Austria-Hungary Declares War on Serbia

Chronicling America 

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 134th installment in the series.

July 27-28, 1914: Austria-Hungary Declares War on Serbia

In the final week of July 1914, after a decade of confrontation and near misses, mounting tensions between the two main European alliance blocs finally came to a head. Seizing on the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand as a pretext, Austria-Hungary delivered an ultimatum containing unacceptable demands to Serbia on July 23. European diplomats scrambled to defuse the situation, but on July 25, Serbia, assured of Russian support, refused to knuckle under—and Austria-Hungary, likewise assured of German support, rejected the Serbian response, laying the groundwork for war.

The wheels of fate were spinning fast now, as Austria-Hungary’s Emperor Franz Josef ordered mobilization against Serbia and Russia’s Tsar Nicholas II ordered “pre-mobilization” measures and contemplated mobilizing against Austria-Hungary. But no one had declared war yet, so there was still a chance—albeit ever-diminishing—that war might be averted by a face-saving compromise, handing Austria-Hungary a diplomatic victory while maintaining Serbian sovereignty.

It was not to be. The actions of Germany and Austria-Hungary on Monday, July 27 and Tuesday, July 28 clinched their guilt as the inadvertent authors of the Great War. In the face of growing evidence that Austria-Hungary’s war against Serbia would not remain localized, they continued to dismiss warnings from Russia, France, Britain, and Italy as bluff and proceeded with their plan, employing deception to make it seem like mediation had a chance—when in fact they never intended to negotiate.

July 27: British Suspicions

Following Austria-Hungary’s rejection of the Serbian response, British Foreign Secretary Edward Grey frantically tried to prevent a wider war with all the diplomatic tools at his disposal. While urging Germany to rein in Austria-Hungary and begging France to do the same with Russia, he also suggested that they join forces with Italy, the other uninvolved Great Power, to offer mediation between Russia and Austria-Hungary, as they had at the Conference of London in 1913. The Russians, French, and Italians all accepted Grey’s offer, but the Germans—still pretending they had no involvement in Austria-Hungary’s plans—replied that “We could not take part in such a conference as we cannot drag Austria in her conflict with Serbia before a European tribunal.” Later that day, German Foreign Secretary Gottlieb von Jagow, aware that Germany couldn’t appear totally obstructive, told Goschen, the British ambassador to Berlin, that the “Conference you suggest would practically amount to a court of arbitration, and could not, in his opinion, be called together except at request of Austria and Russia.”

Such a request would require direct talks between Russia and Austria-Hungary—but behind closed doors the Germans sabotaged the initiative by telling the Austrians to reject both outside mediation. The damning proof comes from the Austro-Hungarian ambassador to Berlin, Count Szőgyény, who sent a secret telegram to Foreign Minister Berchtold in Vienna saying

The Secretary of State [Jagow] told me very definitely in a strictly confidential form that in the immediate future mediation proposals from England will possibly be brought to Your Excellency’s knowledge by the German Government. The German Government, he says, tenders the most binding assurances that it in no way associates itself with the proposals, is even decidedly against their being considered, and only passes them on in order to conform to the English request. In so doing the Government proceeds from the standpoint that it is of the greatest importance that England at the present moment should not make common cause with Russia and France.

In other words, the Germans were only going through the motions in order to make the British think their intentions were peaceful, hopefully creating enough confusion and delay that Austria-Hungary could quickly crush Serbia while the Great Powers were still “talking.” And if the Russians left the negotiating table and declared war on Austria-Hungary, with any luck (the Germans hoped) the French and British would view Russia as the aggressor and refuse to come to her aid.

But the Germans were far too optimistic about their chances of “splitting” the Triple Entente through diplomatic subterfuge. While Grey may have been slow to grasp what was really happening, he wasn’t so naïve as to believe that Austria-Hungary would act against her powerful ally’s wishes. As early as July 22, Grey’s own Undersecretary for Foreign Affairs, Eyre Crowe, warned that the Germans were acting in bad faith: “It is difficult to understand the attitude of the German Government. On the face of it, it does not bear the stamp of straightforwardness. If they really are anxious to see Austria kept reasonably in check, they are in the best position to speak at Vienna.” By the evening of July 27, Grey’s suspicions about Germany’s real intentions were growing, according to the German ambassador to London, Prince Lichnowsky, who warned Berlin that

if war now comes, we could no longer count on English sympathies and British support, since the Austrian action would be regarded as showing all signs of lack of good will. Everybody here is convinced, and I hear the same thing from my colleagues, that the key to the situation is Berlin and if Berlin seriously means peace, Austria can be restrained from pursuing a foolhardy policy, as Grey calls it.

