"Innocent" Ideas That Prompted Mass Hysteria

On Monday, buildings throughout Manhattan's financial district were evacuated, emergency responders were inundated with panicked phone calls, and one pregnant woman had to go to the hospital after a Boeing 747 apparently chased by a F-16 jet flew less than 1500 feet above the city's sky-line.

Federal officials had an inkling that the stunt may cause "public concern," but that didn't stop them from going ahead with their plans to buzz traumatized Lower Manhattan. But the incident "“ and the sound raking over the coals the feds have taken in its wake "“ put us in mind of other "innocent" ideas that prompted fierce and quick mass hysteria. Here are some recent examples.

Holy Hand Grenade evacuates city block

In March, London Police evacuated several buildings, including a pub, in an East London neighborhood after water company workers discovered a suspicious-looking device under a manhole cover.

The suspicious-looking device? A replica of the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch from the 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Yes, it was painted gold and said "Holy Hand Grenade" on it. Yes, it was just like the one used in the movie to slay the vicious killer rabbit ("It's got fangs!"). And yes, it shut down a Shoreditch block for nearly an hour as police tried to figure out if it was dangerous.

Police confirmed that the unknown object was indeed a Holy Hand Grenade, but there's no word on whether the Holy Pin was still intact.

Cartoon ads bring Boston to standstill

It must have seemed like a pretty great gig for two video and light artists not long out of college: Employed by a marketing company, Peter Berdovsky, 27, and Sean Stevens, 28, got to instigate a guerilla marketing campaign to advertise a cult cartoon on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim, Aqua Teen Hunger Force.

aqua-teen.jpgIn January 2007, the duo was hired to put up battery-operated LED-light up boards featuring the Mooninites, characters from the show. The little light-up Mooninites, each one frowning and exuberantly wagging a middle finger, were placed in slyly visible places "“ like under bridges.

At night, the light-up images were clearly, if cheekily discernible; during the day, however, the black boxes and electronic wiring prompted multiple bomb scares, completely shutting down bridges all around Boston, a portion of the Red Line (incidentally, my main ride from my office to home), as well as portions of the Charles River. Of course, when police and bomb squads finally got a hold of the devices, rather than a nefarious plot to bring Boston down, all they got was the middle finger.

Boston didn't find the whole situation nearly as funny as everyone else in the world did, and Berdovsky and Stevens were arrested. Mayor Thomas Menino said, responding to questions from reporters about the role of Turner Broadcasting, the company that essentially owned Aqua Teen hunger Force, in the debacle, "I just think this is outrageous, what they've done ... It's all about corporate greed." Police Commissioner Ed Davis decried the stunt as "unconscionable" and "a foolish prank." A police spokeswoman called the incident "a colossal waste of money."

Nor were they amused when, during a press conference following their arrest, the two merry pranksters refused to answer questions and instead talked about hair.

It was all incredibly embarrassing for Boston "“ especially as it turned out that the devices had already been in place for two to three weeks without anyone noticing or crying "homeland security threat." The lite-brite style boards had also been in place in some nine other cities, without prompting the same fierce hysteria.

In the end, Turner Broadcasting, the media corporation that owns Cartoon Network and was thus responsible for the ridiculousness, paid $2 million in restitution to Boston for the inconvenience. Prosecutors ultimately dropped criminal charges against Berdovsky and Stevens, though the pair had to perform 80 and 60 hours of community service respectively and issue a public apology.

College student arrested in circuit-board airport scare

Still smarting from the Aqua Teen Hunger Force scare, Boston authorities jumped the gun again when an MIT sophomore went to Boston Logan Airport on September 21, 2007, with a circuit board attached to her sweatshirt. MIT students do weird, weird things with "fashion" all the time, but Star Simpson, class of 2010, may have wandered a bit too far from Cambridge that day "“ she was arrested by Logan officers and charged with possession of a "hoax device."

star-bb.jpgThe homemade circuit board, which was attached to a 9-volt battery, featured green LEDs in the shape of a star. Simpson later told authorities that she had gone to the airport to pick up her boyfriend and said that she had approached an airport employee to ask which baggage claim to head to; State Police and MassPort authorities said Simpson was found by MassPort security roaming around the terminal and that she refused to say anything other than the LED board was "a piece of art."

The situation was further complicated by the fact that Simpson was carrying five or six canisters of Play-Doh in her hands, which, State Police said at the time, could have been mistaken for plastic explosives. Simpson was confronted outside the Terminal, where she complied with officers' demands. "Thankfully, because she followed instructions as was required, she ended up in a cell as opposed to the morgue," commented a State Police spokesman at a press conference following the incident. "Had she not followed instructions, deadly force may have been used."

