Frightening Fables: A Spotlight on Killer Sharks

THE MENACE IN QUESTION: Sharks depicted in film in the 20th and 21st century.
THE THREAT: Being eaten alive by a monster from the deep.
FIRST APPEARANCE: Steven Spielberg’s 1975 smash hit Jaws.

In many ways, humans have always been fearful of sharks. We’re used to being at the top of the food chain. Once we enter the ocean however, we fully surrender ourselves to their domain. Jaws not only affected the way we view the summer blockbuster, it also drastically changed our perception of sharks.

Before the film’s release, there was your average caution of being mindful of these predators when entering the water. This changed when in the summer of 1916, a series of shark attacks along the New Jersey shoreline shook the nation. This event later went on to inspire Peter Benchley to write the book Jaws, which Spielberg adapted into his feature length film of the same name.

It’s one thing to read about a horrific tragedy in the newspaper or a novel, but it’s quite another to see it played out in front of you on a large theater screen in vivid Technicolor. Nearly overnight Jaws created a worldwide paranoia of sharks that had never been seen before. Fishermen of all types flocked to the sea to begin hunting these creatures. Some did so out of fear, while others did so simply for the sport of it. Sadly, the shark population as a whole severely suffered due to this visceral reaction.

As a film, Jaws is best known for its suspenseful musical score and brilliant directing. As many are already aware, the fact that the mechanical shark (named Bruce, after Spielberg’s lawyer) failed to work the majority of the time lead to creative filmmaking that relied on a “less is more” approach. The fact that Bruce was hardly seen for a large portion of the film worked to Spielberg’s advantage, by creating a tense environment that kept audiences on the edge of their seats.

Hollywood has been desperate to capitalize on the success of Jaws ever since. This can best be seen with the three (yes, THREE!) sequels that Universal Pictures distributed from 1978 to 1987. To be honest, Jaws 3-D and Jaws: The Revenge are two of my favorite “so bad they’re good” flicks. One takes place at SeaWorld and the other features a roaring Great White. Literally. The shark roars like a lion. I definitely recommend checking them out if you want a good laugh!

One of my favorite things about the killer shark sub-genre is that it’s the perfect venn diagram of aquatic horror and cheesy B movies. In the decades since Jaws has been released, there have been numerous copycat films that have flooded the market, and they all vary greatly in terms of quality.

You have the absolute bonkers flicks which include the likes of Sharknado, Ghost Shark, and Sharktopus. These films and others like them are a laugh riot. The concept of these creatures being overtaken by a tornado or becoming fused with an octopus are so ridiculous that you can’t help but watch them. I appreciate the concept of either going big or going home. In my opinion, the more ridiculous the plot, the better.

Then there’s the more serious examples such as Open Water and the upcoming film The Shallows. These movies take a serious look at mankind’s fear of the ocean and what lurks beneath the surface. We look our own mortality dead in the eye. In the first film, the sharks swim away victorious. We’ll have to wait for the latter to debut on June 29 this year to see who prevails.

Of course, there are also films that fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, such as Deep Blue Sea (a personal favorite of mine). While this film does have its serious moments, the fact that the plot centers around sharks’ brains becoming larger (and subsequently more intelligent) due to lab testing leaves me in stiches every time. Plus, LL Cool J is there. And he raps about how his “hat is like a shark’s fin.” I’m serious. There’s a music video and everything.

Thankfully, even though killer shark films are still going strong (just ask SyFy), the fervor and fear they inspired at one time has died down significantly. This is largely due in part to the the scientific research that skyrocketed after Jaws’ release. Both the scientific community and everyday citizens wanted to know more about how real sharks actually behave in their natural environment. This lead to increased funding and eventually a greater understanding of shark behavior and biology as a whole.

Here’s the thing: While I love these ridiculous films in all of their bloody glory, I am also a huge advocate for the conservation of sharks. They are such magnificent creatures and don’t deserve the amount of hatred they receive. They’re a vital part of our ecosystem and to destroy them would ultimately lead to our own destruction as a species. It’s important to remember the difference between the movie monsters created by Hollywood and the actual beautiful creatures we share our oceans with.

What do you think of the killer shark sub-genre? Do you have a favorite film I forgot to mention? Let us know in the comments!

And tune in next week for another installment of Frightening Fables!



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