We all know that the media is awash in lies and half-truths. Last year alone saw Brian Williams and Bill O’Reilly fib about their war reporting experiences, Rolling Stone botch a report on a college rape case, and countless fake viral photos. It’s a continuous struggle between truth-seekers and bullshit artists, and the problem is that the second group has some pretty dedicated people on its side. That’s how …
#5. A Fake Tortured And Sick Child Captivated Oprah And The World
Anthony Godby Johnson, we were all told, had the worst boyhood in human history. During the ’80s, Tony was beaten, abused, prostituted, raped, and passed around a pedophile ring. He became homeless, was dying of AIDS and syphilis, and had his leg amputated. Oh, and a gang wanted to murder him. His life reads like the backstories of 20 “strong” female characters rolled into one.
Joanne Vicki Fraginals
That is the content and satisfied smile of a child who’s seen some shit, apparently.
When calling a suicide hotline (because who wouldn’t?), Tony was connected to Vicki Johnson, who saved him from his living nightmare. Vicki said she befriended the dying-of-everything-under-the-sun Tony, nursed him back to health, and helped him write about what happened. His 1993 memoirA Rock And A Hard Place came out when he was just 14. It became a bestseller, the movie rights were picked up by HBO, and it was even featured on the always-trustworthy Oprah. America couldn’t get enough of the boy with a thousand Sin City stories in his life.
The “new epilogue” was a list of horrific drug addictions Anthony suddenly remembered he had.
But cracks started to show when people wanted to meet Tony, as Vicki had never let anyone meet the sickly, sickly boy. A few people had talked to him on the phone, and noted that he had an effeminate voice that was strangely similar to Vicki’s. We know what you’re thinking: the twist is that Vicki and Tony were long-lost twins! But shockingly, no. When 20/20 had a voice analyst examine some recordings, he concluded that Vicki and Tony were the same person. Gasp!
“True story” = A boy named Anthony exists somewhere.
“Certain names” = The shyster who wrote this.
It was later revealed that the picture of “Tony” which Johnson (real name: Joanne Victoria Fraginals) had been peddling was in fact of a perfectly healthy New Jersey traffic engineer whom she had taught when he was in fourth grade. Vicki maintained that Tony was real and alive despite all of this, and “he” continued to have believers who emailed him and saw nothing odd about a kid with every disease known to man clinging to life for well over a decade. Because wouldn’t it be sad if this tortured, long-suffering child wasn’t real?
#4. A Book Convinced America There’s A Bizarre, Sprawling Society Beneath New York
In New York City, there’s a class of people who live in filthy hovels and never see the light of day, and they’re known as “everyone who isn’t incredibly rich.” But beneath them is said to be an intricate society of even filthier, hovelier people. They’re the mole people of New York, as described in Jennifer Toth’s aptly-titled 1993 book The Mole People: Life In The Tunnels Beneath New York City.
Chicago Review Press
It’s not one of Manhattan’s more popular tourist guides.
Now, it’s true that some people do live underground in New York, but they tend to be runaways and drug addicts who spend their days exactly like homeless people in any other city. Toth, however, wrote about caricatures who were closer to C.H.U.D.s than human beings.
Take Dark Angel, who supposedly rises out of a coffin-like box with his arms crossed to scare cops (but somehow doesn’t get shot or arrested in the process). At one point, he tells Toth, “Leave, little lost angel, before the tunnels swallow you and you are one of mine,” as if he wandered out of a vampire novel. The book also features a woman who’s seven months pregnant but doesn’t realize it, believing that her stomach’s always been that big — only Toth’s suggestion makes her consider that there might be a baby in there. Eventually, she gives birth to a child with a crack addiction, because nothing says “shining a sympathetic light on humanity’s most neglected individuals” like portraying them as insane, idiotic drug addicts.
A guy named Teun Voeten followed up by actually living with, and photographing, underground dwellers.
Shock of shocks, not a Dark Angel in sight.
None of these outlandish stories raised any alarms in the wake of the book’s publication, because it seems we’re willing to believe anything about both homeless people and New Yorkers. The book was released to many reviews mourning the tragic lives of people who run assassination rings or bear the name “Lord of the Tunnels,” like they’re in bad Fallout fanfiction. One reviewer’s only major criticism was that Toth came across as naive, at which point he presumably vanished in a puff of irony.