Simpson was later sentenced to 50 hours community service and required to write a letter of apology for her actions. (One year later, BoingBoing interviewed Simpson.)

Beware all cylindrical objects

Back on April 22, a "suspicious package" left on a counter shut down Bank of America in Columbia, South Carolina. Bank employees phoned the police, who ordered an evacuation of the building and then evidently called every authority they could, from the fire department to local Homeland Security.

burrito.jpgThe "suspicious package" was a burrito. Police have no clues as to who may have left the burrito and news reports did not indicate what kind of filling was involved.

This was also not the first time a burrito has prompted terror, evacuations, and, dare we say it, mass hysteria. In 2005, a student at Marshall Junior High School in Clovis, New Mexico, was spotted carrying a two-and-a-half-foot long cylindrical object wrapped in tinfoil. It was only after school officials called in the cops, who shut down the street and kept the place covered with armed officers on nearby rooftops, that they found out the object was a burrito. The student had made it for extra credit.

Moving on, April was evidently a big month for cylindrical objects wreaking havoc across the nation. The Sheriff's Office of Washington County, Oregon, was forced to issue a somewhat contrite press release on April 12 after they went full-tilt after a suspicious package found right outside the Sheriff's Office front door. The Sheriff called into the Portland Police Bomb Squad and their bomb robot to investigate the package, which appeared to be a brown canvas bag containing a cylindrical, silver-colored object.

In this case, the cylindrical object was, in fact, a titanium prosthetic leg. And, as with the burrito, the owner of the leg remains unknown.

And finally, in a story that marries both national paranoia and the abysmal economy, fire department officials closed a street in San Diego and evacuated all the buildings on it after another suspicious cylindrical object was found in front of a business on April 23. The business was a pharmaceutical company that had recently laid off a number of employees, employees who were now angry and potentially seeking retribution. This situation, however, was nothing so dramatic. The object turned out to be"¦ an empty cardboard tube.

Each of those examples has occurred in what authorities and the news media call the "post-9/11" world, a world currently dominated by a certain amount of righteous and somewhat justified paranoia. But hearkening back to a more innocent day, there have been more than a few incidents of mass hysteria "“ the granddaddy of them all, of course, being the famous War of the Worlds debacle, in which Orson Welles managed to convince scads of listeners that the world was in fact being invaded by aliens.

Any other incidents of mistaken intentions causing mass hysteria that come to mind?

Kerry Hayes, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Legendary Pictures
10 Monster Facts About Pacific Rim
Kerry Hayes, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Legendary Pictures
Kerry Hayes, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Legendary Pictures

Legendary Pictures took a gamble on Pacific Rim, Guillermo del Toro’s 2013 monster/robot slugfest. Since it wasn’t based on a preexisting franchise, it lacked a built-in fanbase. That can be a serious drawback in our current age of blockbuster remakes and reboots. The movie underperformed domestically; in America, it grossed just over $100 million against its $180 million budget. Yet Pacific Rim was a huge hit overseas and acquired enough fans to earn itself a sequel, Pacific Rim Uprising, which arrives in theaters this week. Here are 10 things you might not have known about the movie that started it all.


Idris Elba in 'Pacific Rim' (2013)
Warner Bros.

One foggy day in 2007, Beacham—who’d recently moved to California—was walking along Santa Monica Beach. As he looked out at the Ferris wheel on the city’s eponymous pier, he pictured a looming sea monster. Then he imagined an equally large robot gearing up to fight the beast. “They just sort of materialized out of the fog, these vast godlike things,” Beacham said. He decided to pursue the concept further after coming up with the idea of human co-pilots who’d need to operate their robot as a team, which added a new thematic dimension.

“I didn’t know I had something I wanted to write until I realized these robots are driven by two pilots, and what happens when one of those people dies? What happens to the leftovers? Then it became a story about loss, moving on after loss, and dealing with survivor’s guilt," Beacham said. "That made the monsters scarier because now you care about the people who are in these robots.”


Pacific Rim was picked up by Legendary Pictures and handed over to director Guillermo del Toro. A huge fan of monster cinema, del Toro enthusiastically co-wrote the final screenplay with Beacham. Sixteen concept artists were hired to sketch original robot and creature designs for the film. “We would get together every day like kids and draw all day,” del Toro told the New York Daily News. “We designed about a hundred Kaijus and about a hundred Jaegers and every week we would do an American Idol and we would vote [some of] them out.”


