The rise and fall of quicksand.

The state of the universe.
Aug. 23 2010 9:08 AM

Terra Infirma

The rise and fall of quicksand.

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Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

 The fourth-graders were unanimous: Quicksand doesn't scare them, not one bit. If you're a 9- or 10-year-old at the P.S. 29 elementary school in Brooklyn, N.Y., you've got more pressing concerns: Dragons. Monsters. Big waves at the beach that might separate a girl from her mother. Thirty years ago, quicksand might have sprung up at recess, in pools of discolored asphalt or the dusty corners of the sandbox—step in the wrong place, and you'd die. But not anymore, a boy named Zayd tells me. "I think people used to be afraid of it," he says. His classmates nod. "It was before we were born," explains Owen. "Maybe it will come back one day."

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click to see expanded view.

For now, quicksand has all but evaporated from American entertainment—rejected even by the genre directors who once found it indispensable. There isn't any in this summer's fantasy blockbuster Prince of Persia: Sands of Time or in last year's animated jungle romp Up. You won't find quicksand in The Last Airbender or Avatar, either. Giant scorpions emerge from the sand in Clash of the Titans, but no one gets sucked under. And what about Lost—a tropical-island adventure series replete with mud ponds and dangling vines? That show, which ended in May, spanned six seasons and roughly 85 hours of television airtime—all without a single step into quicksand. "We were a little bit concerned that it would just be cheesy," says the show's Emmy-winning writer and executive producer, Carlton Cuse. "It felt too clichéd. It felt old-fashioned."

Quicksand once offered filmmakers a simple recipe for excitement: A pool of water, thickened with oatmeal, sprinkled over the top with wine corks. It was, in its purest form, a plot device unburdened by character, motivation, or story: My god, we're sinking! Will we escape this life-threatening situation before time runs out? Those who weren't rescued simply vanished from the script: It's too late—he's gone.

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The alternative was no less random: Surviving quicksand has always required more serendipity than skill. Is that a lasso over there? A tendril from a banyan tree? Cuse throws up his hands at the thought. "Adventure storytelling has to evolve," he says. "People use up gags. If you're working in an old genre, you have to figure out ways to make it fresh." He cites the trash compactor scene in Star Wars as the last major innovation in quicksand cinema: The heroes are standing in muck, but the danger has been transposed from the vertical to the horizontal—it's not sinking; it's crushing. A full generation has elapsed since that evolutionary step was taken in 1977. "I love love love adventure gags," Cuse assures me, "but the best years of quicksand are in the past."

Such truisms sidestep a deeper, stickier question: Why does one gag fall by the wayside while another soldiers on? Movie villains have long since given up tying their victims to the railroad tracks, yet they never seem to weary of planting time bombs. (Think how many colored wires were snipped in The Hurt Locker.) And quicksand? Time was, a director could sink a man in the desert and still win the Oscar for best picture. Today, that gimmick has been scorned in third-rate schlock.

Whatever its Q score, quicksand has always been more than a popcorn-spilling antic. As a literary metaphor and an expression of entanglement, the image dates back hundreds of years. As rhetoric, it once ruled the foreign-policy debate: Vietnam was "the quicksand war" before it was a quagmire; half a million troops were mired in the jungles of southeast Asia, swallowed up by a plot device of the Cold War. And it wasn't so long ago that the phenomenon of real quicksand—not the metaphor, not the gag—flummoxed the nation's leading physicists. Could all these anxieties be related? Might our fascination with quicksand reflect some more singular preoccupation—a broad cultural reckoning, even—with ambivalence and instability?

Before we can answer those questions, let's pinpoint when quicksand's status began to falter. Carlton Cuse, the longtime television producer, offers a clue. He didn't write any quicksand into Lost, but he did put some in another show, years earlier. In the seventh week of the first season of The Adventures of Brisco County Jr., the title character is captured by a Wild West pirate and thrown in a pool of sinking mud. So there you have it: For one pop-culture professional, at least, the gag still had its mojo back in October 1993. By the time the Lost pilot was aired in the fall of 2004, it had disappeared.

Why did quicksand slip below the surface?

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One day in late February 1995, a 32-year-old electronics sales associate named Duncan Edwards was sitting at a computer in Dallas running keywords through a Usenet search. A moment later, he found himself staring at a primitive home page with bright yellow wallpaper. At its center was a pixilated graphic—a clip-art collage—showing a stand of cattails and a white pith helmet floating in a pool of sludge. The name of the site appeared just above: The Quicksand! Page.

"My heart pounded … I very nearly fainted," says Edwards, recalling that first visit. "I didn't sleep for the next three days."

He'd stumbled across an online community of quicksand enthusiasts—kindred spirits, it turns out. Some were "sinkers": Those who crave the sensation of being mired in deep mud, the suction that's created when you step into water-logged clay. The stories they post to the group message boards—which have flourished over the past 15 years— suggest a shared spirit of adventure. Last summer, one quicksand fan set up a collaborative Google map for sinking holes, which now has more than 100 sites marked around the world—from the tidal muds near San Diego, Calif., to the loamy bogs of Finland. (Holes are assigned a score from 1 to 10, depending on amenities like privacy, depth, thickness, and available parking.)

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