In the immortal words of Homer Simpson, "Marge, it takes two to lie; one to lie and one to listen."
Some of the greatest hoaxes in the history of the world started out as one small lie. If no one had believed the lie, then it would have fizzled out. But great hoaxes require great numbers of gullible people willing to suspend disbelief in the face of the inexplicable.
If the following 10 hoaxes prove anything, it is to never underestimate a human being's capacity for self-deception. Particularly in times of great struggle and darkness, we desperately want to believe in something beyond the rational. There must be something out there that can make sense of the randomness of existence, be it witches, aliens, ghosts or dinosaur holdouts living in the depths of a Scottish lake.
Keep reading as we travel back through the centuries to debunk some of the most outrageous, contagious and enduring hoaxes ever inflicted on our collective common sense.
The Fox Sisters
On the night of March 31, 1848 -- April Fool's Eve -- 14-year-old Maggie Fox and her 11-year-old sister Kate reported a recurring mysterious phenomenon in their bedroom. Every night, as the two went to sleep in their clapboard farmhouse, they would hear a strange knocking sound coming from the walls. Even stranger, the knocking seemed to respond to their questions.
"If you are an injured spirit, manifest it by three raps," inquired the girls' mother [source: Abbott]. Knock, knock, knock. The veil dividing the spirit world and the living had been breached!
News of the Fox sisters' wall-rapping spirit spread like wildfire through the spiritually flammable counties of upstate New York, also the birthplace of Mormonism and Millerism (later Seventh Day Adventism) [source: Abbott]. Spiritualism promised a new kind of religious experience, in which believers could receive specific guidance about their lives from those with secret knowledge from the great beyond.
Eventually, the Fox sisters brought their hugely popular séances to New York City, drawing huge crowds. Their routine evolved from simple knocking and rapping to conversations with deceased relatives and secret messages magically appearing on blank cards.
Despite their fame -- or more likely because of it -- the sisters suffered from troubled relationships, psychological breakdowns and alcoholism. In her 50s, Maggie delivered a public confession of their long-drawn hoax, which started as a harmless childhood prank. At bedtime, they would tie an apple on a string and move it up and down, causing the apple to bump on the floor. The sisters later developed the ability to manipulate their knuckles and toes to produce a popping sound [source: Abbott].
The Amityville Horror
The truth of what really happened in the sleepy village of Amityville, New York, in the fall of 1974 is far more disturbing than the paranormal tall tales that made "The Amityville Horror" a household name.
Twenty-three-year-old Ronald "Butch" DeFeo calmly and methodically shot his two parents and four younger siblings in their beds. He quickly confessed under police interrogation, claiming that "voices in the house" told him to do it. He was sentenced to six consecutive life terms after his insanity plea was thrown out [source: Bovsun].
A year after the murders, the Lutz family -- George, Kathy and their three young children -- moved in to the infamous three-story Dutch Colonial where "Butch" had butchered his loved ones. As a precaution, they hired a priest to perform an exorcism. The priest reported a voice in the house growling "Get out!" and then his hands started to bleed.
Undeterred, the Lutz family spent a harrowing month in the Amityville house, plagued by unexplained chills, gobs of slime on the floor, and even Mrs. Lutz levitating over her bed [source: ABC News].
The Lutz family fled the house, eventually moving to California where the parents collaborated with a writer on the best-selling novel "The Amityville Horror," a generously fictionalized account of the family's 28-day ordeal [source: Bovsun].
The book's wild popularity spawned several Hollywood films and a dozen more books.
DeFeo's own lawyer says he and the Lutzes made up most of the story after consuming several bottles of wine. Indeed, no one who has lived in the house since then (it's still privately owned in 2015) has reported any paranormal activity [source: ABC News].
In 1995, the Fox television network aired a special called "Alien Autopsy: Fact or Fiction?" which became a surprise ratings bonanza and a pop culture phenomenon, catapulting the topic of UFOs back into the national conversation.
Capitalizing on the popularity of its cult hit "The X-Files," Fox bought 17 minutes of grainy footage from British TV producer Ray Santilli claiming to record a secret U.S. military autopsy of an alien life-form recovered from a UFO crash site near Roswell, New Mexico.
The footage, reportedly bought from a retired military cameraman, shows the bloodied corpse of a hairless, large-headed alien with reptilian eyes being roughly dissected by a team of doctors in protective surgical gear. The shaky camerawork and blurred close-ups lend a sense of realism to the footage while making it exceptionally difficult to get a good look at the creature or its gooey innards.
