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Are Mermaids Real? 11 Myths the U.S. Government Has Addressed

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Usually the government sticks to reality, but there are a number of times where agencies have investigated or weighed in on more mythical ideas. From mermaids to Santa Claus, here are 11 legends that the government has acknowledged, even if just to deny.

1. Mermaids

Late last month, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration published a curious addition to its Ocean Facts section: "Are Mermaids Real?" Describing them as "half-human, half-fish sirens of the sea," the post goes on to describe the various appearances of mermaids in folklore, from cave paintings to The Odyssey. However, NOAA comes to the final conclusion that "no evidence of aquatic humanoids has ever been found." The agency says the post came in response to several requests from the public after Animal Planet aired a special called Mermaids: The Body Found that claimed to paint "a wildly convincing picture of the existence of mermaids."

Verdict: Not real

2. Mutants

While villainous government officials in the X-Men universe may have been fighting for mutant registration and restriction, a real-life lawsuit left the Department of Justice arguing that mutants are actually closer to humans. The bizarre case (described in a great Radiolab piece) centered on customs regulations and the definition of "dolls" versus "toys." According to the law, "dolls" represented humans and were taxed at a higher rate than "toys," which have non-human characteristics. A pair of enterprising lawyers working for a company producing figurines for Marvel realized that the company could almost halve their taxes by arguing that the "dolls" were actually non-human "toys." Citing features like Wolverine's claws, Cyclops' laser eyes and the blue fur of Beast, the company went to court to say that the mutants represented in the figurines could not be classified as human. The government, however, argued that the characters were essentially human. Ultimately, the United States Court of International Trade came down on the side of the toy company, declaring in their verdict that the mutants are "more than (or different than) humans" and adding that they "use their extraordinary and unnatural physical and psychic powers on the side of either good or evil."

Verdict: If they're real, they're not human

3. Zombies

After a Miami man was found eating a victim's face, a Baltimore college student admitted to killing his roommate and eating his body parts, and a New Jersey man threw his own intestines at police, rumors of a coming mass zombie attack started flying. In fact, the chatter got so heavy that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention even had to respond. In a statement to the Huffington Post, CDC spokesman David Daigle wrote that the "CDC does not know of a virus or condition that would reanimate the dead (or one that would present zombie-like symptoms)."

Just in case, the CDC also has a helpful guide on preparing for a zombie apocalypse, published in May 2011. Among their tips: get an emergency kit ready, get your emergency contacts ready and plan multiple evacuation routes "so that the flesh eaters don't have a chance."

Verdict: Not real, but be prepared

4. Atlantis

Images published on Google Earth of the ocean floor have led several people to think that they've found the lost city of Atlantis, or at least evidence of some underwater civilization. The clue, they say, is a series of grid-like lines on the floor that had to be man-made. In response to several inquiries about the lines, NOAA has published posts debunking the Atlantis theories. The real reason the lines are there, they say, is because the mapping tools are layering several smaller maps on top of each other. "While the strange grid-like patterns they found were in fact created by humans, the patterns were only made of data," NOAA said.

Verdict: If it's real, you haven't found it yet.

5. Bermuda Triangle

The legend of the Bermuda Triangle (also known as the Devil's Triangle) describes a region of the Atlantic where ships and planes vanish. But on its website, the U.S. Coast Guard emphatically denies the existence of the triangle as a region of "specific hazard" to any ships and planes. In fact, the USCG says that a review of vehicle losses found "no extraordinary factors" relating to casualties or crashes. And NOAA -- noting that there are explanations for the supposed Devil's Triangle that are rooted in science -- cautions that there's no evidence for more disappearances in that region than anywhere else in the ocean.

Verdict: Not real

6. Santa Claus

Wondering where Santa Claus is every Christmas? The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) holds the answer with their annual Santa Tracker, which provides up-to-the-minute updates on where Father Christmas is delivering presents. The tradition started in 1955, when Sears posted an ad in a Colorado Springs newspaper with a number for children to call Santa. However, a misprint led to children actually calling a local Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD) Center, a military precursor to NORAD. The on-duty colonel told everyone at the base to give any children who called a location for Santa. Today the location is given out through a Google Earth map on the NORAD Santa Tracker website.

Verdict: He's right there!

