The newest entry in the Legendary Pictures’ “MonsterVerse,” Godzilla vs. Kong, sees the titular monsters battle it out for supremacy. However, in addition to delivering on the monster fights, the film also finally introduces moviegoers to the Hollow Earth, which had been hinted at in the prior two entries of the series, 2017’s Kong: Skull Island and 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters. The Hollow Earth sequence is inarguably one of the film’s highlights, and seeing Kong’s point of view as he explores this vast, subterranean world is where the film is most beautiful and emotionally resonant.
The Hollow Earth premise cropped up in the original Godzilla franchise, too. One of the goofier entries in the series, 1973’s Godzilla vs. Megalon, sees the underground nation of Seatopia strike out at the surface world in retaliation for the damage caused by nuclear tests. The climax of Marc Cerasini’s novel, Godzilla: At World’s End, happens at an ancient underground civilization at the South Pole. So where does this idea come from?
While religions throughout human history have often featured subterranean realms (like Hades and Hel in Greek and Norse mythologies, respectively), the Hollow Earths that dominate science fiction trace their origins to now-disproved scientific hypotheses. Was the Earth solid rock, or did it have large caverns and interior spaces? Jesuit scholar and geologist Athanasius Kircher theorized that the tides were caused by the displacement of water in a subterranean ocean, and proposed a cavernous Earth in his 1664 text, Mundus Subterraneus. In 1692, astronomer Edmond Halley (yes, the comet guy) proposed that Earth was a series of concentric worlds layered within one another, like a nesting doll.
Perhaps the most boisterous of these ideas was proposed in 1818 by Captain John Cleves Symmes. Addressing itself “TO ALL THE WORLD!” Symmes’ letter, sent to over 500 locations, insisted that the Earth was hollow, with large openings at the poles. There had been no known successful voyages to the poles at this time, so Symmes’ proposal was less easily disproved than it would be today. Still, even after it was discovered that there weren’t giant holes at the ends of the Earth, the Hollow Earth persisted, especially in fiction.
Jules Verne’s novel, Journey to the Center of the Earth, is maybe the most famous, depicting ancient ecosystems having survived underground. This “lost world” idea had its origins in the work of Kircher, who’d pondered the nature of fossils in Mundus Subterraneus, and morphed into various forms in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, 1933’s King Kong, and the 1961 film debut of Godzilla’s famed co-star, Mothra.
These lost nations also demonstrate the way the Hollow Earth idea merged with another — that of lost continents. Most people are familiar with the tale of Atlantis, a nation that fell to a natural calamity and disappeared beneath the ocean’s surface. Depending on your comic book universe, that nation is now run either by a man who talks to fish, or one who shares King Kong’s fascination with blondes. But there’s another sunken continent that becomes pertinent to the Hollow Earth theory: Lemuria.
In the same vein that the Hollow Earth emerged to explain parts of geography, Lemuria was proposed by zoologist Philip Sclater in 1864 as a way to explain the presence of fossils (that he thought belonged to lemurs) appearing in both Madagascar and India, but not elsewhere in Africa or the Middle East. Sclater’s idea fell out of favor as science began accepting the continental drift concept, first proposed by Alfred Wegener, and solidified through the study of plate tectonics.
Like the Hollow Earth before it, Lemuria become entangled in fiction, conspiracy theories, and the occult. Helena Blavatsky established Lemuria as a centerpiece of her 1888 pseudoscientific book, The Secret Doctrine, the Synthesis of Science, Religion, and Philosophy, which features a complex racial cosmology. Secret continents, like the “ancient aliens” theories, have a long, racist history, the hierarchy of which worked its way into the output of H. P. Lovecraft and even Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian.
Despite our ever-increasing knowledge of plate tectonics and our home planet, subterranean threats and Hollow Earths continue to play a role in modern fiction. Whether it be the Balrog-haunted depths of Moria in J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, the freedom-seeking clones of Jordan Peele’s Us, or the monstrous world at the center of Godzilla vs. Kong, the Hollow Earth seems determined to stay in our minds and fears of the world beneath our feet.
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