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Quicksaaaand!

Thursday, October 10, 2013 - 06:00 PM

For many of us, quicksand was once a real fear -- it held a vise-grip on our imaginations, from childish sandbox games to grown-up anxieties about venturing into unknown lands. But these days, quicksand can't even scare an 8-year-old. In this short, we try to find out why. 

Producer Soren Wheeler introduces us to Dan Engber, writer and columnist for Slate, who ran across a strange fact: kids are no longer afraid of quicksand. To figure out what happened to quicksand, Dan immersed himself in research, compiled mountains of data, and met with quicksand fetishists. Dan tells Soren and Robert about his journey, and shares his theory about why the terror of his childhood seems to have lost its menacing allure. And Carlton Cuse, best-known as writer and executive producer of Lost, weighs in on whether giant pits of hero-swallowing mud might one day creep back into the spotlight.

Dan Engber's data on the percentage of movies released that feature quicksand.

Guests:

Carlton Cuse, Daniel Engber and Soren Wheeler

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Comments [54]

shortjog321

I remember coming across the concept of quicksand in cartoons, books, and other various media. It was mentioned so much that you think it’s one of those things you’d end up having to worry about in life. As a child, passing by murky looking pond-like areas always had me wondering if stepping in it would put me in a tooth-and-nail type fight with one of nature’s suckers. Listening to this podcast, I realize that quicksand really doesn't come up anymore, and if it does it seems to be some sort of comic relief. I find this podcast really interesting, and it brings me to wonder if quicksand will ever come back as something people are genuinely scared of.

Apr. 19 2014 12:02 AM
Maria A

This whole podcast on quicksand was really very interesting. As a child I encountered quicksand through movies and cartoons; personally I was afraid of it. I wasn't deathly afraid of it but when I was little I always wondered if the quicksand led to another place or in you just suffocated and were stuck there. I agree that quicksand has infact lost it's edge. In today's society, films, books, and tv shows are all about zombies, vampires, werewolves, and monsters basically. Which is why children today are afraid of those things, because it is what is popular now. Today we don't worry about exploration of new places because we assume everything that is worth discovering has been discovered already. I am wondering if the new Star Wars movie will indeed have quicksand, and if it does I wonder if it will cause a hype about quicksand yet again.

Apr. 17 2014 03:30 PM
walt933

I never thought of quicksand as a danger, because personally I have never encountered quicksand. The only times where I remember hearing about quicksand was in a Scooby Doo movie. I only knew of it as, sand that makes you sink into the ground. I just remember laughing at the monsters being sucked down in the quicksand while the good guys got away. But I never noticed the real dangers of quicksand. I found this discussion interesting.

Apr. 16 2014 08:07 PM
freerun062

Quicksand is definitely something that cant be overlooked. I don't quite understand why this has become a topic of debate that is talked about for a solid 15 minutes. But for sure quicksand is something to be worried about if there is any quick sand around

Apr. 10 2014 10:32 PM
scwp16

I did not know that there used to be a common fear of quicksand. I had heard about quicksand in cartoons when I was younger, but the shows didn't put emphasis on the danger of quicksand, but rather used it as a small problem that was supposed to be funny. I think another reason the fear of quicksand is uncommon now is because of the emphasis on imaginary things like vampires and werewolves in movies and tv shows, instead of realistic dangers such as quicksand. I also agree that the decline in the use of sandboxes could contribute to the unawareness of quicksand. I never had a sandbox, so i would have never thought about pretending to be in quicksand.

Apr. 04 2014 12:33 AM
marshmallowkatie

I really thought this NPR podcast was interesting because now that you think about it, where did the thought of quicksand go? I do agree that the movies had a part in not revealing the fear of quicksand because most movies now are dealing with aliens and paranormal creatures. Movies today don't really involve environmental fears unless you are watching a bad movie on SciFy. I do think that because no one plays in the sand as much as our parents did, children don't know about what could happen in sand. To add on to the reasoning of quicksand, I think that people that aren't around sand as much as those countries that have jungles and deserts don't know how to react around quicksand because they haven't lived around it. The countries that have jungles and deserts have some sort of idea on quicksand and the dangers of it but I wouldn't say they have a big fear about quicksand because they know what to do.

