This week marks the 10 year anniversary of "The Blair Witch Project," the low-budget thriller that won multiple awards and grossed more than $248 million worldwide.
But before "Blair Witch" became an internationally-known film, it was an internet sensation that doubled as a brilliant marketing strategy. Blairwitch.com debuted in 1999, fooling many people into believing that three students had vanished in the Black Hills Forest while filming a documentary about "an old woman ghost."
The Web site included just enough detail to make it appear real: interviews with "experts," a legitimate location (Burkitsville, Md.), photographic "evidence" and history about the so-called local legend.
As everyone now knows, the "Blair Witch" documentary wasn't any more real than the Blair witch herself.
"The project inspired a slew of marketing-driven hoax Web sites," said Alex Boese, a self-proclaimed "hoaxpert" who has spent decades studying modern society's fakery. One of the most well-known examples was nationalblondeday.com launched by the Reese Witherspoon movie "Legally Blonde."
But these days, Boese said, "I'm getting the sense that the fad for hoax websites has died down a little since the first decade of the Internet."
As the "curator" of the Museum of Hoaxes, Boese said he's fooled many people, including some media outlets, into assuming he oversees a brick and mortar museum.
Just check out this page to see why: http://www.museumofhoaxes.com/aboutmuseum.html
"It's the only hoax I've created myself," he said.
He may not be curator of an actual museum, but Boese's Web site is a very real source of information. He has authored two books about hoaxes, and another about bizarre science experiments. And he thoroughly researches every hoax Web site that surfaces on the Internet.
Lately, he said, "I'm not seeing as many of the elaborate jokes."
Now that we're fully entrenched in Web 2.0, the public is savvy, and social networking reigns. When it comes to online marketing, or even a good old fashioned prank, why build an entire Web site? It's much easier to use Facebook or YouTube.
In the wake of Michael Jackson's death, for example, celebrity death hoaxes surfaced when pranksters hacked into twitter accounts, or in some cases, used an online program to produce a Web page that appears to be from a news organization.
And with the rise of YouTube, marketers have a free promotion vehicle.
"Now companies are getting the sense they get more bang for their buck so they create viral video instead [of elaborate Web sites]," Boese said.
So in the spirit of the "Blair Witch" anniversary, let's take a look back at some of the most well-known hoax Web sites.
There's an old(ish) saying that "If it's on the Internet, it must be true," an indicator that perhaps, even just one decade ago, people were more easily fooled.
"Web sites had more credibility at that time," Boese said. "So back in 1999 you could put up a Web site and more people would believe."
Even Boese nearly fell for this one: http://www.bigredhair.com/boilerplate/
That is, until Boese checked out the library references cited on the site and found they were all fake.