Grey’s room for maneuver was still limited by the fact that many of his colleagues in the Liberal cabinet opposed any involvement in a continental war, which prevented him from issuing explicit threats. Nonetheless, on July 27, he signaled that Britain might become involved by allowing First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill keep the First and Second Fleets mobilized after the royal review from July 18 to 26.

Berlin Goes All In

Berlin’s response was simply to double down on its deception. Around midnight on the evening of July 27, Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg ordered the German ambassador to Vienna, Tschirschky, to pass along Grey’s offer of mediation to Austria-Hungary—but only to avoid the perception, both at home and abroad, that Germany was in the wrong:

By a rejection of all mediatory action we should be held responsible for the conflagration by the whole world and be represented as the real warmongers. This would make our own position in the country [Germany] impossible where we should appear as having forced the war… we cannot therefore reject the role of mediator and must submit the English proposal to the Vienna cabinet for consideration.

This move was obviously insincere because Foreign Secretary Jagow never withdrew his statement to Austria-Hungary’s ambassador Count Szőgyény that Vienna should ignore the offer of mediation. Furthermore, during the afternoon of July 27, the Germans learned that Austria-Hungary planned to declare war the next day, but never asked Vienna to delay the declaration to allow time for negotiations. Thus the Germans would simply pretend to try to reason with Austria-Hungary until she declared war, presenting the other Great Powers with a fait accompli and finally call their bluff.

This was always going to be a huge gamble, but decision makers in Berlin and Vienna seemed to be in the grip of a world-weary fatalism. On July 27, Bethmann-Hollweg’s friend and confidant, philosopher Kurt Riezler, wrote in his diary: “Everything depends on whether St. Petersburg immediately mobilizes and is encouraged or restrained by the West… The Chancellor thinks that fate, stronger than any human power, is deciding the future of Europe and our people.” Later that evening, as the international scene grew darker, another of Riezler’s diary entries sums up the incredible complexity of the situation, whose explosive intricacy appeared to defy comprehension, let alone control:

The news all points to war. In St. Petersburg there are obviously fierce debates over mobilization. England has altered its language—people in London have obviously just perceived that the Entente will be disrupted if they fail to support Russia…The danger is that France and England may decide to avoid offending Russia by supporting its mobilization, perhaps without really believing that Russian mobilization means war for us; they might think we are bluffing, and decide to answer with a bluff of their own.

By the evening of July 27, panic was spreading across Europe. The stock exchanges closed in Vienna and Budapest, the twin capitals of Austria-Hungary, as well as the Belgian capital of Brussels, reflecting unease over the possibility of a German invasion. In Berlin, German socialists organized anti-war protests which drew 60,000 people (contradicting later wartime propaganda that Germans embraced war wholeheartedly). Meanwhile Joseph Joffre, chief of the French general staff, ordered 40,000 French troops from Morocco and Algeria to return to France in case of war.

July 28: The Kaiser’s About-Face

In Germany, the morning of Tuesday, July 28 began on a bizarre note, with a sudden reversal by Kaiser Wilhelm II, who had hurriedly returned from his yacht trip in the Norwegian fjords to personally oversee German foreign policy. However, his change of heart couldn’t avert the impending disaster—in part because his own subordinates ignored him.

The truth was that Germany’s political and military leaders never really trusted their mercurial head of state to follow through on his vow to support Austria-Hungary’s attack on Serbia. In fact, their distrust of Wilhelm (who was notorious for losing his nerve in crisis situations) was such that several key players, including Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg and Foreign Secretary Jagow, withheld information from him and dragged their feet carrying out his orders at key moments in the crisis.

