I am obsessed with the book Off the Wall: Death in Yosemite. At my last job, I mentioned it in a staff meeting on my second day. I bought a copy for my then-brother-in-law in 2010 and read the entire thing cover to cover before I gifted it to him. Amazon tells me I’ve bought five more copies since then, all gifts pressed eagerly, maniacally, into the hands of friends.
Death in Yosemite is nothing more or less than a list of everyone who has ever died in the national park, arranged by cause of death: drowning, falling off cliffs, animal attack. (I don’t want to spoil anything, but the murder chapter is amazing.) There are so many ways to die in Yosemite, and not just the obvious ones. People have been accidentally gored by deer. People have tumbled to their death while taking selfies. People have died from having a pine cone fall on their heads.
After Death in Yosemite, I discovered industry accident reports. These reports usually require an expensive subscription, but if you google around enough, you can find accident reports for roller coasters, circus performers, nuclear plants, mining, paragliding, oyster farming, avalanches, crane operation, tree maintenance, and “general amputation accidents.”
After going to a water park in 2013, I spent hours reading about all the ways one can die at a water park. Again, it’s not just the obvious ones. People have died by drowning, of course, but also by electrocution, beheading, slide collapse, and chlorine gas asphyxiation.
I grew up in the ’80s, the age of fear. These fears were largely overblown if not entirely imaginary. At school, at home, and on TV, we were warned about poisoned Halloween candy, razor blades in caramel apples, Satanic preschools, child molesters posing as ice cream truck drivers, killer bees, contracting HIV from public toilets, gang initiation murders, and peers pressuring us into taking a single puff of marijuana, turning us instantly into crack addicts.
All of these fears were absurd, reactionary, racist, and/or completely unhinged, but I believed in all of them. Of course, plenty of kids didn’t take these warnings seriously, but I was a gullible, anxious, and obedient child. When someone told me not to pick up stickers or temporary tattoos on the sidewalk because they might be laced with LSD, I didn’t question why on earth anyone would waste perfectly good LSD on first graders. I scanned the sidewalk, I never picked up stickers, I never picked up anything that even looked like a sticker, just to be sure.
We watched very special episodes (VSEs) about diet pills, latch-key kids, and getting trapped inside of old refrigerators. I still remember the episode of Diff’rent Strokes when a child molester attempts to lure Arnold by showing him pornographic cartoons. In almost every case, the VSE was the first time I’d even heard of the danger in question, so instead of giving me useful information about a known issue, it just implanted a new fear in my mind. Were people going to be showing me pornographic cartoons? What were they? How would I know if I’d seen one? Maybe I already had? (I hadn’t.)
In addition to mediagenic fears like killer bees and Satanic cults, my family had its own set of pet dangers: vicious attack dogs, blood poisoning, ice skating (“you could fall and split your head open.”) I worried the Big One would kill us all (I wrote about the Big One for PANK many years ago). I worried about tidal waves. I worried that I’d somehow get pregnant even though I’d never had sex. I worried about carjackers hiding under the car in dark parking lots, waiting to slash your ankles. It wasn’t surprising that by high school I was having daily panic attacks.
But then something rolled over. Perhaps I realized that so many things were dangerous, there was just no point in worrying about danger anymore. I could avoid sidewalk stickers and empty refrigerators and Griffith Park at night (that’s where Satanists congregate), but what about pine cones and parking lots?
I’m sure that even in the ’80s, adults knew better. I don’t think most people really, truly believed that someone was sitting up the night before Halloween painstakingly adulterating candy apples — let alone dozens or hundreds or thousands of people all over the country. But if you pressed them, the answer was always something like, “well, better safe than sorry.” Probably no one is leaving hypodermic needles full of HIV in pay phone change slots, but just to be safe, you should probably not stick your finger in there.
The problem with “better safe than sorry” is that it implies that there’s no real cost to being safe. In fact, there’s quite a large cost to thinking your neighbors are trying to kill you. Instead, take comfort from the fact that the whole world is trying to kill you, the world and everything in it, and someday it will succeed, so until then, you might as well go ice skating.