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"Innocent" Ideas That Prompted Mass Hysteria

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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?

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Hate Waiting at Baggage Claim? Here's How to Make Sure Your Suitcase Arrives First
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Air travel involves plenty of waiting, from standing in long security lines to preparing for takeoff. And even after you land, your trip is stalled until you locate your luggage on the carousel. Luckily for impatient fliers, there are several ways to game the system and ensure a speedy suitcase delivery once you step off the plane, according to Travel + Leisure.

To score true VIP luggage treatment, ask the representative behind the check-in counter if they can attach a “fragile” sticker to your bag. Suitcases with these kinds of labels are often loaded last and unloaded first. (Plus, they receive the type of kid-glove treatment that ultimately helps them last longer.)

Keep in mind, however, that you’ll need a new tag each time you fly. If it looks old, or was issued by a different airline, the crew might not pay attention to it, according to Condé Nast Traveler. Also, consider upping your suitcase game, as quality, hard-shell bags look like they contain delicate or important items. Their appearance—along with the fragile sticker—will inspire baggage handlers to give them special treatment.

Another trick that can shave a few minutes off your wait time is making sure you're the last person to check in, instead of rushing to be first. If you can't resist getting to the airport early, try asking if you can check it at the gate. This could make your bag one of the last on the plane, and thus one of the first taken out. This method isn't surefire, however, as loading and unloading systems vary among flights.

And if all else fails, Thrillist advises that you try upgrading your flight. Some airlines give priority to bags that belong to elite travelers and business class, meaning they’ll be stored separately from other luggage and come out first. Good luck! No matter what happens, at least you can't have it worse than the lady who had to wait 20 years for her bag to show up.

[h/t Travel + Leisure]

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25 Things You Might Not Know About Home Alone
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20th Century Fox

On November 16, 1990, what appeared to be a fun-filled little family yarn about a kid left to his own devices at Christmastime and forced to fend off a couple of bungling burglars, became an instant classic. Today, no holiday movie marathon is complete without a viewing of Home Alone, the movie that turned Macaulay Culkin into one of the biggest kid stars of all time. And while you may be able to recite its dialogue line for line, here are 25 things you might not know about the John Hughes-penned picture. So settle in and enjoy, ya filthy animals. 

1. WITHOUT UNCLE BUCK, THERE’D BE NO HOME ALONE.

The idea for Home Alone occurred to John Hughes during the making of Uncle Buck, which also starred Macaulay Culkin. Always game to play the precocious one, there’s a scene in which Culkin’s character interrogates a potential babysitter through a mail slot. In Home Alone, Culkin has a similar confrontation with Daniel Stern, this time via a doggie door.

2. THE ROLE OF KEVIN WAS WRITTEN SPECIFICALLY FOR MACAULAY CULKIN.

But that didn't stop director Chris Columbus from auditioning more than 100 other rascally pre-teens for the part. Which really was all for naught, as Culkin nailed the role.

3. MACAULAY WASN’T THE ONLY CULKIN TO APPEAR IN THE FILM.


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Macaulay;'s younger brother Kieran also landed a part as Kevin’s bed-wetting cousin, Fuller. Though the film marked Kieran’s acting debut, he has since gone on to build an impressive career for himself in movies like The Cider House Rules, Igby Goes Down, and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.

4. CASTING CULKIN TAUGHT CHRIS COLUMBUS A VERY IMPORTANT LESSON.

Since Home Alone, Columbus (who also wrote the scripts for Gremlins and The Goonies) has gone on to become one of Hollywood’s premier family-friendly moviemakers as the director of Home Alone 2, Mrs. Doubtfire, and two movies in the Harry Potter franchise. But one lesson he learned from Home Alone is that when you agree to work with a kid actor, you’re also agreeing to work with his or her family.

“I was much younger and I was really too naive to think about the family environment as well,” Columbus told The Guardian in 2013. “We didn't know that much about the family at the beginning; as we were shooting, we learned a little more. The stories are hair-raising. I was casting a kid who truly had a troubled family life.” In 1995, Culkin’s parents, who were never married, engaged in a very public—and nasty—legal battle over his fortune. 

