Gregoriden, “Greg” for short, lurks near the Denver International Airport baggage claim doors, waiting for unsuspecting travelers to wander by his perch. His 3-foot frame, leathery-looking wings, and bulging eyes are camouflaged by his stone-colored skin, which hides him in plain sight from all but the most attentive passersby.
Every 5 to 10 minutes, the alarmingly realistic animatronic gargoyle snaps to life. His eyes swivel and his head leers and his mouth opens wide:
“Welcome to Illuminati headquarters! I … I mean, welcome to Denver International Airport!”
Greg has many pre-recorded phrases. Sometimes he asks travelers to smuggle him out in their luggage, other times he cracks jokes about the New World Order or alludes to his “origins” in the Denver Airport’s alleged underground bunkers. He would be an out-of-place peculiarity at most airports, but at DEN, Greg is just one facet of the airport’s shrewd, controversial strategy to embrace the Denver Airport conspiracy.
Secret Illuminati tunnels, omens of the apocalypse in their artwork, lairs for the lizard people; DEN officials rebuffed the allegations for years. Today, however, the airport is more inclined to wink at the Denver Airport conspiracy than wag a finger. DEN’s website has an entire page devoted to their alleged cover-ups. The headline reads: “You may or may not have heard. DEN’s got some secrets.”
This marketing gambit has been remarkably effective for DEN. According to public relations firm Cision, Greg’s installation at the airport spawned an estimated $1.9 million in publicity. That figure doesn’t include the other Denver Airport conspiracy-related PR plugs, such as the construction signs featuring a besuited lizard man asking, “What are we doing?” above the choices:
A) Adding amazing new restaurants and bars
B) Building an Illuminati headquarters
C) Remodeling the lizard people’s lair
Airport CEO Kim Day says the marketing campaign has turned DEN into one of the most well-known American airports in the world. Day says when she took the job in 2008, executives with Air China didn’t know where Denver was, but now DEN is known throughout the global airline industry for its sense of humor. Day credits most of this shift to the 2012 hiring of Stacey Stegman, DEN’s Senior Vice President of Communications, Marketing and Customer Service.
Stegman remembers when she first joked about the alleged Denver Airport conspiracy at work, her fellow employees were “very sensitive” about the topic. Stegman saw a missed opportunity, and set out to recast the Denver Airport’s relationship with conspiracy theories. Today, self-referential humor seems to pervade the airport’s staff. Before beginning my guided tour of DEN, I ask an airport employee wearing a purple “Ask me. I’m here to help.” shirt what he thinks about the conspiracy theories. “Well, I’m almost at 20 years of working here,” he says, “at which point I get my own underground bunker. So I can’t talk to you about that.”
Outside the airport, however, not everyone is amused. For years, vocal conspirators have alleged something nefarious was afoot at DEN. In 2009, former Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura investigated the Denver Airport conspiracy on his TruTV show Conspiracy Theory with Jesse Ventura.
In 2011, conspiracy theorist William Tapley—who brands himself the “third eagle of the apocalypse”—appeared on The Colbert Report claiming DEN had phallic artwork hidden throughout its facilities. In 2016, David Icke, a conspiracy theorist with over 325,000 Twitter followers and more than a dozen books to his credit, wrote on his website the airport is “literally a New-Age cathedral, full of occult symbolism and references to secret societies.”
When DEN’s PR team released a promotional video of Greg in 2019 (ending with the line: “Travel is better when you’re having fun. That’s our theory.”), more conspiracy theorists emerged among the video’s 1,348 comments.
One reply: “Cool, instead of answering all the questions about the Freemason Time Capsule, the Death horse you have outside, murals of slaughter on your walls, underground tunnels etc. You make of course a ‘gargoyle’ making fun of everything. Comedy is the best way to deflect real questions. Good job. The sheeple will fall rite [sic] into your trap.”
Another: “HaHaHa, don’t pay attention to the Man behind the Curtain folks. See how funny this Demonic statue is? Aren’t the Satanic Global Elitists so hilarious? Just keep laughing, stay distracted, nothing to see underneath this airport, NOTHING AT ALL!! HaHaHa.”
Other commenters allege the Denver Airport is tied to demon possession, hidden prophecies about the end times, the origin of the Illuminati, and a cover-up concerning Lizard People who emerge from underground tunnels and eat children.
“Our intent with Gregoriden was not to get into conflict with anyone,” Stegman says. “We’re trying to engage with people. Life is so serious, we want people to have a laugh and alleviate their stress.”
When I requested a tour of DEN’s oddities—the red-eyed horse statue, the underground tunnels, the dystopian murals—the airport was quick to accommodate. They fielded dozens of questions about all manner of minutiae, and they facilitated several additional interviews, including conversations with their CEO and a former Denver mayor. At the Denver Airport, the conspiracy theories are eager conversation topics, not taboo.
“It should be obvious when one views Leo Tanguma’s murals at DIA that they are very positive,” says Leo’s wife, Jeanne, over email.
