Schrödinger's Butterfly

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.
Are you really a dream of this butterfly?

Once I dreamt I was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering around, happy with myself and doing as I pleased. I didn't know I was myself. Suddenly I woke up and there I was, solid and unmistakably myself. But I didn't know if I was myself who had dreamt I was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was me.

When a story introduces the possibility of worlds within worlds, be they a Lotus Eater Machine or perfectly lucid dreams, there will always be a nagging doubt in the back of a viewer's mind whether the story is real (well, that is to say, real inside the work of fiction) or if they aren't dreaming or "still plugged in".

This serves as a source of mystery and speculation in a story. Did the heroes really break the spell cast by the Master of Illusion, or are they all imagining it? Did they escape the Convenient Coma that trapped them in a Happy Place... or merely trade a perfect illusory world for a more realist one? These doubts may never be resolved until a Sequel comes out or Word of God clarifies it. Sometimes, the ambiguity works in favor of the story, leaving it open to interpretation.

Much like the other Schrodinger tropes, this plot point can also serve as an Author's Saving Throw by retroactively making it All Just a Dream. Or if the author really wants to mess with us, end the movie or film on a Downer Ending, with a fading shot of the character's dying or still comatose body trapped in the illusion.

The trope name is a reference to a poem by the 4th century BC Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi, a Taoist philosopher who influenced Chinese Buddhism. It refers also to Erwin Schrödinger's thought experiment relating to quantum uncertainty. If you can't tell, we like to be well balanced in our geekery on this wiki.

Compare: Everyone Is Jesus in Purgatory and Dream Apocalypse. Compare also Opening a Can of Clones, which has this effect regarding a character's 'originality'. Contrast Or Was It a Dream?. See also: Cuckoo Nest, Dying Dream, Through the Eyes of Madness, Masquerade, and Brainwashed.

Examples of Schrödinger's Butterfly include:

Anime and Manga

  • Paprika. Where to begin? [context?]
  • In Naruto, brothers Sasuke and Itachi Uchiha practice genjutsu, techniques centering around illusions. Thus, during the Sasuke vs Itachi fight, the first major stage of the battle consists of Sasuke and Itachi standing perfectly still while both add layer upon layer of illusions. The readers, of course, are ignorant of what is an illusion and what isn't until after the illusion breaks. As a result, there are several points in which the fight seems over, only for the illusion to break and reveal that the brothers hadn't actually started fighting yet.
    • Practically lampshaded when Sasuke breaks Tsukuyomi (Itachi's strongest genjutsu), and Zetsu pretty much lets the reader know the rest of this isn't genjutsu.
  • ×××HOLiC actually even refers to the above quote and it is an allegory of a central theme in the series.
  • In GetBackers, in one of the episodes, an elderly homeless man asks the Get Backers to save his daughter from the mafia. When they arrive the girl doesn't want to go with them, and they leave her there. Upon seeing the old man being loaded onto an ambulance, Ban catches both the old man's and Ginji's eyes before the daughter runs up to tell her father that she loves and forgives him. It is never revealed whether the daughter truly showed up, or if Ban was showing both men a pleasant illusion. The viewer is often confused as to what is the illusion and what is reality, only being sure when Ban reveals his trick.
    • It's a dream. In the original Manga, Ginji asks him if he used the Evil Eye, and Ban replies with a dejected 'yeah'.
  • In Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, Batou and Togusa meet a cyborg hacker with the ability to completely alter the perception of people with any kinds of brain implants. When they notice they are trapped in an illusion, they manage to break out, only to realize they are just in another illusion, before they finally manage to break free for real. Of course, they wonder if perhaps they never actually left the false realities, and if they might unknowingly live out the rest of their lives in an illusion. Scary!
  • .hack//Sign ends with Helba forcibly deleting Net Slum in a desperate effort to stop Skeith, causing everyone to be ejected from the game as the server crashes. This results in Tsukasa finally logging out of the game for the first time in the entire series and having a heartwarming meeting with Subaru in the real world...but when their hands touch, a distinctly cyberspace-y hexagon grid appears, and it then cuts to a scene of what appears to be the ruins of Net Slum (which is very similar to the very start of the first episode), with a mysterious monologue from Morganna. It doesn't help either that the "real world" segment of Tsukasa leaving the hospital and meeting Subaru has a somewhat surreal tone to it, what with the whole silent movie style and all. Ultimately, it's not really clear until later installments in the .hack series whether or not Tsukasa actually ever managed to log out.
  • Aizen's zanpakutou ability in Bleach Its very essence is to warp a victim's perception of reality.
  • JoJo's Bizarre Adventure: Gold Experience Requiem's powers is like this, specifically the endless chain of "waking" only to be in another fabricated scenario. The victim catches on after about three times that he's no longer alive, but that doesn't change the fact that he'll never die, either.
  • Never really happens in El Hazard, but at one point Makoto wakes up after having a weird dream. Since he's not entirely sure that El Hazard itself isn't a dream, he gets a bit confused on the subject.