7. UFOs

The FBI's online vault contains a treasure trove of documents for UFO enthusiasts, detailing various investigations and general interest into unexplained objects. The UFO page contains many reports of events between 1947 and 1954, including some that touch on the Roswell crash. Their verdict? Just a weather balloon.

Verdict: Not real, but worth investigating.

8. The Mayan Apocalypse

The Roland Emmerich disaster movie 2012 was one of the many recent takes on the legend that the world would end this December, when the Mayan calendar supposedly runs out. But don't tell NASA. The agency has an entire Q&A page dedicated to debunking those rumors. The page calmly states that the calendar does not end in 2012, but merely begins another period. And the scientists declare that there are no planets, asteroids or stars set to crash into the Earth, nor is there a threat of the Earth completely reversing its rotation. "Impressive movie special effects aside, Dec. 21, 2012, won't be the end of the world as we know," NASA wrote. "It will, however, be another winter solstice."

Verdict: Not true

9. Alien Attacks

Pretty much every alien invasion movie scenario was covered in a 2011 paper written by a NASA scientist along with colleagues from Penn State, including the possibility that aliens could attack humans because we're wasteful. The report considered a number of scenarios for alien contacts, everything from them coming in peace to their desire for destruction. Many of them fell on the slightly boring side -- they could come and be unable to communicate with humans, or they could accidentally carry a deadly disease. To make sure things will be okay, the researchers say that the best course of action is to not broadcast out our biological information and stick to communicating on a mathematical level until any alien intentions become clear.

Verdict: It's possible

10. Vampires

While not an official government position, the U.S. Army has tried to play on the existence of vampires in the past. According to passages of the book "Counter-Guerrilla Operations" by Philippine colonel Napoleon Valeriano and U.S. military adviser Charles Bohannan, U.S. soldiers in the Philippines fighting an uprising of the Huk rebels would try to scare their enemy using the legend of the monster. They would kidnap the last man in a Huk patrol, poke two holes in his neck and drain his body of blood. When the Huk rebels found him the next day, they would fear that vampires were around and would leave.

Verdict: Believe it if you want

11. ESP

Also tucked into the FBI Vault was a file on extra-sensory perception. One memo describes an agent going to see a display of ESP and mind powers put on by a man named William Foos, encouraging the FBI to follow up. If the powers turned out to be real, he wrote, "there is no limit to the value which could accrue to the FBI," including reading mail and seeing through walls. Ultimately, however, the file shows that an investigation showed up no evidence of ESP and the original display turned out to be a series of tricks.

Verdict: Not real

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10 Regional Twists on Trick-or-Treating
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Walk around any given American neighborhood on the night of October 31, and you’ll likely hear choruses of "trick-or-treat" chiming through the area. The sing-songy phrase is synonymous with Halloween in some parts of the world, but it's not the only way kids get sweets from their neighbors this time of year. From the Philippines to the American Midwest, here are some regional door-to-door traditions you may not have heard of.

1. PANGANGALULUWA // THE PHILIPPINES

Rice cakes wrapped in leaves.
Suman

The earliest form of trick-or-treating on Halloween can be traced back to Europe in the Middle Ages. Kids would don costumes and go door-to-door offering prayers for dead relatives in exchange for snacks called "soul cakes." When the cake was eaten, tradition held that a soul was ferried from purgatory into heaven. Souling has disappeared from Ireland and the UK, but a version of it lives on halfway across the world in the Philippines. During All Saints Day on November 1, Filipino children taking part in Pangangaluluwa will visit local houses and sing hymns for alms. The songs often relate to souls in purgatory, and carolers will play the part of the souls by asking for prayers. Kids are sometimes given rice cakes called suman, a callback to the soul cakes from centuries past.

2. PÃO-POR-DEUS // PORTUGAL

Raw dough.
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Instead of trick-or-treating, kids in Portugal go door-to-door saying pão-por-deus ("bread for god") in exchange for goodies on All Saints Day. Some homeowners give out money or candy, while others offer actual baked goods.

3. HALLOWEEN APPLES // WESTERN CANADA

Kids trick-or-treating.
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If they're not calling out "trick-or-treat" on their neighbors’ doorsteps on Halloween night, you may hear children in western Canada saying "Halloween apples!" The phrase is left over from a time when apples were a common Halloween treat and giving out loose items on the holiday wasn't considered taboo.

