6 Urban Legends That Were Totally Made Up By Celebrities
Celebrities: They're just like us, except people actually care what they have to say. It's like a superpower: If enough actors say we should donate to Darfur, we'll send money without even finding out what that is. But with that great power comes great responsibility -- when a couple of celebrities insist that vaccines cause autism, childhood disease outbreaks follow a few years later.
Famous people have been accidentally etching bullshit into the public consciousness since, well, as long as famous people have existed. For example ...
The Jersey Devil Myth Was Started By Ben Franklin
The Jersey Devil is kind of a less-famous Bigfoot -- a humanoid reptilian cryptid with a fearsome appearance that lives in the Pine Barrens of South Jersey. Sightings go back centuries, and it's such a cultural staple that the New Jersey pro hockey team named themselves after it.
"We are proud to be named after such a magnificent, graceful creature!"
The myth goes that a woman was very pissed about being pregnant with her 13th kid and decided, "You know what? I hope it's a ding-dang devil." Well, her wish came true: A hooved, horned, tailed, winged devil flew right out of her undercarriage and took off into the woods, where it was reported to have killed cattle, frightened ministers, and left mysterious tracks that dogs refused to follow. Just like the old saying goes: Speak of the devil, and he'll come shooting out of your birth canal.
Who do we have to thank for this? None other than Benjamin Franklin.
As Cracked has previously mentioned, Franklin had a lively rivalry with a local New Jersey politician and publisher, Titan Leeds. Leeds made for quite the easy target, as he was a proponent of astrology and backed the unpopular local governor. In his usual "ain't I a stinker" way, Franklin attempted to smear Leeds by writing a joke article claiming a monster was born to the Leeds family. It wasn't the classiest display, and in an unfortunate coincidence, the Leeds family had some disabled members, and one was born in the same year as that eventually attributed to the Jersey Devil.
"Whoa whoa whoa, I'm not saying all disabled people are monsters. Just the one!"
The myth of the "Leeds Devil" persisted in the region and various supposed sightings cropped up over the years. Joseph Bonaparte, the former King of Spain and Napoleon's brother, claimed he saw the creature while out hunting.
"Then the foul demon assumed a human voice and said, 'I'm not a monster!
I'm a human being with a disability, asshole!'"
Everyone kind of forgot about it for a while, but in 1909, there was a sudden spike in popularity thanks to a huckster trying to draw attention to his museum. He resurrected the myth and renamed Franklin's monster the "Jersey Devil" (the original dispute with Leeds now forgotten). Soon, sightings were being printed in newspapers everywhere as factual occurrences. The Philadelphia Zoo offered a $10,000 reward for the creature's capture, which allegedly remains up for grabs to this day.
"I AM A PERFECTLY PLAUSIBLE ORGANISM DAMN YOU."
And that, friends, is how a petty political squabble with one of America's Founding Fathers turned into a centuries-long monster myth. Franklin, through the magic of his words, summoned a powerful force that, once unleashed, cannot be killed. That force is called Bullshit, and its dark powers are not to be trifled with.
The Hollow Earth Theory Was Invented By Edmond Halley (Of Halley's Comet Fame)
Some people think the world is hollow and contains other Earths inside it. Those people include at least one former president -- in the 1820s, President John Quincy Adams funded an Arctic expedition to try to find the entrance to this subterranean kingdom (they didn't). Still, the theory persists to this day among people who have no idea how planets work.
This one came from Edmond Halley. The comet guy. The year was 1692, and Halley was an astronomer who liked to pal around with Isaac Newton. (Halley is the reason Newton bothered to publish his groundbreaking text on physics, Principia, instead of just shoving it in his desk and going back to eating mercury.) So all in all, Halley was a smart guy who knew solid science when he saw it.
As long as the science was billions of miles away and not right under his goddamn feet.
After doing important work in astronomy (nabbing his very own personal comet in the process), Halley noticed that compasses sometimes had inaccuracies. In order to explain variations and inconsistencies in compass readings, Halley proposed that the Earth we lived on was just an outer shell, and that there were one or more concentric layers of inner-Earths surrounding a central core Earth, each separated by their own atmospheres. These concentric planetary layers rotated at different rates, he said, which created different magnetic fields, which is what confused the compasses. You have to admit it's clearly the simplest solution to that problem.
