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If it's a hoax, it's got to be elaborate

When English artists Doug Bower and Dave Chorley showed how they flattened a circle of grain stalks in Kent by dragging around some wooden planks, they became the bad boys of an international hoax dispute.

The artists had been creating crop circles in England for 13 years, they announced last fall, duping self-styled sleuths who said the patterns were made by visiting space aliens.

Only now, it's the sleuths who are crying hoax.

"All of a sudden two jokers come out and say, "Oh, we've done them all,' and you get coverage in every newspaper and on every major broadcast system," fumes crop-circle aficionado Bruce Rideout, a psychologist at Pennsylvania's Ursinus College. But not all of the circles are phony, Rideout and others contend: In a mind-teasing contradiction, the hoaxers' hoax may be in claiming the hoax.

Although few hoaxes or purported hoaxes generate such transatlantic controversy, the genre generally represents the more sinister end of a spectrum of shenanigans and high jinks.

Psychiatrists who look into works of deception and ridicule distinguish the hoax from its playful cousin, the prank. Hoaxes, they note, may be potentially dangerous; they may involve fraud and may be conceived for such unfunny reasons as degrading an enemy or increasing the hoaxer's self-esteem.

"A hoax . . . starts to imply something much more ominous," says Charles Ford, a University of Alabama, Birmingham, psychiatrist who studies deceit. The hoaxer, he says, may experience "a transient feeling of superiority and power."

More serious pranks may also be pulled for hostile or competitive purposes, experts say.

"They can involve unconscious feelings, such as malevolence or getting one up on someone else," says psychiatrist Roman Anshin, who teaches at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

For Betty Ligon, a hoax pulled years ago began as a way to enliven a boring job.

As a young society columnist for the Amarillo (Texas) Globe-News, Ligon yearned to be a foreign correspondent and resented covering teas and luncheons. In those days, papers published complete guest lists, and one day Ligon decided to drop in an extra name _ a fictional Mrs. Harrison Benudi.

When the name went unnoticed Ligon became bolder, adding Benudi's name to other lists, until the town's socially conscious set began asking who on Earth the newcomer was.

After Ligon revealed that Benudi was a former New York fashion model, married to a Maj. Benudi stationed at the local military base, Amarillo's society mavens began claiming they'd invited her for lunch.

At this point things began to spin out of hand. The publisher, who had gotten wind of the hoax and was amused, upped the ante by adding the socialite to his column and announcing that she was not a former model but a woman of ill repute.

Then, to everyone's surprise, a letter arrived from an outraged "Maj. Benudi" _ and the furious publisher ordered Ligon to end the charade by moving the Benudis out of town in her next column (Months later, an editor confessed to writing the "major's" letter, which he sent to embarrass the publisher for passing him over for a promotion, Ligon says).

Although these days such a hoax likely would result in disciplinary action, Ligon, now a free-lance entertainment columnist in El Paso, Texas, says she suffered no professional fallout and recalls the incident gleefully, exclaiming: "We got very power drunk."

Such schemes as the make-believe Mrs. Benudi aren't necessarily the same as "utilitarian" hoaxes, says University of California, Los Angeles psychiatrist Roderic Gorney.

"The utilitarian type of hoaxer is a person who is often trying to make something that is false believed," with the goal of making money or attracting attention, he says.

Perhaps nowhere did the utilitarian hoax work more dramatically than in Orson Welles' notorious 1938 radio broadcast of H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds.

"We know now that in the early days of the 20th century, this world was being watched closely by intelligences greater than man's . . ." Welles intoned, delivering the tale as if it were live coverage of Martians invading the planet.

Intended as a scary Halloween broadcast that would boost the Mercury Theater's sluggish ratings in New York, the hoax went awry, panicking thousands and creating a legend.

Although things settled down fairly quickly after the Welles broadcast, that wasn't the case two years ago when two DJs at KROQ-FM in Los Angeles attempted to get their program noticed by airing a trumped-up murder confession that became notorious.

Kevin Ryder and Gene "Bean" Baxter "concocted (the confession) as a radio bit that would happen and then just go away," says Trip Reeb, the station's general manager. Instead, it set off a 10-month search for the "killer" and gained a spot on TV's Unsolved Mysteries.

After their scheme was discovered last April, the DJs were suspended without pay for five days. They also were required to reimburse authorities for the investigation and to perform 149 hours of community service.

When hoaxers don't live up to expectations their tricks may also turn sour, as happened in the case of Ed Greer, a cult figure of Southern California hoaxes.

One day in 1981, Greer, then a 33-year-old engineer for Hughes Aircraft, parked his car at Venice Beach and disappeared, making it appear as if he had drowned during a lunchtime swim.

But a fellow employee saw him later that day at Los Angeles International Airport, and, instead of mourning, colleagues began celebrating his escape from corporate tedium with an annual "Ed Greer Day" party.

"We'd speculate on where he was," picturing him on a tropical island, says graphic artist Joan Klapper. People wrote limericks celebrating Greer's flight, even adding the verb "to greer," meaning to vanish, to their vocabulary.

But then, after seven years, Ed Greer turned up. He was living in Texas under an assumed identity, working for a small oil exploration company and living with a steady girlfriend _ in other words, doing basically what he'd always done.

Their fantasies destroyed, Hughes employees celebrated a final time _ only this party was dubbed "Ed's a Jerk."