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The Jaws Effect : The murky depths of imagination

Updated: Nov 26, 2020

Jaws rewrote the rule book for cinema, it also turned out to be a devastating and disastrous PR campaign for Sharks

The film that is credited as birthing modern blockbuster cinema is almost 45 years old. The story of the making of the film is steeped in lore. A mere B-Movie monster flick helmed by a young director, an exploitation of a tense net curtain twitching novel with a man eating shark setting the backdrop for a tale of infidelity and mistrust, but the animatronic shark was unreliable and looked unconvincing. The result is now cinema history, a monster movie where the monster did not turn up until the final reel, allowing the audience to indulge in their most profound imagined fears. The blending of the instincts of Hitchock and the spectacle of Speilberg. The lasting legacy of the film that made Spielberg a Hollywood giant, extends far beyond the silver screen, it has had a devastating impact on both human and shark populations.

Marine biologists and conservationists despair over the film, feeling it is responsible for a prejudicial fear. There was an explosion in shark fishing following the film release and many shark populations in US waters have declined between 50-90% since 1975. Species of shark reproduce at a rate more in common with humans than the animal kingdom. Most only start breeding once only 15 years or older and mostly only give birth every other year. It seems the animals simply cannot keep up with the declining numbers and whilst awareness of the plight of sharks is growing, sharks are still in a perilous state.

There is a bitter, self-fulfilling irony in the aggressive overfishing of shark and their prey, as the hunters move closer to the shore to pursue food, leading to increased shark sightings and keeping the hunters in the public consciousness, meaning that Shark demonization B-movies continue to be churned out by the Hollywood machine. Jaws was the first film to gross over $100million, revitalizing an entire industry and creating a tantalizing formula for filmmakers to attempt to reproduce. The theme tune and publicity poster alone have become so iconic that they are not only an instant parody classic but also good indiciators for unsuspected primordial fear or danger.

Jaws had a visceral impact on generations of audiences that have seen the fear of shark attacks have a profound impact on behaviour. The deep seated fear of the predator hidden under the waves has some extraordinary reactions in many people. The decline in attendances at beaches after the film release was clear for all to see, some people went as far as never entering the sea again as the fear consumed them. Many found their relationship with water adjust utterly, with their reptilian brain screaming in panic as they dip their toe in a bath. Peter Benchley, the author who gave us this dorsal finned juggernaut has often expressed regret at the psychological shift his book has caused.

Sharks lived their lives shrouded in mystery prior to this film, gradually we are learning more about their behaviour and life cycle, it also is often forgotten that prior to the film, Sharks were not considered a danger to man. This statement is so profoundly astonishing to anyone in the post Jaws era, it is literally dangerous to their concept of reality. Around the turn of the twentieth century, it was believed that Sharks simply did not attack humans, so much so a cash prize was offered to anyone who could demonstrate they had been bitten by a shark. The reward was never claimed. A series of shark attacks off the coast of New Jersey in 1916 was the beginning of the change of that perception. These events were the inspiration for Benchley’s book. It could be considered that one rogue shark (although it is even disputed if only one shark was involved) is the catalyst for the demonization of an entire species. The stories of the horrors of the USS Indianapolis sailors as cited in the film Jaws are really an example of man far beyond his own habitat and hardly representative of most people’s potential experience.

Sharks are not generally attracted to humans as a source of food, only three species are known to attack us, tiger, Bull and Great Whites. If the highly unlikely were to ever happen, the recognized advice if facing shark attack is to fight like hell! Poke the eyes, nose (snout) or gills and do not stop. Do not try and swing hard, any force will be lost in the water. Be prepared that the skin is not smooth, but rough like sandpaper. Never try and play dead, sharks are scavengers and eat carrion. You are presenting as an easy snack. Most shark attacks on humans are inquisitive investigations and not determined intentions to eat and furthermore you have more chance of being hit by lightning or even winning the lottery twice! In 2016 there were 81 shark attacks reported world-wide, only 4 people died Hundreds, maybe thousands of millions of people stepped in the ocean, sharks only took four. It is perfectly safe in the water, it is the cinema where all the danger lies!

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