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.

Click to view a slide show.

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.

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?

1_123125_2218862_090529_pep_divider_568

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.)

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.

1_123125_2218862_090529_pep_divider_568

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.)

1_123125_2093564_2243695_2264310_2264311_100715_sci_quicksand_chart_02

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.

So when was the gimmick at its peak? In the 1960s, quicksand was everywhere. It turned up in B-grade cinema and television—the Monkees once ran afoul of it—but also in legitimate, mainstream work. Lawrence of Arabia had quicksand and earned seven Oscars. There was even quicksand in the art house: The hero of Woman in the Dunes, a 1964 blast of existentialism from Japan, spends much of the movie trapped in a sand pit. (He escapes at one point, only to fall into quicksand.) In total, nearly 3 percent of the films in that era—one in 35—showed someone sinking in mud or sand or oozing clay. Compared with every decade before or since, quicksand ruled the screen.

1_123125_2218862_090529_pep_divider_568

It's fitting that one of the earliest known depictions of quicksand comes from one of the earliest known comic strips—a 230-foot-long piece of linen embroidered with wool yarn nearly 1,000 years ago. The Bayeux Tapestry depicts the events leading up to the Norman Conquest, and in one panel, Harold, later King of England, pauses to rescue a pair of soldiers who have become trapped in the mud near Mont St. Michel.

Five hundred years later, the image of quicksand had become commonplace in European literature. In TheFaerie Queene, Spenser placed it "by the checked wave … and by the sea discolored: It called was the Quicksand of Unthriftiness." Shakespeare described his Clarence as "a quicksand of deceit." By 1727, the stuff had become so popular that Alexander Pope referred to it in his treatise on "The Art of Sinking in Poetry"—an ironic guide to the depths of literary expression. His recipe for epic verse tells how to sketch a tempest: "Mix your clouds and billows well together till they foam, and thicken your description here and there with a quicksand."

During the Age of Discovery, quicksand lived on ocean coastlines, not in the jungle or beneath the dunes. (Spenser and Shakespeare put theirs alongside "a whirlpool of hidden jeopardy" or between the "ruthless sea" and a "ragged fatal rock.") It was, in its literal sense, a maritime hazard: European ships might be trapped in the shoals of new continents. But the saltwater peril stood in for more figurative anxieties: Explorers who ventured around the globe might disappear into a foreign landscape, gone native or something worse. Mutton-chopped Brits were being engulfed by African wilderness; the spread of civilization came with a fear of getting stuck.

For Americans, too, quicksand had a way of showing up when we pushed our borders into the unknown. The more conspicuous the entanglement, the more likely we were to visualize it as a real-world danger: In the 19th century, sinkholes dotted the literature of manifest destiny and the untamed West; in the 20th century, quicksand took over at the movies while the nation fought a colonial war in a vine-filled jungle overseas.

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 two words— quicksand and quagmire—are etymologically distinct but were used interchangeably at the time.) There was even some real quicksand—the literal kind—associated with Vietnam: In 1967, the AP reported that an Army Private had been awarded a medal for heroism after pulling his sergeant from a deadly quicksand pit.  

Indeed, 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.

Excerpt from the "I Have a Dream" speech, 1963

1_123125_2218862_090529_pep_divider_568

If we can explain the rise of quicksand by lumping it in with hula hoops, the Apollo missions, and other icons of the 1960s, then we've answered just half the question. What explains quicksand's fall? Is this a story of natural selection—an idea, once so well-adapted to its environment, that lost its niche? We know the gag limped its way through the 1980s, beyond Vietnam and through the end of the Cold War. Was this merely its dwindling path to extinction? Or did something else hasten its demise?

The quicksand fans have their own theories, of course. "The mystique of quicksand faded with the sophistication and urbanization of the country," explains one longtime member of the community who asked to remain anonymous. In his teenage years, "Jesse" set off in search of deep mud on an almost weekly basis. His favorite destinations were the outdoor quarries where sand is washed and prepared in giant hollow berms hundreds of feet long and 30 feet deep. "These areas were my own personal Disneyland, where I acted out scenes created in my imagination."

Such imaginative games were more accessible to children from rural areas, he suggests; the fantasy of wilderness peril makes more sense if you grew up near the wilderness. Quicksand, then, might be another victim of urban sprawl. It's true that the spread of American cities into the countryside does overlap, more or less, with the decline of the adventure gag. More than 10 million acres of forest were turned into buildings, lawns, and pavement over the course of the 1980s and 1990s. At the start of quicksand's halcyon era, one-third of Americans were living in the suburbs. By 1990, when the gag was nearly done for, that number had grown to one-half.  

