The rise and fall of quicksand.
Edwards is a different kind of quicksand fan, though. He has no interest in getting muddy himself—he's more a looker than a doer, someone who likes to see pictures and film-clips of other people being submerged. Not every looker has the same tastes: Edwards calls himself a knees-to-waist kind of guy; others prefer someone stuck to the armpits; and still more are into "grim endings"—where the sinker disappears below the surface in a trail of mud bubbles. (Headfirst sinkings appeal to a small but dedicated minority.)
To hear a quicksand fan describe his interest can be unnerving: Many describe what amounts to a sexual fascination with helpless women flailing for their lives. But there's more to the fetish than a bondage fantasy. For some, the excitement hinges on a damsel-in-distress melodrama with a heroic rescue. The mythology of quicksand can be just as inspiring on its own terms—conveying a nostalgia, erotic or not, for old-time serials and wilderness tales. One member of the community, "Crypto," describes feeling a sexual attraction to the quicksand itself, as opposed to whoever or whatever happens to be trapped in it. He doesn't care whether the victim is male or female, human or animal. (As a little boy, he was drawn to a scene from the 1960 Disney film, Swiss Family Robinson, in which a zebra sinks into a mud bog.) "It is the quicksand alone that is the trigger for the sexual response," he explains over e-mail. "It is just the way I am wired genetically, I guess."
Clip from Danger! Quicksand (2000)
Like many quicksand fans—Crypto included—Duncan Edwards has a good job, a wife, and children. He's creative, working in his off-hours as a writer, photographer, and director of quicksand fan films. (Other members of the community create and share comics, short stories, and graphics.) When we speak by phone, Edwards describes his predilection with a disarming frankness and a bit of Southern charm. He hopes my article will help others with "the interest" have the sort of epiphany he experienced 15 years ago. "You get this feeling of, Wow, I'm not weird. I'm not alone," he says. "Most of us are incredibly square, regular white guys who had private-school educations and are, in all respects, extremely normal. If you want to use that word."
The online forums now draw up to 1,000 members from around the world. Their ringleaders are in their late 40s or early 50s—people who came of age when quicksand was in its zenith. But the disappearance of quicksand from pop culture doesn't perturb Edwards. Indeed, he's sure there's never been a better time to be a fan. An interest that was once relegated to tiny blurbs in the back of Splosh!, a "wet and messy" fetish magazine, has blossomed, in the last 15 years, into its own vibrant, imaginative community. Thanks to the Internet, "we just happen to be at the golden moment," Edwards says.
If you really want to understand quicksand—if you're looking for some way to gauge its rise and fall in American culture—then the fetish community is the place to start.
By the mid-1990s, individual quicksand fans were already conducting their own private surveys of the genre, and making libraries of scenes dubbed to VHS. With communication came the possibility of collaboration, and a more structured way to assemble this knowledge. Clips were shared over the Internet, and the community began working together to dig up new, undiscovered examples of quicksand cinema. They scoured the shelves at video-rental stores for movies with island or jungle in their titles. They sifted through IMDB plot summaries and discussed ways to keep the metaphorical uses of quicksand from polluting their Google searches. (References to the New York-based post-hardcore band Quicksand proved especially annoying.) And sometimes they relied on dumb luck: One day, Duncan Edwards happened to pick up a copy of Life magazine from 1961 at a flea market, and, flipping through the pages, found a film publicity still showing pin-up girl Anita Ekberg sinking in a pool of sand and water. He shared the news, and the race was on for the original footage. "The search is endless," says Edwards, "it goes on and on and on."
This hive-mind project—to identify every quicksand scene, ever—will soon have extended across two decades. Whenever a new scene was identified, a deep-mud enthusiast and entrepreneur in California named Dave Lodoski would add the clip to an ever-growing video archive. (At one time, Lodoski was spending $200 every week buying and renting movies for the project.) Then he'd stack the scenes in tapes with names like "Female QS Volume 2" and sell them to other fans via snail mail.
The collective effort extends beyond the tapes, however. Plenty of scenes have been identified but never copied or ripped from a DVD. To keep track of each discovery and loose end, the user named "Crypto" took on the role of encyclopedist. The 47-year-old computer programmer, who lives outside of Toronto, compiled the first version of his "Guide to TV & Movie Quicksand Scenes" back in 1998. Known informally as "Crypto's List," it's now been through 28 published versions; the most recent contains more than 1,000 entries, starting with the silent Gaumont melodrama "Rescued from the Quicksand" from 1909 and ending with an episode of the Japanese anime series, Deltora Quest, from 2007. The list is a quixotic and startlingly thorough record of sinking scenes in scripted TV and feature films, as well as commercials, video games, reality shows, cartoons, documentaries, and music videos. Crypto has identified wet jungle quicksands and dry desert pits, bogs and quagmires, areas of wet cement—even scenes of people sinking into giant vats of caviar.
For those with "the interest," the guide serves as an enormous Netflix queue, a sort of collector's catalog or a fetish to-do list. For everyone else, it's a sui generis chronicle of America's preoccupation with quicksand. If Carlton Cuse of Lost is right that adventure gags must evolve, then Crypto's List is the nearest we have to a fossil record.
With some careful parsing of the data, it's possible to trace the evolution of quicksand on a graph—to plot its cultural importance from one decade to the next. We can take just the full-length films on Crypto's List, for example—more than 300 in all—and count how many were released in each era. That gives a sense of how much sinking appeared on-screen at any given time. Then we might compare the number of movies with quicksand to the total number of films released and calculate a percentage for each decade. (The volume of Hollywood production waxed and waned and waxed again over the years.) The chart below shows the results of this analysis, using the information from Crypto's List combined with overall industry numbers from the Motion Picture Association of America. (For more information on this graph—and a few caveats—read this sidebar.)
As a child of the Reagan years, I thought I'd seen the glory days of quicksand: What depths we reached, at The Neverending Story (1984), when Artax sank in the Swamps of Sadness, and what joy at seeing Buttercup saved from the muck in The Princess Bride (1987). I know my brother spent hours dodging pools of deadly tar in Pitfall!, the 1982 Atari cartridge that remains one of the most popular video games of all time. And according to Crypto's List, quicksand was all over daytime television, too—showing up six times in The Smurfs, three times in The Transformers, and three times in G.I. Joe. There was even an episode of Knight Rider where Michael had to rescue Kitt from a quaking bog.
But for all that, the quicksand of our youth was already an endangered resource. By the time I entered junior high, the gag had been relegated to self-conscious horror flicks and zany sitcoms like Perfect Strangers and Small Wonder. Quicksand was ironized and depleted. Across the 1980s, it appeared in roughly one of every 75 films released in the theaters. That's more than twice as much quicksand as we have today but less than half the total from just a few years earlier.
Clip from Danger! Quicksand (2000), used with permission from the National Geographic Channel. Graph of movies with quicksand by Natalie Matthews. Photograph of David Rockwell's "Imagination Playground" by Frank Oudeman © 2010.