103 years ago today, the Titanic met its tragic fate. And 17 years ago today, we were all being tacky as hell. The Titanic craze of 1997-1998 was unlike any media phenomenon I’ve experienced before or since, both in how pervasive and fanatical it was, and also in that we all sort of acted super questionable.
Let’s recap a bit in case you’ve forgotten about Titanic Mania, were too young for it, or just weren’t paying attention. First, the Titanic sank. It was 1912 and a lot of people died and it was, of course, very sad. Fast forward 80-some years to late 1997. James Cameron directed a giant historical epic about the event, starring teen sensations Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. That’s when things got weird.
For as long as cinema has existed, we haven’t been able to resist portraying real-life tragedies on-screen. Want to guess how long the first Titanic movie was released after the sinking? 29 days. Not even a full month, unless the month was February, which of course it wasn’t because every mid-90s tween has the date “April 15, 1912” etched onto their soul. There were actually three Titanic movies released in 1912 alone, so it’s not like I think that James Cameron’s Titanic was unusually iffy.
The way we all reacted to that movie though – that’s what was weird. We just lost it. Keep in mind, this was a movie about a real-life disaster, and survivors were even still alive at the time. You’d think we would have maintained a bit of decorum, or solemnity, or SOMETHING, but that sunken boat became a pop culture figure along the lines of Mickey Mouse or Rocky.
We had reasons, sort of. We were both obsessed, but we were also in sixth grade. It was the beginning of being interested in “grown-up” romances instead of kid stuff, making it much more touching and serious. I was rewatching Titanic a few years ago – mind you, I could rewatch Titanic in my brain any time I wanted because I still have it memorized thanks to that two-cassette pack I got for my 12th birthday – anyway, it jumped out at me that Rose and Jack had known each other for, like, four days max. They had all the emotional investment of a one-night stand. No wonder Old Rose hadn’t mentioned the story to her family. “I’m really sad about this guy I went out Irish Dancing with one time then banged in a car and he died 80 years ago?” Get a grip, Grams.
Even though Rose and Jack were two teenagers creating the 1912 version of nude selfies, in 1998 they represented a long-gone era of decorum. The winter all of the news stations were focused on the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, we wanted stories about ladies and gentlemen. Maybe that was why even people over the age of 15 lost their cool. But what happened next… I don’t have an excuse for that.
It’s like this. Liking a movie about a horrific tragedy is pretty normal. Holding themed club nights about the tragedy is not. It’s not just that Titanic sold a lot of tickets. Here are some of wacky things that we did during Titanic mania:
- You could buy reproductions of Rose’s Heart Of The Ocean necklace, a gift for a teen girl’s forced arranged marriage that she got painted in naked one time. If memory serves, the ads ran in USA Weekend for months, maybe years.
- A local (Rochester, NY) club held “Titanic night” which sounds like an evening when a massive code violation results in the death of hundreds. Commercials played on our top 40 station, but I’ll never know what happened at Titanic Night because I was 11.
- JC Penney sold t-shirts depicting the aforementioned teen bride and a boy who’s days away from death by freezing.
- The Titanic soundtrack was a best-seller, and a follow-up soundtrack was even released. It was the first and only time in my life that it was really cool that I’m a good tin whistle player. Teens everywhere queued up fiddle music and Edwardian novelty songs (Come Josephine In My Flying Machine, anyone?), sat on our bedspreads, and had a good cry about the souls when went down with the ship.
- That damn Celine Dion song. Everywhere. All the time. My favorite was the version where they interspersed clips of dialog into the song. There was also a club remix, which probably was played at that club’s Titanic Night.
- Everyone had that one friend who saw the movie something like 13 times in the theater. This led to the film staying at the top of the box office for 15 straight weeks. I know this because I checked the box office reports every week to make sure Titanic was still at its rightful place.
- In a pre-tumblr world, you would log onto Lycos and find AngelSites and GeoCities pages about the movie and the boat. I bet if you added up all the time I’ve spent on the internet in my life, a big chunk of it was spent trawling those sites. Most included a tinny midi file of My Heart Will Go On.
- Just about every magazine launched a “Special Collector’s Issue” about the movie.
- Titanic vacations allowed rich people to see a shipwreck/mass grave site up close. I wished I could be so rich.
- The New York Times book list was full of books about Titanic, including then-50-year-old A Night To Remember and a nonfiction, full-color book about the making of the movie. Yeah, I checked the book charts weekly, too.
- Kids threw “Titanic Parties.” Kids are stupid and the parties were tacky, including 11-year-old girls – commonly known to be the worst type of human – screaming “I’m The King Of The World!” throughout the graveyard where the frozen bodies of Titanic victims had been buried.
- It was also a popular prom theme… and you thought your prom was a disaster.
- Websites popped up selling dress patterns so that you, too, could have the grace and panache of Rose Dewitt Bukater. I’m not ashamed to say that I would wear that swishy chiffon one right now.
- In the area where sixth graders congregated before school, there was a massive snow-pile for the duration of the winter, as is typical of the North. What’s not typical is naming it after the iceberg that ultimately took the lives of thousands.
- I won a game of charades by pantomiming Titanic.
- Robert Ballard, who discovered the Titanic, visited my school to kick off a science program, the JASON project. A lot of 10-year-olds were suddenly very into marine biology.
Long after the film was released, Titanic Mania has lingered. In 2012 you could attend a cruise above the underwater gravesite, which hosted a huge fete on the 100-year anniversary of the sinking. You can visit Pinterest to learn to bake a Titanic cake, and tumblr has every Caledon Hockley gif you ever wanted. But make no mistake: Titanic mania could never happen in the uniquely, grotesquely weird way it did today. We move through our obsessions more quickly than that. And although individuals joked about the story, the high-level schmaltz that pervaded our culture just wouldn’t stand. There would be jokey memes within the first day of release, and a #waterygrave hashtag in a week. Titanic mania was a strange combination of sentimentality and cheese. It was freaking weird, and I loved it, and my heart will go on.