Hoax Museum Blog: Mass Delusion

Syringe Attacks in China: Did they actually happen? — Last week there were mass demonstrations in the Chinese city of Urumqi following what were described as a wave of "politically motivated syringe attacks." But now people are questioning how many syringe attacks actually happened, and were any of them politically motivated? From the Toronto Star:

The government said more than 500 people claimed to have been attacked, but only 170 show any signs of injury. Of those, 22 were being monitored and none were expected to suffer repercussions, it said.
"It seems more like mass hysteria than reality to me," observed Groot.
Even China's state-run Xinhua News Agency dialled down its reporting of the alleged attacks.
"Some of those who said they had been stabbed actually suffered from mosquito stings and other psychogenic reasons," Xinhua said.
Other agency reports noted that of the four people officially charged last week, most were drug addicts involved in acts of plain criminality.

Posted: Tue Sep 08, 2009.   Comments (1)

Penis Theft Panic in Congo — Penis-melting Zionist Robot Combs have struck in the Congo. Minus the Zionists and the Robot Combs. From Reuters:

Rumours of penis theft began circulating last week in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo's sprawling capital of some 8 million inhabitants. They quickly dominated radio call-in shows, with listeners advised to beware of fellow passengers in communal taxis wearing gold rings.
Purported victims, 14 of whom were also detained by police, claimed that sorcerers simply touched them to make their genitals shrink or disappear, in what some residents said was an attempt to extort cash with the promise of a cure.

So how do you argue with a man who claims that his penis has been stolen. Kinshasa's police chief, Jean-Dieudonne Oleko, isn't having much luck:

"I'm tempted to say it's one huge joke," Oleko said.
"But when you try to tell the victims that their penises are still there, they tell you that it's become tiny or that they've become impotent. To that I tell them, 'How do you know if you haven't gone home and tried it'," he said.

Posted: Tue Apr 22, 2008.   Comments (11)

Speaking of urban legends in the Third World… — A young Indian boy is claiming to be the reincarnation of an American scientist. According to the article linked below, he speaks mostly gibberish with a few "scientific" words mixed in. Proof enough for me! I especially like the next-to-last paragraph of the article. [Thanks to the reader who submitted this story]

Indian boy claims to be reincarnation of American scientist
Posted: Tue Jul 17, 2007.   Comments (18)

Yet another urban myth from Iraq — On the heels of the "American troops eat babies" myth comes the story of the Giant, Man-eating Badgers of Basra:

Ferocious British badgers an urban myth in Iraq
Posted: Sat Jul 14, 2007.   Comments (7)


American troops eat babies? — Among the many difficulties American troops are encountering in Iraq (I won't get all political here by listing them), one is a little bit more bizarre than others. It seems that some Iraqis believe that American soldiers carry poison-tipped bullets and eat babies. Kinda tough to win hearts and minds when you're dealing with people who think you dine on infants, I would imagine. I wondered if this story itself was a hoax until I followed the link I found and saw that it lead to Stars and Stripes, the newspaper of the U.S. Army. Again, I'm not being political here, I'm just saying that I think Stars and Stripes is a more credible source for something like this than, say, Ananova. Anyway, it's a weird one for sure.

American troops eat babies?
Posted: Tue Jul 10, 2007.   Comments (17)

Oregon townfolk see penises everywhere — My wife says this isn't a hoax so she doesn't think it belongs on MoH. She may be right, but it's just so damn wacky, I felt I should share it with you all.

The city of Keizer, Oregon, a suburb of Oregon's capital, Salem, spent $20,000 to install some run-of-the-mill concrete pillars, designed to keep cars from killing pedestrians should drivers lose control and veer onto the sidewalk. So far, so good.

The trouble started when some unspecified people decided that the pillars looked too much like erect penises. I'll give you a moment to ponder that last sentence.

They want them removed or altered. The city is actually considering this, at additional expense to taxpayers, of course.

I'm thinking I can justify posting this to MoH by utilizing the "Mass Delusion" category, a MoH staple.

Giant penii invade Oregon town

Can you stand more about this subject?

