by Seb Manley
By my calculations, by the end of its third instalment, the Jaws franchise has clocked up 16 human deaths caused directly by sharks. The films’ four great whites (there is a baby in Jaws 3-D which may have killed a pair of minor characters) have between them taken care of one skinny-dipper, one boy, two SeaWorld technicians, two shark hunters, one fisherman, one swimmer, one water-skier, two coral thieves, two teenagers, two divers, one Harbor Patrol marine helicopter pilot and one Harbor Patrol marine helicopter.
It may not surprise you that Hollywood was here sensationalising, or that the number of human deaths caused by sharks in the real world was in fact very low: one confirmed in the entire year in the US in 1975 (the year Jaws was released), none in either 1978 (Jaws 2) or 1983 (Jaws 3-D) (1). Movies don’t have a lot of time for statistics, and most people know they don’t; we are probably all aware that in reality, we are less likely to be killed by a shark than be struck by lighting, or die from a bee sting, or whatever. But knowing this does not seem to make us less terrified or sharks, or to stop Hollywood’s producers turning out shark-starring horror films.
By the third and probably third-best Jaws film, Jaws 3-D (‘The third dimension is terror’, runs the tagline, confusingly for anyone expecting three spatial dimensions), the shark characters have actually been sentimentalised or ‘humanised’ to an extent, the two sharks being identified as a ‘baby’ and its ‘mother’ and the latter turning up after her young has been captured and accidentally killed by profit-hungry humans. On first discovering the shark in the SeaWorld park, senior marine biologist Kay (Bess Armstrong), the film’s moral conscience, persuades the park manager not to have it killed, and later defends it to her husband, describing it as a beautiful fish and emphasising their duty not to do anything to traumatise it. But if eco-conscious sentiments of this kind – expressed, stereotypically, by a woman with an innate ‘connection’ to nature, a familiar trope of cinema and culture in general (2) – mark the film apart from Jaws and Jaws 2, in its second half the film settles into a more familiar, action-conventional narrative in which there is little time for reflection; there is, after all, a 35-foot shark at large that seems intent on eating as many humans as possible. This is a shark that the main characters cannot have any qualms about killing.
Representations of sharks as the demon killers of the ocean are of course not new. In his book Shark, the professor of English Dean Crawford comes up with a large number of examples from the West’s cultural history, from John Singleton Copley’s painting Watson the Shark (1778), to Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea (1870) and Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream (1970), to various popular films and documentaries, including Live and Let Die (1973), the Jaws series and the Discovery Channel’s Great White Death (1981) and Anatomy of a Shark Bite (2005). ‘Depictions of sharks’, Crawford summarises, ‘are frequently not only exploitative and sensational but evince a tendency to credulity’ – a fact that he argues is a major cause of the ongoing global slaughter of sharks for meat and for other substances.
Certainly films that demonise sharks have in the past triggered large-scale social panic and, on the part of some, bloodlust. The first Jaws film inspired a rash of unconfirmed shark sightings, hoaxes and news stories about sharks, and made shark-hunting into a popular pursuit (a 1975 article describes an incident where a group of swimmers ‘mauled and stabbed’ a sick baby whale which they thought to be a shark; see Claire Molly’s book Popular Media and Animals on this and other instances of ‘shark mania’). But it also seems likely that our feelings about sharks are the result of more than just stereotypes. People appear to be ‘will[ing] to believe the fantastic worst about sharks’, as Crawford puts it, and appeals to our rational faculty have only a limited effect. We can say with a fair amount of confidence that our prejudice in this case also has a biological basis. We fear sharks more than we should because we have a strongly rooted fear of predation and because, it has been suggested, we have evolved to use immediately available information rather than to seek other more valid information elsewhere – for the simple reason that, when facing a predator, it is better to react according to a slightly crude rule that says ‘Predator: run/fight!’ than it is to run through all the relevant data and possible kinds of response (3).
It’s not easy, of course, to separate out the natural and the cultural causes of a strong fear. But we should at least be aware that certain factors affect the way we view sharks, and consider this when thinking about their moral status and deciding whether it is permissible for people (or for governments to permit people) to kill them or to cause them suffering.
1. See the Global Shark Attack File, at http://www.sharkattackfile.net/incidentlog.htm.
2. Simone de Beauvoir runs through some examples from history in her book The Second Sex (new edition, translation by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier, London: Vintage, 1997), including writings by Saint Francis of Assisi and Aeschylus (p. 168).
3. See Isaac M. Marks and Randolph M. Nesse, ‘Fear and Fitness: An Evolutionary Analysis of Anxiety Disorders’, Ethology and Sociobiology, 15 (1994), 256–257: http://deepblue.lib.umich.edu/bitstream/2027.42/31354/1/0000265.pdf.
Crawford, Dean, Shark (London: Reaktion Books, 2008).
Molloy, Claire, Popular Media and Animals (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).