SBS’s new mystery series Limetown sees Jessica Biel as Lia Haddock, a public radio journalist who starts to investigate the mass disappearance of the entire population of the titular town. Could the inexplicable event be related to the fact that Limetown was a bedroom community for a super-secret government research facility? What does Lia’s beloved uncle Emile (Stanley Tucci) have to do with it? Is it all a government cover-up, or something even more sinister?
Based on the 2015 podcast of the same name, Limetown is engrossing television with a decidedly X-Files-adjacent flavour. But back when it was just a podcast, a good chunk of its listening audience thought that it was real, or at the very least based on a real event. Released hot on the heels of the hit true-crime podcast Serial, Limetown mimicked the form of an audio documentary, but invented its content out of whole cloth. But people will let their imaginations wander, and Limetown joined the roster of fictional works mistaken for fact.
Without getting theological, the most famous example is The War of the Worlds. Not the 1897 novel by H.G. Wells, or the current TV series (series 1 is available at SBS On Demand, in point of fact), but Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre radio adaptation of 1938. Even though the program began with the usual opening credits, many listeners tuned in later and were convinced that Martians were invading New Jersey, leading to widespread panic. Or possibly reasonably contained panic – modern opinions vary on the topic, but contemporary newspapers well and truly dragged Welles at the time.
Welles, a born showman, loved the attention. Indeed, he’s not the only entertainer to profit from audiences mistaking fiction for fact. At least his stunt was accidental; Joel and Ethan Coen straight up lied when they said their acclaimed 1996 film Fargo, was based on a true story. The snowbound morality play opens with the legend, “This is a true story. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.” But it was all bunkum.
However, it did give rise to the urban legend that Japanese office worker Takako Konishi froze to death looking for the suitcase full of money that Steve Buscemi’s character hid in the film. In truth, Konishi died by suicide, but the legend surrounding her death gave rise to another film, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, in 2014.
Filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez also weren’t averse to muddying the waters when it came to promoting their debut feature, The Blair Witch Project. Released in 1999 around the dawn of the internet as we know it, The Blair Witch Project worked the nascent web like a pro, setting up a convincing website to spruik its entirely fictional mythology and cleaving to the notion that the found footage movie was a true account of the disappearance of three student filmmakers who were investigating the titular folklore fiend.
Missing persons flyers for actors Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard and Michael C. Williams were distributed, and even their IMDb bios listed them as “presumed dead”. In truth, the trio were just laying low while the public frenzy around the film piqued. Now we all know that the Blair Witch doesn’t exist, but at the time…
The internet is still fertile ground for this kind of thing, with one of the most famous examples being the vlog loneylgirl15. Yet another occult-themed cultural phenomenon, lonelygirl15 purported to be the musings of teenage girl Bree. The channel launched barely a year after YouTube launched, meaning audiences weren’t necessarily as savvy about user-created content as they are now (or, at least, should be). Lonelygirl15 played it slow, starting off as a straightforward video diary but gradually introducing hints of a Satanic cult operating in placid suburbia. Controversy over the veracity of the series raged in the comments until The Los Angeles Times uncovered the truth – it was all a new media narrative exercise, with Bree being played by New Zealand actor Jessica Lee Rose.
Look out for series 2 of War of the Worlds coming soon to SBS. And watch double episodes of Limetown Tuesdays 9.30pm on SBS VICELAND from 27 July. The series is also streaming at SBS On Demand.