Andrew Fox/AFP/Getty ImagesThe Great White shark gained popularity in the 1975 film Jaws. It is now considered an endangered species.
It was 1975. Summer. Chrissie Watkins was her name. She was young, pretty, a real carefree spirit, you might say, running through the night across the sand dunes toward the ocean, peeling off her clothes as she went.
And in she dove, pulling away from shore. The water was calm. Inviting. A bell tolled. Chrissie swam, paused, treading water, long hair cascading down around her, naked silhouette shimmering. The dawn sun peeked above the far horizon. It was perfect.
Then it was over. Ruined. Forever. There was music, screams, and there was poor, beautiful Chrissie Watkins, getting yanked this way and that by an unseen creature from the deep, a dead-eyed killer whose identity we would soon learn thanks to a young Richard Dreyfuss.
“It’s a carcharadon carcharias,” said the actor, as the character Matt Hooper. “It’s a Great White.”
A shark. We came to know him as Jaws.
Jaws, the movie, entered my life sometime around the age of 10.
This was a seminal event, apparently, since Jaws and the memory of Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster about a giant-man-eating-maniac-of-a-shark stalking the waters off Amity Island, has never entirely released me.
He is always there, lurking, somewhere deep in my childhood recollections, ready to pop an imaginary dorsal fin above the crest of a wave on those occasions when I hit a seaside beach and a voice inside my head invariably whispers a warning about a great big fictional shark.
I’m not alone. I was at a dinner recently. There were six of us, all around 40. One couple was soon bound for Costa Rica.
The topic of ocean swimming came up and, within moments, Jaws emerged from the depths as half the table confessed to, on some level, to some degree, being somewhat freaked out about swimming in the ocean — for fear of being chomped — a fear one and all attributed to Jaws.
Now here we are, and Spring Break is almost upon us. Canadian families will flock to sunny climes to frolic in the surf, which got me to wondering about how many others are out there, treading water with bite marks on their psyches, and with, perhaps, that theme song — Da-dum, Da-dum, Da-Dum — thrumming through their heads every time they go to take a dip?
FilesWhat is it about Jaws that we can’t shake?
Joanne Cantor is a professor emeritus of communications sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She has been studying the Jaws effect, and the impact of frightening movies on memory in general, for over 30 years. She was in Florida, near a beach, when we spoke.
“Thinking about Jaws when you are in the ocean, in a way, is a rational response, since there are sharks in the ocean,” she says.
“But what I think is so dramatic is that first swimmer in the movie. We don’t know anything about the shark at this point. She is swimming happily along and suddenly here Jaws comes, up from below, out of the blue, and that makes the memory that much more intense and your feeling of vulnerability even more intense.
“And the really interesting thing is what’s going on in our brains. Intense fear memories are stored in the amygdala, in our old, reptilian brain.
“Fear, as an emotion, was intended to keep us alive. Fear tells us we are in danger and you better protect yourself or you’re going to be eaten by the predator. So fear has to act quickly — if you see that sabre-tooth tiger coming at you — you better run — and when our brains see Jaws for the first time our fear response kicks in and it kicks in before our conscious brain can start telling us that, ‘It is only a movie, it is only a movie, it is only a movie.’”
A powerful fear response, for instance — being scared out of your preteen wits by Mr. Spielberg’s stage prop — also has, in an evolutionary sense, an extremely long shelf life.
It is primal stuff. It burrows in deep and persists, because it reminds us, say, that when we see that sabre-tooth tiger for a second time the best course of action is to run, or else.
It is a matter of survival, and a strong fear response kicks in more quickly than our conscious brains, meaning when we stick a toe in the ocean or, for some, a lake, and in extreme cases — a bathtub — the amygdala starts hollering get out of the water faster than we can tell it to pipe down.
“Some people do wind up getting out of the water and they have stopped swimming altogether, all because of a movie, which is totally wacky,” says professor Cantor.
“But if you understand how the brain works, it’s not wacky at all.”
The academic collected hundreds of student papers over a four-year span in which she asked undergraduates to describe an intense “media-produced fright reaction.”
Next to Poltergeist, which did for clowns what Jaws did for sharks, Mr. Spielberg’s ocean thriller ranked second among scary movies. And yet it was tops in leaving kids who saw it before age 13 — at a time when our young brains are ill-prepared to duke it out with our ancient primal selves in dismissing a fiction, as a fiction — with “waking problems.” Such as: fear of swimming.
AFP/Getty ImagesThe real version of Jaws
“I feel intuitively that I am destined to die as a result of a shark attack,” one student reported.
“Whenever I swim in the ocean, or even a murky lake … I feel increasingly panicky and claustrophobic and … I must leave the water.”
Fear not, scaredy-cats: The good, rational news is that you stand a better chance of being struck by lightning, twice, than being eaten by a shark.
(And the bad news for the Great White Shark is that it is an endangered species, but that’s another story).
Sharkattacksurvivors.com tracks shark encounters with humans, lethal and otherwise.
There were 105 reported incidents in 2012 and 11 fatalities worldwide, but good luck trying to explain that to your amygdala.
“I still have a Jaws moment when I go into the ocean,” Joanne Cantor says, laughing.
“But it’s not as intense as some people. Maybe that’s because I live in Wisconsin.”