Note: this article was first written in 2016 but has been updated several times over the years, especially as things have changed and evolved.
I’ve been trying to write this article for a while. Years. The following is a list of my opinions and observations on what we talk about when we talk about fan theories: what they are, and how we should talk about them.
First, let’s start with the elephant in the room: What are fan theories?
No one Can Agree on What fan theories Are
Fan theory is not listed on Urban Dictionary. (This isn’t true anymore.) It is not explained on Know Your Meme. (This is still true.) Even the /r/FanTheories subreddit does not have any official stance on what makes a fan theory a fan theory. (Note: this has evolved a lot since I first wrote this. See the update at the bottom of the article for more.)
The phrase fan theory means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Part of why I’m writing this is to reach some kind of definition and meaning, and to refute what I see as being inaccurate uses of the phrase.
Which is why I wrote my own definition of fan theory.
Define: fan theory
What is a fan theory?
A fan theory is: a form of contemporary critical theory, in which the audience analyzes the text and creates a new interpretation that explains “what really happened,” creating a separate narrative aside from or within the narrative.
That’s the definition I’ve come up with. I don’t know if it’s perfect, but I think it says a lot.
Now, more importantly, I’d like to explore both what makes a fan theory good and what makes a fan theory bad and what makes a fan theory not a fan theory. Part of this will include citing particularly good and bad fan theories.
A weak fan theory is anything that suggests “it was all a dream” or “the main character was dead the whole time” or any variation of this.
While this fits the definition I’ve provided above, it’s also weak because there isn’t a single narrative ever that can’t be compromised away with “it’s all in his head.”
Sure, some narratives make good use of this trope, like The Sixth Sense or Total Recall or Inception. But in those cases it’s not a fan theory. It’s what the movie is about.
A fan theory is not something that explains an intended interpretation of the narrative.
I cannot watch Inception and tell you that I have a fan theory that suggests either a) the top doesn’t fall over at the end, or b) the top does fall over.
Why not? Because the film has explicitly given us those two interpretations. We have those two views handed to us, as viewers. That would be like saying your fan theory is that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father.
So what is it, if I argue for what’s going on with the top at the end of Inception? I think that would fall into the category of interpretation or analysis, similar to when one analyzes Christopher Nolan’s breaking of the 180 degree rule or the role played by the soundtrack. Not all interpretations are fan theories.
And so, what else isn’t a fan theory?
A fan theory explains what happened, not what will happen. It is based on the text in its entirety. Anything less is a fan hypothesis. (Or, Update: Fan Speculation)
There is a common trend to predict what a movie or television show will be about, and to call it a fan theory. We can see plenty of examples of this, at all times. As of the writing of this article, there are major “theories” that Westworld is showing us different timelines, rather than one. There was also a popular “theory” that Jeffrey Wright’s character, Bernard, was really a robot.
Turns out, it was right. Bernard was a robot. Which, sure, confirms the “theory,” but also shows that this “Bernard is a robot” idea should never have really been called a theory. It was a hypothesis. It did not probe deeper meanings or uncover new layers to the narrative. It was just a prediction about what would happen. Now that it has happened, it’s not a fan theory. It’s just a hypothesis that was proven correct. Case closed.
Examples of this abound: there were people who figured out the big “twist” of Mr. Robot’s second season. This is the equivalent of fans who see a trailer for a movie and try to predict what it will be about. Sure, it’s a fun thing to do, but to refer to a prediction about a future plot reveal as a “fan theory” does an injustice to good fan theories.
This does become difficult when it comes to open plot lines between seasons in ongoing television series, but I think it’s best to remember: a fan theory explains what happened, not what will happen.
I understand that I’m being pedantic about something with no rules, and that fan theory sounds cooler than fan hypothesis. But if people are going to write about fan theories non-stop, maybe we could use some rules.
(Note/Update: rather than fan hypothesis, it appears that fan speculation has become the preferred nomenclature. I’m okay with that.)
A fan theory has some kind of evidence for it.
This is a rule in the /r/FanTheories subreddit, and it’s a good one:
You must back your theory up with some form of evidence.
It can be tempting to just conjure a fan theory up out of thin air, but it ultimately doesn’t work. There should be some way to reaffirm your theory. You don’t have to prove it. Just provide some reason we should consider it.
Linking two non-connected works is not a fan theory.
It’s not a fan theory to say that Inception is a prequel to Titanic, or that the Joker from The Dark Knight is Tyler Durden from Fight Club. That might be a thing you think is fun to think about, but it doesn’t mean it has merit as a fan theory.
An example of a perfect fan theory is that Dennis Reynolds killed Brian LeFevre in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.
After giving you a few examples of things that aren’t fan theories, or that are bad fan theories, it’s worth taking a moment to cite a good one. R. J. Collins created this fan theory for The Great and Powerful Blog, and it has everything present that makes a good fan theory.
Specifically, this fan theory is a) intelligent b) well-reasoned and c) believable.
Finally, the Dennis Reynolds Murderer fan theory does not bring in irrelevant evidence, tell us an obvious interpretation, connect unrelated creative works, or rely on simple tricks like “it was a dream.”
Here’s an excerpt from the beginning of the article on this theory:
Longtime fans of the show are by now all too familiar with Dennis’s constant brushes with sexual depravity, and his occasional forays into outright psychopathic behavior. For years this was simply one of those thematic undertones peppered throughout each season like breadcrumbs, similar to Mac’s repressed homosexuality and the sexual tension between Charlie and Dee. Fans have often speculated on just how far Dennis may have taken this off screen, and upon a recent re-watch of the series I believe I’ve discovered the first actual murder that he committed. The victim? Brian LeFevre.
