Science, Fiction, and Science Fiction Hoaxes

Sasquatches, Godzilla-like sea monsters, alien invasions, vampire squid – it’s April switcheroo month once again at the Gutter and I’m about to take you down a rabbit hole of hoaxes and truly strange things inspired by one of my favorite podcasts, Popular Science’s The Weirdest Thing I Learned This Week.

My attention span for listening to monologue is pretty short, so Podcasts and talk radio have never been my thing. Conversations are no problem, but I’ve always gotten squirmy as an audience for lectures, speeches, or long stories with no opportunity to interact. As a kid, I used to do cartwheels up and down the room and stand on my head while watching TV, which meant I saw a lot of Sesame Street upside down. Recently though, I discovered PopSci’s Weirdest Thing podcast and got hooked.

It’s a podcast where the editors get a chance to talk about the strangest and most interesting things they discovered that didn’t make it into their official PopSci articles. It’s structured as a competition, where they each present one weird fact in detail and then vote on what the weirdest thing they all learned this week actually was. For instance, did you know that a 30-foot wave of molasses destroyed part of Boston in 1919? Or that bubble wrap’s first failed incarnation was as wallpaper, the U.S. Air Force used to shoot bears out of planes to test ejector seats, and Eleanor Roosevelt put her baby in a hanging cage outside her New York apartment window? I don’t know about you, but I had certainly never heard of the Great Butter Fire of Madison, Wisconsin.

Thinking about podcasts and oddities led me to thinking that there must be more weird things in the history of radio than just Orson Welles iconic adaptation of H.G. Wells’ novel, The War of the Worlds, so I decided to follow the Weirdest Thing’s example and poke around to see what came up. Here, for your edification, are some of the strangest and most entertaining things I discovered.

First off, the story goes that when The War of the Worlds was broadcast on CBS radio on October 30, 1938, complete with fake US army reports about Martians landing in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, mass panic ensued, with people having nervous breakdowns and fleeing New York in droves. The story was enthusiastically taken up by media at the time and has been passed down ever since, but unfortunately it doesn’t hold up under investigation. A telephone poll coincidentally being conducted that night showed that only about 2% of people were listening, with most people tuned in to a very popular variety show on NBC instead. First person accounts from the time describe the streets of New York as nearly deserted that night, and hospitals had no records of anyone admitted with conditions related to the terror of alien invasion. Apparently there was an increase in the number of calls to the New Jersey police, some of which were to complain that fake realistic shows shouldn’t be allowed on the air, and a small group of Grover’s Mill citizens attacked the water tower with buckshot believing it had been taken over by Martians.

Researching War of the Worlds led me to another radio hoax, one that actually did cause confusion and panic. On May 29, 1947, seven years before the release of the first Godzilla film, the regular programming on the English armed forces radio station in Tokyo was interrupted for what sounded like a real emergency breaking news announcement about a 20-foot monster emerging from Toyko Bay and attacking everything in its path. The report continued for an hour, complete with detailed descriptions of the troops’ fruitless attempts to subdue the creature, set against a background of monster roars, artillery fire, and screaming citizens. When the monster reached Toyko, the joke was revealed as the announcers wished the radio station a happy fifth anniversary.

Unfortunately for the creators of the broadcast, who were reportedly relieved of their duties, they thought it would be a more effective joke if it was a complete surprise so they didn’t inform anyone in the army ahead of time. Many of the soldiers listening to the broadcast thought it was really happening and were preparing to be sent out to fight, and rumor has it that a General whose family was vacationing at a resort in the reported path of the monster was especially not amused. The stunt has not been credited as having any influence on the making of Godzilla.

Researching radio hoaxes led me to other hoaxes, including the origin of “Bigfoot”, sightings of little blue men in Michigan, and an accidental copyright-related time travel legend. While Sasquatch stories in North America date back to the 19th century or earlier (depending on what you believe qualifies as a Sasquatch), the term ‘Bigfoot” was popularized by the media in 1958 when a worker at a construction site in California found huge footprints in the mud that were attributed to a Sasquatch. It turned out that his prankster boss had created them by strapping carved wooden feet onto his boots and stomping around the site. He must have loved how far his prank went, because the truth only came out after his death when his family finally ‘fessed up.

The sightings of little blue men in Elkton, Michigan happened in 1958 and was a local practical joke that somehow picked up national media attention. There were stories going around about flying saucers, and three young men with some extra time on their hands came up with the idea of dressing up as an alien and surprising people at night. The costume was made of long underwear, a bed sheet with eye-holes and a button mouth, and a football helmet with blinking lights powered by a battery pack, all spray painted a glowing shade of blue. The guy playing the alien would hop out of the trunk of their car when someone got close, run along the ditch for a stretch, then jump back in the trunk and wait to see what people in town had to say about the little blue men. The sheriff caught them eventually and they were told to “take your underwear and go home.” The local paper ran a story on the prank, which spread to the point where they got calls from TV stations across the country and even got a mention in the May 1958 issue of Life Magazine.

Rudolph Fentz is a character in a 1951 science fiction short story by Jack Finney, who wrote the book that was the basis for Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), but for years he was believed to be a real person. The story is about a man who suddenly appears in Times Square in 1908 dressed in old fashioned clothes, only to be hit by a car and killed. It morphed into an urban legend in which he appeared in 1951, and when the police searched his pockets they found 19th century coins and business cards with his name and address on them. They tried to track down his family but discovered that the only match was a Rudolph Fentz, Sr who worked at the same address and had mysteriously vanished in 1876. It wasn’t until 2005 that a researcher figured out that another writer, who was a member of a society that believed in the fourth dimension, had republished the story as a propaganda pamphlet in 1953 and removed any indication that it was fiction.

And lastly, in the realm of things that are not as described, I bring you to vampire squid. Vampyroteuthis infernalis, which basically translates as “vampire squid from hell”, is not actually a squid, nor is it a vampire. In 1903 it was mistakenly identified as an octopus, but it’s actually different enough from other cephalopods that it belongs to its own order, Vampyromorphida. It tends to live in the deep sea, as far down as 3000 feet, and eats marine snow (kind of sea dandruff made of dead things and poop).

Its name appears to come from its ability to turn itself almost completely inside out, wrapping its own skin around itself like a cape, which reminds me of the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 sketch from Manos: The Hands of Fate, where Crow talks about having one enormous ear that he’d wrap around himself like a shroud. Despite being actually cute and harmless, the vampire squid was taken up as a mascot by anti-capitalism protesters based on a quote from Rolling Stone journalist Matt Taibbi, who called the investment bank, Goldman Sachs, “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity.” I highly recommend this adorable interview with a teuthologist (that’s a squid scientist) on the fantastic Ologies podcast by Alie Ward, which includes both vampire squid and krakens.

I realize I’ve led you all down a somewhat unusual path through the gnarled roots of urban legends, but the Gutter is all about disreputable art, and what is more artistically disreputable than creating real life science fiction stories that keep people guessing for decades?


alex MacFadyen also wants you to know that lemmings are adorable and not at all suicidal. You can blame Disney, who faked scenes of lemmings leaping to their deaths in their Academy Award-winning documentary White Wilderness by shipping them to Canmore, Alberta and herding them off a cliff into the Bow River. They also used turntables to make a small number of lemmings look like a frenzied migration. Clever, but so very wrong. 

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