The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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August 13, 2012

10 things that kill more people than sharks

In 1973, 26-year-old director Steven Spielberg was hired by producers at Universal Studios to make a movie out of what they described as "the most exciting thing that they had ever read," Peter Benchley's novel, Jaws. The film's production would eventually cost more than double the original budget and go 100 days over schedule, with a malfunctioning mechanical shark and a director who later admitted, "I was pretty naive about mother nature." Nevertheless, Spielberg's instincts for cinematic storytelling and shrewd editing, along with composer John Williams' haunting two-note theme (a tuba playing the notes E, F, E, F), came together to create what is considered the first summer blockbuster, breaking all domestic box-office records at the time.

Spielberg told reporters, "I shot the movie to both entertain and to be fearful," thereby both terrifying and fascinating Americans about sharks. Jaws was selected as the second-most thrilling movie of all time, behind Psycho, on the American Film Institute's "100 Years . . . 100 Thrills" list. But not everyone has been thrilled about what Jaws spawned.

As a shark biologist noted, "It perpetuated the myths about sharks as man-eaters and bloodthirsty killers." Movies such as Jaws and the annual summer sensational media coverage of sharks swimming near public beaches or snatching the catch of panicked fishermen have helped create what mental-health professionals call a "specific phobia" — a "marked and persistent fear that is excessive or unreasonable, cued by the presence or anticipation of a specific object or situation."

Hollywood, headlines, and shaky YouTube videos aside, the truth is that less than one American (0.92 people) dies each year from a shark attack — and worldwide it's only 5.5 fatalities annually. It's probably a good bet that fewer people have died in real life from sharks than on-screen, including in such can't-miss thrillers as "Shark in Venice" and "Sharktopus" — "the Navy's next superweapon."

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