Wendy Northcutt has made a host of obscure people famous, and although very few lived to savor their notoriety, she anticipates one day sharing their dubious honor. It almost happened when a recent heat wave gave her the idea to “air-condition” her sweltering home: She pried up an oubliette floor grate in the hallway, intending to install a fan to suck up the basement’s cooler air. But she left to answer the phone, and hours later strode back down the hall and obliviously stepped into the gaping hole. As her body swooshed down, she thought “Oh no! I’m gonna win my own award.”
As followers of the Darwin Awards know, the prize goes to those who improve the gene pool by accidentally removing themselves from it in astonishingly obtuse fashion. Since the primary requirement is an irrefutable demonstration of “self-evident ineptitude for survival,” most win posthumously, although a few have merely inadvertently sterilized themselves. To date, nearly a thousand unwitting contestants have garnered Darwin distinctions, appearing on darwinawards.com and/or in one of six books: from the first, a New York Times bestseller, to the most recent, “The Darwin Awards: Countdown to Extinction.”
Northcutt hasn't won the award—not yet, anyway—but she is, ironically, the award’s chief promulgator. (She managed to wriggle out of the grate hole and summon help, escaping with a broken leg, but life and reproductive ability intact.) In addition to the Web site and books, she also oversees a product line of greeting cards, clothing, and condom packets decorated with cartoon sperm spouting quotes such as “Ready, Fire, Aim!” and “Tragic Proof of the Missing ‘Why?’ Chromosome.”
A self-proclaimed klutz, Northcutt nonetheless may be making the most creative use yet of a UC-Berkeley degree in molecular biology. “I consider myself, first and foremost, to be a scientist,” she contends, labeling herself a thanatologist—one engaged in the study of human death. Not that the Darwin Awards are a genuine example of scientific rigor and data analysis; they are, rather, designed to make us chuckle in rueful recognition of human folly.
Northcutt’s unconventional career began shortly after graduation from Cal, during a stint at a Stanford laboratory where she waited for experiments to run their course. In her down time, she learned to construct Web sites. Before long two of her creations were the most-visited sites on the Stanford server. The first, dubbed Pet Porn, featured oddball photographs: a kitty in a negligée, a dog sticking its tongue into its owner’s mouth. The second, which she labeled Darwin Awards, catalogued imbecilic demises.
Pet Porn fell by the wayside, but in 1993 Northcutt migrated Darwin Awards to another server and secured the domain darwinawards.com. Though she didn’t coin the term—the Usenet archives list a 1985 use of the term about a man who shook a vending machine until it toppled over on him—it was Northcutt who shaped the Darwin Awards into a pop culture sensation.
Moderators screen submissions (an average of 125 a week), and site visitors vote for their favorite nominees, but the final arbiter is Northcutt herself. She applies five rules: nominees must be rendered unable to reproduce, whether by death or sterilization; they must display spectacular stupidity, overlooking risks that are seemingly impossible to overlook; they themselves must have chosen the action; they must be at least 16 years of age and not clinically cognitively impaired; and their stories must be true.
The Darwins offer dazzling displays of doomed ditziness: the wise guy who attempted to club chickens to death with the butt of a loaded gun, the old coot who anchored his boat with a WWII aviation bomb, the farmer who avoided bee stings by sealing his head in a plastic bag, and a frugal fellow who topped off his car’s brake fluid with dishwashing liquid.
“The funniest examples are the things I could see myself doing,” Northcutt says, citing the case of two brothers frantically chatting on their cell phones, trying to locate each other while driving around a parking lot. They met in a head-on crash—surviving and therefore garnering only a Darwin honorable mention.
The latest book relates the tale of a Russian chemistry student who often rolled his chewing gum in citric acid crystals for a tart, longer-lasting taste. But he got more than a blast of extra flavor when he absent-mindedly dipped his gum into an open container of chemical explosive and stuck it back in his mouth: The blast killed him instantly, in what Darwin readers dubbed a “jaw-dropper.”
Similarly unlucky was convicted murderer Michael Anderson Godwin, whose death sentence had been commuted to life in prison. Later, sitting on a metal toilet in his South Carolina cell while trying to repair his TV set, he bit down on a live wire—efficiently carrying out his original sentence in a makeshift electric chair.
And let’s not forget the Croatian show-off who juggled hand grenades until he went out with a bang.
How does Northcutt collect these twisted tales of woe? To find out, I visited the Darwin Awards control center—Northcutt’s cottage, nestled among rows of Craftsman-style homes in a tidy neighborhood near downtown San Jose, California.
Distinguishing her front yard from those of her neighbors is elementary: It’s practically a museum of potentially lethal hazards. A couple of rickety ladders frame the central walk, huge hula hoops rimmed in shiny wire swing from the tree branches above, strands of thick rope dangle down to the ground, and coils of electrical cord snake across the yard. Shoes are scattered across the front porch, which also accommodates a barbecue grill. In short, the path to the front door seems booby-trapped.
“Hello, hello, welcome,” Northcutt sings out, stepping onto the porch with a warm smile. But she seems puzzled when asked about the treacherous terrain. “I never even thought about that,” she says with a shrug, offering an explanation for each. The ladders are garden trellises. The hula hoops are her latest obsession, after a trip to Burning Man inspired her to craft a hoop a day for a year. The ropes are for hoisting the embellished hoops aloft. The grill is for the obvious: cooking. And though she can’t quite remember why the electrical cord is out, it is insulated and grounded—so hey, what could go wrong?
She floats toward the front door clad in a gauzy skirt so voluminous that, when stretched from side to side, it resembles butterfly wings. Her sock-and-sandal-clad feet poke out from beneath the skirt, and she tucks her long, straight brown hair behind her ears, which are adorned with earrings fashioned from feathers. The back of her hand is covered with slightly smeared black ink that, upon closer inspection, reveals an indelible to-do list.
“Would you like to see my infamous oubliette?” she inquires, leading the way down a hall adorned with a huge poster paying homage to Marvel comics. It requires little imagination to visualize her plunging through a hole in the floor.
“If it’s not too painful or slow a way to go, I would definitely like to win a Darwin Award on my grand exit,” she acknowledges. “And when I'm gone, people who know me will say ‘That was so much like Wendy—she was always doing crazy stuff like that!’”