5. THE FILM IS A GUINNESS WORLD RECORD HOLDER.

In its opening weekend, Home Alone topped the box office, making $17,081,997 in 1202 theaters. The movie maintained its number one spot for a full 12 weeks and remained in the top 10 until June of the following year. It became the highest grossing film of 1990 and earned a Guinness World Record as the highest-grossing live-action comedy ever domestically.

6. THE MOVIE’S UNPRECEDENTED SUCCESS LED TO ITS TITLE BECOMING A VERB.


20th Century Fox

In his book The Big Picture: Who Killed Hollywood? And Other Essays, two-time Oscar-winning screenwriter William Goldman admitted that the unexpected success of Home Alone contributed a new phrase to the Hollywood lexicon: to be Home Aloned, meaning that other films suffered at the box office because of Home Alone’s long and successful run. “More than one executive said to me, ‘My picture did 40, but it would have done 50 if it hadn’t been Home Aloned,’” wrote Goldman.

7. IT SPAWNED MORE THAN A SEQUEL.

While all of the main, original cast members reprised their roles for Home Alone 2: Lost In New York (with Columbus again directing a script by Hughes), the success of the original led to a full-on franchise, complete with four sequels, three video games, two board games, a novelization, and other kid-friendly merchandise (including the Talkboy). 

8. POLAND LOVES THE MCCALLISTERS.

Showings of Home Alone have become a Christmas tradition in Poland, where the film has aired on national television since the early 1990s. And its popularity has only increased. In 2011 more than five million people tuned in to watch it, making it the most watched show to air during the season. 

9. THE MCCALLISTER HOME HAS BECOME A MAJOR TOURIST ATTRACTION.


A Syn via Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

Located at 671 Lincoln Avenue in Winnetka, Illinois, the kitchen, main staircase, and ground-floor landing seen in the film were all shot in this five-bedroom residence. (The dining room and all other first-floor rooms, with the exception of the kitchen, were shot on a soundstage.) In 2012, John and Cynthia Abendshien, who owned the home when it was used as one of the film’s locations, sold the property for $1.585 million.

10. KEVIN’S TREE HOUSE WAS NOT PART OF THE DEAL.

Kevin’s backyard tree house was not originally part of the property. It was constructed specifically for the movie and demolished once filming ended. 

11. ALL OF THE FILM WAS SHOT IN THE CHICAGO AREA.

Though the main plot point is that that McCallister family is in Paris while Kevin’s back home in Illinois, the production was shot entirely within the Chicago area. The scenes supposedly set at Paris-Orly Airport were shot at O’Hare International Airport. And those luxurious business class seats they’re taking to Paris? Those were built on the basketball court of a local high school—the same school where the scene in which Kevin is running through a flooded basement was filmed (the “basement” in question was actually the school’s swimming pool). 

12. ROBERT DE NIRO TURNED DOWN THE ROLE OF HARRY LIME.


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As did Jon Lovitz. Then Joe Pesci swept in and made the part his own. Bonus fun fact: The character is a slight homage to Orson Welles. (It was the name of Welles’ character in Carol Reed’s The Third Man.) 

13. JOE PESCI GOT ALL METHOD ON MACAULAY CULKIN.

In order to get the most authentic performance possible, Joe Pesci did his best to avoid Macaulay Culkin on the set so that the young actor would indeed be afraid of him. And no one would blame the young actor for being a bit petrified, as he still bears the physical scar from one accidental altercation. “In the first Home Alone, they hung me up on a coat hook, and Pesci says, ‘I’m gonna bite all your fingers off, one at a time,’” Culkin recalled to Rule Forty Two. “And during one of the rehearsals, he bit me, and it broke the skin.” 

14. PESCI WASN’T USED TO THE WHOLE “FAMILY-FRIENDLY” THING.

Considering that Pesci’s best known for playing the heavy in movies like Raging Bull, Goodfellas, and Casino, it’s understandable that he wasn’t quite used to the whole family-friendly atmosphere on the set of Home Alone—and dropped a few f-bombs as a result of that. Columbus tried to curb Pesci’s four-letter-word tendency by suggesting he use the word “fridge” instead. 

15. DANIEL STERN HAD A FOUR-LETTER WORD SLIP-UP, TOO.


20th Century Fox

And it wasn’t cut out of the film. He utters the word “s***” when attempting to retrieve his shoe through the doggie door (look for it at the 55:27 mark on the DVD). 

