This weekend Safety Not Guaranteed, starring Mark Duplass and Aubrey Plaza opens. The quirky indie film (I reviewed it here) was inspired by a real life classified ad seeking partners for a time travel expedition. The movie even gets its title from the ad. So where did the ad come from?
The ad exploded online in the mid-2000s, gaining popularity on one-time meme-generator YTMND. But it predates that by quite a while; according to John Silveira he placed the ad in 1997, in the classified section of Backwoods Home Magazine. And it was a joke.
Silvieira sometimes helped Backwoods Home Magazine editor Dave Duffy fill in gaps in the magazine's classified section. Silviera would throw in jokes and riddles most of the time. But this one month, for the September/October issue, Duffy came to Silvieira with such a tight deadline the guy didn't have any jokes ready. He asked instead to just place two ads for free. One was a lonely hearts ad - Silviera was looking for a girlfriend. The other was the infamous time travel ad.
The ad was drawn from the opening lines of an unfinished novel Silveira had let set in a drawer. The personal, Silveira said, got five responses. The time travel ad got thousands upon thousands. Silveira writes about the responses:
What have the people who've responded wanted? Most seemed to have believed the ad. Several hundred, while admitting maybe it was a hoax, hoped it wasn't and wanted to go back in time for the sheer adventure. Though pay was offered, many of those said they'd do it for nothing. (Hell, I would, too.)
Some letters came from guys who gave me a list of some pretty sophisticated weapons they could bring along with their credentials: black belts in martial arts, explosives expertise, language skills, etc., along with assurances they can pretty much take care of themselves. I believe ‘em.
But many letters came from people who wanted me to correct a past tragedy. Dozens, in prison, asked me to go back in time and talk them out of committing the crime that put them away. Others (and not a few) were from people who begged me to go back and save a loved one from a tragic death. Those letters were so heartbreaking I almost couldn't read them and I felt a certain amount of shame for not anticipating the false hope I placed in so many hearts.
Silveira still has the key to the PO box, but he has lost most of the letters he received to mildew. But that's okay - new ones keep coming in.