What Is a Red Herring? History & Cinematic Applications

The red herring is a powerful storytelling tool and a unique plot device that creates a gaping experience for the audience.

Oct 21, 2023By Theo Kapetanakis, MA Film Studies, BA Cultural Technology & Communication
red herring moments films open mouthed


Storytellers are in the position to determine whether a story will be interesting, boring, emotional, or even snarky through its narration. Obviously, a unique approach captivates the audience by forcing them to stay on their toes as the story unfolds in front of their eyes. For those reasons and many more, filmmakers fancy a good lie and they love to deceive and mislead their audience by using an elaborate narrative technique called the red herring,


Definition of The Red Herring: Origin & Modern History 

red herring origin hunting
The origin of the Red Herring, 1800s. Source: Scienceupfirst


The term Red Herring dates all the way back to the early 1800s. In the old days when hounds were trained for fox hunting, they were expected to possess the ability to avoid any kind of distractions and not be set off by any other scent. Therefore, a red herring fish would be used as bait’ in order to test a dog’s abilities. The hunter-trainer would drag the decoy with its special strange scent over the fox’s tracks as well as back and forth across the fox’s trail. The well-trained hound had to stay focused and keep following the fox’s scent without being distracted by the red herring, which could easily lead dogs to the wrong path of following a fish instead of a fox.


This age-old practice is deeply embedded in our history. It’s a kind of testament to sticking with it and remaining focused no matter what. It shows that when distractions might come knocking, but keeping your eyes on the prize is what gives us remarkable results.


That is where the cinematic term red herring came from. Red herring in films serves as a decoy capable of disorienting the viewer by leading their thinking away from the true aspect of the story. Just like a well-trained hound can tell apart a distracting red herring from genuine fox tracks, in the fascinating world of cinema and storytelling, there are paths that can either confuse the audience or guide them directly to the true meaning of the story.


The Camouflaged Narration

audience cinema red herring
Italian cinema audience,1970s. Source: ICA

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The writers and directors plant seeds of false information into the plot, trying to subtly distract the reader from the general truth of the story. Sometimes this can be a clue, sometimes it might be a character, or simply any other piece of information that directs our thinking into believing a reality that later comes crashing down in front of our eyes. These red herrings in storylines can be everywhere.


No one wants to waste hours and hours reading or watching a mystery that can easily be solved. Deliberately misleading the audience achieves suspense, shock, and finally the desired plot twist in the end. This is the key contribution of this enigmatic and dynamic narrative technique.


films plot twist red herring shock
Red herring in films. Source: Mashable


If the question of how could I have missed this is in most of the viewer’s heads, it means that a red herring has been used well. Nowadays, modern audiences and present-day readers are insightful and can easily nose out obvious red herrings. This new reality made creators more imaginative. Obviously, this narrative technique needed to evolve from its original ways. As the audience’s radar for red herrings gets better, creators find themselves at the crossroads of challenge and opportunity. The narrative journey now demands unexpected twists and turns in the story, capable of keeping both sides engaged and focused.


An Open-Mouthed Film Experience

whodunnit clue detective red herring
Whodunnit film category. Source: Flat Hat News; next to an image of a detective. Source: Axway


The red herring as a plot device, in film and literature, is inextricably linked to the mystery of a certain murder. This type of deception is often found in mystery films or the popular whodunnit films, novels, or plays that refer to stories about murders where the killer is not revealed right until the end.


The audience is on constant alert, looking for signs that will rule out a character as a suspect and reveal the real killer. The suspects are investigated by a famous detective and simultaneously by the viewer. The challenge of an unsolved riddle is the reason why the audience is successfully engaged with the flow of the plot.


golden age tv series red herring
The golden age of TV, 1950s. Source: Bloomberg


Writers and directors often play with our expectations. Our historical knowledge about real-life events or historical figures can easily turn into a cheeky red herring. The flow of historical events can be distorted in a film. This is a classic case of red herring with historical subversion. This historical falsification also changes the fate of the characters, perhaps creating a more satisfying alternate reality for the amazed audience.


Braveheart (1995), directed by Mel Gibson, is a prime example of historical falsification in cinema. Many events and characters in the movie are fictionalized or exaggerated. While the classic film is based on the life of William Wallace and the Scottish Wars of Independence, it takes significant liberties with historical accuracy for the sake of dramatic storytelling.


psycho alfred hitchcock thriller film red herring
Scream by Wes Craven,1996. Source: Rottentomatoes; next to Psycho by Alfred Hitchcock, 1960. Source: Grand Illusion Cinema


In the realm of the film industry, the use of recognizable faces and names in casting and marketing often misleads the audience, creating the impression that these well-known characters will remain alive and untouchable until the end of the story. This phenomenon was notably utilized by the masterful director Alfred Hitchcock in his classic film Psycho (1960) where this strategy has been boldly used as a trick to provoke questions and thoughts capable of turning any viewer into a future fan of this cinematic masterpiece.


In the world of entertainment during the Golden Age of television, TV shows frequently applied the use of red herrings. In the grand scheme of things, storylines became longer and more interesting, something that kept viewers engaged and eager to watch the next episodes. When the audience realizes that any character could potentially be written out of the show, a sense of excitement, along with the perception that everything is unpredictable, adds to the overall suspense of a TV series.


The Plot Twist: The Red Herring Effect of an Unstable Character 

joker joaquin phoenix red herring
The Joker by Todd Phillips, 2019, Source: Batman fandom


A plot twist is an unexpected development of a story that radically changes the outcome of the whole plot. After the big reveal, the story looks completely different, and the shape of reality changes in an instant. An extremely common application of the red herring in the film industry happens when the story is presented through the eyes of a psychologically unstable character. Whatever seems reasonable and real to this character might be far from the objective truth. This is the starting point of the artful manipulation of the audience’s perceptions. This dynamic encourages the audience to actively decode or question the authenticity of what they’re witnessing.


When it comes to the portrayal of characters in a film, deception can take on various forms and approaches. Often, this kind of deception revolves around altering the form or appearance of a character, creating a misleading impression for the audience. In such instances, the film’s plot twist unveils a jaded secret, revealing that two seemingly separate characters are, in fact, the same person.


For example, one of the two characters was the Narrator’s imaginary alter ego in the first place. This reversal gives a completely different meaning to all the previous actions. In that case, the red herring effect creates a dynamic emotion as the story becomes more and more intense.


fight club plot twist red herring
Fight Club by David Fincher,1999, via Thisisbarry


A structured narration with distinct events on a storyline suddenly changes. Finally the jaded truth shocks and fascinates the audience. The solution to this enigmatic riddle often turns into a feeling of pleasure that comes as a result of the emotional climax in the last act of a play or film.


A successful plot twist could be the magical moment that viewers will talk about for years. At the end of the day, cinema is about feelings and a good film has to keep you on the edge of your seat with its jaw-droppingly fantastic storytelling.

Author Image

By Theo KapetanakisMA Film Studies, BA Cultural Technology & CommunicationTheo is a filmmaker and author with tremendous passion for storytelling. He holds an MA in Film Studies from Middlesex University, London (1st Scholarship Award), and a BA in Cultural Technology & Communication from the University of the Aegean. His work includes, film directing, audiovisual arts, video editing, and scriptwriting. Furthermore, Theo is a Graphic Designer & Media Editor at TheCollector. In his spare time, he publishes articles on his specialty.