Reel Science

The best scene in Godzilla vs. Kong exposes a weird era of science history

Enter the Hollow Earth.

Illustration from "Symmes's Theory of Concentric Spheres: Demonstrating That the Earth is Hollow, Ha...
Wikimedia Commons

Beneath the spectacle of two gigantic beasts duking it out in an epic monster showdown, Godzilla vs. Kong has a riveting premise that dives right into the fascinating, messy history of scientific conspiracy theories in America.

“I think Godzilla vs. Kong is sort of the ultimate conspiracy movie in a lot of ways,” director Adam Wingard tells Inverse.

The movie’s plot relies on the Hollow Earth theory, a pseudoscientific idea that asserts Earth’s surface — its crust — is actually a hollow shell. Picture an eggshell, but with no yolk inside.

In the movie, explorers venture into the Hollow Earth via Antarctica, believing it is the birthplace of Titans like King Kong and Godzilla. However, some of the adventurers have more nefarious motives in mind, seeking to harness energy in this subterranean place in order to defeat Godzilla and other Titans.

In reality, Earth is made up of several layers, including a thin crust, a bulky mantle, a liquid outer core, and a smaller inner core. Currents in the outer core generate Earth’s magnetic field.

Godzilla and King Kong work out some feelings.

Warner Bros. Pictures

Today, we consider this knowledge a well-established scientific fact, but these discoveries actually occurred fairly recently. It was only in 1936 that a female Danish scientist, Inge Lehmann, confirmed the existence of Earth’s inner core using seismic waves. Our understanding of Earth is still evolving: We only just discovered that an ancient protoplanet may be buried within the Earth’s mantle.

“... it was possible to travel deeper and deeper into the Earth from caverns to a hollow center.”

However, prior to the twentieth century, that lack of concrete geological knowledge gave ripe fodder to conspiracy theories about what truly lurked beneath the Earth’s surface.

“Since the 1940s and earlier, we have known that the earth is not only solid but incredibly dense, so no human could go more than a few hundred meters in the crust before being killed by the heat and pressure,” Donald Prothero, a geologist and paleontologist who has written about the Hollow Earth theory, tells Inverse.

But when most of the Hollow Earth ideas gained traction in the early 19th century, people didn’t really know anything about Earth’s interior, he explains.

“They thought that limestone caverns, which were easy to reach from the surface, were representative of the entire Earth's interior, and that it was possible to travel deeper and deeper into the Earth from caverns to a hollow center,” Prothero says.

The history of the Hollow Earth theory

Many ancient civilizations conceived of a subterranean underworld beneath Earth’s surface that harbored human life, ranging from Agartha in Tibetan Buddhism to Hades in the imagination of the Greeks.

In Godzilla vs. Kong, the movie’s title sequence even displays an ancient Sumerian cuneiform script — likely a reference to the ancient Mesopotamians’ belief in a vast netherworld ruled by the goddess Ereshkigal. These beliefs also persist in modern-day Indigenous cultures.

“There are some Native American tribes in the southwest who believe that all human beings originally came from the inside the world,” Holly Folk, an associate professor in the Department of Global Humanities and religions at Western Washington University, tells Inverse.

How an artist conceptualized Hollow Earth in 1892.

C. Durand Chapman/Wikimedia Commons

But one of the first scientific proponents of Hollow Earth in the Western world was a distinguished astronomer, Edmond Halley — the namesake behind Halley’s comet.

Despite his astronomical prowess, Halley wasn’t an expert on geology: He theorized Earth’s surface was made of a hollow shell underneath which lay two more similar hollow shells surrounding a core.

According to a 1716 paper mentioned in the book, Hollow Earth: The Long and Curious History of Imagining Strange Lands, Halley devised the Hollow Earth theory as a way to explain strange disturbances in the magnetic field that were connected to the aurora borealis — Earth’s natural light show. Halley was right about the magnetic field, but not so much about Hollow Earth.

The link between Hollow Earth and Antarctica

Years later, War of 1812 veteran and explorer, John Cleves Symmes, seized on the Hollow Earth theory for his own ends to justify American expansionism and initiate exploratory expeditions into Antarctica.

Similar to Halley, Symmes believed that the Earth was made of a hollow shell 800 miles thick, but he added his own twist: there were openings to Earth’s hollow core at both the North and South Pole. These he called “Symmes holes.”

There, he believed that light — and human explorers — could descend underneath the surface into the hollow core.

“I pledge my life in support of this truth, and am ready to explore the hollow.”

John Cleves Symmes, Jr./Wikimedia Commons

“I declare that the Earth is hollow, and habitable within… I pledge my life in support of this truth, and am ready to explore the hollow,” Symmes declared in 1818.

