Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Well, hell.

Whenever I post anything about goofy beliefs, urban legends, and superstitions -- like my piece Monday about spells to summon up demons -- it always impels my loyal readers to send me links with messages that say, "Yeah, okay, you think that's ridiculous, have you heard about this?"

One of those spurred by yesterday's demon-conjuring post was about a claim that Russian geologists had created a fourteen-kilometer-deep borehole in Siberia, and broke into a cavity underground.  The temperature of the cavity was measured at a toasty 1,000 C.  The leader of the team, a "Mr. Azakov," decided to drop a high-temperature microphone down the shaft -- because he had one of those with him (along with fourteen kilometers of cable) out in the middle of absolutely nowhere in Siberia, and besides, listening to superheated rocks is obviously what geologists do -- and when it reached the cavity, Azakov and the others heard the horrifying sounds of the screams of the damned.

So they forthwith concluded they'd drilled a Well to Hell.

There are a couple of things that are interesting about this one, once I get past the obligatory "but none of this actually happened" disclaimers.  Back in 1989 the Russians had drilled a pretty damn deep hole, the Kola Superdeep Borehole, but (1) it's twelve kilometers deep, not fourteen, (2) didn't hit a cavity of any kind, (3) was drilled on the Kola Peninsula, which is all the way on the other side of the country from Siberia, and (4) was associated with no supernatural phenomena whatsoever.  Oh, and the "screams of the damned" turned out to be a looped and digitally-altered recording grabbed from the shitty 1972 horror movie Baron Blood.  Of course, what are a few factual details between friends?  But the most interesting thing about this story is how -- and why -- it took off.

The first place the story was printed was in the Finnish newspaper Ammennusastia, which is run by a group of Pentecostal holy-rollers in the town of Leväsjoki.  From there it was grabbed by the American Trinity Broadcasting Network, an evangelical media source based in Costa Mesa, California, who claimed it was proof of the literal existence of hell, and broadcast it along with edifying messages along the lines of "We tried to warn you, but would you listen?  Nooooooo.  Well, here's what the all-loving and merciful God has in store for the likes of you."

It likely would have ended there, with scaring the fuck out of a few Bible-thumpers, if it hadn't been for Åge Rendalen, a Norwegian teacher.  Rendalen heard the versions from Finland and California and got pissed off at how gullible people are (a sentiment I wholeheartedly share), but decided the best response was to make the story even more ridiculous.  His reasoning was that if he exaggerated it, surely that would wake people up to how insane the claim is.  So he said that shortly after "Mr. Azakov" heard the screams through his high-temperature microphone, a "bat-like apparition" had exploded out of the borehole, "leaving a blazing trail across the Russian sky."  

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Gronono57, DeviantArt,]

What Rendalen then did was to take a completely unrelated article from a Norwegian newspaper (it was actually about a local building inspector), and claimed that his English-language story of flaming demons was the correct translation of the article.  He submitted both to the Trinity Broadcasting Network, along with his name and contact information -- planning on having a good laugh at anyone who got a hold of him, and then telling them what he'd done, along with a suggestion to learn some goddamn critical thinking skills, and possibly some elementary Norwegian while they were at it.

No one did.  Instead, the Trinity Broadcasting Network printed his English "translation" without the Norwegian version, claiming that it was proof that the original story was true.

The result is that the claim is still out there.  Despite the fact that:

  • the original story was full of factual errors, including getting the location of the borehole wrong by over nine thousand kilometers;
  • the soundtrack was swiped from a horror movie;
  • the embellishments all came from a smartass Norwegian teacher who admitted up front he was lying; and
  • the proof that the first story was true came from the second story, which was based on the first story.

Circular reasoning (n.) -- see reasoning, circular.

So if you're concerned that hell is a real place fourteen kilometers underneath Siberia, you can relax.  I have no doubt it's hot down there, but I'm pretty certain there are no tortured souls screaming in agony anywhere nearby.

As far as whether hell exists anywhere else, I expect I'll find out eventually.  I'm guessing that given my history, my chances of being welcomed by the Heavenly Host after I die are slim to none.  It's okay, harps aren't really my thing.  Maybe down in hell there'll be an infernal bagpipe band.  That'd be cool.


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