There is one urban legend in particular that creeps out a lot of people. The story goes that sometime in 1989, Russian scientists in Siberia had drilled a borehole some 14.5 kilometers deep into the Earth's crust. The drill broke through into a cavity, and the scientists lowered some equipment to see what was down there. The temperature was about 1,100°C (about 2,000°F), but the real shocker was the sound that was recorded. They only got about 17 seconds of audio before the microphone melted, but it was 17 horrifying seconds of the screams of the damned:
Convinced that they'd heard the sounds of hell, many of the scientists quit the jobsite immediately, so the story goes. Those who stayed were in for an even bigger shock later that night. A plume of luminous gas burst out of the borehole, the shape of a gigantic winged demon unfolded, and the words "I have conquered" in Russian were seared into the flames. As a final touch of weirdness, medics were reported to have given everyone on site a dose of a sedative to erase their short-term memory. Beginning in 1989, the tale was broadly reprinted in smaller Christian publications, newsletters and the such, but was given hardly any notice by the mainstream media. Some evangelicals and Biblical literalists cited the incident as proof of the existence of a physical hell, an interpretation that seemed to be the consensus among the publications that ran the story. The story acquired the popularly conferred title of The Well to Hell.
The tale appeared just as the Internet began to rise, and as the legend grew, so did the number of debunks. By now the Internet is saturated with at least as many claims that either the audio or the story is false, as there are supporting it as fact.
The story's first appearance was in 1989 with its first large-scale publication by the Trinity Broadcasting Network. This Christian network has television shows in addition to a print newsletter, and they ran the story entitled "Scientists Discover Hell" in both their broadcast and print editions in late 1989. Shortly thereafter, they ran an expanded version of the story that included the newly reported detail of the devilish apparition coming up out of the borehole. Other Christian newsletters picked up the story, including Praise the Lord in February of 1990, and Midnight Cry in April of 1990.
But not everyone was on board. The first most obvious fact was that there was no such borehole in Siberia; however there was one on the Kola Peninsula in northwestern Russia, called the Kola Superdeep Borehole. Located only about 16 kilometers from Norway, the Kola borehole is about as far from Siberia as you can get and still be in Russia. Some researchers noted that the timing of the story was suspiciously close to that of an article in the August 1989 edition of Science magazine, titled "European Deep Drilling Leaves Americans Behind", which discussed the Kola project and a similar one in Germany. Science explained the purpose of the borehole:
To the Soviets, deep holes are not simply tools for testing geological theory. They expect more. One additional payoff is improved drilling technology. Another is insight into the deepest strata beneath known mineral resources... And there is always the allure of the Sputnik effect — the glory of having the deepest hole in the world.
And so some competing Christian newsletters were more skeptical, noting not only the factual errors in the story, but also Trinity Broadcasting Network's lack of verifiable sources for their story. Christianity Today ran an article debunking the Well to Hell in July of 1990 (which we'll talk more about in a moment), as did Biblical Archaeology Review two months later.
Now, all of this happened without anyone ever hearing the alleged audio recording. Nobody ever presented one or broadcast one anywhere. It wasn't until twelve years later, in 2002, after the story had come and gone at least twice more in various tabloids, that a correspondent to Art Bell's radio program Coast to Coast AM emailed in an audio recording. The accompanying letter read as follows:
I just recently began listening to your radio show and could not believe it when you talked about the sounds from hell tonight. My uncle had told me this story a couple of years ago, and I didn't believe him. Like one of your listeners who discounted the story as nothing more than just a religious newspaper fabricated account. The story about the digging, the hearing of the sounds from hell, is very real. It did occur in Siberia. My uncle collected videos on the paranormal and supernatural. He passed away fairly recently... He let me listen to one of the audio tapes that he had on the sounds from hell in Siberia, and I copied it. He received his copy from a friend who worked at the BBC... Attached is that sound from my uncle's tapes.
Bell then played the recording, and ever since then it's been widely circulated. To this day, the story is still reported from time to time, now with the supporting sound. It's become a firmly established urban legend.
But is it true? Not according to Rich Buhler, who was a radio host for Christianity Today in 1990, and who wrote the debunking article mentioned a moment ago. People had been calling into his show asking about the Trinity Broadcasting Network story, so Buhler and his staff did some digging. They worked backwards and followed all the threads they could to try and find whether there was a reliable original source. Here's what they found.
