scary 1950s stuff

I’ll take adventure in the wilderness over television shows any day. One great disappointment today is how little there is to watch on TV despite there being more channels than ever. Was just the opposite when I was a child of the 1950s. We had few channels but plenty good shows to watch and some shows scared us pretty good. Horror shows and science fiction series gave me a jolt. What kid of the 1950s doesn’t remember quicksand.

As a boy, I was always on the lookout for quicksand thanks to the horror movies and B-grade science fiction the 1950s and 1960s gave us. To get into a pit of quicksand was to die. I was vigilant, for a moment of inattentiveness would have me stumble into what appeared to be sand only to be sucked under to certain death. This peril seemed all too real. A classmate even entertained us with a wild tale of how he escaped a pit of quicksand. I didn’t know whether to believe him or not. (All these years later, I know not to.)

Any unfamiliar patch of sand put me into high alert. Down on my grandfather’s farm, a stretch of sand ran up to where one pond overflowed through rocks and I gave it a wide berth. You see the danger with quicksand is that it looks solid but isn’t. Walk onto it and you would sink to your waist, then to your shoulders, neck, and then your head goes under, and your arms and hands have no choice but to wave goodbye. Nor would any cowboy, I knew, lasso me and pull me to safety in the nick of time as high drama would have it.

But that’s how it happened in the 1950’s shows: either you died or somebody threw you a rope. Hollywood, of course, likes to sensationalize things and quicksand was no exception. Turns out that quicksand is not that dangerous after all. That it exists is a fact. One cause of quicksand is an artesian spring’s upward-flowing water that neutralizes the effects of gravity. If you spot sand that is rippling, well, you’ve spotted quicksand. Though it isn’t easy to get out of, the stuff won’t suck you under the way it always did in the movies. According to the journal, Nature, it is impossible for a person immersed in quicksand to be drawn completely under. In fact, humans float in it.

Stories close to home spooked me too. Scary were the tales of the Hookman. Older kids told them to me. You’ve heard them too. A couple of teens go parking at lovers’ lane when a radio bulletin warns people to watch out for an escaped prisoner. This psychotic desperado has a hook in place of his missing right hand. The girl does her best to persuade her date to take them to a safer place. Frightened, she insists he take her home. The boy, feeling amorous, locks the doors and assures her she’s safe and tries to kiss her. She pushes Romeo away and insists that they leave. Frustrated, the boy throws the car into gear and gets a wheel as he speeds off.

When they arrive at the girl’s house she gets out of the car, and, reaching to close the door, screams. The boy runs to her side and dangling from the door handle is a bloody hook. One variation had the car run out of gas and the boy would go to fetch gas only to end up with his head on the car trunk staring at the girl he was dating. Many nights, thoughts of the hookman shadowed a couple when they were teens.

The Venus Flytrap
The Venus Flytrap

And then along came those science fiction movies with man-eating plants that seemed real. The Angry Red Planet, 1959, documented a fateful and deadly expedition to Mars in which four crewmembers faced an assortment of dangerous creatures, one of which was a tentacle-wielding Venus Fly Trap. Another film, Venus Flytrap, (filmed in 1966 and released in 1970) featured a mad scientist who used thunder and lightning to turn carnivorous plants into man-eating creatures. The Little Shop of Horrors, 1960, had a plot where a florist’s assistant crossbreeds a butterwort, a carnivorous plant, with a Venus Flytrap, the most famous carnivorous plant. This hybrid monster fed on human flesh and blood.

Ever seen a Venus Flytrap? Know how big they are?

Now I’ve never blundered into quicksand, but I suppose I could. I’m nowhere as vigilant as I once was. And I’ve never encountered a hookman although the possibility of running into a killer seems to grow stronger each year as our country slides into insanity. I have, however, seen Venus Flytraps in the wild and they are tiny, about the size of your middle finger’s nail. At most, these beautiful plants might eat a small spider and, of course, flies.

I have always wanted to find a Venus Flytrap in the wild and Thursday, May 22, I got my chance. After coming up empty for a long time, like looking for arrowheads, I found several dozen flytraps, all beautiful, some about to bloom, and all with a leaf or two shut, meaning the plant was dining on some hapless critter. Carnivorous plants evolved in soil deficient in nutrients, thus did the strategy of dining on insects evolve. Nothing like a bit of protein to shore up a diet.

Finding them was difficult at first but it didn’t take me long to spot the signs that indicate a Venus Flytrap might grow close by. After an hour of bumbling around, I got pretty good at finding them, a scenario, sadly, that poachers know all too well. Once these thieves learn where flytraps grow, they find them with ease.

Less than 35,000 remain in the wild and it could be that far fewer than that live in native habitat. The plants grow in pine savannas burnt off by wildfires and prescribed burns. I won’t tell you where I found them because poaching is one problem the little meat-eating plant faces. People dig them up and sell them. Another problem is loss of habitat to development. It’s been written that this mysterious plant is creeping toward extinction. Up in North Carolina the number of counties growing flytraps has fallen from twenty to twelve. South Carolina has them too. Georgia does not. They grow in a narrow band 100 miles long from South Carolina into North Carolina.

Nature is ingenious is it not. The Venus Flytrap oozes a sweet nectar upon its leaves and insects like it. They land on the leaves at great risk, for six sensitive trigger hairs exist there. As soon as an insect contacts a trigger hair, a timer starts counting down. Touch another trigger hair within 20 seconds, and the leaves snap shut in a fraction of a second, their outward tips lock together like prison bars. A ten-day digestive period then takes place.

Pitcher Plants, Never Ate Men, Not Even In Hollywood
Pitcher Plants, Never Ate Men, Not Even In Hollywood

I found, too, other carnivorous plants that day, the majestic pitcher plant, so named because its throat is like a long, lean pitcher of nectar. Insects catch the fragrance of the plant’s nectar and fly into and down the long throat. Escape is impossible. Downward-pointing hairs block the way out and the insect becomes the victim of the very nectar it hoped to sample. Falling further, the insect ends up in a broth of juices similar to stomach acid. There it turns into food for the plant.

So much for the old science fiction movies where Venus Flytraps killed men. It’s just the other way around. And I’ll share one more thing with you. Although it was hot and all manner of biting insects pestered me, I found it far more entertaining to look for the mysterious Venus Flytrap than any reality show conceived by the often shallow, mercenary mind of man.

Images: the photos were provided by the author, Tom Poland.

Tom Poland

Tom Poland, A Southern Writer – Tom Poland is the author of twelve books and more than 1,000 magazine features. A Southern writer, his work has appeared in magazines throughout the South. Tom grew up in Lincoln County, Georgia, where four wonderful English teachers gave him a love for language. People first came to know Tom’s work in South Carolina Wildlife magazine, where he wrote features and served as managing editor.Tom’s written over 1,000 columns and features and seven traditionally published books. Among his recent books are Classic Carolina Road Trips From Columbia, Georgialina, A Southland, As We Knew It, and his and Robert Clark’s latest volume of Reflections of South Carolina. Swamp Gravy, Georgia’s Official Folk Life Drama, staged his play, Solid Ground in 2011 and 2012.He writes a weekly column for newspapers and journals in Georgia and South Carolina about the South, its people, traditions, lifestyle, and changing culture and speaks often to groups across South Carolina and Georgia.Tom earned a BA in Journalism and a Masters in Media at the University of Georgia. He lives in Columbia, South Carolina where he writes about Georgialina—his name for eastern Georgia and South Carolina. Visit my website at Email me at [email protected]