Why isn't quicksand scary anymore?S

Why was quicksand a major peril in 1960s movies, but suddenly no longer scary in the 1990s? In an entertaining essay for Slate, Dan Engber explains how quicksand is getting sucked out of pop culture - but reinvented by scientists.

To conduct his research into the rise and fall of quicksand in American culture, Engber turned to the source of all trivial pop culture information: Online fetish communities. There are thriving, varied groups of people who are aroused by all aspects of quicksand: Getting sucked into it; watching other people get sucked into it; and just smearing it all over the place. Of course, these intrepid fetishists have archives filled with clips and references to every instance of quicksandery ever committed to celluloid.

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Aided by these erotic archivists, Engber was able to graph out some rough estimates of how many movies featuring quicksand were out in theaters at any given time (see chart above).

As you can see, quicksand was a major Big Bad at the movies in the 1960s. Interestingly, it also showed up a lot in political commentary about the Vietnam War. Engber writes:

The use of soil dynamics as a metaphor for Vietnam began early in the 1960s. Lucien Bodard's The Quicksand War was first published in 1963; two years later, peacenik pamphleteers decried the "Quicksand in Vietnam." And in the spring of 1965, David Halberstam finished his influential account of U.S. policy, The Making of a Quagmire. While images of quicksand proliferated on the silver screen, intellectuals debated "the quicksand model" and "the quagmire myth" of U.S. policy in the pages of the New York Review of Books and elsewhere . . . the fear of quicksand was so entrained in the nation's psyche that it seems to have infected another grand project of U.S. expansion-the voyage to the moon. A group of scientists led by Cornell astronomer Thomas Gold and NASA mathematician Leonard Roberts warned that the lunar surface might be so battered by galactic flotsam as to comprise a dangerous, powdered sand. Their theory-which predicted doom for a lander-was presented to the Senate in 1963. Two years later, Gold told reporters, "If I were at the controls of an Apollo vehicle hovering over the moon, I would not be willing to settle down for fear it would sink too much." (Lunar quicksand made it into the movies, too-an astronaut gets pulled under in the 1960 film 12 to the Moon.)

Did Hollywood quicksand offer some catharsis, then, by giving form to the nation's colonial anxieties? Or did quicksand somehow flow in reverse, from the movie gag to the metaphor? The obsession with sinking in all its varieties-cinematic, metaphorical, astronomical-may reflect something deeper still: a sense of upheaval and a search for steady ground. On Aug. 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial: "Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood," he said. In an era of radical change, the perils of muck and dust must have seemed self-evident. The landscape was shifting beneath our feet.

Engber suggests that it wasn't just the end of 60s upheavals that ended the cinematic fixation with quicksand. It was also the fact that cinematic quicksand as represented in Tarzan movies simply didn't exist. There was no sand that could suck you in and kill you. Not only was this idea debunked on a famous episode of Mythbusters, it was also the subject of debunking in prestigious scientific journals. So quicksand no longer worked as a political metaphor, nor was it a particularly scary threat in the movies either.

And yet quicksand lives on, in more scientifically accurate and scarier forms. Engber writes:

In the past 10 years or so, physicists have started looking at more interesting formations of sediment, in places where grains of sand or clay are assembled in delicate, latticelike structures. Step in one of these, and it collapses like a house of cards-before reforming in a dense pack around your feet. Researchers now debate evidence of dry desert quicksands and treacherous pits of powdered snow. The physicist Dirk Kadau has described so-called "living quicksands" on the shores of drying lagoons in Brazil. There's even quicksand in grain silos, where several dozen U.S. farm workers perish every year, drowned in flax or millet.

Engber's article is completely fascinating, and represents one of the few sustained efforts to trace the way a natural phenomenon evolved both in the popular imagination and among scientists. Check out the whole article, which is packed with interesting clips and references, on Slate.