Frightful stories of cryptids, aliens, and urban legends get retold every Halloween. Campfire versions embellish the truth for cheap scares. The following origins of 10 popular tropes prove that sometimes real life is even more bizarre.
10 Neighbors Poison Halloween Candy
Ronald O’Bryan ruined everyone’s fun. Cautious parents inspect their children’s Halloween haul to make sure no nefarious prankster tainted it. They usually test this by courageously eating some portion of the candy themselves. Only one recorded child has died from poisoned Halloween candy. It was not done by a demented boogieman, but the child’s own father.
In 1974, eight-year-old Timothy O’Bryan went trick or treating. Timothy and his five friends approached an ominous house with its lights off. No one answered when they rang the doorbell. Instead, Ronald O’Bryan walked out shadows. He handed each kid a restapled 21-inch pixy stix coated in cyanide. Floundering in debt, Ronald killed his son to cash in on the life insurance policy. On June 3, 1975, a jury convicted Ronald of one charge of capital murder and four counts of attempted murder.
Following the unsolved Chicago Tylenol poisoning, the very real threat of child dying no longer seemed like quirky holiday superstition. Retellings turned the myth of deadly candy into the far more innocuous problem of needles in the chocolate. It only made sense that the type of sadistic monster willing feed trick-or-treaters razor blades is the same kind of person who hands out apples.
9 Piranhas are Flesh Eating Monsters
Nature-loving Teddy Roosevelt unknowingly spread one of its most groundless myths. Piranhas’ reputation as pocket sized demons that devour meat in seconds is unjustified. The fish are omnivorous. Some species are strictly herbivores. They only eat animals bigger than insects or other fish when they are starved, like when President Roosevelt first saw them.
In 1913, Brazilian dignitaries were eager to impress the former President. Desperate to make an impressive spectacle, they closed off a section of the Amazon river. For days, the isolated Piranhas were denied food. In honor of Roosevelts arrival, the locals dropped a live cow into the swarm. Like the velociraptor frenzy in Jurassic Park, the school stripped apart the bovine. Chunks of barren bone were all that was left to float to the top. Recalling the event in his travelogue Through the Brazilian Wilderness, Roosevelt described the fish as the “embodiment of evil ferocity.” Schlocky b-grade movies like James Cameron’s Piranha II: The Spawning ingrained the misconception in popular culture.
8 Celebrities get their Ribs Removed
On-stage antics are meant to be for shock. Theatric rocker Marilyn Manson’s legacy has been eclipsed by the rumor that he removed his ribs to suck his penis. The oft trot out line has no validity. This allegation was as false for the first person to have it applied to them. He unleashed horrors far more appalling than “The Beautiful People”
Rumors around celebrities removing their ribs is frequently targeted against women looking for unorthodox weight loss. That strain of story still gets retold with various stars like Cher, Elizabeth Taylor, Jane Fonda, Racquel Welch, or Britanny Spears. The salacious wrinkle that someone would opt for the surgery for self-fallacio is attributed to Gabriele D’Annunzio. D’Annunzio trafficked in gossip. To bolster his fame, D’Annunzio spread scandalous tales that he cooked baby flesh, stitched a robe to expose his penis, and stole the Mona Lisa. Despite his controversial history, Italy still heralds D’Annunzio as one of their nation’s great poets. The world is more familiar with his other work, fascism.
The first modern fascist state was the city of Fiume. The enclave was seized by D’annunzio’s 2,000 strong militia. Italian forces tried to reclaim the small town for 15 months. Eventually, the navy compelled surrender. Benito Mussolini admired D’Annunzio’s resolve. After his rise to power, Mussolini modeled himself after D’annuzio. D’annuzio was wary of Il Duce’s legitimacy, but he did suggest an easy symbol to identify followers of the cause. Initially known as “The Roman Salute,” the Nazi’s adopted the hand gesture as the Seig Heil.
7 The Jersey Devil
Two people birthed the Jersey Devil. Tradition holds that Mother Leeds conceived her thirteenth child in a pact with Satan. The deformed offspring sprouted wings, hooves, and a tail. The second culprit is nearly as unbelievable, Benjamin Franklin.
The Leeds family lack the same name recognition as their Founding Father rival. They still shaped history. Daniel Leeds’ Almanac was the earliest printing in the New Jersey colony. It’s anti-Quaker stance is among the first political attacks in American history. Quakers retaliated by calling Daniel Leeds, “Satan’s Harbinger.”