Even though the text of the Serbian reply was received in Berlin around noon on July 27, Wilhelm didn’t see the text until the next morning—at which point he decided that the Serbs’ agreement to nine out of 11 conditions meant there was now no need to fight, scribbling: “A great moral success for Vienna; but with it all reason for war is gone.”

This incredible about-face was apparently the product of wishful thinking and belated wisdom, as it was becoming clear that Britain and Italy would not, in fact, stand aside in a European war. Instead, Wilhelm suggested a temporary occupation of Belgrade to secure Serbian compliance. In this scenario, Austria-Hungary would leave most of Serbia untouched in order to allay Russian fears, but still hold the Serbian capital as a bargaining chip, to be returned after the Serbs carried out all the Austrian demands: “On reading the Serbian reply… I am persuaded that on the whole the wishes of the Danubian Monarchy are met. The few reservations made by Serbia on single points can in my opinion well be cleared up by negotiation… This will best be done by Austria’s occupying Belgrade as security for the enforcement and execution of the promises…”

Bethmann-Hollweg and Jagow doubtless rolled their eyes at the Kaiser’s latest flip-flop: The “halt in Belgrade” idea was not only impractical—there was no reason to think Russia would be more amenable to a limited occupation of the Serbian capital—it also missed the whole point of the plan and was bound to annoy Austria-Hungary following Germany’s repeated promises of support for a full-on war against Serbia. So they more or less brushed it off. Of course, they couldn’t totally disregard their monarch’s orders, but they waited until the evening of July 28—after Austria-Hungary had already declared war on Serbia—to pass the suggestion along to Vienna. Ironically the Kaiser, like the rest of Europe, found himself presented with a fait accompli.

The Declaration of War

Exactly one month after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, at 11am on Tuesday, July 28, Emperor Franz Josef signed the declaration of war against Serbia. Ten minutes later, Count Berchtold sent a telegram to Belgrade (a fitting opening to the first war of the modern era, as this was apparently the first time in history war was declared by wire) stating simply:

The Royal Serbian Government not having answered in a satisfactory manner the note of July 23, 1914, presented by the Austro-Hungarian Minister at Belgrade, the Imperial and Royal Government are themselves compelled to see to the safeguarding of their rights and interests, and, with this object, to have recourse to force of arms. Austria-Hungary consequently considers herself henceforward in state of war with Serbia. Count Berchtold

At the same time, Berchtold sent a message to all the other Great Powers reprising the reasons for its declaration of war, while reassuring the Russians, once again, that Austria-Hungary had no plans to annex Serbian territory. Unsurprisingly, these premises and promises did not impress St. Petersburg, where military expediency was about to eclipse exhausted diplomacy.

Madison.com

Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war on Serbia showed that all Germany’s talk of trying to restrain its ally had basically been a sham, because Austria-Hungary would never have launched the war without German support. After hearing the news around 4 p.m., Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov reacted with fury, summoning the German ambassador, Friedrich Pourtalès, and launching into a tirade to the effect (as Pourtalès recounted) that

he now saw through our whole deceitful policy, he no longer doubted that we had known the Austro-Hungarian plans and that it was all a well-laid scheme between us and the Vienna Cabinet. Angered by these reproaches, I replied that I had told him definitely days ago that we regarded the Austro-Serbian conflict as a concern only of those two states.

Increasingly desperate, Sazonov turned yet again to Britain, the only Great Power that might still be able to get Germany to rein in Austria-Hungary—despite the fact that Foreign Secretary Edward Grey had already rebuffed several calls to make explicit threats to Germany. In his instructions to the Russian ambassador to London, Benckendorff, Sazonov wrote:

In consequence of the Austrian declaration of war on Serbia, direct discussions on my part with the Austrian ambassador are obviously useless. It would be necessary for England with all speed to take action in view of mediation and for Austria at once to suspend military measures against Serbia. Otherwise mediation will only furnish a pretext for delay in bringing the matter to a decision and make it meanwhile possible for Austria to annihilate Serbia completely.

