As If It Were Real: Belief, Pseudo-Fiction, and Blind Faith in the Media and Everyday Life1

“It’s easier to believe in aliens than in gods.” -Neil Gaiman, American Gods

Culture has this funny way of leveling the playing field. The difference between truth and fiction, fallacy and fact wanes so that the only distinguishing factor remains in individual perception and belief. Fallacies abound these days, and who’s to know the wiser. Sometimes hoaxes are revealed for what they truly are. But when fiction becomes truth, who advocates for the latter? What if there is no difference between truth and fiction anymore? What if it’s all the same? What does it matter? The very nature of our existence, our place in society, the veracity of culture is up for grabs in the ambivalently flowing tides of pop culture belief systems. Information from the nightly news, from ad campaigns, from corporations vying for our attention tells us things: pieces of information that affect the way we act. Media information can hardly be called fact in the general sense; it draws a very fine line between what corporations want us to believe and what should responsibly be accepted as fact. You should never take anything at face value, especially when it comes to the news. The viral video “Leprechaun in Mobile Alabama” shows just how ravenous reporters are for a story, and how factual reporting matters less than entertainment.2

This article was originally written as a chapter in my Masters thesis at Antioch. “Lephrechaun in Mobile, Alabama” was a St Patrick’s Day media stunt from 2006 that has become a viral video on Youtube, accumulating more than 19 million views. See:, originally from NBC 5 News.


the world falls into a mold. Ben Stiller’s comedy Tropic Thunder provides a framework for approaching issues of belief and pseudo-fiction in the Media Age. cons. Pseudo-fictions abound. and pseudo-fictions of all sorts shuffle into the media card deck. you can see how people have been led to believe in the most outrageous of things. The film not so much questions as satirizes blind faith and ridiculously empty beliefs: a nothingness that the media doles out daily.Every once in a while Hollywood unveils a piece of self-flagellation and provides a new footnote for a reflexive cultural system. Piaget said that we construct pre-conscious faith in our fact checking system by the age of 3. based on your faith in its factuality. P. He manufactured sideshow entertainments presumed to be real. though in a different guise. We understand the world around us based upon the beliefs we have fostered since childhood. Hoaxes. when given the chance and the proper propulsion. Barnum provides a profound example. and produced spectacular advertisement campaigns that played upon people’s wonder for the unknown. This phenomenon continues today. We need throngs of fact-checkers. both on the Internet and in our daily lives. T. You should be amazed as to what people will believe. The  News   News broadcasting since the Internet has become an immensely complex and complicated web of information: “facts” that need to be verified and re-verified by . You will believe what you will. After that preliminary trial and error period. too many to be economically viable. virtually undetectable. Tracing modern belief systems back hundreds of years.

3 It was a joke. Problematically. amid a heated and historical presidential campaign. that she was neither mis-quoted nor misheard. In the end. 2008). a man posing as a legitimate source. the story is more interesting and memorable than the truth. not a country. and for that reason we have the choice to believe everything or become complete cynics. The immense amount of information at our fingertips makes it all the more difficult to distinguish credibility. Despite the outing of Eisenstadt appeared in the New York Times. a hoax. The information age is too expansive for anyone to be able to check all the facts. popular culture remembers Palin’s Africa. understandings of how the world operates. and these are mediated by the world we live in. All our beliefs are based on a worldview. But it’s all the more worrisome that we can believe in the fabrication of such a reportage. Tall  Tales   Beliefs. VP candidate Sarah Palin was quoted as saying she didn’t realize Africa was a continent. do not originate in a vacuum.different parties with different agendas. The information came from a shadow.” New York Times (Nov 12. “A Senior Fellow at the Institute of Nonexistsence. . It’s becoming increasingly troublesome to discern errors in the news. Recently. there’s a gap in the system. 3 Richard Perez-Pena. and the need for a continuous broadcast of 24/7 information requires an inflow larger than merely newsworthy stories can accommodate. not the trickster Eisenstadt. and the news media bought into it. It turns out a few days later that this information is bogus. a blogger named Martin Eisenstadt. Eisenstadt’s faux news fits in so brilliantly to the “real” news that you could never have imagined otherwise. It’s believable that Palin could have said such a thing.

