Longform

PHONE CALLS FROM HELL

Page 2 of 3

In another tape (attributed to Pittsburgh's Evil Mofos From Hell"), pranksters answer a want ad placed by a man running a trucking service. After the man explains that it's not worth his time to haul 50 pounds of dog shit" from the callers' lawn, the insults begin. Within minutes the callers have enraged the victim to the point that he threatens bodily harm before slamming down the phone. Under the guise of apologizing, the pranksters call back and bait the victim into another burst of vitriol, this one climaxing in threats of rape, murder and arson. Suddenly realizing he's plummeted off the deep end, the shaken victim hangs up.

What a sociologist might make of this is anyone's guess, because nobody except perhaps the victims take prank calls seriously.

It's sad that the people in academia, with some exceptions, ignore this stuff as being silly and frivolous because these calls show how people really are," says Nashville-based freelance writer Barry Alfonso, a longtime devotee of what he calls telephone experiments." This kind of absolute, down-to-the-bone, bottom-line, locker-room, man-to-man talk that comes out when people are mad reveals a lot about what some people really think but never say in proper conversation."

Many of the calls also reveal that some folks are a lot more gullible than they'd like to believe. People will believe things that they're told on the phone that they would probably never believe if someone told them in person," contends Alfonso, who outlined one of those calls in the 1987 book Pranks!, a collection of Devious Deeds and Mischievous Mirth": An experimenter" picks a name from the telephone book, dials that number, then tells the person who answers that he's found some keys with the victim's name and address on them.

If you start throwing out various facts and bits of information, they'll connect the dots for you," claims Alfonso. You say you've found some lost keys (that don't exist)-then mysteriously they have lost some keys... . You could say a meteor landed in your backyard, cracked open, and you found their name and address inside, and they would sooner believe that than realize you picked their name out of the phone book." Alfonso claims that calls like those he's described are, for the most part, relatively harmless." The worst thing you've done is make someone feel foolish," he says. And, considering what most people do to each other every day-they lie, they cheat, they cut each other off in traffic-that's not that terrible." Still, Alfonso claims many people feel far more threatened by an anonymous joke call than they would had the caller telephoned for perverse sexual purposes or tried to hoodwink them out of money.

That, people can understand," explains Alfonso. But the fact that someone would call them as an artistic humorous statement is a very subversive thought to a lot of people. Things that are outside of normal, rational activity are very disturbing to people."

John Trubee agrees. You can call up and tell anyone a bunch of nonsense, but if you tell them in a businesslike voice, in an adult manner, you can get most people to believe anything," he says. But later, when people find out they've been had, it really rattles their sense of reality because they can't understand the motivation behind the reality. Suddenly, they're forced to start questioning everything they see, hear and believe-particularly what they see and hear on TV and radio. And that's not a bad thing."

SEVENTEEN YEARS after the KDIL crew disconnected its telephone, prank calls continued to rock the Phoenix commercial-radio scene. But until recently, it was often the stations themselves that orchestrated the stunts.

KSLX radio morning personality Bob Boze Bell grimaces as he recalls a series of on-air prank calls, all of which backfired in a big way. In one particularly ill-advised stunt of a few years ago, a listener was told he'd receive free airline tickets if he'd call his ex-wife and pretend that he wanted to reconcile.

We thought we'd get a phone call where she'd just be cursing at him, really reading him the riot act," says Bell. Well, he calls her up and tells her he's changed his mind and that he's made a terrible mistake. And, much to our surprise, she says-live, on the air-00`This is kind of sudden. I didn't know this is how you really felt.' Suddenly, it became obvious that she was taking him up on his offer. When we cut in and told her it was just a gag to try to win some airline tickets, she started crying. It was so pathetic, it made your skin crawl."

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Dewey Webb