Although most TV viewers immediately dismissed the footage as fake -- the light, rubbery "flesh" of the alien was hard to ignore -- producer Santilli vouched for its authenticity. At least until 2006, when Santilli began promoting a second "Alien Autopsy" film, this one a mockumentary about the filming of the original.
In press interviews, Santilli confessed the "truth," that the original footage was irreparably damaged during transport from the U.S. to England, and that he hired a team of special effects artists and actors to "restore" the lost footage for the special [source: Barton]. Good one, Ray.
'Surgeon's Photo' of the Loch Ness Monster
The legend of the Loch Ness monster has captivated northern Scotland for over 1,500 years. Carvings of a flippered beast with an elongated head are etched into the ancient standing stones near the massive lake south of Inverness [source: Lyons].
However, the hunt for "Nessie" reached a fever pitch in the 1930s, when a newspaper report of an "an enormous animal rolling and plunging on the surface" prompted thousands of tourists to flood the area hoping to catch a glimpse of the Jurassic beast.
The most famous photographic "proof" of the Loch Ness monster is a blurry 1934 image known as the "surgeon's photo." The iconic image, supposedly snapped by respected doctor R. Kenneth Wilson, shows the shadowy profile of a creature, its long neck outstretched above the water. The powerful image served as de facto proof of the mythical animal's existence since its original publication in London's Daily Mail.
Not until 1994 did a series of revelations bring the real story behind the "surgeon's photo" to light. The creature was in fact a model built atop a toy submarine, part of an elaborate hoax perpetrated by a big-game hunter named Marmaduke Wetherell [source: Lyons]. Wetherell held a grudge against the Mail, which had hired him in 1933 to track down the Scottish monster. He was publically humiliated when he mistook phony hippo tracks for Nessie's footprints.
Wetherell's 93-year-old step-son confessed to building the makeshift model for his father, who was able to convince the otherwise honorable Dr. Wilson to deliver the photo to the newspaper [source: Lyons].
The Case of the Accidental Time Traveler
One night in 1950, a strange figure appeared in the middle of a traffic-clogged intersection in New York City's famous Times Square. He wore a high silk hat, a tight coat and vest, and boasted an admirable set of thick mutton-chop sideburns.
Witnesses said the man looked startled, gawking at his surroundings as if he'd never seen a car or traffic lights before. He bolted for the curb, directly in the path of a yellow cab, which killed him instantly.
When the police searched the mystery man's pockets, they found 19th century currency, a bill for the "feeding and stabling of one horse," and a business card for Rudolph Fentz on Fifth Ave. Tracking down the address, they found an old woman, who confirmed that Rudolph Fentz was in fact her father-in-law, a man who had mysteriously disappeared in 1876 [source: Aubeck].
Such is the story of Rudolph Fentz, the accidental time traveler. For decades, paranormalists across Europe have pointed to Fentz's miraculous appearance -- a 19th-century man in 20th-century Times Square -- as proof of the existence of time travel.
But the true origin of the Fentz legend was a short story published in Collier's magazine in 1951 by science-fiction writer Jack Finney. The tale was republished in a paranormal journal two years later without attribution to Finney and presented as fact [source: Aubeck]. From there, the case of the accidental time traveler took on a life of its own.
British Crop Circles
In the 1980s, a series of increasingly intricate patterns emerged in the barley and wheat fields of surprised farmers in Wiltshire, England. Dubbed "crop circles," the breathtaking, unexplained formations drew crowds of gawking tourists and intense speculation about their origin.
Cerelologists -- as serious crop circle junkies are known -- hypothesized that the circles, which always appeared overnight, were either landing pads for alien spacecraft, coded messages from a higher intelligence or symbols downloaded psychokinetically from the collective subconscious [source: Jenkins]. It helps that Wiltshire is also home to Stonehenge, the original alien art project.
Only Doug Bower and Dave Chorley knew the real story. The drinking buddies and part-time watercolor artists had been making the crop circles by hand -- or by foot, mostly -- since the late 1970s. Fueled by too many pints and a conversation about UFOs, the duo snuck into a farmer's field and stomped out a circular pattern with iron rods, a flat wooden board and some rope [source: Jenkins]. The rest is history.
It wasn't until 1991 that Bower and Chorley confessed their role in the artistic hoax, which by then had grown to include legions of unaffiliated circlemakers across England and around the world [source: Schmidt]. The cerelology community took the news in stride, admitting the possibility that many of the circles were man-made, but ardently defending the most elaborate and beautiful circles as indisputably otherworldly creations.
The Feejee Mermaid
P.T. Barnum may or may not have uttered the infamous phrase, "There's a sucker born every minute," but he certainly lived it. Barnum was the perhaps the best-known Victorian-era huckster to enthrall the public with outrageous specimens of odder-than-life humans and mythical creatures.