the communities we involve ourselves in.4 But calling anyone who’s duped by this news “easily swayed” is an easy out. culture. The latter is simply more socially acceptable. But it made the front pages of newspapers and programs spotlit the episode (not just the National Enquirer. perpetuate myths and folklore as well or better than any ancient storyteller. it turned out to be a treated.406261.” Fox News http://www. where power lies and who holds it. feeding the 24/7 appetite of the easily swayed. The world we live in. impose beliefs on us just as much as we develop them internally. our micro.foxnews. whether for the sensation. when the hoax is realistic to the point of verisimilitude.html (3 Nov 2008). Robert Roy Britt. Scientists are left with an impossible task: proving something does not exist. Monsters. The way we see the world helps mold our beliefs of truth and reality. education. People believed it.and macrocosms. they predetermine our actions to an extent. we’re all easily swayed to the point of utter and immitigable belief. “ Bigfoot is rife for parody. both on the Internet and TV.00. but legitimite news sources). religion. and Ghosts: Why We Want to Believe. and what exists in the universe. age-worn Halloween costume. or to play along with the immense coverage that a half-decayed body can attract. of what can be possible. Coverage on Fox News raises questions of belief and the nature of hoaxes: Today's ubiquitous and often one-sided promotional coverage of the paranormal. Our beliefs are more specific than our worldview. Fighting for the belief in Bigfoot is comparable to fighting for a belief in the existence of God. When the stakes are raised.2933. or just to believe in something mysterious and unknowable. the list goes on. Somebody claimed to have found the body of big foot in Virginia in the summer of 2008. Fiction and belief masquerade as fact and news. 4 .

we made it all up.' "5 It’s easy to believe in what people tell you is true.” Mulder wants to believe in the impossible.' " Pierson recalled telling Myrick. is associate with the tagline that’s hard to forget: “I want to believe. you could refuse to believe. The show highlights phenomena that defy scientific understanding. The hero of the popular TV series The X-Files. “Frightfully Frightfully Frightfully Real: The Bewitching Story Behind the ‘Blair Witch Project. Take The Blair Witch Project. saw it and was taken in. insofar as your belief system withstands the outrageous. host of the Independent Film Channel's "Split Screen" series. This arose great public interest and duped large numbers of moviegoers and critics alike into believing in its veracity: “[The filmmakers] made an eight-minute promotional reel about the Blair Witch and missing filmmakers. Its Internet mystery marketing campaign made it out to be a true story of three unlucky hikers: actual events caught on camera. Perhaps this wave of veracity-up-for-grabs helps explain the similar tsunami of skepticism these days: alternatively. You can just believe everything.Pseudo-fiction operates in a similar way. Independent film representative John Pierson. for example. "And he said. We want to believe that the fictions are real. July 14. the unexplained. Fox Mulder. the phenomena that exist on the periphery of science and knowledge: because he knows it’s all true. 1999. making reality itself unbelievable. It’s more difficult to employ fact-checkers. 5 . Hoaxes blend into reality. `I can't believe all of this. I've never heard about it. they make the world more interesting. `John.’” Chicago Tribune. "I said. more inhabited. Mark Caro. or to expose the underbelly of mass-produced lies.