Apr. 02 2014 05:38 PM
Dave from SLC Utah

I love Radio Lab, I really do but this episode was a serious let down. I kept waiting for the interesting part that usually washes over me when I listen to Radio Lab but this sounded like a documentary about somebody's poorly thought out Google search of quicksand with the typical vague uninteresting conclusion that is the product of most random curiosity Google searches... I want my 16 minutes back!

Mar. 24 2014 03:41 PM
Li

Of the almost 50 posts so far, between a half-dozen and a dozen claim that quicksand is "dangerous". LOL. So is a flat tire. As many commenters have said, you float on quicksand. Some have asked why the "experts" consulted were TV producers. One thing that happens when you saturate the public with fiction depicting supposed fact which turns out NOT to be, is everybody hears that it is a bunch of bunk. The most obvious reason it virtually disappeared is because it was FAKE. Apparently no one writing this piece has kids, the reason it appears in kids shows is BECAUSE ITS FAKE, and not real. As any parent should be able to explain. The most obvious reason no statistics are available on it, is because its far less "dangerous" than poison ivy/oak (i speculate). As a parent in the 80's I can tell you (as others have said) the reason sandboxes almost disappeared is because of the warnings from various Departments of Health about how cat scratch and other diseases, and protozoa, are spread through them, as well as small kids (and others not "box trained") using them to eliminate. Without good drainage, all sorts of nasty stuff can linger right below the surface. I'm sure many here have seen the plastic "turtle" sand boxes which come with a lid to prevent cats and other animals using them to do their business...You can't do that with public sandboxes. Interesting question is does their absence put our kids at more risk for alergies and autoimmune disease? or less? or no difference?

Mar. 22 2014 12:44 AM
Terry Seufferlein

In response to the question about zombies, I don't think there is any connection with autism. Zombies are fluid metaphors, and they have been used to express fears and explore issues as diverse as black magic, slavery, capitalism, communism, consumerism, global pandemics, human consciousness and identity.

The question of community is also central in most zombie films. When values important for community--acceptance, trust, sacrifice, compassion--come into conflict with self-preservation, which will win?

Mar. 20 2014 12:38 PM
Michael Slater from Evanston, IL

This was great. So, what's with the current fascination with zombies? What's going on in our collective unconsciousness that makes us fascinated with animated bodies that eat......brains.......but have malfunctioning brains themselves. Any link to the rise in autism? Or more societal acceptance of neuro-atypicality?

Mar. 12 2014 11:19 PM
Jacqui from Reno

I live on a mini farm with my 3 boys ages 4-10. Their "guys" are always falling into quicksand when they play with their legos or soldiers. Last summer during a drought my big boy tried to explore our dried pond only to get stuck up to his knees in mud for about 20 minutes before we heard his cries for help. Kids are no longer intrigued with nature in general because they rarely have independent exploration of nature.

Mar. 06 2014 08:22 PM
Geoffrey from Hong Kong

I was wondering what kids replace quick sand? Also, what are people actually scared of now.

Mar. 04 2014 01:31 AM
Alexis from Alaska

Hello! Just listened to this podcast today and found it incredidiblely interesting and coincidental! Just a few days ago I was explaining to my partner my childhood and somewhat current fear of quicksand. I was born in 1984 and as far as I know neither of my patents impressed upon me the notion of quicksand. After listening to this short I pondered on the origins of this fear and I guess I would attribute it to being introduced to quicksand in elementary school, both academically and then recreationally as it translated to the sandbox at recess. Also... The Princess Bride played its part, as you may remember the quicksand scene in the Fire Swamp!

Jan. 23 2014 09:55 PM
Melanie from Merimbula, NSW Australia

Y'all make me laugh... and make me aware of things! I'm sorry for those who aren't afraid of Quicksand!

Jan. 01 2014 01:17 AM
Jaime from Ellenville, NY

How could you not discuss sink holes as the new terror for kids and adults alike. What could be more terrifying then being asleep in bed when the next thing you know is that you are 30 feet underground and its all slowly coming down on you. House and all

Dec. 30 2013 05:11 PM
Pandorla from Eugene Oregon

I missed the peak of quicksand since I was born in the eighties, but I remember the emotional impact I experienced from The Neverending Story. By far the most traumatizing scene from my childhood was when Artax sunk into the swamp of sadness. While not technically quicksand it did make quite an emotional impact, especially because Artax didn't die because of the swamp but because he had lost the will to even try and save himself. In retrospect that's a pretty good metaphor for depression.

