Stranger than fiction?


After a fortnight that saw a six year-old, a helium balloon, and an elaborate stunt dominate world headlines, Peter Molloy delves into the curious underworld of modern hoaxes and the people that propel them to centre stage

It was an amusing Thursday evening for anyone sitting in front of a satellite news channel on 15th October. With almost debilitating speed, one particular story began to edge up through the rankings to almost achieve almost continual coverage.

The stage was Fort Collins, Colorado, and the star of this almost instant media attention was the ironically named Falcon Heene. And just how was it that young Master Heene had come to be the focus of global scrutiny? Because he was trapped in a home-made helium balloon. Naturally.

A home-made helium balloon had been released from its moorings and was now drifting as high as 7,000 feet above the grasslands of Colorado, with a helpless Heene on board, presumably clinging on for dear life as the balloon bobbed and weaved at speed through the sky.

So far, so dramatic. The thread began to start unravelling when the balloon eventually made it back down to earth as panicked would-be rescuers quickly ascertained that there was, in fact, nobody in the basket of the device. It transpired that Heene had actually been safe at home throughout the entire episode, oblivious to the sudden drastic changes to news schedules he had been precipitating in television studios across the planet.

A happy ending, then? Well, no – anything but, actually. It’s never appealing to concede defeat to cynicism, but for once, the glass-is-half-empty types amongst news viewers were right on the money.

As journalists began probing further into the incident, arguably unhappy with the rather anodyne ending of the on-screen drama, the story began to unravel faster than the ropes of the loosely tethered balloon.

Falcon’s father, Richard, had form in this sort of thing. A self-described amateur scientist, storm-chaser, and all-round thorough eccentric, the head of the Heene clan had already endeavoured to see the family gain exposure in US reality television shows like Wife Swap. After a series of inopportune post-rescue interviews with both the authorities and the media; it rapidly became clear that the game was up.

Last weekend Falcon’s mother, Mayumi, admitted in court documents that the entire incident had been an elaborately staged hoax, designed to boost the unusual family’s media profile. In a perverse way, the plan had succeeded perfectly.

In less than a fortnight, Falcon and the Heene family have achieved a level of prominence that belies their hitherto reality as a suburban US family; albeit a highly unusual one. “Balloon Boy” has become one of the most popular internet memes of all time, while the term became the number one most searched for phrase on Google within hours of the incident – always a ready gauge of modern celebrity.

But the Colorado family haven’t exactly pioneered this sort of thing. For almost as long as elaborate deception has proved a foolproof way to gain instant notoriety, people have endeavoured to push the hoaxing boat out. Some notable hoaxes have an even lengthier pedigree. Here are some of the best (or should it be worst?) of more recent years.

brown_rouletteDerren Brown and “Russian Roulette” (2003)
The ever-so-slightly unsettling English illusionist pulled a master stroke with this inspired stunt. Broadcast live from a remote farmhouse on the island of Jersey, of all places, Brown apparently performed a game of nerve-racking Russian Roulette, using a revolver loaded by a randomly selected volunteer.

Perhaps predictably, the television event didn’t end with flecks of the magician’s goatee spattered all over the studio wall. Brown consistently refused to confirm or deny whether or not the weapon was in fact loaded with a live round, saying only that “it was a terrific piece of television”.

Blanks it is, then.

The Hills (2006 – infinity)
This particular piece slice of reality TV gets an unworthy mention not merely in its own right, but for being emblematic of a host of television shows over the past decade that have managed to stretch a hoax into several seasons worth of advertising revenue. We’re watching you as well, Kardashians… unfortunately.

Robert P. McCulloch and London Bridge (1967)
The world stopped and scratched its head in the 1960s as the Common Council of the City of London decided to put London Bridge on the market as plans went ahead to erect a more modern replacement.

In stepped US oil millionaire Robert P. McCulloch, who parted with a cool $2,460,000 – a mere $16m in today’s money – to purchase the bridge, and ship it piece by painstaking piece for reconstruction in Arizona.

The twist lay in the fact that the unfortunate American entrepreneur was forever afterwards dogged by rumours that he had stumped up the cash in the mistaken belief that he was purchasing the much more famous Tower Bridge a few hundred yards downstream.

A true hoax? Debateable, unless the London aldermen really were laughing all the way to the bank.

De Grote Donorshow (2007)
The Big Donor Show was a particularly inspired piece of television trickery by Dutch channel BNN.

Another show from the Endemol stable, noted as the producers of Big Brother, the concept saw a supposedly terminally ill woman receiving public advice via text message as to which kidney transplant candidate her organs should go to after her death. The fact that the woman in question was, in reality, a perfectly healthy actress was revealed during the course of the programme, with the show’s makers claiming that the entire project was intended to draw attention to the lack of organ donors in the Netherlands.

Altruistic or otherwise, it certainly made for heady, headline-grabbing stuff.