Back in 1938, Orson Welles allegedly caused quite a stir with his radio dramatisation of H.G. Well's War of the Worlds. The hour long mockumentary format drama led to what newspapers referred to at the the time as "mass panic", including one reported incident of a farmer firing at a water tower he thought was a Martian tripod.
The 1938 War of the Worlds radio play just goes to show that sometimes fact and fiction are not so easy to tell apart, especially when the later is portrayed as the former. Let's take a look at some other examples of mockumentaries and docufictions which were mistaken as real by thousands, if not millions, of people.
It was Halloween 1992 and the BBC decided it would give the entire nation a good scare. To do this they produced Ghostwatch, a mockumentary which masqueraded as a real-life horror reality show.
The concept was simple, a film crew would enter a supposedly haunted house on halloween to investigate claims of a ghost. Meanwhile, experts and presenters in the "live" studio would provide commentary and keep the whole show moving along nicely.
Initially, it seemed nothing was going on at all, but the show's producers cleverly spliced in frames of a ghostly apparition which often went unmentioned by the cast.
Soon, however, things start to take a turn for the worst, with the supernatural elements become much more extreme and violent - with even the personalities in the studio being affected... and possessed.
The show caused a furore, especially because critics felt it had not done enough to explain it was not real. Of course, the creators of the show would claim this would spoil the effect they intended Ghostwatch to have. Importantly, the main presenter of the show, Michael Parkinson, is a respected television figure in Britain, which added authority to the supposedly real events.
Following its original showing, Ghostwatch was banned from appearing on British television again for 10 years, while it was even suggested to have contributed to the suicide of an 18 year old man with learning difficulties. Some tabloids even suggested the show gave children a type of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Mermaids: The Body Found
There was once a time when channels such as Animal Planet and Discovery were respected institutions which were at the forefront of scientific programming. More recently they have seemed to find financial success in docufictions and mockumentaries.
There is now a long list of fake Discovery documentaries, including Dragons: A Fantasy Made Real and Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives, however few resonated with viewers more than Mermaids: The Body Found.
Mermaids: The Body Found claimed to be a scientific program which had uncovered evidence that mermaids were living in the Greenland Sea. As well as testimony from experts - which were of course all played by actors - there was also apparently convincing fabricated eye-witness video of mermaids. The show itself is based on a real radical theory which suggests humans once had an aquatic stage in their evolution. This so-called Aquatic Ape Theory has been effortlessly debunked since it was first uttered, but it apparent lent the show just enough pseudoscience to fool tens of thousands of Americans.
In fact, the deception wasn't limited the television show. Mermaids: The Body Found also featured a spin-off website which was apparently closed down by the government who were attempting to cover up the existence of mermaids. This led to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration releasing a statement claiming there is no scientific evidence for the existence of mermaids.
Despite the hoax nature of the show, Mermaids: The Body Found was a ratings success and was one of the most watched Animal Planet shows ever. In fact, its sequel, Mermaids: The New Evidence WAS the most watched Animal Planet show ever. This led the Animal Planet president at the time, Marjorie Kaplan, to state:
The phenomenon of Mermaids has truly been a watershed – and a watercooler – moment for Animal Planet. These extraordinary television specials have electrified, challenged and entertained television audiences and online fans alike.
However, it seems the tides have turned against Discovery and Animal Planet in recent years, with many critics now slamming the network for abandoning their original remit of factual programming. The new incoming president of Discovery, for example, has now stated he will abandon fake and hoax documentaries in an attempt to rediscover Discovery's original purpose.
This is a bit of a personal one for me. I remember one day coming in from playing outside to see my dad watching what appeared to be a news report stating several asteroids were heading for Earth. At the time I thought it was real, although the calm demeanour of my father suggested to me it wasn't serious enough to warrant hiding in the basement. Despite this, I remember sitting in my room and feeling quite perturbed by it all.
I discovered many years later that my dad had in fact been watching a rebroadcast of Without Warning, a CBS TV movie which claimed to be a news report covering the possible end of the world.
The film starts as a murder mystery titled Without Warning, however it is soon interrupted by real-life veteran news anchor Sander Vanocur, who talks of reports of strange astrological activity. Before you know it, reports start flooding in that asteroids are heading for Earth - but something isn't quite right. After the initial reports, experts start suggesting the trajectory of the asteroids is not natural - that someone, or something, could be behind the phenomenon. The result is a film which concludes in aliens wiping out every major city on Earth.
The film producers hoped to alleviate viewer concerns by including disclaimers during commercial breaks and by casting well-known actors in roles as reporters. However, it seems many people, especially those who tuned in halfway through, were taken in by the mockumentary. Affiliates of CBS were flooded with concerned callers who wanted to know why they were not also covering these amazing events. Due to this, Without Warning has never been shown again in the US, although it was rebroadcast in the United Kingdom (where I saw it) minus the commercial break disclaimers.
Spanish-Language War of the Worlds
Although Orson Welles original 1938 broadcast is perhaps the most well known, it is certainly not the most inflammatory. In February 1949, Leonardo Paez and Eduardo Alcaraz produced a Spanish language version of Orson Welles' script for Radio Quito in Quito, Ecuador. They also pumped up listeners beforehand by paying for fake stories regarding UFOs to be published in the local newspaper.
When the broadcast hit the airwaves a major panic took over the city. Police and fire brigades headed out onto the street to deal with the supposed alien invasion only to find panicking members of the public running around like headless chickens. When they found out it was a hoax, things did not improve. In fact, they got considerably worse. More people ran out onto the streets and a full-blown riot broke out. Hundreds of angry listeners attacked Radio Quito and El Comercio - the newspaper which had participated in the hoax. In all, seven people were killed, including the girlfriend and nephew of Paez. After the event, Paez fled to Venezuela as he also feared for his life.
Another British addition to the list, Alternative 3 was a so-called 'Science Report' which claimed to reveal a secret mission to populate Mars with the greatest thinkers from Earth. The show investigates the mysterious disappearances and deaths of dozens of physicists, engineers and astronomers. Later in the show, it is suggested that in reality these individuals were part of an American and Soviet plan to populate space.
The story suggests that governments have known for a while that the Earth will soon no longer be habitable. To deal with this, three 'alternatives' are suggested. 1) The drastic reduction of the population on Earth. 2) The building of underground self-supporting bunkers. 3) The population of Mars via a way-station on the Moon. The docufiction suggests the third alternative was decided on and was already being put into motion. In particular, it featured an interview with a supposed Apollo astronaut who claimed to come across a secret lunar base while on a moonwalk. The show ends with a video purporting to show a joint Soviet/American landing of Mars in 1962 - with additional aliens.
Within minutes of the show ending, Anglia television were flooded with telephone calls demanding more information. Alternative 3 was also jumped upon by conspiracy theorists, and to this day elements of its story can still be seen on conspiracy websites. In fact, some theorists claim it wasn't a hoax at all...
If you wanted to watch these entertaining mockumentaries in full, you can find all of them on Youtube.