Daniel passed almanac responsibilities to his son, Titan. Under his pseudonym “Poor Richard,” Benjamin Franklin joked in his competing almanac that astrological calculations prophecized Titan’s imminent death. As the prediction passed in 1733, the very much not dead Leeds called Franklin, “a liar.” Franklin retorted that he was still right. Titan was just a ghost. By the time of Titan’s real 1738 death, anti-British sentiment turned the Leeds family into a symbol of ridicule. Their family crest was mocked as the Leeds Devil. A 20th century huckster trying to stir up business towards his store revitalized and embellished oral stories of the Leeds Devil into the name of the cryptozoological chimera that terrorizes the Garden state’s forests and, occasionally, the National Hockey League.
6 Nazi UFO’s
Like any good melodrama, Baron Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s life starts with, “it was a dark and stormy night.” The hackney cliché first appeared in Bulwer-Lytton’s 1830 novel Paul Clifford. Other common phrases, like “The almighty dollar” or “The pen is mightier than the sword,” were coined within the pages of Bulwer-Lytton’s works. His life was as florid as his writing. In retribution for locking her in an insane asylum under false pretenses, his wife, Rosina Doyle Wheeler, sabotaged Bulwer-Lytton’s Parliamentary campaign. She leaked misinformation that he was having an illicit affair with future Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. No story better encapsulates his insane life than the far-reaching consequences of his 1871 potboiler The Coming Race.
The pulp novel was among the first science fiction texts to use the plot device of a traveler unearthing a mythical land. The main character discovered a secret undergound commune inhabited by a race of angels called Vril-ya powered by the fluid “vril”. A fan of the occult, Bulwer-Lytton’s fictional realm referenced common pseudoscientific ideas of the day. In 1947, researcher William Ley inspired real life quests to tap into Vril’s power. One such organization, the Vril Society, was allegedly founded when psychic Maria Orsic used her telepathic hair to communicate with aliens. Intergalactic beings equipped the Third Reich with superior technology in the waning days of the war. Shockingly, historians are not convinced the society existed.
The absurd idea of aliens working with the Nazi high command permeated pop culture. Tongue-in-cheek video games like Iron sky: Invasion, the Wolfenstein franchise, or the zombie levels of Call of Duty are based on the conspiracy theory. Along with all of their other wrongheaded views, some Neo-Nazis sects still maintain Vril is out there.
Jimmie Rodgers was a legend in life. Death made him a deity. As “The Father of Country Music,” generations of composers were inspired by Rodger’s pioneering yodel. A fraction of the artists shaped by Rodgers’ catalogue include Bob Dylan, Louis Armstrong, Hank Williams, Mudddy Waters, and Howlin’ Wolf. His influence stretched far beyond the American South, including, curiously, Kenya’s Great Rift Valley.
British missionaries brought the word of God and the yelps of Rodgers. To further spread their message, evangelists played gramophone copies of country records. The Kipsigis tribe were particularly fond of Jimmie Rodgers. Through bungled translation, the formative country singer’s name became “Chemirocha.” “Chemirocha” entered the lexicon for anything new or interesting.
In the 1950’s, ethnomusicologist Hugh Tracey returned to the Kipsigis village to field record local songs. The phrase “Chemirocha” morphed into lore. Because of his unnaturally high-pitched voice, “Chemirocha” was described as a half-man and half-antelope faun. Either in myth or his music, Jimmie Rodgers achieved immortality.
4 The Loch Ness Monster
Murmurs of some creature lurking within Scotland’s Loch Ness were told for centuries. The modern notion of an aquatic reptile comes from a single 1934 photograph published in The Daily Mail. Dubbed “The Surgeon’s Photo,” the grainy black and white visual of a long neck and humped figure breaking through the water became the standard depiction of the beast. Everyone involved has since admitted it was a hoax.
In 1933, the Inverness Courier printed the first sighting of the legendary animal. The Daily Mail wanted to get in on the craze. They stationed Marmaduke Wetherall to gather evidence. In December 1933, he discovered a set of footprints on the shoreline. Natural History Museum scientists examining the plaster copies determined they were made by a dried hippo’s foot from an umbrella stand. Mocked for being so gullible, Wetherall concocted his revenge.
Wetherall approached his stepson Christian Spurling to create a fake monster. Molding some clay on top of a toy submarine, Spurling photographed the replica as it drove around the lake. To lend some credibility, the duo employed noted surgeon Colonel Robert Wilson to hand the pictures to The Daily Mail. Marmaduke Wetherell embarrassed the British tabloid just as they embarrassed him.
3 The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs
1979’s When a Stranger Calls begins with the classic twist of a panicked babysitter realizing that the killer’s call was coming inside the house. The tragic crime that inspired it was even more of a macabre irony. The phone cord she thought could save her, killed her.
