Lemmings | The Bizarre Story of the Term’s Definition
First published: April 10, 2019
Ever heard the phrase “don’t be a lemming”?
It means, basically, “don’t just go where others are going.”
You might have known that.
But did you know it’s a total fabrication resulting from a fake documentary?
I’m referring to that time in 1958 when the Walt Disney Company staged a mass lemming suicide in an Academy Award-nominated documentary film.
The story is a bizarre one, as is its lasting cultural impact, so let’s dive right into this peculiar chapter in documentary history.
But first …
What is a Lemming Anyway?
A lemming is a small rodent native to the arctic tundra. They look something like a gerbil or hamster.
And they are cute AF. I mean just look at this little guy:
Lemmings live underground during the harsh winters, but come above ground during the warmer months – when they can get busy with each other fast.
In fact, certain species of lemmings are known to experience significant population booms every few years before their numbers suddenly dwindle to close to nothing. (Source: Nature).
These unusual fluctuations apparently create mass migration effects and may have something to do with the bizarre urban legend of mass lemming suicide, which was given a boost by none other than the Walt Disney Company.
How Disney Faked Mass Lemming Suicide in a Nature Documentary
Now Disney didn’t create the myth that lemmings jump off cliffs to commit mass suicide — there are references to the concept dating as far back as this 1918 National Geographic Magazine — but Disney is widely credited with popularizing the idea with its 1958 nature documentary White Wilderness.
Here’s the full scene in all its grainy vintage glory:
The scene starts off with the narrator relaying the lemming suicide myth to the audience, saying:
Here’s an actual living legend: for it’s said of this tiny animal that it commits mass suicide by rushing into the sea in droves. The story is one of the persistent tales of the arctic. And, as often happens in man’s nature lore, it’s a story both true and false as we shall see in a moment.White Wilderness, 1958
What’s interesting is that the producers felt the need to pretend like they were “clearing up a myth,” when in fact they were about to perpetrate their own little hoax on the audience!
Because what happens next is that the lemmings are seen purportedly jumping in a mass “frenzy” over giant cliffs and into the Arctic sea, where they swim out into the water and eventually drown en masse.
The narrator claims the lemmings do this because they mistake the ocean for a lake and are just trying to make it to the other side.
In fact, lemmings do nothing of the sort and the entire scene was faked by Disney!
According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the producers staged the entire scene by importing lemmings to the area of Alberta where the documentary was filmed (where lemmings don’t live naturally, by the way) and then essentially forcing the lemmings over the cliff and into the water!
The entire charade was first exposed by a 1982 Canadian Broadcasting Company series called Cruel Camera, which aimed to show the world the unkind ways animals are treated off-screen for movies and documentaries.
The relevant scenes from that documentary can be watched here from the 20:54 minute mark to 29:50:
The documentary interviewed Walt Disney’s nephew and exposed some pretty embarrassing facts about the way that Disney staged that scene, including that:
- Producers paid Inuit children in Manitoba a quarter per lemming to gather up the rodents;
- They didn’t have enough lemmings, so the same small handful of lemmings were thrown in the water again and again to create the illusion of a mass group suicide; and,
- The body of water pictured in the scene isn’t the Arctic ocean, but the Bow River in downtown Calgary!
(Source: Cruel Camera, Canadian Broadcasting Company, 1982).
The Long History of Nature Documentary Fake-Outs
As the CBC’s documentary showed, Disney’s lemming hoax is actually far from the first time that nature documentaries have been accused of staging scenes.
BBC’s Blue Planet 2 purportedly shot most of their scenes in laboratories, while other documentaries have been accused of stuffing dead animals with M&Ms to attract packs of predators and creating fake wolf dens while using captive wolves to give the perception of wild behavior.
Of course, it’s one thing to shoot real animal behavior in a way that allows it to be captured on film, and an entirely different thing to make up fake behavior for dramatic effect.
Which brings us to the recent controversy surrounding the Walrus scene in Netflix’s documentary Our Planet, which has come under fire recently for a scene in which walruses are seen falling brutally to severe injury and death.
Here’s a behind-the-scenes clip from Netflix showcasing the scene (warning: graphic images):
Unlike with the Disney lemming hoax, no one seems to be suggesting that Netflix actually pushed the walruses off the cliff.
Rather, the fight is about why the walruses fell to their deaths.
Netflix’s documentary claims the walruses were forced up the cliff due to a lack of ice caused by global warming, while some critics have weighed in to suggest that Netflix is perhaps defrauding the public and that this is normal behavior caused not by global warming but by fear of a nearby polar bear.
There aren’t any polar bears shown in the scene and Netflix is standing by its claims, but if true it definitely wouldn’t be the first instance of a documentary film stretching the truth for dramatic effect.
The Dogged Persistence of Lemming Suicide as a Cultural Concept
The funny thing about myths is that they can stick around even after everyone agrees they are a myth.
Despite the clear scientific consensus that lemmings don’t commit mass suicide, the myth continues to surface in popular culture.
The term lemming has become something of a colloquial pejorative. Urban Dictionary defines it as:
A derogatory term used to reference a person who seemingly does not possess any form of individual thought, and instead, mindlessly follows the behaviors and actions of the masses.Urban Dictionary: “lemming”
The lemming suicide myth was widely-known enough that Apple decided to deploy it in a 1985 Super Bowl commercial for Macintosh (that ad was widely panned as a flop, by the way).
There was also a 1991 video game called “Lemmings” where the object was to prevent the lemmings from marching off cliffs.
Oh, and of course, the myth gave rise to the name for this off-the-beaten path travel blog, as a tongue-in-check reference to that the fact that tourists tend to engage in lemming-like behavior by swarming the same over-touristed destinations around the world.
If you want to travel the world without feeling like you’re part of a mass-migration of tourists, follow along on Facebook or Twitter.
And, of course, be sure to read our annual Emerging Destinations Awards to find incredible under-touristed destinations to explore and get off the beaten track.
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Thanks for the evidence to disprove the lemming myth. I was certainly taken in by it. Perhaps that is part of the reason I used to be aware of the statement at the end of certain movies that no animals were abused or mistreated in the making of the film certified by the ASPCA (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) or some such statement. Did NetFlix have any such statement?
Hey James – that’s an interesting observation. Honestly, I’m not sure about Netflix and that statement. Definitely makes me curious though.
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