4. ST. MARTIN'S DAY // THE NETHERLANDS

The Dutch wait several days after Halloween to do their own take on trick-or-treating. On the night of November 11, St. Martin's Day, children in the Netherlands take to the streets with their homemade lanterns in hand. These lanterns were traditionally carved from beets or turnips, but today they’re most commonly made from paper. And the kids who partake don’t get away with shouting a few words at each home they visit—they’re expected to sing songs to receive their sugary rewards.

5. A PENNY FOR THE GUY // THE UK

Guy Fawkes Night celebration.

Peter Trimming, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

Guy Fawkes Night is seen by some as the English Protestants’ answer to the Catholic holidays associated with Halloween, so it makes sense that it has its own spin on trick-or-treating. November 5 marks the day of Guy Fawkes’s failed assassination attempt on King James as part of the Gunpowder Plot. To celebrate the occasion, children will tour the neighborhood asking for "a penny for the guy." Sometimes they’ll carry pictures of the would-be-assassin which are burned in the bonfires lit later at night.

6. TRICKS FOR TREATS // ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI

Kids knocking on a door in costume.
iStock

If kids in the St. Louis area hope to go home with a full bag of candy on Halloween, they must be willing to tickle some funny bones. Saying "tricks-for-treats" followed by a joke replaces the classic trick-or-treat mantra in this Midwestern city. There’s no criteria for the quality or the subject of the joke, but spooky material (What’s a skeleton’s favorite instrument? The trombone!) earns brownie points.

7. ME DA PARA MI CALAVERITA // MEXICO

Sugar skulls with decoration.
iStock

While Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is completely separate from Halloween, the two holidays share a few things in common. Mexicans celebrate the day by dressing up, eating sweet treats, and in some parts of the country, going house-to-house. Children knocking on doors will say "me da para mi calaverita" or "give me money for my little skull," a reference to the decorated sugar skulls sold in markets at this time of year.

8. HALLOWEEN! // QUEBEC, CANADA

Kids dressed up for Halloween.
iStock

Trick-or-treaters like to keep things simple in the Canadian province of Quebec. In place of the alliterative exclamation, they shout “Halloween!” at each home they visit. Adults local to the area might remember saying "la charité s’il-vous-plaît "(French for “charity, please”) when going door-to-door on Halloween, but this saying has largely fallen out of fashion.

9. SWEET OR SOUR // GERMANY

Little girl trick-or-treating.
iStock

Halloween is only just beginning to gain popularity in Germany. Where it is celebrated, the holiday looks a lot like it does in America, but Germans have managed to inject some local character into their version of trick-or-treat. In exchange for candy, kids sometimes sing out "süß oder saures"—or "sweet and sour" in English.

10. TRIQUI, TRIQUI HALLOWEEN // COLOMBIA

Kids dressed up for Halloween.
Rubí Flórez, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Kids in Colombia anticipate dressing up and prowling the streets on Halloween just as much as kids do in the States. There are a few significant variations on the annual tradition: Instead of visiting private residencies, they're more likely to ask for candy from store owners and the security guards of apartment buildings. And instead of saying trick-or-treat, they recite this Spanish rhyme:

Triqui triqui Halloween
Quiero dulces para mí
Si no hay dulces para mí
Se le crece la naríz

In short, it means that if the grownups don't give the kids the candy they're asking for, their noses will grow. Tricky, tricky indeed

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Hey, Vern: It's the Ernest P. Worrell Story
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Mill Creek Entertainment

In her review of the 1991 children’s comedy Ernest Scared Stupid, The Washington Post film critic Rita Kempley described the titular character, the dim-witted but well-meaning Ernest P. Worrell, as “the global village idiot.” As portrayed by Kentucky native Jim Varney, Ernest was in the middle of a 10-film franchise that would see him mistakenly incarcerated (Ernest Goes to Jail), enlisting in the military (Ernest in the Army), substituting for an injured Santa (Ernest Saves Christmas), and returning to formal education in order to receive his high school diploma (Ernest Goes to School).

Unlike slapstick contemporaries Yahoo Serious and Pauly Shore, Varney took a far more unusual route to film stardom. With advertising executive John Cherry III, Varney originated the Ernest character in a series of regional television commercials. By one estimate, Ernest appeared in over 6000 spots, hawking everything from ice cream to used cars. They grew so popular that the pitchman had a 20,000-member fan club before his first movie, 1987’s Ernest Goes to Camp, was even released.

