Every other Wednesday in Fads!Crazes!Panics!, Luke T. Harrington looks at one of the random obsessions to have gripped the public mind in the recent past, and tries, in vain, to make sense of it all.
He plucked me out of a pit of confusion, even out of the quicksand; he placed my feet on a rock and established my steps. —Psalm 40:2
If you were born sometime between the fifties and the eighties, you know the trope well: the hero trudges confidently through the wilderness, whip in hand, smirk on face, ready to take on whatever nature throws at him. Then, without warning, the very ground gives way beneath his feet! He reaches for a branch, a vine, anything—but it’s no use! He’s being sucked down, down, into the earth. In a matter of minutes he’ll have disappeared and his quest will all be for naught.While quicksand can and does kill people from time to time, it never does so by swallowing them up never to be seen again; the best it can hope to do is hold you in place until you die from dehydration or exposure.
Except, you’re a Smart Person of the Internet Era™, so you know that none of that is true. Quicksand, while it exists, is exceptionally rare, requiring a rather unusual confluence of ingredients (sand, water, clay, salt) to mix in the exact right ratios; to the extent that it exists, it’s not all that dangerous. You might get stuck in the stuff, but you won’t sink in over your head; as a mixture of water and rock, quicksand is far more dense than even the most ardent anti-masker. You can try as hard as you want to sink in a substance denser than you, but it’s not going to happen. While quicksand can and does kill people from time to time, it never does so by swallowing them up never to be seen again; the best it can hope to do is hold you in place until you die from dehydration or exposure—one of the slowest and least dramatic deaths possible.
If quicksand is really so dull, though, how did it become such a popular trope in cinema? And how did it disappear just as quickly (no pun intended, because I’m not a hack)?
I think the answer to the first question is twofold. In the first place, the so-called Age of Exploration™ (also known as the Age of Evil Colonialism™) lit up the public imagination with the idea that there were endless possibilities for what could be found in the world—everything from sea monsters to fountains of youth to headless people with faces in their chests. Compared to some of the wilder tales from explorers, the concept of sand that sucked you down to your doom was barely even a stretch. The colonial era obviously predates the invention of cinema by a century or two, but the late nineteenth century saw a surge of the trope in literature, to the point that even respectable authors like Bram Stoker and Arthur Conan Doyle (in the seminal Hound of the Baskervilles, no less) were making use of quicksand.
The second explanation for quicksand’s popularity, I think, is mainly how easily it inserts itself into any adventure-adjacent film. The introduction of quicksand into the hero’s path provides some much-needed excitement in a dragging second act, with very little exposition required (beyond, perhaps, “Hey, quicksand exists”) and with very little chance of confusing the average viewer. After all, there are few things more universal than the need to not get swallowed by the earth and not die. It also didn’t hurt that the budget for a quicksand sequence is basically nothing: just get yourself a big sandbox and have your actors pretend to sink in it.
An article in Slate from ten years ago that tracked the rise and fall of the quicksand trope found that employment of the cliché in film and television reached its apex in the late sixties, which was much later than I would have guessed, since in my mind I’d always associated it with thirties-era adventure serials (evidently, I was way off, which is definitely the first time that has ever happened). As far as I can tell, the sudden surge in the trope’s popularity stemmed from its inclusion in the multi-Oscar-winning (and very colonial-era-flavored) film Lawrence of Arabia, in which T. E. Lawrence’s servant boy Daud is shown getting swallowed up by the stuff (in the middle of the desert, with no apparent source of water anywhere, obviously). The historical Daud actually died of hypothermia, but presumably the filmmakers thought “the earth swallowed him whole” would be more believable to viewers than “it gets cold in the desert sometimes.” From there it was just a matter of time before quicksand was popping up in everything from the Adam West Batman series to Gilligan’s Island to Get Smart to, yes, Blazing Saddles.
As for what happened to the trope, again the cause seems to be twofold, and the first prong is almost too obvious to mention: Audiences eventually get tired of clichés. Realistically, there are only so many variations of “the hero is sinking into the ground!” you can do before people want to see something new. By the time 1987’s cult classic The Princess Bride (based on the 1973 novel) came out, it was enough of a cliché that the script could have a joke about “lightning sand” in it, and audiences got it. (For anyone keeping score at home, though, the “quick” in “quicksand” isn’t actually a reference to speed; it comes from medieval usage of the word “quick” to mean “living,” as in “the quick and dead.” In other words, “quicksand” means “living sand,” which is way more awesome than “fast sand.” Consider yourself educated.)
Perhaps just as important was the eventual public realization that quicksand just isn’t all that dangerous. We’ve already addressed this, but—in the extremely unlikely event that you do find yourself sinking in quicksand, your escape is as simple as relaxing, lying on your back, and gently wiggling your arms and legs to create pockets of water; once you can move, just pull yourself out. Science shows in the 1990s and 2000s—everything from Bill Nye the Science Guy to Mythbusters—were seemingly addicted to deflating the quicksand trope, to the point that anyone in their twenties or younger must now be thoroughly cynical about it (not coincidentally, they are equally cynical about my requests that they get off my lawn).
It’s probably telling that twenty-first-century depictions of quicksand tend to be spoofs that feel the need to either explain themselves (see: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) or stick as closely to realism as the script will allow (see: Dora and the Lost City of Gold). Clichés never truly die; they just get recycled as self-aware parody.