Why Titanic continues to captivate more than 100 years after its sinking

The Titanic has intrigued the public from the moment it set sail.

September 1, 2023, 6:08 AM

On Sept. 1, 1985, the wreckage of the Titanic was found on the ocean floor, decades after the ship struck an iceberg and sank in the Atlantic.

The doomed ocean liner has intrigued the public from that moment and throughout the century-plus since.

Most recently, a submersible that catastrophically imploded while on a voyage to see the Titanic wreckage in June highlighted a high-risk, experimental and exclusive tourism opportunity to see the wreckage.

A part of the Titanic's bow, viewed in the Atlantic Ocean, north of Newfoundland in 1996.
Xavier Desmier/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Visits to the underwater site have been conducted in recent decades to retrieve artifacts, study the Titanic's gradual decay and simply lay eyes on the storied shipwreck, which has inspired a wealth of novels, plays, TV shows and films.

"The Titanic has basically been in popular culture since the night it sank," Robert Thompson, founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University, told ABC News, who noted that the first movie about the Titanic -- a silent film -- was released a month after it sank but has since been lost.

Other notable works that have referenced the Titanic that Thompson mentioned off the top of his head include Noel Coward's 1931 play "Cavalcade" and 1933 Oscar-winning film adaptation; Walter Lord's 1955 non-fiction book "A Night to Remember," which spawned an ambitious live television play in 1956 and a docudrama film two years later; the 1960 musical "The Unsinkable Molly Brown" and its 1964 film adaptation; Clive Cussler's 1976 novel "Raise the Titanic!," which was adapted into a film in 1980; the 1992 IMAX documentary film "Titanica"; and James Cameron's Oscar-winning 1997 film, "Titanic."

"It is a story that has been continually retold in every decade since it happened," Thompson said, who cited the high-society passengers, the ship's unprecedented speed at the time, the high death toll and claims of being "unsinkable" among the reasons why it's retold over and over again.

"If you went out on the street right now and mentioned other shipwrecks, the ones people remember are those that somehow got converted from history and journalism … to some kind of timeless experience via films, televisions, novels, musicals," Thompson said. "They were all important stories, but how they're remembered depends on how they were packaged."

One of the reasons why the Titanic has become so famous is that news of its sinking spread quickly, according to Ole Varmer, a senior fellow with The Ocean Foundation.

"The sinking of Titanic coincides with telegraph services. The Marconi wireless was on Titanic," Varmer told ABC News. "This was probably the first wreck that had a large number of people die, many of them famous and rich, and that news spread around the world because of telegraphs."

The night of the sinking is considered "one of the great moments in the early history of radio," Thompson said. "It was a massive, massive story of the 20th century, which had plenty of stories."

'It's really hard not to get passionate about the ship'

There have been several moments since its sinking that led to a resurgence in interest in the ship, Titanic historian and Philadelphia attorney Craig Sopin noted -- including its discovery in 1985 when it was found sitting in two pieces on the ocean floor more than 2 miles below the surface.

Cameron's 1997 blockbuster and the 100th anniversary of the sinking in 2012 have been other key moments, he said.

The movie "Titanic", written and directed by James Cameron
Cbs Photo Archive/CBS via Getty Images, FILE

"Most people have a Titanic story that goes like this: I watched a movie. I read a book, something like that," Sopin told ABC News.

Sopin said he personally was pulled in as a child by "an old headline in a newspaper" and later purchased an autograph from Millvina Dean, the last living survivor of the Titanic -- the first of some 400 pieces of Titanic memorabilia he has gone on to collect.

"Each time I got something new, I learned a little something new about the ship and it kept pulling me in each time," Sopin said. "I've learned that Titanic goes out in so many different directions -- the building of the ship, the advertising, the ship itself, the passengers, the crew, wireless radio, the postal carriers. I mean, just so many different intriguing stories, that it's really hard not to get passionate about the ship."

Sopin is also a trustee of the Titanic International Society, which preserves the history and advances research on the ship.

"We already know the Titanic hit an iceberg and went down, but there's so much more to learn about it almost every day, something new gets revealed about the ship, or its passengers or the crew," Sopin said.

