• Kai Milanovich

How Did Sharks Get So Scary?

As I was growing up, my family loved going to the beach. We would try to go every summer, packing up the family van tetris-style with snacks, sunscreen, and some games to pass the time. We had a taste for Florida. Sanibel Island, to be specific. But the vacations were filled with mom’s gentle reminders: watch out for ‘snarks’! (She must have thought that mispronouncing the word made the warning more memorable.) Thinking back today, my family never saw a shark while we were out in the water. Why were we afraid of something we never saw?



In the mid-70s, Steven Spielberg was becoming a household name. Jaws was breaking box office records and was, for a time, the highest-grossing film. Jaws was a hit. Before the movie hit sceens, however, it had to go through a troublesome production process.


At first, the plan was to train a great white shark. Surprise, surprise: this didn’t work out. The second plan was to build one: a mechanical shark that they named ‘Bruce,’ after Spielberg’s lawyer. The animatronic shark came with its own problems. It needed fourteen operators. It broke down constantly. Hell, at one point the robot capsized and sank into the ocean.

Inspired by Jaws, we have named our own mascot Bruce.

All this to say, Spielberg was fed up with the fake shark. He started to take cues from Alfred Hitchcock -- instead of making vivid viewings of sharks, he would let his audience hang in suspense. He would imply that the shark was in the water. The shots would aim to hide the shark, to make viewers uncertain and, well, afraid.


This summer was the 45th anniversary of the release of the film. As an act of cinematography, Spielberg did a fantastic job. Outside of theaters, however, he was scaremongering. After watching Jaws many had their fears of sharks confirmed. A small (and I do mean small) amount of fear is warranted: it would be really shitty to be bit by a shark. Statistically speaking, the odds are wayyyyy too small to be worried about reasonably.


Spielberg, on the other hand, didn’t have ‘the odds’ in mind when he made the film. In his portrayal the sharks seem to prefer human flesh -- which isn’t true. The stats don’t need to be true for us to be afraid, which is what made Jaws so memorable everytime we are on the beach. We know that it isn’t likely, but our brains like to hold on to that faint chance.


Even more so, our brains seem to fixate on the ‘unknown’ factor of the ocean. Hitchcock’s suspense seems to have been packed up with our swimsuits and surf boards. Jaws made us worry that at any moment there would be a terrorizing surprise.


Some part of us knows that the beach doesn’t come with a Jaws soundtrack of duh duh.. duh duh… We know that there is not a great white ready to ruin our vacation. We know that our vacation is not the filming of a fifty year revival of Speilberg’s classic - but confidence in our safety does not mean an absence of our fear. We still love the beach. And, at a far, we still love sharks. So, where does that leave us?

"We know that there is not a great white ready to ruin our vacation. We know that our vacation is not the filming of a fifty year revival of Speilberg’s classic - but confidence in our safety does not mean an absence of our fear."

So, the next time we are out wading into the water and we feel some flick in the back of our mind that says, ‘watch out for snarks!’, stop and think. It becomes a problem of how we spend our vacation. Do we want our vacations to be shaped by what Jaws encouraged? Fear of the water? Or do we want our vacations to be a time where we can get away from the anxieties of our day-to-day, where we can spend time with our kids and have one (maybe two...or five) drinks?


Do you remember the first time you saw Jaws? Does it come to mind when you go to the beach? Do you wish that you could simply get over that fear and enjoy the water with your family? Let us know in the comments.

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