ByJess Goodwin, writer at
social media coordinator at Nickelodeon's '90s Nostalgia brand NickSplat :: on Twitter @thejessgoodwin
Jess Goodwin

Nev Schulman might have coined the now household term "catfish," but long before his 2010 documentary hit theaters, fictional characters were getting catfished left and right.

Now, I'm using the term "catfish" a little loosely here. Technically, catfishing is done online, via social media or a dating site. But the practice of pretending to be someone else in the name of seduction — or, in some cases, malice — is more-or-less age-old. (If you think about it, the folks at To Catch a Predator spent like three years catfishing dudes.)

Take Screech from Saved by the Bell. In the season one episode "Screech's Woman", Zack decides he wants to cheer up his buddy by finding him a girlfriend. However, there are no willing participants, so Zack does the next best thing and makes up a girl, Bambi. He does it a little too well, though, and Screech becomes desperate to meet Bambi, leading Zack to dress the part to let Screech down in person. (As you can see above, with her red hair, giant specs, and blue dress, Bambi is basically — and appropriately — the teenage version of Tootsie.)

Meg Ryan's You've Got Mail character, Kathleen Kelly, is another example of a pre-Catfish catfishee. In the case of this 1998 film, the catfishing is more accidental than anything (at first, anyway). Neither Kathleen nor Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) realize who they're talking to online, but once he finds out, he essentially teams up with himself to create two perfect men, forcing Kathleen to choose between the same guy. (Once she discovers the truth she's totally okay with this, for some reason.)

One of the craziest — and perhaps the only mutual — instances of onscreen catfishing I've seen is in 2005's Hard Candy. Both Patrick Wilson's Jeff and Ellen Page's Hayley provide accurate physical descriptions of themselves. Hayley, however, isn't the sweet, pliant little girl she makes herself out to be online; instead she's fierce, manipulative, and vengeful. Jeff, meanwhile, isn't the kind, warm man he makes himself out to be online; in reality he's a dangerous predator.

Even Lifetime got in the game before Catfish came out. In 2006, Eric Roberts starred in Fatal Desire (which was in no way inspired by Fatal Attraction), as Joe, a single dad looking for love. Anne Heche played Tanya, the sexy, married twentysomething he meets first online then in person. As with Hard Candy, Tanya is not who she claims to be, but rather a vindictive manipulator in need of a sap to kill her "abusive" husband so she can cash in his life insurance. At one point she even sends Joe taunting and threatening emails from her husband's account for extra meta catfishing.

So there you have it — catfishing is as old as time (or at least the early '90s).


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