Dec. 27 2013 08:07 PM
SW

You must have missed the Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull scene with quicksand and a large snake that they were pulled out with.

Dec. 09 2013 11:21 PM
Melissa from New Orleans

Perhaps today's children will be more stigmatized by sinkholes. They are similar to the idea of quicksand and are in the news with alarming frequency these days. Maybe you could do a show on sinkholes? What causes them? How do villages, towns, cities recover from sinkhole damage? Can we prevent them? Also, maybe there's a thematic link regarding cities/areas below sea-level that are slowly eroding from the coastal lands and sinking like the city I live in-New Orleans. Also, is Venice, Italy really sinking?

Nov. 26 2013 01:33 PM
Jason from Reston, VA

(Sorry I'm a little late on leaving a comment. I'm a little backlogged on my podcast listening.)

I wanted to mention that if you think a little more metaphorically, you'll find quicksand references all over Star Wars. First one that comes to mind is the Sarlaac pit in Return of the Jedi. That scene with Lando slowly sliding into the pit is classic quicksand. Lando was helpless as he was slowly being pulling down into the pit. It just so happened that it was a monster doing the pulling.

Another scene that comes to mind is on Dagobah in the Empire Strikes Back. Luke's X-Wing landed in the muck and was sinking in the swamp. There was no sand in this case, but the key theme was still there. Even the trash compactor scene in the original Star Wars requires the complete helplessness and a key rescue.

All these "quicksand" scenes contain something that gets caught in a situation where they are completely helpless to overcome the problem and someone still on the outside must rescue.

I think what we're seeing in modern movies and story-telling in general is that there are many more interesting and imaginative ways of presenting a "quicksand" scene that make actual quicksand uninteresting and not scary like the children say. We all know how the standard quicksand scene plays out.

Nov. 25 2013 12:30 PM
Lee Morgan

I must say I found this piece completely devoid of intrigue. It felt like filler to me.

Nov. 20 2013 02:38 PM
Emanuele Sangregorio from Milan

wolfram alpha has a very nice feature. by putting any word, alongside with definiiton and other data, a graph showing the frequence of that word in textbooks through time will be given.

http://www.wolframalpha.com/input/?i=quicksand

Nov. 01 2013 08:55 AM
Sarah from Atlanta, GA

What about the quicksand in Princess Bride? A generation of women in their 30s grew up obsessed with this movie, and that is what immediately came to mind when listening to this podcast.

Oct. 31 2013 12:22 PM
Marc from The Jungle

Quicksand is still around and still dangerous. But the way it works in real life is nowhere near how it is most often portrayed in the movies. If you come across quicksand unexpectedly, you may find that you do in fact sink deeper and faster when you struggle to step out. Irrational fear of succumbing to the quicksand is what causes most victims to get into real trouble. They try to remain in a standing position, afraid that they will sink in over their head and die, but the human body is buoyant, and unless you are wearing diving weights you will have an easier time floating above the quicksand than you would with ordinary water. The easiest way out of quicksand if you don't have someone to help you, or a strong vine isn't within arm's reach, is to try to kneel and then lie on your belly above the quicksand and just crawl out. You'll be muddy but you can get out. The hazard is when you stick around and wait. Quicksand is "quick" because it often does dry quickly, and if you sit waist deep and wait you may find yourself virtually cemented in place by a thick hard clay. By this point you can have a very, very, hard time digging your way out, and most victim's (animal or human) are discovered knee or waist deep, dead from exposure or dehydration, not suffocated.

Much more dangerous than quicksand though are spontaneous sinkholes that can open up under your bedroom while you sleep, like the one in Florida that swallowed a man earlier this year www.cnn.com/2013/03/01/us/florida-sinkhole/.

