"So did you watch "Big Trouble In Little China?"  I asked Patrick.   He did, he replied, while coding away.

"So you saw what I mean.  Chinese people got a lot of Hells, which is bad, but at least they're apparently easy to find.   Western religion has just one, but good luck locating it.   In that movie they just go under some old guy's house and there it is and they get to fight Raiden(1) and stuff and save the world.   If I want to find Hell, I am stuck going into "Revelations" and that isn't much help at all."

Because, you see, I had decided I wanted to go to Hell.    Yeah, I don't vacation the way most people do.    Outwitting the Bulgarian mafia, trying to get my picture taken with Albanian rebels in Macedonia, that's my idea of a good time.  And I haven't gone on an adventure in a while.

"Chinese people got a lotta Hells" - Big Trouble In Little China(2)

So Hell it is.  First, though, is how to find it.   The Greeks talked about a 'gate to hell' thousands of years ago, the Sumerians farther back than that, and even the Buffy the Vampire Slayer kids had their school conveniently right on top of a 'hell mouth'.  That's right, for most kids high school is hell but for Buffy it literally was Hell.

If every culture mentions a gate to some nasty underworld, it can't be too hard to find one, right?  It's more difficult than you think.  With practically every religion having some version of Hell or another, how do I know which one to pick?    

Dante "Divine Comedy":

Through me you pass into the city of woe:
Through me you pass into eternal pain:
Through me among the people lost for aye.

Justice the founder of my fabric mov'd:
To rear me was the task of power divine,
Supremest wisdom, and primeval love.

Before me things create were none, save things
Eternal, and eternal I endure.
All hope abandon ye who enter here.

Such characters in colour dim I mark'd
Over a portal's lofty arch inscrib'd:
Whereat I thus: Master, these words import.
I'm looking for something with that kind of feel and a three-headed dog I can thwack but some religions regard Hell as serious business; it's not go into a cave and come back out, it is eternity.   So I'd rather avoid those.

Actual Hell is unlikely to be as terrific Rodin's 20 foot high masterpiece, The Gates of Hell.   Picture by Andreas Witzel, with Permission GFDL Auguste Rodin "The Gates of Hell", Musée Rodin, courtesy of Wikipedia.

In "Big Trouble In Little China", they incorporate elements of Diyu - the Chinese global term for Hell - so it makes sense to start there.   Instead of simply levels, as in Dante's "Inferno", the inspiration for Rodin above, Diyu is an underground maze with various levels and chambers where people atone for their sins while living.  How many levels?   Good luck figuring that out.   3 courts, 10 courts, eighteen levels of Hell, no one seems to know.   "Journeys to the Under-World" says the Hells are always changing based on circumstances so they are basically unlimited.

Is the Gate To Hell in China?   Fengdu County in the Chongqing Municipality has a necropolis ("spirit world")  modeled after the Chinese Hell some 1800 years old - but no entrance.    Fengdu has long been famous as a 'ghost town' and became even more remote - an island - after benevolent Chinese despots displaced millions of peasants for the Three Gorges Dam project.    But it seems to be more like Disney World for the afterlife, with parties and spirit shows, than an actual entrance to Hell.

Fengdu ghost city

Is the Gate to Hell in Iceland?   Iceland has always had a special appeal to me because it makes no sense at all, starting with the name.    Iceland is rather nice weather much of the time whereas a a place named Greenland is a miserable place covered in ... ice.   You get my meaning; any place that confused is likely to be a good hiding place for Hell.

Námaskarð pass situated in the north of Lake Myvatn, may be what I am looking for.   Mt. Námafjall smells like sulfur.   Lake Mývatn is the hottest resort in Iceland and once you reach Hinauffährt, you get a commanding view of the entire Mückensee and make out Jarðbaðshólar, the hissing volcanic crater that has the Jarðböðin lagoon behind it.

A hissing volcanic crater, a lagoon, smells like sulfur ... and did you see those names?  If Iceland isn't the Gate to Hell, with cool names like those, it should be.

Námaskarð gateway to hell
Photo from asmundur

Námaskarð is famous for the sulfurous mud springs called solfataras and steam springs called fumaroles.  if there is any pure water you won't find it, it is giant mud craters and looks like the Moon.    The fumes have made the ground acidic and they can be harmful to humans as well.

Is the Gate to Hell in New Jersey?

If you have an IQ over 90 and watch the television show "Jersey Shore", you certainly must feel like you are in Hell, where pudgy dumb girls are cool.

But residents of Clifton, NJ say they have an entrance to Hell.  And it sounds cool.    Satanic sacrifices, dead bodies and seven layers of tunnels, the deepest being Beelzebub himself face-to-face.    But you can't just go on down.   To get there you have to acquire mystical power and be strong enough to lift your thousand pound axe that block the doors and then fight a glowing skull.  Basically, it sounds like the best D&D game ever.

The legend goes that the asylum caught fire and the inmates tried to escape through the forest but surrounding the asylum were seven gates and they were trapped and killed by the fire and each other.   For more recent adventurers, it is claimed no has made it past the location of the Fifth Gate and returned.

In reality, they mean a now demolished insane asylum and concrete sewer tunnels.

