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Hell Isn't for Real

You may have seen pictures of the massive crater in Siberia. It unfortunately—or fortunately—does not lead to the netherworld.
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The crater in Russia's Yamal Peninsula. (Photo: Assoicated Press)

The crater in Russia's Yamal Peninsula. (Photo: Assoicated Press)

Last week, reports of an enormous crater (a few hundred feet wide, from appearances) in northern Siberia made internationalnews. Though it’s suspected that the crater has been there for approximately two years, it only recently came to public attention after footage taken by a helicopter flying overhead aired on Siberia’s Zvezda TV.

Speculation about the crater’s source began immediately, particularly because Russia’s Emergency Ministries ruled out the likeliest seeming possibility, a meteor strike. Some people (my people) have suggested that the smoothly spherical hole may be evidence of a UFO landing; there is precedent in Russia for the confluence of mysterious asteroid-like activity and allegations of extraterrestrial life.

It was too late to kill the rumor. American tabloids picked up the story, and gussied it up, and then the Internet arrived. By then the so-called Siberian crater had been given its catchiest name yet: the Well to Hell.

Far be it from me to untie any Earthly event from potential UFO associations, but the specific location of the new Siberian crater evokes another Russian legend: The giant hole is situated on the Yamal Peninsula, and as has been mentioned in more than a few news reports, Yamal is translated as “The End of the World.”

THE STORY BEGINS SOMETIME in the late 1980s, with a drilling expedition led by Russian engineers in an unknown location in Siberia. The team had drilled nine miles deep into the Earth’s crust when they broke through to a cavity. Surprised and excited by their discovery, the engineers dropped a variety of heat-sensitive monitors (including a microphone) down through the hole. When they pulled their devices back up, they found that temperatures inside the open well reached a searing 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

It was what the engineers found on the microphone, though, that was truly shocking: about 20 seconds’ worth of tortured, terrifying screaming.

Some of the engineers were said to be so disturbed by what they heard that they left the site immediately; the few who made the mistake of staying were visited by a gigantic, demon-shaped plume of gaseous smoke that erupted from the hole later that night. Some versions of the story held that the remaining engineers were visited soon afterward by mysterious medics who administered a drug that erased their short-term memory. (I guess in that version we’re meant to assume that one of the medics was also a whistleblower.)

The story is believed to have appeared first in a handful of Christian newsletters in 1989 and 1990. Eventually it was picked up by the Trinity Broadcasting Network, the world’s largest religious broadcasting network, where it was given the straightforward-enough title “Scientists Discover Hell.” Additional Christian publications picked up the story, though not all did so in good faith; Christianity Today ran a story debunking the site in 1990. For one thing, it was argued, there was no proof the hole even existed. There was a drill site in Russia, but it was on the Kola Peninsula, very far from Siberia. Scientists there had reported temperatures of 360 degrees Fahrenheit, which is still pretty hot, but there had been no note made of hellish screaming.

Still, it was too late to kill the rumor. American tabloids picked up the story, and gussied it up, and then the Internet arrived. By then the so-called Siberian crater had been given its catchiest name yet: the Well to Hell.

Early on in the saga, a Norwegian teacher named Åge Rendalen, on a visit to the United States, heard the “Scientists Discover Hell” story on Trinity Broadcast. Upon his return to Norway, he wrote TBN a letter. It stated that, although he didn’t originally believe the story, he’d returned home to research and had found additional testimony that convinced him. In this account, a bat-like apparition rose out of the well and blazed a trail across the sky.

Rendalen sent two clips of paper—the original Norwegian account along with his English translation—to the network as proof. He also provided contact information, should they be interested in fact-checking what he’d found.

TBN aired Rendalen’s addendum to the story soon after. They did not, however, check the translation; if they had, they would have discovered that the original Norwegian story was a simple, local news story about a building inspection. Nor did anyone from the network contact Rendalen for follow-up; if they had, they would have discovered that he’d sent in the clips as a deliberate hoax, meant to prove a point about mass gullibility.

And about the audio clip: stories of its existence abounded for the first several years, but no one ever actually heard it until 2002, when a correspondent to Art Bell's radio program Coast to Coast AM emailed it into the show. He claimed he’d acquired the clip from his recently deceased uncle, who it’d been given to by a friend who worked at the BBC.

Though the Internet may have contributed to giving the Well to Hell new life, it’s also worked to (try to) take it away. In 2010, a YouTube account called “moscowjade” uploaded an analysis of the aforementioned “sounds of hell” clip, in which he pretty convincingly argues that it is not proof of hell, but rather a layered and looped snippet from 1972 horror film called Baron Blood.

“I’m a Christian,” says the video’s narrator, who, in his debunking, sounds genuinely sorry to let everyone down. “I very much believe and know that hell is real. However, this story is not.”

THE NEW SIBERIAN CRATER is smaller than everyone first thought, and less perfectly spherical. It’s more like an oval, and closer to 100 feet across than the 200-300 originally reported. Original speculation about the hole’s charred-looking perimeter had suggested meteoric (well, or UFO) activity; scientists on the scene now say it doesn’t show that at all.

They’re calling the crater the site of an “ejection of permafrost.” There is a very ordinary diagram that explains the whole thing. It’s called a “pingo,” apparently, which is only slightly less memorable than “The Crater at the End of the World.”