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.

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