Here's a pic and the tale of one visitor but I don't think it's the Gate to Hell I am looking for.(3)

Clifton gates of hell

Is the Gate to Hell in Africa?

A Gate to Hell would seem to have some fire, and to ancient people lava oozing from the ground would fit the bill.   Erta Ale in Ethiopia is a volcano located in the Afar Region of northeastern Ethiopia, standing some 2000 feet tall and with a lava lake at the top.

That's what I'm talking about.

Erta Ala translated from Afar is 'smoking mountain' and it is known locally as "the gateway to hell".

Erta Ale volcano lake gate to hell
Erta Ale.  If this isn't the entrance to Hell, it should be.

Erta Ale is hard to find and has been erupting continuously since I was born but the lava lake has been active for a century.   

Is the Gate to Hell in Central America?

The Nicaraguans say they have the Gate to Hell and if you go to Masaya Volcano you will note a handy cross is erected there, now in its 500th year.  Like Erta Ale in Ethiopia, Masaya is a shield volcano and continually emits sulfur dioxide gas - surely acid rain would be in Hell. 

A giant pit is also certainly a good sign.

The Cruz de Bombilla at La Boca del Infierno The Gates of Hell
The Cruz de Bombilla at La Boca del Infierno (The Gates of Hell )

When History Channel did a documentary about the Gates of Hell they included Masaya but they also got a great deal of Catholicism wrong and played it off against some Baptist mumbo-jumbo for effect, so goofy culture war association damages Masaya's credibility a little.  But you are not allowed to walk up to that cross so that takes them off the list.   Hell has to be easy to get to, else all those atheists are going to be walking around insulting religious people for eternity.

Is the Gate to Hell in Greece?  

We can't discuss Hell and leave out Greece because Virgil's "Aeneid" contains a detailed description of the underworld - and he likely got the inspiration from somewhere that didn't involve Iceland or Central America.    Well, a good place to start is the river Acheron (also called the Epirus river, as it is in the Epirus region of northwest Greece) which means 'river of woe' and is called one of five rivers that flow through the realm of Hades.  In Dante's "Inferno", Acheron is the river on which Charon ferries souls to Hell.

At the meeting point of the Acheron, Pyriphlegethon and Cocytus rivers is a temple called Nekromanteion ("Oracle of Death"), believed to be the door to Hades at the time and discovered as such in 1958.


Interesting Nekromanteion fact: Engineers doing acoustic analyses inside the Sacred Crypt of the Oracle say the hand-made stone arches provide acoustic quality similar to what is attained in modern music halls designed with software.  Pretty impressive for 2,300 years ago.

It's on the hill of which rises above the Acheron River about 1.5 miles from its mouth at Phanari Bay in Epirus if you want to go but at only 72 feet square and a chamber below that it's unlikely to catch my attention as a full-on Hell destination.   When I am old I can visit the Acheron river in Greece - not because I will be dead but because Greece is pretty easy to get around and I want to do the adventurous stuff while I still can.

Plus, I can combine it with Diros Caverns, where I can enter an underground river through billows of smoke -  mostly because they smoke cigarettes a lot and the entrance is small so it just hangs there - and then a ferryman can take some money and show me around its underground waterways.   I'll sing this song:

A Gate to Hell needn't necessarily be ancient.   Look at this sinkhole that opened up in Ciudad de Guatemala a few months ago.  That's a pretty darn convincing sight to me.

Ciudad de Guatemala gate to hell

And it needn't be some place exotic, like New Jersey.   A cemetery in Stull, Kansas  claims it has a Gate to Hell.   On Halloween at midnight they say the gravestones will be mysteriously covered in blood and bottles thrown at the walls will not break.   It claims to be haunted by a half-human child of the devil, born covered in red hair and with a full set of double teeth, along with a white-haired witch.  A spooky old abandoned Church still stands there.   Go, Jayhawks!

But I am convinced a Gate to Hell for my purposes has to involve fire, and that means either a volcano or Los Angeles after an NBA title.   I'd rather visit a volcano.

"They have volcanoes in Hawaii, you know," Kim mentioned after hearing of my plans.   "If volcanoes are the gates to Hell, one should be as good as the next.   We could spend 4 days there in early February and you could go to Hell while I enjoy the beach."

I'm not sure what that meant but it sounds like good science.


(1) Anyone who saw the movie and played Mortal Kombat six years later in 1992 knew the Midway game developers had seen the movie also.  Raiden was either a shameless ripoff or a pop culture homage to a great movie that did nothing at the Box Office, depending on how you look at such things:

(2) Lo Pan, who you see in the first clip in the article, is the patron saint of Chinese builders and carpenters but is better known as the name of the compass used for geomancy (feng shui) than for kick-butt eye beams and marrying green-eyed girls to remove ancient curses.

(3) If I am going to just go visit for a vague legend, I choose the Hellfire Caves in West Wycombe, Buckinghamshire.  The Hellfire Club is at least a cool name and these goofballs may or may not have engaged in pseudo-Satanic rites, but if they did, it was only because they were bored rich guys.    And I am only going to Hell because I am at least bored.    They are a tourist attraction now: