The rise and fall (and rise again?) of quicksand

Nearly four years ago, I had a post about quicksand. In it I mused how it used to be a common plot device in the books and films I watched and read as a boy but seemed to have faded from view. The 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia has a poignant scene with quicksand.

This week the program Radiolab had a segment on quicksand in which it turns out that my sense that quicksand was a significant feature of popular culture that has slowly disappeared has some empirical support. There is a database of films that have quicksand scenes in them and after starting out small in 1900 or so, the frequency of appearance increased, reaching a peak around 1960, and then decreasing again to the present day. That jibes with my personal experience.

The segment also says that children are no longer afraid of quicksand. Why? It is not clear. Speculation is that fear of quicksand may have arisen alongside the exploration of new frontiers (there were fears expressed of the first moon landing craft possibly sinking into quicksand) and since there seem to be no unexplored regions being entered these days, the fear of quicksand has dissipated. The world seems to be tame and well-explored and so the danger of accidentally walking into quicksand and getting slowly sucked in seems minimal.

There are also apparently quicksand fetishists who experience sexual arousal by sinking naked or clothed into quicksand, either alone or with someone else. They presumably first tie a rope around their bodies so that they can be pulled out or have other means of escape. And there is a different type of fetishist who likes to observe people doing this. There are now guidebooks that direct you to the various quicksand sites, with useful information about nearby hotels, restaurants, parking etc.

So quicksand has changed from being something menacing to becoming almost a theme park attraction.

Since quicksand has a density about twice that of the human body, in theory you should not completely sink into it but stop about halfway. So why is it so dangerous? The problem is that the gooey mess sticks to you and your legs seem like they weigh tons, and so it is not easy to walk to the edge to get yourself out. And if you panic and start thrashing about, that makes it worse. So how can you get out if you happen to step into a quicksand area? This video explains what happens and what to do.

Here’s a more detailed explanation of how quicksand works and how to escape it if you should inadvertently step into a quicksand puddle.


  1. Bruce says

    Even near the peak in the 1960s, to see even one quicksand movie per year (at their 3% rate) would mean seeing a movie every two weeks or so.
    So an additional reason that you see fewer such movies is that it is mostly people in their teens and twenties who see so many movies, I think.

  2. consciousness razor says

    The Rise of Skywalker is the most recent quicksand movie I’m aware of, but suffice it to say that it’s not exactly a good model of storytelling that should be adopted in the future. Maybe it will be, but let’s hope not….

    That quicksand scene (actually just the conclusion of a longer chase/action sequence, not much of a “scene” in its own right) doesn’t create any sense of fear or tension or whatever. It all happens very suddenly. And in order to add a little drama, which is definitely lacking, Finn yells at Rey that there’s something he never told her (which leads nowhere, by the way). After they sink rapidly, there’s a cut to a rather short and somewhat humorous scene of unimportant dialogue involving Leia and others, which then cuts right back to the “threatened” characters who are immediately seen to be safe in an underground passage. So there is barely any time to have begun worrying about them before it’s over. This was also pretty early in the movie, and it’s just hard to imagine that this group consisting of practically every main hero in the story might not survive. About the most you might say (on the first viewing) is that you don’t know what’s coming next.

    It just seems like a quick and dirty way for the film to move from the chase to the characters stumbling upon the thing they had been looking for all along. To start with, they were in the middle of an open desert and pursued by enemies who are dispatched one after another. The goal was to get them into a secluded place where the lost/hidden object could be discovered.

    So how do you pull all of that off quickly? Dumb answer: the very same moment that the final enemy dies in a big fiery explosion (those jetpacks run on gasoline?), just make them fall through the ground where the object is. So, check that off the list, we’re done, move on to the next item. That’s what the quicksand is for in that movie.

