Audiences cringed in terror as they watched the 1975 movie thriller Jaws, which depicted shark hunters’ desperate struggle to survive an encounter with a monstrous aquatic serial killer that was powerful enough to turn their fishing cruiser into splinters, and was relentless in its frenzied lust for human flesh.
The great white shark in the film wasn’t real—director Steven Spielberg utilized three different mechanical sharks to play the role—and at 25 feet in length and 2.7 tons, the fictitious man-eater dwarfed the biggest documented great whites ever caught. (The current unofficial record is held by a 17.9-foot-long, two-ton shark that was caught and released in 2009 by researchers at the Marine Conservation Science Institute.) Leonard Compagno, a South African-based shark researcher consulted by the filmmakers, later noted that the creature’s maniacal compulsion to stalk and kill humans was complete fiction. In reality, as Compagno told Smithsonian magazine in 2008, great whites “rarely bother people, and even more rarely attack them.” And while great whites have on occasion attacked fishing boats—here’s a video of a January 2011 incident in Australia, in which a 15-foot great white apparently chomps down on an outboard motor—there don’t seem to be any reports of one systematically ramming and demolishing a craft the size of the one depicted in the film.
But while Jaws was an escapist fantasy rather than an accurate depiction of sharks, the public didn’t grasp that distinction. In July 1975, a month after the film’s release, the New York Times reported that authorities up and down the East Coast were inundated with reports of shark sightings—most of them probably erroneous—by anxious beachgoers and recreational fishermen. The hysteria provided still more fuel for the widespread stereotype that sharks are evil, vicious, and menaces to humanity that must be feared, if not eradicated.
That meme, which dates back centuries in Western civilization, is not only inaccurate, but is a reversal of the actual reality. Since 2001, only 10 people have been killed by sharks worldwide, according to data collected by International Shark Attack File, an organization that tracks such incidents. That amounts to only about 4 percent of the fatalities from dog bites in the U.S. over that period. Most often, experts say, sharks attack humans by accident, mistaking them for sea lions or other aquatic prey, though as opportunistic predators, they also have been known to feed on swimmers, surfers, or shipwrecked sailors because they happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Indeed, sharks have far more to fear from humans, who slaughter an estimated 100 million sharks of various species each year—mostly for food, but perhaps some out of hatred as well. “Sharks are being fished faster than they can reproduce, and their numbers are declining—and fast,” the ISAF website warns.
The stereotyping of sharks as evil is so rampant in our culture that they’ve become a metaphor for malevolence. Crooked cardplayers are reviled as “card sharks,” and mobsters who extort exorbitant interest rates from unwary customers have long been known as loan sharks. A best-selling mid-1990s manual of advice on how to survive encounters with unscrupulous people in the business world was entitled Swim With the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive. One of our most enduringly familiar pop songs, “Mack the Knife,” originally written by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht in 1928 and recorded over the years by stars ranging from Bobby Darin to Sting, likens a vicious murderer to a shark (“Oh the shark has such pretty teeth dear, and he shows them pearly white”).
It hasn’t always been this way. In the South Pacific, the ancient Melanesians believed that deceased humans’ spirits returned to Earth as sharks, and held them in reverence. “Men before their death announce that they will appear as sharks,” ethnologist Robert Henry Codrington wrote in 1891. “And afterwards, any shark remarkable for size or color which is observed to haunt a certain shore or rock is taken to be someone’s ghost, and the name of the deceased is given to it.”
In Western culture, sharks have been long feared. Half a millennium ago, Europeans commonly believed that a milieu of monsters lurked in the great unknown beyond their shores, and the sharks’ teeth and jaws in the British Royal Museum were evidence that such monsters actually existed. On voyages of exploration, sailors—who sometimes entertained themselves by dangling bits of horsemeat off the sides of their ships so they could watch sharks leap at them—nevertheless returned with horrifying, if often fantastic, tales of their encounters with the vicious predators. That image was reinforced by a famous painting, John Singleton Copley’s 1778 work Watson and the Shark, which depicted sailors valiantly trying to rescue a young swimmer from a shark’s jaws. (Copley, an American who lived in London, had never actually seen a real shark, and the monster in the painting bears only a faint resemblance to the actual animal.)
“There have been not only whole men, but once a man in armor found in their bellies,” wrote physician Richard Brookes, a self-styled expert on fish, in 1781. “That this is a voracious animal many of our sailors have often found to their [sorrow], having often lost legs, arms, and even a great part of their thighs in the jaws of these monstrous creatures.” As a writer from the magazine American Traveler proclaimed in 1831, “All who have seen or heard of sharks have a natural antipathy toward them…whenever I hear the name of shark, it causes a universal shudder.” The fear was further amplified by supposedly scientific encyclopedias on marine life that filled in the blanks with apocryphal stories and sometimes fantastic conjecture. One 1891 marine biology text, for example, imagines great whites engaging in suicidal fights with sperm whales out of sheer bloodlust: “The shark, were it not for his unreasonable pugnacity, might easily escape the whale, but it seems to be quite willing to be killed if it can inflict injury upon its adversary.”
In the 20th century, fear of sharks was further stimulated by the tragic story of the U.S.S. Indianapolis, a ship torpedoed by a Japanese submarine between Guam and Leyte Gulf in 1945. Only 317 of the 1,196 men aboard survived. They endured nearly five days in the sea in life jackets, without food or drinking water, and came back with horrifying stories of comrades who were preyed upon by sharks. As one survivor, Woody Eugene James, recounted:
The day wore on and the sharks were around, hundreds of them. You'd hear guys scream, especially late in the afternoon. Seemed like the sharks were the worst late in the afternoon than they were during the day. Then they fed at night too. Everything would be quiet and then you'd hear somebody scream and you knew a shark had got him.
The frightening mystique surrounding great white sharks was exacerbated by the lack of scientific knowledge about the elusive creatures, who spent much of their lives roaming the oceans, out of view of human researchers. The bits of information that did emerge made them sound even scarier. For example, a 1969 Associated Press article about shark research, which referred to the creatures as “savage barbarians,” revealed that scientists had discovered that their jaw power was much greater than previously believed—tons, not pounds, per square inch.
With the release of Jaws in 1975, and the sequels that followed, pushed the fear of sharks to new and outlandish extremes. Interestingly, Peter Benchley, who wrote both the novel that inspired the film and co-authored the screenplay, eventually came to regret his role in creating the image of sharks as killing machines, and immersed himself in efforts to educate the public about sharks and the need to protect them from extinction, according to his 2006 Los Angeles Times obituary. “Knowing what I know now, I could never write that book today,” he explained in a British newspaper interview. “Sharks don’t target human beings, and they certainly don’t hold grudges.”