The Shadows Within: Humanity’s Dark Fascination With the Hollow Earth
Few of the great fears held by humankind in our path to modernity would rival that of our long dread for the darkness. Fortunately, with the daily cycle of the Earth’s rotation, we are only bathed in that blackness for a few hours at a time. Hence, over the long course of its evolution, humanity has worked mostly by the waking hours, having learned to hide ourselves away as the light recedes, and take our rest during the hours where dangers of the dark become most prevalent.
However, there are places where the darkness may linger indefinitely. Despite the grottos and caves that have served as home to humans since time immemorial, straying too far into the cavernous depths takes us into a world unseen, and one which holds its court by an everlasting darkness. Perhaps it is this continual darkness of the cavernous realms below that helped foster such fascination with the idea of an underworld, and of dark subterranean places which never see the daylight we humans live for.
In a recent article I featured here at Mysterious Universe, I discussed a series of Scottish legends pertaining to cannibals that, with little doubt, seem to have had an impact on motifs which periodically appear in modern horror films. Specifically, these incorporate humans (or subhumans, at times) existing within caverns who subsist off of cannibalizing others; namely, this is apparent in Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes (1977), although similar themes appear in later films like Ravenous (1999) and The Descent (2005).
The idea of cavernous realms beneath us has, of course, a much broader history than that which only modern films allow. Spiritual though the intended tone had been, Dante’s Inferno nonetheless features the poet Virgil leading the narrator on a quest into the underworld, in which Nine Circles of Hell are revealed to him. This is no doubt formed from a basis of traditions in which the spiritual notion of “Hell” is oriented below us, in juxtaposition against a heavenly world residing above, from which God and the angelic legions look down upon humanity from a graceful, spiritually-elevated state.
The notion of a Hollow Earth has remained a very important staple in science fiction works ever-after, ranging from the writings of Edgar Rice Burroughs and his 1914 offering At the Earth’s Core, and more famously, Jules Verne, who addressed the subject in his novel Journey to the Center of the Earth, spawning numerous screen adaptations and similar reworking in various media over the years. Even the American poet and author Edgar Allan Poe, in his only novel-length manuscript, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, addressed the Hollow Earth motif.
Throughout the late 1940s, American auto assembly worker Richard Sharp Shaver’s contributions to the magazine Amazing Stories (inspired in large part by his own delusional fantasies resulting from schizophrenia) captured the eye of Ray Palmer, who worked the narratives into a popular series of tales referred to as “The Shaver Mystery”, which told of warring races of ancient beings called the Teros and, on the more wicked side, the Deros, whose battles below ground often brought unsuspecting humans into the fray. Even today, such themes are found to reappear in stories like Jeff Long’s novel The Descent (which, curiously, and fine book though it is, seems to have no relation to the 2005 horror film of the same name).
However, along the way there have been those of a mind that the Hollow Earth and its riddles were more than merely the stuff of fantasy writing. Earlier legends which predate the writings of Verne, Burroughs, and even Dante tell of ancient mythic races which carried out their affairs from below ground, a theme which had been of central focus among the occult groups which became influential amidst the underpinnings of what led to formation of the Nazi party. Author and researcher Peter Levenda, in his exhaustive study of Nazi occult history, Unholy Alliance, tells of these earlier traditions which colored the later political ideas which formed around the Reich:
“[W]e find ourselves back in familiar ground with the ancient legend of Agartha—or Arktogäa—the subterranean kingdom of an alien race buried deep within the Himalayas or somewhere in the far North (at any rate, in the appropriately Nordic frozen wastes), another Aryan “Thule.” Years before H.G. Wells described a similar race of beings in his novel The Time Machine, the English author and Rosicrucian Bulwer-Lytton (1802-73) was writing of a subterranean master race in his celebrated novel, Vril. All of this is mentioned only to show that these concepts of secret master race and subterranean kingdoms are not peculiar to German or even Nordic legend and myth, and certainly not to Nazi ideology, but form part of a global tradition that may have some basis in reality; a basis that is now dimmed by the passage of too many millennia to place it clearly and authoritatively into a modern perspective. The völkisch theorists were merely drawing from a bank of myth and tradition familiar the world over, and sculpting from selected pieces a cosmological worldview that placed the German-speaking peoples at the top of a pyramid of power.”
Apart from the Nazi occult establishment’s fascination with such traditions, such beliefs have also entertained the minds of many intrepid explorers over the years, such as John Cleves Symmes Jr, who in 1818 made his own declaration that the Earth was hollow in a circular published during the aforementioned year. Of this odd treatise, in October 2015, Eric Grundhauser, writing for Atlas Obscura, featured a detailed article in celebration of “underground week” that addressed a number of the modern Hollow Earth motifs, which included Symmes’ Hollow Earth aspirations.
