Part of what makes paranormal phenomena so popular is that many people really want to believe it. Ghosts, otherworldly creatures, portals to another plane—it's all very exciting to consider. Unfortunately, the fantastical believers of these incredible yet largely intangible things are extremely vulnerable to con artists and trickery.
Urban legends and ghost stories are one thing, but what of the people who seek fame and fortune from their paranormal claims? People have been fabricating out of this world experiences for centuries, and as culture and technology shifts and develops, the tricks just keep getting better. Here are seven of the biggest paranormal hoaxes in history.
The Fox Sisters
March 31st, 1848, the night before the foolish holiday known for trickery and hijinks, Maggie and Kate Fox came to their mother about an eerie occurrence in their home in Hydesville, New York. There were rumors around town that a murder had taken place on their property years before, and the 14 and 11-year-old girls claimed the spirit of the victim still resided in their home—and they could speak to him. The girls and the mother would pose questions to the spirit, and it would respond with strange knocking.
With their upstate community rife with Spiritualism, the news of their otherworldly communication quickly spread. To offer guidance from those in the great beyond, the eldest Fox sister, Leah, brought their séance talents down to New York City. Crowds flocked to them to get answers from dead relatives through a series of knocks and mysterious messages appearing on blank cards.
Many years later, when Maggie was in her 50s, she came out with the truth. Their communication with the dead was nothing more than a childhood prank gone too far. It started with a simple apple on a string and developed further as the girls learned how to manipulate their knuckles and toes to produce a popping sound which would imitate that of knocking. The sister fraudulently performed hundreds of séances, and the world quickly turned their backs on them once the truth was exposed.
The Cottingley Fairies
In the early 20th century, young Elsie Wright and Frances Griffith took a series of photographs which would be used to prove the existence of supernatural creatures. The first to pictures were taken in 1917, when Elsie was 16 years old and Frances was just nine. The images depicted fairies as captured by Elsie's father's camera outside of her home in Cottingley, West Yorkshire.
Upon examination by so-called experts, the photographs were deemed to be genuine. Spiritualists—among them Sir Arthur Conan Doyle—lauded them as essential evidence for psychic phenomena. The pictures quickly became some of the most widely recognized photos in the world.
However, in 1978, magician and scientific sceptic James Randi debunked the photos using a computer enhancement process to find strings attached to the fairies in the images. The cousins eventually admitted the truth themselves in an article in 1983. However, both women claimed to have seen fairies for real, even if the pictures were a scam.
The Amityville Horror
In the paranormal community, there may be no two figures more controversial than that of Ed and Lorraine Warren. One of their most popular investigations was a home in Amityville, New York, belonging at the time to the Lutz family.
In the fall of 1974, a terrible crime had taken place in the home. 23-year-old Ronald "Butch" DeFeo picked up a gun and shot both of his parents and all four of his younger siblings dead as they slept in their beds. He pleaded insanity, claiming that voices within the house urged him to commit the crime. That plea was thrown out, and he was sentenced to six consecutive life terms.
A year later George and Kathy Lutz—along with their three young children—moved into that very home. Over the course of the 28 days they stayed there, they reported aggressive voices, unexplained chills, slime across the floor, swarms of flies, odd welts, and the sight of Mrs. Lutz levitating over her bed. Ed and Lorraine Warren were brought in to cleanse the house, and just so happened to bring a camera crew along. In no time, this terrifying haunting became a household name. A bestseller, The Amityville Horror, was written about the Lutz's personal experience. Countless movies based on the events have been released.
However, no one who has since lived in the home has reported any instances of paranormal activity. What's more, the DeFeo's lawyer has admitted that he and the Lutzes devised the story of the haunting after imbibing several bottles of wine.
The Fiji Mermaid
Besides the Warrens, one of the most infamous scammers of all time was P.T. Barnum. Active in the Victorian era, he drew in the public with incredible specimens and mythical creatures. In 1842, Barnum acquired the Fiji Mermaid, also known as the "Feejee Mermaid," which was said to be the preserved remains of a genuine mermaid capture in the Bay of Bengal.
This specimen was displayed by Barnum in his American Museum in New York City. In 1897, the Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology at Harvard University obtained what was called the Java Mermaid—thought to be the very same "Feejee Mermaid." The staff at this institution investigated the creature's origins. While it was not comprised of the head of a monkey stitched upon the body of a fish as many had suspected, it was actually just crafted from paper-mâché and fish bones.
The Well to Hell
This terrifying legend says that in the late 1980s, Russian engineers drilled a hole in an undisclosed area of Siberia. There was a much bigger reaction to this well than expected. For one, it was bigger than it was ever intended to be. Drilled nearly nine miles deep, the depths of this cave reached remarkably high temperatures of 2,000 °F.
Some crew members claimed to have heard strange and unsettling sounds from the hole. In response, a heat tolerant microphone and additional sensory equipment was sent down into the well. What allegedly came back up were recordings which revealed this well to be a gateway to Hell itself.
Related: 5 Gateways to Hell
The recording consisted of bizarre noises and agonized screams—screams which seemed similar to what might be heard from those tortured in pits of fire and brimstone. These recordings sparked a frenzy after they were picked up by news outlets—particularly those outlets with a religious foundation. However, the recording was a fake. While a real hole was drilled—one seven and half miles deep on the Kola Peninsula—the recording of agony that was circulating was actually just a looped sound clip from the 1972 film Baron Blood.
Before The Blair Witch Project brought the found-footage genre back to life in 1999, there was the British television special Ghostwatch in 1992. Released on Halloween, this horrific special claimed to be genuine documentary footage which followed a group of BBC reporters into a haunted house. The event claimed to be a live broadcast, but in the midst of detailing the home's history and interviewing neighbors, the reporters encountered a malevolent spirit named Pipes.
The spirit was said to have belonged to that of the psychologically disturbed Raymond Tunstall. But Tunstall isn't the only ghost said to have been in the home, as when he was living there he himself was disturbed by the ghost of Mother Seddons, a 19th century child killer. The reporters seem to consider the whole thing to be bogus—until one of them is dragged away by a spirit. It's revealed that the broadcast has acted as a widespread séance that has only given Pipes more power to go out and terrorize the nation.
Viewers were terrified by this display, to an extent not seen since the radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds in 1938. With cast, crew, and writers credited on the project, the special was eventually exposed a mere horror mockumentary. Nothing about the special had been live, but rather pre-recorded segments enhanced by FX weeks in advance.
The Salem Witch Trials
Many don't call to mind the tragic events of the Salem Witch Trials of 1692 and think "hoax." However, at its core, the hysteria was driven by a petty and malicious con.
It all began with a mysterious illness befalling the young daughter and niece of Rev. Samuel Parris. The girls experienced violent contortions and mystifying screaming. In the 17th century, belief in the devil was inescapably high, and so a local doctor pronounced the girls to be bewitched by a minion of the devil. The afflicted girls put names to the sinister witches, and so the accused were brought in to a special court where flimsy spectral evidence was held in high esteem.
After the initial trial, other young girls in Salem began exhibiting the same strange, convulsing behaviors. Their blame shifted to neighbors—anyone whose fall from grace would benefit them or their family. From spring until fall of that year, 150 Salem residents were thrown in jail for witchcraft. Seven died there. Another 20 perished by execution.
In October of that year, the the governor of Massachusetts finally banned the use of spectral evidence and put an end to the witchcraft court. Those who had kept their lives were released from jail, while money was given to the families of those who were wrongly executed. But nothing could truly ease the suffering of a mass-perpetrated hoax, brought on my church politics and family feuds.