Makoto: What a weird dream. Within a dream. Or is this the dream?

  • "Vision of Escaflowne": Every episode for the first half or so of the episodes starts with ""Was it all just a dream? Or maybe a vision... no, it was real!". In addition on several occasions she does go to the other reality in a dream

First episode has her see a vision of Van appearing through a beam of light before she passes out, later on in the episode this actually happens.
While in Gaea she has several dreams where she is back with her friends in Japan.

  • Are we all (as in, all of objective reality, not just the reality within the series) but a dream of Haruhi Suzumiya? At least Koizumi sets this as one of the possible theories.

Comic Books

  • At the end of Grant Morrison's run on Doom Patrol, Crazy Jane finds herself trapped on a mundane alternate Earth, being treated by Marcia, a psychologist who regards her strange memories and dreams as delusions. The vividness of Jane's stories and the ineffectiveness of psychotherapy in explaining them away leads Marcia to doubt whether she's doing the right thing. After another doctor forcibly subjects Jane to electro-convulsive therapy, Jane appears to be cured of her delusions and her multiple personalities, but she gives Marcia the "Mystery Coin" she described in her stories, confirming Marcia's suspicion that Jane was not simply mentally ill.
    • Morrison uses it again in The Invisibles, when Jack Frost tries to engage in one-on-one psychic combat with the King-of-All-Tears. Among the various tactics it uses (such as Mind Rape) is having illusions of his teammates show up, telling him that they've managed to win, and he can break that warding circle now...
  • The Invisibles actually provides several alternative explanations of how everything that happens in it may be a case of Recursive Reality: the whole story might have been a drug hallucination experienced by one of the characters, or an in-universe example of Self-Insert Fic by another character, or a futuristic video game produced by a third character, or...
  • One Donald Duck comic revolves around the world being the dream of an ancient cephalophoid monster slumbering in a city at the bottom of the sea. Yes, there exists a Donald Duck Cosmic Horror Story.
  • In Neil Gaiman's The Sandman, Dream subjects a character (who'd accidentally captured Dream in an attempt to seal Death and gain immortality) to a punishment of "eternal waking". The character in question continually dreams that he's woken up, only to see some nightmarish thing that tells him he's still dreaming, only to wake up from that dream... For five real-time years!
  • Invoked in one Calvin and Hobbes strip, when he wakes up, gets dressed, eats breakfast, walks outside, and hears his mother telling him to get up. Then he wakes up again in his bed.

Calvin: My dreams are getting way too literal.

    • And later played for laughs and drama when he puts on a coat, walks outside, trips over a rock, and falls off a cliff miles into the air. Then he wakes up, gets dressed, leaves the house, and falls out the door through the sky. Then he wakes up, and is clearly terrified to get out of bed.
  • Garfield's delusional Halloween strip week, anyone? While Word of God has apparently stated that this was a one-off event and that the comics aren't really the result of a delusional Garfield, some fans still speculate.


