Your Brain on Facts author Moxie LaBouche has released a new episode of her podcast where she dives into popular hoaxes and false panics.
In 2003, Oprah Winfrey used her daytime television platform to warn millions of people that teenage girls were attending parties wearing wild shades of lipstick and performing oral sex on boys. The boy with the most colors of lipstick smudges would win the accolades of his peers. These were called Rainbow Parties. The story was picked up by newspapers and television news across the country. Parents were panicking. But did you know, there was one nit-picky detail the parents didn’t know – there had not been one verifiable instance of a Rainbow Party, ever. The same goes with colored bracelets corresponding to sex acts, vodka-soaked tampons, and huffing human feces to get high. Parents are naturally worried for their children and it doesn’t seem to take much to send them into a tizzy. It’s not just parents. We as people are prone to reacting, and overreacting, to the first piece of information we receive. Modern media makes the spreading of these new urban legends almost effortless, but false panics and hoaxes are far from a new invention. They have always been with us.
Most people know the story surrounding Orsen Well’s radio play “War of the Worlds” by H.G. Wells. It was presented in the form of a newscast, detailing the invasion of Earth by beings from another planet, clearly bent on our destruction. Listeners thought the broadcast was real. There was mayhem in the streets as as many as a million people fled their homes or armed themselves and made ready to fight off the alien hordes. We know all about the panic this radio play caused; it was in all the papers.
Therein lies the problem. Newspapers of the day greatly exaggerated the situation. To begin with, not that many people were tuned into “Mercury Theater on the Air” that evening. Only 2% of households with radios heard the play, which repeatedly identified itself as such during the performance. Some CBS radio affiliates even cut away from the broadcast in favor of local programming, further shrinking the audience. Most people were listening to the ratings juggernaut, ventriloquist Edgar Bergin. (This reporter still fails to understand how a ventriloquist act works on the radio, but it was a different time.)
Why then, if few people heard it and fewer still were confused by it, did the newspapers separately and independently make the situation sound worse than it was? They were motivated by fear, not of aliens, but fear of the radio. The wireless radio was the first real threat to the superiority of the newspaper as the public’s source of information. Reporters and editors saw this as an opportunity to prove to advertisers and regulators that radio was dangerous, irresponsible, and not to be trusted.
A similar thing had happened in England twelve years earlier, with a fictitious report that an angry mob of unemployed workers were running amok in London, looting and destroying everything in sight. The National Gallery had been ransacked, the Savoy Hotel blown up, the Houses of Parliament were being attacked with trench mortars, and the Big Ben clock tower has been razed to the ground. Like any good radio play, the narration was accompanied by appropriate sound effects. A fair number of people did take to the streets, even fleeing past famous buildings that had reportedly been destroyed, while others desperately clogged police phone lines. The BBC tried to ease tensions by reminding people that the report was a comedy skit entitled, “Broadcasting in the Barricades”, ending their message with, “London is safe. Big Ben is still chiming, and all is well.”
If you can’t trust the BBC, at least we can still rely on armed forces radio… people thought until May 1947 when WVTR in Tokyo began to issue a series of bulletins about a twenty foot monster that had risen from the sea to lay waste to the area. Bullets were useless against this dragon-like creature. Listeners could hear terrified shrieks, people shouting orders over bullhorns, heavy weapons and massive vehicles rolling by. When the beast reached downtown and the intrepid reporter who’d provided the play-by-play sneaked closer, the monster opened its mouth and congratulated WVTR on its fifth anniversary in a high soprano voice.
That’s right, an hour’s worth of “breaking news” to pat themselves on the back. During the broadcast, station phone lines were tied up with people trying to get information. Military police were told to stand ready and Japanese police were told to prepare to go on the offensive. British troops in the area demanded rifles and grenades so they could assist in the assault. All the while, station personnel declined to give more information. They finally admitted the joke when the broadcast was over, repeating this clarification until the end of the broadcast day, though nervous phone calls would continue into the next morning. The Brass was not pleased. Five men would be relieved of duty when all was said and done: the commanding officer of WVTR, the two authors of the script, the civilian program director, and the private first class who read the bulletins.