Russians Draw Up Mobilization Orders

As his diplomatic efforts ran into the sands, Sazonov now tried to use the threat of military action to get Austria-Hungary to halt military preparations against Serbia. This was a dangerous escalation, born of a fatalistic attitude similar to the one prevailing in Germany. General Sergei Dobrorolski, the chief of the mobilization division of the Russian general staff, recounted: “On 28 July, the day of the Austro-Hungarian declaration of war against Serbia, Sazonov all at once abandons his optimism. He is penetrated by the thought that a general war is unavoidable…”

Already on July 25, Tsar Nicholas II had ordered “pre-mobilization” measures including promotion of cadets to full officers, bringing frontier units up to full strength, and recalling troops out on maneuver, and he also agreed “in principle” to a partial mobilization against Austria-Hungary (which, the Russians hoped, would indicate they did not intend to attack Germany). On July 28, Sazonov and the other members of the Imperial Council were prepared to ask the Tsar to order partial mobilization as soon as the following day—but they soon learned it wasn’t the simple.

On July 26, the Quartermaster General of the Russian Army, Yuri Danilov, hurried back from a tour of the provinces to explain that partial mobilization against Austria-Hungary by itself was impossible, as the general staff only had plans for a general mobilization against both Germany and Austria-Hungary. Given the incredible scale and complexity of mobilization plans, which required coordinating the movements of thousands of trains, there was no way to improvise a new plan for partial mobilization against Austria-Hungary in just a few days. And even if it were possible, partial mobilization would be positively dangerous because the improvised measures would almost certainly throw a monkey wrench into the plans for general mobilization—leaving Russia defenseless if Germany came to Austria-Hungary’s aid (as she inevitably would).

Largely because of these protests from the general staff, on the evening of July 28, Tsar Nicholas II, indecisive as ever, ordered the Imperial Council to draw up two mobilization decrees, or ukazes—one ordering partial mobilization and the other ordering general mobilization. He would sign both of them on the morning of July 29 so that Sazonov could issue the order immediately if Austria-Hungary didn’t halt its military preparations against Serbia. Russia was about to cross the Rubicon.

Alarm in Germany

In fact, Russian pre-mobilization measures were already stoking fear in Germany, where the general staff knew that the success of the Schlieffen Plan depended on beating France before Russia had time to mobilize. As soon as the Russians began preparing for war—regardless of whether they called it “pre-mobilization” or something else—the clock was ticking for Germany, which had just six weeks to defeat France before the Russians would begin to overrun East Prussia.

New York Times via Wikimedia

On July 27, the German ambassador to St. Petersburg, Pourtalès, had warned Berlin of the “very considerable increase in Russian forces,” while the Germany military attaché, Major Eggeling, warned the Russian Minister of War, Sukhomlinov, that “even mobilization against Austria alone must be regarded as very dangerous.” The message was repeated by Pourtalès, who told Sazonov on Bethmann-Hollweg’s instructions that “Preparatory military measures on the part of Russia directed in any way against us would oblige us to take counter-measures which would have to consist in the mobilization of the army. Mobilization, however, means war.” The other members of the Triple Entente also urged caution, with the British ambassador, Buchanan, recommending on July 27 that Russian mobilization should be “deferred as long as possible,” and the fiercely anti-German French ambassador, Paléologue, giving the same advice on July 28—but only because it would help convince the British that Germany and Austria-Hungary, not Russia, were responsible for the war.

By the evening of July 28, the mood in Berlin was dark indeed, as War Minister Falkenhayn warned Kaiser Wilhelm that they had already “lost control over events” and the chief of the general staff Helmuth von Moltke predicted, in an overview he wrote for Bethmann-Hollweg that Europe was about to embark on a “world war… that will destroy civilization in almost all of Europe for decades to come”—but added that Germany would never have a better chance to win than she did now.  

Germany Negotiate Treaty with Ottoman Empire

With war looming and Italy, the third member of the Triple Alliance, looking increasingly unlikely to fight on their side, the Germans were desperate to scoop up any allies they could. Now they abandoned their longstanding policy of calculated ambiguity towards the Ottoman Empire and in mid-July signaled that they would consider a full-fledged alliance with Constantinople.