  • The Nexus from Star Trek: Generations. In fact, see the Trek Wild Mass Guessing page for one interpretation of this.
  • Taxi Driver shows our sociopathic "hero" getting great praise for his shoot out, right after being probably gunned down. Even if he really did live, you can bet he's still crazy.
  • Total Recall: Is it a memory implant gone awry, or all real?
    • In the short story We Can Remember It for You Wholesale that inspired this (can't say based on, can't even say very, very loosely based on), it did really happen. As for the movie, Word of God and a pivotal, though seemingly throwaway, line from a Rekall technician early in the film suggest that it was indeed All Just a Dream.
      • The DVD commentary is particularly interesting: the director seems to be implying the movie was All Just a Dream while Schwarzenegger (who is also commenting) seems to be implying that it was all real.
  • The Thirteenth Floor has someone invent an artificial virtual reality world at the beginning, then reveal that their world is also a virtual reality world.
  • The Matrix.
    • Particularly at the end of the second movie when Neo was able to stop a machine with his mind in what was supposed to be the real world when nobody had shown powers in the real world before, fans speculated that the "real world" might just have been another layer of the matrix used to control rebellious minds.
    • One of the comics also references the Trope Namer in a short comic where a monk or something beats up some agents.
  • The deleted scenes of X-Men 2 show that Jason didn't just make Xavier think he was back at the institute, he made him think that he succeeded in convincing Jason to let him escape from the Lotus Eater Machine.
  • As Brazil unfolds, the line between the real world and Sam's dreams gets progressively blurrier. The final scene reveals that Sam's escape was a delusion, likely brought on by the trauma of being tortured by his friend Jack.
  • eXistenZ embodies this trope. How many levels of this virtual reality are there? And how do you know when you're in real life?
  • Minority Report: Did John Anderton clear his name or was the ending of the film just a dream he was having in his containment cell?
  • 1408: The whole movie plays with this concept a lot but especially when the main character (as well as the viewing audience) is tricked into thinking that he escapes the hotel room and has returned to a normal life before he realizes that it was all a vicious illusion. This arguably comes to an end when he burns the place down and escapes, but there's still the feeling that too could possibly be an illusion.
  • The final Mind Screw of American Psycho is that Bateman himself is unsure how many of his experiences are real or imagined.
  • The big brain hump of Mulholland Drive is you don't know which is real; the last half hour, or everything preceding it?
    • Considering that the former is surreal and bizarre, while the latter is mundane and somewhat explains why a disturbed person might dream up the former to escape her reality, Occam's Razor says the last half-hour.
  • The Fly: Far into his physical transformation Seth Brundle starts to think that he had always been an insect, and only imagined that he was a human being. Only in his mind though.

Seth: I'm saying I'm an insect who dreamt he was a man, and loved it. But now the dream is over... and the insect is awake.

  • Mystic River itself isn't an example, but at the end one of the characters proposes this as a possibility: The recent events are too bizarre for it to be reality, so what if it's all a dream that he is/they are having to shut out a darker reality: that all three of them were kidnapped and still being molested.
  • This is the entire premise of Jacob's Ladder, too. The main character keeps bouncing back and forth between two realities, each of which shares some people and places in common, but both of which seem to have demons in them as well. It's finally shown that he had died in Vietnam, and this was all just an in-your-head Purgatory.
  • This is a concern in Inception, so those involved take precautions.
    • it's also the cliffhanger ending
  • In Repo Men, we are told throughout the Company has produced a device that can create a idyllic fantasy dream for someone on a life support machine. When the palm tree that is featured in its advert appears for 'real', we discover the entire second half of the film had been a fabrication to placate the conscience of the lead's best friend.
  • Waking Life is a series of psychedelic sequences which mostly feature the main character as an observer, and many of them segue with him waking up yet again.
  • The Lovely Bones, to a very small and brief degree, when Susie Salmon Is attacked by George Harvey in the underground trap, she is seen running from the scene as though she has escaped and is running for her life. it is not until a little later we realise that she is actually dead and this is her ghost's immediate projection of what she wanted to happen. She had actually been killed in the underground lair, but she has no recollection of the event happening.
    • This is absent in the original book version, where Susie remembers everything exactly how it happened, and describes it in painful detail.
  • Mr. Nobody is the embodiment of this trope. From a two-hour film, the most popular conclusion is that only around twenty minutes of it actually happened


