It was one of those things that made even the most jaded New Yorker squirm: Hundreds of insects—a mini-plague—let loose in the middle of a crowded subway car by a woman having a total meltdown.
But Fusion has learned from the woman herself that the entire bizarre episode was apparently completely staged.
As the New York Post initially reported, the strange incident took place on the D train at around 6 P.M. on August 24, when the woman—who was reportedly trying to sell both live crickets and worms—was jostled by a group of teenagers and proceeded to have a terrifying breakdown, during which the insects were released into the subway car. Part of the incident was caught on Instagram:
What followed, one straphanger told the Post, was "pandemonium."
In the chaos following the biblical-bug bomb, the subway car's emergency brakes were reportedly engaged, leaving the train motionless, without air conditioning, and full of bugs. At some point in all this, the woman who released the bugs proceeded to urinate on the floor, prompting passengers to take a page from the bugs' book and swarm to the other end of the subway car.
After approximately half an hour, the train began moving again. Upon reaching its next stop, the original insect owner was removed from the train by emergency services.
But that's not the end of the story.
On Friday, an 18-minute video began circulating on Facebook. It depicted the entire incident—including the moment when the insects were released, first by the woman and then by another passenger who hits the container of bugs out of her hand. Unlike the blurry Instagram footage, this video is clear, and contains shots from multiple angles. It's the sort of suspiciously well-produced footage which gives the impression that maybe this wasn't such a spontaneous event, after all.
Intrigued, we called Zaida Pugh, the woman who posted the video, to find out where the footage came from. After speaking for some time, Pugh admitted finally, "It was a prank. I'm an actress. That was me."
The entire episode, she said, was a performance art piece meant to highlight the way people with mental and emotional health issues are treated.
"I did this to show how people react to situations with homeless people and people with mental health," Pugh explained. "How they're more likely to pull out their phone than help."
Pugh, who said she is 21, claims to have done over 50 similar "pranks."
"I hate doing auditions, and I really like the reactions," she explained. "I like it when it goes viral and people react and think."
In fact, this is not Pugh's first brush with viral fame. In 2015, she posted video of herself to (pretending to) stab a baby to death in order, the video claimed, for the child's father to see. The footage was viewed over a million times, and yeah, it's pretty horrible.
"What would you do? That’s what I want people to think, and learn something," Pugh said. "Pulling the emergency brake is not the right thing to do. You should stay calm, call the police."
According to Pugh, police removed her from the subway car, and escorted her—handcuffed—to a nearby hospital. There, she played along with the doctor's questions, never breaking character. She said she was effectively let go at the hospital, where she was picked up by her camera crew.
A spokesperson for the New York Police Department confirmed that an incident had taken place at 6:07 on a subway, and that Pugh had been taken to Methodist Hospital where she was checked for injuries. But the NYPD's story diverged in several key ways from Pugh's. The spokesperson said that Pugh was 26, not 21, for instance, and that the emergency brake was never pulled and the train never lost power.
Not everything in Pugh's prank was staged, however. "I did really pee," she admitted.
What an artist.