Naturally, the Turks—who rightly feared Russian designs on Constantinople, and had been looking for a patron and protector among the other Great Powers for years—jumped at the opportunity. After drawing up a first draft on July 24, on July 27 and 28 Minister of War Enver Pasha met secretly with the German ambassador, Baron Hans von Wangenheim, to hammer out the final wording of the agreement they would sign on August 2. But in the weeks that followed, the slippery Turks added a number of conditions, including the total abolition of the humiliating “capitulations” which gave European powers authority over Ottoman subjects, and massive financial and military aid.

The Germans’ task was made easier by Britain’s confiscation of two battleships under construction for the Ottoman Empire, the Reshad V and Sultan Osman I, on July 28, which sparked outrage in the Turkish public; ordinary Turks had raised money to pay for the ships with public subscriptions and fund drives. First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill justified the confiscation on the grounds of military necessity, but many critics said his highhanded move pushed the Ottoman Empire into Germany’s arms. It just so happened that two German battleships, the Goeben and the Breslau, were cruising in the Mediterranean when the war broke out—and they would provide perfect compensation for the ships stolen by the perfidious British.

Madame Caillaux Found Innocent

Even the darkest moments in history have their unexpected moments of absurdity. On July 28, as the world was coming apart at the seams, a French jury found Madame Henriette Caillaux, the wife of leftist politician Joseph Caillaux, not guilty of the murder of Gaston Calmette, the editor of the conservative newspaper Le Figaro, on March 16, 1914.

This was an interesting verdict to say the least, as Madame Caillaux freely admitted to shooting Calmette in his offices, in order to prevent him from publishing scandalous letters written to her by Joseph Caillaux when he was still married to another woman. Ironically, some of the letters were read out in court anyway, including one suggestive reference to “a thousand million kisses all over your adored little body”—apparently alluding to sexual acts that were certain to raise eyebrows in early 20th century France, causing Madame Caillaux fainted in the courtroom from the sheer infamy of it all.

In a particularly French twist (which also reflected the ingrained sexism of the time), the jury found Madame Caillaux not guilty of murder because, as a woman, she was more prone to succumb to irrational, passionate feelings, and therefore not responsible for her actions when she killed Calmette. However, this reasoning didn’t seem to convince the angry mobs that besieged the courthouse, shouting “murderess,” after the verdict was announced.

See the previous installment or all entries.

7 Things You Might Not Know About Mario Lopez

Angela Weiss, Getty Images for Oakley
Angela Weiss, Getty Images for Oakley

While several of the actors featured in the 1990s young-adult series Saved by the Bell have fared well following the show’s end in 1994, Mario Lopez is in a class by himself. The versatile actor-emcee can be seen regularly on Extra, as host of innumerable beauty pageants, and as the author of several best-selling books on fitness. For more on Lopez, check out some of the more compelling facts we’ve rounded up on the multi-talented performer.

1. A WITCH DOCTOR SAVED HIS LIFE.

Born on October 10, 1973, in San Diego, California to parents Mario and Elvia Lopez, young Mario was initially the picture of health. But things quickly took a turn for the worse. In his 2014 autobiography, Just Between Us, Lopez wrote that he began having digestive problems immediately after birth, shrinking to just four pounds. Though doctors administered IV hydration, they told his parents nothing more could be done. Desperate, his father reached out to a witch doctor near Rosarito, Mexico who had cured his spinal ailments years earlier. The healer mixed a drink made of Pedialyte, Carnation evaporated milk, goat’s milk, and other unknown substances. It worked: Lopez kept it down and began growing, so much so that his mother declared him “the fattest baby you had ever seen in your life.”

2. HE STARTED ACTING AT 10.

A highly active kid who got involved in both tap and jazz dancing and amateur wrestling, Lopez was spotted by a talent scout during a dance competition at age 10 and was later cast in a sitcom, a.k.a. Pablo, in 1984. That led to a role in the variety show Kids Incorporated and in the 1988 Sean Penn feature film Colors. In 1989, at the age of 16, he won the role of Albert Clifford “A.C.” Slater in Saved by the Bell. By 1992, Lopez was making public appearances at malls, where female fans would regularly toss their underthings in his direction.