TBN had said on the air that their source was a Finnish newspaper called Ammennusastia which they described as a respected journal. An evangelical minister in Texas, R. W. Schambach, had come across it and sent it to TBN. It turns out that Ammennusastia was not a scientific journal at all, but was a small Evangelical Lutheran magazine that was published in Finland between 1974 and 1989. When Buhler contacted them to ask about the story, they reported that a staff member had written it from memory, having read the story in the daily Finnish newspaper called Etelä-Suomen Sanomat in a section that was for readers to contribute anything they liked, without verification. That reader had seen it in a Finnish paranormal newsletter called Vaeltajat. Buhler contacted Vaeltajat who reported that the story came from a reader who claimed to have seen it in a California newsletter published by Jewish Christians called Jewels of Jericho. Nobody was ever able to track down Jewels of Jericho or verify its existence, so the trail went cold. I'm amazed that Buhler was able to follow the trail as far as he did. The whole chain was made of broken links: stories retold from memory, unverified sources, and no editorial scrutiny whatsoever. It is a nearly perfect example of a story without any solid foundation.
So if we can't verify any part of the story, where did that audio recording come from? It turns out that there is a popular explanation for it. Many Internet sites assert that it is a looped and layered version of this audio clip from the really terrible 1972 movie Baron Blood:
Personally I'm not convinced that the screams sound like the same ones; in fact, a side-by-side comparison serves mainly to convince me that Baron Blood is not the source of the audio. However, there's at least one really good YouTube video where a guy plays back selected samples from the Well to Hell audio proving that it is indeed looped. Listen to this clip from YouTube filmmaker moscowjade:
Without any doubt, the Well to Hell audio played on the Art Bell show was created digitally by somebody looping and further processing some screaming sounds with a lot of background noise. That sound file, the only one known to exist from this story, is a hoax. There are zillions of recordings of screams and shouts and crowd noises for the hoaxer to have chosen from; whether or not he used Baron Blood is moot.
Further elements of the story have also been proven to be a hoax. In 1989, Norwegian teacher Åge Rendalen heard the original TBN broadcast while he was visiting California. Shocked at how gullible Americans were, he wanted to see how far it could be taken. He returned home, clipped a Norwegian newspaper article about a building inspector, and sent it to TBN along with a fake translation that added the new element of the figure of the devil coming up out of the borehole. Rendalen identified the photo of the building inspector as the Dr. Dmitri Azzacov (various spellings have been given) whom TBN had reported was the lead scientist of the project. TBN rebroadcast these startling new story elements without even bothering to do their own translation. Rich Buhler tracked down Rendalen who happily admitted his hoax, and all the details were laid out in the October 1990 issue of the Secular Humanist Bulletin newsletter.
And yet, the story continued to persist. The tabloid Weekly World News ran the story on April 7, 1992, but moved it to Alaska and added yet another new element of thirteen workers being killed when the devil came flaming up out of the hole. Sixteen years later on October 2, 2008, they ran it again on their online edition, changed it to an oil well, and added quotes from then-governor Sarah Palin and Vice Presidential candidate Joe Biden. In a subtle touch proving the tongue-in-cheek nature of their article, they located the site 400 miles north of Fairbanks, Alaska; which, to anyone with a map, places it squarely underwater in the Beaufort Sea.
So while we're able to prove that everything added to the original TBN story is a hoax, including the audio; all we can say about the original TBN story is that it was very poorly sourced and based on second and third hand accounts including personal recollections. We have no idea what the Jewels of Jericho used for their original source, or even if it existed at all. Certainly no such report of screams from hell ever made it into any legitimate geological publications. We know that all of its specifics are false: there is no such borehole in Siberia; drilling equipment can't operate at anywhere near the 1,100°C reported (the true maximum is less than 300°C), and neither can screaming human vocal cords.
Somewhere out there is a single anonymous person who first wrote into Vaeltajat with a story of fire and brimstone and eternal torment. That person could scarcely imagine how far the tale would go, and the extent to which researchers would puzzle over it more than twenty years later. The public is always hungry for a new urban legend, and always keener to accept that than to verify it.
UPDATE: The original Vaeltajat story (view the cover and the article) credited Alyde Carlsonin, PhD, with authorship of the Jewels of Jericho. This may be a misspelling of Clyde Carlson. Public records show an Alyde Carlson from California, born March 24 1901, died May 10 1995, president of the nonprofit religious organization Latin American Faith Mission (founded 1962) in Kingsburg, CA and/or Madera, CA. I've not been able to find any verifiable record of a connection between either Alyde Carlson, Clyde Carlson, Carlsonin, or Latin American Faith Mission with the phrase "jewels of jericho".
Editors. "European Drilling Leaves Americans Behind." Science. 1 Aug. 1989, Volume 245, Number 4920: 816-817.
Mikkelson, B. "The Well to Hell." Snopes. Barbara and David P. Mikkelson, 17 Jul. 2007. Web. 21 Apr. 2012. <http://www.snopes.com/religion/wellhell.asp>
Schwarz, R. "The Dark Side of Eternity: The Siberia Recording." Stranger Dimensions. Stranger Dimensions, 18 Oct. 2011. Web. 21 Mar. 2012. <http://www.strangerdimensions.com/2011/10/18/the-dark-side-of-eternity-the-siberia-recording/>