Do we delight in disasters?

What perversity draws us to such tragedies as the Titanic's sinking? Or is it even perversity? Are we merely swept up by the emotions of crisis as we ponder in a place of safety?

Times Staff Writer

Titanic poster

An original poster from England advertising passage on the Titanic. The poster was intended to attract third class passengers. It is from collection of Henry Loscher of Palm Harbor. Photo by Scott Keeler of the Times staff.

If our darkest secrets be told, many of us are fascinated by Titanic because it is human nature to wallow in monumental disasters.

We are not unfeeling, nor morbid.

We are, many say, simply trying to make sense of the senseless.

And admittedly, relishing the chill of a scare that we know cannot hurt us.

"Ever since Noah found himself on Mount Ararat after the first great flood, disasters have held us in thrall," wrote George Howe Colt in Life magazine in an article called "The Strange Allure of Disasters: Why We Can't Look Away."

"Disasters are all of life's great themes," he says, "compressed into a few moments."

The cover of that June 1997 issue features Titanic, with stern upended and bow already under the Atlantic, in a terrifyingly dramatic painting of the doomed ship and its passengers. More than 1,500 people died after the liner struck an iceberg in 1912.

Since then, Titanic has proved a wealth of great themes: the courage and cowardice of those aboard as the ship sank, the arrogance of believing such an event was impossible, the ultimate equality of the privileged rich and scrapping poor when there was no escape.

The tragedy occurred 85 years ago. But it still plays in our psyches.

It is the subject of a traveling exhibit of salvaged artifacts, a Broadway play and a multimillion-dollar movie.

Many historians and "Titaniacs" say this disaster is particularly addictive.

"On the Titanic, people had a chance to express themselves in that moment," says psychology professor Leon Rappoport of Kansas State University. "It's like when men go to war. How will I react when the bullets begin to fly? Will I be brave or will I be a coward?"

Two hours and 40 minutes elapsed between the time its metal hull swiped the iceberg and when it broke apart and plummeted to the bottom. There were approximately 2,228 passengers and crew who, while initially not knowing of the danger, would surely have had to face the merciless truth at the end.

From a distance, we can share some of that raw emotion.

Jeff Shannon, writing on the return of the disaster flick in the 1990s for Cinemania Online, says the 1930s, 1970s and, now, the 1990s, have all brought resurgences in the genre.

"It seems that as long as they can be enjoyed from the standpoint of safety, disasters will always provide a thrilling source of entertainment," he says.

From the richest families in America booked in suites with their servants to the immigrants in the lower berths sailing to a new life to the hapless crewman who would not stop sending the distress signal and grab some flotsam until the last possible minute, there is someone for everyone to care about on the Titanic.

"Disaster helps us break out of what I call psychic numbing, a state of diminished capacity to feel, which many of us experience much of the time," psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton told Life.

And to ask, what would I do?

"By and large, people behave the way they do normally -- if you're an idiot before an event, you're an idiot during the event," says Russell Dynes, a research professor at the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware.

The center studies how businesses, governments and emergency personnel respond to crises.

Studies show people in a dangerous or volatile situation -- awaiting a hurricane, for example -- will gather as much information as possible, then act according to the way they see the situation at that particular time, Dynes says.

That would explain the transformation aboard the Titanic from courtly gentleman, stepping back so women could board the lifeboats, to crazed animal leaping on women's heads when the lifeboat being lowered is one of the last and the ship is tilting at a 30-degree angle.

Titanic is about our dreams and how they can be shattered.

It is about our own mortality and how insignificant one person can look when a 46,329-ton ship and 1,500 victims leave no mark on the ocean's surface.

The experts say few people actually died inside the ship. Instead, they jumped or were thrown off by its slanting decks and succumbed to exposure in the frigid 31-degree air and water.

Their bodies would rest in the field of china, equipment, bottles, window frames and other contents spilled from the ship when it broke in half and fell 2 1/2 miles to the bottom.

When expedition leader Robert D. Ballard first found the trail of Titanic on the ocean floor 73 years later, there were pairs of shoes lying side by side on the ocean floor, their wearers long gone.

Back to Titanic


©Copyright 1997 St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.