One of Barnum's earliest sensations was the so-called "Feejee Mermaid," purported to be the preserved remains of a real-life mermaid captured in the Bay of Bengal. In 1842, Barnum displayed the creature in his American Museum on Broadway in New York City, where it drew crowds of onlookers [source: Ringling Bros.].
The Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology at Harvard University got its hands on a specimen called the Java Mermaid in 1897; it's thought to be the "Feejee Mermaid" [source: Early].
The museum staff tracked down the true origin of the shriveled, 16-inch (40-centimeter) creature, which is not simply a monkey head stitched to a fish body, as many had speculated. It turned out to be a souvenir handicraft made by Southeast Asian fishermen and sold to tourists as a little mermaid. The body parts are a mix of paper-mâché and fish bones and fins but no monkey skulls [source: Early].
The Salem Witches
The Salem Witch Trials of 1692 represent one of the darkest chapters in the history of the New World, when the false accusations of a handful of teenage girls led to the execution of 20 men and women, and the death of seven others in prison, on charges of witchcraft [source: History.com].
The panic began when the young daughter and niece of Rev. Samuel Parris of Salem Village were struck with a mysterious illness that triggered violent contortions and hysterical screaming. A local doctor pronounced them "bewitched," or cursed by a minion of the devil [source: Salem Witch Museum].
Belief in the devil was strong in the 17th century, and the community of Salem Village was rattled by a recent smallpox epidemic and attacks from Native American tribes. The atmosphere bred a powerful need to blame the community's troubles on supernatural causes.
The girls named their accused witches, who were tried in a special court on the flimsiest spectral evidence -- the alleged ability of the accused to appear to the girls in spirit while their physical bodies where elsewhere [source: History.com].
Other young girls started exhibiting the same "symptoms" and pointing fingers at their neighbors. During the spring and fall of 1692, 150 citizens of Salem Village were thrown in jail on charges of witchcraft [source: Salem Witch Museum].
By October, the governor of Massachusetts banned spectral evidence and disbanded the witchcraft court. Those still in jail were released and pardoned, and financial compensation was given to the heirs of the wrongly executed [source: History.com]. What was really behind the accusations is still a mystery.
The Shroud of Turin
Many faithful believers exalt the Shroud of Turin as the very same "clean linen cloth" in which the crucified Jesus Christ was wrapped before rising on the third day from his tomb. The yellowed piece of cloth, roughly 14 feet by 4 feet, (4 by 1 meters) bears the faint, but unmistakable imprint of a bearded man marked with wounds consistent with that of crucifixion [sources: Thurston, Squires].
The relic resides in the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Turin, Italy. But centuries of controversy have cast serious doubts on the shroud's authenticity.
Catholic Church documents dating from 1389 show the presiding French bishop petitioning the pope to put an end to the "scandal" surrounding the shroud at Lirey, France [source: Thurston]. The object was well-known to be the work of a local artist, who created it not as a hoax, but as part of an Easter celebration. Once displayed, the adoring crowds mistook it for the real thing, stained with the very sweat and blood of the Savior. The relic passed through several hands before arriving in Turin in 1578 [source: Knapton].
Carbon dating has never successfully linked the fibers of the cloth to the time of Christ, although Italian scientists published a new theory in 2014. Apparently, a powerful earthquake in 33 C.E. could have released enough radioactive emissions to not only imprint the image of Christ on the cloth, but alter the molecular structure of its fibers in such a way as to produce incorrect carbon dating results [source: Knapton].
The Cardiff Giant
Known as "America's Greatest Hoax," this 10-foot (3-meter) tall stone statue of a "petrified" ancient giant made its 19th-century creator, George Hull, a very rich man.
Hull was a get-rich-quick schemer and a proud atheist in a time of great religious fervor. After an argument with a revivalist preacher over the existence of giants as mentioned in the book of Genesis, Hull conceived a devious plan that would capitalize on the gullibility of the public [source: Roadside America].
In 1868, Hull hired a Chicago stonecutter to carve a massive hunk of gypsum in Hull's own likeness [source: The Farmers' Museum]. Hull then "aged" the stone with a sulfuric acid and convinced a farmer in Cardiff, New York, to secretly bury it in his backyard. A year later, Hull had the farmer dig a well, instructing the workmen to dig exactly where the stone giant was buried.
The unearthing of the Cardiff Giant caused a great sensation in upstate New York, still a hotbed of spiritual excitement. (Remember the Fox Sisters?) News of the creature spread far and wide, inciting fierce debate over the artifact's authenticity. Hull fanned the fires of speculation, taking the giant on tour and charging 50 cents for a peek. Rumor has it he made $30,000, a fortune in the 1860s [source: Roadside America].
