It is unfortunate that the world of the paranormal manages to attract all manner of those who would hoax or fake evidence. Sometimes it is to fool everyone, at other times it is to prove a point, and still on other occasions it is to gain some bit of fame or simply just to see what will happen. Whatever the reasons may be, it sometimes seems that for every person who manages to capture what they truly believe to potentially be an authentic photo or video of unexplained phenomena, there is another trying to fake it all, making it sometimes very hard to figure out where the possibly real ends and the hoaxes and fakery begin. It muddies the waters, and requires a vigilance from those who would try and delve into the answers behind these phenomena. The area of UFOs, like many others, has seen its fair share of such hoaxes, and some of them have been not only rather particularly spectacular, but also surprising in just how thoroughly they were able to fool just about everyone. Here are a few of these cases, very much in the vein of Orson Welles’ infamous 1938 “War of the Worlds” broadcast, that are not only quite intricate and even funny in retrospect, but also show that a skeptical eye is not a bad thing to have.
One of the most notable and in retrospect quite hilarious such hoaxes was fittingly orchestrated for April Fool’s Day in 1989 by none other than the billionaire, Virgin Group founder, and incorrigible, unrepentant prankster Richard Branson. Branson was already well known for his elaborate April Fool’s pranks and tomfoolery, but on this day in 1989 he really outdid himself. Called “Project Wedgewood,” Branson commissioned Don Cameron, of hot air balloon manufacturer Cameron Balloons Limited, to create an immense, very realistic looking UFO complete with flashing strobe lights and a sliding door. Branson then boarded the balloon and took off on March 31 along with a dwarf dressed in an alien costume and a whole bunch of dry ice.
The idea was to fly the balloon over to London’s Hyde Park and have it land there on April Fool’s Day, April 1st, after which the costumed dwarf would descend through a special sliding door amidst a cloud of dry ice smoke for the “Gotcha!” moment. It was all meant to be good fun, but it would quickly spiral out of control past Branson’s wildest expectations. As they floated over the English landscape along London’s M25 highway towards the destination, it became obvious that there were people stopping their cars and plenty of frightened bystanders gawking and pointing up at the sky at them, with Branson later saying, “We could see every single vehicle grinding to a halt and hundreds of people looking up at the UFO flying over them. It was great fun watching their reactions.” Good fun for them, perhaps, but for the people who were seeing this all it was a different story.
Indeed, everyone who saw the balloon took it to be a genuine UFO, and in no time at all there was footage being shown on the news, police and TV and radio stations inundated with calls from concerned witnesses, and residents working themselves up into a mass panic over an alien invasion. It was rapidly launching itself into a media sensation, everyone seriously took this to be an actual alien spaceship, and since Branson had only told a very small cabal of people what he had been up to on the top secret prank there was no one to tell anyone otherwise. It was all so realistic and people were so panicked that the police and military began mobilizing to intercept and deal with what they truly believed to be the real deal. What had started off as an innocent prank was quickly escalating into a perceived national emergency, but Branson and his dwarf friend were oblivious to all of this, not at all aware of the true gravity of the situation. They were up there gleefully giggling at the reactions like some schoolkids when a serious situation was brewing beneath them.
Adding to the escalating situation was that the unfavorable wind conditions at the time were blowing them off course, forcing them to make an emergency landing in a remote field in Surrey a day early. Police tracked the balloon, still believing it to be an actual UFO and planning intercept it at the field. As the balloon came down, it did so surrounded by police cars and with military one the way. Despite this, Branson, who still did not really realize just how seriously everyone believed this was a real UFO or how dire it had become, and went ahead with the rest of the prank, having the door open to disgorge a cloud of mist and the silver-clad dwarf, much to the horror of police, who took it to be a real alien and made to retreat. One of the police at the scene would say say “I have never been so scared in 20 years of being a policeman,” and Branson himself would later say of the whole, surreal scene:
The police surrounded us and then sent one lone policeman with his truncheon across the field to greet the alien. The UFO’s door opened very slowly, with tonnes of dry ice billowing from it. A dwarf that we had carried on board, dressed in an ET outfit, walked down the platform towards the bobby. He promptly turned and ran in the opposite direction! The police initially didn’t see the funny side of it and threatened to arrest us for wasting their time. But they soon joined in the general merriment of it.