Oh, and there was also maybe an advanced civilization within the Earth, glowing lights, and seeping gas that created the aurora borealis. That too.
So much for the Heaven's Gate guy being the biggest nutjob ever associated with comets.
A few science fiction writers picked up this theory and ran with it, adding their own assertions that other scientists had proven this theory to be sound (they had not). Four centuries and a few hopeful scientists and explorers later, lots of educated people still buy this hilariously stupid theory. Well, shit, now we're wondering if that comet is real.
The New York Sewer Alligators Were Popularized By Best-Selling Novelist Thomas Pynchon
As all of you surely know from having seen the hit 1980 horror film Alligator, there's a long-running urban legend about a major city -- usually New York -- having alligators roaming around in their sewer system.
The story goes that New Yorkers of the early to mid-1900s brought back baby alligators from Florida vacations, only to be dismayed at the animals' striking increase in size. What to do? Flush them down the terlet, of course! Eventually, there were enough scaly buddies to mate with each other and grow huge underground colonies in the Big Apple's sewer system, where they all no doubt fantasized about eating ill-fated MTA workers.
Concrete jungle where dreams are maaaade of!
For this one, we can partly thank Thomas Pynchon, a famous author who, among other things, wrote the novel that Inherent Vice was based on (the Paul Thomas Anderson movie starring Joaquin Phoenix and a bunch of other famous people). To be fair, he didn't invent the ridiculous myth out of whole cloth -- he just cemented it in the public consciousness.
A generation earlier, in 1935, the New York Times reported that a single 125-pound alligator had been found in the sewers, but was killed because it turned savage. Unsurprisingly, this news grabbed people's attention in the area.
"SNARE IT AND DRAG IT OUT" is our new life motto.
Florida was a new-ish vacation destination at the time, so the thought of exotic cold-blooded giants slithering beneath the hustle and bustle of city living was morbidly irresistible. In 1959, author Robert Daley published The World Beneath The City, which contained an interview with a supposed former "sewer commissioner" who claimed the sewer gator situation got so bad that he and his loyal army of sewer maintainers had to carry out a mass culling of them to thin the herd. The only problem with this man's story is that he was a notorious wacko liar who made up stories for kicks.
How many brass moneybag babies have to die before we do something?
The whole thing might have remained an odd local legend, but then future best-selling author Pynchon came along. He included the tale in his 1963 novel V (portraying "sewer alligator hunter" as a thing a New Yorker could pursue as a career) and his fictional embellishments brought the legend into the mainstream.
Instead of being a cautionary tale about not flushing things down the toilet, he added horror elements that made the story much more irresistible to the gullible. He invented the idea that these underground gators were albino and blind as a result of the cold and dark environment, and insisted they had grown huge on an unrestricted diet of subway rats. What's more chilling than an unseeing, ghostly, dinosaur-looking monster with rat-shreds in its teeth and full access to your bare, trusting butt?
"Ugh, I am so pale."
Just to be clear, the only thing approaching a verified account of a sewer gator is still the original 1935 sighting, and the youths who discovered him beat him to death with their shovels, so it's not like he was able to sire any litters from then on. It's believed the animal fell off a passing ship and found the only affordable short-term sublet it could.
Side note: One real permanent resident of Gotham's sewers that never gets attention is the snapping turtle, a species that is native to New York's waters and does just fine in the cold climate. That's right: There really are turtles living in New York sewers.
The fact-checking for this franchise is beyond reproach!
Related: Urban Legends Older Than You'd Think
Charles Dickens and Oscar Wilde Convinced The World The Chinese Loved Opium Dens
You know how in detective shows, there has to be at least one scene where the cops stop by a sleazy strip club? The detective asks if Candi has been around and the bartender says, "Who wants to know?" and the detective has to slip him some cash? Well, if your story takes place 150 or so years ago, you can replace "strip club" with "Chinese opium den."
Sherlock Holmes visits one in the story "The Man With The Twisted Lip" and Johnny Depp's character spends his free time in an opium den in the Victorian detective story From Hell, as does Clive Owen's character in the TV series The Knick.
He's a brilliant-yet-grumpy drug-addicted American doctor played by a Brit,
but it's totally not House because of old-timey stuff and boobs.
