More than two miles under the sea, off the remote coast of Newfoundland, sits the skeleton of a ship that has captured the public’s imagination for more than a century — rusting, decaying, but still emitting a siren call that draws historians, explorers and regular people alike to study its tragic history.

The Titanic has inspired books, films, video games and musicals and has afforded researchers decades of exploration and debate. It is immortalized in at least seven museums, and artifacts circle the globe as part of traveling exhibits. One hundred and eleven years after sinking to the depths of the Atlantic, the ill-fated luxury ocean liner still regularly makes news: new images of the wreck are released, replicas are built, salvage missions are launched.

On Sunday, a submersible vessel carrying five people bound for the Titanic’s wreckage went missing, prompting a desperate search that was continuing Wednesday. They were part of a $250,000-a-person trip run by OceanGate Expeditions, a private company that began taking paying customers on the voyage in 2021.

The passengers’ decision to embark on the deep-sea journey — and the international attention the vessel’s disappearance has received — reflects the enduring grip the Titanic has on the public’s imagination.

“For a lot of us, it’s more than just a ship,” said Rafael Avila, who shares Titanic lore on a TikTok account with a following of more than 650,000 people.

The Titanic has occupied a special place in human history and lore for over a century, taking on “a great metaphorical and mythical value in the human consciousness,” as director James Cameron — whose 1997 blockbuster about the sinking remains the fourth-highest-grossing film ever — said in a 2005 interview with the Independent. The fascination, researchers say, is a result of a human interest in the passengers’ stories and the unique circumstances surrounding the shipwreck.

“It’s the implausible story: The biggest ship in the world on its maiden voyage, it’s supposed to be unsinkable and it’s full of rich and famous people, and then it hits an iceberg and it sinks,” said Titanic historian Don Lynch, “and it goes down so slowly that there’s all this drama to be acted out.”

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The Titanic sank on April 15, 1912, in the Atlantic Ocean after hitting an iceberg in the dead of night. Around 1,500 passengers died while about 700 were rescued. Despite numerous efforts, it was another 73 years before the wreckage was discovered in 1985, about 370 miles off the coast of Newfoundland and 12,500 feet underwater.

Other shipwrecks that were as deadly — or more deadly — have been lost to history. But the Titanic endures. The way the tragedy unfolded, the use of radio and photography, and the array of people on board all created a deep well of history that has afforded people decades of study and analysis, researchers said: how and why the ship sank, where and when it broke in two, what stories survived and what were lost to sea.

Video from 1986 shows the doomed RMS Titanic after the shipwreck was first discovered on the floor of the North Atlantic Ocean. (Video: Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

“It’s one of the few disasters that had time to develop the full drama of human choices,” said Stephen Cox, a retired professor of literature at the University of California at San Diego and author of “The Titanic Story: Hard Choices, Dangerous Decisions.” “Usually if a ship is going to sink, it sinks pretty quickly. Titanic lasted for two hours and 40 minutes, which is as long as a Shakespeare play.”

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The number of people aboard, from all classes, created scores of stories. And specific details about the circumstances have long captured the public imagination: the rescue of women and children first; the band continuing to play; the survivors leaving the ship with only the items in their pockets.

Those elements have factored into a century’s worth of pop culture touchstones that all but sealed the disaster as a household name. The first film came out 29 days after calamity struck; the most recent is a Chinese documentary, “The Six,” released in 2020. An entire online reference guide, Encyclopedia Titanica, is dedicated to the topic. People swap stories on clubs and fan pages, and share information on podcasts.

“It’s a never-ending story,” said Paul Burns, vice president and curator for Titanic Museum Attraction, two museums in Branson, Mo., and Pigeon Forge, Tenn. “Titanic is never-ending. You take the 2,208 or so that were on board, you take the ones that survived, you take the ones that perished, and there’s so many stories.”

When it comes to disasters, only the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks command the kind of enduring attention that Titanic receives, Cox said. The two unfolded over similar time spans and included diverse groups of people forced to make decisions about what could be their last moments.

“The Titanic and 9/11 — these disasters, these two, will continue to be remembered, not for their horror, but for what they teach us about the drama, and the dignity, of real people making the ultimate decisions of their lives,” he wrote in a 2012 essay for CNN.

Some are fascinated with the wreck itself, and the boat’s slow sinking “gives them the opportunity to study how and why it sank.” Others “just love the human drama, and they want to know what exactly did the band play, and who was this person, and who was that person,” said Lynch, the historian for the Titanic Historical Society, who has written books about the shipwreck and dove to the site twice for the Cameron documentary “Ghosts of the Abyss.”

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It also occurred in a time modern enough that people today can relate closely to it, Lynch said — and news about it was able to be documented and disseminated in new ways.

“Suddenly, by sending out the SOS and the distress signals, the world was aware that this was unfolding even before it had ended,” Lynch said. “And … it was one of the first, except for the San Francisco earthquake, to be documented in photographs. … You never had photos involving a shipwreck; that was unheard of.”

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Passengers on the ship Carpathia, which rescued survivors from the Titanic, took photographs, he said, and survivors were photographed by journalists upon arriving in the United States.

The ship also represented the pinnacle of luxury at the height of the industrial revolution, Avila noted, and its downing by a force of nature represented “a slap in the face to the hubris that humanity was feeling at the time,” perhaps even marking a turning point in history.

For some, the site of the wreck holds as much fascination as the story itself. Cameron, who has journeyed there multiple times, said wrecks are “human stories” that “teach us something about ourselves.”

“We’ll put parking lots over battlefields, but underwater these sites are frozen in time. By visiting them, we can touch history,” Cameron said in the 2005 interview.

Lynch, who made two trips to the wreckage for Cameron’s 2003 documentary, compared the expedition to climbing Mount Everest — having an experience few others ever will. He recalled approaching the Titanic for the first time, seeing its “wall of steel” from the side after a two-hour journey down to the site.

“It’s not like in the movies when the bow rises out of the darkness,” Lynch said. “We came up to the side of the ship and Jim said, ‘There’s your Titanic.’

“And we rose up the side, and I recognized where I was by the portholes,” he recalled. “I know where I am and I know who was in those rooms. It just amazed me.”

What is submersible tourism? The Titanic expedition, explained.

For Avila — who is known as “the Titanic Guy” on TikTok — the obsession was born at age 7, when he watched a documentary about a shipwreck and his dad then told him about the Titanic. When Cameron’s movie came out months later, Avila persuaded his parents to take him; afterward, he began checking out stacks of books about the disaster from the library.

“People always knew me as, ‘That’s Raf, he’s obsessed with the Titanic,’” said Avila, 33, of Toronto. “Even my wife, when we first started dating, that was one of the first things she knew about me.”

Now, on TikTok, he’s among those sharing the Titanic’s stories with a new generation of fans. He discovered the eager audience in 2020, when the pandemic had him cooped inside his house and looking for a creative outlet.

His first Titanic video was made in April, around the anniversary of the tragedy, and highlighted the story of Charles Joughin, a baker who turned to drinking as calamity struck. The unscripted video racked up 100 views, then 10,000. By the time Avila woke up the next day, it had hit 2 million.

Today, Avila has more than 650,000 people following his videos debunking theories about the accident, spotlighting the luxury liner’s features, sharing images of the wreckage on the ocean floor and telling the stories of the people who were aboard.

In those new TikTok audiences is a testament to the story’s long-lasting appeal, one those who study the wreck say will go on for years.

“There are people who aren’t even born yet who are going to grow up and be fascinated by the Titanic,” Lynch said. “There’s something about it.”


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