Jesse Champlin
It dawned on me when I was 10 years old that drowning is the most terrible way to die. And it happened in the movie theater, watching James Cameron's The Abyss. In the first scene a nuclear sub crashes underwater and the entire crew drowns with horrific realism; I was in tears.

I realize other people are scared of drowning because they've come close to drowning themselves. But outside of a brief interlude as a three-year-old when I tried to walk across a covered swimming pool Jesus-style, I had no precedence for the anxiety The Abyss instilled in me. Nevertheless, the film still found a fear in me so powerful it continues to overwhelm me to this day--I'm convinced this same fear exists in all of us. Maybe it takes more than a screening of The Abyss to uncover this phobia in most people. But it is there, lurking beneath the surface. Drowning is the worst way to go, and we all know it.

For insight into this theory, I consulted Sebastian Junger's A Perfect Storm--a riveting, true account of one fishing boat's struggle with one of the worst storms imaginable. The book includes a six-page, step-by-step breakdown of what a drowning person endures that made my guts churn. I will streamline it into what I see to be the six salient points:

· At the start of the drowning, the victim experiences a variety of unpleasant sensations and emotions, including but not limited to: "Darkness closing in from all sides, as in a camera aperture stopping down"; "an odd incredulity that this is actually happening"; "desperation and awkwardness"; and "embarrassment."

· When the "break point" happens, the victim's need to breathe overcomes his/her instinct not to. Junger writes, "The drowning begins in earnest. A spasmodic breath drags water into the mouth and windpipe."

· A lucky 10 percent of all drowning victims will have a merciful reaction to that first rush of water into the gullet. The intense trauma to the vocal cords will cause the central nervous system to quickly clamp down on the muscles around the larynx. This is called a "laryngospasm"--a phenomenon so powerful, according to Junger, it "suffocates the person. A person with laryngospasm drowns without any water in his lungs."

· The unlucky other 90 percent of drowning victims will now begin inhaling great quantities of water into their lungs. The heart will begin laboring, as Junger writes, "under critically low levels of oxygen and [start] to beat erratically--like a 'bag full of worms,' as one doctor says."

· "The pulse slows down and the blood pools where it's needed most," writes Junger, "in the heart and skull. It's a sort of temporary hibernation that drastically reduces the body's need for oxygen."

· After about 15 or 20 minutes of this hibernation, "the electrical activity in [the brain]... ceases altogether."


The human body can withstand an enormous amount of pain and suffering before it begins the actual act of dying. Once the body begins to shut down, however, things pick up speed. It is only in those final, sped-up seconds of life that we can really gauge what method of death is the worst. What is the dying person experiencing when they actually leave this world behind? Most final moments of life are experienced in an unconscious or semiconscious state. Old or sick (or both) people die in their sleep for a variety of reasons. Fatally injured people--say from a relatively common way to go, like a car accident--will either be knocked out by their injury, or reach an euphoric, semiconscious state via shock or blood loss. Yes, the injury may be terrible to endure, but the moment of death itself will be peaceful--or, at least experienced in an unaware state of mind.

Other common ways of dying involve another person's hand. Being tortured to death is often ranked high on the list of undesirable dying scenarios. But, in actuality, torture is not a way of dying at all; it is not the moment at which you die. Torture is a brutal, usually elongated period of inflicted pain and suffering that, if done properly, will make the act of dying a gift, a blessed release from the trauma precluding it. Most deaths that are directly caused by another human (we call these "murders," unless they occur during wartime; then we call them "dying for your country") share this quality--the moment of death is welcome compared to the intense fear/pain leading up to it.

The only kind of murder that is comparable to drowning is being strangled or smothered. One of the most terrifying elements of the drowning experience is that the victim is totally deprived of oxygen, the thing on which our bodies have been designed to live on. ALL deaths are caused ultimately by the brain failing to receive oxygen. When the heart goes, the brain stops receiving oxygen. When the brain stops receiving oxygen, the brain dies. The body's greatest natural fear is thus the deprivation of oxygen--it's a fear many of us don't even know we have, because we take breathing for granted. But based on pure biological necessity there can be no denying it: There is nothing more terrifying than not being able to breathe.

Even so, a strangling/smothering possesses two elements that make it a distinctly preferable experience to drowning. For example, at least one other person is in the room with the victim. Sure, that person may be doing the killing, but the intrinsic human need for companionship is still there. And that miserable, gasping leap into the afterlife will be a little more comfortable if one isn't alone. (We are ultimately social animals, no matter what the drunk "lone wolf" at the end of the bar tries to tell you.) Mind you, being strangled will still be a worse occurrence than your darkest nightmares have ever imagined, but then so will drowning--and when you drown, you drown alone.

Secondly, stranglings/smotherings take place in our world; the world we know and love. However terrible, a death on land is a death amidst familiarity, amidst the warmth and dryness of our natural element. There is no such comfort in water. Water is simultaneously the most necessary chemical compound we interact with, and the most alien to us.

In Stanislav Lem's Solaris, water is a sentient creature; the only inhabitant on a planet composed entirely of an intelligent ocean. It's a brilliant premise, simultaneously innovative and obvious (as most brilliant premises are). When we are submerged in even the most placid water we find ourselves engulfed by a shimmering entity alive with kinetic energy. The slightest movement sends cascades of ripples in all directions, and we can never escape the deeply buried sense that this... being is letting us inhabit its world.

Water as an entity is impossibly mysterious and menacing, more so than even fire--the trump card usually played by those still trying to convince themselves that drowning is not the worst way to go. When burning, the smoke ravages your lungs as the fire eats your flesh. The psyche is bludgeoned as the brain watches the flames licking greedily, climbing closer and closer. There surely is immense fear involved with burning, but once the fire goes to work, the fear is forgotten and pain takes over.

With drowning, the fear remains until the very end. Indeed, the fear escalates to dimensions we are incapable of imagining without actually experiencing it. As the drowning commences, daylight lurks above, tantalizingly close. The hope of reaching it turns to anxiety as the victim realizes he won't be able to. The anxiety turns to fear. Fear to panic. The panic turns to something indescribable. There is no relief. Whereas the pain inflicted by fire would be a relief. At least pain is something different. But there is no pain in drowning. The lack of oxygen to the lungs is not pain, but something beyond it. As Junger writes, "The only thing more unpleasant than running out of air is breathing in water."

The physical discomfort of not breathing is compounded by the knowledge that inhaling water is imminent. Inhaling smoke is compounded by the knowledge that fire burning the flesh is imminent--but burning is an external experience. The ravaged flesh is on the outside of us. When we die by drowning, we open every part of our bodies and minds to the water. Fire can never take everything from us, because we will die long before it ever does. But when we drown the last thing we feel is an overwhelming rape; a force of unimaginable power filling every possible orifice.

Drowning is the ultimate trauma physically and psychologically; a kind of epic violation of body and mind. Water rapes us as it kills; it takes everything from us. The 98 percent of us that is water reunites with its true family. When we drown, water turns us into itself. As Nietzsche said, all human interaction is a struggle for power. Water is power. Water is us. When we are killed by water, we are killed by ourselves.