  • Terry Pratchett loves to reference this one. Once he combined this trope with the Butterfly of Doom in some kind of mega-metaphor involving butterflies.
    • He also had it skewered by Susan Sto Helit, who asked if a poet who had came up with this wrote his poems with a brush or by leaving information-rich patterns on cabbage leaves. Upon being told it was the former, she concludes he was probably a man.
  • House of Leaves has tons of this. There are multiple layers of narration; Johnny is editing a text written by Zampano about The Navidson Record, which is a movie made by Navidson about the h. Throughout the book, there are hints that Zampano or Johnny are altering or completely fabricating things, or that Zampano made up the film, or that Johnny made up both Zampano and the film, or that Johnny himself is also made up.
  • The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K. Dick involves a plot to Take Over the World through hallucinogens that in theory could take a thousand years to wear off. Every main character takes the drugs at one point or another, more than once a seeming recovery is merely hallucinated. By the end, it's virtually impossible to decide what's "real" and what's not.
    • The complete mind screw ending of The Man in the High Castle which seems to somehow end in our world.
    • In Ubik, the line between the living and the dead existing in "half-life" becomes blurred in the end, after having been seemingly resolved.
      • Dick, who was also the author of the original short story "The Minority Report" and the story that inspired Total Recall, among many others of this type, could be said to owe his whole career to this trope. To a certain extent, his whole life orbited around this trope.
  • In the Alice in Wonderland sequel, Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass the question is repeated brought up as to whether this is all the Red King's dream, and what might happen if the Red King wakes up while Alice is still in it.

"So, either I've been dreaming about Sylvie," I said to myself, "and this is the reality. Or else I've really been with Sylvie, and this is a dream! Is Life itself a dream, I wonder?"

  • This is basically the plot of The Red King, the second novel in the Star Trek: Titan series. The novel features an eponymous intelligence, which resides within a protouniverse overlapping with our own. As a result of this overlap, its expansion threatens several worlds with destruction. The legends of many local races' speak of the protouniverse, or at least the associated intelligence. They describe it as a sleeping dreamer, the surrounding region of space being the content of the dream. The expansion and its resultant destruction is therefore supposedly the dream coming to an end as the being begins to wake. Frane, a native of the Neyel (whose world is part of the threatened region), describes the myth to Titan's crew:

"And when it wakes, it ceases to dream. But all the worlds that surround it are part of that dream. Like Newaerth, the first world to vanish as the Sleeper begins stirring from its long ages of slumber".

  • Gödel, Escher, Bach uses several of these, nesting several layers of drama. In one story, Achilles and the Tortoise are on an airship and start reading a book about themselves, and inside the book. The bad news is that the story doesn't "pop back" all the way to the last level, and the initial story is still left hanging. The good news is that the Tortoise and Achilles can move up to a previous level using popcorn.
  • This is basically the entire premise of a Jostein Gaarder novel Sophie's World.
  • Pedro Calderón de la Barca's Life is a Dream, a 17th-century Spanish play, deals with the conception of life as a dream particularly in the first act.
  • The book Liar is told from the point of view of a chronic liar. The make it worse, every now and then,she tells you shes lied about something and promises not to do it again, then a few chapters later she's confess to lying again. By the end of the book, you're really unsure if any of it actually took place.
  • In Robert E. Howard's "The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune", the mirrors nearly trap Kull in another world.

For there are worlds beyond worlds, as Kull knows, and whether the wizard bewitched him by words or by mesmerism, vistas did open to the kings gaze beyond that strange door, and Kull is less sure of reality since he gazed into the mirrors of Tuzun Thune.

  • Polaris by HPL is based on this entirely.
  • The Goosebumps book I Live In Your Basement, to the point of being a Mind Screw.
  • Stanislaw Lem did this in his novel The Futurological Congress. With hallucinogens being used as a war weapon, neither the protagonist or the reader is really sure when or if things get back to reality.
  • Some Choose Your Own Adventure books had the results of really bad screw-ups followed by "it was all a dream". An egregious exanple is Space and Beyond; one ending has it be All Just a Dream; the rest of the endings say that it is not.
  • Several times during the course of The Circle Series, Thomas Hunter actually asks himself whether he's dreaming or not. He never does figure out which he's actually living in.
  • Stephen King's Pet Sematary includes a heart-wrenching scene in which the protagonist has exactly this kind of dream.
  • The second series of Hawkmoon novels by Michael Moorcock start with the hero trying to be happy with his wife and young family but being haunted by the ghosts of his friends who died at the climax of the first series. It then switches around to him being comforted by those friends having recovered from a delusion caused by the death of his new wife instead.
  • In Michael Flynn's The January Dancer, the Compelling Voice can make you forgot things. As a consequence, you can't be sure that anything you know really is true. Perhaps the person with the Dancer has taken over the galazy and you just don't realize because you've been ordered not to.