Oct. 28 2013 11:10 PM
avram from Jerusalem

I suspect (without looking into your data) that this picture is incomplete. A quick search for quicksand in books from these times does not confirm this. Narrowing the search to English Fiction does show a local peak in 1940 but then a climb that passes that by 1990 and continues until today

https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=quicksand+%2B+quick+sand&case_insensitive=on&year_start=1900&year_end=2008&corpus=17&smoothing=5&share=&direct_url=t1%3B%2C%28quicksand%20%2B%20quick%20sand%29%3B%2Cc0

Oct. 22 2013 07:03 AM
Jack Treml from kansas

All I could think about during this whole episode was a movie that was out when I was a kid, blood beach. "Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water... you can't get to it"

Oct. 21 2013 10:47 PM
Silver from MI

Although I always connected quicksand with Gilligans Island. As a parent we gave up on having a sandbox for our kids in about 1994 due to the over population of cats and the sandbox constantly becoming a litter box. Eww! Feline deseases became our new fear. BTW- my 30 year old son recommended Radiolab to me and you are now my hurry up and wait buddies.

Oct. 21 2013 02:54 PM
Joe from London, UK

So, maybe quicksand is already making a return as a metaphor for dangerous situations... Checkout this recent article from McKinsey Quarterly

http://www.mckinsey.com/insights/strategy/avoiding_the_quicksand?cid=strategy-eml-alt-mkq-mck-oth-1810

Oct. 21 2013 11:46 AM
Frosty

.... just saw recent Beetle Baily comic had quicksand it it and thought of this show...

Oct. 19 2013 03:36 PM

I don't have access to any statistics, but I think there was a mini-revival of quicksand scenes on TV in the 1980's when there was a lot of concern about kids being exposed to too much violent entertainment. Quicksand provided a life-threatening danger that didn't originate with one person attacking another.

Oh, and about those quicksand fetishists... when I was 11 or 12 I saw a World War II movie about a group of soldiers traveling across the desert. When one of them became trapped in quicksand I suddenly and involuntarily had the most intense erection of my life up to that moment. For the rest of my adolescence quicksand scenes triggered a combination of fear and excitement, and once I reached puberty...

You don't choose your fetishes; they choose you.

Oct. 17 2013 03:42 PM
Adam

Is it just me or is it the particular quality of the threat of quicksand that seems interesting? It's impersonal, it's slow, and it's isolated. To me that suggests a reason why it wouldn't be a particularly apt metaphor for earlier times, and why it might no longer be a very apt metaphor for now. Sure, it's a lot of arm-chair entertainment hypothesizing ... but ...

The impersonal character seems less interesting to an earlier time. The idea of mechanisms that were created (or entered) at one time and then become out of control and threatening afterwards, was a theme that wasn't particularly present until machines became a part of every-day life.

The slowness seems like something incongruous with today's feeling about scary world events. Today things feel lightning-fast, like it'll happen and be done before we ever knew what was happening. Which is guess is how a lot of things in history often went, but perhaps today we're a little more self-aware that we're not going to understand what we're living through until it's over.

Anyway, those properties seem particularly apt for the Civil Rights activism. They had to fight a battle of endurance, never making explosive progress, but putting constant pressure against something that was constantly trying to suck you down. MLK commonly responded to his then-moderate contemporaries who wanted a slower change. It also seemed impersonal for, I think, obvious reasons: The conservatives didn't regard blacks as full persons, and it was a struggle to make a personal connection with them. I recall that one of the things Civil Rights activists were taught in preparation for the protests was to try to make eye-contact with the police while they beat you, to force them to recognize that you're a human being.

I think similar themes can come up when thinking about Vietnam and the global fight against Communism. A slow war of attrition against an impersonal and relentless force.

Or maybe I'm just forcing a square peg in an octagonal hole.

Oct. 17 2013 01:21 PM
Elaine kampmann from Sarasota fl

You guys totally missed the Tarzan connection, I was born in 1954 & found a cache of old Tarzan comic books that entertained me for hours on end when I was about 9. Quick sand was a huge peril Tarzan encountered all the time. Scary stuff! Loved this zany topic.

Oct. 16 2013 10:07 PM
Jo Dollarhyde from California

Is it possible the poupularity of theatrical quicksand simply rose and fell along with the western? If the appearance of the stagecoach were similarly tracked in American cinema (what, no stagecoach fetishists?!?), I'm thinking the curve would be similar. Perhaps the movie stunt in which a stunt actor "drowns" in quicksand through a trap door was perfected in the 50s, and this became an inexpensive (and therefore overused) effect.

