Mental Floss: Our 35 Favorite Stories of 2020

Popular Weekly World News cover monster Bat Boy.
Popular Weekly World News cover monster Bat Boy. / Courtesy of Weekly World News

Though it feels a little bit like choosing a favorite child, of the thousands of stories Mental Floss publishes in any year, our staffers are bound to have some particular favorites. It could be a case of a long-gestating idea finally coming to fruition, or a story that is so unique (or just plain bizarre) that there’s no way we could pass up the chance to write about it. As we've done in years past, we asked the Mental Floss team to share some of their favorite stories from 2020—just in case you missed any of them.

1. When John Adams and Thomas Jefferson Took a Piece of Shakespeare's Chair

I absolutely love Michele Debczak’s piece on the 18th- and 19th-century practice of “tourist scavenging,” featuring two founding fathers and future presidents. —Erin McCarthy, Editor-in-Chief

2. The Teenage Girl Gang that Seduced and Killed the Nazis

D-Keine/iStock via Getty Images

Given the breadth of the topics we cover, it can sometimes be difficult to describe to someone what makes the "ideal" Mental Floss story—but the headline of this history piece, written by Jake Rossen, sort of says it all. Who wouldn't want to read that? —Jennifer M. Wood, Managing Editor

3. Bat Boy Lives! An Oral History of Weekly World News

As a dumb kid, I remember nervously reading these tabloid news headlines every week at the checkout counter while my mom was grocery shopping. They always seemed to be about the apocalypse or aliens or World War III or some sort of Earth-shattering calamity that was on its way. Looking back on it, they probably introduced me to anxiety. But as an adult who's no longer afraid of what Nostradamus did or didn't predict, I really enjoyed this deep dive into the absurdity of it all. —Jay Serafino, Special Projects Editor

4. If the Yacht Is a Rockin': Riding the Yacht Rock Nostalgia Wave

Kenny Loggins and Jim Messina making some waves on the cover of 1973's "Full Sail" album.
Kenny Loggins and Jim Messina making some waves on the cover of 1973's "Full Sail" album. / Columbia Records

If you feel guilty about how much you love yacht rock, let Maggie Serota legitimize the genre for you in this smooth ride (sorry) through its history and mechanics. If you don’t love yacht rock, what’s wrong with you? —Ellen Gutoskey, Staff Writer

5. 10 Secrets of Epidemiologists

Ellen Gutoskey's piece peering inside the minds of epidemiologists gave us a chance to better understand the people leading the way to return us to a sense of normalcy. Who knew so many people hang up on them? —Jake Rossen, Senior Staff Writer

6. The Coney Island Attraction That Took Its Riders to Hell

Coney Island's most unusual attraction, Hell Gate, debuted in 1905.
Coney Island's most unusual attraction, Hell Gate, debuted in 1905. / Damon Amato

Any story about a horrifying, turn-of-the-century amusement park ride gets my automatic approval. This piece about Coney Island's hell-themed attraction from Erin McCarthy is no exception. —Michele Debczak, Senior Writer

7. Zabiba and the King: The 2000 Romance Novel ... Written by Saddam Hussein

This is one of those surprising stories that makes you stop and go, “what?!” Ellen Gutoskey’s piece will almost make you want to read Hussein’s novel … almost. —EMC

8. Misconceptions About Depression

Working at Mental Floss, we're often able to indulge our curiosities, but not necessarily in a way that reflects deeply on our own lives. In this video, I thought Justin Dodd did a wonderful job using a mixture of research and lived experience to help reduce the stigma and misinformation around mental health issues. Our audience's passionate reaction tells me there is a way to use information to reach people on a deep level. —Jon Mayer, Senior Video Producer

9. What a Lizard Poop of Epic Proportions Is Teaching Scientists

Most curly-tailed lizards are not worthy of an epic poem. They have neither huge fangs nor venom. They grow no larger than a candy bar. But Jason Bittel wrote about a curly-tailed lizard, her abdomen chock-full of poop, who will be remembered forever—not for leading the charge on an impenetrable city, but for possessing the largest feces-to-body-mass ratio ever recorded in a living animal. —Kat Long, Science Editor

10. Born In the U.S.A.: How Bruce Springsteen's Anti-Vietnam Anthem Got Lost In Translation

Bruce Springsteen performs on stage.
Bruce Springsteen performs on stage. / Michael Putland/Getty Images

