"Honey, I know you're dead, but Diane Sawyer's on line one . . . "
photos by Jeff Newton

Punk You!

To borrow a line from Demi Moore boy toy Ashton Kutcher, "You've been punked!" That's right, New Times' October 28 cover story 'bout a Valley firm named Preserve A Life -- which taxidermies deceased humans for "mountings" in the homes of loved ones, etc. -- was a spoof just in time for Halloween.

There's no kindly grandmother who's been stuffed and set in the living room, no freeze-dried newlywed bride laid out in a provocative pose on her widower's bed, no mounted heads on a Tempe businessman's downtown office wall, no stuffed little boy on a skateboard or in his Little League uniform.

The story and most of the photos were fabrications.

But don't feel bad about it, Phoenix. Producers for two ABC news shows, Primetime Live with Diane Sawyer, and 20/20, separately contacted Preserve A Life's voice mail, interested in doing stories on the company's creepy services. Both shows were disappointed to discover that it was all a prank, but 20/20 at least had a sense of humor about it.

Not so Primetime Live drone Emily Just, who left two messages for PAL CEO Bryce Cunningham. When Just was informed that by calling and asking to speak to Cunningham, she'd paid us -- the spoofers -- the ultimate compliment, she was highly annoyed. "Now, which part was complimentary?" asked the intentionally obtuse Just. Uh, the part where you fell for it.

How does New Times come up with this stuff? Well, the idea came from the twisted mind of an unusually perverse individual -- staff writer Esteban Sauer -- and the paper's editors jumped on the notion like it was an unclaimed Grey Goose martini.

Get it? "Esteban" is Spanish for Stephen, and "Sauer" is a reference to the last name, Lemons, with a German twist. It was one of the many clues provided to tip off careful readers. A handful of you spotted the rest. For example, the fax number listed in Preserve A Life's ad was a New Times number, and New Times owns the domain name www.preserve-a-life.com.

Moreover, we never listed the exact address of PAL's headquarters, and there's no "Casper" mortuary in greater Phoenix. The image of a PAL freeze-dryer was actually a black-and-white photo of an iron lung.

Readers had a more difficult time picking out the staged photos of the Braswell family, little Marvin Singer, or the lady with the "skin pillow," all created just for this story. The pic of the dead clown? Hey, that was real.

Indeed, to cut the suckers some slack, the spoof was wildly successful in large part because it seems within the realm of possibility.

After all, everyone's familiar with the whole thing about dead baseball slugger Ted Williams' head getting iced over at ALCOR in Scottsdale. Indeed, ALCOR's antics, in general, seem almost unreal. In Utah, there's a quasi-religious organization called Summum that offers modern mummification for both pets and humans. There have been instances of freeze-drying human corpses; one case was even executed by a Valley taxidermist and a local mortuary.

In Los Angeles, the immensely popular Body Worlds exhibition currently has on display about 100 human corpses that have been preserved with a process that replaces all body fluids with reactive polymers.

Plus, the trend in the funeral industry is away from traditional burials. Cremation is an increasingly common way of disposing of human remains. So it wouldn't be at all unusual to have granny up on the mantel in an urn.

All of which accounts for why the phone number and e-mail listed on the Preserve A Life Web site are still receiving messages two weeks after the article ran. As of the date that this fess-up went to press, the line had gotten more than 800 calls, and the Web site had received 200 e-mails and counting. This is not to mention the letters to the editor and phone calls directed to New Times.

Requests for PAL's color brochures came in from as far away as Wisconsin, Texas, and Washington state. Though most inquiries seemed to be from curiosity seekers, a sizable number expressed interest in PAL's services. Some got the joke and wished us a happy Halloween, while others tried to punk the punkers by stating that they wanted to preserve their loved ones, with certain sexual attributes enhanced.

One of our favorites: "My wife was recently killed in a sky-diving accident. I am inquiring about having her vagina mounted on my wall -- preferably about waist level -- or maybe [turned into] a change purse to carry around in my pocket."

And: "We're thinking of having Grandma freeze-dried. Can she be ground up and put in food? Or would we have to mix her with hot water and drink her like coffee? Can we have her chunked and made into jerky instead? She was tasty alive, and I can't wait to taste her dead."

