A little hoax

I’ve recently found myself musing on the subject of hoaxes and scams. Like urban legends, they have a the power to fool the unwary. Unlike urban legends, they do so twice—predicated as they are on their own nonfictional status—once in their execution and again in their retelling.

Hoaxes and scams have crept into my writing and established a home in the mind of this young and zealous writer. I’m afraid they may take advantage of me. But of course, they won’t; they can’t: I’m already on guard and thinking about them, so I can’t be taken in. I’ve become an expert so as not to be fooled. Yet the hallmark of a great hoax or scam is the thoroughness with which it takes in its victim(s). It establishes for itself an ethos, and then by leveraging itself, subverts that trust. It’s not unlike the magician’s art of misdirection—the magic is in the confounding of expectation, and students of the art are often disappointed the first time they discover how pedestrian the actual trick really is. It’s no wonder then that the origin of the word hoax is likely a late seventeenth century contraction of the word hocus, as in pocus. (Hocus-pocus itself is a sham: an Enlightenment-era derivative of the pseudo-Latin phrase  Hax pax max Deus admix, a “spell” used by stage magicians.)

Funny how the word appeared right around the time science and technology began to lap superstition and religion in the race to explain the world. Magic, in that sense, is defined almost precisely as the counterweight to science. Before modern science, it wasn’t magic, it was just the way things worked.

The best fiction—well, okay, the kind I like best—functions much the same way a good hoax or scam would: most of the work is done up front, in disarming the reader and diverts his attention from the actual work at hand. Every time I read a story, I set down my writer’s beret and wear my reader’s baseball cap. I read first fiction and foremost for enjoyment, and then a secondarily for appreciation of craft or learning of lesson. I give the writer a chance to cast her spell. This tacit agreement between writer and reader allows the writer great latitude in her opening maneuvers: suspension of disbelief has to be earned, but the benefit of doubt is granted at the outset. That’s a cardinal rule of fiction. I’ve learned that as a reader, not as a writer. This rule allows writers to get away with opening sentences that would be awfully hard to pull off in a work of expository nonfiction:

Clarissa Dalloway said she’d buy the flowers herself. (Who? Huh?)

Mother died today. Or maybe it was yesterday, I can’t be sure. (You wrote this book today?   And dude, how callous is that?)

Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from unsettling dreams to discover himself transformed into             a gigantic beetle. (Um…sorry man. You’re crazy.)

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. (Huh? Make up your mind.)

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. (No good can possibly come of this.)

So hoaxes and scams involve misdirection. But unlike fiction, there is no predetermined agreement between the victim and perpetrator: if we knew we were being had at the outset, we wouldn’t voluntarily let our guard down—fiction and magic shows are harmless, but hoaxes and scams generally are not. They involve misdirection within the nonfiction mode: I, as the swindler, have to earn your trust at the outset. And I have to do this without calling attention to the form (or to me).

By the way, regarding hoaxes and scams: I distinguish the former as plot to fool more than one person at a time, and the latter as one meant to fool victims individually. And yet the word “hoax” also bears a connotation of humor, as in prank, where “scam” is more closely allied with scabs, scars, skags, spam, and scares. It breathes the same air as the petty thief and small-time crook. While a scam may involve an artist, it most certainly not an artwork, and always unwelcome. So why does the larger scale of the hoax allow for humor and the personal realm of the scam only disgust? Maybe there’s something in the collective acknowledgement “We’ve been had,” that allows for a laugh at the shared experience—no one is to blame, we were all taken. Whereas a scam is inflicted on an individual, and that individual in each circumstance has to wonder: How could I let this happen?

There’s a flip-side of the hoax too—the conspiracy—that is less humorous, more paranoid, and often less believable. Why does the term “conspiracy theorist” conjure images of crackpots in basements, and why is there no (respected) profession of “conspiracist” or “conspirologist”? There are only conspirators and the ones who theorize about them, it seems. Maybe it has to do with our collective understanding about how collective understanding works. Conspiracy comes from Latin: any English major can tell you it probably originally meant “ to breathe together,” as one. Ever try that?

Let me just say I don’t doubt for a minute that conspiracies do exist, have existed, and will continue to exist. And some may even be quite interesting: the Dreyfus Affair, the Gunpowder Plot, the Black Sox scandal. Watergate.

But it seems to me there are a few things that generally set conspiracies apart from hoaxes and scams.

For one, conspiracies are often, due to their large scale, harder to contain, and often much messier, than the elegant hoax or scam. They defy Occam’s Razor: they are cumbersome in detail and nuance, and even when they are true they are often hard to believe. (Maybe that’s also what makes the best conspiracies so damn successful).

