Life needn’t always be so serious. It shouldn’t always be about the humdrum, work-consume-die existence. A good prank that doesn’t hurt or upset anyone can provide belly-aching laughter, fun and reminds us not to take ourselves too seriously. Numerous examples are out there and two spring to mind; there was the 1957 BBC April Fools Panorama report that managed to convince many viewers that spaghetti was harvested from trees in Italy and BBC Radio One prank that involved ringing up two Chinese takeaway restaurants, connecting each other, each believing the other was the customer.
Stunts on the other hand impress us with people’s breathtaking skill and bravery, and are often spectacular. They might involve escape artists like Houdini’s escape from a tank of water whilst suspended upside down in a straitjacket or Charlee Fotheringham who performed the first ever double backflip in a wheelchair.
Sometimes these shenanigans can go wrong however, and when they do it can lead to embarrassment at best and tragedy at worse. Here I give 10 of the most disastrous pranks and stunts.
1. ‘Fhat Sam’s Epic Roof Jump Fail
First up, some people have all the best ideas; a pseudo-genius going by the name ‘Fhat Sam’ decided to jump off a 5m (15ft) high roof onto a giant inflatable ball below in a parody of Felix Baumgartner’s jump from the edge of space. We can only guess he doesn’t really fear pain like the rest of us because even if the stunt went as planned, the rebound off the ball would surely fling him up again and hit the ground with a heavy tumble anyhow. Unfortunately it went down even worse for this crash test dummy role model.
He dons a mock space suit and, as a young woman steadies the ball below, he gives the inspiring line “Sometimes you have to go really high to see how small you really are.”
Then he jumps. It’s taking the run-up that ruins it for him; he over jumps the ball, just brushing it with his cheeks before hitting the ground with an almighty phwack, bum first. His lower spine takes the full brunt and he lies in agony whilst the camera guy helpfully gets a closer camera shot of his friend’s distress. The girl asks if he is alright — I’ll be honest, he wasn’t. Just imagining it makes you cringe. He broke two vertebra in his back and spent a week in hospital. Lesson learned, hopefully.
2. War of The Worlds Panic
Ah, the olden days; when people were so innocent, so naive. It was 1938 America and there was no internet, TV was in its infancy and radio ruled supreme as the main broadcast media. As a Halloween special The Mercury Theatre on the Air was airing a modern adaptation of H. G. Wells’s novel The War of the Worlds, directed and narrated by famed filmmaker Orson Welles. What happened wasn’t so much a prank as a mass misunderstanding, but it was pretty amusing looking back at it.
The hour long show started with the announcement that it would be an adaptation of The War of the Worlds. There was a prelude then the next twenty minutes were presented as a typical evening of radio programming, being interrupted by a series of news bulletins which got steadily more dramatic from one to the next.
The first report is of odd explosions being seen on Mars; then of an unusual object observed falling on a farm in New Jersey. It got worse as aliens with heat rays emerge, attacking people; New York is then attacked with the reporter’s line going dead and the fake report climaxes by detailing a devastating alien invasion taking place around the world and the futile efforts of the U.S. military to stop it.
Yet not everyone realised it was a work of fiction; some people tuned in only after the introduction and were completely duped and panicked. Angry calls started pouring into the station and the show’s supervisor, turning as ‘pale as death’, was ordered to interrupt the show to make clear that it was just fiction. “The following hours were a nightmare.” the producer recalled, “bedlam reigned in the studio as the building was suddenly full of people and dark-blue uniforms.”
There were initial reports of suicides, stampedes and traffic chaos and the cast and production team spent the rest of the day thinking their show had panicked thousands and was responsible for the deaths of dozens. Newspapers published at least 12,500 articles about the broadcast and its impact within three weeks, with most those that had been frightened not sure whether the ‘invaders’ were aliens or German Nazis. Yet the amount of panic is shown to be pretty exaggerated with relatively few listeners to the show.
3. Evel Knievel Canyon Jump
In the 1970s there was a man named Evel Knievel who became a US icon for his incredible motorcycle stunts. These typically involved launching himself off a ramp, flying over something crazy like ten lorries, then crashing upon landing, breaking numerous bones. The man actually holds the record for most bone fractures — 433 by 1975!
Anyway, the problem with being a stuntman is in order to keep spectators coming back for more and the money rolling in, you have to keep upping your game with ever more death-defying antics. By 1974 he decided to attempt to jump the 487m (1600ft) wide and 152m (500ft) deep Snake River Canyon in a ‘Skycycle’ named so, despite being a steam-powered rocket.
