The Frightening Conspiracy Theory That Links Missing Persons Cases To U.S. Cave Systems

When maps of the U.S. National Park System and maps of mysterious or unexplained missing person cases are compared, something unusual emerges, according to an unfounded conspiracy theory that the two may be related, as Snopes reports. Some 600,000 people in the U.S. go missing each year, tens of thousands of whom are never found, according to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs). It's where some — but not all — of these missing persons cases happen compared to the National Park System, and one geological feature common to them — their cave systems — has led online conspiracy theorists to point out a similarity.

Per the Skeptical Inquirer, the national park missing persons cave system theory only relates to people missing under mysterious circumstances. It got started in the "Missing411" book series by David Paulides. Since then, this unfounded theory has spread across social media, reaching TikTok and other platforms, per the UK Daily Star. As is often the case, there are some wild theories about the perceived connection between missing persons cold cases and the National Park System and what might cause what seems like a pattern. But, as Snopes explains, there's more to the story than what conspiracy theorists and their missing-persons-cave-theory maps represent.

Could cannibals be responsible for these disappearances?

What some have noticed is that in maps presented online of some unexplained mysterious missing persons cases, many seem to take place in or around national parks that are known for elaborate cave systems. Per Condé Nast Traveler, there are about 45,000 caves in the U.S. According to the National Park Service, there are 4,500 caves in U.S. national parks, and some span more than 100 miles underground — easy for the uninitiated to get lost in. Could ill-advised national park tourists who wandered off the path and became lost be the explanation? Not according to TikToker @danthedingbat21 (per the Daily Star). 

Alongside other online posts on the same out-there theory, @danthedingbat21 thinks there are tribes of human cannibals living in these cave systems, and the missing persons who disappear in those areas have been killed and eaten. Via the Daily Star, the TikToker said, "I know you have all seen videos where they talk about cannibals being in the woods and there just being feral people out in the woods ... I kinda think there are communities of those people and they take people when they can," which might also explain reports of Sasquatch sounds and sightings, they said.

Those missing persons maps present incomplete data

As Snopes points out, though, while the maps that tend to get passed around online supporting the missing persons-cave theory do present real data, they're incomplete. Left out of the data are not only many individuals reported missing and later found, but also, missing persons cases that happen far away from national park cave systems, like in big cities. Add those data points back onto the map, and the cave system theory falls apart, as Snopes reports.

Also specifically in the case of Paulides' findings, he only presents data points on his maps for missing persons who've disappeared under what he calls mysterious circumstances, a poorly defined classification. In short, while the maps presenting missing persons data and U.S. cave systems may seem convincing, the data they present has been cherry-picked to support the cave system theory, propounded by Paulides and others. When the complete picture is taken into account, and all the data on missing people in the U.S. are included, the perceived connection becomes far less distinct.