Also, we tend to only hear about (or believe in) conspiracies when they’ve been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt. In the court of public opinion, suspension of disbelief is a prize awarded to very few, and theorist is a label applied to the accuser to make him seem guilty. When we see conspiracy plots surface in films, it’s usually centered around the character of the crackpot theorist who, in a role reversal, turns out to be right.

Scams almost always seem to have happened. Scams are petty regardless of their scope, and therefore believable. Large-scale scams still carry the believability of small-scale scams, because (1) we catch scammers all the time, and (2) it seldom has dramatic flair—it involves someone cheating someone out of money, usually, and the only audience for that is the victim, and perhaps people who later watch the evening news. The scam is so common there is no doubt it can be believed. And the nature of scam artists and scam victims is universal: we’ve all been victims, and many of us at one time or another have perpetrated some form of lie that approximates a light scam: even if only on paper, or speaking hypothetically over a round of beers (“Dude, the best idea for a scam would be if…”), we all know what it would be like to be a scam artist.

Hoaxes, by contrast, show up in the liminal world of maybe they happened, maybe they didn’t. There’s an implied story, and a build-up (necessary for one to pull the wool over the eyes of more than one person simultaneously) that suggests elaborate forethought. In their telling they take on the sheen of fiction: it’s incredible at the outset. The incredibility is presumed, rather than the veracity. The veneer of truth has to be earned in the telling, or else be tossed aside in favor of the telling of a hoax story as an entertainment…which it almost always is.

A hoax’s perpetrator is more shadowy than a scam artist. He is sometimes caught, sometimes not. His identity is less grounded in the real world, often being subservient to the plot itself. (And oh yes: a hoax is a plot, through and through—another way it mimics fiction.) A scam dealing with cell phone operators is realistic, and involves a real person or real company. A hoax is inflicted by a cipher: someone we’ve never heard of, a company we’ve never ourselves been a customer of, and therefore whose crime can be appreciated without feeling uneasy, on guard, angry, or victimized. A hoax skirts closer to the urban legend in it’s mode of telling—a straight face and strangely specific details just barely within city limits of Ordinary—and yet it might be true. A hoax, unlike an urban legend, is not by definition false. It is by definition maybe. As I’ve said, there’s a magic to it, and joy in the telling. Balloon boy is a great example of that.

On October 15, 2009, the nation—heck, probably the whole world, in this Internet age—was captivated for a single day by a strange looking silver balloon that more than one commentator pointed out closely resembled the expandable foil pie-tin of a Jiffy Pop popcorn package.

As you probably remember, a publicity-seeking hobbyist called 9-1-1 because he feared his six-year-old boy might be inside the homemade weather balloon that was drifting across the Colorado landscape. All day the 24-hour cable news channels and local news networks were glued to this Mylar wonder. Was the child inside? Was he alive? How might he be rescued? How was he able to get aloft in the first place? Who are his parents? Rumor has it he climbed inside after being told not to. Rumor has it his dad is a mad scientist.

In the end, it turned out that the whole thing was staged. The boy was hiding in the garage, put up to it by his attention-seeking parents, who wanted so very badly to have a reality show of their own. The incident was labeled a hoax. The father, several months later, was ordered to serve a month in jail and two months in a work-release program. The mother got 20 days in jail. A fine is still pending.

The outrage is understandable: the reckless family was reckless not for endangering their son—they didn’t—but for diverting emergency resources such as helicopters and ambulances from doing their actual job of getting people who really are in danger to safety.

But the hoax: not a scam—there was no percentage in it, in the end, for the family, and based on my previous definition, more than one person had been duped. The humor plays in when a collective sigh is breathed and we as a society can express humor or outrage. It also had all the components of a good urban legend: the highly improbable but definitely imaginable silver Mylar balloon (there it was on all our TV screens! The moon landing may or may not have been faked, but this was a more down-to-earth conceit, as it were), the family worried sick, the six-year old (what six-year-old boy isn’t mischievous? it fits an archetype, no?), and the small, round, aluminum foil-covered cardboard bay into which our minds willfully projected the boy.

A lot like the man who woke up naked in a bathtub filled with ice, a phone by his side and an ominous warning written in lipstick across his chest telling him not to move, and to call 9-1-1. Except where the kidney-theft story is an urban legend, the balloon boy happened. Or didn’t. But it unfolded in real life.