You can still see the Cardiff Giant at The Farmer's Museum in Cooperstown, New York.
What is a 'smocking gun'? HowStuffWorks investigates.
Author's Note: 10 Famous Paranormal Hoaxes
It's easy to look back and laugh at the follies of our forebears, but much more difficult to examine our own embarrassing acts of self-deception. How quick are we to forward the amazing video of the one-winged plane making a miraculous landing? And how slow are we to recognize that the fromage-scented perfume marketed by Cheetos is, in fact, an April Fool's joke? While only a single sucker was born every day back in the 19th century, the Internet can spawn a new sucker every millisecond. Good luck out there!
- Abbott, Karen. "The Fox Sisters and the Rap on Spiritualism." Smithsonian.com. Oct. 30, 2012 (Jan. 16, 2015) http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-fox-sisters-and-the-rap-on-spiritualism-99663697/?no-ist
- ABC News. "Amityille Horror: Horror or Hoax?" (Jan. 16, 2015) http://abcnews.go.com/Primetime/story?id=132035&page=1&singlePage=true
- Aubeck, Chris. "Desperately Seeking Rudolph." Magonia. October 2002 (Jan. 16, 2015) http://magonia.haaan.com/2010/rudolph-1/
- Barton, Steve. "Ray Santilli, Gary Shoefield Talk the Real Alien Autopsy and the New Film of the Same Name." Dread Central. Sept. 30, 2010 (Jan. 16, 2015) http://www.dreadcentral.com/news/19884/ray-santilli-gary-shoefield-talk-the-real-alien-autopsy-and-the-new-film-of-the-same-name/
- Bovsun, Mara. "Slaying of family in spooky Long Island house inspired 'The Amityville Horror.'" NY Daily News. Nov. 2, 2014 (Jan. 16, 2015) http://www.nydailynews.com/news/crime/killer-spooky-long-island-house-behind-amityville-horror-article-1.1995915
- Early, Andrea. "The Little Mermaid?" The Harvard University Gazette. Oct. 17, 1996 (Jan. 16, 2015) http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/1996/10.17/TheLittleMermai.html
- The Farmers' Museum. "The Cardiff Giant" (Jan. 16, 2015) http://www.farmersmuseum.org/node/2482
- History.com Staff. "Salem Witch Trials." 2011 (Jan. 16, 2015) http://www.history.com/topics/salem-witch-trials
- Jenkins, David. "Crop Circle Conundrum." The Telegraph. Aug. 25, 2010 (Jan. 16, 2015) http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/earth/7955868/Crop-circle-conundrum.html
- Kalman, Matthew. "The Turin Shroud is a fake... and it's one of 40: Historian claims linen cloths were produced 1,300 years after crucifixion." Daily Mail. June 10, 2012 (Jan. 16, 2015) http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2157217/The-Turin-Shroud-fake-Eminent-historian-claims-40-similar-cloths-originated-1-300-years-AFTER-crucifixion.html
- Knapton, Sarah. "Turin Shroud may have been created by earthquake from time of Jesus." The Telegraph. Feb. 11, 2014 (Jan. 16, 2015) http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/science/science-news/10631973/Turin-Shroud-may-date-from-time-of-Jesus.html
- Lyons, Stephen. "The Legend of Loch Ness." NOVA. Jan. 12, 1999 (Jan. 16, 2015) http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/ancient/legend-loch-ness.html
- Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. "P.T. Barnum" (Jan. 16, 2015) http://www.ringling.com/ContentPage.aspx?id=45831§ion=45825
- Roadside America. "Cardiff Giant" (Jan. 16, 2015) http://www.roadsideamerica.com/story/2172
- Salem Witch Museum. "The Salem Witch Trials of 1692" (Jan. 16, 2015) http://www.salemwitchmuseum.com/education/
- Schmidt, William E. "2 'Jovial Con Men' Demystify Those Crop Circles in Britain." The New York Times. Sept. 10, 1991 (Jan. 16, 2015) http://www.nytimes.com/1991/09/10/world/2-jovial-con-men-demystify-those-crop-circles-in-britain.html
- Squires, Nick. "Turin Shroud 'is not a medieval forgery.'" The Telegraph. March 28, 2013 (Jan. 16, 2015) http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/italy/9958678/Turin-Shroud-is-not-a-medieval-forgery.html
- Thurston, Herbert. "The Holy Shroud (of Turin)." The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912 (Jan. 16, 2015) http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/13762a.htm