3. HE COULD PROBABLY BEAT YOU UP.

Lopez wrestled as an amateur throughout high school. According to the Chula Vista High School Foundation, Lopez was a state placewinner at 189 pounds in 1990. (On Saved by the Bell, Slater was also a wrestler.) He later complemented his grappling ability with boxing, often sparring professionals like Jimmy Lange and Oscar De La Hoya in bouts for charity. In 2018, Lopez posted on Instagram that he received his blue belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu under Gracie Barra Glendale instructor Robert Hill.

4. HE TURNED DOWN PLAYGIRL.

Lopez’s active lifestyle has made for a trim physique, but he’s apparently unwilling to take off more than his shirt. In 2008, Lopez said he was approached to pose for Playgirl but declined. The magazine reportedly offered him $200,000.

5. HE WAS MARRIED FOR TWO WEEKS.

Lopez had a well-publicized marriage to actress Ali Landry, but not for all the right reasons. The two were married in April 2004 and split just two weeks later, with Landry alleging Lopez had not been faithful. Lopez later disclosed he had made a miscalculation during his bachelor party in Mexico, cheating on Landry just days before the ceremony.

6. HE APPEARED ON BROADWAY.

Lopez joined the cast of Broadway’s A Chorus Line in 2008, portraying Zach, the director who coaches the cast of aspiring dancers. (It was his first stage appearance since he participated in a grade school play, where he played a tree.) His run, which lasted five months, was perceived to be part of a rash of casting choices on Broadway revolving around hunky performers to attract audiences. The role was thought to be the start of a resurgence for Lopez, who had previously appeared on Dancing with the Stars and has been a co-host of the pop culture newsmagazine show Extra since 2007.

7. HE BELIEVES HIS DOG SUFFERED FROM POSTPARTUM DEPRESSION.

In 2010, Lopez and then-girlfriend (now wife) Courtney Mazza had their first child, Gia. According to Lopez, his French bulldog, Julio César Chavez Lopez, exhibited signs of depression following the new addition to the household. Lopez also said he used his extensive knowledge of dogs to better inform his voiceover work as a Labrador retriever in 2009’s The Dog Who Saved Christmas and 2010’s The Dog Who Saved Christmas Vacation.

The Legend of Cry Baby Lane: The Lost Nickelodeon Movie That Was Too Scary for TV

Nickelodeon, Viacom
Nickelodeon, Viacom

Several years ago, rumors about a lost Nickelodeon movie branded too disturbing for children’s television began popping up around the internet. They all referenced the same plot: A father of conjoined twins was so ashamed of his sons that he hid them away throughout their childhood. (This being a made-for-TV horror movie, naturally one of the twins was evil.)

After one twin got sick the other soon followed, with both boys eventually succumbing to the illness. To keep the town from discovering his secret, the father separated their bodies with a rusty saw and buried the good one at the local cemetery and the evil one at the end of a desolate dirt road called Cry Baby Lane, which also happened to be the title of the rumored film. According to the local undertaker, anyone who ventured down Cry Baby Lane after dark could hear the evil brother crying from beyond the grave.

Cry Baby Lane then jumps to present day (well, present day in 2000), where a group of teens sneaks into the local graveyard in an effort to contact the spirit of the good twin. After holding a seance, they learn that the boys' father had made a mistake and mixed up the bodies of his children—burying the good son at the end of Cry Baby Lane and the evil one in the cemetery. Meaning those ghostly wails were actually the good twin crying out for help. But the teens realized the error too late: The evil twin had already been summoned and quickly began possessing the local townspeople.

MOVIE OR MYTH?

Parents were appalled that such dark content ever made it onto the family-friendly network, or so the story goes, and after airing the film once the Saturday before Halloween in 2000, Nickelodeon promptly scrubbed it from existence. But with no video evidence of it online for years, some people questioned whether Cry Baby Lane had ever really existed in the first place.

“Okay, so this story sounds completely fake, Nick would NEVER air this on TV,” one Kongregate forum poster said in September 2011. “And why would this be made knowing it’s for kids? This story just sounds too fake …”

While the folklore surrounding the film may not be 100 percent factual, Nickelodeon quickly confirmed that the “lost” Halloween movie was very real, and that it did indeed contained all the rumored twisted elements that have made it into a legend.