It’s interesting to note that other than perhaps some police purchases of new underwear there were no real repercussions to any of this, and one can imagine that such a hoax in this day and age would at least have led to some arrests and charges. While Branson’s stunt was very well-funded and one of the more elaborate such hoaxes, this sort of large-scale prank had already been done before. In 1967, engineer Chris Southall and some colleagues at Britain’s Farnborough's Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) decided to pull off a hoax that would take the nation by storm. They meticulously crafted six metal-coated, fibreglass saucers composed of two molded halves filled with electronic sound equipment, and Southall said, “We wanted to make something that looked really alien.” The discs were equipped with switches on them, that would flick on when the objects were turned over and start up the sound equipment inside and engage a battery to creating beeping and hissing noises, as well as with a flour and water mix that created a foaming, foul smelling slime when discharged for added effect.
When the six “UFOs” were completed, the team secretly went out in the middle of the night to deposit them at Queenborough on the Isle of Sheppey, Bromley in south London, Ascot, the village of Welford, near Newbury, in Berkshire, Chippenham in Wiltshire and Clevedon in Somerset. They were then turned on and the team sat back to watch the fireworks commence. It did not take long before they were discovered, and they were thought to be very real, provoking an immediate police and military response to them. As shocked civilians looked on, the areas were locked down and the discs whisked away by military personnel and in some cases lifted away by helicopters, and it must have looked like some top secret government UFO extraction right out of a movie. Interestingly, the official response was rather bungled, and more like something out of the Keystone Cops than any sort of crack, Roswell style cover-up, as there were apparently no real guidelines in effect for this sort of thing and the authorities simply did not know how to handle it. One of the investigators would say in retrospect:
We thought the government should have some sort of plan if aliens did land. So we gave them a chance to try out whatever plan they had - but they didn't have one. One of the saucers when they actually drilled into it, because it was full of this compacted, sort of papier-maché mess, actually exploded and showered the police officers with this stuff. If it had been some kind of radiation hazard, how would they have dealt with that? It would have been a disaster area. And what did they do? Just washed it down the drains.
In the meantime, the “UFO landings” were all over the news along with numerous photographs of the discs being carted off by military personnel, and it was a sensation at the time. This was taken very seriously at the time, with bomb squads mobilized and a state of emergency in effect. People believed that these were real UFOs so wholeheartedly, that when authorities inevitably realized that they had been had and tried to tell the frightened public what had happened there were immediate rumors of a government cover-up. It all eventually died down, and amazingly the group who had perpetuated the whole fiasco were let off with nothing more than a slap on the wrist. Again, it’s amazing to think that this incident, which lasted a total of 12 hours, went virtually unpunished, and somewhat tellingly the bumbling response and inability to fully close the area down does not suggest a shadowy government conspiracy that knows of UFOs and has dealt with these things before.
Perhaps one of the most famous hoaxes ever was not one involving spaceships, but rather an alleged alien body. The stunt took the form of a video supposedly obtained from a retired military officer stationed at none other than Area 51 in Roswell, New Mexico, by a British music and video producer named Ray Santilli. Released in 1990, the footage is black and white and very grainy, purportedly showing a skinny alien body with large eyes and an oversized head being dissected by a team in biohazard suits at the top secret facility. Santilli was very precise in the details he gave about the video, explaining how many rolls of film it had been on and even how much it cost him to procure them, and the video was widely taken to be the real deal. The "documentary" spread to over 30 countries, capturing the imaginations of the countless people who thought that this was finally the real evidence of what was going on at Roswell, and the "Alien Autopsy Film" became an absolute sensation at the time.
Although there were obviously skeptics, there were also enough testimonies by supposed photographic experts and special effects wizzes proclaiming how real it all looked and how difficult it would be to fake it that a lot of people believed. It would alas be proved to be a hoax once and for all when Santilli himself admitted to the fraud. In 2006 he came forward to explain that the “Alien Autopsy” was all faked and even how he had done it, but even then there was some mystery remaining, as he claimed that although the “documentary” he had released was bogus, it had been a re-creation based frame by frame on real footage that had simply been too deteriorated to release. Hmmm. Whether there was ever another “real” video or not, this hoaxed footage has not aged particularly well, and looking back on it seems almost absurd that so many people were taken in by it, believing this now admittedly very fake looking alien dummy to be real, but believe it they did.
There are countless other UFO hoaxes such as this out there, and these are merely among some of the more far reaching, sophisticated, and indeed amusing of these. Although it is unfortunate that so many people fell for these, in the end they do serve a purpose in showing us that we need to keep our eyes peeled for trickery, and approach the paranormal with an open mind but also a skeptical eye. In order to be taken seriously and to not give into panic or false hopes, to not be fooled and duped by such fakes, there must be a calm, measured and analytical approach to these things. In the end it seems very important to remember one thing- keep an open mind, but not so open that your brain falls out.