Not everything is a fan theory.
On a relevant note, let’s talk about something that is NOT a fan theory: my interpretation that Hulu’s The Path is an homage to Dennis Reynolds.
Why is this not a fan theory? Because I am not suggesting any new narrative beyond the one provided by the text. If I suggested that Cal in The Path was a huge Always Sunny fan, then it would be a fan theory. However, as it stands, I’m simply suggesting that one television show is paying tribute to another show.
At this point, I hope it’s clear why I’ve written all of this: I’m concerned that “fan theory” has become so watered-down that it’s a label arbitrarily slapped on any idea or opinion. By my arguments, Jon Snow’s parentage should not even be considered a fan theory.
A fan theory cannot be debunked or supported by evidence outside the creative work itself.
People often try to debunk a theory by citing the creator of the work. This is a weak practice.
For evidence of why this is a foolish way to discount or affirm a fan theory, consider that the creators of Blade Runner do not agree on Rick Deckard’s true nature. Of course, Rick Deckard’s status as replicant or not is itself in very murky territory, as it potentially violates several of the rules on the above list (there is another Blade Runner coming out soon which could either affirm or deny; his status as a replicant is an intended option of interpretation for the audience.)
Death of the Author is relevant to this argument. Examples abound in which a creator hears of a certain fan theory and either confirms it or denies it. J. K Rowling and George R. R. Martin are regular perpetrators of this, responding to ideas provided by their audience and giving said ideas the thumbs-up or thumbs-down. When it comes to fan theories, all such artist statements should be ignored.
I’m not even saying that Rowling shouldn’t comment on a fan theory she hears; I’m just saying that Rowling’s opinion on a Harry Potter fan theory isn’t necessarily valid.
The best approach to discussing one’s works, in my opinion, is the one taken by David Lynch. As described by The New Yorker:
He has repeatedly advanced an almost mystical notion of ideas having a life of their own, independent of the artist and waiting to be plucked from the ether.
Not everything is black and white, regarding what is and isn’t a fan theory.
This does open us up into another line of questioning: can a fan theory be debunked by a sequel by a different author? What is canon and what is not?
It’s one thing to wait until a television series finishes its first season before labeling your interpretations “fan theories.” It’s something different entirely to have a reading of a film from the early ’80s, only to have this interpretation challenged by a film by different people, decades later.
Unlike everything else in this list, this is a place where I don’t have a strong opinion. Or, perhaps, I have an evolving opinion.
If you like to write fan theories, be ready to protect your ideas.
Fan theories have a tendency to “go viral.” Oftentimes, this results from the idea getting shared in a subreddit and then picked up by some lurking website.
My advice to any aspiring fan theorists: don’t just write for reddit. Have a blog or podcast or YouTube channel, and be prepared to contact people who don’t properly attribute your fan theory when it proves popular.
There is nothing wrong with seeking credit when credit is due. Roland Barthes did not write “The Death of the Author” for an internet forum.
The best fan theories often spring into existence due to plot holes or unanswered questions in the original creative work.
I don’t think that you can create a fan theory because you want to. They typically pop into your head, oftentimes resulting from thinking about something else entirely differently. For example, my Friends fan theory was inspired by True Detective.
For aspiring fan theorists: if you think you have a cool fan theory, write it down and start exploring it. Read the book again, or watch the show or film, with the idea in mind. See how it holds up. Start a blog and share it with the world.
Okay, what’s the difference between headcanon and fan theory?
I think one is simple: evidence. Headcanon often doesn’t have evidence. Or, it’s the weak stuff like “all a dream” or the interconnected works like “Leo washes up in Inception after Titanic.” In short, headcanon is broader and there’s more room for stuff to be dumb when it’s headcanon.
These are my opinions and observations on fan theories… for now.
For those who wonder on what authority I have attempted to define and discuss “fan theory” and seek to say what is good and bad, here are reasons why I think I’m coming from a justified place:
- I’ve been writing fan theories on this site for over four years.
- I’ve had several of these fan theories featured in other places, including my Fight Club fan theory in the Huffington Post, my James Bond theory in Loaded, and my Friends theory everywhere.
- I think about fan theories a lot.
Agree with my arguments? Disagree? Think I have too much time on my hands if I’m writing 2000 words about this? Let’s discuss.
The world’s view of fan theories has evolved since I first wrote this. I state, above, that Urban Dictionary and the /r/FanTheories subreddit both have no official definition. This is no longer true.
Urban Dictionary now has several listings, with the first one listed being:
If that sounds familiar, it’s because I wrote it. So that’s cool.
While /r/FanTheories is still a somewhat chaotic place, that forum has evolved into having an understanding around what a fan theory is and isn’t. This isn’t listed in the official rules of the subreddit, but there is now flair with which a user can tag a submission.
Submissions to r FanTheories now fall into one of two main categories: FanTheory or FanSpeculation. This might seem like a small victory, but for those who align with the definition of fan theory advocated for in this article, it means a lot. (Here is a good post in the subreddit that sums up the current situation over there.)
A book has been released that cites my theory of fan theories. Check out Boss Fight Books’ The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask by Gabe Durham to read more about fan theories and to see my writing cited in a real, live book that I did not write.
Also, it’s a very good book.