Golden Gate Bridge

by Rob Horning

12 June 2006


Since its completion, the Golden Gate Bridge has been a strange kind of killing machine, with a few people jumping off it every month, on average. Part of the reason is its lack of a barrier: You can hop over the short rail, and you’re off. But part of it too must be the momentum of notoriety; the more it is known for suicide, the more seductive it becomes as a suicide destination. One’s self-destruction takes on the grim glamour of the bridge’s entire history, which is as outsized and romanticized as a suicidal person’s perceptions of his own condition often are.

This reputation seems like it can only grow. Recently a documentary was made about the suicides, featuring some jump footage surreptitiously captured for the express purpose of the film. (Jason Kottke has a rundown of the controversy this aroused here.) The upshot—if you were filming someone jumping off a bridge, aren’t you morally obliged to stop filming and go and prevent their death? And if that attempt fails, shouldn’t you destroy the footage out of repesct for the family? (You could then style yourself like Werner Herzog in Grizzly Man filming himself listening to tapes of a man’s death that he then deems unfit for the rest of the world to hear.) As fascinating as I find the subject, I couldn’t watch this film, I don’t think. Am I being unnecessary squeamish? What fascinates me about the subject is the close connection between the sublime perspectives the bridge creates and the urge to end it all—the idea that certain forms of beauty can be annihilating. But then again I am also fascinated by people who throw themselves in front of moving trains (another under-reported but all too common occurance), which seems somehow more grisly and desperate. In both cases, death becomes a peculiar public performance—what David Blaine toys with in his deprivation stunts. In a culture that sometimes fetishizes the appearance of authenticity, these performances (unlike Blaine’s) are the ultimate. It makes me wonder if the concern with authenticity ultmately dignifies suicide, makes it seem a noble option, a dignified refusal to compromise rather than a tragic waste.

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