However, several of you were not amused, including one lady who called our cover story "the most disgusting article I've ever read," said she was "thoroughly repulsed," and then went on to denounce both Governor Janet Napolitano and Mayor Phil Gordon for giving tax breaks to the nonexistent corporation (we suspect that the mayor can take a joke about the claims we made about him in the story, but we're not sure about the governor).

Many advised CEO Bryce Cunningham (the picture we published of him was also phony, natch) that he was "going to Hell!" Some simply wrote in asking things like, "Are you insane?" or stating, "You must be sick!" Others wrote impassioned diatribes on why PAL was unethical. One woman promised, "You motherfuckers will go down. I will have your whole company shut down. And as for Bryce Cunningham, your career is OVER!"

Jeez, lady, did you forget to take your medication?

A former ALCOR employee inquired about employment opportunities at PAL, as did one fellow with extensive taxidermy experience. ALCOR lobbyist Jeff Holmes of Aarons Company in Phoenix wondered if it was a joke or not. Robert Fern, who teaches a class in Death and Dying at Mesa Community College, phoned to see about a possible field trip for his class to the Preserve A Life headquarters (though he later told us that his class figured out PAL was a hoax). Salesperson Bobby Gill of Viacom Outdoors wanted to know if Preserve A Life was interested in advertising through Viacom's billboards, and a salesperson from a local vending company tried to sell PAL snack and coffee machines. Even the editor of a California funeral industry publication called PAL to ask for more info.

But the most fun we had was conning the jocks over at KISS-FM's morning show, Kid and Ruben -- who (ironically) are known for their "phone scams" against unsuspecting citizens. Their executive producer, Eric DiMaggio, contacted the Preserve A Life hot line to set up a phone interview with company CEO Cunningham. Uh, Mr. Cunningham's "secretary" then returned DiMaggio's call, and an interview was set up for 6:20 a.m. Friday, October 29.

It was a painfully early hour for a New Times scribe to get up for an acting gig, but we didn't want to disappoint Kid and Ruben's audience -- especially since the station had run promos for the on-air interview during drive time the day before.

Initially, we were concerned that the Kid and Ruben show might have figured out the ruse. But to our delight, they went for it, hook, line and sinker. For several minutes, the hosts queried Cunningham on PAL's services. They accused one of the subjects in the article of necrophilia. We discussed the legalities of "humidermy" and the prices of getting a whole body done versus just one part of the corpse.

They seemed especially concerned about the mother who'd supposedly lost her son as a soldier in Iraq, but could only afford to get his head mounted on a plaque next to his medals. Cunningham informed the hosts that, despite what the article stated, PAL had not waived the mother's fee -- instead charging the full $1,750 for mounting the dead Marine's mug.

Afterward, the shocked jocks played Cunningham off the air with the music from the John Carpenter film Halloween, but not before he got in a plug for the Preserve A Life Web site. Following the interview, the DJs expressed dismay, not disbelief, at what they'd just heard.

"I didn't get to ask him one question I wanted to ask," said Corina, Kid and Ruben's on-air gal pal. "How does a person heal and mourn and move on when the dead person is still with them?"

Chimed in Ruben: "Exactly. And that kind of disturbs me that he charged her, that woman who lost her son. That's crazy!"

"I just think it's wild!" said Kid. "Walking into someone's house and seeing a human head mounted like it was an animal. That's something that's going on right here in our own backyard."

Emphasized Ruben: "This is really happening!"

Sorry to burst your bubble, Butt-head, but this was just one in a long line of New Times gotchas -- going back to the gold we said was located in the Scottsdale Galleria parking lot, the plan to arm the homeless, and the, um, psychedelic drug that coated one of New Times' pages (one reader complained that he'd eaten 12 such pages and couldn't get high).

In running such tall tales, we hark back to the glory days of Mad magazine and National Lampoon, a proud tradition of editorial parody practiced today by The Onion and Saturday Night Live. And, of course, it calls to mind the greatest Halloween prank of all: Orson Welles' 1938 radio adaptation of H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds, in which he convinced listeners that the Earth had been invaded by death-ray-wielding Martians.

Several hip-to-the-joke readers wanted to know why a pub like New Times, famous for its investigative reporting, would deign to do parodies. Well, because we can, and 'cause they're fun! If you fell hard for this one, just remember . . . we only punk the ones we love.

E-mail stephen.lemons@newtimes.com


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