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A Guide to Pop Culture’s Biggest Hoaxes

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This week, 177 years ago, a series of articles were published in the New York Sun that reported on the discovery of life on the Moon, attributed to well-know astronomer Sir John Herschel. Stories about unicorns, strange humanoids, and entire civilizations described a strange, new world — and newspaper sales skyrocketed. What was intended as a satire — believed to be crafted by a Cambridge-educated reporter — became one of the earliest hoaxes in history, the truth not revealed until weeks later. Since then, and thanks to that lovely invention called the Internet, we’ve become far more jaded and skeptical when it comes to outlandish claims in media. Still, there have been many elaborate hoaxes over time that duped us for fun, profit, and sometimes accidentally.

The War of the Worlds Radio Drama

On Halloween in 1938, future filmmaker Orson Welles directed and narrated his radio teleplay adaptation of H.G. Wells’ earth invasion novel The War of the Worlds on the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS). The first part of the 60-minute broadcast was presented as a real-life news bulletin, which launched widespread panic and terror by listeners who thought Martians had actually taken over the planet. When people realized they had been tricked (mostly accidentally), outrage followed, leading to sensational press headlines and securing Welles’ legacy. Since then, Wells’ story has been adapted and re-broadcast, but nothing has matched the large-scale hoax by the Citizen Kane filmmaker.

Rrose Sélavy

The mysterious, sultry Rrose Sélavy emerged during a series of photographs by Man Ray in 1921. People wondered who the woman was, but had they considered the history of hoaxes that French prankster and artist Marcel Duchamp previously pulled off, it would have been clear. Duchamp invented the female identity as one of his many pseudonyms. The name was a pun that has been translated as “Eros, c’est la vie” (“Eros, such is life”) and “Arroser la vie” (“To make a toast to life”). Eventually he adopted the name for several of his creations, including one of his famous readymades.

The Cottingley Fairies

Sherlock Holmes writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle found solace in the Spiritualist movement following the death of his wife and son. His fascination with the supernatural realm deepened, even going so far as to write about the subject. That, coupled with his background in medicine, lent a lot of credibility to the claims of two young girls in England who created a stir with their photographs of fairies. The Cottingley Fairies were small creatures that appeared in several portraits of cousins Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths. Doyle used them to illustrate a 1920 article he wrote and professed the ethereal images as clear evidence of occult phenomena. The photos were investigated nationwide for several years, with a mix of skepticism and awe. It wasn’t until 1983 that the women admitted they had faked the whole thing by cutting out illustrations from a children’s book and propping them up with hatpins. They did cling to the claim that the fifth photo was real.

Walt Disney

There’s a long history of Disney animators being accused of implanting subliminal messages in children’s movies, but the real hoax actually has to do with Walt Disney himself. A team of animators played a prank on their late boss who died in 1966 and started a rumor that the Mickey Mouse mogul had his body cryogenically frozen and buried underneath the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland. The story has been shared with generations of Disney fans, even after a report clarifying the falsehood in 1969. No such Walt-cicle actually exists. He was cremated, and his family has disputed the rumor since it started.

Milli Vanilli

A Grammy Award for Best New Artist in 1990 quickly turned to a media backlash the same year when pop dance duo Milli Vanilli confessed they had lip-synched their debut album, Girl You Know It’s True. Their Grammy was withdrawn, and Arista Records dropped them and wiped the record from their catalog. Frank Farian conceived of the group, featuring vocals by Charles Shaw, John Davis, Brad Howell, and twins Jodie and Linda Rocco. They didn’t have the marketability he was after, so Howell recruited Munich models and dancers, Robert Pilatus and Fabrice Morvan. The performers attempted a comeback, but Rob succumbed to drugs in 1998. Fab pursued a solo career and even released a track last year, “Anytime.” Deception in the music and film industry runs rampant, but the Milli Vanilli hoax was one of the first that generation watched explode on a mass level.

The Blair Witch Project

When Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez launched a viral marketing campaign for shaky cam terror tale The Blair Witch Project in the late 1990s, Twitter, Facebook, and other social media sites had yet to be born. These types of marketing tactics were just gaining momentum, and the filmmakers on a shoestring budget ended up creating one of the earliest and most memorable guerilla marketing campaigns in movie history. Keep in mind this was also well before the popularity of found footage horror films. Prior to its release, audiences were introduced to websites that featured police reports, photos, and stories suggesting that a real-life case of a historically-based, supernatural murdering the movie’s three protagonists existed. Even after it was revealed to be a promotion, audiences remained convinced they had essentially witnessed footage setting up a paranormal snuff film. The questions continued during the movie’s theatrical run, with lingering doubts adding to the horror.

JT LeRoy

The Jeremiah “Terminator” LeRoy hoax is hardly the first literary ruse in history, but it’s one that recently inspired a massive, passionate response when it was revealed that JT was just an identity assumed by writer Laura Albert. At least in private. In public, Savannah Knoop donned a blonde wig and sunglasses to play the part. She was Albert’s partner’s half-sister. A dramatic and harrowing backstory was created by Albert in her published works, involving everything from underage truck stop prostitution, to drug addiction, incest, rape, and more — purported to be based on the real-life experiences of the author. Emotions are intoxicating, and LeRoy/Albert’s books like Sarah and The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things were making people drunk with heartbreak, astonishment, and perverse fascination. Celebrity and literary supporters befriended LeRoy, a 2004 film adaptation of The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things was released, and the veiled, mysterious public persona peaked everyone’s curiosity. Eventually Albert was exposted through a series of articles, and the writer fessed up. She rejected the idea that JT was a hoax and instead claimed the personality helped her channel things she couldn’t have written otherwise. Many called it an ugly self-promotional stunt and felt betrayed by the autobiographical slant. No matter what you think, it was a fascinating reveal to watch unfold. (Read an interview with Albert at The Paris Review.)

Paul McCartney

We’d be here for hours if we wrote about all of the musician-related death hoaxes, but in the case of The Beatles, the “Paul is dead” story is legendary. Fans of the English band searched for clues about McCartney’s rumored death and lookalike replacement in album covers and songs after reports were published by college students, and the frenzy spread like crazy. Bizarre fringe theories began to emerge, and in 1969’s Life magazine, McCartney denied the weird story:

“Perhaps the rumour started because I haven’t been much in the press lately. I have done enough press for a lifetime, and I don’t have anything to say these days. I am happy to be with my family and I will work when I work. I was switched on for ten years and I never switched off. Now I am switching off whenever I can. I would rather be a little less famous these days.”

Michael Jackson

Take your pick.

Jacko often disseminated sensational stories about his life, mostly it seemed out of frustration with the press. “Why not just tell people I’m an alien from Mars? Tell them I eat live chickens and do a voodoo dance at midnight. They’ll believe anything you say, because you’re a reporter,” he said to his biographer. “But if I, Michael Jackson, were to say, ‘I’m an alien from Mars and I eat live chickens and do a voodoo dance at midnight,’ people would say, ‘Oh, man, that Michael Jackson is nuts. He’s cracked up. You can’t believe a single word that comes out of his mouth.’ Rumors like Jackson sleeping in hyperbaric oxygen chambers and attempting to buy the Elephant Man’s remains were spread and not denied by the pop idol, which only fueled the media.