On March 18, 1950, 13-years-old Janett Christman babysat Ed and Anne Romack’s 3-year-old son, Gregory. Worried about her safety, Ed lent Janett a shotgun if anyone suspicious stopped by. It was never used. Around 10:35 p.m., the local Sheriff’s Department received a frantic phone call. In between disjointed breathes, the dispatcher barely made out a plea for help. The phone was cut dead. Within three hours, Christman was too. She had been bludgeoned, raped, and strangled with the wires from an electric iron and the telephone. Thankfully, Gregory was unharmed.
Jurisdictional squabbles hampered the investigation. The Romacks lived 100-yards over the city limits. Competing agencies feuded over withheld evidence. This divide allowed the prime suspect Robert Mueller to evade justice. Mueller had a lecherous reputation in the community for young virgins. His occasional babysitter, Mueller lusted after Janett in particular. The stationary shotgun suggests Christman knew the culprit. The night of the murder, Mueller excused himself for two hours to allegedly meet his doctor. Mueller’s doctor says he never showed up. Most damning, Mueller phoned the Romacks the morning after the murder. Obviously out of compassion, he asked if they needed any assistance cleaning the blood. This call came before the press reported the murder. Taken to barn outside city limits, police interrogated Mueller. Denied a proper setting, the questions were inadmissible. Mueller died in 2006 never charged with any crime. Officially, the case remains unsolved.
2 Grey Aliens Probe Butts
There are two possibilities. Believers contend that on September 9, 1961, husband and wife Barney and Betty Hill were abducted by a flying saucer somewhere along New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Aliens shoved a needle through Betty’s navel and a metallic capsule inside Barney’s rectum. Skeptics maintain it was all made up. Neither view justifies why so many people have shared this delusion.
Logic explains away most of the supposed details. Sleep-deprived, the Hills drove five hours nonstop in the middle of the night. In this foggy state, an observatory tower light weaving along the wooded road could be confused for a craft. The visual of grey skinned aliens with an enlarged forehead closely resemble the costume design of a beast in an episode the Outer Limits aired two weeks before Barney shared his account. The intrusive surgery resembles accounts of accidental awareness Barney might have experienced if anesthesia wore off in a recent tonsillectomy. Physical evidence like Betty’s ripped dress, Barney’s scuffed shoes, or circular dents on the car are harder to rationalize, unless this whole story was created by an unscrupulous doctor.
The Hills were reluctant to publish their account. They only came forward at the recommendation of their psychiatrist, Dr. Benjamin Simon, in 1964. Under hypnosis, the Hills were susceptible for the opportunistic doctor to plant false memories. The couple did not initially seek out the counseling over concerns about a three-year-old hazy recollection. They faced tangible problems. Barney’s doctor warned he needed to treat stress-induced high blood pressure and ulcers. His first psychiatrist concluded Barney’s anxiety stemmed from being a black man married to a white woman. Active in the civil rights movement, the stigma of the interracial marriage caused the two mental unrest. Shortly before their sighting, the waitress at the diner they visited to was disgusted by the couple’s race. Black and white together make grey.
1 Elvis Faked His Death
Jimmy Ellis wanted to be a star. Every record with his name on it flopped. Critics always complained he sounded too much like Elvis Presley. After 15 years of scrounging by, Ellis abandoned music. He settled on just being himself. Then, Elvis died.
Mercury Records Vice President Shelby Singleton is one of music’s great conmen. His first shameless scam was buying Sun Records’ back catalog, the Memphis studio that launched the King of Rock and Roll’s career. In 1972, Singleton released Ellis singing 1950’s standards under the implication this was the lost first Elvis’ recordings.
By Elvis’ 1977 death, Singleton hatched a more fantastical con. Loosely inspired by Elvis’ biography, Gail Brewer-Giorgio’s unpublished novel Orion: The Living Superstar of Song tells of a Southerner who lucked into becoming the world’s most popular singer. After squandering his fame on drugs and vice, Orion faked his death to find peace.
Dressed in bedazzled jumpsuits, jet black hair, and a rhinestone mask, Singleton marketed Ellis as Orion. Local publications, not too worried about their accuracy, ran that Orion actually was Elvis reincarnated. Singleton fostered such theories by coyly rerecording old Jerry Lee Lewis albums as duets with Orion. 11 Orion albums were released between 1978 and 1982, including nine charting country singles.
Despite his burgeoning success, Ellis hated his fabricated identity. He grew convinced he was Vernon Presley’s illegitimate child. Sharing the same biological father might explain Ellis’ uncanny similarities. On New Year’s Eve 1983, Ellis tore off the Orion mask. He renounced his alter ego to manage a pawn shop in Alabama. In 1998, he was killed in a botched. He was 53.
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