Varney and Ernest became synonymous, so much so that the actor would dread going on dates for fear Ernest fans would approach him; he sometimes wore disguises to discourage recognition. Though he could recite Shakespeare on a whim, Varney was rarely afforded the opportunity to expand his resume beyond the denim-jacketed character. It was for this reason that Varney, though grateful for Ernest’s popularity, would sometimes describe his notoriety as a “mixed blessing,” one that would come to a poignant end foreshadowed by one of his earliest commercials.

Born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1949, Varney spent his youth being reprimanded by teachers who thought his interest in theater shouldn’t replace attention paid to math or science. Varney disagreed, leaving high school just two weeks shy of graduation (he returned in the fall for his diploma) to head for New York with $65 in cash and a plan to perform.

The off-Broadway plays Varney appeared in were not lucrative, and he began to bounce back and forth between Kentucky and California, driving a truck when times were lean and appearing in TV shows like Petticoat Junction when his luck improved. During one of his sabbaticals from Hollywood, he met Cherry, who cast him as an aggressive military instructor named Sergeant Glory in an ad for a car dealer in Nashville, Tennessee.

In 1981, Varney was asked back to film a new spot for Cherry, this one for a dilapidated amusement park in Bowling Green, Kentucky, that Cherry considered so unimpressive he didn’t want to show it on camera. Instead, he created the character of Ernest P. Worrell, a fast-talking, often imbecilic local who is constantly harassing his neighbor Vern. (“Know what I mean, Vern?” became Ernest’s catchphrase.)

The spot was a hit, and soon Varney and Cherry were being asked to film spots for Purity Dairies, pizza parlors, convenience stores, and other local businesses. In the spots, Ernest would usually look into the camera—the audience shared Vern’s point of view—and endorse whatever business had enlisted his services, usually stopping only when Vern devised a way to get him out of sight.

Although the Purity commercials initially drew complaints—the wide-angle lens created a looming Ernest that scared some children—his fame grew, and Varney became a rarity in the ad business: a mascot without a permanent corporate home. He and Cherry would film up to 26 spots in a day, all targeted for a specific region of the country. In some areas, people would call television stations asking when the next Ernest spot was due to air. A Fairfax, Virginia Toyota dealership saw a 50 percent spike in sales after Varney began appearing in ads.

Logging thousands of spots in hundreds of markets, Varney once said that if they had all been national, he and Cherry would have been wealthy beyond belief. But local spots had local budgets, and the occasions where Ernest was recruited for a major campaign were sometimes prohibited by exclusivity contracts: He and Cherry had to turn down Chevrolet due to agreements with local, competing car dealers.

Still, Varney made enough to buy a 10-acre home in Kentucky, expressing satisfaction with the reception of the Ernest character and happily agreeing to a four-picture deal with Disney’s Touchstone Pictures for a series of Ernest features. Released on a near-constant basis between 1987 and 1998, the films were modest hits (Ernest Goes to Camp made $28 million) before Cherry—who directed several of them—and Varney decided to strike out on their own, settling into a direct-to-video distribution model.

“It's like Oz, and the Wizard ain't home," Varney told the Sun Sentinel in 1985, anticipating his desire for autonomy. “Hollywood is a place where everything begins but nothing originates. It's this big bunch of egos slamming into each other.”

Varney was sometimes reticent to admit he had ambitions beyond Ernest, believing his love of Shakespeare and desire to perform Hamlet would be perceived as the cliched story of a clown longing to be serious. He appeared in 1994’s The Beverly Hillbillies and as the voice of Slinky Dog in 1995’s Toy Story. But Ernest would continue to be his trademark.

The movies continued through 1998, at which point Varney noticed a nagging cough. It turned out to be lung cancer. As Ernest, Varney had filmed an anti-smoking public service announcement in the 1980s. In his private life, he was a chain smoker. He succumbed to cancer in 2000 at the age of 50, halting a series of planned Ernest projects that included Ernest Goes to Space and Ernest and the Voodoo Curse.

Varney may never have gotten an opportunity to perform in a wider variety of roles, but he did receive some acknowledgment for the one he had mastered. In 1989, Varney took home an Emmy for Outstanding Performer in a children’s series, a CBS Saturday morning show titled Hey, Vern: It’s Ernest!

“It’s a blessing and a curse,” he told the Orlando Sentinel in 1991, “because it's as hard to escape from it as it is to get into it.''

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