The Folklorist: The Cottingley Fairies

The Folklorist presents this accurate and very nicely produced mini-documentary on the famous Cottingley fairy hoax, including re-enactments of Frances and Elsie staging the photographs with their cut-out paper fairy pictures.  The winking “maybe it was true after all” tag at the end grates a bit given the nature and history of the Cottingley case, though arguably it’s very much in the spirit of things given that Frances never completely came clean.

Playing the Ghost: Ghost Hoaxing and Supernaturalism in late Nineteenth-Century Victoria

Dr. David Waldron, a lecturer in History and Anthropology at Australia’s Federation University, wrote this fascinating and highly detailed account of the curious craze for “playing the ghost” in 19th century Victoria.

A parallel craze took place in England during roughly the same period, as recounted in Jacob Middleton’s book Spirits of an Industrial Age: Ghost Impersonations, Spring-heeled Jack and Victorian Society.  It will not be surprising to find similar “outbreaks” of DIY hauntings in many other places, just waiting for academic verification …


“Fairy Tale: A True Story” (review)

This is what really happened; in 1917, and again in 1920, two rural English schoolgirl cousins went into the local woods and took photographs of paper cutouts shaped like fairies. All historical evidence suggests that the girls intended nothing more than a simple, silly prank, which then spiraled out of their control. As one of them said, much later in life, “I never even thought of it as being a fraud – it was just Elsie and I having a bit of fun. I can’t understand to this day why they were taken in – they wanted to be taken in.”

“They” were the True Believers; Theosophists and Spiritualists, wonder-seekers championed by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who took the Cottingley fairy photographs as clear proof of the existence of the supernatural. To a nation reeling from the devastation of the First World War, the photographs offered a glimmer of hope “beyond the veil”; if fairies were real, then perhaps death did not equal the extinction of identity.

Fairy Tale: A True Story is a clever, subtle and deeply compassionate examination of the nature of faith and skepticism during this very turbulent time. Each major character has his or her own perspective on the fairies. To Sir Arthur, for example, they represent the possibility of life beyond death and the vindication of his own father, who spent many years confined in a “lunatic asylum” and who frequently painted and wrote of seeing fairies.

To arch-skeptic Harry Houdini, who fought hard to expose the exploitation of the bereaved by fraudulent mediums, they represent a clever magic trick; an ultimately harmless and charming illusion.

Gardner, the Theosophist, comes up with increasingly far-fetched, pseudo-scientific theories about the fairies’ true natures.

To the comically nasty and cynical reporter, Mr. Ferret – who is, other than Houdini, the only adult who figures out how the photographs were actually produced – the fairies are a juicy story, perhaps part of a conspiracy orchestrated by Sir Arthur.

Several charming sequences show actual fairies flitting about, the director wisely leaving it ambiguous as to whether these scenes are intended to be taken literally, or more in the poetic spirit of Peter Pan’s urgent plea to “clap if you believe in fairies!”

It is also implied that the girls themselves come to realize the power of their own myth-making, as when they are shown making a solemn “vow of fairy secrecy”, which can either be interpreted as a promise not to reveal the magical secrets of real fairies, or as a promise not to reveal the simple trickery that has accidentally deceived the famous Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and so many others. At several points, when they are asked point-blank “are the fairies real?” by people for whom belief in fairies is clearly of great emotional importance, they exchange knowing looks before kindly nodding their heads.


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Nine ibangs out of ten for this underrated modern classic.

Orson Welles “Apologizes” for Sparking Martian Invasion Panic (1938)

The story of how 23-year-old theatre prodigy Orson Welles frightened American radio audiences with his realistic dramatization of The War of the Worlds has long since passed into folklore, but how did Welles himself feel about that story?

Although media historians have questioned the actual extent and degree of “mass panic” that may have taken place – arguing that much of it may have been exaggerated by newspaper editors eager to score points against the rival medium of radio – it is certain that the broadcast alarmed a significant number of people.

Some listeners, their anxieties already heightened by daily news reports concerning the march of German soldiers through Europe, may have misheard the word “Martian” as “Nazi” and thereby became convinced that the US was under attack by the Axis powers. Others simply tuned in part-way through the broadcast, missing the announcement that it was a work of fiction. There were also unfortunate co-incidences, such as a total power black-out in the town of Concrete, Washington, which interrupted the local broadcast at a crucial moment and left listeners literally in the dark and imagining the worst.

The immediate aftermath included a genuine invasion of CBS’ Madison Avenue radio studio by scowling police officers, who confiscated scripts and sternly interviewed Welles but could not figure out whether any laws had actually been broken. There were also dire threats of censure or even legal action from the FCC.

The day after the War of the Worlds broadcast, Welles himself held a press conference, which is shown below. On the face of it, he was the picture of earnest contrition as he gravely fielded questions from newspaper and radio journalists:

The subsequent scandal (and intense media exposure) did no harm at all to Welles’ career, and within a few short years he had transitioned to Hollywood and directed his cinematic masterpiece, Citizen Kane.

By 1955, with his Martians receding into popular memory, Welles allowed himself some considerable, if understated, relish in relating several amusing and colorful anecdotes about the invasion panic. He also offered the “confession” that his adaptation of War of the Worlds was not quite as innocent as he had previously claimed:

And in a 1975 interview with Tom Snyder, Welles further admitted, with regards to his 1938 press conference appearance:

There are pictures of me made about three hours after the broadcast looking as much as I could like an early Christian saint. As if I didn’t know what I was doing … but I’m afraid it was about as hypocritical as anyone could possibly get!

Note – an earlier version of the above article originally appeared on the Past Tense blog. It is re-used here by permission.