More on the giant penii of Keizer


Posted: Fri Jul 06, 2007.   Comments (32)

Faces in Trees — I was inspired by the news story about the mayor's face in a tree to search out other examples of faces in trees. I knew that stories about faces in trees pop up regularly in the news, but to my knowledge no one had ever collected these stories together in one place. So it seemed like an appropriate thing to waste a couple of hours doing. I posted the results in the hoaxipedia. It's more faces in trees than you can shake a stick at.
Posted: Fri Jun 08, 2007.   Comments ()

Killer Mobile Phone Virus — I'm a bit late with this, but I see (via Fortean Times) that last month Reuters reported that rumors were spreading around Pakistan and Afghanistan alleging that:
a deadly virus was being sent through mobile phones, and that anyone answering phone calls from some certain numbers would contract a fatal illness. The rumours claimed that "as soon as you answer your phone blood comes out of your mouth, nose and ears and you die"
The local phone companies were trying to calm people down, assuring them that it's impossible to contract a killer virus simply by answering your mobile phone.

This is not the first time such a rumor has been reported. The first time I saw it pop up was back in July 2004, when it was spreading around Nigeria. The rumor then was that a phone call from one of two numbers, either 0802 311 1999 or 0802 222 5999, would cause instant death. An Agence France Presse reporter bravely dialed both numbers, but survived.

Next the rumor surfaced in India in 2006. The rumor now warned of "devil calls" which, when received, would cause mobile phones to explode like bombs, killing their owners.

Of course, the real danger is not a killer phone virus. Instead, it's the relentless spread of the unstoppable gullibility virus.
Posted: Fri May 18, 2007.   Comments (30)

The Case of the Ghostly Pigeon —
Status: Phony Ghost
image For the past month villagers in West Bengal have been terrorized by a ghost that took the form of a floating skull with fiery red eyes. A number of people have suffered scratch marks when attacked by this ghost. Now police have taken a suspect into custody, "A pigeon with a miniature plastic skull dangling around its neck and with glowing red bulbs in the eye sockets." The police don't know who outfitted the pigeon in this way, but suspect that their sole motive was to create a panic. In other words, it was a random prankster. However, the cause of the scratch marks remains undetermined. Also, demonstrating how unreliable eyewitnesses can be, police noted that "people had described the ghost variously as a man and a monkey." Which recalls the Winsted Wild Man panic in Connecticut over 100 years ago, in which witnesses swore they had seen a (nonexistent) wild man sporting tusks and as large as a gorilla.
Posted: Tue May 30, 2006.   Comments (6)

‘Devil Calls’ Cause Exploding Phones —
Status: Insane rumor
Panic has struck mobile phone users in India as word spreads of "devil calls" that cause your phone to explode: "People started turning off their handsets after a rumour swept Orissa state of phones exploding like bombs killing their owners when they answered the calls. The random "devil calls" supposedly started Sunday from phones with 11 to 14 digit numbers instead of the regular 10, said an official from India's state-owned Bharat Sanchar Nigam phone company."

Obviously the rumor is completely bogus, but the theory of the general manager of the phone company in the area is interesting. He speculates that the 'devil call' rumor "could be the handiwork of vested interests to subsequently market anti-virus software for mobile phones." Sounds plausible. (I've never used anti-virus software because it seems to cause more computer problems than viruses themselves do... though I use a Mac, so viruses aren't a big issue.)

I also recall that almost the exact same rumor swept through Nigeria back in July 2004. Somehow it travelled from Nigeria to India.
Posted: Tue Mar 28, 2006.   Comments (18)

Branston Pickle Panic — image A fire at the only factory that produces Branston Pickle reportedly sparked panic buying of the popular brown relish, spurred on by a comment from Premier Foods (its manufacturer) that within two weeks stock levels would run out. So sellers of Branston Pickle began asking as much as £16 or £25 for the stuff on eBay (a jar usually sells for less than £1). For Americans who don't know what this stuff is, it's kind of like a savory brown chutney, very popular in Britain, and often spread on ham and cheese sandwiches. It's good stuff. But now it seems that Branston Pickle isn't in imminent danger of disappearing from stores. Premier Foods will be able to maintain supplies of it. And this article in The Guardian implies that the Branston Pickle Panic never really materialized anyway. Buyers weren't flocking to the stores to snatch up the last remaining jars of the stuff. The Branston Pickle panic was mostly an invention of the media.
Posted: Mon Nov 08, 2004.   Comments (3)

Gullibility Quiz — I just discovered a Gullibility Quiz at Ofesite.com. According to them, I am almost 100% non-gullible. That's a relief to hear. But I found the picture part of their quiz a bit confusing. For instance, they show you three pictures of flying saucers and ask you to select which one of them is real. So how do you select 'none of the above'? You can't. Therefore I just picked one at random. I still can't figure out which picture the non-gullible person would have chosen.
Posted: Thu Oct 07, 2004.   Comments (10)

Killer Phone Calls — Here's a new penis-melting-zionist-robot-comb-type rumor that's spreading through Africa. Agence France Presse is reporting that many mobile-phone users in Nigeria are terrified that if they receive a phone call from one of two numbers, either 0802 311 1999 or 0802 222 5999, it will cause them instant death. A spokesman for the Nigerian mobile-phone company is trying to squash the rumor by assuring people that, "from an engineering point of view, it is absolutely impracticable, and there is no such record whatsoever anywhere in the world, that anyone has died or can die from merely receiving or making a phone call." The AFP reporter braved death and actually called both numbers but was unable to get through to anyone. Personally I think these Nigerians simply don't have the full story. They should know that the phone calls will only kill you if you receive them directly after watching a videotape of a creepy-looking long-haired girl crawling out of a well.

