Despite its near universal debunking as a hoax, the Philadelphia Experiment endures as a paranormal cultural landmark.
The 1984 movie — based loosely on Carlos Allende's original narrative — was hardly an Oscar contender, but its '80s-era special effects were good enough to plant some indelible images in the moviegoer's mind. One particularly graphic scene near the end of the film depicts a badly burned crewmember writhing on the deck of the Eldridge with half of his body swallowed up in steel.
In his article explaining the stickiness of the Philadelphia Experiment myth, Jacques F. Vallee theorizes that powerful imagery is key to the success of any long-lived hoax. Like the debunked "surgeon's photo" of the Loch Ness Monster or the doctored pictures of the Cottingley fairies, it was the clear mental images of a disappearing ship and the mangled crewmen that helped capture the public's imagination.
The plausibility of the Philadelphia Experiment story is also fortified by a general mistrust of the military and the federal government, which have admitted to carrying out unethical experiments on their own soldiers and citizens. The claims are lent further legitimacy by invoking the names of brilliant scientists like Einstein and associating the secret technology with a scientific theory that remains just out of reach.
Though the ONR said it has never conducted experiments on invisibility and that such experiments could only happen in science fiction, true believers think this is one more case of the government performing a cover-up.
Even as more evidence has emerged about the true identity of Carlos Allende — a charismatic drifter with a host of mental problems — the Philadelphia Experiment refuses to die. It has even spawned a related myth called the Montauk Project. In this version, set at an Air Force base in the 1980s, the government built on the success of the Philadelphia Experiment to "manipulate the flow of time" [source: Vallee].
For lots more information about unexplained phenomena and contagious conspiracies, check out the related HowStuffWorks articles below.
Author's Note: How the Philadelphia Experiment Worked
You can't keep a good hoax down. The story of the Philadelphia Experiment has all of the trademark signs of a lie: a single witness, a secret government plot, pseudoscientific revelations possibly from alien sources ... It's a wonder that this thing ever caught on, let alone endured for decades. The Internet has certainly done its job. There are dozens of dubious websites dedicated to the "hidden facts" that the "government doesn't want you to know" about the Philadelphia Experiment and the Montauk Project. Anyone who dares to debunk the hoaxers is "debunked" themselves — allegedly unmasked as a CIA stooge or a paid accomplice. I can only hope that somewhere in the bowels of cyberspace, there's a brand-new article debunking me.
- McCrary, Lacy. "Legend Says the Eldridge Briefly Vanished in 1943." Philadelphia Inquirer. March 26, 1999. (Jan. 28, 2015) http://articles.philly.com/1999-03-26/news/25511825_1_uss-eldridge-philadelphia-experiment-ship
- Office of Naval Research. "Information Sheet: Philadelphia Experiment; UFO's." (Jan. 22, 2015) http://www.dod.mil/pubs/foi/homeland_defense/UFOs/onr_ph1.pdf
- Sutton, Christine. "Unified Field Theory." Encyclopedia Britannica (Jan. 22, 2015) http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/614522/unified-field-theory
- Vallee, Jacques F. "Anatomy of a Hoax: The Philadelphia Experiment Fifty Years Later." Journal of Scientific Exploration, Vol. 8, No. 1. 1994 (Jan. 22, 2015) http://www.scientificexploration.org/journal/jse_08_1_vallee.pdf
- Veronese, Keith. "What really happened during the Philadelphia Experiment?" Sept. 21, 2012 (Jan. 22, 2015) http://io9.com/5944616/what-really-happened-during-the-philadelphia-experiment