We’ve reached peak #sharklove with 30 years of Shark Week. Every July, viewers settle in for a full week of mesmerizing nature programming complete with merchandise, celebrity appearances, and drinking games.
Out of all the terrors beneath the surface of the ocean (Man-of-War Jellyfish! Nukes! Dying Coral Reefs! Those ugly monsters with the lights dangling from their foreheads!), sharks have somehow captured our imaginations in a manner unparalleled by other demons of the deep.
Why do we love/hate them so much?
The answer can be found (of all places) at the Jersey Shore.
Here There Be Monsters
Before we chum the New Jersey Waters, we need to look at the shared history of humans and sharks. The sea has always been a mysterious and dangerous place, haunting our stories and nightmares. While some of the more fantastic creatures appear to be wild exaggerations of historical seamen, we can see some of the sea monsters with our own eyes today.
Compared to whales and octopi, sharks are a fairly modern villain. In Hawaiian mythology, sharks have a complex relationship with humans. They are revered, sometimes as a deified form of human ancestors.
In the western language, the creatures weren’t originally referred to in a negative way. Medieval sailors called them sea-dogs. Starting in the 1600s, Sharks were people who took advantage of others. The idiom has its roots in the German word schurke, meaning scoundrel.
As sharks became seen as more dangerous creatures, they were labeled with a more fearsome name.
Jersey Shore Jaws
Until the summer of 1916, scientists thought shark attacks might be impossible. In fact, the millionaire banker and adventurer Hermann Oelrichs offered a reward to anyone who could prove they had been attacked by one. Leading ichthyologists speculated that their bites were too light to be fatal.
Then, the attacks along the Jersey Shore started. Between the 1st and 12th of July, five people were attacked by sharks. Only one victim survived. The contrast between a beach holiday and bloody deaths captured the imagination of the public, thanks to the sensational reporting of local newspapers.
“We provoke a shark every time we enter the water where sharks happen to be, for we forget: The ocean is not our territory – it’s theirs.” -Peter Benchley
As an amateur shark enthusiast, author Peter Benchley created the arch-villain shark for his 1974 novel, Jaws. Although critics gave it mixed reviews, the striking image of a great white lurking beneath a sexy swimmer pushed the novel onto the bestseller list.
Within the year, Stephen Spielberg was directing one of the biggest summer blockbusters of all time, and propelling man-eating sharks into the annals of pop culture.
Enter Shark Week, the longest-running cable television programming event in history. Since its educational beginnings in 1988, the segments have moved from a seasonal obsession to pop-culture punchline.
While you might consider living every week like it’s shark week, the Discovery Channel’s sensational programming only graces us once a year. This year’s titles illustrate the quirky passion of the segments.
Shark Week 2018
- Bear Vs. Shark
- Shaq Does Shark Week
- Air Jaws: Back from the Dead
- Return of Mega Shark
Even though the annual event has had missteps, like the controversial mockumentary Megaladon, and marketing snafus, such as the disappointing actuality of Michael Phelps racing a great white, the passion for these deepwater devils remains.
Jumping the Sharknado
The contrast between this top ranking fear and its humorous pop-culture portrayal has transformed sharks into an endearing anti-hero for our generation. Who doesn’t cheer a little when you rewatch Samuel L. Jackson’s final speech in Deep Blue Sea?
It’s anthropomorphism for cynics.
The term “Jumping the Shark” refers to when a long-running series changes significantly to stay relevant. Often this leads to alienating viewers by sending the storytelling downhill. The moment comes from the scene in “Happy Days” where the Fonz literally waterskis over a shark. In hindsight, critics noted this as the beginning of a decline in the show’s status. (source)
A common psychological phenomenon, anthropomorphism occurs when humans assign their characteristics to non-human things. For sharks, it seems to be a way that we can laugh off the worst parts of us.
We’re predators. But, sometimes we can’t help it.
We make mistakes. And that leaves us misunderstood.
We do scary stuff when we’re underestimated.
They were hated, hunted, and haunting. Now, they’re the perfect anti-hero for the YOLO generation.
No matter the scientific criticism that plagues the Discovery Channel’s programming, Shark Week has tapped into our animalistic identification with these dangers of the deep.
We are all sharks. Sharks are us.