The Truth Behind 10 Movie Urban Legends

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Sometimes, the myths surrounding movies are so strong that it’s hard to separate fact from fiction. Here are 10 movie urban legends, debunked.

1. The Wizard of Oz's Munchkin Suicide

The Urban Legend: As Dorothy, the Scarecrow, and the Tin Man head down the yellow brick road, you can see a mysterious figure dangling from a rope in the background. For years it was believed that a lovelorn munchkin hanged himself while the cameras were rolling during production, unbeknownst to the director, various stagehands, and the actors on the screen.

The Truth: What's actually moving in the background is a large exotic bird on loan from the Los Angeles Zoo. The urban legend started when The Wizard of Oz was released on VHS in 1989, and persisted over the decades, until the most recent Blu-ray edition of the American classic reveals the myth as false.

2. Three Men and a Baby's Ghost

The Urban Legend: After Three Men and a Baby was released on VHS in 1990, a legend emerged—about an hour into the movie, Jack Holden (Ted Danson) and his mother (Celeste Holm) are walking through Jack’s house with his newly found baby girl. In the background, you can see a mysterious figure behind the curtains of one of the windows. It was believed that this figure was the ghost of a boy who used to live in the house where Three Men and a Baby was being shot. The most common myth is that the boy committed suicide with a shotgun, which is why the house was vacant for the movie shoot.

The Truth: The mysterious figure behind the curtain is a cardboard cutout of Danson's character wearing a top hat and tails; it was used as a prop for a storyline that was eventually cut out of the movie. The house is also not a real house, but a set on a soundstage in Toronto.

3. Back To The Future Part II's Hoverboards

The Urban Legend: After the release of Back To The Future Part II in 1989, children and teenagers left movie theaters across the country wanting the Mattel Hoverboards featured in the sequel film. The film’s star Michael J. Fox and director Robert Zemeckis even stated that the Hoverboards were real and the only reason why they’re not available to buy were parents’ groups were worried that children might get hurt riding them.

The Truth: Zemeckis later admitted that all the flying sequences from the sequel were made possible through various special effects.

4. The Lion King's Naughty Sky Spelling

The Urban Legend: When The Lion King was first released on VHS in 1995, many viewers discovered the word “S-E-X” spelled out in dust after Simba flopped down on a mountain’s edge. Conservative activists protested Disney claiming that the movie studio was promoting sexual activities through a subliminal message in the film.

The Truth: In reality, the letter grouping was intended to spell out “S-F-X” as an Easter egg for the animation effects team who worked on the Disney film.

5. Poltergeist's Ghost Director

The Urban Legend: Although Tobe Hooper is credited as the official director of the 1982 horror film Poltergeist, it is widely believed that the film’s producer, Steven Spielberg, directed a majority of the movie.

At the time, Spielberg's contract with Universal Studios contained a clause that didn’t allow him to direct another movie while preparing for E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Some questioned Spielberg’s role on Poltergeist when reports emerged that Spielberg was a more vocal and active presence than Hooper while on set.

Spielberg always clarified that Hooper wasn’t a take-charge kind of guy and if a problem occurred during production, he would step in with Hooper’s consent. The actors in the film seem to be divided on who the real director was: Some would say Hooper played an active role, while others contend Spielberg made adjustments after Hooper set up camera shots and scenes.

The Truth: The fact of the matter is that Tobe Hooper is Poltergeist’s official director, while Steven Spielberg was the film’s creative force and producer.

6. Ben-Hur's Chariot Race Death

The Urban Legend: During Ben-Hur’s iconic chariot race sequence, it was believed that one of the stuntmen driving a chariot was accidentally killed while filming the race. The footage was left in the final version of the film against the wishes of the stuntman’s widow.

The Truth: The only record of someone dying during the production of Ben-Hur in 1958 was one of the film’s producers, Sam Zimbalist, who died of a heart attack at age 54 while on set.

7. The Day The Clown Cried's Shelving

The Legend: In 1972, Jerry Lewis directed and starred in a film about a German clown who was jailed as a political prisoner at a Nazi camp during World War II. Lewis never released the movie, and rumors swirled that it was because he was embarrassed of the final product. To this day, The Day The Clown Cried has never been released in theaters and has only been screened for a small handful of people.

The Truth: The truth is that The Day the Clown Cried has been in heavy litigation since it went into production in 1972; in fact, Jerry Lewis, the film’s producer Nat Wachsberger, and the source material’s author Joan O’Brien couldn't come to financial terms during the film’s production in Sweden that would allow the movie to be released. Wachsberger was unable to secure the film rights from O’Brien and ran out of money before the film could be completed, so Lewis had to put up the money out of his own pocket to finish The Day The Clown Cried.

The Swedish government seized footage of the film when O’Brien filed the lawsuit, but Lewis managed to smuggle the final reel of the film out of the country. A behind-the-scenes film from The Day The Clown Cried remains the only footage available to publicly watch. According to Lewis's official website, "The film has been tied up in litigation ever since, and all of the parties involved have never been able to reach an agreeable settlement. Jerry hopes to someday complete the film, which remains to this day, a significant expression of cinematic art, suspended in the abyss of international litigation."

8. The Shining's Director Also Directed the Moon Landing

The Legend: Since The Shining was released on VHS, there have been many conspiracy theories and urban legends surrounding the true meaning behind Stanley Kubrick’s horror film. The most interesting of them all is that Stanley Kubrick faked the Apollo 11 Moon landing in 1969 and his film from 1980 is his confession.

The urban legend suggests that the U.S. government approached Kubrick after the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968. Kubrick’s realistic approach to space exploration impressed government officials, so they felt Stanley Kubrick was the right fit to fake the Moon landing. According to the urban legend, there are many clues in The Shining that “prove” Stanley Kubrick faked the entire lunar mission. A majority of these clues are included in the documentary Room 237.

The Truth: The reality is that NASA landed two astronauts on the Moon on July 20, 1969—they even left some reflectors up there—and Stanley Kubrick had nothing to do with the mission.

9. Goldfinger's Death by Gold Body Paint

The Legend: In 1964, the third film in the James Bond film series featured the death of a young woman by the hand of her evil employer Auric Goldfinger. The woman was covered in gold paint, which led to her eventual asphyxiation. It was believed at the time of the film that the woman, actress Shirley Eaton, died because she covered her entire body in paint.

The belief was that the paint would cover and clog all your pores and you would slowly suffocate because the body “breathes” through your skin. To prevent death, it was important to leave a small part of your body unpainted.

The Truth: The reality is that painting your body would not lead to death. If it did, you’d have to wear the body paint for a prolonged period of time, as your body would suffer from overheating rather than asphyxiation.

10. The Blair Witch Project was a real documentary

The Legend: Footage from three student filmmakers who went missing while making a documentary about the Blair Witch legend (supposedly found one year after they disappeared) was presented as a real documentary. 

The film’s distributor, Artisan Entertainment, played along with the urban legend and centered all the film’s promotional materials with the idea that it was an actual documentary and not a fictional film. The urban legend marketing worked—The Blair Witch Project grossed $248.6 million worldwide against a $60,000 production budget.

The Truth: After its release, it was revealed that The Blair Witch Project was a fictional film from the minds of the film’s writers and directors, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez. The three student filmmakers were young actors Heather Donahue, Michael Williams, and Joshua Leonard.

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October 15, 2013 - 11:23am
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