August 17, 2002
Stranger Than Fiction

Joanne Jacobs links to a bizarre story in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about "designer kidnapping", in which people pay to be mock-kidnapped. (The permalink may not work: the title is 'Thrills' and it's the third item from the top in yesterday's posts.)

In Jacobs' comment section, Roger Sweeny writes:

In college in the late '60s I remember seeing a double bill of "underground films" "Greetings" and "Hi, Mom." Starring, as I remember, a very young Robert DeNiro. I think it was "Hi, Mom" that involved a group of people getting kidnapped. Fairly far along in the movie, the kidnappers reveal to the group that the "play" is over and we hear one of the victims say, "Clive Barnes [or whoever the NYT theater critic was then] was right. This is an exceptional evening of theater."

There is a very similar idea, though not restricted to kidnapping, even earlier in G. K. Chesterton's collection of short stories, The Club of Queer Trades (1905). It is Chapter 1, "The Tremendous Adventures of Major Brown", and is available on the web here.

Here is a slice to give the flavor. Mr. Northover, the organizer, is explaining the game to Major Brown, who has been involved by mistake, confused with the actual target, a Mr. Gurney-Brown -- Rupert Grant is a detective:

"Major," said he, "did you ever, as you walked along the empty street upon some idle afternoon, feel the utter hunger for something to happen--something, in the splendid words of Walt Whitman: `Something pernicious and dread; something far removed from a puny and pious life; something unproved; something in a trance; something loosed from its anchorage, and driving free.' Did you ever feel that?"

"Certainly not," said the Major shortly.

"Then I must explain with more elaboration," said Mr Northover, with a sigh. "The Adventure and Romance Agency has been started to meet a great modern desire. On every side, in conversation and in literature, we hear of the desire for a larger theatre of events for something to waylay us and lead us splendidly astray. Now the man who feels this desire for a varied life pays a yearly or a quarterly sum to the Adventure and Romance Agency; in return, the Adventure and Romance Agency undertakes to surround him with startling and weird events. As a man is leaving his front door, an excited sweep approaches him and assures him of a plot against his life; he gets into a cab, and is driven to an opium den; he receives a mysterious telegram or a dramatic visit, and is immediately in a vortex of incidents. A very picturesque and moving story is first written by one of the staff of distinguished novelists who are at present hard at work in the adjoining room. Yours, Major Brown (designed by our Mr Grigsby), I consider peculiarly forcible and pointed; it is almost a pity you did not see the end of it. I need scarcely explain further the monstrous mistake. Your predecessor in your present house, Mr Gurney-Brown, was a subscriber to our agency, and our foolish clerks, ignoring alike the dignity of the hyphen and the glory of military rank, positively imagined that Major Brown and Mr Gurney-Brown were the same person. Thus you were suddenly hurled into the middle of another man's story."

"How on earth does the thing work?" asked Rupert Grant, with bright and fascinated eyes.

"We believe that we are doing a noble work," said Northover warmly. "It has continually struck us that there is no element in modern life that is more lamentable than the fact that the modern man has to seek all artistic existence in a sedentary state. If he wishes to float into fairyland, he reads a book; if he wishes to dash into the thick of battle, he reads a book; if he wishes to soar into heaven, he reads a book; if he wishes to slide down the banisters, he reads a book. We give him these visions, but we give him exercise at the same time, the necessity of leaping from wall to wall, of fighting strange gentlemen, of running down long streets from pursuers--all healthy and pleasant exercises. We give him a glimpse of that great morning world of Robin Hood or the Knights Errant, when one great game was played under the splendid sky. We give him back his childhood, that godlike time when we can act stories, be our own heroes, and at the same instant dance and dream."

Now go read the whole thing. (I also thought of titling this post 'Nothing New Under The Sun'.)

Posted by Dr. Weevil at August 17, 2002 09:46 PM

Susanna at Cut on the Bias had a post covering this story Aug. 5. (

She links to the BBC News story on "designer kidnappings" in NYC. What I got from the stories on this is there are far too many bored rich people with too much time on their hands.

I'm reminded of an "Oprah" show back in the mid-90s that profiled a high-dollar women's self-defense program that actually required a *random* enacted "attack" for graduation. No, it was not an attack that was staged in a classroom (gym) setting. But rather, it was an attack where the woman was followed and "attacked" to assess how she reacted, how she used the skills from the program.

Has anyone else heard of this "self-defense" program? Or was I just on crack -- like the people who have themselves professionally kidnapped for thrills.

Posted by: page on August 18, 2002 12:58 AM

In the famous, long-running musical from the 1960s, The Fantasticks, two conniving fathers attempt to nudge the daughter of one and son of the other into marrying. As part of this plot they organize a pretended abduction of the girl so the boy can save her. They hire the narrator of the show to do the job and he, to the distress of the girl's father, insists on calling the abduction "the rape". Life imitates art?

Posted by: Michael Lonie on August 18, 2002 03:38 PM

"Greetings!" and "Hi Mom" was a retrospective double feature found at art houses around the nation because they were the first two noticed films of Brian DePalma. And, yeah, because of young Robert DiNiro in both. (Greetings! also had Gerrit Graham, and "Hi Mom" also had Gerrit Graham, Charles Durning, and Allan Garfield, among others.)

Posted by: Gary Farber on August 19, 2002 01:37 AM

Bill Murray starred in a 1997 movie called, "The Man Who Knew Too Little." Murray's character is scheduled to take part in the "Theatre of Life," which promises to treat the participant as a character in a crime drama. Hilarity ensues when Murray is mistaken for a real spy and real criminals abduct him. Murray goes along, of course, as he continues to believe everything is an act for his benefit. Actually quite enjoyable if you are a fan of Murray (as I am).

Posted by: Ernest Miller on August 19, 2002 07:51 AM

There was also a recent Michael Douglas movie with roughly the same plot; I believe it was called The Game.

Also, I remember hearing recently about a computer game that was intended to have a similar "total life" experience. The game was an espionage thriller or mystery, and as part of the game you would be sent e-mails, instant-messages, and even receive computer generated phone calls based on your progress in the game. I'm not a gamer, but the idea sounded intriguing.

Posted by: Doug Turnbull on August 19, 2002 12:05 PM

Here's a summary of the Bill Murray film, The Man Who Knew Too Little (a really funny movie, rent it).
The IDb link:

Wallace Ritchie flies to England to spend his birthday with his brother, James. James has business guests coming over and must find something to occupy his brother until dinner's over. Wallace ends up taking part in the "Theatre Of Life," which promises to treat the participant as a character in a crime drama. Trouble begins when Wallace is mistaken for a real spy and shoots a man. Now he's tangled up in a plot to kill Russian dignitaries on the eve of the signing of an important peace agreement. For him, it's all an act. But to the men who want a second Cold War, Wallace is public enemy number one.

The "Theater of Life" takes place in the streets of London. The comments about fake kidnapping reminded me of this movie.

Posted by: Jabba the Tutt on August 23, 2002 09:04 PM