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These hoaxes fooled the world (and scared a whole lot of people)

Looking back at seven of the most successful hoaxes throughout history

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The Cardiff Giant (1869) It’s the old-school hoax that prompted celebrated showman P.T. Barnum to create the saying, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” And mercy did the suckers line up to pay their two-bits for a glimpse of the 10-foot-tall “petrified man” allegedly unearthed behind the barn of a rural New York farmer. The giant was, in fact, a gypsum statue commissioned by a New York tobacconist named George Hull, an avowed atheist and a bit of a nut. The Cardiff Giant enjoyed several headlining sideshows in the U.S. and Europe. Hull eventually sold out and Barnum tried to buy the attraction from the new owners, who turned him down. So Barnum hired a man to secretly copy the giant in wax and then made his own plaster knockoff. The suckers lined up for miles.

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The Cottingley Fairies (1917) If Americans were gullible around the turn of the century, the English were genuine dupes. In 1917, the fairies became freakishly popular in newspapers courtesy of a series of photographs taken by two young cousins, Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths, who resided in Cottingley, near Bradford. Even though the fairies are clearly two-dimensional and look very much as if they were cardboard cutouts (which they were), their existence was scrutinized by no less than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries and quite the spiritualist apparently. He thought they were real! In the early eighties, Elsie and Frances, by then also in their eighties, admitted the whole thing was a big fraud.

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Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds Broadcast (1938) That Orson Welles was certainly a cheeky fellow. At only 23, the future Citizen Kane auteur wrote, directed and narrated the live radio version of H.G. Wells’s novel and scared the daylights out of the American public in doing it. People were talking for decades about his inventive Halloween eve broadcast framed as a series of news bulletins documenting a supposed Martian invasion. The live broadcast included two reminders--at the midway point and near the end--that the show was a dramatic presentation, but by then most people were too frightened to notice.

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Alien Autopsy film (1993) UFO theorists flocked to this story like moths to a flame. Out of the blue, British music producer Ray Santilli announced he had obtained footage of an autopsy being performed on an alien, which had died following a crash landing near Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947. The footage soon became a Fox TV special titled Alien Autopsy: Fact or Fiction?, hosted by none other than Number One himself, Jonathan Frakes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. A massive ratings success, the program consisted of black-and-white footage showing what appears to be a female alien lying on a gurney. The creature is closely examined by medical types, who prod and poke and point out various oddities, like the 12 toes on each foot. Examination over, the doctors slice open the being’s chest and take out organs. The autopsy was debunked almost before it began and Santilli admitted to the fakery.

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All Your Base Are Belong To Us (1999-2000) Meet the first meme. If “all your base are belong to us” instantly rings a bell, it’s quite likely because you got your first computer around 1999. The phrase, oddly enough, was lifted from a 1991 Sega video game called Zero Wing, and was badly translated from the original Japanese version. The meme featured the words and GIF animation of the text, which then became hugely popular through the message forums of the comedy website Something Awful. These were still the early days of the Internet, and for the next few years there were countless stories and images of the phrase turning up everywhere. On hillsides, on billboards, on the sides of trucks. It was even featured on the opening credits of The Simpsons! Was it a message to mankind from another world? That’s what the rubes thought.

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Slender Man (2009) Once again, thank you, Something Awful. In the summer of 2009, the website announced a contest challenging its readers to edit photos to contain supernatural entities. Two days later, a poster with the user name “Victor Surge” sent in two black-and-white images of young children, with a tall, faceless and decidedly ominous figure wearing a black suit and lingering in the near distance. Surge supplemented his entry with text saying that Slender Man routinely stalked and abducted children. Since then, Slender Man has become this generation’s version of the Boogie Man, and has inspired countless creepy online fiction stories.

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This Man (2006) Have you dreamed of This Man? Since late 2009, people all over the world have made claims of the beady-eyed, nondescript face visiting them in their sleep. The official backstory was that in 2006, the patient of a prominent psychiatrist drew the face of a man that had been showing up in her dreams. The picture stayed on the shrink’s desk for days, until another patient saw it and claimed the same man was in their dreams. Scared yet? Once the story spread via message boards, reports of This Man dreams began coming in from Berlin, Paris, Moscow, Rome, Beijing et al. The hoax was later revealed to have been the work of an Italian marketing strategist named Andrea Natella, but This Man was still pretty darn scary, mostly because he looked vaguely like the janitor who works in your building.

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