Chilling with a real-life Tunnel Lord would likely be more waste of time than wasteland.
Since then, critics have pointed out that none of Toth’s stories are verifiable, in addition to soundinglike utter bullshit. The facts that were verifiable — things like the basic geography of the tunnels —turned out to be complete nonsense. Reddit tried to get her to discuss her work in an AMA which never materialized. Which is too bad because we’re kind of curious to see what else she’d have come up with.
#3. A Satirist Made Everyone Believe The United States Admitted To Fighting Wars For Profit
Patrick Christain / GettyImages
What would you say if you saw a leaked report by a secret think tank arguing that the government should keep the country in a state of perpetual warfare? Well, given the tepid reaction to Wikileaks, a lot of people would say, “Oh look, The Bachelor is on,” and nothing else. But that wasn’t the reaction in 1967, when The Report From Iron Mountain was released.
Bridger House Publishers
“Johnson’s probably too busy playing with his dick to notice, but keep this away from him anyhow.”
Iron Mountain appeared to be a chilling bureaucratic confirmation of what so many flower children already suspected: that there was a government conspiracy to fight pointless wars and keep Americans downtrodden. It was such a scandal that there was a rumor President Johnson ordered itbottled up for all time, presumably next to where they keep the trinkets Millard Fillmore took from the drifters he strangled.
But Iron Mountain was written by satirist Leonard Lewin, after he read a newspaper article about a drop in the stock market caused by a “peace scare.” This sounded as absurd then as not being at war sounds to us now, so he started imagining a government think tank assessing the “threat of peace.”
The “theory” was that war is so effective at fueling the economy and giving citizens an outlet for their anger that it should be intentionally maintained at all costs. And if we were unfortunate enough to be at peace, the government would have to find something to replace war. Suggestions ranged from the reintroduction of slavery to blood sports to massive environmental crises, because ’60s political satire is our young adult fiction. Lewin’s publisher insisted that Iron Mountain was real and, since it came out as public opinion was turning against the Vietnam War, it blew up accordingly.
Leif Skoogfors / GettyImages
You know you’ve lost support for your war when even people not affected by it in the least were calling bullshit.
It looks like the Universe can’t resist the irony of people who don’t trust the government falling for a fake government report that calls them “malleable masses.” The Washington Post, Esquire, and other major publications reported on it as if it was legitimate, and the truth only came out in 1972, when Lewin confessed to writing it, stating that real-world politics now seemed liked a parody of Iron Mountain. Conspiracy theorists responded by arguing that Lewin’s claim was a shoddy attempt at a government cover-up. It’s unknown whether Lewin took that as a compliment or poured a stiff drink and shed a single manly tear.
#2. A Marketing Campaign Made Us Think Snuff Films Are Real
A “snuff film” is a movie in which a real human being is murdered for the viewer’s entertainment. There was a whole Nicolas Cage movie about the underground snuff film scene, and it’s been a plot device on Law & Order. So they’ve got to be real, right? Would Dick Wolf lie to us?
Well, he’s not called Tricky Dick Wolf for nothing, assuming he’s called that. There’s no evidence snuff films were ever a thing. The term was first used in a 1971 book, but it was a 1976 horror movie, appropriately called Snuff, which popularized it. Snuff‘s a horror flick that makes your grandma’s iPhone videos look like Fellini, but its distributor, Allan Shackleton, hinted that the ending showed a real murder. He even whipped up a fake protest campaign, which made enough noise for it to catch the attention of real protesters.
If you starred in this piece of crap, you wouldn’t want to be seen again either.
Snuff started life as a movie called Slaughter, which was so ineptly made that it couldn’t be released. So Shackleton tacked on an extra five minutes wherein the crew supposedly wraps up their production by brutally murdering the lead actress, who doesn’t even resemble the woman seen in the rest of the movie. It was obviously fake if you watched it, but “actually watching it” has never been a requirement for media commentary.
