Trapped in a Cave: A True Story with Mythic Roots and Symbolic Power

The saga that has gripped the world is both ancient myth and modern spectacle. It might be about us more than them

Let’s be clear: The story that has transfixed the world over the last week or so, about the boys’ soccer team trapped in an underwater cave in Thailand who were feared dead but found alive, and whose fate may not be resolved for weeks, is not a metaphor. At least, it’s not just a metaphor. Its power comes precisely from the fact that it is a real event, if an unlikely and intensely dramatic one, involving real people.

No one (so far) has suggested that the story is “fake news” or that the boys are “crisis actors.” Only one point of view is possible, at least for anyone whose moral and ethical standards fall within the standard human range. There is no political disagreement (again, so far) about whether to rescue these children, whatever the cost, if it is humanly possible to do so. This is a clarifying and unifying story, in a world that seems paralyzed by division, unable to tell facts from lies and perhaps even uncertain about the nature or existence of reality.

But the fact that this story is really happening, and that we don’t know how it will end, doesn’t mean that it’s not a symbolic spectacle, or an allegorical fable. In our era, major news events — especially cataclysms and disasters — have two lives, the first in the physical world where human beings suffer and die, are injured or saved, and the second as a media narrative that is always and inevitably partly a fiction. Commentators who made this observation after 9/11 were roundly abused, but they were clearly correct: For most of the world, those attacks were literally a disaster movie.

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Few people outside Thailand had ever heard of the Tham Luang Nang Non cave complex in Chiang Rai Province, on the Myanmar border in the country’s far north, before it became the focus of worldwide media attention this past week. Most of us still have little idea what daily life in that region is like. That’s entirely understandable, and arguably does not matter. One of the most obvious morals or meanings we perceive in a story like this is about our shared humanity — concern for children in mortal danger transcends all cultural barriers, or so we tell ourselves — and another is about the interconnected nature of our fully wired world.

I wrote that sentence about “children in mortal danger” just now without intending to draw an invidious comparison with the Trump administration’s immigration policies, believe it or not. But there it is, and I suppose there’s no avoiding it. Those boys in Thailand are literally and figuratively contained: They are not international migrants whose legal status is in dispute; they did not end up down there as the result of a controversial government policy that all parties are eager to blame on someone else.

At the risk of sounding unnecessarily harsh, it’s safe for all of us to express our shared humanity and our concern for children, at a moment when those things are very much in doubt, by hoping and praying for the rescue of those boys. None of us is at fault for what happened to them; none of us must admit to any wrongdoing or any evil thoughts in order to wish them well. As a spectacle — again, separate from the real event in the physical world — the pathos and danger and tragedy of this story offer us a moral free pass, an opportunity to think well of ourselves, and each other, without conflict or consequences.

I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, or that human beings are all a bunch of shallow and irredeemable hypocrites. (OK, that last part is largely true, but there’s not much you or I can do about it.) To a great extent, our species lives by telling stories to each other, and the ones that get repeated and believed and internalized on a grand scale — Gilgamesh or the Odyssey or the book of Genesis or, for that matter, “Star Wars” — possess an incalculable cultural power. They bring us together and tear us apart; they divide believers from nonbelievers; they explain all things to all people and are derided as obvious and superstitious frauds.

Presumably people have gotten trapped underground since time immemorial, and sometimes the really lucky ones were rescued. We may not consciously recognize the mythic elements in that kind of story, but they’re clearly present: In most mythological traditions the land of the dead lies below the earth, and only the greatest heroes can go there and then return.

From the dawn of the mass media age the story of trapped survivors and a daring rescue, set against a ticking clock, has proven to be an especially addictive narrative containing several layers of meaning. Again, honestly: I’m not suggesting that the boys in Thailand aren’t real or don’t matter, and I’m not criticizing anybody for being captivated by their story. (I wouldn’t be writing about it if I didn’t feel that way too.)