Live Action TV

  • One Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode has her "wake up" in an insane asylum, having dreamt the last few seasons in a fugue. In the end, Buffy decides that Sunnydale is real and saves her friends... and then we see her psychologist pronounce her too far gone to save. Presumably the rest of the series is her continued hallucinations; how Angel fits in is anybody's guess.
  • The Stargate Atlantis episode The Real World ends with the heroes briefly wondering if the reality they're in is real or another Asuran deception, then quickly deciding they'd rather not know.
    • Another episode ends with McKay asking if they were really relased from the fake mental world projected to them by a cloud of sentient gas. The gas then yells at him that it's real.
  • Star Trek never used this trope.
    • An undeveloped script idea for Deep Space Nine had Chief O'Brien and Julian Bashir trapped in a virtual reality prison. They escape and make it back to DS9, only to find that they're still in prison, so they escape again and make it back to DS9. The episode was to end with O'Brien telling his wife that he didn't know for sure if he'd actually escaped, and he never will.
      • The season 7 episode "Extreme Measures" does this exact thing with O'Brien and Bashir, when Sloan's mind tricks them into believing they've returned to reality (when in actuality they are still inside his mind, slowly dying with him).
    • A similar concept would also be used in the 6th season episode "Far Beyond the Stars" in which Sisko hallucinates that he is Benny Russell, a pulp fiction writer, whose latest story stars none other than Sisko. It gets even more extreme in that Benny Russell has hallucinations about being Sisko. At the end of the episode Sisko is telling his father that for all he knows he is a figment of his own (alter-ego Benny Russell's) imagination.
    • The Powers That Be apparently toyed with the idea of having the entire series (and therefore the entire Trek Verse?) being all Benny Russell's book.
      • This appears to describe an episode of Voyager involving a species which spend their entire life dreaming. Only Native American spirit magic can free the crew... or something.
    • In another episode of Voyager, the crew falls prey to a gigantic space pitcher plant. It makes the crew see what they want to see (a worm hole to Earth) but they would actually be flying into it's stomach. Seven of Nine and Naomi Wildman are the only ones immune because Seven was a Borg since childhood and Naomi was born on the ship; the whole "getting home" thing is not either's ultimate ambition. However, at one point Seven believes the ship has escaped. It turns out that it is just the creature showing her what she wants to see (that is Voyager outside the creature, because not getting eaten is very much something Seven and Naomi both desire.
    • In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Ship in a Bottle", a holographic Moriarty thinks he escaped from the computer-- but he is actually "exploring" a 24th-century screen saver. At the end, Picard speculates about his crew being someone else's entertainment in a little box... oooh, meta.
      • Earlier in the episode Picard and Data were in the holographic simulation of the Enterprise, thinking they had exited the program, trying to fulfill Moriarty's request to be let out. They were still in the Holodeck, and Moriarty was actually holding them hostage. They eventually catch on.
    • Another Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, "Frame of Mind", both explores and inverts this trope, nearly driving Commander Riker insane.
  • The X-Files episode "Field Trip" dealt with this trope.

"Name me one hallucinogen that loses its effectiveness because you know you've taken it. We're still there. "