Obvious is a stretch. One of Leo’s four full-wall murals depicts a dead child laying in a coffin. There’s also a steampunk fascist impaling a dove with a sword, crying children fleeing a burning building, a sea turtle trapped in a net, and a Native American woman without eyes.
To online conspirators, Leo’s murals are a message from an elite cabal planning to steer the world into the apocalypse and raise their New World Order from the ashes. Leo declines to be interviewed about “the ridiculous conspiracy theories” surrounding his work, according to Jeanne. She says the murals depict the “children of the world coming together to rehabilitate the environment and struggle for world peace.”
The four murals are meant to be viewed as two diptychs, a pair of paintings connected by a theme. In each of Leo’s diptychs, the smaller mural presents the evils of the world while the larger mural presents the hope of peace. For instance, the dove-killing steampunk fascist from the first mural is seen dead in the second mural, as children from countries around the world destroy the swords of war with a hammer and anvil. Denver Airport officials hope travelers who stop and engage with Leo’s work will find the murals responsive to the human condition.
Federico Peña was mayor of Denver from 1989 to 1991, during the first three yers of DEN’s construction. He sees the airport’s commitment to personality as ahead of its time. “Today, international airports in Korea, China, and the UAE have extraordinary design and artwork,” he says. “These new airports have followed our approach to include beauty and design and art. We were one of the first.”
Kim Day acknowledges DEN’s art is challenging, but claims it’s in service of the airport attempting to interact with travelers—just like Greg’s cackling greetings for arrivals. “Part of our brand is that we relate to people,” she says. “We don’t want you to go through the airport like an automaton. We want you to feel connected when you’re here.”
DEN’s underground tunnels feel like the bowels of a vacant sports arena—all concrete, harsh lighting, and exposed pipes. After passing through a security checkpoint, I board a flatbed golf cart with Alex Renteria, DEN’s Public Information Officer, and set off through the tunnels. Renteria is my Virgil today, guiding me down into the bowels of the airport and back again. I keep my head on a swivel, ostensibly looking for bunkers, lizard people, or Illuminati (though I’m not sure what Illuminati look like—maybe they wear robes?).
Instead of nuclear fallout shelters, around us and overhead are the remnants of another attempt by DEN at airport distinction: a fully-automated baggage system. This ill-fated project was reported to contribute at least $100 million to DEN’s $2 billion budget overrun during construction. While most airports move luggage from the plane to baggage claim via human-operated vehicles, DEN wanted to automate the baggage process with computer-controlled carts and 26 total miles of underground criss-crossing tracks. The system promised fewer lost bags, shorter delays, and lower labor costs for the airlines.
It was a spectacular failure.
“It wasn’t the technology per se—it was a misplaced faith in it,” Richard de Neufville, professor of civil engineering at MIT, told the New York Times in 2005. The baggage system’s engineers hadn’t accounted for numerous complications and glitches inevitable in such a concept.
For example, the system included a telescoping belt loader, nicknamed “the lizard tongue,” designed to shoot out from the baggage system and scoop bags from the airplane. Instead, the lizard tongue flung the luggage clean off the overhead ramps, down toward the workers below.
“You’d be driving along, and you’d see bags flying from the buckets overhead, or see pieces on the ground,” Veronica Stevenson, a lead baggage handler for United Airlines and local union rep, told the New York Times. “Automation always looks good on paper. Sometimes you need real people.”
United Airlines used the system in a limited capacity upon completion, but DEN ultimately scrapped the baggage plan altogether in 2005. Today, Denver Airport workers and baggage cars motor back and forth through the tunnels, the unused tracks dormant overhead like a haunted roller coaster.
I ask Renteria about the Denver Airport conspiracy theories that posit these tunnels run to the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). She pulls out her phone and consults Google Maps before showing me the distance between the two sites: approximately 92 miles. Renteria and I discuss for a few minutes how one would construct 92 miles of tunnels in secret under residential and commercial properties and agree it would be logistically challenging.
So you’re saying they don’t exist?
“No, they do, but it’s on the other side of the tunnels I didn’t show you.” Renteria laughs. “That’s where the bunkers are, too.”
“Here’s Mustang, he’s big and beautiful!” Renteria says.
No one debates the “big” part: Mustang is a 32-foot fiberglass blue horse situated on the south lawn of DEN, near Peña Boulevard where visitors approach the terminals. Mustang is an alarming sight—especially in the dark, when his glowing red eyes are most pronounced—earning him an unofficial nickname from critics and commenters: Blucifer.
Mustang was the last work of Chicano sculptor Luis Jiménez, and some of the horse’s more unusual features are tributes to the artist’s heritage. Mustang’s blue coat and red eyes pay homage to Jiménez’s father’s neon shop, and according to a Colorado Public Radio interview with Jiménez’s wife, Susan, the red eyes were inspired by a night when Jiménez woke to find the family’s blue Appaloosa horse loose in their living room, no part of it visible except its eyes floating in the dark.
Mustang was commissioned by the city of Denver in 1992, but the city sued Jiménez when his work fell years behind schedule. Jiménez died in 2006 when a piece of the still-incomplete sculpture fell on him. His family and studio staff finished the project, and delivered it to DEN in 2008.