If official media sources can do all this, imagine what would happen if some nefarious party took control of the airwaves. As it happens, we don’t have to imagine it. Signal hijacking has plagued broadcast media almost since its inception. The 1980’s and 90’s were a heyday for hackers as consumer electronics developed at a tremendous pace, giving tricksters and ne’er-do-wells all the tools they needed, from a disgruntled HBO subscriber calling himself Captain Moonlight to the infamous Max Headroom signal takeover of WGN. Though studios tightened information security, hijackings have occurred as recently as 2013, when pranksters in Montana realized their local CW affiliates KRTV had left their Emergency Alert System computer on its factory pre-sets. During the Steve Wilko talk show, the emergency klaxon blared and a text crawl began at the top of the screen, accompanied by an official-sounding man’s voice, warning viewers, “Civil authorities in your area have reported that the bodies of the dead are rising from their graves and attacking the living. Follow the messages on screen that will be updated as information becomes available. Do not attempt to approach or apprehend these bodies as they are considered extremely dangerous.” This “alert” would go out again during that evening’s episode of The Bachelor. Aficionados of drop-D tuning will probably recognize that message as the beginning of the track “Fight Til You Can’t” from the Anthrax album Worship Music.
No major panics were reported but it didn’t help matters when a morning radio show in Wisconsin played the alert so they could joke about it. The problem was, their station is designated as the “primary entry point station” for the Emergency Alert System in the area. Even with them talking and laughing over it, this triggered the system to automatically send the fake alert out to all local radio and TV stations, one of whom replayed it as a legitimate alert. There are no reports indicating the perpetrators were ever identified.
This was certainly not the first time zombies were used to fool people. When the British rock group Zombies’ single “Time of the Season” became a hit in America in 1968, the band had already been dissolved for almost two years. They were not even aware of this success and the individual members had gone on to other things. A hit was a hit and Michigan-based Delta Promotions wouldn’t let a trivial detail like the band not existing get in their way.
If you think that’s preposterous, wait until you hear that there were actually two bands, one from Texas and one for Michigan, which toured different parts of the country. The ubiquity of social media in our lives can make this seem impossible, but it worked easily back in the days of rotary phones and mimeographed flyers. This was also a time when the music industry, like Golden Age Hollywood, had little respect for individual artists, changing the line-up of bands at the slightest sign of push-back. The band The Drifters went through sixty members in their time.
Delta Promotions told the new bands that the original Zombies were no more and that they had secured full rights to their catalog — they hadn’t. Delta also failed to mention the existence of a second band. Before launching the Zombie tour, Delta asked the Texas band to play as the recently-disbanded Rose Garden, despite the fact that they only knew one Rose Garden song and that Rose Garden’s lead singer was female.
Audiences were often disappointed by the fake Zombies, which lacked some of the instruments, and all of the sound, of the original. But the band would be on the bus and gone before any real trouble could arise. A charade of this magnitude can’t last forever. Things began to fall apart when Delta fielded a fake version of the Animals, which was outed by a member of the actual Animals. When Delta tried to make an Archies band, based on the comic book characters, property owners Kirshner Productions brought their lawyers to bear immediately. Delta Promotions collapsed under their hubris shortly afterwards and the bands went home. After returning to Texas, two of the fake Zombies, Frank Beard and Dusty Hill, were joined by Billy Gibbons to form the famous and furry band ZZ Top.
Raising fake zombies is one way to communicate with the dead. Spiritualism, a system of belief based on supposed communication with the spirits of the dead through practitioners known as mediums, is another.
When news of Cecilia Weiss’s death from a stroke in 1913 reached her son, Harry Houdini, it caused him to faint. Houdini and his mother had been very close. Contrary to custom, the family delayed her burial in New York so that he could travel from Copenhagen, where he was performing, to see her one last time. Houdini would mourn painfully for months. He would go so far as to seek out seances in hopes of reaching her again, but his experiences failed to bring him closure. One medium, in particular, sent him on a decade-long quest to debunk Spiritualism. There were clues that the seance was not on-the-level when the medium delivered a “happy Christmas” message purportedly from Weiss. For one thing, his mother was Jewish. For another, she didn’t speak English.
That’s the story as most of us heard it and it’s a fun one to retell, along with the patently incorrect versions of Houdini’s death. He did not die in one of his tricks, but by a punch to the abdomen that burst his infected appendix. No, Houdini was aware, and skeptical, of Spiritualism for years before his beloved mother’s death. His first seance experience was at the impressionable age of eleven, but it did not take long for school boy Harry to smell a rat. He and a friend made a hobby of disproving mediums, and later, knowing the tricks as well as he did, he and wife/stage partner Bess performed as mediums for a time, until he found the deceit too distasteful to continue.
