How likely is it that people can be made up out of thin air and a bunch of rumors? In the age of Facebook, pretty likely. But it's happened before — long before the rise of social media.
We haven't got to the point where we can make people disappear. But there have been some who have done the reverse. They've made people appear. Not on paper, but actually in other people's minds. These are not like like the occasional women who came forward pretending to the Grand Duchess Anastasia. They were not people at all. They were figments.
The most recent, and most well-known, was the Nat Tate hoax. William Boyd, a writer, and David Bowie, yes that David Bowie, got together and decided to invent a painter. Nat Tate, the name they settled on, was meant to have been an abstract expressionist who developed a friendship with Picasso, lived a wild life, and died tragically young in 1960. The two got prominent artists and writers to help slap together a biography of him, and published it in a glittering launch party on the day before April Fool's Day in 1998.
Since it was only about forty years after the man supposedly died, it would seem that some of the older art critics might have called it a fake pretty quickly. But the party rolled on, and the story is divided on whether an anonymous tip to a newspaper, or one curious writer and motivated report, exposed the fraud. The exact level to which people believed Tate existed was debatable. Some say it was an open secret that the whole thing was a hoax. Others go so far as to say that people related stories of the man, or reminisced about his work. What was noted was that almost no one would admit to never having heard of the guy, except the writer who eventually exposed the story. Nat Tate, then, had a curious half-life that no one was willing to dismiss.
A more eyebrow-raising phantom was created by Emmanuel Lifshitz, a Russian poet. Some say that he created an English Poet, James Clifford, to get around the censors in his home country. (If he said he had translated a work into Russian it wasn't as scrutinized as something he had written himself.) Lifshitz indicated, later, that he only felt capable of writing the way he needed to write by pretending to be an English poet. Whatever the case, he wrote The Batum Worker, a collection of poems, under the names James Clifford, and pretended that he had translated it from English to Russian. Although he indicates that it was all a hoax in the biography section of the book, saying, "Such could have been the biography of this English poet, who grew up in my imagination."
People loved the poems, though, and thought that Clifford was an actual English poet. Clifford was a famous phantom, with people looking for more of his work, and discussing his unique style. Yevgeny Aleksandrovich Yevtushenko, another poet who was a friend of Lifshitz actually told Lifshitz that he had fond memories of Clifford, because he'd met him. He said he'd never forget the eccentric English poet who never was.
Pretention? Possibly. Or possibly people simply cobble together a memory from suggestion. In memory experiments, researchers have convinced people that they had a very specific experience of being lost in a shopping mall and found by a kindly elderly lady. They were also convinced that they'd seen Warner Brothers characters at Disneyland. When being told to retrieve a certain memory, the mind does the best it can and serves up something. Sometimes that something is a complete fiction.
Today, it looks like anyone can push someone into existence. The internet has been used to create fake government agencies, fake scientific breakthroughs, and fake supernatural monsters. Could we invent a new scientific field devoted to talking something into existing? And if so, could I get the credit for it, please?