In “Charlie Kelly: King of the Rats,” the tenth episode of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia's sixth season, Charlie Day’s character gives us a darkly comedic monologue about rodent extermination. Little did the actor know that the performance would open a big opportunity for him. Impressed by the rat speech, del Toro offered Day the part of Dr. Newton Geizler, Pacific Rim’s socially-inept kaiju expert. “He said to himself, ‘That’s my guy. That guy should be in my next movie because if he killed rats, he can kill the monster,’” Day recalled during an appearance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. On the movie set, del Toro often joked about how much he enjoys It’s Always Sunny. As a way of repaying his director, Day helped get del Toro a minor role in the series.


Most of the film’s special effects were computer-generated, but not everything was digital. For the robot cockpit scenes, del Toro had his team build the interior of a full-scale Jaeger head. The finished product stood four stories tall and weighed 20 tons. And like a Tilt-A-Whirl from hell, it was designed to rock around violently on its platform via a network of hydraulics. Once inside, the actors were forced to don 40-pound suits of armor. Then the crew strapped their feet into an apparatus that Charlie Hunnam has compared to a high-resistance elliptical machine.

Certain shots also required del Toro to dump gallons of water all over his exhausted, physically-strained stars. So yeah, the experience wasn’t much fun. “We saw every one of the actors break down on that set except for the female lead actress Rinko Kikuchi," del Toro said. "She’s the only actor that didn’t snap."


Del Toro wanted Gipsy Danger, his ‘bot, to have the self-confident air of a wild west gunslinger. To that end, he and concept artist Oscar Chichoni developed a swaggering gait that was based on John Wayne’s signature hip movements. The Jaeger’s Art Deco-like design was influenced by the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings.


Hailed as the “fortieth greatest guitarist of all time” by Rolling Stone, Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello rocked the MTV generation with hits like “Bulls on Parade” and “Killing in the Name.” Pacific Rim bears his mark as well. The film’s lead composer was Ramin Djawadi, whose other works include the Game of Thrones theme. Wanting to add a “rock element” to the Pacific Rim soundtrack, he and del Toro reached out to Morello. The guitarist didn’t need much persuading.

“When they asked me to put some giant robot riffs and screaming underwater monster licks on the film score, I was all in,” Morello said. Djwadi was pleased with the rocker's contributions to the project. As he told the press: “Tom’s unique style and sounds really defined our robots.”


A definite highlight of this movie is Gipsy Danger’s duel with the winged kaiju Otachi in downtown Hong Kong. Both characters were computer-generated, as were the majority of the streets, cars, and towers in this epic sequence. However, there is one moment which was at least partly realized with practical effects. Gipsy punches through the wall of an office building early in the fight. We see her fist rip through a series of cubicles and gradually decelerate until it lightly taps a chair with just enough force to set off a Newton’s Cradle desktop toy. For that shot, effects artists at 32Ten Studios constructed a miniature office building interior featuring 1/4-scale desks, cubicles, and padded chairs. The level of detail here was amazing: 32Ten’s staff adorned each individual workspace with lamps, computers, wastebaskets, and teeny, tiny Post-it notes.


Rinko Kikuchi in 'Pacific Rim' (2013)
Kerry Hayes, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Legendary Pictures

Audiences reacted strongly to Kikuchi’s character Mako Mori, who inspired an alternative to the famous Bechdel test. Some critics praised the culmination of her relationship with Raleigh Beckett (Hunnam). Although it’s common practice for the male and female leads in an action flick to end their movie with a smooch, Mori and Beckett share a platonic hug as Pacific Rim draws to a close. Del Toro revealed that he shot three different versions of that final scene. “We did one version where they kiss and it almost felt weird. They’re good friends, they’re pals, good colleagues,” del Toro said.


At the end of the credits, there’s a tribute that reads: “This film is dedicated to the memories of monster masters Ray Harryhausen and Ishiro Honda.” Harryhausen passed away on May 7, 2013—two months before Pacific Rim’s release. A great stop-motion animator, he breathed life into such creatures as the towering Rhedosaurus in 1953’s The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms.

Ishiro Honda was another giant of the kaiju genre, having directed Rodan, War of the Gargantuas, and numerous Godzilla films. Del Toro has great respect for both men. When Harryhausen died, the director said, “I lost a member of my family today, a man who was as present in my childhood as any of my relatives.” He also adores the Japanese monster classics and says he’d love to see a Pacific Rim-Godzilla crossover someday. Maybe it’ll happen.


If you’re not familiar with the practice of “Sweding,” let us fill you in: The 2008 comedy Be Kind, Rewind is about two co-workers at a VHS rental store who accidentally erase every tape in stock. Hoping to save their skins, they create ultra low-budget remakes of all the films they’ve destroyed using cardboard sets and cheap costumes. It’s a process these guys call “Sweding” as a ploy to convince everyone that their (unintentionally hilarious) knockoffs were produced in Sweden. Since Be Kind, Rewind was released, Sweding has become a legitimate art form.

