Deep sea, dark fins and sharp teeth

Ferocious sharks have always been fascinating to curious humans

Pop Culture

August 15, 2004|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,Sun Movie Critic

Sure, people are scared of spiders and snakes. They'd just as soon not come across a bear while wandering in the woods, have no desire for a close encounter with a lion and believe bats are best made out of papier-mache and dangling from string at a Halloween party.

But no animal strikes fear into the hearts of men (and women) like sharks, those high-finned, teeth-baring eating machines that silently patrol the world's oceans. They're voracious, semingly relentless and ruthlessly efficient.

They're also sure-fire attention-grabbers in the world of popular fiction, where mankind's continual fascination with sharks has given them starring roles in a steady stream of movies, books, even television shows. Peter Benchley's 1974 novel Jaws and the landmark 1975 film Steven Spielberg made from it may have been sharks' high-water mark as a pop-culture artifact, but their status as objects of fascination remains intact.

Just last week, Open Water, another movie in which sharks play the terrifying, almost pre-ternaturally evil bad guys, opened in a few dozen theaters nationwide, grossing an impressive $1.1 million -- not bad for a movie that cost only $130,000 to make. (The movie, currently playing exclusively at the Muvico Egyptian 24 Theatres at Arundel Mills, goes into wide release Friday.) And in July, the Discovery Channel had its 17th annual Shark Week, seven days of shark-related programming that practically guarantees high ratings.

"It always does about 60 to 100 percent above our average rating," says Abby Greensfelder, the channel's senior vice president for programming. "People year in, year out love this programming. They look forward to it every year. They have Shark Week viewing parties."

Heck, sharks are so popular that they've even been the subject of satire. In the early days of Saturday Night Live, at the height of the Jaws craze, one of the show's most popular skits involved the land shark, a conniving, opportunistic beast who would routinely gain entrance to some unsuspecting woman's apartment -- often by posing as a candy-gram delivery person -- and swallow them whole.

Fascination with fear

"There's a tendency everywhere to be fascinated with all the top predators," says Andy Dehart, an assistant curator at Baltimore's National Aquarium who says all the negative attention may be unwarranted -- "Sharks have specific diets," he says, "and human beings are not on anyone's diet" -- but is certainly understandable.

"I saw my first shark at age 5," Dehart says, "and was transfixed from that point on. The graceful way they move, their elegance, but also knowing at the same time that there is an innate power there, and that they are at the top of their food chain."

And in one of those curious human quirks that make our species so endlessly fascinating, the more that people are afraid of something, the more obsessed with it they become. Experiencing sharks from the safety of your neighborhood movie screen or the comfort of a library easy chair sure beats coming upon one in the water.

"Instead of being exposed directly, you put yourself in the minds of the people in the movies," says Rudolf Hoehn-Saric, professor emeritus of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins. "You sympathize with them, experience some of their fears, and experience gratification when they kill the shark or get away or whatever."

Among such instantly gratifying, though predominantly terrifying, experiences are a handful of movies that have ensured that sharks remain big box office. The granddaddy of them all, of course, is Spielberg's Jaws, a movie that succeeds primarily because one rarely sees the actual shark -- approximating the actual experience of seeing a shark in the wild, where it's only the erect dorsal fin that's usually visible. It's debatable whether Spielberg understood that true horror comes not from what one sees, but what one doesn't see (the mechanical shark was so prone to malfunction that he was often forced to shoot around it), but the results are impossible to argue with. Jaws is one terrifying film.

It would be best to avoid the four Jaws sequels (especially the ludicrous second film, in which a shark eats a helicopter). The better decision would be to seek out a good documentary on sharks. Unfortunately, Blue Water, White Death, the landmark 1971 study of great white sharks that pre-dated Jaws by four years, is unavailable on video (although used copies sometimes turn up on Ebay). But plenty of others are available, including the Discovery Channel's 1996 The Ultimate Guide to Sharks.

Deep Blue Sea (1999), which counts native Baltimorean Thomas Jane among its stars, features sharks that are being bred for intelligence; bad enough that these guys are voracious eaters, but now they get to reason as well. Among those humans being hunted for their nutritional value are Samuel L. Jackson, Saffron Burrows and LL Cool J.

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