This article originally appeared on VICE US.
The Bermuda Triangle is one of the most feared regions on the globe, thanks to wild rumours about all the ill-fated vessels that have entered it, never to be seen again. The fate of these ships and planes are often pinned on supernatural events that exist within this “devil’s triangle,” which is normally defined as roughly 500,000 square miles of ocean between the vertices of Miami, Puerto Rico, and Bermuda.
Scientists have debunked the notion that these waters are particularly bloodthirsty, repeatedly pointing out that it’s really not that weird for vehicles to go missing in one of the stormiest and busiest regions of the ocean, where hazardous shallows and reefs happen to be common. According to the US Coast Guard and US Navy, the triangle does not claim an unusual amount of lives compared with other volatile, heavily trafficked areas.
The real mystery of the Bermuda Triangle has much more to do with the persistence and longevity of popular conspiracy theories surrounding it. People project their worst nightmares and wildest fantasies onto this patch of ocean, crediting its disappearances to aliens, time portals, the lost civilization of Atlantis, and countless other paranormal causes.
Even in 2018, this narrative tradition is still going strong—director Sam Raimi is currently working on a Bermuda Triangle film that will feature “sharks, Vikings, and Nazis,” according to ScreenRant.
To be fair to the truthers, their far-fetched explanations are rooted in reality, at least insofar as there are real vessels that really went missing in the Bermuda Triangle. Scrolling through the number of deadly incidents within the region does tend to raise one’s hackles. Ships and their crews vanished without a trace in the triangle throughout the 1800s and others were found mysteriously abandoned, like the tall-mast ship Rosalie, which was recovered in 1840. The only crewmember that remained onboard was a canary, but it did not relate its experience.
The disappearance of the USS Cyclops in 1918, along with its 306 crewmembers and passengers, marked the largest loss of life in US naval history not related to combat. Understandably it added significant weight to concerns about the region. But it wasn’t until a series of tragedies occurred in the 1940s that the general American tradition of maritime ghost stories found a resonant focal point in the Bermuda Triangle.
In addition to the loss of two of the Cyclops’ sister ships—the USS Nereus and the USS Proteus—within the region, the 1940s were punctuated by a series of high-profile airplane disappearances in the area. The vanishing of Flight 19 in 1945 was made especially famous when an amphibious rescue plane sent to search for the wreckage also disappeared without a trace.
In 1950, Miami reporter Edward Van Winkle Jones outlined some of the region’s incidents in an Associated Press article. Another writer, George X Sand, picked up this thread in 1952, in an editorial called the “Sea Mystery At Our Back Door” in Fate magazine, in which he laid out the geographic dimensions of the triangle. That same year, reporter Allan Eckert covered various planes disappearances, including Flight 19, for American Legion. He added the extraterrestrial dimension that would become central to its current incarnation by circulating a rumor that the missing planes “flew off to Mars.”
But the true progenitor of the region’s modern mythos was author Vincent Gaddis, who coined and popularized the term “Bermuda Triangle” in a 1964 article titled, “The Deadly Bermuda Triangle.” Gaddis had a knack for peddling pseudoscience—in addition to his founding role in mythologizing the triangle, he also pumped up urban legends about spontaneous combustion.
A conspiratorial powderkeg had been lit. Despite the best efforts of scientists and skeptics to extinguish it with facts during past the five decades, it still burns on today. If anything, given the resurgence of pseudoscience in the online age, we might expect even wilder manifestations of Bermuda Triangle lore to surface from the deepest, weirdest corners of the internet. Just a few days ago, rumors were circulating about an alien spaceship discovered on the triangle’s seafloor, for instance.
But no matter how many people blame the region’s disappearances on everything from time-warped Nazis to Cthulhu, the Bermuda Triangle is not a geographical boogeyman. It’s a truly scary place, but for the pedestrian reasons that its topography is treacherous, its storms are severe, and it’s packed with vehicles servicing some of the busiest ports in America.
It may also produce the dangerous phenomenon of “rogue waves,” according to University of Southampton scientists. These frighteningly powerful freak waves can be generated from storms and colliding ocean swells—a relatively common phenomenon in the hurricane-prone Bermuda Triangle. The first directly detected rogue wave, known as the Draupner wave, swept through Norway’s North Sea on January 1, 1995, and measured about 84 feet high. In 2016, a rogue wave over 60 feet tall was observed in the North Atlantic and these water-walls could exceed 100 feet in some cases, according to The New York Times .
On the BBC/Channel 5 documentary The Bermuda Triangle Enigma, which aired July 31, the Southampton team presented research suggesting that these waves may account for some of the most devastating wrecks in the region’s history. The scientists simulated the impact of rogue waves on vessels such as the USS Cyclops. Lab experiments revealed that large ships are particularly vulnerable to being snapped in half by their own weight when bombarded by these waves, so it’s possible that the 20,000-ton Cyclops may have been sunk by just such a freak event.
Rogue waves are one of many scientific explanations for the vessels and lives lost to the Bermuda Triangle—methane bubbles, compass errors, and the turbulent Gulf Stream have been considered possible causes, too.
The imaginative legends that are associated with the region speak more to the human need for supernatural explanations to heartrending tragedies than it does to alien abductions, lost civilizations, or the general bloodlust of the sea.