But there’s no question that the Thai cave drama belongs to a specific modern tradition of ordeal, allegory and media spectacle that probably began with Kathy Fiscus, a 3-year-old girl who fell down a well in Southern California in 1949. A TV reporter named Stan Chambers, from KTLA in Los Angeles, covered the story for 27 straight hours, pre-empting all commercials and regular programs, while rescuers worked frantically to reach Kathy, who was 100 feet underground in an aperture only 14 inches wide. (Even now, it’s painful to report that her saga did not end well.)

There are numerous examples from later decades, some of them much larger in scale: The Nova Scotia mine disaster of 1958, “Baby Jessica” in Texas in 1987 (one of CNN’s first big showcases), more recently the 33 Chilean miners dramatically rescued in 2010. But let’s stick with Kathy Fiscus. In a reminiscence 40 years later for the Los Angeles Times, Chambers portrayed his biggest story as a turning point in television history — which it certainly was — and also as a bonding experience that broke through the barriers of transitory urban existence:

It seemed as if all of Los Angeles stopped to watch the drama unfold. Neighbors who had rarely spoken to each other became close friends as they sat in front of black-and-white television sets. They sipped coffee and munched on sandwiches throughout the night. A hard-boiled city poured out its tears and silent prayers as frantic men worked in a dark tunnel trying to rescue a little girl.

If that feels more like conventional sentiment than a genuine memory, it nevertheless makes clear that the Kathy Fiscus story had less to do with her than with its redemptive emotional or spiritual effect on the audience. Then there’s the unironic suggestion that an event experienced entirely on television offers an escape from the anonymity of modern life and a return to community. It may seem amusing to encounter that urge in 1949, an age of full-on American Greatness and Permanent Winning, as I’m sure our current president would agree.

But I think that also hints at something deeper: Maybe we identify so strongly with these stories because we identify with their helpless subjects. Maybe we too feel trapped in a cave or a “dark tunnel,” unsure how we got here and unable to get out, awaiting rescue from above by unknown or miraculous agency.

Sure, I’m partly thinking about the many Americans who feel trapped in the “malignant reality” of the Trump presidency, a phenomenon that seems without precedent and without explanation, and who keep hoping that the enormous damage to our so-called democracy can magically be undone by Robert Mueller or the “blue wave” or impeachment, and that after that it will be like a dream that was never real at all.

But that’s easy — too easy. I suspect the condition Chambers inadvertently describes, from which we all wish to escape, is universal. If there’s one thing we know for sure about Trump’s voters, and about the target audience for right-wing “populism” throughout the Western world, it’s that they feel the same way: isolated, crapped on and left behind in a merciless economy they never voted for and a multicultural society they don’t understand. They seem far too willing to embrace incipient fascism, or actual fascism, or at least a cult of personality built around an obvious con artist, as their preferred mode of rescue. That’s regrettable, and by “regrettable” I mean potentially catastrophic.

But I’m not sure the Trumpian demographic’s yearning to embrace dumbed-down reboots of Nazi conspiracy theories is categorically different from the liberal self-trolling that accompanies every new tidbit of scandal from the White House, or every faint spark of conscience displayed by some elected Republican. At least there’s a certain delusional grandeur in pretending to believe that Donald Trump is going to rescue you from the bottomless well of self-loathing where you’ve wedged yourself. It’s like betting everything you own in a blatantly rigged card game with a mob boss. In a Romanian prison. But pretending that Bob Corker and Mitt Romney are going to save you, because they love America and will not let her be besmirched? That’s just embarrassing.

We all believe we deserve rescue, of course, because we’re as innocent as Kathy Fiscus or those kids in Thailand. It’s not our fault that we wound up down here, and we’re sure — well, almost sure — that somebody’s coming with exactly the right technology or magic to haul us back up to daylight. But what if nothing about that story is true? What if we spent years digging ourselves down into this hole and have nobody else to blame? What if Bob Mueller and Donald Trump are not warring wizards, or our dads, but just two guys on whom we’ve projected way too much meaning? That might suggest that we’re on our own, that help from above is not coming and that we feel so strange right now because our oxygen is running out.

Andrew O'Hehir is a senior writer for Salon.