Oct. 16 2013 11:36 AM
AverageJon from Vancouver WA

When I think of quicksand, it's in adventure movies like Tarzan. I think that kind of movie just went out of style.

Oct. 16 2013 01:18 AM
SallyCarroll

I for one find the Shivering Sands in the late 90's film adaptation of Wilke Collins' "The Moonstone" completely terrifying. Given the novel's age, it makes me think that quicksand is just one example of the kind of Gothic representation of fears and anxieties that receded from public imagination, but are undergoing a resurgence.

Oct. 15 2013 01:35 PM
holli

The "Nesquik sand" scene in Wreck-it Ralph is pretty great.

Oct. 15 2013 01:00 PM
Michael Weiss

I have to say I'm shocked that nobody has yet commented on the misspelling of "vise grip" in the first sentence on this page.

Oct. 15 2013 09:45 AM
Alex

This story was in Slate in 2010 from the same reporter. I agree, it should have been developed including some discussion of science for this story. http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2010/08/terra_infirma.html.

Oct. 15 2013 02:49 AM
Victoria

I just listened to this podcast and one of the things that occurred to me was that being born in 1972 one of the more common "facts" on gum wrappers and cheap paperbacks was how to survive quicksand. They told me that it was almost impossible to sink and that if I relax I'll float and could easily make my way to shore. So I was sure by an early age that quicksand wasn't really a danger. When I saw it in film, I would find the situation laughable as I knew the people were safe and just hamming it up.
I know that it can be a problem for people in large vehicles as they have a large mass that can create a suction effect, but I just can't be all that worried as a pedestrian.

Oct. 15 2013 01:14 AM
Fred588 from Arkansas

I too was disappointed in this. I agree with many of the previous posters that there should have been more about the nature of qicksand. What really hurts, though, is that in the preparation for this piece you did look into such matters. In fact you interviewed ME. After half a dozen emails, all of which I answered very promptly, and one phone call, you used not a whit of anything in that correspondence.

Oct. 14 2013 08:26 PM
SP from Michigan

The comedian John Mulaney has a bit about quicksand on his album "New In Town" that I heard right after I listened to this episode that's worth listening to. But I have to agree with other listeners, this episode was interesting, but it felt thrown together and not worth my time. It would have been much more "Radiolab" had you given us more than some random fact internet fact about it and walked away. Inform me, don't just entertain me.

Oct. 14 2013 04:34 PM
Mark

Four days ago, ABC's pilot of "Once Upon a Time in Wonderland" featured a quicksand scene. When Alice, the Rabbit, and her male anti-hero sidekick jump through the portal to Wonderland, they arrive in the middle of a marshmallow swamp. At first they walk along with no issue, but then when they stop for a moment and talk they find themselves knee-deep and sinking fast. It's not until they're almost neck deep that Alice has the idea of grabbing one of the fire-breathing dragonflies and 'toasting" a platform in front of them do they manage to pull themselves free.

I didn't find the scene to be strange, forced, or hokey. It's probably because (A) instead of using quicksand, they used a surreal feature of their new world to have the same effect, and (B) they didn't encounter it in England, but in the new frontier of Wonderland.

The episode should still be on Hulu if anyone wanted to see, the scene is probably about halfway through. A good example of how the 'quicksand' plot device isn't gone from media today.

Oct. 14 2013 10:02 AM
Philip Harrison from Los Angeles

I would add two comments to this discussion. First on a general note about the metaphor of quicksand. It's not just the fact of it- the first scary part is that you think you're on solid ground and suddenly you're enveloped and there's nothing that you can do. Secondly, on a cultural note, kids in the 70s and 80s had constant exposure to quick sand from repeated viewings of Gilligan's Iland in syndication. Their renditition was pretty realistic for a broad comedy show and I spent endless time think about where you go once you fall beneath the surface. I still think the same way when pondering black holes.

