It is a standard trope, especially in fantasy role-playing games, that characters may be injured (or even killed) by illusionary creatures or obstacles that the victims believe in. I would like to know where this originated.

The rules for how this works are variable, even within a single game like Dungeons & Dragons. It may possible for illusions to kill a character outright, or an apparent death might merely lead to unconsciousness. "Disbelieving" the illusion may negate any damage it had done, or the damage might remain. What's more, the requirements to disbelieve an illusion can also vary a lot; it may be enough for the character to know that what they are seeing is not real, or it may be that, even if someone knows intellectually that what they are facing is illusory, they may still "believe" in it at a more visceral level and continue to take damage.

One particular view for how this works was expressed by Cordwainer Smith in his story "Think Blue, Count Two" (published 1963, well before the invention of modern RPGs):

The stranger went on in a very deliberate tone. "No bullet would come from my pistol, no ray, no blast, nothing. Nothing at all. But your flesh would believe me, even if your thoughts did not. Your bone structure would believe me, whether you thought so or not. I am communicating to every separate single cell in your body, to everything which I feel to be alive. If I think bullet at you, your bone will pull aside for the imaginary wound. Your skin will part, your blood will pour out, your brains will splash. They will not do it by physical force but by communication from me. Communication direct, you fool. That may not be real violence, but it serves my purpose just as well. Now do you understand me? Look at your wrist."

This is quite evocative, but it seems to be elaborating on a well-established idea. I doubt that this is the first instance; so what is the first example of being injured and possibly killed by an illusion?

  • People have been killed by ghosts and apparitions since the earliest forms of writing.
    – Valorum
    Commented Jan 27, 2018 at 20:43
  • That early example isn't very good science, is it? If cells received a stimulus indicating an obstruction, they'd act to mitigate it, not to exacerbate it. It would certainly cause issues, and likely death, but not at all as the excerpt describes it. Also, cells simply can't naturally move apart as quickly as they do when hit with a great force. Again, death would result quickly if they tried, but it wouldn't be very flashy. That's why doing this as a magical thing is usually better.
    – Adamant
    Commented Jan 27, 2018 at 20:44
  • 2
    @Valorum - That's not the same thing. They're not being killed due to believing an illusion is real, but by an sentient, non-illusory, incorporeal creature with the ability to do physical harm irrespective of any sort of belief.
    – Adamant
    Commented Jan 27, 2018 at 20:45
  • 1
    Now, an example where ghosts can only harm those who are aware of them and believe in them would be close to the trope described here.
    – Adamant
    Commented Jan 27, 2018 at 20:47

1 Answer 1


As far as fiction goes, this dates at least as far back as Second Stage Lensman, originally serialized November 1941 through February 1942:

Kinnison had never before met that particular form of attack, but he knew instantly what it was - knew that neither armor of proof nor screen of force could stop it. He knew that the thing was real only to the woman and himself, that it was not only invisible, but non-existent to everyone else. He also knew how ultimately deadly the creature was, knew that if claw or fangs should strike him he would die then and there.

See also the real-world concept of Voodoo Death, from around the same time period:

Voodoo death, a term coined by Walter Cannon in 1942 also known as psychogenic death or psychosomatic death, is the phenomenon of sudden death as brought about by a strong emotional shock, such as fear.

(More speculatively, it seems to me that the idea that Voodoo can only hurt you if you believe in it might have originated in the deliberate effort to trivialize the Vodou religion following the Haitian revolution in 1791.)

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