Not long ago I saw a thing that said, "Your library: Because not everything on the internet is true." And I thought that was pretty dumb fallacious reasoning, not only because the internet has more knowledge than a thousand libraries at the touch of a fingertip, but because the thing that it looked like they were trying to imply is nonsense. When I was young, I read more than one book that said something to the effect of, "Sharks very rarely attack humans, but sometimes one will bite a human by accident, decide it likes the taste, and become a pervert who goes around attacking humans." And I never questioned it until just recently, when I learned from the internet that this notion has been debunked for a long time and was extrapolated from one bizarre case over a century ago in the first place. Five people in New Jersey were attacked by an unknown number of sharks within a week; ergo, someone proposed that "rogue sharks" were a thing and that somehow entered the public consciousness as an actual fact.
This, then, became the basis for Peter Benchley's novel Jaws. He later said in an interview, "The title was one of a thousand lucky breaks that happened to the book and the movie. Tom and I labored through about 125 titles, pretentious titles like A Stillness In The Water and Leviathan Rising, down-market titles like The Jaws Of Death and (from my father) What’s That Noshin’ On My Laig? At last, with 20 minutes left before the book had to go into production, I said to Tom, 'Look, we can’t agree on a title. In fact, the only word we both like is ‘jaws.’ Why don’t we call the bloody thing ‘Jaws’?' He said, 'Jaws? What does it mean?' 'Who knows?' I said. 'At least it’s short.' That was most everyone’s reaction. 'Jaws? What does it mean?' And always the response, 'Who knows? At least it’s short.' It turned out, of course, to be the perfect title: mysterious, dangerous, a little oblique rather than dead-on. And, yes, short, so it fit on a book cover and a movie-house marquee in gigantic letters. There was nothing subtle about Jaws in terms of invoking an almost visceral fear response in the reader."
But he also explained: "Nobody thought Jaws would be a success. It was a first novel, and nobody reads first novels. It was a novel about a fish, for God’s sake, and who cared about fish? Finally, we all knew it couldn’t be made into a movie, because it was a given that no one could catch and train a Great White shark, and everyone involved thought that Hollywood’s special-effects technology was nowhere near advanced enough to build a credible mechanical shark." That last bit was certainly accurate, as Steven Spielberg learned the hard way, but he got around that with a "less is more" approach that in the end made the movie much more frightening. Because humans enjoy being terrified from the comfort of chairs in air-conditioned rooms, "Jaws" became the highest-grossing film of all time and essentially created the concept of summer blockbusters. It was surpassed by "Star Wars" only two years later, but still. It was popular. And because humans couldn't grasp the concept that it was just a movie, they subsequently went out and murdered literally thousands of sharks in a moronic attempt to make the world a safer place. So that was a thing that happened.
I once read part of the opening scene of the novel, on the preview page, where Chrissie Watkins is devoured. I just remember something about the shark's teeth pulverizing her innards to jelly or something. Fun stuff. I've never seen the movie but I listened to the soundtrack and it gave me the heebiejeebies and that's what set me off on this shark kick. I thought I had seen the opening scene in an ad for the film airing on TV. As I remember seeing it, Chrissie was nonchalantly swimming in the moonlight, then she suddenly gasped and disappeared under the water, the word "Jaws" appeared on the screen, and it cut back to a shot of the shark's fake-looking head above the water roaring. So I expected to see that again when I found this scene on YouTube. But apparently they edited it for television. Because this version was a lot longer and involved a lot of screaming and flailing and trying to escape and "Help me! Help me! Aaaaah it hurts!" as the unseen shark nipped at her legs and kept playing with her because it was apparently part cat. So I have mixed feelings about whether I ever want to see the whole movie.
It does make for a phenomenal story. There's something fascinating, in a sick kind of way, about being stalked by an enormous creature whose thought process probably consists of "Hungry... hungry... hungry", in an environment where it's completely at home and you're completely helpless. But it's a story with zero basis in reality. Humans do not have the nutritional value that sharks need. Sharks do not, under any circumstances whatsoever, hunt humans and eat them in a gratuitously protracted manner. Sharks do not like the taste of humans. Sharks do not learn to like the taste of humans. And frankly, coming from animals that literally eat garbage, maybe we should find that insulting. The term "shark attack", in fact, is very misleading, because what usually happens in these situations is that a curious shark bites a human to find out what it is, goes "blech" (figuratively), and swims away. Just a silly little misunderstanding. Very few people are ever bitten by a shark, and very few of those die. Sharks literally kill fewer people than cows do.
Now in the interest of full disclosure I will admit, as one who fears pain more than death by a long shot, that this isn't entirely reassuring to me. I'm much less concerned about being killed by a shark per se than about having twin rows of massive serrated bone knives go through my body. And in that situation, the thought of how very unlikely this was to happen and how incredibly unlucky I must therefore be would be of little to no comfort. The same principle applies to plane crashes. It's mostly a moot point, though, as I haven't been to the ocean since 2009 and can't swim well enough to venture far beyond shore anyway. If a shark ever did bite me, I would beg it to finish the job, and it would probably decline because I taste disgusting. It would leave me, bleeding and in severe pain, kind of like the sharks who have their fins cut off for soup and are then thrown back into the ocean to sink and die. Of course, it's not a perfect analogy because the humans who do this to them know better.
As we try to eradicate them from the ocean, we should pause and remember that they were there first. Sharks have been on this planet for 420 million years, making them much older than the dinosaurs. They haven't gone extinct or evolved beyond recognition because they're good at what they do. That, I think, adds another dimension to the fear of them - they're like something from a lost world, living fossils that have made it this far without superior intelligence or technology and could easily own us with good instincts, powerful senses (some can smell blood in the water at one part per million), and oh yeah, twin rows of massive serrated bone knives. But at least the modern ones are fairly small. Here's an idea: a mashup of "Jaws" and "Jurassic Park" (Jawrassic Park?) featuring Megalodon, a shark that lived all over the world and is estimated to have been nearly sixty feet long. Shark skeletons are made of cartilage, which very rarely fossilizes, so this shark is mostly known from its teeth - but those say it all, really.
Although "Jaws" motivated people to murder thousands of sharks, it also sparked an unprecedented interest in them that led to unprecedented research. So now we know more about them including the fact that "Jaws" is a load of chum. Peter Benchley went on to feel kind of guilty and spent the rest of his life funding and advocating for shark conservation. Today, they remain endangered both from direct hunting and increasingly from climate change (you know, the thing that, according to lots of people who don't know there's a difference between climate and weather, isn't real). You know another thing about sharks that isn't true? They never get cancer. Now I don't know how else to wrap this up so here's a weird shark audio sketch on my YouTube channel that needs more views.
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About the Author
C. Randall Nicholson is a white cisgender male and a Latter-day Saint, so you can hate him without guilt, but he's also autistic, so you can't. Unless you're an anti-vaxxer, in which case the feeling is mutual. This blog is where he periodically rants about life, the universe, and/or everything.