Some have alleged Mustang, with his sinister-seeming eyes and twisted sneer, is possessed by a demon; conspiracists speak of Jiménez’s death as proof of its evil energy. Others say Mustang is a taunting signal from a shadow organization—the Illuminati, the New World Order, maybe Nazis—using DEN for ill intent.
Mustang made enemies inside and outside conspiracy-theory circles. When the horse was installed, he inspired protests from alarmed Denver residents. One protestor, Rachel Hultin, caught national attention when her anti-Mustang Facebook page—she says she created it “after two glasses of wine”—was picked up by national news outlets. Hultin used the attention to “discuss art with art” by inviting people to write haikus about Mustang. One of the 300 poems she received:
Spooky blue flame steed/
Greets us with heinous anus/
This is art? Horseshit!
“Mustang rubbed me the wrong way at the time because I felt it wasn’t a welcoming piece of art for this city and airport,” Hultin says. “Over time, my position has changed somewhat. I remember seeing Jiménez’s widow sobbing [on the local news] about how many people didn’t like the horse. That really sobered me.”
Denver Airport officials see Mustang as a patron saint of the airport. Renteria calls him a “majestic protector” from his post on the south lawn. But Mustang’s isolation, from Hultin’s perspective, just heightens his eeriness.
“I’ve grown to love [Mustang]. He’s actually really powerful,” Hultin says. She explains his isolated location keeps people from engaging with him, however. “The issue was the placement. Public art should be accessible.”
DEN officials say Mustang is an inspiring, thought-provoking representation of Denver culture given its artist’s inspirations, yet his presentation by the airport sometimes adheres closer to kitsch conspiracy icon. He sits at the top of the Denver Airport conspiracy page on the airport’s website, where a designer added giant lasers shooting out of his eyes.
When I mention Mustang’s past to Stegman in relation to how he’s incorporated into the Denver Airport conspiracy, she insists the airport works hard to explain his artistic intent and inspiration. “We’re not the ones making all the jokes about him,” she says. “There’s a huge loyalty toward him, a fierce sort of defending of the horse.”
Conspiracy theorists have alleged DIA is built on a Native American burial ground, and that the ghosts of disturbed bodies haunt the airport. The allegations landed in 1995, when according to an independent Denver-based publication called Westword, the city of Denver organized a “[DEN] Spiritual Resolution Committee” and paid a volunteer committee member named Lance Allrunner $700 to convince representatives of the Montana Cheyenne tribe to bless DIA’s land.
Federico Peña says the blessing occurred, and it was meant to respect the indigenous people who roamed the area before Denver was settled by gold miners in the 1850s.
There is no evidence of a burial ground beneath DIA. Today, the airport features an art installation called Spirit of the People in Concourse A. The exhibit features photographs, paintings, and music donated from local tribes, including the Apache, Cheyenne, Comanche, and Navajo.
When I ask the airport for a response to the assertion they’re haunted by disturbed spirits, they point me to their webpage for the Spirit of the People exhibit without further comment. Stacy Stegman, when asked how the Denver Airport decides which conspiracy theories they embrace and which they do not, says about their approach: “Everything we’re doing is positive. We want to be full of love and kindness and happiness and taking care of people. We’re never going to do anything that creates discontent.”
The Denver Airport also refuses to humor the theory that says their runways intentionally resemble Nazi swastikas.
“That one is hurtful, and it’s not true,” Renteria says. “It comes with people thinking the Illuminati had something to do with this. I mean, our [runways] don’t even intersect.”
Like those of most airports, DIA’s runways are a series of parallel and perpendicular lines. You can play some arbitrary connect-the-dots to form a swastika-like shape, but this is a byproduct of conspiratorial imagination, not architectural intent. If you’re willing to believe a shadow organization meets at the Denver Airport to plot the apocalypse, or that lizard people are hiding in its underground tunnels, or the horse statue on the lawn is a demon in disguise, Nazis aren’t much of a stretch.
“I laugh at these conspiracy theories, it’s humorous,” Federico Peña says. “On one hand I ponder how people come up with dark theories like that—it’s a bit disturbing—but on the other hand I understand there are people who are generally looking for the dark side of life. That is their personality and they have every right to express those views.”
Many conspiracy theorists aren’t concerned with contradicting or disconnected evidence, because at the heart of every conspiracy theory—including the Denver Airport conspiracy—is a coverup. Picking and choosing which strand of a conspiracy to embrace misses the essence of conspiratorial thinking: Everything is connected. When DIA humors a fringe idea in their marketing, they inadvertently humor all of them.
I ask Kim Day if DIA’s marketing could be enabling extreme believers. “We only want to use conspiracies in a humorous way,” she says. “We never want to scare people or make people think there is some bigger conspiracy we are a part of.
“When it comes to things like a tunnel to NORAD or lizard people, we think that creates more connection and entertainment than animosity. But I am shocked by the things people believe. I am shocked how many people believe in UFOs, for instance.”
She pauses. “Wait, I guess I should have asked, you don’t believe in UFOs do you?”