Sep 16, 2022


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. 

Then-Producer Soren Wheeler introduces us to Dan Engber, writer and columnist for Slate, now with The Atlantic. Dan became obsessed with quicksand after happening upon a strange fact: kids are no longer afraid of it. In this episode, Dan recounts for Soren and Robert Krulwich the story of his obsession. He immersed himself in research, compiled mountains of data, met with quicksand fetishists and, in the end, formulated a theory about why the terror of his childhood seems to have lost its menacing allure. Then Carlton Cuse, who at the time we first aired this episode was best-known as the writer and executive producer of Lost, helps us think about whether giant pits of hero-swallowing mud might one day creep back into the spotlight.

And, as this episode first aired in 2013, we can see if we were right.


Episode Credits:

Reported and produced by Soren Wheeler

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LATIF NASSER: Hey, it's Latif. When many of us were younger, TV and movies were full of moments where some hapless character would be walking along in some new, exotic place, they'd take a wrong step and then they'd just start to slowly get slurped down into the Earth. Quicksand was in so many movies. And it makes total sense why, right? Like, the sucking, sinking inevitable drawn-outness of it, that's just universally terrifying, right? Turns out? Nope.

LATIF: In 2013, journalist Dan Engber pulled our editor Soren Wheeler into his obsession with quicksand and its surprisingly deep resonances through history. What it all reveals is that what we fear and how we articulate those fears are a lot more shifty and sandy than you might think.

LATIF: So now, for no other reason than that we wanted to, we're playing that episode for you again: Quicksaaaand! Enjoy!


JAD ABUMRAD: Hey, I'm Jad Abumrad.

ROBERT KRULWICH: I'm Robert Krulwich.

JAD: This is Radiolab. We do have an interesting podcast for you.

ROBERT: We do indeed. Soren Wheeler is standing by, because he and I had a conversation with someone who can just ...

JAD: Yes. Yeah, do you want to—do you want to carry it, Soren?


JAD: Do it.

SOREN: So today, we have a story of an obsession that swallowed reporter Dan Engber pretty much whole.


ROBERT: Of all the things to catch your attention, how did this happen to pop into your head?

DAN ENGBER: It happened to pop into my head because I was talking to a friend of mine who's an elementary school teacher, and we were discussing quicksand—as one does.

ROBERT: Oh, of course. [laughs]

DAN ENGBER: This elementary school teacher and I. And she just said, "You know, the kids in my class just don't even—they don't—they've never heard of quicksand.

SOREN: Like, second graders? Third grade? Like, what?

DAN ENGBER: Nine year olds?

ROBERT: Nine year olds? Well, that's like fourth graders.

SOREN: That's prime time for quicksand.

DAN ENGBER: Right! When I was nine, quicksand was a major part of my life.

SOREN: Yeah.

DAN ENGBER: We would, you know, pour water in the corner of the sandbox and say "Oh, it's quicksand!"

SOREN: But your teacher friend's students didn't.

DAN ENGBER: Right. But so I went to her. I visited her class and I discovered that she was wrong. Almost all of them had heard of quicksand, but she was right insofar as quicksand was not important to them. In fact, they thought it wasn't scary at all. And I was like, well, what are you afraid of? And they said, you know ...

CHILD #1: Zombies. The alien in Pacific Rim.

CHILD #2: Ghosts.

CHILD #3: When I was actually lost and riding.

CHILD #4: Being attacked by a dinosaur.

CHILD #5: That would be totally more scary.

SOREN: So we actually went and talked to some third graders, and while some of them said ...

CHILD #2: Well, I guess it's sort of scary, but ...

SOREN: ... most of them weren't scared of it at all.

CHILD #3: I don't think so. I usually don't think about it.

DAN ENGBER: They thought it was something that maybe their parents had been afraid of.

CHILD #4: My dad told me that when he was little, his friends always said, like, "Look out, that could be quicksand!"

DAN ENGBER: Your friends never say that to you?

CHILD #4: No.