“Symmes was a part of a general American expansionism that was especially interested in territories not yet associated with rival nations—such as those beneath the polar regions,” Elizabeth Chang, a professor of British literature at the University of Missouri who has written about the Hollow Earth theory, tells Inverse.

Symmes died not too long after making his claims — he never did make it to Antarctica — and has largely been forgotten by mainstream society. You can, however, find a 170-year-old monument dedicated to his strange life in Ohio.

Hollow Earth: What links aliens, Indiana Jones, and Edgar Allen Poe

But Symmes’ true legacy was the one he passed on to his adherents, who took the theory and let their imaginations run wild. Many of the nineteenth-century authors who wrote about Hollow Earth, such Edgar Allen Poe and Jules Verne, imagined enlightened friendly alien beings or ancient prehistoric creatures that lived within the hollow core, just beyond our reach.

Many fringe or alternative religious movements, such as the Latter Day Saints, also seized upon Symmes’ ideas to bolster their own spiritual ideals and sense of community, Folk says.

“I’d like to see that land beyond the Pole.”

Wingard, the Godzilla vs. Kong director, tells Inverse he was also inspired by Admiral Richard Byrd, whose strange flights over the North Pole — which may not have actually happened — spurred on subsequent Antarctic expeditions and allegedly gave support to the Hollow Earth theory. Byrd reportedly said over radio in 1947: “I’d like to see that land beyond the Pole. That area beyond the Pole is the center of the great unknown.”

However, Folk has a simpler, more scientific explanation for what happened to Byrd on his flights over the poles: “I believe that what happened was that his instruments got out of whack because he was pretty close to the magnetic pole.”

An 1896 illustration reads: “He thought it had a hole in it where the pole should be.”

Wikimedia Commons

In a darker turn, some higher-level Nazis may have even supported the Hollow Earth theory, which they used to justify certain campaigns across Europe — an influence that we see in Raiders of the Lost Ark and other works featuring Indiana Jones. Some Hollow Earth proponents even go so far as to believe Hitler and his closest followers actually escaped Germany and fled into Hollow Earth. (We can confirm there are no secret Nazis in Godzilla vs. Kong.)

“Certain members of Hitler's inner circle of advisers were interested in different parts of the esoteric world. There were a couple of different teams who were sent off by Hitler to try to do certain types of archaeological work [related to Hollow Earth,],” Folk says.

Symmes’ later followers, including health food advocate and science fiction writer Walter Siegmeister — who wrote under the pseudonym Raymond Bernard — built upon the Hollow Earth theory to include the idea that suns, hostile aliens, and UFOs lurked within the Earth’s core.

Another fan, Cyrus Teed, went one step further and claimed that the entire Earth is actually located within a hollow, egg-like shell. Teed even formed a cult society on the coast of Florida to garner support for his ideas.

Hollow Earth and a legacy of conspiracy theories

King Kong visits Hollow Earth in Godzilla vs. Kong.

Warner Bros. Pictures

Other 20th century proponents of Hollow Earth, like American writer Richard Sharpe Shaver, believed that dark, malevolent creatures called dero lived in cave cities underneath the Earth’s surface — a premise not unlike the idea that Titans may have once dwelled within the Hollow Earth in Godzilla vs. Kong.

“By the middle of the 20th century, you have a conspiracy theory mentality that develops,” Folk says, adding that these people often believe that “the government is hiding the truth” about these fringe theories. These ideas of a dark underworld filled with aliens and UFOs, which science fiction writers like Charles Fort delved into, inspired a number of popular films and TV shows, ranging from The Twilight Zone to The X-Files.

Today, Hollow Earth is closely linked to another conspiracy theory in America: the Flat Earth theory. The Flat Earth theory postulates that the world is flat, even though we have known for 2,000 years that the Earth is a round sphere. This theory started “as a type of trolling by fundamentalist Christians” toward the scientific community, but wound up gaining more serious interest over the years, Folk explains.

“At the moment, the Hollow Earth theory is not very widespread, so it is more of a crank notion than a serious threat. But a shockingly high percentage of Americans do believe the earth is flat, or that the sun goes around the earth — ideas that were debunked over 500 years ago,” Prothero adds.

Still, it makes for a fun sci-fi premise.

“I would suggest that more modern hollow earth stories are compelling in part because they reverse the familiarity of the adventure genre — just when we thought there were no more worlds to conquer, we find a new one right beneath our feet!” Chang says.

Will King Kong find his lost relatives beneath the Antarctic ice? You’ll want to watch Godzilla vs. Kong to see how the conspiracy theory plays out in the movie.

Godzilla vs. Kong is in movie theaters and is available for streaming on HBOMax.

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