Internet Nostalgia

Let’s Revisit Balloon Boy

A hoax we’d no longer believe.

Will Leitch
OneZero
Published in
3 min readJun 18, 2021

--

Welcome to part 16 of our Internet Nostalgia series, which looks back at phenomena that captured the internet’s imagination and attention for a fleeting moment and then vanished as everyone moved on to something else. This series looks back at those olden times and what they told us about the internet and ourselves. If you have a suggested topic, email me at williamfleitch@yahoo.com. Last week, Susan Boyle’s first appearance on “Britain’s Got Talent.” This week: The Balloon Boy Hoax.

Date: October 15, 2009

The Story: I specifically remember that Balloon Boy happened on a Thursday afternoon. It was a long work week — I’d personally turned 34 years old earlier in the week — and I was starting to wind everything down into Friday and I noticed on the television in the background that there was a boy stuck in a balloon that was flying away. The story was absurd. How did this boy get in there? How did this balloon get loose? What kind of balloon was this, anyway? The story was so strange, so random, that you almost had to take it at face value: Why would someone make up details so intricate and weird? It didn’t occur that it might not be real, because why wouldn’t it be real? It had the specific insanity of something that was true.

It turned out that, no, there was no boy in the balloon, and that specific insanity belonged to a man named Richard Heene, a stuntman/handyman/inventor/reality television pseudo-star who had appeared on “Wife Swap” and decided he wanted more fame for himself and his family than just that. So he lost the tether on his invented balloon, told police and the media that his son Falcon was in it and next thing you knew, people like me were wrapping up their workday terrified that a small boy was going to fall out of a balloon shaped like a flying saucer. I really was worried at the time. You would have been too.

I tracked the coverage all day online. The story grew in intensity … and then…

--

--

Will Leitch
OneZero

Author of six books, including “How Lucky” and "The Time Has Come." NYMag/MLB.. Founder, Deadspin. https://williamfleitch.substack.com