  • This also appears in one episode of Red Dwarf (season 5, episode 6) where the crew dies, only to see the "Game Over" text appear and shortly afterwards wake up in VR-game chairs... The series continued after that episode, of course.
    • Probably a reference to Better Than Life from Season 2, and at least one novel. By the end of the series, it's impossible to tell whether they've really escaped the game, or the game just lets them think they have. (It does explain a lot of the self-admitted implausible science.)
      • Better Than Life was the Season 2 version, played almost entirely for laughs. Back to Reality is the Season 5 finale that played a similar concept very seriously. Not only did this sort of go hand in hand with the series "growing up" over time, it also helped create multiple levels of mindscrew.
      • It should be noticed that the book version was much darker. The show version was basically the Holodeck driven by whatever your surface wish was; no mistaking it for reality. The book lets us go a good while thinking the cast has fully made it home. Over much of the rest of the book they manage to escape, and find that things were still a little too good to be true. When they escape for real, a message left by the creator of the game appears to congratulate them, and they finally return to the real world. Hopefully. Apparently, they wanted to do it this way all along in the show but budget or something didn't allow - in "Future Echoes," elderly Lister has "U=BTL" etched into his arm. No attention is called to it at the time (or ever, in the show. In the book, we see this happen in book 1 and Lister notices. Better than Life is book 2.)
    • And again at the end of series VI in "Out of Time." Just before the cataclysmic ending, Starbug hits a "reality mine"—a pocket of alternate history space. Followed immediately by Rimmer deliberately triggering a strange sort of Grandfather Paradox. Followed immediately by the future Dwarfers triggering another Grandfather Paradox. How many layers of unreality can two minutes of airtime possibly layer ... ?
    • Another notable instance occurs in season 8, episode 3, when they return to the reconstructed Red Dwarf, courtesy of the Nanites, and are placed in the brig after signing agreements to participate in a trial involving psychotropic drugs that will cause them to hallucinate.
      • They engineer a daring escape before the trial and make it out into space, at which point they realize that the entire escape attempt has been a hallucination.
      • They enlist the aid of the reconstructed Rimmer and break out again... and realize that, once again, they've all been duped.
      • When they finally make it out of their hallucinated trial, Rimmer asks, "Is this reality? But how can we be sure?" Cat poignantly states, "Why do we care? Nothing makes any sense no matter where we are!"
  • A Cruel Twist Ending from the Outer Limits Revival episode "Tempests": did the hero escape early in the episode, or at the end? Neither—he's still hallucinating.
    • Happens In-Universe as part of a condemned criminal's sentence: he's doomed to have nightmares of being murdered by his victim over and over again, "waking up" from one nightmare to the next.
  • Played with at the end of a Lotus Eater Machine episode of Stargate SG-1—the protagonists are certain they're in the real world. The guy who trapped them in virtual reality wouldn't be freaking out over the other people they've led to escape ruining his beloved garden if it were virtual.
  • In the American version of Touching Evil, Creegan befriends Cyril, a homeless man who believes that he's dreaming the show's reality, and that when he goes to sleep, he's really waking up in the "real" world, the space colony Alpha 9.
  • An episode of Farscape has Chiana introducing John to a buggy VR program based on his memories. John manages to find an exit, only to end up getting captured when Scorpius escapes from confinement and takes everyone hostage. After a great deal of bloodshed, John finally breaks out of his cell... only to realise that he's still playing the game when he finds one of the hint-vouchers in his pocket.
    • Interesting to note in this case is that typically, when this trope occurs in an episode/issue of a running series, the possibility of still being trapped in the illusion is almost NEVER brought up in later episodes. Farscape features an aversion in that, at the start of the next episode, Crichton and Noranti pull up to Moya in a transport pod, only to find that there's no response, exactly as it had happened in the game's simulation of the real world. John momentarily wonders if they had not actually escaped at all... only to realise that Moya's been invaded by a gang of bounty hunters.
  • Supernatural's version of the genie works that way : he grants you your wish by making you hallucinate he did, while feeding on you till you die. Because Supernatural is optimistic.
  • There was a Twilight Zone episode in which the entire story consisted of a woman's repeatedly waking up from nightmares, only to find each time that she was still dreaming.
  • Played with in Chuck but only for a moment. After an episode putting Chuck's mental health in question the end of the episode shows that Chuck is not crazy. However, then he wakes up back in the mental ward. However, the mental ward scene is only for a moment before it becomes clear that it is another vivid dream, and not!crazy Chuck is in fact reality.
  • Doctor Who plays with this in the episode Amy's Choice, when the "Dream Lord" traps the Doctor and his two companions in two deadly situations which they switch between by falling asleep every five minutes or so, claiming one of them to be real and one of them to be a dream, and that if you die in the dream you wake up in reality, while if you die in reality, "you die, stupid, that's why it's called reality". In the end, the Doctor, in a twist of genius, realises that the Dream Lord gave them a choice between two dreams, because he "conceded defeat" and revived the dead TARDIS, while the Dream Lord is supposed to have no power over reality. He subsequently blows up the TARDIS to kill them all, and they all get returned to reality, where they were brought into a collective hallucination by a few grammes of psychotropic dust, and the Dream Lord is just an inner demon within the Doctor.
  • Lost: Hurley spent an episode believing that the Island was a hallucination and that he was still back at Santa Rosa Hospital. Desmond seems to have these reality doubts sometimes too.
  • Angel has a mini-version of this in a Season 4 episode. Angel is seen to defeat the demon and (finally) go to bed with Cordelia. Then we realize it was a dream designed to make Angel lose his soul in a moment of perfect happiness (understandably, sleeping with Charisma Carpenter = perfect happiness). It intersects with Your Mind Makes It Real; it qualifies here because the audience doesn't realize it's a dream until it's over, and this event blurs the lines between (in-show) reality and dream.
  • The basic premise of Awake, in which Detective Michael Britten has one life in which his son died and his wife is still alive, another where it's vice versa. Both are equally real to him.
  • The simplest version of Life On Mars and Ashes to Ashes is that it is all in the mind of the main characters. Other interpretations are available.


