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Shark Week And The Enduring Power Of 'Jaws'

Jaws c/o Universal Pictures
Jaws c/o Universal Pictures

By: Steph Cannon

Ah, Shark Week. The annual time when we gather around our TVs or streaming devices, and binge every conceivable documentary and special about the ocean's deadliest predators. The event has increased in popularity substantially over the years, becoming a headliner for the Discovery Networks, but what is it about Shark Week that we love so much? When did we stop being so afraid of sharks, and start revering them? Or is it the fear itself that sparks our fascination?

To dive in and get to the bottom of this, we need to look back at what ignited that fear in the first place, with a little film called Jaws.

Regarded as the original "Summer Blockbuster," Jaws was released in June of 1975, and became Steven Spielberg's first big directorial hit. Audiences were captivated, excited, and more than anything, frightened, by the story of a man-eating Great White terrorizing the waters of a quaint, island community. Suddenly, moviegoers everywhere were asking the same question: "Could something like this really happen?"

Jaws c/o Universal Pictures
Jaws c/o Universal Pictures

It's easy to see why. The film's opening shot, arguably one of the most famous in cinematic history, features victim number one, Chrissy, violently attacked during a night swim. We watch helplessly as she is dragged and thrashed about, screaming and pleading for someone to save her, while her clueless date is passed out mere feet away on the beach. It's a shocking moment to watch unfold during the first few minutes of a movie, to say the least. That feeling of being exposed and defenseless, with an unseen threat lurking just below you, one that you have little chance of surviving, is what sent chills down the spines of every person who watched it.

Even the movie's three heroes - Police Chief Brody (Roy Scheider), Oceanographer Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), and grizzled shark hunter Quint (Robert Shaw) - help perpetuate this in their own ways. While their motivations differ slightly, the goal that unites them is the same: kill that son of a #@!%.

Brody, who has a paralyzing phobia of the water, sets this aside for the people of Amity, the place he calls home. For him, it's personal, because the shark has encroached on the territory he feels responsible for, both by loyalty and profession. Despite his best efforts to address the situation and close the beaches, he's thwarted again and again by the mayor (Murray Hamilton), and in turn carries undue guilt over the deaths of the victims.

Hooper, on the other hand, is young, naive, and excited for the opportunity to be involved in the hunt. This is the very animal he studies, after all, and the chance to get up close and personal with a shark so enormous is one he can't help but feel enthusiastic about.

And then there's Quint. Abrasive and brash, he pulls no punches in letting everyone know exactly what they're up against. He knows the behavior of the shark better than anyone - even Hooper - and for him, it's about glory and sport. Regardless of their reasons for boarding the Orca and setting off to hunt him down, all three exhibit a healthy dose of dread for being out there, one that manifests in various ways throughout the film.

With such an influential piece of cinema permeating pop culture (Is there a score more famous and foreboding than John Williams'?), it begs the question: Does an event like Shark Week bolster our anxiety, or educate us into complacency? While it has its fair share of spectacle with Air Jaws, and the after show Shark After Dark (which features celebrities like Rob Riggle and Tara Reid), it makes a point to concurrently offer scientific, informative pieces. In recent years, they've also made a bigger push to focus on the conservation of the species and the oceans they reside in.

Overall, it's clear that as a society, it isn't that our fear of sharks has waned, but more that we've become more knowledgeable and comfortable with them. It's easy to appreciate them from the safety of our living rooms with our popcorn and blankets. Despite that, it's a good bet most of us will have poor Chrissy in the back of our minds before we feel it's safe to go back in the water.


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