Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: (1) A prediction that directly or indirectly causes itself to become true, by the very terms of the prophecy itself, due to positive feedback between belief and behavior. (2) A cheap narrative trick we keep falling for.
Just The Facts
- If the future cannot be changed, prophecy negates free will.
- If the future can be changed, free will negates prophecy.
- If that doesn't make any sense, just stop reading right now.
Warning: An entire article about how well prophecies play out in books and movies might just contain a few spoilers.
Prophecy: the ultimate spoiler
Prophecy is rarely straightforward. You never get a horoscope which reads "At 12:46 PM you, Ted Simpson, will have a heart attack on the corner of 16th and Lexington while bending over to pick up a penny minted in the year of your birthday, 1976." Fortunetelling can't be that accurate, not without some dire implications. If it were, and everything always came to pass exactly as foretold, it would imply the future is fixed and free will is a lie. We'd either take steps to disprove fate just for the hell of it, or we'd discover we're meat puppets, stuck in a mechanical, unchanging universe in which we can't even wail with existential angst unless it is programmed into the divine plan.
"No, wait, Cancer is in ascension and Virgo's in decline. That means you'll get ice cream!"
To get around this, prophecy only ever seems to come in one of three forms: obscured, self-fulfilling, or wrong.
If it is obscured, then it may be completely accurate but couched in obtuse metaphor and vague language, so ambiguous that it is impossible to identify until the event it predicts has actually come to pass. Which basically makes it useless. This (and a confirmation bias stronger than the Juggernaut) is how people can still claim Nostradamus was completely accurate in all of his predictions. Likewise, if a prophecy is more blatant, but able to be prevented, like, say, the visions in Final Destination, then it is also wrong. Which basically makes it no more than a particularly good guess.
"We have to get out of here! I had a vision this movie's going to suck balls!"
That leaves the third variety, the self-fulfilling prophecy. This is when someone gets just enough of a hint about the future that they act in such a way as to bring about that very same vision. Either trying to prevent that prophecy causes the events that make it come to pass, or else that vision of the future inspires someone to the path foretold which they would never otherwise take.
There are not many really awesome examples of actual self-fulfiling prophecy in real life, probably for the same reason there aren't many really awesome examples of fighting space vampires with light sabers and pixie dust. Most real life examples are too low key to make good O. Henry stories, such as, "I knew she was going to break up with me, so I didn't feel bad cheating on her, and when she found out she somehow acted like I was the bad guy!" But self-fulfilling prophecy (SFP) has played a major part in our fiction and mythology since the earliest myths, when the Titan Chronos ate the children whom he knew would one day usurp him, and his son Zeus killed him for being cruel enough to eat his own children. And SFPs make the best stories, adding irony and tragedy to what is otherwise a standard tale. Given its prevalence, you'd think by now some of the characters who show up in modern fiction should learn the definition, since so many of them fall victim to it!
9) Voldemort creates Harry Potter
Variations on that Chronos and Zeus myth keep getting retold over and over. A cruel ruler learns that a child will be born who will be a threat to his power and life, he decides to slay the youth before it can become a threat, and in doing so cements the very reason for his own demise. It was why Herod tried to kill all firstborn sons in the Bible, why Oedipus was so messed up, why Elora Danan's birth made the Queen so pissed in Willow, why the Lord Marshal of the Necromongers committed Furyan genocide in The Chronicles of Riddick. But nowhere in modern fiction is it so apparent as in the Harry Potter stories.
Voldemort, aliases "You-Know-Who" and "He-Who-Must-Not-Be Named," is the evil noseless Big Bad of the Harry Potter-verse. He is basically a magical racist, hating both Muggles and non-pure-blood wizards, despite being half-blood himself. He was conceived under love potion - basically magical rape - cannot understand love or kindness, and cannot relate to the suffering of others except to derive amusement from it. J.K. Rowling herself described Voldemort as "the most evil wizard for hundreds and hundreds of years."
Though that might be up for debate.
Before he can get to the business of completely conquering the wizard world and expunging the earth of all Muggles, Lord Voldemor learns of a prophecy by Sybill Trelawney to Dumbledore of a boy who would have the power to defeat him. Based on the clues to the prophecy, Voldemort realizes that the Potter's new boy is the prophecied wunderkind and sets out to kill him. But Harry's mother and father get in the way, dying to save their son. The power of their love protects Harry enough that Voldemort's Avadra Kedavra curse rebounds and very nearly kills him, while leaving Harry alive and none the worse for wear save a lightning-bolt scar and a childhood under quasi-abusive relatives. It also binds Harry and Voldemort's lives together. When Harry learns of his wizardly nature and the part Voldemort played in ruining his life, Harry's resolve is cemented firmly to defeating Voldemort.
But remember this scene?
