Behind the scenes at Skepchick HQ: Time Travelers in the 20s

Was there a time-traveling alien wandering around a Charlie Chaplin set in 1928? If you ask filmmaker George Clarke, the answer is a resounding “Em… Sure… Maybe… What else could it be?!”

Clarke has been studying the movie “The Circus” and noticed an interesting scene in one of the outtakes where a lady walks across the scene holding something up to her ear and talking.  He therefore leaps to the conclusion that this woman is a time-traveler, possibly an alien time-traveler, talking on an iPhone.

The story has gone viral and has been picked up by various news sites. People are fascinated by this story. We at Skepchick HQ spent the day batting a few theories back and forth and, I’ll be honest, we came up with MORE QUESTIONS THAN ANSWERS. I thought I’d share some of our thoughts from the email exchange today:

Me: Who is she talking to? Another time traveling alien with another cell phone? If so, how are they communicating? Last I checked, there were no cell towers in the 1920s. Has AT&T cell service actually been around that long? Was it any better back then? Hell, I can’t get a call to go through at my desk at work, this chick got four bars in 1928?

Elyse: Wouldn’t a time traveler know about this film because they’ll see it before they go back in time? And then not walk down the street talking on their phone? Stopping themselves from being filmed? Or did they INTENTIONALLY WANT TO BE FILMED?

Amy: I think she is talking to the crazy mumbling homeless guy with the tin foil cap on the corner of Hollywood and Vine. He says his cap works through time and space and anywhere AT&T can’t.

Me: Could she be holding a radio to her head? NO WAY, says George Clarke, filmmaker and investigator extraordinaire. He says in his video: “It is not an AM/FM radio because obviously, it’s 1928.” DUH. You guys are so dumb. There WERE no AM/FM radios in 1928. So it MUST BE A CELL PHONE. Except that I’m pretty sure there were AM radios in 1928. AM started to broadcast in 1906 and was just getting popular in the 20s. But why let the facts get in the way?

Amy: Why is that horse painted like a zebra?

Elyse: Why would a time traveler bring an am/fm radio but not a cell phone?

Rebecca: If I were a time traveler I’d take a Walkman everywhere. Those things were AWESOME.

A: Just like Marty McFly!

Sam: What’s up with the guy in front of her? Is she talking to him? I think the man and the woman are together. Probably just a couple down to see the premier or something. They are in closer proximity as the shot opens, but then he gains a big lead on her as she’s “adjusting”, and she calls after him saying something like, “Ralph, wait. I’m about to lose my hat/glasses/hair bun.” And yes, in my mind his name is Ralph. But oddly, so is hers.

Jen: Dude, if you take a Walkman around now, people will think you’re a time traveler – just from the past. :)

Rebecca: There’s my Halloween costume taken care of

Elyse: Hey, look – it’s a hearing aid that looks like a goddamn cell phone!

Jen: The horse is painted like a zebra because the film is The Circus.  So as a publicity stunt, they wanted a circus animal at the premiere and painting a horse was easier than getting a real zebra.

Amy: Thank you.

Me: Case Closed, bitches.


Maria D'Souza grew up in different countries around the world, including Hong Kong, Trinidad, and Kenya and it shows. She currently lives in the Bay Area and has an unhealthy affection for science fiction, Neil Gaiman and all things Muppet.

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  1. I’m not convinced it’s a lady talking on her weird cellular walkman hearing aid thing that is also used to hold his/her glasses & hat on.

    I stick to my original assumption that it’s some incarnation of Doctor Who.

  2. Everyone’s talkin’ about the cell phone. Did no one else notice the zebra morphs into an ELEPHANT at the end? That’s freakin’ magic!

  3. I still say that if you watch it in its proper aspect ratio of 4:3 and not stretched out and distorted as it was presented, and watch at normal speed, it’s pretty clear she’s just scratching her head and looking around like she’s wondering where to go next.

