“Hoax” is the dirtiest of words, isn’t it? Not only is it a lie, it’s a lie that makes us look stupid. And it works double-time. If it’s believable, you feel dumb for being gullible. If it’s not, you feel dumb just for sharing DNA with the perpetrator.
But some hoaxes can have a positive effect, leaving us laughing at ourselves, and walking away with a pleasant experience. The famous Nantucket Sea Serpent, for instance, was a hoax that wasn’t meant to denigrate its witnesses in any way.
Tony Sarg, an illustrator who would come to be known as “America’s Puppet Master,” was the designer of the first large-scale helium balloon animals used in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade in 1928. These massive balloons have since become a tradition, and seeing a Thanksgiving parade without one would be unthinkable. In 1933, he performed a puppet show at the World’s Fair in Chicago with an audience of over 3 million. And in 1937, he took part in one of the most fun hoaxes ever.
During the summer months in Nantucket, Massachusetts, sightings of a monstrous sea creature were reported in the local newspaper. Soon, photos of men measuring large footprints allegedly left by the beast were published. The local community began to buzz over the news.
Then, in July, the serpent appeared. Beached on the shore, the massive rubber creature became a major tourist attraction, bringing sightseers from all over America’s east coast to view it before it was entered into the Thanksgiving Parade, later that year. Photos of tourists and children playing around the puppet don’t seem to show a single person upset by the hoax.
Even hoaxes with less benign intentions can have a positive effect, though. The following act of fraud has influenced the trend of the counterculture since the 70’s, made its creator a rich man, and, at the fair age of seventeen, it turned my whole worldview around.
Here’s something I haven’t told many people (so, let’s just keep it between us, eh?) Thirteen years ago, I read Carlos Castaneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan. Up until this point, I was a militaristic atheist and a materialist. But here was a book by an actual scholar, an anthropology student, backed by the University of California, no less, that was telling me that magic was real. In the back of my mind, all my childhood superhero fantasies came crawling, with conceited, “I told you so’s,” on their lips. My magical career was off and running.
Time magazine called Castaneda “the godfather of the New Age.” His first eight books detail his decade-long apprenticeship under a Yaqui sorcerer named Don Juan Matus. In them, we find descriptions of entheogen rituals, practical guides to lucid dreaming, and the philosophies of Don Juan. The last four give tutorials in magical techniques developed by Castaneda and the group of followers he had collected over the years.
The books were a huge hit, and have been held up as classics of the counterculture by such leading thinkers as William S. Burroughs and Jim Morrison. For myself, they were a gateway drug to the occult world. With the assurance of magic’s reality, given to me by a work of anthropological non-fiction, I found it easy to swallow the concepts that I would have scoffed at six months earlier. Over the next two years, I would join one of the Golden Dawns, drop out, and start tinkering with chaos magick, Vodoun, and Santeria.
It wasn’t until I came across Richard de Mille’s The Don Juan Papers: Further Castaneda Controversies, a few years later, that I learned the whole thing was made up, and Don Juan probably never existed. De Mille points to multiple examples of Castaneda being caught lying about his personal past, includes essays by others which pull apart internal contradictions of the works, and even has an appendix which breaks down Castaneda’s many sloppy instances of plagiarism.
The majority of the hoax’s debunkers are ex-followers, such as Richard Jennings, creator of Sustained Action, a website dedicated to shining light on the true story of Castaneda. There are also numerous anthropologists who have pointed out that the practices described in the books were not those of the Yaqui, particularly the use of Peyote, which plays a central role in many of the works. Castaneda was shown to be a fraud and megalomaniac, collecting people (particularly women), and convincing them to give up their jobs and families to follow him.
In California, Castaneda gathered a group of spiritual seekers to whom he taught a series of “magical passes,” physical movements that were said to bring their practitioners into alignment with the flow of energy in the universe. The practice was called, “Tensegrity.” He also taught his followers to be sexually abstinent and to “erase” their personal history, meaning they had to change their names and cut all personal ties to friends and relatives.
One of his strangest teachings had to do with the apparent immortality of Don Juan, who was said to have not died physically, but was transformed into a ball of light and taken into another reality (Second Ring of Power, 1977). Castaneda taught that he, too, would not die a physical death, but would be transported to this other dimension, as well, taking the true believers with him. This was proven to be false, when, in 1998, he died from complications due to liver cancer, leaving his followers behind.
Stranger still, the books continue to sell, and people continue to claim Castaneda as a serious influence. There’s even been other pretenders, like Ken Eagle Feather, claiming to also be pupils of the fictitious Don Juan.
Looking back, the hoax seems so obvious. How was it so easy for myself and millions of others to be duped by such a blatant fiction? Maybe we were desperate, grabbing onto anything with even a semblance of rationality. Maybe we were dummies, after all.
But what continues to be the most interesting aspect of this story to me is the power that myth has to effect the real world. Even after I had recognized Castaneda as a fraud, my own pursuit of occult interests that he had inspired in me hadn’t been curbed. Somehow, this lie had led me to a place that I still live in.
Somehow, this hoax has become real.