© 2024 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Lost Malaysian Plane Could Land In Cultural Lore

Artwork capturing hope held for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, shown in Beijing on March 29.
Alexander F. Yuan

Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared more than a month ago, but it still compels significant attention, despite the passage of time and lack of definitive information about where it may have gone.

While many events over time fade from general knowledge, the circumstances surrounding this one may serve to secure its place in our collective memory.

"If it never gets found, I think its cultural penetration will increase in time, not go down," says Robert Thompson, a pop culture professor at Syracuse University. "If it gets to the point where people throw up their hands, if this plane never appears, we will be talking about it for at least as long as Jimmy Hoffa, and maybe longer."

There are many reasons why the doomed flight continues to captivate. For one, there's great suspense in not knowing: not knowing why the plane went off course; not knowing where it went.

It's possible that the plane's black box will be recovered any day now. That might go a long way toward explaining what went wrong and help bring closure to the families of the dead. But it will be a different story if such clues or identifiable pieces of the plane itself remain elusive.

On Becoming Legend

The unending desire for answers — and the continued search by some well after most people have moved on — is why some events have entered into lore.

A handful of figures who went missing, such as Jimmy Hoffa, Amelia Earhart and D.B. Cooper — even Boston mob boss James "Whitey" Bulger, who was finally captured in 2011 after 15 years on the run — have retained attention and a sense of mystery for decades.

"A lingering absence begets its own mythology: the claimed sightings, the clues, the purported explanations," writes historian Katrina Gulliver in an essay about Earhart, whose plane was lost in 1937. "By disappearing, these people in a sense never die. They remain frozen in time, even as the world changes. In our collective imagination, they are still out there."

A dose of celebrity has helped in some cases. But a full planeload of anonymous travelers could be forever captivating in this way, too.

That we can identify with these travelers — that this might have been me — keeps the story in our minds. This is not about a public figure — these are average people.

"A lot of people look for a way to explain away a cataclysmic event," says journalist Gerald Posner, who has written books about several modern tragedies. "They think it could have been them."

Last month, I was talking with an acquaintance in St. Louis about a trip I was taking to California. She'd never been there and said she would never go because she refuses to fly.

"Look at what happened with that Malaysian plane," she said.

She knows she faces a greater risk of death by driving on the highway, but she doesn't care. There's a lack of control involved with riding on a plane.

"If I die on the ground, it was my time," she said. "At least they'll find my body."

Developing Theories

In the case of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, people also find it hard to believe that, in an era of GPS and instantaneous information through smartphones and social media — not to mention a high-pitched focus on electronic surveillance — a plane could simply vanish without a trace.

"People think you're constantly in contact with air traffic control," says Garry Richard Lane, author of The Brutus Conspiracy, a recent thriller centered around a plane crash. "A lot of people were amazed that airlines fly off radar."

This adds to the mystery, fueling the development of possible to outlandish theories — almost in the way the missing crew of the ship Mary Celeste in the 19th century helped give rise to the legend of the Bermuda Triangle.

"[The plane] disappeared the way things disappeared in 1910, when there was nothing but binoculars and eyes," says Thompson, the Syracuse professor.

The idea of a plane filled with our fellow human beings disappearing would have drawn attention at any point in the last century, but speaks to particular fears post-Sept. 11.

Terrorism, and its association with airplanes, is not just a source of dread. It also offers a possible explanation — and the idea is another driver of the plethora of theories.

In the case of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, people also turned to more comforting explanations — that it might have been the prophesied Rapture, with the passengers called up to heaven, or that they might be found on a remote island, as on the TV show Lost.

No one wants to hear that a plane just crashed into the vast ocean and, sorry, but we don't know why. People want disappearances solved.

Some people have grown weary of the media coverage. But while searchers off the coast of Australia continue to actively look for clues, the lost flight remains in our collective unconscious. And though there have been statements in which officials have committed to the search until they find the missing plane, manpower will inevitably be scaled back at some point.

As long as the mystery remains, some will follow the story, while the culture as a whole continues to remember the flight as a touchstone of uncertainty.

"As a writer, you want people to feel like they're there, or this could have been them or a family member," says Lane, the novelist. "That's what this flight does."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.
KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and award-winning podcasts.
Your donation helps keep nonprofit journalism free and available for everyone.