Michael Poirier, another trustee with the Titanic International Society, told ABC News he recently found two survivor accounts published at the time in British newspapers by searching through online archives. In one of them, Joseph Duquemin recounted jumping overboard in the "dreadful disaster" and swimming to a boat, where he was saved. His friend, meanwhile, drowned.

"There were 712 survivors, and each one has a story," Poirier said.

Preserving the wreckage

Public interest in the Titanic has helped lead to its preservation, according to Varmer, who while a lawyer at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration played a leading role in the negotiation of the Agreement Concerning the Shipwrecked Vessel RMS Titanic in the 1990s.

The international agreement stems from the recommendation made by the U.S. Congress in the RMS Titanic Maritime Memorial Act of 1986, signed into law a year after the wreckage was found, to "address looting, unwanted salvage, and other activities directed at RMS Titanic and to increase protection of the wreck site," according to NOAA.

"It's pretty impressive for the U.S. Congress to act within a year to protect a British flag vessel on the slope of Canada's continental shelf under the high seas," Varmer said. "Enough of the public cared to make Congress care."

Additional legislation has passed further protecting the wreck site. And as of April 15, 2012 -- 100 years after its sinking -- the Titanic came under the 2001 UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage, according to NOAA.

"How many laws are there on just one shipwreck?" Varmer said. "It's because it's like nothing else in the world. It's got a special place."

"This periodically catches people's attention for I think a number of reasons -- it's man against nature, man against man, and thinking about the stories that we want to preserve and pass on to future generations, and I think this is one of those stories," he said.

Tours to the Titanic

It is unclear how long the Titanic will remain intact at the bottom of the ocean. By one estimate, UNESCO has said it is expected to disappear by 2050.

Research expeditions to the site have been ongoing since its discovery, while tourism opportunities are a more fledging -- and luxury -- opportunity.

OceanGate, the company behind the submersible that went missing for several days in June before U.S. Coast Guard officials determined it had imploded, had been offering expeditions to the wreck in its five-person submersible to document the rate of decay. It also offered "citizen explorers" the chance to travel to the Titanic to the tune of roughly $250,000, before suspending all exploration and commercial operations in the wake of the Titan implosion. Its CEO, Stockton Rush, was among the five passengers killed in the implosion.

For some, the novel opportunity has been cited as a reason they went on the dangerous expedition.

"The Simpsons" writer Mike Reiss went on an OceanGate expedition last year. He told ABC News it was his wife's dream and they planned it for her birthday, though she tested positive for COVID-19 and was unable to go.

"I do a podcast called 'What Am I Doing Here?'" he told ABC News in June. "I have a wife who loves to travel and I love my wife, and if I want to have a vacation with her, it has to be in North Korea or at the North Pole or at the Titanic."

This undated image courtesy of OceanGate Expeditions, shows their Titan submersible beginning a descent.
Handout/OceanGate Expeditions/AFP via Getty Images, FILE

In September 2000, Michael Guillen, a trained physicist and then-science editor for ABC News, was invited on an expedition run by a group of Russians to be the first journalist in history to make the journey to report at the wreckage site.

"I couldn't say no, even though I had a great fear of water," Guillen told ABC News in June.

During the expedition, his submersible got stuck in the propeller of the Titanic, and Guillen truly thought he would die down there before the pilot managed to maneuver his way out. Guillen recalled telling Barbara Walters on "20/20" that, given the risk, he likely wouldn't recommend it to private citizens.

"I did it because I got this invitation to be the first correspondent in history to go down and report from the Titanic. And what correspondent worth his salt would turn that invitation down," he said.

Guillen said it was a "fascinating experience" but emphasized the "real risk" a trip like that entails -- even if it is labeled as a tourist experience.

"This is not Disneyland," he said. "This is the real world. Mother Nature is very unforgiving."

Sopin said he has had multiple opportunities to go on Titanic expeditions -- not with OceanGate -- though turned them down because he wasn't sure if he would become claustrophobic in the tiny vessels. What becomes of the industry in the wake of the OceanGate incident remains unclear.

"I'm almost certain that if they don't determine what the problem is here that I don't know how vigorous the tourist industry for Titanic is going to be," Sopin said.

ABC News' Sam Sweeney and Gio Benitez contributed to this report.