Why the world remains gripped by Titanic fever

The loss of the Titan – the submersible carrying five people down to the bottom of the Atlantic to view the wreck of the Titanic – this week has once again reignited public fascination with the so-called “ship of dreams”.

In the run-up to the centenary of the disaster in 2012, I published a nonfiction book, Shadow of the Titanic, which investigated the origins of our ongoing obsession, as well as how the experience of the sinking shaped the lives of the survivors.

The feeding frenzy started early. In May 1912, just a month after the tragedy, one of the survivors, Hollywood actress Dorothy Gibson, starred in Saved from the Titanic, a silent film that could be said to be one of the world’s first exploitation movies. Audiences were promised the extra thrill of seeing Gibson wearing the same dress she had worn that fateful night.

Over the course of the century the story of the Titanic ebbed and flowed through culture and the popular imagination. In June 1912, Thomas Hardy published his poem The Convergence of the Twain: “And as the smart ship grew / In statue, grace and hue, / In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too.” The demand for all things Titanic proved almost insatiable – in 1912 alone there were 112 different pieces of music inspired by the shipwreck copyrighted in America.

The horrors of the first and then the second world wars threatened to erase the disaster from the collective consciousness, but the Titanic refused to fade away. Indeed, George Orwell, writing in his 1940 essay My Country Right or Left, confessed how the disaster continued to haunt him. “If I honestly sort out my memories and disregard what I have learned since, I must admit that nothing in the whole war moved me so deeply as the loss of the Titanic had done a few years earlier.”

Since then we’ve had numerous books, both novels and works of nonfiction, including Walter Lord’s 1955 account of the disaster, A Night To Remember, which was made into a classic British film three years later. Before James Cameron’s blockbuster movie of 1997, Hollywood retold the story as melodrama (Titanic, in 1953, with Barbara Stanwyck); as musical comedy (The Unsinkable Molly Brown with Debbie Reynolds, released in 1964); and testosterone-fuelled adventure (Raise the Titanic, starring Jason Robards in 1980).

Of course, part of the dark attraction of the story – purely on a narrative level – is the extraordinary hubris of the endeavour. At the time of its launch, the Titanic represented a triumph of technology and capital: the ship was the largest human-made moving object in the world and had cost $7.5m to build (an estimated $200m – £157m – today); its watertight doors were said to make it unsinkable.

Survivor Jack Thayer, a first-class passenger who was only 17 at the time of the sinking, said that the ocean liner was a symbol of a gilded age. “There was peace, and the world had an even tenor to its way,” he wrote in a self-published memoir in 1940.

All that changed when the Titanic struck an iceberg and the passengers scrambled for the 20 lifeboats, vessels that could carry only half the number of people on board. Many of the lifeboats left with unfilled spaces, and as a result the disaster claimed the lives of 1,500 souls.

Yet survival did not guarantee a happy ending. Thayer, who went on to become a vice-president of the University of Pennsylvania, killed himself in 1945, at the age of 50. He was one of an estimated 10 Titanic survivors who died by suicide, while many others were haunted by mental illness and depression, signs of what we now know to be “survivor syndrome” or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

For more than 70 years, the Titanic lay undisturbed at the bottom of the Atlantic. Then in 1985, explorer Robert Ballard and French oceanographer Jean-Louis Michel discovered the wreck. “It is a quiet and peaceful place – and a fitting place for the remains of this greatest of sea tragedies to rest,” said Ballard at the time. “Forever may it remain that way.”

It was not to be. Everyone wanted a piece of the once-majestic liner – literally. After various court battles, 6,000 artefacts from the wreck – such as a number of perfume vials still containing the delicate aromas of orange blossom and lavender – were recovered, cleaned and subsequently exhibited. Now, it’s possible to buy jewellery fashioned from Titanic coal.

In 2012, to tie in with the centenary, Titanic Belfast – a visitor attraction built on land that once housed the Harland & Wolff shipyard, which built the liner – opened its doors. During its first year, more than 800,000 people visited the eight-storey building.

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The world is still in the grip of a serious case of Titanic fever. Apparently, the word Titanic is now the third most recognised word in the world, after “God” and “Coca-Cola”. In 2001, a New York couple married in a submersible that hovered over the bow of the ship. The five passengers who died onboard the Titan this week were prepared to pay around $250,000 (£195,000) each for a glimpse of the ghostly wreck.

On hearing the news of the loss of the OceanGate submersible, James Cameron has drawn parallels between the original enterprise and the latest venture. “The arrogance and the hubris that sent that ship to its doom is exactly the same thing that sent those people in that sub to their fate,” he said.

Today, there have been so many visits to the site of the sinking that the seabed is reportedly littered with rubbish, including cargo nets from numerous salvage attempts and makeshift plaques and memorials.

But what is often forgotten in the quest to descend to the ocean floor to see the Titanic is that it is a grave site, the last resting place of the 1,500 people who perished on that April night back in 1912. This week, descendants of some of the Titanic survivors have expressed their horror that the wreck has been turned into a voyeuristic excursion for the super-wealthy.

The question is: will the loss of the OceanGate submersible put an end to Titanic tourism or generate yet another tidal wave of interest?

  • Shadow of the Titanic: The Extraordinary Stories of Those Who Survived by Andrew Wilson is published by Simon & Schuster (£10.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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