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Why the Titan submarine disappearance led to public schadenfreude

This photo provided by OceanGate Expeditions shows a submersible vessel named Titan used to visit the wreckage site of the Titanic.
This photo provided by OceanGate Expeditions shows a submersible vessel named Titan used to visit the wreckage site of the Titanic. Copyright AP/OceanGate Expeditions
Copyright AP/OceanGate Expeditions
By Jonny Walfisz
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Following the confirmation by the U.S. Coast Guard regarding the tragic loss of all five individuals aboard the Titan submersible, which had been missing since last Sunday, Jonny Walfisz asks why this particular case caused so much joy for so many online.


After an intense five-day search operation, the devastating outcome of the ill-fated Titan submersible's expedition to explore the deep-sea remains of the Titanic in the Atlantic Ocean has come to light. The discovery of major sections of the submersible has left no hope for the survival of the five-man crew, presumed to have met an instantaneous death when the vessel imploded.

The dire circumstances surrounding the tragedy were not entirely unforeseen. James Cameron, renowned director of the iconic 1997 Titanic movie and a veteran of 33 dives to the wreck, has voiced his apprehensions regarding the experimental nature of the submersible's engineering. He suggested "arrogance and hubris" led to the disastrous demise of both vessels.

For the past week, the disappearance of the submersible has captured widespread attention, generating a flurry of discussions across social media and extensive coverage in the press. 

On social media, the general conversation was driven by mass amusement in the situation. Details have emerged about the Titan submersible that have seemingly pushed internet commenters into a frenzy. From the off-brand bluetooth PlayStation controller they adapted to control the craft, to the escape door that can only be opened from the outside; the entire endeavour outwardly seems designed to go wrong. Added to that each participant paid $250,000 for the pleasure, and the irony isn’t hard to see.

Moreover, the unfolding drama had another peculiar and risible side plot. One of the passenger’s stepsons was seen on Twitter trying to leverage the situation to get a meet & greet at a Blink 182 concert.

That the situation for the Titan submersible has echoes of the tragicomic storyline to Ruben Östlund’s 2022 Palme D’Or winning film Triangle of Sadness is hard to ignore. In Triangle of Sadness, as with many of Östlund’s films, wealthy feckless people meet grim endings directly as a result of their over-indulgent capitalist interests.

AP/Institute for Exploration, Center for Archaeological Oceanograph
The remains of a coat and boots in the mud on the sea bed near the Titanic's stern.AP/Institute for Exploration, Center for Archaeological Oceanograph

Last year, Triangle of Sadness was accompanied by The Menu, Glass Onion and the second series of ‘The White Lotus’ as an emergent genre best described as “eat the rich”. Ranging from horror to comedy, all three allowed audiences to take pleasure in watching the lives of the egregiously wealthy come undone.

Even with this year’s final season of ‘Succession’, there is little appetite for empathising with the 0.1% of society anymore. The Titan submersible’s disappearance though has transformed these tales into reality. The five passengers in the vessel included Stockton Rush, CEO of OceanGate; private jet dealer Hamish Harding from Britain; Paul-Henry Nargeolet, a French explorer with the rights to the Titanic wreck; and father and son duo Shahzada and Suleman Dawood, from one of Pakistan’s wealthiest families. Suleman is just 19 years old.

The tenor of people’s commentary has also functioned as almost a litmus test for their broader political views.

Ash Sarkar, senior editor at Novara Media tweeted: “If the super-rich can spend £250,000 on vanity jaunts 2.4 miles beneath the ocean then they're not being taxed enough.” As a woman of colour who writes left-wing opinion pieces, Sarkar is a regular target for right-wing attacks. For her tweet, she received a familiar backlash of commentators claiming her comments were cruel and dehumanising.

Many, however, have pointed out that Sarkar’s comments cut to the heart of what made those “eat the rich” films so enjoyable. The kinds of people who have enough wealth to spend frivolously on a trip to the wreckage of the Titanic are likely the same that have entrenched increasing inequality issues in society.

It’s also worth pointing out that the grand scale and expense of the search for the five wealthy passengers onboard Titan is in stark contrast to the migrant boat that sank off the coast of Greece this month, drowning at least 78 refugees from Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The situation surrounding the Titan tragedy is no doubt a terrifying one. A father and son and three other men perished in horrifying circumstances. That they were there of their own accord will hardly be any comfort to their families. The way so much of the internet has engaged in widespread schadenfreude over the situation is fascinating.

Although many remained concerned for the lives of the passengers, the broad vindicated and jovial tone that many posters took is indicative of the growing sense of societal inequality. For those who thought the tone of films like Triangle of Sadness and The Menu were too on the nose, it's clear that an appetite has developed for watching the wealthy reap what they sow.

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