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Mass Delusion
Here's a new penis-melting-zionist-robot-comb-type rumor that's spreading through Africa. Agence France Presse is reporting that many mobile-phone users in Nigeria are terrified that if they receive a phone call from one of two numbers, either 0802 311 1999 or 0802 222 5999, it will cause them instant death. A spokesman for the Nigerian mobile-phone company is trying to squash the rumor by assuring people that, "from an engineering point of view, it is absolutely impracticable, and there is no such record whatsoever anywhere in the world, that anyone has died or can die from merely receiving or making a phone call." The AFP reporter braved death and actually called both numbers but was unable to get through to anyone. Personally I think these Nigerians simply don't have the full story. They should know that the phone calls will only kill you if you receive them directly after watching a videotape of a creepy-looking long-haired girl crawling out of a well.

Update: Gizmodo has a copy of a top-secret internal memo from Nokia in which the company admits that it's phones really can cause instant death when calls from certain numbers are received. (yeah, I know it's a joke).
Categories: Mass Delusion, Technology
Posted by Alex on Tue Jul 20, 2004
Comments (5)
The phrase 'penis-melting Zionist robot combs,' while not widely known, does seem to be growing in popularity. The phrase refers to a mass panic that swept through Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, in September 2003. The people of Khartoum feared that a Satanic foreigner was going around shaking hands with Sudanese men and thereby causing their penises to melt upwards inside their body. In one case a man reported that he was approached by a stranger at the market. The stranger handed him a comb and asked him to comb his hair. "When he did so, within seconds... he felt a strange sensation and discovered that he had lost his penis." The Sudanese journalist Ja'far Abbas interjected a note of scientific rationality into the growing hysteria by making this observation in his column in the Saudi daily Al-Watan:

No doubt, this comb was a laser-controlled surgical robot that penetrates the skull [and passes] to the lower body and emasculates a man!!
I wanted to tell that man who fell victim to the electronic comb: 'You jackass, how can you put a comb from a man you don't know to your head, while even relatives avoid using the same comb?!' ... That man [i.e. the mysterious stranger], who, as it is claimed, is from West Africa, is an imperialist Zionist agent that was sent to prevent our people from procreating and multiplying.


James Taranto wrote about this case of mass hysteria in the Wall Street Journal's Best of the Web Today column (October 2003), and he's credited with the first use of the phrase 'penis-melting zionist robot combs' (although I can't actually see where in the article he uses that specific phrase). I think people mostly just like repeating the phrase because it sounds cool, but I guess it could also be used to refer to any instance of extreme gullibility. For instance, one might say to a friend, 'that's a rather penis-melting-zionist-robot-comb-like belief you hold.'

Incidentally, shrinking-penis fears are centuries old, and there's even a term to describe them: Koro, or (more scientifically) 'genital retraction syndrome.'
Timothy Hall has an interesting analysis of this syndrome on his UCSD webpage.
Categories: Body Manipulation, Mass Delusion
Posted by Alex on Mon Jun 14, 2004
Comments (14)
About a year and a half ago I posted an entry about a statue of the Virgin Mary in Perth that was weeping rose-scented tears. Critics and church officials dismissed it as a hoax created by filling the statue with some kind of oil. Now that same statue is back in the news again, crying even more publicly. The Archbishop of Perth has cautioned people that "the case for a miraculous happening has not been proved."
Categories: Mass Delusion, Religion
Posted by Alex on Tue Apr 13, 2004
Comments (0)
orson welles The Toronto Star has an article about the 1938 War of the Worlds panic (the anniversary of which is today)... and they quote me in it! The article argues that the mass panic was much smaller than is popularly thought. I'm inclined to agree with this. My reasons are:

  1. being familiar with the way in which stories about hoaxes are told, I know that the impact hoaxes make is often exaggerated in order to tell a better story. So it sounds a lot more dramatic to say that one million people panicked in 1938, but the truth is that it was probably only a few thousand.

  2. I suspect that the media reported every incident of anomalous behavior that night as evidence of a panic (i.e. every speeding car, every suicide, all loud behavior), whether or not it actually had anything to do with the panic at all;

  3. there really was some chaos in Grover's mill, where the main panic was said to have occurred, but that's because a lot of young people drove into Grover's Mill after hearing the broadcast because they thought CBS might be hosting some kind of event there... in other words, they were searching for a party, not panicking.

  4. Most recollections of the panic turn out to have come from reading newspaper reports about it, not from direct first-hand experience.

Categories: Mass Delusion, Radio
Posted by Alex on Thu Oct 30, 2003
Comments (0)
The Monkey Man has returned in India, after an absence of about a year. Reports are that a "monkey-like machine" is attacking people as they sleep on rooftops and in open places.
Categories: Cryptozoology, Mass Delusion
Posted by Alex on Mon Jul 22, 2002
Comments (0)
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