Snuff was picketed, newspapers wrote scathing critiques, and there were even bomb threats against theaters that played it. Because of all the fuss, the government was forced to investigate the possibility that people would be stupid enough to commit a murder, film it, and distribute it to the public while openly putting their names on a crime. They quickly confirmed that it was fake, but by that point, the idea of a snuff film had entered the 1970s Urban Dictionary. The LAPD even ended up investigating the broader idea of snuff films as a secretive multi-million dollar underground market for rich perverts, and came up with bupkis.
But Snuff outsold One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest for three weeks, and it kicked off a long list of movies that swear they committed a serious crime on film. Even Charlie Sheen watched a Japanese horror movie called Guinea Pig: Flower Of Flesh And Blood and thought it was real so hard that he got the FBI to investigate. Can you imagine how convinced Sheen must’ve been to get the FBI to listen to him?
To date, not a single real snuff film has ever been found, but the myth of their existence persists. And all because someone in the ’70s had an idea for a marketing campaign. It’s like if after The Blair Witch Project came out, we all started believing that countless teenagers were wandering into forests and getting murdered by magic cults.
#1. A Scientist Used Fake Data To Sell America On Eugenics And Racism
Throughout history, there have been people who thought of themselves as objectively superior to the rest of humanity, like the Nazis, the KKK, and PC gamers. But one of the first people to give this belief a veneer of scientific fact was Henry H. Goddard. Goddard was an American scientist around the turn of the 20th Century, which made him two things: one of the first people to study the heritability of intelligence, and deeply racist. Those forces combined like a shitty superpower to make him a proponent of eugenics.
His most famous work is the 1912 book The Kallikak Family: A Study In The Heredity Of Feeble-Mindedness. Unlike our modern view of dumb families as treasure troves of sitcom entertainment, his book is full of contempt. Goddard found a woman who was mentally handicapped and argued, using edited photos, gossip, and hearsay, that her entire genetic line was full of hundreds of malformed degenerate criminals thanks to a single “feeble-minded” ancestor. He suggested that if we simply cut all of these bozos out of the gene pool, we could enter a genius-filled wonderland, essentially making him the 1910s equivalent of a guy who makes YouTube videos in his basement complaining that girls reject him even though he’s read Atlas Shrugged twice and their boyfriends can barely make it through a Dan Brown novel.
Fedora: The Book.
The gist of his argument is that some upstanding Revolutionary War soldier supposedly had a fling with a tavern girl, then later went and married an upstanding Quaker woman. The Quaker produced generations of good citizens, while the tavern wench spawned a horde of dumb-dumbs. Basically, Goddard felt that a single ill-advised one-night stand could trigger Idiocracy — a hypothesis that’s since been proven false by generations of college students.
Henry Edward Garrett
Good ol’ Martin “My DNA Doesn’t Do A Damn Thing One Way Or The Other” Kallikak.
Goddard’s photos of these supposed idiot children were doctored to make them look like stills of jump scares. And while they wouldn’t fool, well, an idiot today, photo manipulation was largely unheard of in the 1910s.
1910s Snopes was just some guy screaming “Don’t you SEE?” and drinking himself to death when nobody saw.
People lapped up Goddard’s work. Or at least, certain white people did — a German translation proved especially popular, for some reason. And wouldn’t you know it, Goddard found a shockingly high rate of feeble-mindedness in foreigners. When he was asked by the government to help with immigration at Ellis Island using his rock-solid methods, he diagnosed 83 percent of Jewish immigrants, 79 percent of Italians, 80 percent of Hungarians, and 87 percent of Russians as “feeble-minded.”
Goddard argued that the feeble-minded should be segregated from society, prevented from reproducing, and made to do menial labor before they overwhelmed the country with their bad genes. And because this was when discrimination was operating at a championship level in the United States, his work became a widely-regarded bestseller. His research even helped justify theImmigration Act of 1924, which limited immigration based on national background.
Henry Goddard / Wiki Commons
The real “Old Horror.”
Thankfully, Goddard’s research was later discredited, and Goddard himself eventually denounced it as flawed. Humanity learned its lesson, and racism vanished from the face of the Earth forever.
For more massive pieces of bullshit everyone swallowed, check out The 5 Most Ridiculous Lies Ever Published As Non-Fiction and The 6 Most Ridiculous Lies Ever Published As Nonfiction.