The Quiet Death Of The Weekly World News
By Darryl Mason
As a truly dedicated news junkie, the very first newspaper I brought on my first visit to the United States in 2001 wasn't The New York Times or the Washington Post. It was, of course, Weekly World News. And I was dying to see if there was any news of the adventures of the formerly cave-dwelling, FBI-escaping, all American mutant folk hero, Bat Boy.
Weekly World News is now going out of business after almost three decades. Basically, the new owner screwed up the million-strong selling newspaper of, um, note, by hiring comedy writers to pen the stories and creating too-dumb-for-children columnists like a typing horse and a chattering chimp.
Weekly World News was so much fun in the 1980s and 1990s because it mixed actual stories of bizarre human behaviour with complete, brilliantly absurd fabrications. But nearly all of it was written as though it had just come off a serious news wire.
The Weekly World News, in case you've never heard of it, was the newspaper that revealed that Elvis Presley did not die on a toilet in 1977, but actually faked his own death and ended up working behind the counter of a convenience store, quite happily.
The Weekly World News also produced such gut-busting headlines as these :
"DEAD ROCK STARS RETURN ON GHOST PLANE!"
"BLIND MAN REGAINS SIGHT AND DUMPS UGLY WIFE!""12 U.S. SENATORS ARE SPACE ALIENS!"
"CRAZED DIETER MISTAKES DWARF FOR CHICKEN!"
"FAMED PSYCHIC'S HEAD EXPLODES"
"HEAVEN PHOTOGRAPHED BY HUBBLE TELESCOPE"
"HILLARY CLINTON ADOPTS ALIEN BABY"
The Washington Post gives the Weekly World News its due tribute as it quietly shuts off the presses for the final time in a massive feature story :
The Weekly World News was not one of those sleazy tabloids that cover tawdry celebrity scandals. It was a sleazy tabloid that covered events that seemed to occur in a parallel universe, a fevered dream world where pop culture mixed with urban legends, conspiracy theories and hallucinations. Maybe WWN played fast and loose with the facts, but somehow it captured the spirit of the age...
I can't remember the last time I read a story in the Washington Post that made me laugh out loud and get a little teary in the same dozen paragraphs, but this WWN early obituary did :
(WWN writer Bob) Lind witnessed the birth of Bat Boy, who became the tabloid's most beloved character and the subject of an off-Broadway musical.
It happened in 1992, when Dick Kulpa, WWN's graphics genius, was playing around with Photoshop, trying to turn a picture of a baby into a picture of an alien baby. He gave the kid pointy Spocklike ears, big wide eyes and fangs. Ivone looked at it and said, "Bat Boy!" and Eddie Clontz turned to his brother Derek and said, "Do it!"Derek concocted the story of a creature, half bat and half boy, captured in a cave in West Virginia. "BAT CHILD FOUND IN CAVE!" was the headline on the first story.
But there were more, many more as the little tyke escaped and was recaptured again and again, constantly fleeing from the FBI and a brutal bounty hunter named Jim "Deadeye" Slubbard, who vowed to stuff him and hang him over his fireplace.
"Eddie fell in love with Bat Boy," Lind says. "He was one of the most in-depth characters we dealt with. He could be mean, he could be spiteful, but he could also be kind. And every once in while, he would be captured by the FBI and held in an undisclosed location near Lexington, Kentucky.
One day -- Lind swears this is true -- Eddie Clontz got a call from an irate FBI agent complaining that the bureau's switchboard was swamped with calls demanding that they free Bat Boy.
"Eddie said, 'I'll never do it again,' " Lind says, "then he hung up the phone and went on to the next Bat Boy story."
As the stories got more creative, circulation soared, reaching nearly a million copies a week by the end of the '80s. Staffers debated how many of the readers actually believed the stories and how many were hipsters reading it for laughs.
"It is my belief that in the '80s and into the '90s, most people believed most of the material most of the time," says Derek Clontz.
Eddie Clontz kept telling writers: You've got to give people a reason to believe. To do that, Berger says, they would write their weirdest stories in a very straight, just-the-facts-ma'am style. And they'd quote experts explaining how this strange event could occur. Sometimes the experts actually existed.
"I remember a story about a guy who went on a diet, and he got so hungry that he chased a dwarf down the street with a hatchet because he mistook the dwarf for a chicken," Berger recalls. "I'm pretty sure I wrote that story."
He's also pretty sure it was totally fictitious. But it had to seem true.
"We would explain to people how it was possible that a guy could get so hungry that he'd mistake a dwarf for a chicken," Berger says. "We'd interview a psychiatrist about it and quote him. And if we couldn't find one, we'd 'find' one."
WWN writers quoted sources identified as "a baffled scientist" so often they started joking about a institution called the Academy of Baffled Scientists.*****************************
(writer Bob) Lind was constantly amazed at the letters that came in from readers. "You can't believe what people will believe -- and what they won't," he says.