The specific incident that has most likely been twisted into the mother-seance story involved author Arthur Conan Doyle and his wife, Jean. Doyle became a passionate champion of Spiritualism after losing his son in the Great War. In 1922, Lady Doyle professed to channel Cecilia Weiss through “automatic writing,” in which the medium’s hand is guided by the spirit realm. What followed was that series of embarrassing mistakes, which Houdini, to his credit, was graciously quiet about. The Doyles interpreted his lack of myth-busting as a tacit endorsement for Spiritualism and spoke of it publicly, forcing Houdini to make his true feelings known. This spotlight was what pitted him against what remained of the Spiritualism movement, some ten years after his mother’s death.
After Houdini’s death from peritonitis in 1926 at age 52, his widow Bess gave Spiritualism one more bite at the metaphorical and metaphysical apple, issuing “The Houdini Seance” challenge, offering $10,000, the equivalent of $137,000 today, to anyone who could make contact with Harry. The couple had set up a secret code word to be used by the one who passed first to prove definitively that it was them. For ten years, she entertained attempts by mediums to no avail, though one man, Arthur Ford, a pastor of the First Spiritualist Church in New York City, did publicly claim success, even twisting Bess’s refutation to bolster his claim. Bess would die seventeen years after Harry, though they would not repose together; her family was Roman Catholic and forbade her be buried in a Jewish Cemetery. They lie an hour’s drive apart, Harry in Queens, Bess in Hawthorne, NY.
Composer and pianist Alexander Levy, guitar legend Jimi Hendrix, singers Janis Joplin and Amy Winehouse; these are only a few of the member of the so-called 27 Club, musicians and other celebrities who died at the age of 27, through circumstances tragic and often drug-fueled. There is a lesser known curse in entertainment circles, the curse of the white Bic lighter. This legend holds that many a musical great died with a white Bic-brand cigarette lighter on their person. This list has significant overlap with the 27 Club. Some living musicians, like superstitious actors with the word MacBeth, take the white Bic curse to be gospel and won’t carry or even use one if it’s handed to them.
The most important thing to know about this legend is that is it a legend, i.e. a myth. There is no concrete evidence that more dead musicians had white Bic lighters at the time of death than any other cross-section of society. More importantly, while Joplin, Hendrix, and Jim Morrison are among the most prominent members of this second club, they all died in 1970-71; Bic produced the first disposable lighter of any color in 1973. The other most common victim of the white Bic lighter, Nirvana front-man and heroine-user Kurt Cobain, had two lighters with him at the time of his suicide, neither of which were white.
As an aside: while drugs willingly taken should get the lion’s share of blame for Jimi Hendrix’s death, there is an honorable mention reserved for the paramedics treating him during his final overdose. They left him unattended and sitting up, rather than lying on his side, causing him to aspirate vomit.
We’ll leave you today with a hoax from across the pond that is too good not to share. One stormy day during the Napoleonic Wars, a French ship was wrecked off the coast of an old fishing village clinging to the north-east coast of England. The only survivor was the ship’s mascot, a monkey in a sailor suit who was washed ashore. The people of Hartlepool had never seen a monkey before – nor, for that matter, had they ever set eyes on a Frenchman. Mistaking its chattering for the language of the enemy, they convicted the monkey of being a French spy and hanged the animal on the beach.
Ask the people of Hartlepool if the story is true and they’ll tell you with pride that it is. They’ve named their football mascot H’angus the Monkey. One of the men to wear the costume was elected mayor three times. Maybe the movie “Secondhand Lions” was right – “Just because something isn’t true, that’s no reason you can’t believe in it.” What you do with that belief, well, that’s another story.
And that’s where we run out of ideas, at least for today. The sage of advice “don’t believe everything you hear/read” is timeless for a reason. It’s easy to fall for a juicy bit of gossip and so satisfying to pass on a rumor. Or, as Margaret Houlihan of MASH fame once said, “For your information, it’s not a rumor. It’s something I heard.” Thanks for spending part of your day with me.
Things You Didn’t Know, Things You Thought You Knew, and Things You Never Knew You Never Knew
The world is full of things you didn’t know, things you thought you knew, and things you never knew you never knew. From the eponymous podcast comes Your Brain On Facts.
Train your brain. So what if you picked up some historical inaccuracies (and flat-out myths) in history class. Your Brain On Facts is here to teach and reteach readers relevant trivia. It explains surprising science in simple language, gives the unexpected origins of pop culture classics, and reveals important titbits related to current issues.