Keep in mind that the Sorting Hat basically left it a toss-up as to whether Harry would go to Slytherin or Gryffendor. If Voldemort had not interceded (leaving Harry wanting to be nothing like him) and Harry had been raised by his natural mother and father (who, in Snape's flashbacks, was a bit of a jackass) it is entirely possible that Harry would grown up with his real parents and resenting the hell out of them just like the rest of us. Instead of growing up with idealized memories, he very well might have preferred not to go to his parent's alma mater, and, as Cracked has mentioned before, would have then been trained to become the next Draco Malfoy. We'll never know, because by interceding Voldemort pushed events in an entirely different direction.
8) Anikan Skywalker becomes a Sith to save Padme
By Star Wars 2: Electric Boogaloo of the Clones, Anakin Skywalker has grown up from a precocious youth on Tatooine to a Jedi-in-training who can't act literally at all. Even though it is forbidden for Jedi to get hitched or for princesses to marry commoners (or was that Aladdin?) he and Padme fall in love and secretly get married, even though she's way older than him at an age where that sort of thing should definitely be a factor.
But all is not wine and roses for the couple. Sure, keeping the marriage secret means the sex is super-hot - not to mention all the intriguing ways one could misuse the Jedi Mind Trick with a willing partner - but Anakin keeps getting nightmares about Padme dying. Obi-Wan is zero help and Yoda is just a guy in a motion-capture suit, so in desperation he turns to the Sith. Gaining understanding through power sounds good on paper, but Anakin's alliance with Doku corrupts him and turns him evil enough that Padme decides to leave him. Feeling betrayed, Anakin Force-chokes the hell out of Amidala and brings about what he tried to prevent.
"Are you saved yet? Am I doing it right? WHY WON'T YOU TALK TO ME?!"
The Force sometimes gives visions, but apparently never often and never quite enough. There was no impression of him killing Padme, or of the events that led to her death. And after slaughtering a school full of padawans just to save her, it no doubt seemed ungrateful to him that Padme would up and book out. Just as Yoda's vague premonition that there was much fear and anger in Anakin led a defiant Qui-Gon to be his mentor, so did Anakin's vision of the future lead him to the very future he sought to prevent. But whereas Obi-Wan tried to stop Anakin when he learned what a rotten little bastard he'd become and of his weakness against the high ground, Anakin must have realized at some point when Padme started gripping the invisible hand around her throat and thrashing about that he was the root cause. A therapist might argue that awareness of the prophecy subconsciously gave him the validation to go through with it when he might otherwise have pulled back and stopped himself. Or even that his dreams were manifestations of his desire to kill Padme and his subconscious led him to take actions that would allow that outcome to arise. Or that he knew it was the only way he could get away with wearing this:
"TOTALLY worth it."
7) Macbeth should have ignored the witches like Banquo
With both of those last two instances, a single vision led to an inescapable result. But what about when there are two visions?
In the Scottish Play, Macbeth and Banquo are standing on a battlefield after the fight when they are confronted by three witches. Just like the Three Fates of Greek and Norse mythology, they come bearing prophecy, saying that Macbeth will be a king and Banquo a father to kings.
Macbeth acts upon the promise of the prophecy and with a bit of creative assassination works his way up to king. But now he has a problem. The first half of the prophecy, that he would be king, has come true. But the second half says that Banquo will be father to kings, and since that is generally a patrilineal line of succession, it implies to him that Banquo will assassinate him just as he assassinated the former ruler and put his own boy on the thrown. So Mackers kills him as well. Generally speaking, things go downhill for him from there.
"I know people are superstitious about saying 'Macbeth' on stage but there's no way that sword will really do any damACK!"
The implications of this are unnerving from a prophetic point of view. One of those prophecies came true, the second didn't. Banquo never became father of kings. He is killed and his sole child flees, but it is MacDuff and not Banquo's son who returns to kill Macbeth and take over the rule. So Banquo's fortune was wrong.
But Macbeth's prophecy was right. However, Macbeth would ALWAYS have been third in line for succession even before the witches spoke; his promotion to Thane arrives just as the witches leave, and since this was in the days before cell phones that means it was penned and official long before he actually got his fortune told. It was only his willingness to kill and his wife's prodding that led him to murder those above him and attain the throne that he'd been told would be his. But only if he killed to get it. If he'd rebuffed the witches as an insane trio of homeless crones and ignored their advice, it never would have come about and the prophecy would be entirely wrong; it was only his following of it that led it to pass. See how that works?
6) Everyone forgot their flashforward in their flashforward
In ABC's FlashForward, Brannon Braga decided that ruining the Star Trek franchise wasn't good enough and turned his hand to ruining the works of Robert J. Sawyer, a sci-fi writer who has won so many awards that they're eventually going to have to create new ones and name them after him like they did with the Hugos.