  4. Here’s my question. IF she’s a time traveler and IF she’s communicating with someone…

    Why isn’t she using BLUETOOTH? I would expect that in the future cell phones will become obsolete in favor of something even smaller that you don’t have to hold.

    …Or are the archives she used to figure out what to wear mixed up and she got the 2020s instead of the 1920s when it came to communication technology.


  5. So do we have independent verification of the footage actually being like this? I admit, one of my first thoughts was ‘Hoax?’ But if the footage is genuine from 1928, then it might be the hearing aid – or not, it might be something else. Hell, she might be holding a seashell to her ear for all we know. :-)

  6. Time traveler makes sense. In fact, I’m convinced it’s a time traveler with an iPhone just looking for a place where there aren’t several million people using up all the bandwidth.

  7. First question: have people checked to make sure that the footage is on the DVDs?

    Second: Have people checked that there were no crazy women in the 1920s who went around holding their hands up to their ears, perhaps thinking they were on a telephone?

    Third: has anyone slapped this guy and told him, no it’s not a time traveller?

    just my questions…

    (Oo, like the hearing aid answer…)

  8. @The Edge: Of course she doesn’t have a Bluetooth headset. You’re missing the obvious explanation: a devious time traveler took an lady from the late 1990’s and abandoned her in the 1890’s. Clearly we’re seeing the result of her having wandered for decades alone in a world where nobody understands or believes her, her shattered psyche clinging to desperately the futile hope that one day someone will answer her calls and bring her home.

    Occam’s razor works every time.

  9. Zapski may be right: She may just be covering or scratching her face.

    So now we have cell phone pareidolia! A lady has her hand near her face in the 1920’s, and suddenly *the only possible explanation* is that it’s a cross-dressing time traveler talking on a cell phone?!?!? WTF?!?

    A cell phone wouldn’t even work in the 1920’s. They don’t work without the cell tower infrastructure.

    And that’s a pretty severe “death grip” for a cell phone. Who wraps their whole hand around a cell phone while talking on it? Don’t you use the tips of your fingers?

    I’m not convinced that there is anything in her hand.

    Here are a bunch of images of people talking on cell phones:
    People don’t usually hold cell phones that way when talking on them.

  10. Plus why didn’t anyone back in 1928 wonder what she was doing? Wouldn’t that imply that she was doing or using something that was familiar to the audience at the time?

  11. C’mon, I cannot believe that noone has mentioned this, it is obvious.

    It is not a cellphone, but it is similar, but the method by which it works is lost, because (drumroll…)

    She is (Obviously) Nicola Tesla’s Landlady!

  12. Maybe it IS a guy in drag with a wig on. Extras in movies are often redressed in order to walk then through multiple scenes. This is a silent film so it would not be strange for an extra to be talking during the scene. Maybe the director is yelling at the man to take his hand away from his face and he is saying “I can’t, my wig will fall off” Time traveler? That’s the only other explanation, Really?

  13. The whole idea of this was so absurd I had to wait a day or two before I could think about it without shouting about how dump people are, and possibly punching walls and other inanimate structures in the process.

    So, I finally watched it, I don’t really get it, I see someone holding their hand to the side of their head, and they have their mouth open. I didn’t see the black object, any darkness I just attributed to shadows (not saying it wasn’t there, just that if it was, it wasn’t as obvious as he claimed).

    But tranny time-travelers… srsly? that sounds like something out of an aqua teen hunger force episode.

  14. At 6:45 as she turns her hands open as if to scratch. If it was a phone that would be a weird way to hold it. Could be any number of things, but time travel? Come on.

  15. This is ridiculous. Whenever I get in my time machine and travel to another century, I always put my iPhone into airplane mode and don’t take it out — do you know how outrageous the roaming charges are from even a nearby decade? And never mind that none of the service providers support my cell phone protocol. Forget 3G…in 1928, they want you to do all your texting in Morse code.

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