Stauffer Suicide Shocker
The new girl called me this morning, sounding breathless. “Did you know William Hung is dead?!”
“Holy shit!” I said. I Googled for a news article to confirm it, and found one. “That’s the one my friend showed me,” she said.
“It says it was an intentional heroin overdose,” I said. “Suicide. Maybe William Hung finally got the joke.”
“If he finally got the joke, shouldn’t he have hung himself?” the new girl said.
I like the new girl.
“Did you read the rest of it?” I asked. “Or the other stories? Did you know Mexican forces just captured a bunch of high schools in Texas?”
“Damn it,” she said. “I’ve been spreading that stupid story for the last hour.”
The William Hung suicide story is fairly old and has been debunked at Hoax-Slayer and Snopes. I usually try to check out stories like this at those places, if only because I know how easy it is to dupe people into believing a fake suicide story. I’ve done it myself.
When I went to Queen’s University in Kingston, the legit “news” newspaper, the Queen’s Journal, would always drop from two issues a week to one shortly before exams so the staff could concentrate on their studies. We ne’er-do-wells at Golden Words, the local satirical rag, used to take advantage of this by publishing a fake Journal issue to replace the missing Tuesday edition, one chockablock with phony news stories. This was always my favorite issue, and I always wrote a whole pile of stories for it. A huge proportion of the student body was always duped every year, despite the obvious falseness of our hoaxes. (One year, for example, I upset many with the story that the OSAP student loan program had been cancelled.)
When I became co-editor, I vowed to outdo all previous efforts by constructing a hoax of unparalleled verisimilitude, with the design as dead-on a knockoff as possible. Our layout guy did a brilliant job. I wrote my usual pile of stories, and even resurrected an idea the previous editors had nixed. One of the other guys and I had been screwing around with the camera, and, standing on the second-floor balcony at Stauffer Library, he shot a picture of me lying sprawled on the floor below. The idea here was that a student had hurled himself to his death, and we were going to run this improbably lurid photo along with the story on the front page. Because I was busy writing other stories, I offloaded the actual writing of this one to my co-editor, Jess. She and Justin came through with a funny story tying into recent reports of a marauding masturbator spotted in the library; in her report, security had spotted the culprit, and rather than allow himself to be taken alive, he had hurled himself from the fourth-floor balcony to his death. Once you read the story, it was an obvious hoax. It turned out in the end that the picture we had taken hadn’t turned out well, so we just ran it beside a picture of a bikini model with a caption relating to the upcoming spring break. As this was the kind of insensitive move the Journal was notorious for making, it was still just as funny. And that’s how 8000 copies of the Journal bearing the lead headline STAUFFER SUICIDE SHOCKER hit newsstands on a Tuesday morning.
That’s also how I learned that most people don’t read beyond the headline.
It turned out a lot of people were irreparably psychologically scarred by our story. To make matters worse, the fake name that Jess had picked for the story was only a letter different from the real name of a subletting tenant she’d had a bitter dispute with.
The Journal — always looking for a chance to get back at us — had a field day. We were front-page news for the next few weeks. Jess came off sounding like she was lying in her quoted statements (which she surely was), I came off sounding like a bonehead by explaining that we had “scads” of editorial autonomy (“scads”, it turns out, looks like a silly word in print), and we both ended up the subjects of a crudely drawn editorial cartoon in the Journal in which she looked like a Chinese June Cleaver and I looked like a collegiate Frankenstein’s monster (Jess doesn’t wear pearls and isn’t Chinese, and I’m not a patchwork of stolen corpses in a polo shirt).
All in all, it was a good-old-fashioned controversy in the fine GW tradition, the kind I’d always hoped to have under my watch. After all, not everyone gets to be lambasted in an editorial cartoon.
A couple of years later, still kicking around Kingston, I was in a job interview. “Golden Words?” the boss said, peering at my resume. “You didn’t write that suicide story, did you?”
“Oh no,” I said, truthfully. “My co-editor wrote that.”
And I got the job. It really sucked in the end, though, so I guess I got punished anyway.
Filed under: Uncategorized | 19 Comments