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The Burning Tale of Hell.com

In the 1990s, the internet was a wild and creative space, with many quirky and unique websites that became cultural touchstones. Many of us fondly remember HamsterDance.com, YTMND.com (you’re the man now, dog) and Jodi.org. But today’s article is about another one of these hidden early internet treasures — HELL.com.


Surprisingly, hell.com was never actually a site about Hell (or the home of a Death Metal band). Rather, the site (and the disconnection with its name), was just as obscure as the site’s content was. So, what the hell was hell.com? It’s a question that many people asked themselves when stumbling across this piece of digital internet history.


Domain Nerds & Art Weirdos Collide

Hell.com was originally registered by artist, Kenneth Aronson, in 1995. His intent – to use the site as a way to capture traffic for different visual art installations on the web. The site was viewed by outsiders as being odd, secretive and mysterious.


When Aronson was “curating” the content for the domain (very much like an Art Director at the MET, wearing a black turtleneck and thick framed glasses), Hell.com was known for its cryptic and elusive nature, as the content was intentionally obscure and typically only accessible to a select group of people. The site was branded with a single symbol which became synonymous with Hell.com – a circle with an arrow pointing down.

Like a lot of art, some people loved the concept of Hell.com, and others thought it was “snooty” and a waste of perfectly good internet real estate which would be better suited for a Hardcore Punk band.

Hell.com functioned as a digital art collective, hosting a variety of multimedia artworks, performances, and interactive pieces. Aronson and his collaborators used the platform to push the boundaries of digital art, exploring themes of identity, privacy, and the nature of the internet. The content was often experimental, aiming to challenge visitors' perceptions and provide a unique online experience. To many, the content on hell.com didn’t make a ton of sense.


The Highway to Hell

When people wanted to gain access to Hell, they truly needed to take the Highway to Hell – sans Angus Young. The process wasn’t exactly straightforward. Early internet nerds would go to Hell (or stumble on it), and they had to request an invitation to actually visit the site. Once they were granted access to the site, people would encounter a series of disorienting interfaces. The cryptic approach fostered a sense of community among those who were "in the know," and the site's secretive nature became a key part of its allure.

We were curious what the original experience was like, so we went digging...

Firstly, we came across an interview with Aronson from 2011 where he talked about the art collective that he was curating. His goal was to elevate digital art from a number of artists. As part of the interview, there was a link to an old experience which walked through one of the earlier iterations of Hell.com….so, naturally, we took the site for a test drive.

Here’s a video we recorded of what it was like to navigate one (of many) of the early iterations of Hell.com. TBH, it doesn’t really make a lot of sense…and that’s exactly the way Aronson wanted it.


Attempted $8M Sale

In 2000, Hell.com gained significant media attention when Aronson attempted to auction the domain name. For the auction, Aronson set the initial asking price at $8 million, with a goal of generating enough cash to fuel his art projects further.

Although the price seemed steep (and it is, even by today’s terms), it still wasn’t totally insane at the time. Aronson was benchmarking the price for his digital asset based on the wild .com market for other domains that had sold around the same time – Business.com ($7.5M), Shop.com ($3M), and Wine.com ($2.9M), to name a few.

In the end, luck wasn’t on Aronson’s side – the auction didn’t result in a sale, but it brought widespread publicity to Hell.com. Eventually, in 2009, Hell.com was sold to domain investor, Rick Latona.


From Hell to Heaven

Latona held the domain for a few years and put it up for auction, but couldn’t get his initial asking price of $1.5M. Eventually, in 2023, mybible.com purchased the asset. It’s not entirely clear how many times the site transferred hands (and how much it sold for) in between Latona owning it and mybible.com purchasing it, but one can speculate.


Although the domain never warehoused the presence for a badass horror film, or showcased an appropriate musical act, Hell.com still is (and always will be) one hell of a domain name. At least we know that the site is now safely held in the hands of the clergy – what could possibly go wrong? 👀


 

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