When Pacific Rim’s first trailer debuted in 2013, YouTubers Brian Harley and Brodie Mash created a shot-for-shot, Sweded duplicate of the preview. Instead of state-of-the-art CG effects, their version used toy helicopters, duct-tape monster masks, and an ocean of packing peanuts—and del Toro loved it. At WonderCon 2013, he praised the video, saying that it inspired the editing used in Pacific Rim’s third trailer. Harley and Mash happened to be at the same gathering. When del Toro met the comedic duo, he exclaimed “I loved it! My daughters loved it, we watched it a bunch of times!” Then he invited the Sweding duo to attend Pacific Rim’s premiere in Hollywood.

Composite by Mental Floss. Illustrations, iStock.
The DEA Crackdown on Thomas Jefferson's Poppy Plants
Composite by Mental Floss. Illustrations, iStock.
Composite by Mental Floss. Illustrations, iStock.

The bloom has come off Papaver somniferum in recent years, as the innocuous-looking plant has come under new scrutiny for its role as a building block in many pain-blunting opiates—and, by association, the opioid epidemic. That this 3-foot-tall plant harbors a pod that can be crushed and mixed with water to produce a euphoric high has resulted in a stigma regarding its growth. Not even gardens honoring our nation's Founding Fathers are exempt, which is how the estate of Thomas Jefferson once found itself in a bizarre dialogue with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) over its poppy plants and whether the gift shop clerks were becoming inadvertent drug dealers.

Jefferson, the nation's third president, was an avowed horticulturist. He spent years tending to vegetable and flower gardens, recording the fates of more than 300 varieties of 90 different plants in meticulous detail. At Monticello, his Charlottesville, Virginia plantation, Jefferson devoted much of his free time to his sprawling soil. Among the vast selection of plants were several poppies, including the much-maligned Papaver somniferum.

The front view of Thomas Jefferson's Monticello estate
Thomas Jefferson's Monticello estate.

"He was growing them for ornamental purposes,” Peggy Cornett, Monticello’s historic gardener and curator of plants, tells Mental Floss. “It was very common in early American gardens, early Colonial gardens. Poppies are annuals and come up easily.”

Following Jefferson’s death in 1826, the flower garden at Monticello was largely abandoned, and his estate was sold off to help repay the debts he had left behind. Around 115 years later, the Garden Club of Virginia began to restore the plot with the help of Jefferson’s own sketches of his flower borders and some highly resilient bulbs.

In 1987, Monticello’s caretakers opened the Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants, complete with a greenhouse, garden, and retail store. The aim was to educate period-accurate gardeners and sell rare seeds to help populate their efforts. Papaver somniferum was among the offerings.

This didn’t appear to be of concern to anyone until 1991, when local reporters began to obsess over narcotics tips following a drug bust at the University of Virginia. Suddenly, the Center for Historic Plants was fielding queries about the “opium poppies” in residence at Monticello.

The Center had never tried to hide it. “We had labels on all the plants,” says Cornett, who has worked at Monticello since 1983 and remembers the ensuing political scuffle. “We didn’t grow them at the Center. We just collected and sold the seeds that came from Monticello.”

At the time, the legality of growing the poppy was frustratingly vague for the Center’s governing board, who tried repeatedly to get clarification on whether they were breaking the law. A representative for the U.S. Department of Agriculture saw no issue with it, but couldn’t cite a specific law exempting the Center. The Office of the Attorney General in Virginia had no answer. It seemed as though no authority wanted to commit to a decision.

Eventually, the board called the DEA and insisted on instructions. Despite the ubiquity of the seeds—they can spring up anywhere, anytime—the DEA felt the Jefferson estate was playing with fire. Though they were not a clandestine opium den, they elected to take action in June of 1991.

“We pulled up the plants," Cornett says. “And we stopped selling the seeds, too.”

Today, Papaver somniferum is no longer in residence at Monticello, and its legal status is still murky at best. (While seeds can be sold and planting them should not typically land gardeners in trouble, opium poppy is a Schedule II drug and growing it is actually illegal—whether or not it's for the express purpose of making heroin or other drugs.) The Center does grow other plants in the Papaver genus, all of which have varying and usually low levels of opium.

As for Jefferson himself: While he may not have crushed his poppies personally, he did benefit from the plant’s medicinal effects. His personal physician, Robley Dunglison, prescribed laudanum, a tincture of opium, for recurring gastric issues. Jefferson took it until the day prior to his death, when he rejected another dose and told Dunglison, “No, doctor, nothing more.”


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