For the last several years, I’ve been banging the drum for one particular, unusual cause: pedantry regarding the definition of “fan theory”.
While you can read one of several longer articles by me about fan theories and their definition, let’s first begin by resurfacing my definition of a fan theory, first put forward by me in a 2016 blog post on the matter:
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.
While I find this definition to still be accurate, clear, and useful, I have found myself in a position of needing to revisit this subject one more time to examine it through a new lens.
To be more specific, I’ve found myself thinking more deeply about the relationship between predictions and fan theories.
Why a prediction is not a fan theory
First, let’s revisit some of my examples of things that are not fan theories:
- An explanation of an intentionally ambiguous narrative: Consider the two common interpretations of the original film Blade Runner. Either Deckard is a replicant or he is not. Neither of these interpretations are fan theories, as both are equally valid and widely accepted interpretations of the film. For this same reason, most interpretations of Inception are not fan theories.
- An aspect of the narrative that, while intended, has been relegated to subtext: For example, Jake Barnes’s impotence in The Sun Also Rises. While never outright stated, there is no explanation of The Sun Also Rises that does not include Barnes being impotent.
- A suggestion that two unrelated works are related: Consider the ongoing internet suggestion that Saw is a sequel to Home Alone. Not a fan theory.
- An explanation of the metaphors present in the film: A nice thing to do, but not a fan theory.
- A prediction about what will (or should) happen in a future or unfinished work: The most common misuse of “fan theory” is when someone suggests what will happen in a future piece of a narrative or its sequel, i.e. “Here’s What Will Happen in the Season Finale of Suits”.
As stated before, a fan theory is a form of critical theory. What makes it different than conventional critical theory is the fan aspect of it. Fan theories do not begin in universities. While surely being a form of post-modernism, they are not labeled that way. They spring up on blogs, in tweets, in forums and message boards.
A few examples of fan theories:
- Professor Lupin and Sirius Black were in a romantic relationship in the Harry Potter novels, prior to Black’s death.
- All the characters in The Walking Dead have experienced hearing loss due to their use of guns, allowing for zombies to get close to them
- Frodo forgot Legolas’s name at the end of Lord of the Rings
- My own suggestion that Ross Geller lost custody of his son Ben during the later seasons of Friends
And some things that are not fan theories:
- The suggestion that the Hound and the Mountain would battle in the final season of Game of Thrones: Yes, this became true… which confirmed that it was never a fan theory. It was not an interpretation. It was just a thing people thought would happen that turned out to happen.
- Tony Stark will die in Avengers: Endgame. Whether he did or not, not a fan theory
- Once Upon a Time in Hollywood will end with Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio killing the Manson family: No spoilers, but guessing how a movie will end because you saw other movies by that director does not equal writing a fan theory
- This character or that one will be good or bad in the next Star Wars movie: This is a constant prediction before every Star War and not worth getting into, beyond saying it’s not a fan theory.
The major distinction here between what often passes for fan theories and true fan theories is what tense it’s set in. A fan theory is past tense. While the running definition is mine, please do note that it is accepted in many circles and corners of the internet that a fan theory refers to existing works, while predictions about future works can be labeled as “fan speculation” or “fan predictions.” (In addition to my own writing on the matter, you can read more in this reddit thread and many other reddit threads and internet corners.)
However, there are times when a prediction is not a fan theory but it can transform into a fan theory. Let’s explore how.
When I tried to predict the ending of Sharp Objects
Last summer, my girlfriend and I watched the mini-series Sharp Objects on HBO. While I’m often reluctant to watch twist-heavy murder mysteries, I did enjoy Sharp Objects. I also liked trying to predict how it would end. I did not write any blog posts about it. I also did not read any articles, listen to any podcasts, or read the book upon which the show is based. This is partially because we did not watch it live, instead waiting for all of it to become binge-able upon its conclusion.
If you have not seen the show, the long-and-short of it is that Amy Adams plays Camille Preaker, a journalist who moves back to her hometown to try to solve a series of teenage girl murders. (Beware, we’re about to get into some spoilers for Sharp Objects.)
I made two predictions while we watched the show:
- The younger sister, Amma, is the killer
- It would be revealed that the protagonist, Camille Preaker, is actually Amma’s mother and not her sister
By the end of the series, I was proven right about the first prediction. Amma was, indeed, the killer. The second prediction remained unresolved.
This does not mean that I crafted an unsolved fan theory. In fact, I do not believe that a fan theory can ever be solved or unsolved. That it can be “confirmed”. If a fan theory is confirmed, the only thing it means is that it was never a fan theory to begin with.
In this case, my prediction became a fan theory because it was never addressed. At the end of the series, we know that Amma is the killer but we have no indication as to whether or not she is Camille’s daughter. There is evidence, yes—their ages, Camille’s unexplained disappearance and absence from town that aligns with Amma’s birth, the sexual assault that occurred shortly before her disappearance—but this interpretation is not addressed at any point.
Of course, there is one clarifying point about this why this prediction was able to turn into a fan theory. The entire time I predicted it, I thought that I was predicting a plot point while actually predicting a reveal of backstory.
This is rare, of course. Most predictions are still not fan theories. There is no way that “Tony Stark will die” could ever become a fan theory. Lupin and Sirius Black’s romance, however, was an example of a prediction that turned into fan theory. While never being addressed in the narrative, on any level, this absence is what made that a fan theory.
And yes, I know that I’m being pedantic about something that may not require pedantry. And yes, I welcome disagreement in the comment section, as always.
Need more on the subject? Try Why Your Westworld Fan Theory is Not a Fan Theory.