Before Cry Baby Lane was a blip in Nick’s primetime schedule, it was nearly a $100 million theatrical release. Peter Lauer, who had previously directed episodes of the Nick shows The Secret World of Alex Mack and The Adventures of Pete & Pete, co-wrote the screenplay with KaBlam! co-creator Robert Mittenthal. Cry Baby Lane, which would eventually spawn urban legends of its own, was inspired by a local ghost story Lauer heard growing up in Ohio. “There was a haunted farmhouse, and if you went up there at midnight, you could hear a baby crying and it’d make your high school girlfriend scared,” he told The Daily.

BIG SCARES ON A SMALL BUDGET

Despite Nickelodeon’s well-meaning intentions, parent company Paramount wasn’t keen on the idea of turning the screenplay into a feature film. The script was forgotten for about a year, until Nick got in touch with Lauer about producing Cry Baby Lane—only this time as a $800,000 made-for-TV movie. The director gladly signed on.

Even with the now-meager budget, Cry Baby Lane maintained many of the same elements of a much larger picture. In a bid to generate more publicity around the project, Nickelodeon cast Oscar nominee Frank Langella as the local undertaker (a role Lauer had originally wanted Tom Waits to play). All the biggest set pieces from the screenplay were kept intact, and as a result, the crew had no money left to do any extra filming.

Only two scenes from the movie ended up getting cut—one that alluded to skinny dipping and another that depicted an old man’s head fused onto the body of a baby in a cemetery. The story of a father performing amateur surgery on the corpses of his sons, however, made it into the final film.

The truth of what happened after Cry Baby Lane premiered on October 28, 2000 has been muddied over the years. In most retellings, Nickelodeon received an "unprecedented number" of complaints about the film and responded by sealing it away in its vault and acting like the whole thing never happened. But if that version of events is true, Nick has never acknowledged it.

Even Lauer wasn’t aware of any backlash from parents concerned about the potentially scarring effects of the film until The Daily made him aware of the rumors years later. “All I know is that they aired it once,” he told the paper. “I just assumed they didn’t show it again because they didn’t like it! I did it, I thought it failed, and I moved on.”

But the idea that the movie was pulled from airwaves for being too scary for kids isn’t so far-fetched. Though Cry Baby Lane never shows the conjoined twins being sawed apart on screen, it does pair the already-unsettling story with creepy images of writhing worms, broken glass, and animal skulls. This opening sequence, combined with the spooky, empty-eyed victims of possession that appear later, and multiple scenes where a child gets swallowed by a grave, may have made the film slightly more intense than the average episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark?

IMPERFECT TIMING

Cry Baby Lane premiered at a strange time in internet history: Too early for pirated copies to immediately spring up online yet late enough for it to grow into a web-fueled folktale. The fervor surrounding the film peaked in 2011, when a viral Reddit thread about Cry Baby Lane caught the attention of one user claiming to have the so-called “lost” film recorded on VHS. He later uploaded the tape for the world to view and suddenly the lost movie was lost no longer.

News of the unearthed movie made waves across the web, and instead of staying quiet and waiting for the story to die down, Nickelodeon decided to get in on the hype. That Halloween, Nick aired Cry Baby Lane for the first time in over a decade. Regardless of whether the movie had previously been banned or merely forgotten, the network used the mystery surrounding its origins to their PR advantage.

“We tried to freak people out with it,” a Nick employee who worked at The 90s Are All That (now The Splat), the programming block that resurrected Cry Baby Lane (and who wished to remain anonymous) said of the promotional campaign for the event. “They were creepy and a little glitchy. We were like, ‘This never aired because it was too scary and we’re going to air it now.’”

Cry Baby Lane now makes regular appearances on Nickelodeon’s '90s block around Halloween, which likely means Nick hasn’t received enough complaints to warrant locking it back in the vault. And during less spooky times of the year, nostalgic horror fans can find the full movie on YouTube.

The mystery surrounding Cry Baby Lane’s existence may have been solved, but the urban legend of the movie that was “too scary for kids’ TV” persists—even at the network that produced it.

“People who were definitely working at Nickelodeon in 2000, but didn’t necessarily work on [Cry Baby Lane] were like, ‘Yeah I heard about it, I remember it being a thing,'" the Nick employee says. “It’s sort of like its own legend within the company.”

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