16. IN REAL LIFE, HARRY AND MARV MAY NOT HAVE SURVIVED KEVIN’S ATTACK.

BB gun shots to the forehead and groin? A steaming hot iron and can of paint to the face? A flaming blowtorch to the scalp? The Wet Bandits endure an awful lot of violence at the hands of a single eight-year-old. So much so that neither one of them should have been walking—let alone conscious—by the end of the night. In 2012, Dr. Ryan St. Clair diagnosed the likely outcome of their injuries at The Week. While a read-through of the entire article is well worth your time, here are a few of the highlights: That iron should have caused a “blowout fracture,” leading to “serious disfigurement and debilitating double vision if not repaired properly.” And the blowtorch? According to Dr. St. Clair, “The skin and bone tissue on Harry's skull will be so damaged and rotted that his skull bone is essentially dying and will likely require a transplant.” 

17. THE ORNAMENTS THAT MARV STEPS ON WOULD CAUSE THE LEAST AMOUNT OF DAMAGE.

"Walking on ornaments seems pretty insignificant compared to everything else we've seen so far,” said Dr. St. Clair. “If I was Marv, I'd be more concerned about my facial fractures.” Fortunately, the "glass" ornaments in question were actually made of candy. (But just to be on the safe side, Stern wore rubber feet for his barefoot scenes.)

18. THE TARANTULA ON STERN’S FACE? YEP, THAT WAS REAL.


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At one point, Kevin places a tarantula on Marv’s face. And it was indeed a real spider (Daniel Stern agreed to let it happen—but he’d only allow for one take). What wasn’t real? That blood-curdling scream. In order to not frighten the spider, Stern had to mime the scream and have the sound dubbed in later.

19. JOHN CANDY WRAPPED IN ONE DAY.

But what a long day it was: Twenty-three hours to be exact. Candy was a regular in many of John Hughes’ movies, and Gus Polinski—the polka-playing nice guy he plays in Home Alone—was inspired by his character in Planes, Trains & Automobiles. 

20. KEVIN’S OLDER SISTER IS A JUDO CHAMP.

Two years after appearing in Home Alone, Hillary Wolf—who played Kevin’s older sister Megan—landed the lead in Joan Micklin Silver’s Big Girls Don’t Cry… They Get Even. She also appeared in Home Alone 2, but hasn’t been seen on the big screen since. But there’s a good reason for her absence: In 1996 and 2000, she was a member of the Summer Olympic Judo team for the U.S. 

21. DON’T BOTHER TRYING TO FIND ANGELS WITH FILTHY SOULS.

The Jimmy Cagney-like gangster movie that Kevin channels as his inspiration throughout Home Alone? Don’t bother searching for it on eBay. It’s not real. Nor is its sequel, Angels With Even Filthier Souls, which is featured in Home Alone 2. 

22. OLD MAN MARLEY WASN'T IN THE ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY.

Kevin’s allegedly scary neighbor, who eventually teaches him the importance of family, wasn’t a character in the original script. He was added at the suggestion of Columbus, who thought the film could do with a stronger dose of sentimentality.

23. THE LYRIC OPERA OF CHICAGO BENEFITED FROM THE MOVIE’S SNOWFALL.

When filming of Home Alone wrapped, the production donated some of the artificial snow they had created (the stuff made from wax and plastic) to the Lyric Opera of Chicago. It has since been used in a number of their productions.

24. MARV WAS SUPPOSED TO HAVE GOTTEN A SPINOFF.

Greg Beeman’s 1995 film Bushwhacked, which stars Daniel Stern as a delivery guy on the run after being framed for murder, was originally intended to be a spinoff of Home Alone. The storyline would have been essentially the same: after giving up a life of crime, Marv would have been framed for the same murder.

25. IF YOU BELIEVE THAT ELVIS IS STILL ALIVE, THEN YOU MIGHT BELIEVE THAT HE IS IN HOME ALONE.

No hit movie would be complete without a great little conspiracy theory. And in the case of Home Alone, it’s that Elvis Presley—who (allegedly?) died in 1977—makes a cameo in the film. Yes, that’s right. The King is alive and well. And making a living as a Hollywood extra.

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