The day came, the massive crowds gathered and cameras began to roll. Evel, donned in his iconic star-spangled jumpsuit, was ceremoniously lowered into his Skycycle. His fans waited with bated breath as he was strapped in. It was one thing to jump a load of lorries but a whole canyon? This was something else.
The countdown reached zero then, whoosh, the rocket shot up the steep ramp it was mounted on. But something went immediately wrong; the safety parachute deployed as it lifted off the ramp, slowing its flight badly. Even though the craft soared all the way across the canyon to the north rim, winds caused it to drift back into the canyon.
By the time it hit the bottom of the canyon, it landed only a few feet from the water on the same side of the canyon it had been launched from. If he had landed in the water, Knievel said that he would have drowned, due to a harness malfunction which kept him strapped in the vehicle. As it was, he survived the failed jump with only minor physical injuries this time.
4. Times Reporter Triggers Bargain Fever
Check the calendar when reading weird news reports, folks. On April Fools 1972 The Times newspaper ran an article on UK travel agent Thomas Cook celebrating the 100th anniversary of its founder’s first round-the-world tour. Back in 1872 the tour had cost just 210 guineas each, about £500 ($650) nowadays and prices have, unsurprisingly, gone up since.
To celebrate the special day Times reporter John Carter published a small article to announce that Thomas Cook was offering around the world tours at 1872 prices to the first 1000 lucky applicants, and that applications should be addressed to a ‘Miss Avril Foley.’
The public response to this bargain-basement offer was swift and enthusiastic. Huge lines of people formed outside the Thomas Cook offices, and the travel agent was swamped with calls. Belatedly the Times identified the offer as an April Fool’s joke and apologized for the inconvenience it had caused. The people who had waited in line for hours were, to put it mildly, not amused and Carter was fired (though later reinstated).
5. Chili Eating Burns Hole in Throat
While most of us enjoy a curry with a good kick to it the thought of eating a seriously hot chilli pepper would fill us with dread. Eating a Jalapeno pepper is bad enough for most; the pain is pretty intense and fills the mouth and back of the throat and it makes you sweat and tear up. On the Scoville scale, the measurement for how hot a pepper is, a Jalapeno scores 5000. Sounds pretty high? Then compare that with a Ghost Pepper which scores a whopping 850,000 - imagine what that bad boy would do to you!
Of course there are these hardy souls in the world who chow down on super hot peppers just for fun, presumably with wax-lined innards to bear the heat and actually enjoy eating the things. Well, one guy tried to join this pantheon of gods but couldn’t quite cut the mustard. In 2016 an unnamed American tried to step up to the mark and it went disastrously. The man reportedly ate a burger smothered in Ghost Pepper puree and the heat was so intense he writhed in pain and vomited so badly that he tore a 2.5cm (1 inch) hole in his oesophagus. After spending 23 days in hospital he was discharged with a gastric tube.
6. Radio Station Prank Ends in Nurse’s Suicide
Plenty of us have tried out prank phone calls, usually as teenagers, perhaps putting on a silly accent, to get a laugh. What can possibly go wrong, just a harmless bit of fun, right? Well, this prank ended very badly. On the 2nd of December, 2012 Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge was in hospital with acute morning sickness whilst pregnant with Prince George. Two days into her stay, the hosts of the Hot 30 Countdown radio programme, Mel Greig and Mike Christian, called the hospital for what they thought would be nothing more than a hilarious wind-up.
Using ‘ridiculous comedy accents’ they impersonated Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Charles and asked to be put through to ‘Kate’. The nurse who obliged was called Jacintha Saldanha. The two DJs were put through to Catherine’s nurse who, also duped, talked to them for a couple of minutes.
The stunt was broadcast the next day after the station’s lawyers cleared it to be aired and the hospital condemned it as ‘journalistic trickery’. Little did the radio station and it’s two DJ pranksters know what turmoil it had stirred up.
The sad fact is that Nurse Saldanha was an emotionally volatile lady who had a history of severe depression; it’s reported that Saldanha had attempted suicide on two previous occasions and was taking anti-depressant medication.
It seems that the nurse, 46 at the time, felt personally responsible for the media furore around the hospital and the embarrassment it had caused. She was also unhappy with how her managers had handled the breach of security, although neither Saldanha nor the other nurse were disciplined by the hospital, and St. James’s Palace indicated that they did not blame the nurses for their part in the incident. On the 7th of December Saldanha hung herself, leaving behind a husband and two children.