Symmes, a veteran of the War of 1812 and unsuccessful trader, soon became maybe the most famous and successful proponent of the Hollow Earth theory. His initial vision of the Earth’s interior was like a simplified version of Halley’s multi-layered model, with the exception that Symmes’ version included huge holes at the North and South poles which allowed access to the hidden world inside. These holes, his unique addition to Hollow Earth theory, would even come to be known as “Symmes Holes.”
Remarkably, similar notions about entrances to the Earth’s interior via its poles have arisen even more recently than Symmes’ theories, which date back to the early 19th century. With little doubt, those which followed had been informed by the previous myths, and recurring themes such as the “Symmes Holes” would later be reworked into the mythos surrounding Admiral Richard E. Byrd, based on such vague statements that Byrd allegedly made such as, “I’d like to see that land beyond the (North) Pole. That area beyond the Pole is the Center of the Great Unknown.”
R.W. Bernard, Ph.D, ascribed his own interpretation of Byrd’s statements in his book The Hollow Earth, in which he speculated that Byrd’s “area beyond the Pole” had, in fact, been the hollow interior of the Earth:
The only way that we can understand Byrd’s enigmatical statements is if we discard the traditional conception of the formation of the earth and entertain an entirely new one, according to which its Arctic and Antarctic extremities are not convex but concave, and that Byrd entered into the polar concavities when he went beyond the Poles. In other words, he did not travel across the Poles to the other side, but entered into the polar concavity or depression, which, as we shall see later in this book, opens to the hollow interior of the earth, the home of plant, animal and human life, enjoying a tropical climate. This is the “Great Unknown” to which Byrd had reference when he made this statement – and not the ice – and snow-bound area on the other side of the North Pole, extending to the upper reaches of Siberia.
There have long been conspiracy theories associated with Admiral Byrd, and his alleged concerns about Earth’s southernmost extremities: these range from claims that Byrd, like many in legends before him, had managed to discover a polar entrance to our planet’s inner domains, to the admittedly wacky idea of a secret Nazi base in Antarctica, from which the Reich’s secret battalion of flying saucers were being operated.
The truth, from a purely historical angle, is a bit simpler: Byrd had considered the South Pole to be an area of concern following the Second World War, due to its strategic importance in terms of location. Interviews he had given around that time, however, have been grossly misinterpreted to mean that he actually believed there had been a physical danger he encountered there during the failed Operation Highjump, (also known as The United States Navy Antarctic Developments Program) underway between 1946–1947. A number of hollow earth theorists nonetheless maintain that Byrd’s discoveries had involved either a post-war Nazi contingency at the South Pole, or perhaps legions of hollow-earthers swarming out of a massive Symmes’ Hole… or maybe even some bizarre amalgamation of the aforementioned.
Proliferation of the idea that our planet is hollow continues even to this day. As recently as 2012, the so-called North Pole Inner Earth Expedition was operating a website which sought to garner funding for a literal expedition in search of one of Symmes’ entrances to the inner earth. Blogger Sharon Hill of Doubtful News noted around that time that, “It’s OK to entertain the idea of legends. They are romantic and exciting and they tell us MOST about the people who recounted them. But when you are dealing with lives and money and huge efforts, to be irresponsible in presenting the justification… to the public is unethical and shady. It’s false advertising at the least, potential fraud at its worst.”
Mirroring Sharon’s sentiments, it’s hard not to find the idea of legends pertaining to a Hollow Earth” fascinating, and even enjoyable. However, in the modern era of scientific understanding in which we abide, it is strange to consider the persistent belief among many that there are literal caverns throughout the inner earth which might be populated by ancient, crypto-terrestrial races or groups. Second only, in truth, to the renewed interest we’ve seen among “flat earth” proponents lately, and the persistent refuse that self-ascribed “flat earth truthers” continue to offer, even in recent months.
On a humorous side note, I was recently told by Kyle Philson, one of the hosts of the Expanded Perspectives Podcast, that he recently sustained a (small) swarm of cancellations to their podcast’s subscription service, due to a recent remark he had made about flat earth theories being absurd… which they are. (For more on this, I do advise checking out my articles here and here, in which I give a breakdown of the silliness behind these theories, and why some have decided to try and rekindle the debate over the globular form of our planet).
Noting the odd beliefs that are often appended to such things as a “Hollow Earth” isn’t to say that much of the inner earth isn’t worthy of future study, of course. Innumerable caverns and caves which exist below parts of the United States, particularly states like Tennessee, are believed to be home to countless undocumented species, mostly ranging from crickets and centipedes, to various other small amphibians, as well as a host of different microscopic organisms… all of which are somewhat less tantalizing than alleged “lost” or “hidden” races of intelligent beings, the likes of which appear in the various hollow earth legends that have accumulated over the years.
With the literal existence of cavernous portions of the Earth below us yet to be explored and catalogued, it is perhaps with little surprise that we recognize the familiarity this idea of a “Hollow Earth” sees even in the present day. Whether or not it is justified in fact, our fascination with the idea of a world below, and one that is thus kept within the eternal cover of darkness, seems to have prevailed over the centuries, and remains largely unshaken even today.