From lizard people and space aliens to secret underground bunkers and a cursed horse, Denver International Airport (DEN) has been a magnet for myths and legends since it opened in 1995.
One of the most pervasive legends about the airport is that it was built by members of a secret society. Which secret society? Well, that depends on who you ask, but believers variously point to the Freemasons (one of the world's oldest secular fraternal organizations, dating back to the stonemason lodges of the 14th century), the Illuminati (a short-lived Enlightenment-era secret society that some insist is still active) or the New World Order (an alleged cabal of global elites conspiring to overthrow existing governments and rule the world). Or perhaps all of the above, since the three groups are often said to be linked.
The most persuasive piece of “evidence” for this theory is a dedication capstone at the airport’s south entrance dated March 19, 1994. Sealed beneath the stone is a time capsule containing “messages and memorabilia to the people of Colorado in 2094.” The granite marker depicts the Square and Compasses symbol of the Freemasons and the names of two grand lodges and their grandmasters. While some have made much of this, airport officials say it’s only evidence of the generosity of the local Masonic lodges that crafted and laid the stone. After all, that’s what stonemasons do.
The capstone also makes mention of a group called the New World Airport Commission. Unlike the Freemasons, this group doesn’t actually exist, making its inclusion a little tougher to explain. And, as some like to point out, the name is suspiciously close to that of the so-called New World Order. But, according to a 2007 Westword article, the name is likely a reference to Czech composer Antonín Dvořák’s “New World Symphony,” and the New World Airport Commission was simply a temporary commission created to arrange the new airport’s opening festivities.
And the time capsule? It’s supposedly filled with coins, a baseball from Coors Field, a pair of former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb’s sneakers (a nod to his famed "Sneaker Campaign," during which he campaigned door to door throughout the city), a few Black Hawk casino tokens, and other memorabilia. We’ll have to wait quite a few years to find out for sure — although some have already tried.
One popular theory is that the braille tablet above the dedication stone is actually a keypad and that if you touch the raised dots in the correct sequence, you’ll be able to open the time capsule. Even some current Masons seem to buy into the myth — one airport employee says she’s heard reports of Masons visiting the capstone and trying to swipe their Masonic membership cards near the time capsule, just in case.
Underground bunkers, endless tunnels and a visit from the lizard people
Another related legend is that there are miles of underground tunnels and layer upon layer of secret buildings and bunkers beneath the airport, which the members of the aforementioned secret societies plan to use to ride out the coming apocalypse. Some claim there’s a tunnel that runs all the way from DEN to the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), which is located 100 miles away near Colorado Springs.
Others suggest the underground lair may be home to something supernatural — like extraterrestrials or lizard people. After Jordan Peele’s 2019 horror film “Us” premiered, some even posited that the tunnels beneath the airport could house a community of murderous doppelgangers, ready to rise out from under the earth and take over the surface.
Although the airport acknowledges that there are several subterranean levels beneath the main terminal (including the trains that carry passengers to and from different concourses and a long-defunct automated baggage system), they say the tunnels only extend out to the perimeter of the airport, less than two miles.
They also insist that you’re much more likely to meet mundane office workers than billionaires in ceremonial robes, since some of the underground levels host work and office spaces. And they’re adamant that any purported evidence of space aliens is just graffiti from mischievous employees, some of whom have been known to don lizard masks to prank unsuspecting coworkers and members of the media.
While many of DEN’s supposed secrets are encased in granite or buried deep underground, others are right out in the open for all to see. Two pieces of art, in particular, have drawn plenty of interest: a pair of 28-foot-wide murals by artist Leo Tanguma.
One section of "Children of the World Dream of Peace” shows scenes of war and death, anchored by a gas-masked soldier wielding both a sword and a machine gun, while the other depicts happy children from around the globe dressed in colorful traditional clothing and laying down their weapons beneath a rainbow of peace. Similarly, one section of "In Peace and Harmony with Nature" shows children mourning the death of three women and the extinction of numerous animals as the environment burns in the background, while the other section of the mural illustrates the children of the world coming together to rehabilitate and celebrate nature.
The pieces purportedly express the artist's hopeful desire for the people of the world to live in peace with one another and in harmony with nature, but others have been more focused on the anti-themes of war, death, pollution and environmental destruction, even claiming that the artworks contain clues and messages about the apocalypse and the inevitable rise of a totalitarian world government.