Back in the '90s, for example, WWN published "HILLARY CLINTON ADOPTS ALIEN BABY" and illustrated it with a Photoshop picture of a smiling Hillary cradling a hideous but cute alien baby.
"We got a letter," recalls Lind, "and it said: 'Do you think we're so stupid that we believe that's Hillary holding that alien baby? Hillary's too cold to adopt an alien baby. You put her face on somebody else's picture.' "
Lind pauses to let that sink in. "So you realize that this person accepted the idea of an alien baby being found, and that somebody was holding it," he says, "but she couldn't believe it was Hillary."
Maybe in the end, reality just go too weird for the Weekly World News to compete with it :
Americans elected a president who'd once co-starred in a movie with a chimpanzee. Rich women hired "surrogate mothers" to bear their children. The Soviet Union suddenly dropped dead. Scientists invented a magic pill that gave men erections. California cultists committed suicide, believing that the Hale-Bopp comet would carry them to heaven. Lurid details of a president's sex life were released in an official government document. Religious fanatics hijacked airplanes and flew them into buildings. Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected governor of California. Scientists studying DNA revealed that humans were 98.6 percent genetically identical to chimpanzees.
And here, in recognition of the occasional sheer brilliance of the Weekly World News is a WWN classic story that, I must admit, almost had me going when I first read it. Embarrassingly, I actually did some online searching to find out more about details about the remarkable story of Andrew Carlssin, the time traveling stock market speculator.
But I wasn't the only one who soaked up the bullshit as possible truth. The story appeared in straight newspapers across the world and actually set real news reporters off on amusing but utterly pointless searches for further details.
In my defence, I read the following story on the Yahoo News Page and missed the tiny byline that it was from the Weekly World News. As a fan, I should have known it immediately. The follow up story, a day or two later, did little to bust the fantasy bubble.
I got suckered, twice, and I loved every second of it.
TIME TRAVELER BUSTED FOR INSIDER TRADINGWhen the Weekly World News did follow up this excellent story, they reported that a "mysterious benefactor" had posted $1 million bail for Carlssin, who then disappeared.
NEW YORK -- Federal investigators have arrested an enigmatic Wall Street wiz on insider-trading charges -- and incredibly, he claims to be a time-traveler from the year 2256.
Sources at the Security and Exchange Commission confirm that 44-year-old Andrew Carlssin offered the bizarre explanation for his uncanny success in the stock market after being led off in handcuffs on January 28.
"We don't believe this guy's story -- he's either a lunatic or a pathological liar," says an SEC insider.
"But the fact is, with an initial investment of only $800, in two weeks' time he had a portfolio valued at over $350 million. Every trade he made capitalized on unexpected business developments, which simply can't be pure luck.
"The only way he could pull it off is with illegal inside information. He's going to sit in a jail cell on Rikers Island until he agrees to give up his sources."
The past year of nose-diving stock prices has left most investors crying in their beer. So when Carlssin made a flurry of 126 high-risk trades and came out the winner every time, it raised the eyebrows of Wall Street watchdogs.
"If a company's stock rose due to a merger or technological breakthrough that was supposed to be secret, Mr. Carlssin somehow knew about it in advance," says the SEC source close to the hush-hush, ongoing investigation.
When investigators hauled Carlssin in for questioning, they got more than they bargained for: A mind-boggling four-hour confession.
Carlssin declared that he had traveled back in time from over 200 years in the future, when it is common knowledge that our era experienced one of the worst stock plunges in history. Yet anyone armed with knowledge of the handful of stocks destined to go through the roof could make a fortune.
"It was just too tempting to resist," Carlssin allegedly said in his videotaped confession. "I had planned to make it look natural, you know, lose a little here and there so it doesn't look too perfect. But I just got caught in the moment."
In a bid for leniency, Carlssin has reportedly offered to divulge "historical facts" such as the whereabouts of Osama Bin Laden and a cure for AIDS.
All he wants is to be allowed to return to the future in his "time craft."
However, he refuses to reveal the location of the machine or discuss how it works, supposedly out of fear the technology could "fall into the wrong hands."
Officials are quite confident the "time-traveler's" claims are bogus. Yet the SEC source admits, "No one can find any record of any Andrew Carlssin existing anywhere before December 2002."
Perhaps the Time Traveler Cleans Up Up Stock Market story took so many people in because they wanted it to be true. Time travel has to be invented eventually, right? So why wouldn't someone come back, if they could, and do exactly what Carlssin did?
From memory, because I can't find it online now, someone actually pointed out on a Securities And Exchange Commission-related board that what Carlssin did was not actually insider trading, and was not illegal.
Andrew Carlssin sparked some serious debate online, Google links page here and ended up with his own Wikipedia page.
Finally, one more WWN front page of the days when Bat Boy roamed free. Newspapers will never get any better than this :
Darryl Mason is the author of the free, online novel ED Day : Dead Sydney. You can read it here