  • Jonathan Coulton's song Creepy Doll ends something like this:

You decide that you've had enough
And you lock the doll in the wooden box
You put the box in the fireplace
Next to your bag of big city money.
As the smoke fills up your tiny room there's nothing you can do
And far too late you see the one inside the box is you.

    • This is actually (or also) a reference to the original ghost story the song is based on, in which the doll drives its owner insane enough to try destroying it once and for all, and when they do, it takes over their body (or just vanishes, its mischief complete, depending on the retelling) and leaves the owner in the form of a new doll, ready to do the same to the next person who picks it up.


  • William Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew begins with a Framing Device of a drunk vagrant named Christopher Sly who passes out. A passing noble decides it would be good fun to mess with Sly's head and have all his servants pretend Sly is a lord when he wakes up, telling him that he was sick for like fifteen years or something. Sly asks himself "Do I dream? Or have I dream'd till now?"
    • The same kind of plot is not unknown in the European theatre of that period : Compare with the Spanish play La Vida es sueño (Calderon, 1635) and the lesser-known French play Le Songe des hommes eveillés (Des Brosses, 1646)


  • In Bionicle, a character asks the question of whether Metus is a snake dreaming he's an Agori or an Agori dreaming he's a snake.

Video Games

  • The day before Vincent's final climb, he wakes up to find Catherine in his bed and Katherine banging on his door. There's a tense scene between the three until the K/ Catherines start to fight. Katherine backs up to a sink, looking for a knife that Catherine already has. The two women fight and Catherine ends up getting stabbed before Vincent and Katherine are pulled into the dream world and have to climb to escape a monster demon form of Catherine. At the top, Katherine tries to throw herself off but Vincent saves her, and going through the top door....wakes him up. He realizes it was all a dream when Katherine shows up and he openly admits to her about Catherine in an attempt to explain the dream and she admits to having already known about Vincent's other woman.
  • Maribel Han in the All There in the Manual material for Touhou has a dual existence in a grayer Earth and in Gensokyo. It's menitoned that she visits the rest of the cast often, however we have never seen her directly in Gensokyo. It is speculated by some that she has a different identity when dreaming.
  • Zhuangzi's poem is the source of all the butterfly symbolism in the Persona games, as referenced by Megami Ibunroku Persona's intro. The remake even references this in the opening lyrics.

Dream of butterfly / Or is life a dream? / Don't wanna wake up / Cause I'm happy here'