Another artwork that has raised eyebrows is part of Alex Sweetman’s "Art Chronicles," a photographic series documenting the construction of the airport. The premise sounds innocuous enough. And although many of the photo murals capture serene scenes — a bison standing in a snowy meadow, a field of vibrant yellow sunflowers reaching to the sky — one photo of a field of dead, browning sunflowers can leave some feeling a bit unsettled. Is it another coded message about the looming apocalypse hidden in the airport’s artwork, or just an ode to the changing seasons?
Compared to Tanguma’s giant, colorful murals and Sweetman’s large-scale photos, it might be easy to miss the two small gargoyles set atop columns in the east and west baggage claim areas. Historically, gargoyles were added to buildings to protect the people inside from evil spirits, and DEN’s pair, collectively titled “Notre Denver,” is no different. Grinning down on arriving passengers, they are there to help ensure the safe arrival of luggage.
Although gargoyles have been part of religious architecture for centuries — most famously on the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris, for which DEN’s gargoyles are named — some visitors have viewed the pair as harbingers of evil rather than noble protectors.
A cursed horse
No roundup of Denver International Airport legends would be complete without a mention of DEN’s most controversial and storied piece of art. The 32-foot-tall sculpture of a blue horse rearing up on its hind legs above Peña Boulevard is officially titled “Mustang,” but most Denverites know him by his demonic-sounding nickname: Blucifer.
With his red, glowing eyes and a mane that looks more like Medusa’s snakes than any horse’s hair we’ve seen, Blucifer is already a frightening sight, but his history adds an extra layer of intrigue.
Created by artist Luis Jiménez, “Mustang” was commissioned in the mid-'90s and inspired by the bright colors and themes of famed Mexican muralists like Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco. Jiménez grew up working in his father’s sign-making shop and went on to receive acclaim during his 30 years as an artist, primarily known for his large fiberglass sculptures. Unfortunately, “Mustang” was to be his last. After working on the piece for nearly a decade, Jiménez was killed in an accident in his New Mexico studio in June 2006, when a piece of the sculpture fell and severed an artery in his leg. The piece was eventually completed by Jimenez's children and unveiled in February 2008.
Between his tragic backstory and menacing visage, Blucifer has been a target for myth makers since he was erected, with many insisting that he’s cursed. Some even claim that his glowing red eyes indicate that he represents one of the steeds that will be ridden by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, although Jiménez himself said they were simply meant to honor the wild spirit of the West.
There are countless other myths and legends connected to the airport.
A mining cart carved into the tile of the Great Hall and adorned with the letters “Au” and “Ag” (the atomic symbols for gold and silver) is really an abbreviation for “Australian antigen,” a deadly chemical weapon that the Illuminati will use to secure power over humankind.
The coordinates for the location of the airport were given to its architects by space aliens.
Strange markings on the walls and buildings are codes from members of secret societies or snippets of an unknown extraterrestrial language. (They’re actually references to the Navajo language.)
Other organizations might try to distance themselves from such tall tales, but the marketing team at Denver International Airport has leaned into the legends. A few years ago, DEN hosted a museum-style gallery exhibition called “Conspiracy Theories Uncovered,” celebrating some of the airport’s most notables. It included an “alien” skull that was made by employees and planted during construction of the Westin Denver International Airport Hotel.
Most recently, DEN has capitalized on the mythical past with a series of ads. One shows Bluficer, red laser beams shooting out of his eyes, with the tagline: “Are we creating the world’s greatest airport? Or preparing for the end of the world?” Another one pictures one of the gargoyles in a Transportation Security Administration scanner and asks, “Streamlined security? Or more secrets?” Others depict space aliens, a lizard person, mysterious tunnels — even a cat in a tinfoil hat. All are hashtagged #DENFILES (a play on “The X-Files” TV show, for the uninitiated) and urge viewers to “Learn the truth at DENFiles.com.”
The truth? It’s a marketing campaign for DEN’s Great Hall Project, a large-scale renovation of the area under the tents of the airport’s Jeppesen Terminal.
Or is that just what they want us to believe?
Photographs provided courtesy of Denver International Airport