The premise is that one day everybody on earth has a simultaneous blackout for two minutes and seventeen seconds during which time they see exactly what they are doing next year on April 29th. One character sees himself attacked in his office, another sees herself being intimate with a man who was not her husband, and one guy with no vision realizes he'll be dead in a year. After discovering that everybody had visions that all happened at the same time and corroborate one another, a group of FBI agents set up a task force called Project: Mosaic to collect stories of these visions and try to form a cohesive picture of those 2:17 minutes, what caused it, and if it could happen again.
Then they...y'know what? Just...please, just please read the book instead.
Beyond the basics the plot itself quickly diverges from the much, much better book. What made the show interesting, though, was less the main story then how people respond to this image of the future. One man falls in love with a Japanese woman he's only seen for 2:17 minutes, learning Japanese so they can talk one day and eventually traveling to Japan to meet her early, where he misses her because she's left to go to America to find the man she's realized is her soulmate. A mentally-handicapped child shows trust to a man he's only known in his vision, a man who would never otherwise enter into his mother's life, but whom she cannot help but be intrigued by after knowing she will be in bed with him and not her husband a year from now (and knowing she won't be with her husband a year from now becomes the very driving wedge to break up their marriage). And the main character's obsession with figuring out what caused the Flashforward may very well be what leads to getting a group of gunmen in his office in the future.
Some people who learn they are going to die lose all hope and become thrill seekers, which of course leads them to SFP. Eventually one man who discovers in the future that he is going to accidentally kill a young girl instead kills himself, changing the future so that he dies and she lives. The media goes crazy, the headlines actually read "The Future Can Be Changed!"
"The future can be changed! News at 11!...Maybe."
But of course it always could. All of these visions were SFPs. Because the thing nobody seems to realize is that, back in the present, everybody now knows that their past selves will see the future for two minutes and seventeen seconds on April 29th. Everyone. And yet not one person in the future held up lottery ticket numbers, or sports team wins, or a warning to their past selves not to take the job in Albuquerque. If you knew you'd be able to give your past self almost two-and-a-half minutes worth of information about what the next year will bring, wouldn't you have a word or planned? What if you had a whole year to think about it?
The future everyone saw was a future that could be, one that is invalidated by their awareness of it. And yet quite a lot still comes to pass, because they keep identifying clues and moving towards the future they recognized, rather than the future they want.
5) Lost's Locke is his own inspiration
Flashforward was hardly ABC's only delving into SFP. The folks from Oceanic 815 had plenty of experience, in the form of John Locke on Lost.
He reeks of greatness.
Since childhood, Locke has been told by various people that he is special. His own mother told him he was virginally conceived...so basically the next Christ. He believes he has a special connection to the mystic and supernatural, especially after he regains the use of his paralyzed legs after the plane crashes onto the Island. And he's proved right when the ghost of Walt appears and tells him he has a mission. Whereas most people would assume they were suffering hallucinations from some sort of tropical disease, his confidence in his own specialness leads him to splinter the survivors, join the Others, move the island, and start jumping through time. While he's time jumping he tells people in the past of the great things he'll do, which in turn make them treat young Locke like he'll grow up to be special.
At least I think that's how it all goes. The show wasn't exactly known for being easy to follow. They warned you about that it the damned name.
Without that continually reinforced perception that he is destined for greatness, there's a damned good chance Locke would never have even boarded that plane in the first place. His time traveling pushed him to become the sort of man who would brag about himself when he traveled back in time.
And then he became the father of Classical Liberalism, although there is a small chance this was a different guy.
4) Pre-Crime negates itself
In Minority Report , psychics drop color-coded balls with the names of people who are about to commit murder, and Tom Cruise has to find enough clues from their psychic visions to find out where the murder is and stop it. He gets a vision of his own precrime, in which he commits murder, and to prove himself innocent instead commits kidnapping, assault, resisting arrest, assaulting a police officer, identity theft, traveling under a false name, and a slew of other crimes only to learn that there is no mistake and he really will commit the murder after all.
Tom Cruise is able to resist committing actual murder when the moment comes, and by doing so he proves that every single other criminal who has been arrested for precrime is being unlawfully incarcerated.
Follow this logic: Tom Cruise knows about the crime he will commit. His attempts to prevent it from happening push him to trail a guy he'd never otherwise know into a room he'd never otherwise see, where there is enough evidence laying out in full display that this man kidnapped his son that he would be driven to take up a gun and kill him. Maybe in the original future he would have - early into the movie Tom Cruise explains that stopping precrime is like stopping a ball from rolling off a table, that the ball will fall regardless unless you reach out to stop it.