  • On a similar note, Persona 3 Portable is implied to be this, because though one can choose either a female or male protagonist, the story is the same (save for one or changes in social links).
  • Silent Hill 1's Bad Ending shows us the protagonist dying in his broken car; apparently all the game was just a dream he had between the car crash and his death. Other endings are less unhappy, though... except for the one where he kills his daughter and he and an Innocent Bystander get roasted alive in a collapsing hell-dimension. Oh, and there are four sequels; he's revealed to have survived in the third only to be killed off-screen.
  • Part of the ending of the Ciel route in Tsukihime involves Shiki in a mental dream world where there are no vampires, Ciel is just a normal girl and he doesn't have his Eyes of Death Perception. He catches on pretty quick and has a little chat with his Nanaya side over whether he wants to leave or not, because leaving most likely means death.
  • The whole point of Eternal Sonata is the question of whether Frédéric Chopin is just having an extremely lucid fever dream, or if he really is in another world.
  • The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening - The island is nothing but one big dream, and the point of gathering the 8 dungeon items this time around is to wake both you and the Wind Fish up. Link is oblivious to this since you aren't directly told that it's a dream until late in the game, but the owl and boss monsters don't really try to hide this fact from you.
    • It should also be noted that at one point you end up in a dream sequence inside the dream world in order to get the Ocarina.
    • This makes it a hell of a Downer Ending, though: The Wind Fish is who is having the dream. Waking it up erases the entire island and everyone you've met, though the Golden Ending seems to mean Marin got her wish of being a seagull.
  • Referenced in one of the endings to Yo-Jin-Bo. Sayori wakes up at home, alone, in her own bed, and assumes her adventure in 19th century Japan was just a dream. And yet, she says she can't shake the feeling that that time was the "real" time, and today's present is only a dream that her 19th century self is having.
  • Occurs in a particularly soul-crushing way at the end of Realms Of The Haunting.
  • Parodied in Chrono Trigger in the Kingdom of Zeal.

Am I a man dreaming I'm a butterfly, or a bowling ball dreaming I'm a plate of sashimi?

  • In Mass Effect 3, Joker discusses this trope after Shepard takes a virtual trip through the geth consensus, wondering if you really came back out or if you're still in there and everything you're seeing now is an illusion. It becomes Hilarious in Hindsight when you consider some of the fan theories that came out about the ending of the game.

Web Comics

Web Original

Western Animation

  • Bender in Futurama Lampshades this when the episode Obsoletely Fabulous turns out to be just a dream while he gets a compatibility upgrade:

Bender: "Uff. If that stuff wasn't real, how can I be sure anything is real? Is it not possible, nay, probable that my whole life is just a product of my or someone else's imagination?"
Clerk: "No, get out. Next!"
Bender then walks out into a world of magical beer fairies and cigar trees while whistling.

    • Then there's the Fing-longer episode, where we see several characters' theoretical scenarios play out on the Professor's 'What if" Machine, only for it to be revealed at the end that the whole episode was one big "What if" scenario for the Fing-longer itself. This raises certain questions when the "What if" Machine makes a repeat appearance in a later episode.

Real Life

  • The Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi is the Trope Codifier. Zhuangzi, however, did not think reality could be a dream. He was not Buddhist, idealist, rationalist, or (ontological) dualist. The short anecdote actually finishes "Zhōu and the Butterfly, there must be distinction. This is the 'becoming of things'." 'Becoming of things', 物化 "wùhuà", can also translated as 'transubstantiation,' 'objectification,' or 'being.' The point is not that life might be a dream but that the distinction between dreamer and dream, thinker and thought, subject and object, the distinction itself is ontologically fundamental (a philosophy similar to Descartes' "I think therefore I am"). While early Daoists did not have the same concept of consciousness as Continental philosophers this is really closer to Phenomenology than the popular Buddhist/idealist interpretation used in this trope.
  • This trope probably derives from a dream commonly experienced during the earliest stages of deep mourning. In the dream the dead person is still alive, and it's explicitly stated in the dream (either by the dreamer or the deceased) that the "mourning" the dreamer has just gone through was nothing but a bad nightmare. The dreamer then awakes and suffers extreme confusion. It's common enough that journal articles and even a book have been written about it.
  • A fairly common one is false awakening Which, if it happens enough, just gets annoying.
  • The personality disorder called Solipsism has the person believing everything around them is a figment of their imagination or similar. Most of these people are entirely normal-seeming folk who will treat the people around them civilly despite them being "unreal".
    • Solipsism is also both a philosophical belief and a common argument against empiricist and sceptic philosophy (we can only know what our senses tell us and what we experience, but since we are often mistaken, and our senses decieve us sometimes, maybe we can't). The idea is that if you doubt everything, then what is left is total uncertainty, a life which is near-impossible to lead and one which most people would find utterly pointless. Philosophical solipsism can be summed up as "My mind is something I know for sure exists, but as for anything or anybody else..."