and government conspiracies.T. Mulder’s misguided quest for unreality. quasi. referencing the Feejee Mermaid. a feat of pure sensationalism that the public devoured. We learn that mid-19th Century spectators crowded to see Barnum’s Feejee Mermaid. “Humbug” attempts to disrepute the historical analysis and conception of Barnum’s exhibit by showing that the Feejee mermaid is real. Alex. Scully’s rationalism and Mulder’s willingness to accept the unexplainable make for an enduring. reveal that we’re not alone in this battle for belief despite scientific fact. (18 Nov 2008). A second season X-Files episode entitled “Humbug” uses P. Boese.” Museum of Hoaxes. only fiction and belief. Historical information on Barnum’s Feejee Mermaid. photos. Who’s to tell us what’s possible when. 6 . crop circles. We all want to believe in something. paying asking price. There is no truth. The actual sideshow in the Barnam exhibit was in fact a hodgepodge stitched-together monkey-fish. “Feejee Mermaid. though historically unjustifiable.yet believers are unswayed. argument for Barnum as an honest businessman. Barnum’s tools.6 Advertisements for the show offered an illustration of what has been perceived as a mermaid through mythology and made real through the mechanisms of the cinema and television. Blending science and technology beyond belief. and captions. mythological creatures. in this age of fluxing neoscience.and un-reality. Mulder and his sidekick Scully investigate UFOs.museumofhoaxes. http://www. more and more is becoming possible everyday.

But we don’t find out until later that the text chosen for the film within the film is the only fake among the published autobiographies. When does the hoax become just as real as the real thing. he had a sense of what it might have been like. Of those 4. only shortly to be exposed as a movie set. just 1 got a movie deal. Still. the hoax puts the real thing under consideration for its status as real.“Humbug” spreads the rumor that the circus trick is an illusion. Of those 2. The objective: rescue Sgt. However much the film resides within popular culture and Blockbuster entertainment. We want to see the hoaxes just as much as the real thing. and various critics have condemned the film for its outrageous tactics. Of those 3. 3 wrote books about what happened. Tropic Thunder lays bare the lengths to which people will go to play out their own fantasies. The mission was considered to be near suicide. While on the surface the comedy boasts immersion in its own belief system. and why does such a differentiation matter? Tropic  Thunder   Ben Stiller’s Tropic Thunder presents the unlikely belief in the fiction actualized in everyday life (on the screen). 4 returned. Army was sent on a top secret assignment in South East Vietnam.S. but the illusion is real. The vet author never actually went on the tour. and that’s what the book was . Of the 10 men sent. Four Leaf Tayback from a heavily guarded NVA Prison Camp. however unbelievable. The opening titles tell the movie’s backstory: how the film within the film came about: In the winter of 1969 an elite force of the U. What follows is a quasi-remake of Platoon. 2 were published. it succeeds in revealing the misguided faith in false beliefs that are pervasive in the real world. This is the story of the men who attempted to make that movie.

Things have gotten out of hand. as if the explosion were the bang he’d been waiting for. any access to the outside world. that is) continues behind the scenes until the director decides to change his strategy. There are layers upon layers of hoax and fakery. Cockburn initiates his cast as if ritualistically entering a liminal area: “We’re gonna make the best war movie ever!” He takes their cell phones. No reality to intrude. The humor of Tropic Thunder lies in the feeling that it is realistic.based on: his overactive imagination. It’s method. Damien Cockburn (Coogan) yells cut. You are five men in a helicopter. and the actors play the fake rendition of a realistic fake. believing with Portnoy that the movie is still a go. but not all. Cockburn choppers with his crew out into the jungle to make the movie guerilla style: “You are no longer actors in a movie. The blast also excites the attention of the Vietnamese drug-runners in the nearby jungle. and it’s all there. The humor immediately locates the viewer. Cockburn describes the revised tactic. The director. This is what’s . 2 months behind schedule after 5 days. Speedman grabs the script. The explosion knock some of the actors back to reality. aided by pyrotechnics and method acting. With three other men. The movie (our movie. that is until Cockburn’s dismembered by a dormant French landmine. They make their own world from here on out. What’s astonishing at this point in the film is that Tugg Speedman (Stiller) remains in the moment. It’s real: “Your own personal Vietnam.” On the ground. It’s immersive.” They’re into it. What matters here is that Hollywood buys it. Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) gives one last hurrah. We know it’s not a real war. any contemporary indicators.