Just picture a hookah bar with all the life consequences of Trainspotting and the racial awareness of Mickey Rooney in Breakfast At Tiffany's. They're always shadowy places run by cunning Asian stereotypes who deal in organized crime and every depravity known to man. The floor/furniture is littered with passed-out addicts. And, as you might have guessed, they're almost entirely a fictional invention.
This trope was beloved by lots of writers in the Victorian era, but it primarily comes from a Charles Dickens novel called The Mystery Of Edwin Drood. It's about a man who starts losing his grasp on life on account of his obsession with hanging out and getting high with the Chinese. After that, it became a genre cliche -- when an author wanted to portray a white character whose life was going off the rails, they'd show them hitting bottom in a room full of comatose Chinese.
Like Reefer Madness, only much sleepier.
So, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde shows the unnaturally ageless protagonist drowning his angst in an opium den. In the Sherlock Holmes story we mentioned earlier, Watson finds a passed-out Holmes on the floor of one (Sherlock insists he's just there undercover -- it was updated to a crack house for the Benedict Cumberbatch series).
Unsurprisingly, the obsession with opium dens was a convenient way to demonize Chinese immigrants, and stoke fears of an unfamiliar culture infiltrating and changing Britain from the inside out. In these stories, the dens seem to exist with the specific goal of luring Westerners off the path of righteousness with their devious, exotic, tempting ways.
"She should be colonizing the yellow people, not cavorting with them!"
While opium dens certainly did exist, they were nothing on the scale that they're presented in popular Victorian fiction, which describes the Limehouse area of the East End as being absolutely lousy with them. In practice, the only people who really smoked opium were visiting Chinese sailors and lower-class Chinese Londoners. By the late 1800s, when people were panicking about opium dens most, there were barely any of them about at all. When the writer Walter Besant visited one of the remaining dens in 1899 expecting to see debauchery, depravity, and a floor littered with near-dead addicts, all he saw was a bunch of men sitting around smoking while someone played bad music. So basically, every college party ever.
The irony is that most Londoners at the time would have been able to buy opium at their local chemist in the form of over-the-counter cough syrups -- the substance wasn't destroying the East End, it was destroying the irritation in their sore li'l throats. But forget about facts, there's racial fear-mongering to be had! Victorians were obsessed with sensationalism, especially about social ills -- combine that with a healthy dose of xenophobia, and you've got yourself an urban legend that people are desperate to believe.
Nope, no racism here!
The Mystery Of The Marie Celeste Was Created By Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
The Marie Celeste is one of nautical history's great mysteries. In 1872, the American trading vessel was found adrift at sea off the coast of Portugal, abandoned by its crew and looking a mess, but with signs that the crew had been there just moments before (including, it was reported, half-eaten meals still sitting on tables, and pipe smoke hanging in the air). It was as if they had been raptured; none of its passengers were ever heard from again, leaving authorities to wonder what caused the accident. Foul play? A freak weather event? A giant squid? Supernatural forces? They didn't have UFOs back then, or they'd have thrown that on the pile.
Maybe they listened to Halley and found better housing in the Core Earth.
This real incident became legend specifically because one writer after another emerged to float a fantastic new theory about what exactly went down, each time with exactly zero evidence, each time embellishing details to make it seem creepier. All of that started with a young Arthur Conan Doyle, who would of course later go on to create Sherlock Holmes.
The ship, which was actually called the Mary Celeste (with a "Y") probably wouldn't have been famous at all if it wasn't for Doyle, who in 1884 was a struggling writer who couldn't get anything off the ground.
"Have you guys read my blog?"
Hearing about the spooky discovery of the real Mary Celeste from a little over a decade prior, he decided to cash in by writing a short story based on the incident called "J. Habakuk Jephson's Statement" (catchy!). His tale ran in magazines and was presented as nonfiction -- a supposed statement from a surviving crew member. Doyle then proceeded to get every single thing about the original event utterly wrong. He misreported the route it took, what the crew was like, and the fact that to all appearances the men had been there just moments before (an embellishment that would become accepted as truth from then on). Even Doyle's typo (calling it the Marie Celeste) became the name of the ship in all future tellings.
Like the authors who would follow, he grabbed attention by advancing a particularly salacious theory about what went down: The ship's abandonment was caused by a black passenger staging an uprising against the white crew. He hijacked the ship, sailed it to Africa, and murdered everybody. Yes, Doyle knew that pushing those racial buttons would sell.