DAN ENGBER: They would say people used to be scared of that, but it's not scary anymore. So that got me to thinking: what happened? Why is quicksand not scary the way it used to be?

SOREN: And with that simple question, Dan got sucked into a world he never even knew existed.

DAN ENGBER: So the next step was going to the internet, and within a minute I discovered the quicksand fetish community.

SOREN: The quicksand fetish ...


SOREN: Like, fetish fetish? Like, sex fetish?



DAN ENGBER: So this—so in the quick—among the quicksand fetishists, there are so-called "sinkers." These are people who seek out quicksand in nature and want to jump in.

ROBERT: With another person and kiss? Or—or by themselves with no clothes on? Or where is the sex part?

DAN ENGBER: Some of them by themselves with no clothes on, some smaller group with another person that they can convince their partner to come with them.

SOREN: But they always have a rope with them, I hope.

DAN ENGBER: Oh yeah. Oh, if you go—if you go onto the sinker's message boards, there's a Google map which has sinking spots all over the world and each one is rated for, you know, thickness, depth, privacy, available parking nearby.

ROBERT: [laughs]

DAN ENGBER: I mean, it's a really—it's like a very thought through and wonderfully collaborative community.


DAN ENGBER: So there's sinkers in one hand and then there are the watchers. They just want to see people or animals sinking into quicksand. So they'll watch movies, and just find the quicksand sequence in the movie.

SOREN: And here's where Dan sunk even deeper, because he discovered that one of these watchers ...

DAN ENGBER: This guy Krypto ...

SOREN: ... had in the course of his fetishistic quicksand watching ...

DAN ENGBER: ... collated this—you know, this list of well over a thousand quicksand scenes ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP: It's quicksand!]

DAN ENGBER: ... in film and television.

[ARCHIVE CLIP: [screams]]

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Quicksand!]

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Quicksand!]

[ARCHIVE CLIP: In this part of the country? No way.]

SOREN: There were scenes going all the way back to the birth of filmmaking.

DAN ENGBER: I mean this is the greatest impetus for scientific research ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Why, I oughta take off your shoe and paddle you!]

DAN ENGBER: ... if you cue up a fetishistic interest in the data.

SOREN: And Dan thought maybe this data can give us a clue about how the way we think about quicksand has changed.

DAN ENGBER: So I went through and I pulled out every feature film from the list, and then with information from the MPAA I figured out how many movies were being released every decade. And then I sort of computed a—like, what percent of movies had quicksand and every decade, going back to the first quicksand movie they have is from 1909. It's a silent film where a woman gets rescued from quicksand by some hooded monk.

ROBERT: [laughs]

DAN ENGBER: I'm unable to find this movie, but I'd love to see it. I don't know what it's about. But anyways, I started looking at the number of movies by decade, and at the beginning of the century, it's like one in a thousand movies. By the '30s, it's up to one in 500. And then in the '40s, one in 200. And then in the 1960s, all of a sudden it just shoots up. Like, one in 35, like, almost three percent of Hollywood movies have quicksand. The 1960s are just clearly a moment for quicksand.

SOREN: And Dan says it wasn't just the number of films. The quicksand scenes that showed up in the '60s were serious, dramatic scenes. For example ...

DAN ENGBER: Lawrence of Arabia where Peter O'Toole is, you know, pushing through the dust storm to try to save his companion who's being sucked under. That movie won seven Oscars. And then Woman in the Dunes came out, this, like, artsy Japanese, existentialist meditation.

SOREN: And for about the next 10 years, Dan says, you had all these serious films that featured quicksand.

DAN ENGBER: And then ...

SOREN: It fell off dramatically.

DAN ENGBER: In the 1970s, it's already fallen to something like one out of 75. And then by the 1980s, it's like one out of 130, and then in the '90s quicksand is mostly gone.


DAN ENGBER: And I think also in the '80s, it had migrated into ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Perfect Strangers: Balki, help!]

DAN ENGBER: ... television.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Perfect Strangers: I'm stuck in quicksand!]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Perfect Strangers: Boy, you have a one bad day.]