  3. Jazzlet says

    When we visited Antony Gormley’s “Another Place”* despite the numerous warnings someone got themselves stuck up to the top of their thighs in quicksand. The local fire people were called and extracted them in an obviously well practised manoevre involving a surf board. I was surprised that the person had got stuck in the first place as it was easy enough to work out you were approaching an iffy area, none had solid sand one step and thigh deep the next.


  4. Mano Singham says

    cr @#4,

    I saw that film and the quicksand scene just did not register in my mind. Even after reading your post, I still cannot recall it.

    Of course, there was hardly anything else in the film that I found memorable either …

  5. consciousness razor says

    Even after reading your post, I still cannot recall it.

    Heh. Blink and you’ll miss it. Like I said, that was after a kind of long and chaotic sequence with explosions and whatnot. It’s totally unimportant, but it’s how they wind up in the place where they find one of the MacGuffins (the knife), just before, in a bit of foreshadowing, Rey heals the giant snake with space wizardry.

    Probably, if anything, the knife and the snake are the most memorable parts of that. Not the quicksand though…. It’s not much more than an elevator taking them from the surface to the tunnel.

  6. brucegee1962 says

    Yes, I recall that quicksand scene from The Rise of Skywalker because it signaled early that the movie wasn’t going to make a lick of sense. There is no imaginable model of physics in which a semi-liquid substance like quicksand is going to lie above an open tunnel without seeping down and filling the tunnel.

    Of course, the original series had semi-stupid stuff too, like monsters living in garbage compactors and tunnels on asteroids. But at least those were interesting and visually clever, unlike the lazy storytelling of episode 9.

    Gosh, that movie was so bad it makes my head hurt to remember it.

  7. avalus says

    Video by Marcus: Horrors of the Wattenmeer, had that unintentionally happen to me on guided tour in northern Germany. It is pretty scary. Also the silt is full of effing sharp shellies, ouch.

    I always liked the quicksand scene in Nausicä of the Valley of the Winds.