But now Tom Cruise knows about that future. And knowing it, he is able to stop himself from committing the crime. So there is no crime. Theoretically, all of the people he's arrested could have been stopped with just a bit of foreknowledge of their own. By treating them as criminals, the police commit SFP, punishing rather than preventing crime before it happens.
Though not even the best psychic could have predicted this.
Critics will argue that this case shouldn't count, since Tom Cruise's crime was a set-up to hide a bigger crime committed years earlier, a psychic echo that was actually a second murder. But it totally does count. That second murder was also committed with the full knowledge that it would be discounted as an echo; without knowing that psychics get echo visions and that those visions are routinely discarded by precrime cops, the murderer would never dare commit either the second murder nor Tom Cruise's whole experience for which it was made to cover.
3) Time travel made Twelve Monkeys into One Red Herrings
In Twelve Monkeys, Bruce Willis travels from a dark future where a virus has decimated the world's population. His only clues are the Twelve Monkeys, a radical group who are recorded for claiming credit for the terrorist action, of which the only notable member is Brad Pitt.
Willis first confronts Pitt in an asylum, where he unwittingly gives him the idea for the very virus he is trying to prevent. On his second time jump, he comes to believe his vision of the future are a hallucination, but his psychiatrist records the very message about the Twelve Monkeys that he heard in the future. On his final trip back he discovers that the Army of the Twelve Monkeys are just a bunch of eco-fanatics who release animals from the local zoo. The true villain to spread the plague did so at the same airport he and his shrink/love interest head to. Bruce Willis himself unwittingly distracts the airport security and in doing so allows the true patient zero to board, contagion and all.
Or the short version: Andromeda Strain meets Hudson Hawke.
If future scientists had never sent Bruce Willis to the past, that man might well have been stopped. Instead they did, choosing him out of countless others because various indications pointed that he had already been to the past. Rather than take this as proof that time-travel is a self-contained loop, they ignored the retrospectively obvious SFP and sent Bruce Willis back in time to precipitate the very dystopian future they sought to prevent.
2) Master Shifu is too careful
In Kung Fu Panda, Master Shifu gets a horrible vision from his turtle sensai, that the evil Tai Lung will escape prison! Knowing how dangerous Tai Lung truly is, Shifu sends a bird messenger to warn the guardsmen to be on high alert. However, the messenger drops a feather which Tai Lung then uses to break out, and only Jack "Look at me, I'm a Panda" Black can save the day.
If Shifu had let matters be, Tai Lung might have rotted in prison. This one makes it so high on the list because Master Shifu really should know better. He is himself a teacher, and was outright warned by his own wise master that "one often meets his destiny on the road he takes to avoid it." When you commit SFP after being blatantly told that you are about to do exactly that, it deserves special mention.
"Seriously. If you do anything here you will be wrong." "But what about-" "Questioning me is something! Don't do anything!"
1) Everyone In the Matrix is Fate's Bitch
Prophecy plays an enormous role in The Matrix. And nobody really understands how it works.
Morpheus spends his whole life searching for The One. Why? Because it is prophecied that he will be the one to find The One.
Trinity is told that the man she loves will be The One. So was it Keanu Reeves' quick wit or his cybernetic deformities that made her fall in love with him, or the foreknowledge that he was The One and she was supposed to fall in love with him?
The machines also know that The One is coming (as he has several times before, apparently). Rather than let the escaped humans live their lives peacefully if they promise not to interfere with the Matrix, the machines become even more fanatical, culminating in Agent Smith hating humans so much he eventually takes over the Matrix himself.
And then there's Neo. At the start of the whole movie, computer programmer/hacker Thomas Anderson has been searching for clues to cryptic references about the Matrix and eventually gets confirmation from Trinity that Morpheus can show him the truth about it.
(FYI, Tom Cruise's character was also named Anderson. Coincidence? Probably.)
But Trinity and Morpheus only approach Neo in the first place because they are reasonably sure he is The One. Even when he learns the truth about the Matrix, Neo refuses to believe that he is The One for quite a while. There is certainly nothing to validate it, since at first he can't jump tall buildings like Trinity or dodge bullets or avoid getting distracted by women in red dresses. There is literally nothing pointing to him being The One except Morpheus's faith in him. But without that, even if he didn't really believe it, would he have dared break Morpheus out from the Agents, have dared faced Smith, and have followed the chain of events that led to his death and rebirth as The One?
It's like the Oracle told him when he knocked over the vase she warned him not to knock over. "What's really going to bake our noodle later on is: would you still have broken it if I hadn't said anything?"
No, ma'am, probably not. Because that's what self-fulfilling prophecy is.
Phillerspace has written many other articles that are also way too long! Check out 9 Minor Points in Shakespearean Plays That Totally Change the Whole Story and 9 Comic Book Pets That Make Their Super-Owners Look Stupid.
Or check out his web comic.