Yet experience tells me that city kids are no less susceptible to the pull of quicksand. I have my own memories of playing out melodramatic movie scenarios just a few blocks from where I grew up, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. My own personal Disneyland, if you want to call it that, was not an enormous pit of sand slurry out West but a modest sandbox in Riverside Park. The kids in my neighborhood had no trouble imagining jungle adventures in the playground. Sometimes we poured water in the sand to make the danger seem more real.

As it happens, there's another recent trend that's worth considering when it comes to quicksand—and one that bears on the games we played in city parks. In the 1970s, when I was born, roughly 800 sandboxes could be found in public playgrounds around New York City. By 1995, just 44 remained. (In Brooklyn, where I live now, the number dropped to four.) Over the course of my childhood, then, and through the concurrent decline of quicksand in the movies, the number of sandboxes in the nation's largest city dropped by 95 percent.

The sudden disappearance of sandboxes wasn't unique to the Big Apple, either. The playground accessory had been invented more than a century earlier by the German educator Friedrich Froebel. (One early mention comes from 1847, when an associate of Froebel's asked him in a letter, "Might not a plane of sand be made a useful and entertaining game? … A few drops of water mixed with it would enable the child to form mountains and valleys in it, and so on.") Sandboxes—or, as they were originally known, sandgartens—became increasingly popular in the United States starting in the 1880s. By the 1930s, 58 percent of well-off families had their own sandboxes. Fifty years later, the sandbox culture dissolved all at once.

In 1986, a geologist and medical doctor named Mark Germine published a letter in the New England Journal of Medicine describing an analysis he'd performed on several bags of commercial sand. The stuff that went into public playgrounds, he said, contained particles of tremolite, a substance similar to asbestos. That same year, the EPA declared for the first time that asbestos may cause cancer at any level of exposure. The nation's children were frolicking in carcinogens.

Pretty soon, a watchdog group affiliated with Ralph Nader became embroiled in a long, public feud with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission over the regulation of sandboxes. (The commission was skeptical: "In the minds of our scientific staff, that evidence doesn't exist," a spokesman said.) Leaving aside the asbestos controversy, many parents and city officials worried that other, macroscopic dangers might be finding their way into the playground—hypodermic needles, used condoms, and broken crack pipes. In New York, the burden of keeping sandboxes clean proved too costly for the Parks Department; by 1995, the city was "aggressively and systematically removing them."

Access to sand and water may have given kids like me something that has since disappeared—a venue for a certain kind of wilderness fantasy, or "a peril over which the child's imagination has complete control," as Jesse, the quicksand fan, describes it. The ubiquity of sandboxes once nurtured the playful idea of being swallowed whole, while the kids who dreamed of quicksand sustained the movie myth. But in the late 1980s, nervous parents started to take our sand away. When they looked at the sandbox, they saw danger, too.

1_123125_2218862_090529_pep_divider_568

There's an episode of the show MythBusters in which Adam and Jamie, professional debunkers, take on the idea of "killer quicksand." Can people really get sucked into a mixture of sand and water like they do in the movies? To find out, they fill an enormous canister with 20,000 pounds of very fine sand, and then turn it into a squishy, sinking slurry by pumping water up through the bottom. Adam climbs in, wearing a pith helmet, and starts sinking—but only to his chest. "Alright, what's our final verdict on movie-style killer quicksand?" he says when the experiment is over.

"Surprised you even have to ask," says Jamie. "It's absolutely busted. No such thing."

More than one quicksand fan blames shows like this for squeezing his favorite gimmick from American movies and TV. The problem with quicksand, they argue, is that we know too much about it. "Viewers are more educated now than before," says Crypto. "They now know that quicksand that 'sucks you under' just doesn't exist in real life." The facts are too easily Googled or discovered on the Discovery Channel. The adventure gag has been drained of its magic. ("Hasn't science always been an efficient killjoy?" Jesse asks.)

Ironically, the debunking of quicksand is as much a cliché as quicksand itself. The MythBusters episode first aired in 2004; a year later, the myth of quicksand was busted all over again in the prestigious science journal Nature. For that study, physicist Daniel Bonn collected wild quicksand from a salt lake in Iran and brought it back to his laboratory in the Netherlands. Then he placed an aluminum bead on top and watched how far it sank. The conclusion? "Scientists Debunk Quicksand Myth," read the headline on MSNBC. A person trapped in quicksand would sink only to his armpits.

This point has, in fact, been made many, many times before—even in the pages of Nature itself. In 1910, the journal noted of quicksand, "a certain amount of unnecessary mystery seems to surround this matter." In another paper, from 1946, a researcher at DePauw University made quicksand in the lab and placed in it a wooden figurine with lead feet. It sank to the elbows. Indeed, the sheer impossibility of being sucked under quicksand had been inscribed in standard textbooks by the 1960s. Bonn jokes that his paper restated a discovery that was first made more than 2,000 years ago: According to Archimedes' principle, a floating object displaces its own weight and nothing more. Since people are less dense than quicksand, they'll never go completely under.

