Recently my Swedish counterpart, an urban legend collector named Bengt af Klintberg, sent me this note from Stockholm:

DEAR JAN - The other day I heard a fantastic story about a deep drill hole in the Kola Peninsula in Siberia from which was heard cries and laments that obviously came from hell itself! My informant told me that this story had spread to fundamentalists in the United States. Have you heard it? - BENGTDEAR BENGT - Yes, indeed; I've been hearing about the "Well Down to Hell" for more than a year now, mostly as told on Christian television and radio broadcasts. Evidently the story stemmed from a misunderstanding of a scientific project, though there's a hoax involved too. Here's the background:

The California-based Trinity Broadcasting Network aired this bizarre story repeatedly more than a year ago. Then in the February 1990 issue of its magazine, Praise the Lord, the network published a translation of it credited to a Finnish newspaper. This account stated that "Scientists are afraid that they have opened the gates to hell."

The article went on to explain that geologists working somewhere "in remote Siberia" had drilled a hole some 14.4 kilometers deep (about 9 miles) when "the drill bit suddenly began to rotate wildly." A "Mr. Azzacov," identified as the project's manager, was quoted as saying they decided that the center of the Earth is hollow.

Supposedly, the geologists measured temperatures of over 2,000 degrees in the deep hole. They lowered "supersensitive microphones" to the bottom of the well, and to their astonishment they heard the sounds of "thousands, perhaps millions of suffering souls screaming."

The story concludes, "After this ghastly discovery, about half of the scientists quit because of fear," and Azzacov is supposed to have said, "Hopefully, that which is down there will stay there."

After hearing the "Well Down to Hell" story from a caller to his Los Angeles-based radio talk show, host Rich Buhler set out to track it down. He revealed his findings in an article published in the July 16, 1990, issue of Christianity Today.

The Finnish periodical turned out to be not "a respected scientific journal," as some had claimed, but a newsletter published by a group of Finnish missionaries. From there, Buhler traced the story back to a vague claim that it had appeared in "a Christian newsletter from California."

So far, the history of the story simply went around in circles.

But further clarification came from a Norwegian article that had been sent to the Trinity Broadcasting Network, along with a supposed "translation" by a man from near Oslo who had visited California. But the Norwegian was both a school teacher and a prankster.

When Buhler called for more information, the man confessed that after hearing the story about screams coming from a deep well while he was visiting California, he simply clipped a Norwegian newspaper article on a completely unrelated topic and made up a translation to see if he could fool anyone.

Buhler's article was summarized in the Secular Humanist Bulletin of October 1990, with the closing quip that "when it comes to rumors, it's not where they start, it's where they Finnish."

Where did the original teller of this story get the inspiration for such a bizarre yarn? A letter from Liam Wescott, a geologist in Fairbanks, Alaska, provided me with a likely answer. Wescott cited an article in the December 1984 issue of Scientific American titled "The World's Deepest Well."

The article's author, Soviet geologist Y.A. Kozlovsky, describes an experimental well that had, at that time, reached 12,000 meters - by far the deepest drill hole that had been bored up to that time. The scientists encountered rare rock formations, flows of gas and water, and temperatures up to 180 degrees, but they encountered no hollow center and certainly no screams of the damned.

Wescott guessed that the "hole truth," as he put it, concerning the story of drilling down to the Gates of Hell might simply be explained by the possibility that someone who heard about the Soviet geological project had combined it with traditional accounts of hellfire and damnation.

I think he's probably right, because the actual Siberian well, according to the article, was drilled on the Kola Peninsula, exactly the place where the version of the fictional well-to-hell story that Bengt heard was supposed to have taken place.- "Curses! Broiled Again," Jan Harold Brunvand's fourth collection of urban legends, is now available in paperback from Norton. Send your questions and urban legends to him in care of the Deseret News.