DAN ENGBER: Larry and Balki in Perfect Strangers are falling into quicksand. There's quicksand in My Little Pony. There's quicksand in Rainbow High. I mean, it's zany quicksand.

SOREN: Basically, Dan says, quicksand had become a joke.

DAN ENGBER: And so—and that's the end, I think, when quicksand's in, you know, Saturday cartoons.

ROBERT: [laughs]

SOREN: I think—I do think that adventure gags probably have a lifespan, so just for a gut check Dan and I decided maybe we should run this past somebody who knows the business.

CARLTON CUSE: I'm Carlton Cuse, and I'm a television writer and producer.

SOREN: And Carlton was actually the showrunner for the TV show Lost.

DAN ENGBER: And that's a show that by rights should have tons of quicksand.

ROBERT: Absolutely.

DAN ENGBER: I mean, they should be in quicksand all the time. They're on—they're stranded on a tropical island, it's an adventure show.

SOREN: But according to Carlton, whenever one of the writers would say, you know ...

CARLTON CUSE: Okay, so Kate goes running down a path, and then all of a sudden she falls into a pit of quicksand ...

SOREN: The rest of them would be like ...

CARLTON CUSE: Um, I don't know if we can really pull that off, so ...

SOREN: What is that? Like, what is it would make that not—I don't know.

CARLTON CUSE: You know, I just think a lot of people would sort of be rolling their eyes, and not—and not buying it.

SOREN: That is ...

CARLTON CUSE: I know, it sounds—it sounds kind of crazy because, you know, here you are making sort of a crazy show with smoke monsters and polar bears and time travel, and for someone to say, "No, no, no. But we don't believe quicksand."

SOREN: [laughs]

CARLTON CUSE: I know it's—but ultimately, you just sort of trust your gut, and just right now we're—quicksand is just not sort of, I think, the right metaphor for how we're all feeling.

DAN ENGBER: But in the '60s, it was.

ROBERT: Has someone speculated as to the reason why the '60s?

DAN ENGBER: Oh, I've speculated at great length. I mean, it's a fascinating moment because it's not just in movies.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, John F. Kennedy: I believe that this nation should commit itself ...]

DAN ENGBER: So we're planning the moon mission in the early '60s.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, John F. Kennedy: ... of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.]

DAN ENGBER: And this Cornell astronomer named Thomas Gold says "What if, when the Apollo lander descends to the surface of the moon, it just sinks into a lunar quicksand?"

ROBERT: I remember this.


ROBERT: I remember Tom Gold saying that, too.

DAN ENGBER: Yeah. So right at this golden moment of quicksand, people are discussing real life quicksand on the frontier of that era.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Martin Luther King: Now is the time ...]

DAN ENGBER: And then 1963, Martin Luther King ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Martin Luther King: Now is the time ...]

DAN ENGBER: ... makes his I Have a Dream speech.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Martin Luther King: lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice.]

DAN ENGBER: And he says now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Daniel Ellsberg: This evening ...]

DAN ENGBER: And then ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Daniel Ellsberg: ... I came here to speak to you about Vietnam.]

DAN ENGBER: There was Vietnam.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Daniel Ellsberg: I do not have to tell you that our people are profoundly concerned about that struggle.]

DAN ENGBER: You know, we now think of Vietnam as having been a quagmire, that's the rhetoric that's used now, but the debate in the '60s between Daniel Ellsberg and Arthur Schlesinger, they use quicksand and quagmire interchangeably. They just—Ellsberg will switch off in one essay. He'll call it a quicksand and then a quagmire. But the first use of that idea was to describe it as a quicksand, and then it kind of migrates from being a quicksand to a quagmire over the course of the late '60s, and early '70s. And now—I mean, more evidence. Now we call it a quagmire. We forgot that Vietnam was a quicksand before it was a quagmire. So on all of these levels, quicksand is just—you know, is part of these key moments of this 1960s.