7. Bloody End to Tiger Performance
Performing with animals, though more frowned upon nowadays, has always drawn in the crowds, perhaps because it displays our mastery over the rest of the animal kingdom. To tame a mighty lion with a chair or stick one’s head in the gaping, tooth lined crocodile’s maw is to defy a beast’s instinctive savagery.
Siegfried and Roy, a duo who performed magic tricks and worked with white lions and tigers, were one of the top headline acts on the Las Vegas Strip. One performance with a white Tiger named Mantecore, however, would almost end their double act for good in 2003.
During a show at the Mirage Casino Mantecore attacked Roy. Roy held a microphone to Mantecore’s mouth and told him to say “Hello” to the audience when something triggered Mantecore to attack. Why is anyone’s guess; perhaps they caught him on an off day and failed to see the signs or maybe it’s because, you know, Mantecore was a 230kg (500lb) apex predator. Anyway, Mantecore sunk his teeth into Roy’s sleeve as Roy swatted the Tiger and barked “release!”. Mantecore then knocked Roy down with his leg and pinned him to the floor. As standby trainers rushed in from offstage to fight off the big cat, Mantecore bit into Roy’s neck and carried him offstage.
Trainers were finally able to get the tiger to release Roy after spraying him with CO2 canisters but not before the attack severed Roy’s spine, inflicted critical blood loss, and caused severe crush injuries to other parts of his body, permanently affecting his ability to move, walk, and speak. Roy also suffered a stroke. He would learn to walk and talk again but the duo retired in 2010.
Video: 'Siegfried and Roy' tiger grabs Roy Horn by the neck as staff try to help: Part 6
Was he? Hello. Well, here we are. This dazzling magic show is going along as planned. Siegfried & Roy are about 45…
8. Radio Station Game Leaves Three with Frostbite
Endurance challenges can be fun, right? You might have to hold on to a car with the last person standing wins that car, what’s the worst that could happen? So you get a full bladder or a little bit of foot ache from standing for too long, it’s just a question of will power. That is probably what Birmingham’s BRMB radio station thought in August 2001. They challenged contestants to sit on blocks of dry ice to win tickets and backstage passes for a music festival in the city. The payoff for four contestants who endured sitting on the ice was severe frostbite.
That’s right, it didn’t occur to any of the challenge organisers that sitting with bare skin on blocks of carbon dioxide frozen to temperatures of -78C (-108F) might be a tad too cold. Two women and a man spent about 10 weeks in hospital recovering from extensive skin grafts. They suffered the loss of skin, fat and muscle and were left with permanent scarring.
“It was just horrendous. You just don’t think anything like that is going to happen.” Helen Terry, 25 said “I was told it was the worst burns that the nurses at the unit had ever seen. The surgeon said that if the burns had been on my hands or feet, they would have been amputated — that’s how serious it was.” The radio station was fined £15,000 for the gaff.
9. Poor Water Gag Scares Residents
Radio hosts in Kansas City pulled off a pretty good April Fools prank in 2002; they created panic among listeners by reporting that local tap water contained high levels of dihydrogen monoxide. They said the naturally occurring substance could lead to frequent urination and wrinkling of the skin.
It’s not as bad as it sounds though; dihydrogen monoxide is the chemical name for water. It’s surprising how knee-jerky some people can be; the police received more than 100 calls from worried residents and a city official likened the hoax to a terrorist act. In their defence the internet to check such things wasn’t in widespread use back then, still…
10. Train Crash for Publicity
We know that back in olden times people were kind of dumber back then, in the sense that life held less value and so health and safety could be pretty casual and if things didn’t quite go to plan and someone got killed in the process then, well, shit happens. It’s 1896 USA and you are a marketing guru who has been charged with promoting train ticket sales to Texas, what do you do? Stage a train crash in a mocked up town, of course! The idea was to sell tickets so that people could visit the town and make a jamboree of it, with amusements and sideshows to the main event. 50,000 people attended.
But, don’t worry folks they weren’t dismissive of health and safety as was the style of the time, they took it seriously big time. Spectators to the crash rail track had to stay a whole 180m (200yards) back and reporters half that — I bet they couldn’t even make out the names on the drivers’ name badges they were so safely far away.
Anyway the plan was that two steam locomotives would be driven at each other on a specially built train track with time given for the crews to jump off before collision. Impacting at 45mph (72kph), the locomotive boilers unexpectedly exploded. Three people were killed and dozens were injured. Sounds like a scene which could’ve made it into the movie A Million Ways to Die in the West.