He has a remarkable moment with Coogan’s decapitated head. in the Oscar ceremony that grants Speedman his best actor statuette. It’s not blood.” Tropic Thunder lays bare the real repercussions in the Media Age of human perception fogged by unreality. Jr. the movie is called. assuming the hidden cameras record their not-so-faux journey.supposed to be happening. Recognizing the correct scene. and recites his lines without direction. “I don’t drop character until I’ve done the DVD commentary. They follow the script. He sees the real camp and its inhabitants as scene description and character. “the true story behind the making of the most expensive fake true war story ever. the events as cues to artificial actions. Speedman becomes Tayback to an extraordinary level.” says Lazarus (Downey. They know they’re being watched. a real problem is at hand. as with any Hollywood manifestation of social threat. The jungle becomes Panopticon. Throw Occum’s Razor out the window. For many viewers. but blood-flavored red-dyed corn syrup. the actor playing the role refers to his script. Much later. the movie is either too silly or too offensive to be considered . or at least they believe it. knowing that the editors will cut out the bad parts. Speedman inevitable encounters an internment camp (actually a heroin-processing plant). as if a lack of personality on the part of the actor made extra room for his characters to develop. As the screenplay designates. He interprets to the point of schizophrenia. They can break character here and there in the event of a fumble.). Though it’s easy to cuddle under Stiller’s comedic blanket. and that’s all that matters. then devolves into previous screen roles.

We try not to. you’re the butt of the joke. It’s easier to believe in complex schemes. If the world were a Hollywood movie. Do we believe what the movies tell us? Do we want to live in the movies more than we live our everyday lives? It’s easier that way. in elaborate Internet ad campaigns aimed at getting your money. Stiller’s kingdom of silliness provides ample comfort. As if it were real. In a wider context. and that people reconcile for the betterment of the plotline. we act our way through. He proposes that. But for many adolescents. Zengotita uses the example of the JFK assassination. Whether you know it or not. that there are resolutions to events. Conclusion   Thomas de Zengotita opens his Mediated with an exploration of method acting.honestly. The view makes it look like everything’s level. We can believe in tricks. our world is consumed by hoaxes. as if we are someone else experiencing the real event as a barrier between the real and the imaginary? It’s as if the real world has become too potent. though these schemes fit in to the truth as if there were no difference at all. The movies tell us that life exists in three acts. and our personas all the feebler for it. life would be much more clearly defined. in real life. There’s a miasma between ourselves and our reactions to real events. after all. in full-blown hoaxes. Do we react to big events as if we weren’t there. the coin behind the ear is sly but conniving. webs weaving . but the fact is that there are hidden motives.

.underneath what’s visible. Selfish intentions drive the most ludicrous and at the same time undeniably true facts that we have no reason to question.

14 July 1999. "Humbug.” Fox News." The X-Files. New York: Bloomsbury. Alex. 20 Aug.2933. 1995.foxnews. Mark.406261.00. http://www. 3 Nov 2008. Dir. Caro. Richard. and Ghosts: Why We Want to Believe. 2008. De. Britt. Morgan. Robert Roy. Ben Stiller.museumofhoaxes. Jack Black. Monsters.” Chicago Tribune. “Feejee Mermaid. Ben Stiller. Web. Zengotita Thomas. 2005. . “A Senior Fellow at the Institute of Nonexistsence. Steve Coogan. 2008. “Bigfoot.” Museum of Hoaxes.Works Cited: Boese. http://www. 12 Nov 2008. Perez-Pena. Tropic Thunder.” New York Times. Dreamworks. Perfs. “Frightfully Frightfully Frightfully Real: The Bewitching Story Behind The Blair Witch Project. 18 Nov. 2008.html. Mediated: How the Media Shapes Your World and the Way You Live in It. 31 Mar. Darin.

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful