Why Is the Denver Airport So Weird?

Equine art lives in many airports: Seattle and San Francisco have bronze horses shaped like driftwood, Central Illinois has wire horses suspended from the ceiling, Tucson has a winged horse and Barcelona has a burly horse.

None of them have a horse like Blucifer.

Rearing 32 feet tall in a median outside Denver International Airport, the cobalt-colored, demon-eyed, vein-streaked steed has terrified travelers and mobilized conspiracy theorists since it arrived 15 years ago. First, though, it killed its creator.

The artist Luis Jimenez designed the statue, officially known as “Mustang,” to make reference to Mexican murals and the energy of the Southwest, with glowing red eyes meant as a homage to his father’s neon workshop. The horse came to stand for something darker: In 2006, as Mr. Jimenez was finishing the 9,000-pound cast-fiberglass sculpture, a piece came loose and fatally severed an artery in his leg.

A giant, murderous stallion makes sense as a mascot for an airport with notoriety to spare, where a nearby art installation can be misconstrued as a portrayal of the Covid-19 virus and a rumor — that a humanoid reptilian race lives under the facility — can surface on the popular sitcom “Abbott Elementary.” The actor Macaulay Culkin, famous for navigating the horror of Manhattan during holiday season, tweeted that “the Denver Airport is the scariest place I’ve ever been in my life.”

In recent American history, mass delusions about election fraud and baseless rumors about the Covid-19 pandemic and environmental disasters have burrowed into mainstream discourse and the top echelons of government authority. Technology continues to warp reality. Conspiracy theories about nefarious political and racist plots have been cited by rioters at the U.S. Capitol and perpetrators of mass shootings.

The Denver airport is far less terrifying — not so much a society-shaking assault on truth, more an ongoing experiment into whether sometimes, institutional fabulism can just be fun.

One official statement was attributed to a “Sr. Illuminati Spokesman.” An employee appeared in a goofy video to explain a suspicious inscription in the Great Hall: “AU AG,” she said, did not represent the Australia antigen, which is associated with viral hepatitis and linked by conspiracy theorists to genocidal plague. Rather, it nodded to gold and silver, metals central to Colorado’s mining history.

The Denver airport tall tales tend to not be particularly dangerous or politically salient, drawing instead from a persistent fascination with extraterrestrials, the paranormal, “all sorts of nonsense,” said Joseph Uscinski, a professor of political science and a conspiracy theory expert at the University of Miami.

“If I was going to try to relieve people of their conspiracy theories or misinformation, would alien beliefs or Illuminati be at the top of my list? No, I probably would be more concerned about things that are more closely tied to political extremism or poor health decisions,” he said.

Besides, as the airport case study shows, changing people’s minds tends to be difficult.

“Oftentimes, our beliefs are a reflection of our underlying ideologies and dispositions,” he said. “So you’re not battling just a belief about aliens or the Illuminati, you’re battling an entire worldview.”

At the Denver airport, the stickiness of the site’s mythology means that any news — like the airport’s top administrator losing out on a major federal appointment this year, or the temporary closing of 2,000 parking spots — can become fodder for online claims of secret plots and ominous motivations.

Earlier this year, a claim gained traction on TikTok that a “new” art installation in Concourse A legitimized the flat earth conspiracy theory. Videos attempting to assign conspiratorial meaning to the tiled global map, set beneath arching train tracks and titanium poles, have racked up more than 1.5 million views. Airport officials pointed out that the piece is nearly 30 years old and represents the past and future of transportation.

When Stacey Stegman, who leads the airport’s communications efforts, arrived in her role a decade ago, her colleagues were sick of the local lore. To Ms. Stegman, the airport’s reputation as the batty uncle of international aviation was part of its charm, a chance to raise Denver’s profile to travelers who may not have thought much about the city and airlines that were looking to expand to new destinations.

In 2019, she championed a plan to install a temporary animatronic gargoyle named Greg (short for Gregoriden) in one of the halls spouting quips like “welcome to Illuminati headquarters.” There was an arrangement with the airport in Roswell, N.M., a hot spot for supposed alien sightings, to become “supernatural sister airports”. Ms. Stegman even wanted to decorate the airport’s extensive property with crop circles for its 20th birthday (ultimately too expensive).

“We leaned in pretty hard for a few years,” she said. “And we did learn some lessons along the way from it.”

One marketing campaign, tied to a renovation push that started in 2018, included posters of aliens with jokes about the facility’s “secrets” — suggesting that construction crews were building “gargoyle breeding grounds” or hiding Freemason meetings. The publicity generated by the campaign, according to the airport, was worth more than $8 million.

True believers hated it.