I may be from New Jersey, but I do not get Bruce Springsteen—I don't get the jeans or the whole blue-collar chic thing or why the E Street band needs so many guitarists. But this story made me realize that there might be a bit more to ol' Bruce than just the Dad Rock. —JS

11. 20 Remakes That Are Better Than the Original Movie

We don't often think of movie remakes as high art, but leave it to Scott Beggs to remind us that some pretty great movies—including John Carpenter's The Thing, David Cronenberg's The Fly, and Adrian Lyne's Unfaithful—are all cinematic retreads. —JMW

12. Audrey Munson, America’s First Supermodel—And First Nude Movie Star

Audrey Munson photographed in 1915.
Audrey Munson photographed in 1915. / Arnold Genthe, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

While you might not know Audrey Munson’s name, you’ve almost certainly seen her likeness somewhere. Munson’s figure can be found in bronze, copper, and marble across New York City, and, in fact, all over the country—as Ellen Gutoskey writes. —Kerry Wolfe, Staff Editor

13. Werewolves of London: How The Everly Brothers and a B-Movie from 1935 Inspired Warren Zevon's Monster Hit

It's hard not to love Warren Zevon's "Werewolves of London." But what the hell is the song all about? Let Ken Partridge explain. —JMW

14. Cryptid Currency: How the Loch Ness Monster Became a Force in Scotland’s Economy

Loch Ness Monster statue in Inverness, Scotland
Loch Ness Monster statue in Inverness, Scotland / Jim Ellwanger, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

In a year when I spent most of my time at home, reporting on Loch Ness's tourism industry was a refreshing escape. Interviewing the founder of the official Loch Ness Monster fan club will definitely go down as a career highlight. —MD

15. The Sappy, Poignant, and Risqué Love Letters of 7 World Leaders

This piece by Jay Serafino made me laugh, cry, and cringe in equal measure, and I might never get over Warren G. Harding's attempt at poetry. —EMC

16. The 25 Best Movie Endings of All Time

Walter Matthau stars in The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974).
Walter Matthau stars in The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974). / Shout! Factory

I've had the pleasure of working with Matthew Jackson for five years now, yet he still always manages to both surprise and impress me when tasked with writing a "best of" list like this one. These kinds of stories are tricky, because you know you're going to enrage more than a few people who hate that their favorite film isn't there—and Matthew (don't call him Matt!) takes all of that into account. They're also super collaborative efforts where I say things like "If you don't include The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, I will cry," and he obliges me. —JMW

17. 8 Hilarious Historical Feuds

Your petty fights have nothing on the disagreements between some of history’s greatest figures, as hilariously told by Lucas Reilly. —EMC

18. 10 Facts About the Racial Disparity in COVID-19

Octavio Jones/Stringer/Getty Images

The COVID pandemic upended all of our lives in 2020 and its effects will likely be seen for years to come. One "silver lining" (for lack of a better phrase) in the world's attention being focused on this new virus is that it's also drawn attention to such topics as the racial disparities when it comes to our health, which Michele Debczak did a wonderful job writing about. —JMW

19. 5 Amazing Things Found in Old Books

Some truly incredible things have been found in books—and this piece by Jake Rossen has inspired me to never donate another volume without flipping through the pages first. —EMC

20. Love Is On the Air: How The Dating Game Changed Television

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Jake Rossen offers everyone suffering from Bachelor burnout (seriously, is the show ever not on air?) a chance to return to its chaste ancestor with this piece about The Dating Game. As he reveals, the program wasn’t actually all that chaste. —EG

21. Zoonotic Diseases 101: How Viruses Jump From Animals to Humans

The term zoonotic disease might not come up in regular conversation very often, but you know quite a few of them by name. Rabies, Lyme disease, AIDS, and plague are all known zoonoses, and scientists believe that Ebola virus disease and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) originated from animal viruses, too. But that list just scratches the surface, which is what makes Ellen Gutoskey's deep dive into the topic so interesting. —KL

22. Common Misconceptions About Famous Books and Authors

When Justin Dodd starts a video with a skull-shaped glass of milk in hand, it’s bound to be good. In this one, he debunks a bunch of misconceptions about famous books and authors, which means he’s covering well-known-and-loved territory—Shakespeare, Austen, etc.—in a fresh, funny way. —EG

23. 11 Secrets of Astronauts

This whole piece by Michele Debczak is fascinating, but if I’m being honest, fact 10 is really my favorite. With a quote like “Taking a dump was not easy,” how could it not be? —EMC

