As the story goes, November 22, 1963, was one of the darkest days in the history of New York City.
On a crisp autumn morning, evil emerged from the depths in the form of a giant octopus, which chased the Cornelius G. Kolff Staten Island Ferry around New York Harbor, grabbed hold of the ship with its mighty tentacles, and dragged the unsuspecting vessel under, killing 400 aboard.
The incident went largely unreported as it occurred on the same day as the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
But one small museum, the Staten Island Ferry Disaster Memorial Museum, will never forget.
In recent weeks, museum “officials” have been circulating around New York City a statue depicting the attack that was designed to commemorate the event. Countless tourists have seen it. Many have shared pictures on social media. Still others have talked about the statue (and what it represents) on Facebook and message boards and other forms of social media. Heck, even the New York Post covered the thing.
The truth, however, is that the statue, museum, and tragedy itself represent different facets of an elaborate hoax/social experiment.
The effort is the brainchild of 45-year-old Joe Reginella. A fabrication worker based in—you guessed it—Staten Island, Reginella said in an exclusive interview that the idea grew out of a colorful story he made up for his 11-year-old nephew when the boy was visiting from out of state.
“The kid is always asking me wacky questions and he asked me if the boat ever had gotten attacked by sharks,” Reginella recalls. “When I responded, I told him, ‘Not sharks, but there was this one time with a giant octopus.’ The rest of the story just happened naturally from there.”
Back on shore, Reginella started thinking about turning his fish story into more of a public-facing social media experiment. So he asked one friend to help with a website (with a gift shop!), and another to help write the story to make it compelling. Then he got to work on the statue itself—developing a maquette (that’s a fancy word for “mockup”) on his own, and then working with fellow fabrication friends to make a life-sized monument that was easy to transport, set up, and break down quickly.
Because Reginella doesn’t have a permit for the statue, he has to keep moving it around the city, setting it up in different places every few days. He adds that after his efforts have attracted so much attention, he won’t leave it out overnight, for fear of the statue getting Lochte’d.
Once Reginella sets up the statue in a particular spot, he always stands nearby to keep tabs on it and eavesdrop on what passersby have to say about it.
“It amazes me how certain people think that this all really happened,” he says. “Just the other day I overheard some people from Australia who came out looking for the statue because some of their Facebook friends had told them about it. Tourists don’t read the newspaper when they’re on vacation. They look at their social media feeds and if they see something there they just assume it’s newsworthy and real.”
(This speaks to the “social experiment” part of the project.)
Reginella adds that response to the campaign has been overwhelming—literally. On a recent weekend evening, he spent multiple hours responding to email inquiries about the statue and museum. The website lists the museum address as across the street from the Snug Harbor Cultural Center, and officials at that facility report a surge in interest there as well.
The museum’s online gift shop is a legitimate business, and there even has been a run on its T-shirts.
Still, all of the positive attention begs the question: What’s next? With all this momentum, might we see more of this campaign this winter, or another Octopus Disaster-type hoax down the road? Reginella isn’t tipping his tentacles.
“I’ve got a few things in my pocket,” he says. “New York is always here. The tourists are always here.”
Matt Villano is a freelance writer and editor based in Healdsburg, California. In nearly 20 years as a full-time freelancer, he has covered travel for publications including TIME, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Sunset, Backpacker, Entrepreneur, and more. He contributes to the Expedia Viewfinder blog and writes a monthly food column for Islands magazine. Villano also serves on the board of the Family Travel Association and blogs about family travel at Wandering Pod. Learn more about him at Whalehead.com.