“Some got very upset by it because they thought, ‘Oh, now they’re making fun of us, they’re hiding in plain sight, they’re covering up the evil,’” Ms. Stegman said. “Ninety-nine percent of people see this for what it is, but for the others, we try to be like, ‘Look, this isn’t supposed to be hurtful, know that we’re teasing, this isn’t serious.’”

Two gargoyles still remain in the baggage claim area to protect luggage, including a more muted animatronic Greg; the original had “triggered” some people who viewed it as overtly satanic, Ms. Stegman said. Airport administrators have also stopped making light of conspiracy theories that turned out to have racist or otherwise offensive origins, such as the “lizard people” narrative, which is rooted in antisemitic tropes.

“You learn and you grow — we’ve slowed down a bit on it,” Ms. Stegman said. “Now we’re going back to a little bit more traditional advertising.”

The airport straddles two traditions of American fibbing, according to Dylan Thuras, a co-founder of Atlas Obscura, a travel media company focused on unusual destinations. Over the past decade, the airport has edged into a space occupied by online conspiracy theories that may focus on physical places and urban planning concepts, like the 15-minute city, without translating into actual tourism.

Then there’s the kind of kitsch folklore that has inspired multiple groups in Washington State to offer Bigfoot hunting expeditions; one has a $245 day tour with lessons in “techniques that have proven to lure in Sasquatch.”

“It’s hard to compete, if you’re a tourism bureau, on your wineries or your beaches because every place has wineries and lots of places have beaches,” Mr. Thuras said. “People are drawn to mythic stories.”

In Denver — a city with a park built atop thousands of corpses and near radium-contaminated streets, a psychedelic art installation masquerading as a multidimensional gateway and a restaurant housed in a mortuary that reportedly once held Buffalo Bill Cody’s remains — it can seem as if everyone one encounters has a take on the airport.

Restaurant servers say the runways are shaped like a swastika (something airport representatives vehemently deny, explaining that the design allows for multiple simultaneous takeoffs and landings). Airline employees report glimpsing ghosts and claim that Native American music is played at night to appease the spirits of the dead buried below (Ms. Stegman said there are no graves and that the music is part of an art installation that, if not for a finicky sound system, would be on all the time). Uber drivers believe that dirt left over from the airport’s construction was used to create artificial mountains to stash food for the apocalypse (Ms. Stegman just laughed and said she had not heard that one).

When the Denver airport opened in 1995, it was 16 months behind schedule and $2 billion over budget. The difficulties attracted legal complaints and government investigations, but also rumors, spread online and locally, that the extra time and cost had gone toward sinister design modifications — including more than a hundred miles of tunnels leading to subterranean meeting facilities, survival bunkers, deep underground military bases and even the North American Aerospace Defense Command near Colorado Springs.

The airport’s isolated location and disorienting size — the land that it owns makes it the second-largest airport in the world, after the King Fahd International Airport in Saudi Arabia, and bigger than actual U.S. cities, such as San Francisco — lends itself to online mumblings that it will someday be used as a prison or concentration camp by a mysterious totalitarian global government known as the New World Order.

But the airport’s enormous layout, according to Ms. Stegman, was actually a visionary effort to factor in future growth and efficiency. If anything, the design should have been more ambitious — it was intended to support 50 million travelers a year, but nearly 70 million people passed through last year, and nearly 100 million a year are expected by 2030.

To address the squeeze, the airport recently began a $1.3 billion project to upgrade and expand its Great Hall. The work has pushed some of its most peculiar points of interest out of sight.

That includes a pair of 28-foot murals by Leo Tanguma, meant to depict humanity existing peacefully with the environment in postwar harmony. But over the decades, a far more alarming interpretation developed: that the artwork’s images of a soldier in a gas mask wielding a rifle and a sword, ruined buildings and weeping mothers cradling lifeless children were a prophetic vision of the end of the world.

Unlike pieces in a museum or gallery, art in airports is often experienced as a surprise, said Sarah Magnatta, an assistant professor of global contemporary art at the University of Denver. Murals or installations in a terminal can increase exposure for local artists and add dimension to an otherwise utilitarian space, she said.

“I actually think that’s the best way to view art — when it kind of happens to you,” Dr. Magnatta said. “It’s art that is made a part of everyday life, and you’re forced to encounter it whether you want to or not, which can be a really powerful thing and a starting point for conversation.”

The removal of the Denver airport murals sparked rumors in Telegram channels and Reddit forums that construction was a cover for burying the truth. Ms. Stegman said the airport will always embrace “the conspiracy part” of its identity but is not trying to hide anything.

As for the mystery disappearance of the murals? They’re in temporary storage to avoid damage, and will return.