24. 20 Crafty Facts About Beastie Boys

L to R: Beastie Boys Ad-Rock (Adam Horowitz), MCA (Adam Yauch), and Mike D (Michael Diamond) pose in Portugal 1998.
L to R: Beastie Boys Ad-Rock (Adam Horowitz), MCA (Adam Yauch), and Mike D (Michael Diamond) pose in Portugal 1998. / Martyn Goodacre/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Anyone who's ever had the misfortune to wander into my closet (and actually found their way out) knows that I have an alarmingly large collection of vintage Beastie Boys T-shirts—which is why I'm always looking for a reason to write something about them. Todd Gilchrist scratched that itch over the summer with this fantastic list, which coincided with the release of Spike Jonze's Beastie Boys Story documentary (which you should definitely check out). —JMW

25. The Long Branch of the Law: Inside the National Park Service's Criminal Investigations Unit

When President Ulysses S. Grant signed the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act into law in 1872, he was officially establishing the country’s first national park. Ever since, hundreds of parks, all owned and operated by the federal government, have fallen under the NPS umbrella. The job of the NPS is to preserve and protect irreplaceable environmental assets—and its criminal investigations unit looks into serious infractions on park land. —KL

26. 20 Showstopping Facts About Center Stage for Its 20th Anniversary

Did Jamiroquai's "Canned Heat" start playing in your head when you saw this photo?
Did Jamiroquai's "Canned Heat" start playing in your head when you saw this photo? / RGR Collection / Alamy Stock Photo

I loved Ellen Gutoskey’s list—featuring an interview with Jody Sawyer herself, Amanda Schull—on what is undeniably one of the best and most iconic dance movies of all time. —EMC

27. What Should You Do In the Unlikely Event You Meet An Alien?

Mike Rampton is the king of questions you never thought to ask—and this one is no exception. It was also an excellent opportunity to give a nod to the awesomely terrible Mac and Me. —JMW

28. Which Food Influenced Humanity The Most?

I enjoyed how this video let us stretch our intellectual legs, not just sharing fun facts about food, but synthesizing a diverse group of historical sources and experts to address a fascinating question. The video reveals how inextricably connected human beings are to our food, in ways both obvious and unexpected. —JM

29. The Racist Origins of 7 Common Phrases

The old saying goes that “sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me”—but that’s just not true. Words and language matter, as Michele’s eye-opening piece on the racist origins of oft-used phrases shows. —EMC

30. 6 Expert Tips for Making Money Off Your Beanie Baby Collection

Dominique Godbout, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Ever since Michele wrote a list of valuable Beanie Babies, we have been inundated with emails from readers seeking to sell their collections or figure out how much their BBs were worth. We’re not buying, but some people are—so Michele reached out to an expert to get our readers the advice they need. —EMC

31. How Henrietta Lacks Became the Mother of Modern Medicine

The story of Henrietta Lacks isn't taught in school—but it should be, as no one could have foreseen how a Black woman with a sixth-grade education and five children would become the mother of modern medicine. —JMW

32. 12 Regular Human Facts About What We Do in the Shadows

Harvey Guillén, Kayvan Novak, Natasia Demetriou, Matt Berry, and Mark Proksch in What We Do in the Shadows.
Harvey Guillén, Kayvan Novak, Natasia Demetriou, Matt Berry, and Mark Proksch in What We Do in the Shadows. / FX Networks

This show only got better in its second season, and I’m thrilled that Scott Beggs brought us a fantastic list about it. If you haven’t watched What We Do in the Shadows yet, what on earth are you waiting for?! —EMC

33. The Original Names of 30 Popular Bands

Band names are a funny thing—partly because it's so easy to choose a bad one. From Pen Cap Chew to The Village Idiots, Erika Wolf dug up the early (and often terrible) names of some of your favorite bands. —JMW

34. 25 Different Ways to Say "Fart"

What can I say—I’m proud of this one. —EMC

35. 30 Pungent Facts About Farts

As an editor, I sadly don't get to write as much as I would like to on a regular basis. But when I learned that we were shooting an episode of The List Show featuring facts about farts, I made damn sure I would be the one writing the script. Not just because it was the perfect opportunity to showcase my vast repertoire of euphemisms for bottom burps, but because it meant that Erin McCarthy would then have to say those words. Out loud. For all the world to hear! It's just one of the many perks of this job. —JMW

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