DAN ENGBER: So the question that—you know, that was just—I was obsessed with for a long time was: why did America fall into quicksand in the 1960s? I mean, did it come out of the movies and suddenly everyone's talking about it? Or was everyone talking about it ...

ROBERT: Yeah. So maybe everybody's saw Lawrence of Arabia and they all went back to their jobs.


ROBERT: And were on rocket ship jobs and some were on wharf-y warrior jobs, and they all just carried Peter O'Toole in their heads. That's possible, I suppose.

DAN ENGBER: That's possible. Who knows? My sense is that it had to do with just sort of a generalized anxiety about going someplace radically new. Anxiety about, you know, the hubris of traveling to the Moon, anxiety about social upheaval, anxiety about the foreign entanglement of Vietnam and the state of geopolitics.

SOREN: But why—why would that—those anxieties manifest themselves in terms of, like, quicksand?

DAN ENGBER: Well, I think it's this idea that you're gonna get sucked in, you're gonna go too far, you're gonna get stuck in whatever new world you ventured into. And right now, there isn't that anxiety of exploration anymore. I mean quicksand in Shakespeare's time was always off the coasts of new continents. It had to do with the age of exploration, and then it became, you know, desert quicksand and jungle quicksand during colonial era. And I just think the world is ...

SOREN: And then it became the moon.

DAN ENGBER: Yeah, and then it became the moon, and ...

ROBERT: Well, look at all the real estate that's beyond the moon! Come on! I mean, you got, like, our solar system. You could have the quicksand of Jupiter.

DAN ENGBER: Yes, absolutely. I think if we're gonna land humans on some ...

ROBERT: Black holes! Isn't black—aren't black holes a kind of quicksand?

DAN ENGBER: Yeah. This is—this is my guarantee: if we're about to land humans on some planet, you know, beyond the moon, these thoughts of quicksand would re-emerge.


SOREN: This is Carlton Cuse again.

CARLTON CUSE: And now we're gonna see this whole new chapter of Star Wars, and clearly ...

SOREN: It just so happens that the director JJ Abrams is working on a whole new Star Wars movie.

CARLTON CUSE: Yes. And I think in the context of some strange new world, I think the audience would totally buy quicksand there.

DAN ENGBER: Yeah, that's what I'm—that's what I'm hoping for. [laughs]

CARLTON CUSE: Yeah. So I'll shoot JJ an email and just say "Quicksand!" And just leave it at that. See what happens.

DAN ENGBER: [laughs]

SOREN: Just a quick note: since we did this story, the new Star Wars films have come out. And in fact, in one scene an entire spaceship—a tie fighter to be precise—sinks into the sand on a planet called Jakku, where apparently there's a whole region called the Sinking Fields.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Star Wars: Niima Outpost is that way. Stay off Kelvin Ridge. Keep away from the Sinking Fields in the north. You'll drown in the sand.]

SOREN: So there you go.

ROBERT: Thank you, Soren.

JAD: Thanks, Soren, yeah.

SOREN: No problem.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Star Wars: Don't follow me. The town is that way.]

[LISTENER: Radiolab was created by Jad Abumrad and is edited by Soren Wheeler. Lulu Miller and Latif Nasser are our co-hosts. Suzie Lechtenberg is our executive producer. Dylan Keefe is our director of sound design. Our staff includes: Simon Adler, Jeremy Bloom, Becca Bressler, Rachael Cusick, Akedi Foster-Keys, W. Harry Fortuna, David Gebel, Maria Paz Gutiérrez, Sindhu Gnanasambandan, Matt Kielty, Annie McEwen, Alex Neason, Sarah Qari, Anna Rascouët-Paz, Sarah Sandbach, Arianne Wack, Pat Walters and Molly Webster. With help from Andrew Viñales. Our fact-checkers are Diane Kelly, Emily Krieger and Natalie Middleton.]

[LISTENER: Hi, I'm Erica in Yonkers. Leadership support for Radiolab science programming is provided by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, Science Sandbox, a Simons Foundation initiative, and the John Templeton Foundation. Foundational support for Radiolab was provided by the Alfred P Sloan Foundation.]




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