Some might argue that everything that passes for "paranormal" is a hoax. (There's no fun in that, but insist if you must.) But even the biggest unexplained-phenomenon junkies have to admit when a fraud's a fraud ... as the 10 cases below will attest.
1) The Amityville Horror
The big daddy of paranormal hoaxes, Jay Anson's 1977 bestseller became a hit film (and several subsequent not-so-hit films) and convinced the world that the house with the pie-shaped eyes at 112 Ocean Avenue was haunted by slime-emitting, fly-attracting vengeful Native American spirits and/or witches, plus a ghostly pig with glowing red eyes. So claimed homeowners George and Kathy Lutz, who moved into the home in 1975 months after Ronald "Butch" DeFeo, Jr. killed six members of his family there.
Despite multiple paranormal investigations (most famously by Ed and Lorraine Warren) with varying results, certain "facts" of the case were soon revealed to be false (shocker: that "red room" in the basement wasn't actually a portal to hell), and the family who moved into the home after the Lutzes fled reported an absolute lack of ghostly activity. In fact, nobody who's lived there since has; last December, the house went on the market again, and the seller was careful to note no demons were included in the asking price: "We had wonderful times in that house. I never felt anything, nothing whatsoever. I was just happy that we were buying the house because we saw the potential of it."
Photo via Fantastic Fiction.
2) Uri Geller
Co-founder of the Committee for Sceptical Inquiry, James Randi (aka "The Amazing Randi") is no fan of history's most notorious psychic spoon bender, having penned the 1982 takedown The Truth About Uri Geller. Lawsuits followed, but Randi — now 86, and still ready to pay a million bucks to "any person who demonstrates any psychic, supernatural, or paranormal ability under satisfactory observation" — persevered. Geller, meanwhile, was the subject of a recent documentary investigating his alleged double life as a "psychic spy" for the CIA. Hmmm.
3) The Cottingley Fairies
Below, you will see the first in the series of "fairy photos" taken by cousins Frances Griffith and Elsie Wright with Elsie's father's camera, outside of her home in Cottingley, West Yorkshire. The Museum of Hoaxes tells the tale:
Photographic experts examined the pictures and declared them genuine. Spiritualists promoted them as proof of the existence of supernatural creatures, and despite criticism by sceptics, the pictures became among the most widely recognised photos in the world. It was only decades later, in the late 1970s, that the photos were definitively debunked.
[In 1919,] Elsie's mother attended a lecture on spiritualism and showed the photos to the speaker, asking him if they "might be true after all." The speaker brought the photos to the attention of Edward Gardner, a leader of the Theosophical movement, who in turn asked a photographer, Harold Snelling, to examine them. Snelling declared the photos were "genuine unfaked photographs of single exposure, open-air work, show movement in all the fairy figures, and there is no trace whatever of studio work involving card or paper models, dark backgrounds, painted figures, etc."
Once they had received this stamp of approval, the fairy images began circulating throughout the British spiritualist community, and soon came to the attention of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a passionate believer in spiritualism, and he latched onto the images, convinced they were conclusive photographic proof of the existence of supernatural fairy beings.
Guess who finally had the honour of debunking the photos in 1978, after noticing the fairies strongly resembled the drawings in a children's book that was popular at the time? Our pal James Randi.
Image via Hoaxes.org.
In 1992, years before found-footage horror became all the rage, British TV audiences were taken in by this Halloween "documentary" about a group of BBC reporters investigating a haunted house. It sparked terrified reactions not seen since the broadcast of War of the Worlds ... and, like War, it was completely fake.
5) Salem Witches
A strong belief in the devil, factions among Salem Village fanatics and rivalry with nearby Salem Town, a recent small pox epidemic and the threat of attack by warring tribes created a fertile ground for fear and suspicion. Soon prisons were filled with more than 150 men and women from towns surrounding Salem. Their names had been "cried out" by tormented young girls as the cause of their pain.
Why were the girls tormented? Nobody really knows ... but it's pretty clear that it wasn't witchcraft:
This is a complex question. There are many theories to explain the "fits" of the young girls who accused so many of practicing witchcraft. Among the theories are adolescent hysteria and ergot poisoning; however, there is no definite answer.
6) "Alien Autopsy" footage
The special effects artist behind this supposed examination of an alien corpse found in Roswell, 1947, eventually came clean. But seriously, did anyone actually fall for this?
7) Crop Circles
Though crop circles are very much still a thing, the mystery lessened quite a bit in 1991, when "two jovial con men" admitted they were the very human creators of some of the most prominent formations.
Here's the New York Times, breakin' alien-hopeful hearts:
The mystery of those giant circles and odd geometric shapes that have been showing up in recent summers in wheat fields across southern England has been explained — up to a point.
Newspapers in London today published the claims of two local men who said they were the ones who had been skulking around the countryside under cover of darkness, trampling out patterns with wooden boards as a big joke.
To prove their point, the men, aided by a London tabloid, fooled a self-styled expert on the crop circle phenomena, who declared a pattern found over the weekend in a Kent wheat field to be the genuine article, of the sort no human could have made.
Then, while the expert looked in embarrassment, the two men — described by the newspaper as "jovial con men in their 60s" — gleefully revealed themselves as the artists.
8) Loch Ness Monster photo
The most famous photo of the Loch Ness Monster was debunked in 1993, 60 years after it was taken. The "sea monster" was actually "some plastic and a clockwork, tinplate, [and] toy submarine," concocted by Christian Spurling. At age 93, Spurling admitted he'd crafted the Faux Nessie at the behest of his stepfather, Marmaduke Wetherell, who'd faked it for revenge:
In 1933 the Daily Mail had hired Wetherell to find the Loch Ness Monster. Soon after arriving at the lake Wetherell found some strange tracks of a four-toed creature in the soft mud near the water. Wetherell estimated that whatever left the tracks must be twenty feet in length. Plaster casts were taken and sent to the London Museum of Natural History. While the world awaited the Museum's analysis, however, hundreds of monster hunters and tourists showed up at the Loch. Unfortunately after a few weeks the Museum announced that the tracks were not that of an unknown monster, but those of a hippo. Apparently Wetherell himself had been hoaxed. The dried foot used to make the print was probably part of an umbrella stand or ash tray. The Daily Mail was angered at Wetherell and ridiculed and humiliated him.
9) The Patterson Bigfoot
Can't have Nessie without including the most enduring image of Bigfoot, aka Frame 352 from the iconic 1967 film shot by Roger Patterson and Robert Gimlin. Neither man ever admitted to faking the film (Patterson died in 1972), and despite much analysis, it's never been definitively disproven. It's included here in a list of hoaxes, however, because ... if Bigfoot's real, where the hell is Bigfoot now?
10) The Fox Sisters
Rock stars of the Spiritualism movement that swept America and Europe in the 1850s, Leah, Maggie, and Kate Fox claimed to be mediums who conversed with the dead through "rappings" on their seance table. Their fame was sky-high but short-lived, and in 1888 Maggie, who'd fallen on tragically hard times, publicly admitted they'd been faking their powers the entire time.
Top image via Giant Freakin Robot.