We're sure the wild-eyed savage just waiting to cook and eat all the noble whites
was a mere artistic coincidence.
Seeing all the attention the story got, other writers couldn't resist jumping on board with their own "WHAT REALLY HAPPENED ON THE MARY CELESTE!" headlines. Supposed survivors turned up everywhere -- one magazine claimed to have secured an interview with a surviving passenger in 1913 (who claimed everyone had been eaten by sharks), and in 1924, a newspaper talked to a guy who claimed to have known the ship's bosun (he said the crew stumbled across an abandoned ship full of treasure, and sailed it to Spain to start new lives).
The crew's surviving family members were irritated by Doyle's clearly bullshit story, but in terms of its assimilation into public consciousness, the damage was done. As for Doyle, he too was upset to see that his fiction had sparked a whirlwind of stupid lies. Oh no, wait. He was thrilled that people liked it, and made no attempt to clear up the confusion. The fact that people believed it was just proof that he was good at writing, you guys! He could have a writing career after all!
"Moustache wax is not cheap."
He went on to create Sherlock Holmes a few short years later, a character obsessed with sorting through bullshit to find the truth. Feeling guilty about something, Mr. Doyle?
Virginia Woolf Invented The Puritanical Victorians
Oh, the Victorian era: When nobody had fun and no one did sex and all babies were born as the result of human sporing. It's almost like a whole era of British history collectively decided to conform to a cartoonish stereotype!
But, as Cracked has mentioned before, the idea of the Victorians as prudes isn't borne out by the facts. This perception was largely started by a group of intellectuals known as the Bloomsbury Group, which included the famous economist John Maynard Keynes, writer E.M. Forster, and the legendary wordsmith Virginia Woolf. They were cool.
"You can't sit with us."
They wanted to set themselves apart from the previous generation's way of thinking and show that they weren't stuck in the past, maaan. It's not that the Victorians were stuffy and sexless; it's that every young creative thinks their parents are stuffy and sexless. This too-cool-for-old-school clique's most famous member was Woolf, who attacked the values of her elders through her writing and took pride in her generation's supposed rejection of them. Like so many before them, the Bloomsbury Group sought to bill themselves as progressive by knocking the olds.
Her first novel was called IF IT'S TOO LOUD, YOU'RE TOO OLD!!!
Woolf characterized the Victorian era as gloomy and repressed in her well-known novel, Orlando. She portrays the time period as ridiculous, overly concerned with arbitrary rules of propriety, and overall joyless in all aspects of life, especially marriage. Quote: "Couples trudged and plodded in the middle of the road indissolubly linked together."
"We use this for sex."
Not only were the Victorians not prudes, they also weren't total right-wing religious killjoys. During the Victorian era, church attendance was at about 50 percent, and as low as 19 percent in urban areas (where fewer people will rat you out to your mom for skipping church to play Dark Souls III). That's a high number compared to today, but it's nothing like the homogenized uptight churchgoers we envision when we think of the late 1800s.
This idea has survived to present-day thanks to the 1960s. The writings of Virginia Woolf and other members of the Bloomsbury Group were rediscovered by people who came of age after World War II, who were disenchanted with the Vietnam War, committed to feminism, and eager to cast off the repressive mindset of their parents' generation. They felt a kinship with Woolf, who spoke so negatively of compulsory marriage and male-dominated society. It's like if you found someone's diary about how they hated their parents and said, "You're right: I hate my parents, too! And I will use your diary to prove it."
"Have you ever read Mrs. Dalloway?"
So there you go: If you want to create a story that will withstand the test of time, first and foremost it must be something that people really want to believe.
Which Sci-Fi Trope Would You Bring To The Real World, And Why? Every summer we're treated to the same buffet of three or four science fiction movies with the same basic conceits. There's man vs. aliens, man vs. robots, man vs. army of clones and man vs. complicated time travel rules. With virtual reality and self-driving cars fast approaching, it's time to consider what type of sci-fi movie we want to be living in for the rest of our lives. Co-hosts Jack O'Brien and Adam Tod Brown are joined by Cracked's Tom Reimann and Josh Sargent along with comedians David Huntsberger, Caitlin Gill, and Lizzy Cooperman to figure out which sci-fi trope would be the best to make a reality. Get your tickets to this live podcast here!
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