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Tragedy on an epic scale

What is it about the Titanic that still captures our attention? I think about all the disasters that happen everyday in our world–earthquakes, floods, tsunamis, and hurricanes–disasters that claim far more lives and have more repercussions, but are forgotten soon after (except by the poor people who are still rebuilding and suffering, of course). What it is about this ill-fated ocean liner that makes her so special?

RMS Titanic was the largest passenger steamship in the world when she set off on her maiden voyage from Southampton, England, to New York City on April 10, 1912. Just four days later, on April 14, she struck an iceberg and sank at 2:20 the following morning, resulting in the deaths of 1,517 people. It was one of the deadliest maritime disasters to happen outside of war.

I rarely talk about my work on this blog, but it was during my previous day job that I recently got to witness the power of Titanic firsthand. The museum I worked for was hosting a small exhibit about our province’s connection to the doomed ship. It turns out that thirteen people on the Titanic were Manitobans, and many more have some kind of connection to the voyage: their grandmother had a ticket but couldn’t make it, etc.

Our exhibit was small, especially compared to Premier Exhibitions, Inc’s Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition, but it still attracted a ton of media and public attention. I’d been working at the museum for almost six years, and couldn’t recall a single press release that got this much immediate attention.

People may blame James Cameron for this, but I don’t think it’s his fault. This long-standing fascination with the Titanic is why he came to make the movie in the first place.

But why? Why do we care so much? Is it about nature’s triumph over man–the ship was referred to as “unsinkable”, after all. Or is it the scope of the tragedy, which could have been avoided with more life boats and better planning? The mystery of the ship’s location underwater for so many years? That this great disaster struck down the wealthy as well as the poor?

What is it about the Titanic that always keeps us coming back for more? I admit that I saw both exhibits. And I even liked Cameron’s movie. But I’m not sure what lures me, either.

Are you a “fan” (for lack of a better word) of the Titanic? What do you think it is about this particular disaster that continues to fascinate us?

Thanks for reading!

P.S. Like stories about ghost ships? Check this one out.

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  1. Chris

    Good question. Ironically, I suspect part of it was the incredible publicity it received at the time. There were multiple inquiries that received a lot of media attention. There were also several movies and books that came out. I remember reading Walter Lord’s “A Night to Remember” when I was a kid, and it made a huge impression on me.

    As bad as it sounds, I’m sure there are social and economic factors involved, too. People tend to care more about disasters that hit close to home than those that befall other countries. Look at the Challenger shuttle, or 9/11 for that matter. A sufficiently large catastrophe somewhere else in the world may garner temporary media attention, but people tend to erase those from their minds as soon as possible afterwards. Titanic, on the other hand, had the somewhat dubious distinction of doing away not only with white, English-speaking people we could relate to, but also with the rich and famous. Our current celebrity culture hasn’t progressed to the point where we can no longer relate to the media sensation this would have been at the time. Rich people dying are always more interesting than the poor, if only because we feel a connection with them after reading about them in the new for so many years. Sad but true.

    As for why the myth has thrived over the years, I think it comes back to the eternal Man vs. Nature struggle. We like to think of ourselves as intrepid explorers, ready, willing and able to go wherever we want with impunity. With the Titanic, we threw our best technology against Nature, crowed about it publicly, and Nature proceeded to very thoroughly kick our collective ass. Add to that the mystery of how it sunk (we always have to know “why”), where it sunk, and the incredible variety of human dramas that played out, and you have the ingredients for a legend.

  2. Angela

    I think there are two things about the Titanic that fascinate us. I think you’ve touched on both of them. It was full of the socially elite of the time. Imagine today a ship full of rich and famous celebrities. North Americans worship their celebrities! Now imagine how exciting it would be to be on the same boat as all those celebrities, or to know someone who was on the boat with all those stars. That in it’s self is enough to talk about. But then that ship sinks and a bunch of celebrities die – woo boy! And your friend’s neighbour’s aunt, uncle and 4 cousins died on the same boat – wow, a story to tell for years!

  3. Mystic_Mom

    The lure of the Titanic – I think for me it has maybe four ‘hooks’ if you will.

    The first being their claim of being ‘unsinkable’ and being sunk not by a catastrophic disaster but because of a combination of all too human errors and vanity. Reminds us: don’t challenge Mother Nature or God.

    Secondly was the class factor – who is expendable and who isn’t, who decided that an unsinkable ship didn’t need more lifeboats? Or did they think only certain passenger classes would be allowed to use them? The arrogance of seeing people in classes.

    Thirdly is the “Dance Band on the Titanic” legends where the band played, the men stood back and loaded many rafts with women and children. Songs, movies and stories surround these acts of selfless courage from a class of people where it was expected by their code of ‘modern chivalry’ and unexpected by everyone else.

    Fourth I think the Titanic sank just as the world was starting to shrink when it came to sharing news and stories quickly. The tragedy was communicated and shared very quickly for the time, the story spread widely and it became a media sensation for many reasons, but most importantly outside of war time, it was a tragedy of mythical proportions that was shared with an almost unheard of immediacy to the rest of the world. No time for spin, no one knew how to do it quick enough.

    Personally, besides Harry Chapin immortalizing the dance band in song, the biggest lure of the Titanic is the ‘if’ factor. Instead of just one thing going wrong an entire chain of events lead to disaster. What IF one thing had gone right, instead of wrong? What IF…I think the IF will haunt us long after she finally surrenders to the sea.

  4. kungfusinger

    Added to this, I think the irony of the “Unsinkable Ship” going down on her maiden voyage captured the world’s imagination.

  5. Haylee

    I’m a 20 year old girl that has been completely and utterly in awe of the Titanic since 1997 when I saw the movie (only 6 years old). Of course, TV channels such as TBS and Oxygen play the movie at least once a month for three days straight, and people watch. All three days. It’s captivating because it’s the “Unsinkable Ship”. A ship full of innocent people that was making a voyage across sea on the biggest cruise ship that had been made before. Of course I’ve done my research on actual passengers and and found out many interesting facts and stories (The Unsinkable “Molly Brown”) and to this day, it still is captivating. It wasn’t supposed to happen. That’s why people still are curious and wonder about it. It wasn’t a natural disaster that people donated money or time to clean it. It was a time when people didn’t even think that this was possible.. especially on an unsinkable ship. That’s all!

  6. J.H. Moncrieff

    Wow – wonderful, inspired comments, everyone! I really appreciate the response I received to this post.

    @ Chris – “Nature proceeded to kick our collective ass”–love that!

    @ Angela – good point. That probably has a lot to do with the enduring hold of Titanic. Chris made that point quite eloquently, too.

    @ MM – I LOVE your “what if” theory. The movie really played this up, as you saw in minute detail all the errors that were made along the way. That does account for some of the eerie feel behind this story. With just a little hindsight–or foresight–the entire tragedy would have been avoided.

    @ kungfusinger – yes, most likely

    @ Haylee – welcome to the blog! Well said, and it’s interesting to note that new generations on getting hooked on Titanic at a young age. That’s probably one of the reasons why it continues to endure…we keep telling the story. Thanks for posting!


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