Le Busque, B., & Litchfield, C. (2021). Sharks on film: an analysis of how shark-human interactions are portrayed in films. Human Dimensions of Wildlife, 1-7.
Fear of sharks is one of the most prevalent phobias, but it also a hard one to explain. Many other phobias, like fear of snakes or spiders, make sense because we have evolved to stay away from venomous creepy-crawlies. But humans are a land-dwelling species more likely to be killed by a cow than by a shark! So why are so many people afraid of sharks?
The way we perceive the world is heavily influenced by the media. Movies, news outlets, and social media pages all affect what we like and what we are afraid of. News, especially those from Australia and Florida, often describe human-shark encounters as “attacks.” Could the media drive the prevalence of galeophobia, or fear of sharks, by painting them as scary and dangerous?
Toothy tales on tape
Scientists at the University of South Australia studied how sharks are represented in movies. They searched IMDb, an online movie database, for suggestions on movies with shark-related content, and assessed whether those movies portrayed sharks as threats.
The search returned more than a hundred movies, ranging from a 1958 release called She Gods of Shark Reef to the recent Sharknado franchise.
The vast majority of those movies portrayed sharks as bloodthirsty creatures ready to attack and kill. A 2004 movie Blue Demon based its plot around genetically modified sharks devouring people. The animated movie Sharktale communicated a similar message more subtly by juxtaposing a harmless vegetarian shark character to its meat-eating and aggressive family. And, of course, the 1975 classic Jaws about a human-eating shark haunting a resort town speaks for itself. The only movie to steer away from this nightmarish narrative was Finding Dory, which included a friendly whale shark – one of the few non-carnivorous sharks.
The team also found that most movie posters depicted the very image of a dangerous ocean creature that many of us conjure in our minds when thinking of sharks – a great white darting towards the viewer with their teeth on full display.
The researchers concluded that just like news outlets, movies are laden with negative representation of sharks. And while actual shark attacks are nothing to trifle with, portraying sharks as the ultimate boogeyman of the ocean does no favors to people’s phobias or to conservation efforts around the world.
Sharks deserve love too
Jaws has tremendously changed the way people think about sharks. The Jaws Effect, first described in 2014, suggests that the modern perception of sharks is based on these three ideas: sharks bite humans on purpose, shark bites always kill, and sharks should be culled to eliminate their threat to humans.
This untruthful narrative has unfortunately imprinted on society and has since shaped many sharks’ fates. Together with overfishing and habitat change, the Jaws-induced shark demonization has contributed to the depletion of shark populations as some places implemented shark-culling programs to protect beachgoers.
In reality, sharks aren’t bloodthirsty monsters haunting the ocean. They play an important role in their ecosystems, culling diseased creatures, controlling population sizes of their prey, and keeping the ocean healthy. A decline in shark numbers can spell bad news for the ocean’s well-being and needs to be counteracted by conservation programs.
Sharks need our help more than ever, but it may take a long time to overcome the cultural impacts of decades of fear and make shark protection a political priority. So, if you excessively worry about being attacked by a shark next time you go to the beach, maybe leave Jaws out of your horror movie marathon this Halloween.
I am a PhD candidate at Northeastern University in Boston. I study regeneration of the nervous system in water salamanders called axolotls. In my free time, I like to read science fiction, bake, go on walks around Boston, and dig up cool science articles.