Update: Gizmodo has a copy of a top-secret internal memo from Nokia in which the company admits that it's phones really can cause instant death when calls from certain numbers are received. (yeah, I know it's a joke).
Posted: Tue Jul 20, 2004.   Comments (5)

Penis-Melting Zionist Robot Combs — The phrase 'penis-melting Zionist robot combs,' while not widely known, does seem to be growing in popularity. The phrase refers to a mass panic that swept through Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, in September 2003. The people of Khartoum feared that a Satanic foreigner was going around shaking hands with Sudanese men and thereby causing their penises to melt upwards inside their body. In one case a man reported that he was approached by a stranger at the market. The stranger handed him a comb and asked him to comb his hair. "When he did so, within seconds... he felt a strange sensation and discovered that he had lost his penis." The Sudanese journalist Ja'far Abbas interjected a note of scientific rationality into the growing hysteria by making this observation in his column in the Saudi daily Al-Watan:

No doubt, this comb was a laser-controlled surgical robot that penetrates the skull [and passes] to the lower body and emasculates a man!!
I wanted to tell that man who fell victim to the electronic comb: 'You jackass, how can you put a comb from a man you don't know to your head, while even relatives avoid using the same comb?!' ... That man [i.e. the mysterious stranger], who, as it is claimed, is from West Africa, is an imperialist Zionist agent that was sent to prevent our people from procreating and multiplying.


James Taranto wrote about this case of mass hysteria in the Wall Street Journal's Best of the Web Today column (October 2003), and he's credited with the first use of the phrase 'penis-melting zionist robot combs' (although I can't actually see where in the article he uses that specific phrase). I think people mostly just like repeating the phrase because it sounds cool, but I guess it could also be used to refer to any instance of extreme gullibility. For instance, one might say to a friend, 'that's a rather penis-melting-zionist-robot-comb-like belief you hold.'

Incidentally, shrinking-penis fears are centuries old, and there's even a term to describe them: Koro, or (more scientifically) 'genital retraction syndrome.'
Timothy Hall has an interesting analysis of this syndrome on his UCSD webpage.
Posted: Mon Jun 14, 2004.   Comments (14)

Weeping Mary Returns — About a year and a half ago I posted an entry about a statue of the Virgin Mary in Perth that was weeping rose-scented tears. Critics and church officials dismissed it as a hoax created by filling the statue with some kind of oil. Now that same statue is back in the news again, crying even more publicly. The Archbishop of Perth has cautioned people that "the case for a miraculous happening has not been proved."
Posted: Tue Apr 13, 2004.   Comments ()

The 1938 Panic Broadcast Revisited — orson welles The Toronto Star has an article about the 1938 War of the Worlds panic (the anniversary of which is today)... and they quote me in it! The article argues that the mass panic was much smaller than is popularly thought. I'm inclined to agree with this. My reasons are:

  1. being familiar with the way in which stories about hoaxes are told, I know that the impact hoaxes make is often exaggerated in order to tell a better story. So it sounds a lot more dramatic to say that one million people panicked in 1938, but the truth is that it was probably only a few thousand.

  2. I suspect that the media reported every incident of anomalous behavior that night as evidence of a panic (i.e. every speeding car, every suicide, all loud behavior), whether or not it actually had anything to do with the panic at all;

  3. there really was some chaos in Grover's mill, where the main panic was said to have occurred, but that's because a lot of young people drove into Grover's Mill after hearing the broadcast because they thought CBS might be hosting some kind of event there... in other words, they were searching for a party, not panicking.

  4. Most recollections of the panic turn out to have come from reading newspaper reports about it, not from direct first-hand experience.


Posted: Thu Oct 30, 2003.   Comments ()

Return of the Monkey Man — The Monkey Man has returned in India, after an absence of about a year. Reports are that a "monkey-like machine" is attacking people as they sleep on rooftops and in open places.
Posted: Mon Jul 22, 2002.   Comments ()