By the way, that collective projection of a trapped boy was real to us, and the conventional wisdom that unfolded across the Internet and cable newsrooms was a reasonable tone of fear (for the child’s safety) and anger (at the parents). But when we discovered we’d been had, our anger didn’t turn into relief (the boy is okay!) or outrage (we want the dad’s head on a pike!), but rather laughter: it was over so quickly, late night comedy shows were able to incorporate it into that day’s jokes. On Saturday Night Live, in the middle of his Weekend Update segment, Seth Meyers was attempting to deliver the news of the day when he was interrupted by a hovering Jiffy Pop bag that floated erratically—and to great humorous effect—across the camera. Jon Stewart quipped that balloon boy was safe at home, and all the heartache he put this country through was for nothing (“Get him!”). Other, perhaps more illustrious morning talk shows debated whether it was indeed a hoax.

I suppose all of this just points to the nature of hoaxes as both simultaneously real and fake. Just like magic tricks are real and fake. Just like fiction gets you to suspend your disbelief.

Hoax becomes conspiracy when more than one perpetrator is identified (or presumed). It gets downgraded to a scam when it has only one victim (at a time), or when the subterfuge involved is on a personal scale. We hate scams because they fool each of us personally, individually. We love hoaxes exactly because they fool us as a group. There’s an awe factor—How did he do that? We were all watching!—that invites respect. Even if the one committing the hoax gets away with something. And especially if we never learn quite how it was done.

We hate (or can’t remember, or don’t give a shit about) the balloon boy’s dad not just because he didn’t get away with it, but because everything was revealed, and we saw the boring clockwork of the trick. If he got away with it—if the wool was still over our eyes, or if he revealed the presence of a trick in his own time, without revealing the mechanics of it—we might well still be in his thrall. A magician doesn’t keep his tricks a secret for fear of theft, but for fear of breaking the spell and losing his audience.

So it is. That hoaxes have the power to capture our imagination is not new or all that interesting. But the fact that they are semi-truths, and that they imply a broad category of humor entirely their own—not laugh-out-loud funny, but more wink-and-smile funny—is what compels me to think about them and write about them.

There was one in particular that caught my interest, about a Forty-niner who invented a machine that supposedly manufactured gold. He sold it, became instantly wealthy, and then disappeared. The fallout continued, as the machine was not only proven not to work, but generated wealth regardless of whether it functioned as reported. And moreover, the raw material used by that mythical machine to create gold nuggets was none other than human feces.

It just works on so many levels: as a hoax. As good storytelling. As magic.

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  1. 1. Your logical analysis comparing hoaxes, scams, conspiracies and urban legends is interesting and well thought out. I think you’re zeroing in on a productive plot mine. I suspect, though, that even more interesting plot ideas might be found in the fuzzy areas between your categories, or in a nearby zone that almost — but not quite — fits one of your categories.

    As a case in point I cite the following old Jewish joke. I’m too old to remember many of the details, including the precise punch line. So I’ll fill in a little.

    Shmuyl, a presentably dressed Polish Jew shows up at a brothel in Paris asking the madam if any of the girls is Jewish. “That would be Ruth,” he was told. In fact, I can tell from your accent that you’re Polish, and it just so happens that she comes from Poland, too. I’m sure you two would hit it off. But the bad news — for you — is that she’s our top earner, definitely out of your league.

    Shmuyl, undeterred, reaches into his pocket and pulls out $2000 in US currency. He slowly fans out the 20 $100 bills, then puts the wad of cash back in his pocket. Pointing to a chair, the madam asks him to make himself comfortable, then goes to check if Ruth is busy. Ruth appears, sizes up the customer and asks to see the $2000. Shmuyl obliges, then the two go upstairs together.

    The next evening he shows up and asks for Ruth again, hastening to add that he’ll be happy to offer the same fee as last night. “She was worth every dollar”, he said. When they come back down the stairs, both were chatting affably in Yiddish and both seem pleased. Shmuyl explained that he has to leave Paris in two days but promises a last visit tomorrow. And the next day, he arrives, as promised. When they part, Ruth is feeling effusive, not only because of the 6000 US dollars but also because Shmuyl turned out to be a real mensch. Not bad looking either.

    A year and a half later, Ruth gets a letter from Krakow. Her kid sister, Rivka, who she assumed had died in the war, was still alive! She had survived in hiding, thanks to a wonderful foster family, and she planned to travel to Paris and track her down, armed only with the knowledge that Ruth was living in a brothel somewhere in the city. Rivka had even managed to reclaim the old family house, sold it and planned to surprise her long-lost sister with half the proceeds. “But when I found out that an old classmate, who had also survived the war, had a train ticket for Paris, I begged him to search for you, and if he found you, to give you the money and to send me your address. I knew it! Shmuyl is as honest as the day is long.”

    2. Speaking of crafty Poles, if you have not yet seen “Ghost Writer,” the new Roman Polanski film, I suggest you rent it from Netflix. You’ll not only enjoy it, you might learn a thing or two about characterization and plotting (among other things). And be sure to watch the interviews in the Special Features.



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