Oct. 13 2013 10:08 PM
April from New York City

Why did fascination with quicksand end in the sixties? The daughter of a friend told me, "Your generation really did discover sex". Fellatio and cunnilingus were verboten to be spoken. Then they were. See SNL's ladies in hoop skirts on the porch of an Antebellum mansion discussing the charms of Colonel Lingus. Aside from that, I agree with others who said you should have talked about the science of quicksand. And I'm appalled to hear kids no longer have sand boxes. We played outside all day. No computer to screen at until our eyes goggle. Two navy officers I escorted to the Hayden planetarium, answered my question as to why kids do so badly in school, with one word: computers. It also wouldn't hurt to revive diagramming sentences.

Oct. 13 2013 03:09 PM
Jason Seward from Lubbock, Texas

Come on RadioLab, you guys can do better. This episode was like a bad SNL skit. No discussion of the science of quicksand? Nor the places around the world it occurs? Or that it's a very real danger?

All I really learned is that there exists on the internet, big surprise, yet another fringe group of moral degenerates who happen to keep an organized website.

It seemed to me that the producer of this story stumbled upon this group and then just quit trying to gather information. Additionally, I think the producer was really really reaching with his connections between world events and pop culture quicksand.

I recommend RadioLab to people all the time, but I have to say, it'd be embarrassing if this were the first episode someone where to hear. You can, and should, do better.

Oct. 12 2013 05:28 PM
Ellen from Anchorage, AK

Dear Radiolab,

I too was disappointed by the lack of discussion or explanation of quicksand: what it is, how many people die in it each year, etc. Maybe this could be done as a SciFri talk? I live in Anchorage AK and the mud flats here are a real and understood hazard (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hpQwdFQfMyw). In late June a guy died from walking out on them (http://www.adn.com/2013/06/24/2951466/body-recovered-of-man-missing.html) and in extreme events- like the 64 earthquake- SouthCentral Alaska experienced a lot of liquidification of the earth.

I thought the discussion of quicksand as a metaphor and having resonance with pop-culture was neat. Maybe the 60s hippies just played in the mud a little more ?? ;-)

Encore, encore!
I think there is enough for a full-length episode here

Oct. 12 2013 04:50 PM
Stephanie

I blame Johnny Quest!

Oct. 12 2013 01:34 PM
Kimberly from Chicago, IL

People should be scared. It's real: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/07/13/boy-rescued-from-indiana-_n_3591511.html

Oct. 11 2013 08:30 PM
Andrew Jorgensen from Seattle, WA

I'm disappointed that an explanation of what quicksand is, why it behaves that way (and if it really does), how many people die in it each year, etc., didn't factor into this Short.

Some mention if non-newtonian fluids (particularly those occurring in nature) and related topics like soil liquefaction under earthquake would also have held my interest.

Oct. 11 2013 07:56 PM
Daniel from San Luis Obispo, CA

One of the characters in Mountain Patrol http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0386651/
dies in quicksand, and I know I didn't roll my eyes.

Oct. 11 2013 06:04 PM
troy's_mary from Reno

There's been an equally unhealthy decline in the appearance of lava pits and poison lakes too! Is this why kids aren't drawing mazes anymore?

Oct. 11 2013 04:52 PM
Qythyx

How about the Bermuda Triangle, it seems the same.

Oct. 11 2013 11:49 AM
e

if anything locust is getting a bad name.

http://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=quicksand%2Czombies%2Clocust%2Cmegaton&year_start=1900&year_end=2008&corpus=15&smoothing=2&share=

Oct. 11 2013 11:05 AM
UKlistener

I did Film Studies at university and this phenomenon is found all over the arts - but more widely, as you have found, in general culture. You could trace other subject matters in films in a similar way as you have done with quicksand, perhaps most interestingly with the very era-specific Femme Fatale (which emerged in the post-war years as men returned home to find women had taken up - dum dum dum - JOBS!)

I enjoyed it, but I guess because this is more my area of knowledge I thought it didn't really go deep enough. You could have talked to a Film Studies or Cultural Studies professor who would be able to talk about wider cultural trends and how they occur and re-occur according to historical events.

Oct. 11 2013 08:25 AM
Laura Brown from London

I wonder if the transition of quicksand from horror to comedy device can be traced back to its use in "Blazing Saddles"?

Oct. 11 2013 07:11 AM

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