5. Pope Joan
One of the most famous Popes of all time is the one that modern day scholars believe probably didn’t exist. Pope Joan was a figure who was once believed to have served as Pontiff for a few years around 853-855 A.D. Her story first appeared in the 13th century writings of a Dominican Friar called Jean De Mailly, and for centuries it was a well-known legend in Europe. The tale came in many forms, but the most popular version described Joan as pious and brilliant woman who, after disguising herself as a man, rose quickly through the ranks of the Catholic Church and was chosen as Pope. Her reign supposedly came to an end when, while riding on horseback one day, she suddenly fell ill and gave birth to a child. Here the story takes many different turns: some versions say she died in childbirth, others say natural causes, and others still say that an angry mob murdered her. While historians have found enough evidence to reject the idea that Pope Joan ever really existed—some have claimed that the tale originated in a satirical story about Pope John XI—there’s no denying her legend played a major part in the religion of the Middle Ages. Religious scholars and popular writers like Boccaccio often made references to her, and there are reports of statues of her being erected. The legend persisted for several hundred years, and it took until 1601 before Pope Clement VIII officially denied the story.
The internet has long been a breeding ground for hoaxes and alter egos, and lonelygirl15 is perhaps the most famous example. The name refers to the YouTube handle of a 16-year-old girl named Bree who started posting video blogs on the site in 2006. At first, the videos were nothing more than the online diary of an average high-school student, complete with quirky effects and complaints about how boring her hometown was. Lonelygirl15 quickly became a hit, and was eventually the most popular channel on YouTube. But after a few episodes, Bree’s growing fan base began to be suspicious over whether the videos were a hoax. A number of websites and forums soon sprang up, and amateur detectives began poring over the videos looking for clues and inconsistencies. It didn’t take long before it was discovered that “Bree” was in fact Jessica Rose, a 19-year-old L.A.-based actress, and that her YouTube account was actually a carefully scripted media hoax designed to eventually expand into a full-fledged television show. The whole episode briefly made lonelygirl15 a cultural phenomenon, and the show continued for a further two years, eventually taking on a quasi-sci-fi plot that featured a sweeping narrative and multiple characters. The character of “Bree,” once considered by many to be a real teenager, was killed off of the show in 2007.
3. Tony Clifton
Comedian Andy Kaufman was famous for playing with audience expectations by mixing performance art and mysterious alter egos into his stand up. One of his most famous creations was Tony Clifton, a washed-up, vulgar, and often-drunk lounge singer who served as the opening act for Kaufman’s comedy gigs. With his terrible singing voice, confrontational attitude, and tendency to forget his lyrics, Clifton summed up every stereotype of the aging Vegas entertainer, and he soon became a popular character. After it surfaced that Clifton was actually being portrayed by Kaufman in costume and makeup—something both men denied—Kaufman enlisted both his brother and his friend Bob Zmuda to portray the character on stage in order to further the illusion that he and his creation were separate people. Tony Clifton was soon making appearances on everything from David Letterman’s late night show to Dinah Shore’s talk show, where he was famously thrown out of the studio for dumping a plate of eggs on the host’s head. He was even slated to appear as a special guest on the sitcom Taxi, but was kicked off the set for being disruptive. Kaufman died in 1984 without ever revealing the truth about the character, and even today it’s not widely known how many times he actually appeared as Clifton, or how many times an accomplice stepped into the role. The gruff lounge singer has continued to make appearances since Kaufman’s death, which has only furthered the illusion that Tony Clifton is actually a real person.
2. Alan Smithee
Director Alan Smithee has enjoyed a long and varied career, which has seen him make everything from feature films to television pilots, cartoons, and music videos. He’d be one of Hollywood’s most prolific filmmakers if not for one key fact: he doesn’t exist. Since 1968, directors who wish to have their name removed from the credits of their films have used the name “Alan Smithee” as a pseudonym. Alan Smithee was first employed by Don Siegel on the film Death of a Gunfighter, and it’s since been used whenever a director feels that their creative control over a film project has been compromised to the extent that the final product is no longer their work. With this in mind, Alan Smithee now has 73 directorial credits on the website Internet Movie Database, including such lamentable productions as Hellraiser: Bloodline and Solar Crisis, along with TV projects including episodes of The Cosby Show and MacGyver. Mainstream directors like Michael Mann and Paul Verhoeven have also used the credit in instances where movies like Heat or Showgirls are significantly edited for exhibition on television. The Director’s Guild of America officially abandoned Alan Smithee in the late nineties, after the release of a film called An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn drew unwanted attention to the name. Since then, unhappy filmmakers have chosen their own pseudonyms, but others continue to use Alan Smithee as a sort of tribute. In fact, since 2000, the phantom director has racked up a further 18 film credits.
1. Prester John
There might be more well known entries on this list, but none of them had the same influence on world politics, religion, or exploration as Prester John, a mythical king who was once believed to have presided over a Christian empire in Asia. His legend dates back to the 12th century, when it arose as an amalgam of adventure stories, true histories of Christian missionaries, and the exploits of Alexander the Great. Prester John and his kingdom became a true sensation in 1165, when a letter supposedly written by him began circulating around Europe. According to these fantastical sources, Prester John was a direct descendant of one of the Three Wise Men. His kingdom, which was suspected to be in India or the Middle East, was seen by the Europeans of the time as a shining light of civilization in a region that was viewed as exotic and barbarous. Prester John himself was believed to be a kind and wise man who ruled over an empire of great wealth, and his kingdom was often said to include such wonders as the Fountain of Youth and even the Garden of Eden. Despite little evidence of his existence, the legend of Prester John persisted for several hundred years, and for a time he was even linked with the Mongol warlord Genghis Khan. It would take until the 1600s before academics and travelers were able to prove that Prester John was nothing but a myth, but in the interim the legendary king had managed to affect everything from religion to world trade. Not only had missionaries stepped up their efforts in Asia and Africa in the hope of discovering Prester John’s kingdom, but explorers like Magellan were encouraged to seek out new lands in the hope that they might one day stumble upon the mythical ruler.