Mickey Mouse cartoon where he decides to commit suicide. Setting up something deliberately inoffensive in tension with something dark is hilarious: e.g. Garfield Minus Garfield or Nietzsche Family Circus.
Many subsequent fan theories followed the “Garfield is dead” template of “make mostly innocent thing darker by adding derangement and death.” In 2011, the internet was similarly abuzz with the “Rugrats theory,” which purported to explain the 90s Nickelodeon cartoon Rugrats as the demented hallucinations of older kid Angelica. In this dark and edgy theory, Angelica’s mom is a junkie, or something, and the titular rugrats were either stillborn or aborted. Angelica, rather than antagonizing the babies, created them in her mind to fight the ravages of loneliness. Basically, Rugrats is actually Requiem. The popularity of the Rugrats theory showed that there’s a lot of click-mileage to be gained from re-reading anything as the last 20-minutes of an Aronofsky movie.
Since 2011, Cracked, the online humor publication, has churned out article after article of “fan theories that will blow your mind!”, of which a plurality follow the meta-theory of fan theories. In 2012 a Reddit post invited users to share fan theories, offering the Rugrats theory as a prime example. The thread garnered nearly 20,000 responses and inspired the creation of the /r/FanTheories subreddit. One popular response, later recycled (without attribution, natch) by BuzzFeed for their listicle “19 Insane Fan Theories that will Blow Your Mind!” is typical: Will of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air dies during his theme-song altercation, and the entire series takes place in the afterlife, or more morbidly, while he’s bleeding out on the basketball court. Of TotalFilm magazine’s “50 mind-blowing fan theories,” at least 7 situate an alternate narrative within a traumatized character’s mind, whether that character manufactures a happy ending (Taxi Driver, Ghostbusters, The Dark Knight Rises, uhhh…Hot Tub Time Machine), an entire movie (Titanic, Indiana Jones 4), or an 8-film franchise (every Harry Potter movie!).
Alternative interpretations of popular films have been around forever, offering a reading that works on a deeper narrative level. Sometimes, an alternative reading is backed up by clear authorial intent: the queer reading of Ben-Hur is bolstered by screenwriter Gore Vidal famously telling Stephen Boyd to play his character Masala as a man in love with Chuck Heston’s titular hero. Ridley Scott is clear about the Jesus imagery that surrounds Roy Batty in Blade Runner, just like Paul Verhoeven is explicit about Robocop being a secular RoboChrist. Someone like Stanley Kubrick, on the other hand, jealously guarded his privacy, and made films that evinced an obsessive attention to detail, abstract imagery, and opaque meanings. Kubrick’s personal exclusivity coupled with the conceptual complexity of his work invites countless theories about all his work, spanning the spectrum of plausibility from the believable (The Shining is about the extermination of American Indians!) to the wildly outlandish (2001 was a dry run for Kubrick faking the Apollo moon landings!). There are entire films about different ways to view the films you love.
It’s just like the internet, in a way, to crowdsource film theorizing and come up with one boilerplate way to make any piece of pop culture more interesting. Like every new superhero movie and franchise reboot, though, “more interesting” has come to mean dark, brooding & edgy. Like Chris Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy or the Daniel Craig Bond films (both of which I dig), making your character riven by personal demons is a good way to be engaging and seem complex & challenging. That’s why my meta-theory is that every pop-culture thing will receive a theory positing that the narrative is largely the post-modern figment of a tortured, deprived mind; make a narrative the cinematic or literary equivalent of Cheyne-Stokes breathing.
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Postscript: That being said, this episode of the claymation series Frog & Toad are Friends is DEFINITELY about death.
Toad’s just waiting day after day for the mail, so Frog takes it upon himself to write Toad a letter. Friendship and ephemera are merely ecstatic truths we cling to in order to futilely ward off the inevitability of death. Fucking Memento Mori, y’all.
Update: 22 September 2014