  8. says

    The June, 1964 issue the defunct monthly TRUE -- THE MAN’s MAGAZINE by Max Gunther titled NATURE’s MONSTROUS MANTRAP (Page 48 -- republished as an abridged article “QUICKSAND- Nature’s Terrifying Deathtrap” in the Dec. “64 READER’s DIGEST) opened with an actual death in quick “sand”! I’ve written a “campy” retelling of the opening story. Here’s my first paragraphs: Though “experts” 🤓 🤓 claim you can’t be engulfed by quicksand, that’s not necessarily true of terrain that you might encounter in swamps. There’s a saying: a little knowledge is dangerous. In the case of one botany student, this glib generalization fostered a fool-hardy venture that turned DEADLY☠️ & might’ve become legend around Boy Scouts’ campfires & Troop group latrines. In Florida’s Okeechobee swamp, a fatality occurred taking the life of botanist Jack Pickett. He & fellow Princeton student, Fred Stahl, were hiking through that wetland, south of the lake of the same name, in search of parasitic plants. Okeechobee swamp was, at first, paradise for two botany geeks 🤓 🤓 shouldering heavy backpacks. B-u-u-t, tiring from hiking through thick swamp vegetation 😅😅, decided to take what appeared to be a path of less resistance, a “dry’ stream bed” -- so they thought. Florida is in the path of hurricanes that might’ve picked up sand from it’s coastal beaches, carrying it inland. As those hurricanes weakened, it could’ve deposited it in places like the Okeechobee. Over a period of decades, even generations, one could surmise how that could create a natural camouflage that’d be a deadly deception ☠️- making a bed of “quicksand” look like a dry stream bed. Pickett was in the lead when his boots started sinking through wind-blown sand camouflaging a morass of mud lubricated with oils released from decomposed (rotted) vegetation. Most swamp vegetation contain oils released as they rot in mud, which like any type of oil, acts as a lubricant, destabilizing what would normally be firm into a path of less resistance -- to the weight of Pickett & his back-pack! But quickly became more resistant to hiking! Pickett’s boot rapidly disappeared through the deceptive layer of sand concealing a quagmire underneath. It must’ve felt uneasy without terra-firma underfoot. Pickett shouted to Stahl, “It’s soft up here 😲, stay back!” Max Gunther, wrote that as his ankles disappeared, “he floundered forward a few more steps, trying to get back onto firm ground, but with each step sank deeper into marshmallowy “sand” rising to his knees. Pickett shouted ‘IT’S QUICKSAND! H-E-E-E-L-L-P M-E-E-E!”😫 Stahl knew it’d be folly to rescue his friend, both would be ensnared in, what ’til now was hidden -- a bog of deep slippery treacherous muck!
    “There was no one else for miles to help, Stahl ran into the brush to look for a long tree branch.” Good luck with that! “With tremendous effort, Pickett managed to pull one leg out of the ghastly trap, but his other leg (taking on his full weight) sank up to his thigh.” The
    muck, quaking like JELL-O, slowly embraced him; he lost his balance slowly toppling onto his chest. Stahl, raced back to the stream with a fallen tree branch, yelling 😱 ‘take your pack off!’’ Pickett’s heavy pack was inexorably forcing ’em into the quaking “sand.” But it’s pack snap was at his chest, submerged in thick muck that recongealed, preventing
    ’em from moving his hands to release it. Pickett gave a last terrified cry (like maybe:
    GET ME THE F _ _ _ OUTTA’ THIS MUCK! 😫) , as his chin, mouth, nose & butt bogged down in thick muck ’til only his panic -- stricken eyes were visible. Stahl shouted 😮 “Grab the branch! Pickett tried to lift his mud coated hands “…but it only forced his head deeper. With his face in thick muck, Pickett lost consciousness & stopped moving. Stahl, sobbing 😩, frantically placed the dead branch under Pickett’s chest & using a rock for a fulcrum, as he push his end down, the branch snapped!
    “Now all that showed of Pickett was the sole of a boot & back of Pickett’s pack, both rapidly sinking. Stahl sat down on the rock, burying his face in his hands 🙈. When he looked up, there was nothing (of Pickett) to see, only a level stretch of “dry” sand where only moments before raged a life-&-death ☠️ struggle, but now hid Pickett’s body 😵 from carefree hikers 😀 😃🤓 also unfamiliar 😦 with the 😩 terrain. But Stahl learned a hard but belated lesson: DON’T VENTURE INTO UNFAMILIAR TERRAIN, LIKE A SWAMP or
    MARSH, WITHOUT A LOCAL GUIDE! Pickett learned it too late! Both of ’em “were in over their heads”, one of ’em literally went in over his head!
    As I stated in the first paragraph: A LITTLE KNOWLEDGE IS DANGEROUS! So-called experts 🤓🤓 don’t allow for the possibility plant oils from rotted vegetation could lubricate
    mud that’d be stable without it. But Pickett obviously didn’t know how to handle himself in
    that unstable mire. The article: NATURE’s MONSTROUS MANTRAP, gave dos & don’ts on handling yourself in what ought to have been called “quickmud” or “quick-muck”! The first is: don’t panic. Jack Pickett, in his panic, tried to walk back out that kept his weight & that of his heavy pack concentrated on his feet. The do is: remove any heavy loads like a heavy coat, boots, firearm or HEAVY BACK-PACK! By the time his fellow botanist told ’em to take his pack off, Pickett’s hands had been immobilized by muck that’d recongealed “…
    glue.” (Gunther’s term) Gunther wrote Stahl blamed himself bitterly for not doing more, like maybe not telling Pickett to shed his backpack before it’s snap release was buried in muck too thick for Pickett to move his hands/arms in. Apart from that you should lie face up in the “sand” & SLOWLY tread the sand or muck with your arms outstretched ’til you’ve reached terra-firma. According to one story, from a field worker exploring a small river in Colorado for the U.S. Geological Service, took 8 hours to tread 10 feet!

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