Back in the 1950s and 1960s, TV and movie screenwriters desperate to finish a script would fall back upon a convenient, if hackneyed, plot twist: A character steps into a pit of quicksand, requiring a dramatic rescue to keep them from being sucked under. But since then, the shock value of quicksand seems to have worn off, and it's pretty much vanished from popular culture — except for a recent humorous appearance in a Geico commercial, where the protagonist fruitlessly implores a house cat to save him from being smothered.
If quicksand doesn't haunt our collective media-induced nightmares with the frequency that it once did, one reason may be scientists' and outdoors experts repeated debunking of the menace as depicted on the big and small screens. To understand what it can and can't do, it's important to know just what quicksand actually is — just a bunch of ordinary sand that becomes saturated with water. This means that the friction between sand particles is reduced, and the overall mass becomes unable to support the weight that dry sand could. It's found most often in river deltas and sometimes on beaches, but it also can be created by earthquakes that release water from underground aquifers and destabilize sandy soil.
But while quicksand is real, the idea that you could be sucked under its surface and completely disappear just isn't so. In a 2005 study, University of Amsterdam researcher Daniel Bonn — who had heard cautionary stories about quicksand from shepherds while on a visit to Iran — and colleagues replicated quicksand in a laboratory. They then placed aluminum beads with the same density as a typical human body atop the mixture, and shook it. Even though the quicksand collapsed, the beads didn't get sucked under. Instead, they floated atop the surface, never more than half-submerged.
But as Bonn told the journal Nature, the biggest danger of quicksand is getting stuck in it on a beach during low tide, and then being drowned when the tide comes in. Back in January 2012, that apparently happened to a 33-year-old British woman visiting the island of Antigua for her father's wedding. According to an account in the Telegraph, the victim went the beach to watch the sunset, and cried out after becoming stuck in quicksand — but no one heard her. Night fell and the tide rose before rescuers could reach her and she died. "It is frightening how quickly it all happened," the local coroner testified at a hearing, according to the newspaper.
If you get stuck in quicksand along a river or lake, you're in somewhat less dire straits, though you still could succumb to a slower death from thirst or exposure if you remain stuck long enough, or even suffocation if your face becomes submerged depending on your position.
Texas authorities think that may have killed a 50-year-old man who apparently went swimming in the San Antonio River in 2015. Authorities found his body three days later, face-down and lodged in quicksand up to the bottom of his buttocks, according to a 2016 Houston Chronicle article. The paper noted that it was the only death from quicksand reported in the state over a five-year-period.
And in 2016 in Florida, a 78-year-old man survived being stuck in quicksand near a creek for eight hours, rescued only after a city vehicle fortuitously passed by and workers heard his cries for help.
If you ever find yourself in such a situation, quicksand researcher Bonn told National Geographic that the best way to escape is to wriggle your legs around, creating a space between them and the quicksand. That enables water to flow down and loosen the sand, so you can slip out. Do it slowly, so that you don't panic, and keep in mind that the quicksand itself can't kill you. It's also a good idea to take walks on the beach with a companion, and to carry a mobile phone so you can call for help if needed.