That's not to say quicksand can't kill you. Bonn calculates that the suction force created as your foot squeezes water from a quicksand matrix can be enormous: For his Iranian sample, it would take 100,000 newtons of force to get out—enough to lift a car. In most real-world situations, it's easy enough to wriggle free from sinking ooze, but people have gotten stuck and then drowned in the rising tide. Among the more famous and deadly sites are those around France's Mont St. Michel—where a yielding structure of mud and water hides beneath an elastic algal crust—and England's Morecambe Bay. The latter is so treacherous as to merit the appointment of the "Queen's Guide to the Sands." (That responsibility now falls to an elderly fisherman named Cedric Robinson, who leads tourists around the bay with a whistle and a long stick.) In the United States, several people have become ensconced in mud above the knee and then submerged in the waters of Alaska's Turnagain Arm.

YouTube video of a tourist trapped in quicksand near Mont St. Michel

In any case, it's trivial to say that science has "debunked" quicksand. If anything, recent work on unstable granular media has revealed a far more diverse and complex set of phenomena than anyone imagined. Traditional scientific accounts describe just one type—the classic "artesian quicksand" shown in the MythBusters episode. That's ordinary sand that has been saturated with upwelling moisture: Given enough water, the sand liquefies, and the grains start to flow like a viscous fluid. But 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.

The new science of quicksand doesn't have to be a killjoy for adventure stories. If anything, they should enrich the gag with fresh possibilities. In real life, pools of mud are as weird and dangerous as ever.

1_123125_2218862_090529_pep_divider_568

In the scorching midday heat of late July, Michael Bloomberg stopped in at a playground in lower Manhattan. The press sat in plastic chairs arranged in rows on a bed of spongy turf; behind the mayor's podium was an array of brightly-colored pipes and jumbo phonograph horns. Over to his right was an enormous sand pit, spread over two levels and 3,000 square feet, with a fountain in the middle. "This is one of the most spectacular and unique playgrounds in the world," the mayor said.

After five years of preparation and research, the city was opening its brand-new, $7.5 million "Imagination Playground"—a project designed by architect David Rockwell and widely seen as the harbinger of a fresh philosophy of child recreation. "We've encouraged using sand and water to make mud," Rockwell tells me as we watch two boys from the YMCA roll a wheelbarrow toward a table specially designed for creating muck. "The city is committed to having more sandboxes," he says. (In fact, the number has already increased by 25 percent since the mid-1990s.) "They see this as kind of a pilot."

If the sandbox is coming back, could quicksand be far behind?

In other ways, too, the time may be right for a renewed preoccupation with sinking. The country faces a lingering conflict overseas; by all accounts, the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan have trapped us in a quagmire of rising death tolls and unpaid bills—we've already spent $1.15 trillion, half again as much as Vietnam. (The '60s parallels are mounting: Today's wars have even produced their own version of the Pentagon Papers.) Meanwhile, the quicksands of racial prejudice have lately given way to the gay marriage quicksand.

Photograph of David Rockwell's "Imagination Playground" in lower Manhattan.
David Rockwell's "Imagination Playground" in lower Manhattan

Yet the return of the adventure gag, if not the full-blown anxiety, seems somehow implausible. Haven't we become too interconnected for quicksand's spell to work? There's less fear of getting stuck when every cell phone has GPS and Google Maps, and less room for entanglement when the world is crisscrossed already by a web of information. If quicksand stands in for the antique dangers of far-off lands, it's an analog fear in a digital age.

What about the quicksand fans, then? The Internet ushered in their golden age by helping loners find each other across oceans and mountain ranges and gulfs of shame. Did it also destroy what they love most? It's been a few years since Crypto published a new version of his list; as quicksand disappeared from movies and TV, the quicksand fans gradually shed their nostalgia. These days, they're spending less time digging up classic scenes from the 1960s and more time downloading low-budget quicksand porn—soft-core fetish videos showing female models floundering in bogs and mud pits. Jesse, whose interest in the subject was never sexual, has abandoned the message boards in frustration.

Maybe quicksand has evolved, after all. You won't find it anymore in foreign landscapes or on Hollywood soundstages. Its habitat has shifted. Pools of muck now spring up in the wilds of online fandom or at the woolly corners of the Internet. Members of the quicksand community are at once embroiled in the past and neglectful of it; they have their own movies, after all, and their own sinking adventures to share. A digital tribe has lifted the adventure gag from pop culture and reconfigured it at the center of their social network. Quicksand may be gone from the mainstream, but there's still a place where it exerts its legendary pull.

Click here to view a slide show.

Correction, Aug. 23, 2010: This article originally misspelled County as Country in The Adventures of Brisco County Jr.

Like Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.