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Why we love shark movies

The shark has become one of Hollywood’s most well-trodden paths to terror.

A shark biting the Golden Gate bridge in 2009’s Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus.
A scene from 2009’s Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus.
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Since Steven Spielberg’s 1975 film Jaws first ushered in the era of the summer blockbuster 41 years ago, sharks have been among summer cinema’s favorite perennial villains. They rank right up there with the alien from Alien and Sadako from The Ring in terms of habitually recurring evil forces with a single-minded purpose: to destroy everything in their path.

There’s something so elemental and irresistible about the shark movie that over the course of the past few decades, it has become one of Hollywood’s most well-trodden paths to terror. The genre now spans a wide range of films, from classics like Jaws and Deep Blue Sea (yes, Deep Blue Sea is a classic) to serious indie projects like The Reef to sillier D-movie affairs like the Sharknado, Mega Shark, and Shark Attack franchises. And if you’re among its many fans, you know that the only thing that can cure shark movie fever is more shark movies.

A friendly shark chomp from The Last Shark (1981).

Lucky for you, there’s always another shark movie on the way. The genre’s newest man-eating — or in this case, Jason Statham-eating — entry swims into movie theaters this weekend, with the opening of the tongue-in-cheek mega-shark movie The Megjust days before the sixth and final installment in the Sharknado franchise arrives with Sharknado 6: It’s About Time.

The poster for Shark Exorcist (2015), in which a Satan-worshiping nun summons a demon to inhabit the body of a great white.

But why sharks? Ordinarily, the prospect of watching Statham try to survive an oceanic disaster scenario would be only a so-so draw for moviegoers. But if you throw in a battle to the death against a giant megalodon — the huge prehistoric shark which has, in recent years, outsized the great white shark in terms of appeal — then obviously, we’re hooked.

In real life, sharks are mainly non-aggressive creatures who barely resemble the evil killing machines they morph into onscreen. They’re anything but an unstoppable force — humans kill a staggering 100 million sharks each year, or 11,000 sharks every single hour, a jaw-dropping statistic that mainly results from the high demand for shark fin soup in some parts of the world. You’re statistically more likely to die from a lightning strike or a toppling vending machine than from a shark attack.

So why are we so fascinated by shark movies, even though they barely represent reality and their plots tend to be incredibly repetitive?

Oh, there are so many reasons.

This scene from Shark Attack 3: Megalodon (2002) has become an internet-meme mainstay.

Sharks could be anywhere

You may believe sharks are limited to the sea, but you are wrong.

Thanks to the magic of cinema and the relative ease with which a shark fin can be CGI’d to pop out of something and move ominously toward the viewer, we don’t just have sea sharks. We also have sand sharks. Avalanche sharks. Sharks in a sharknado! Sharks in a sharkcano. (That one really happened.) Sharks in a blizzardnado! Sharks on land! Sharks in shark lake. Sharks in swamps. Sharks in the bayou. Sharks in apartments! Sharks at Sea World! Sharks on the Jersey Shore. Sharks at the Golden Gate Bridge! Sharks at the supermarket! Sharks in Japan. Sharks in bathtubs and puddles. Even sharks in the sky.

Just your routine apartment shark, as seen in My Super-Ex Girlfriend (2006).
Megalodon takes out the Golden Gate Bridge in Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus (2009).
A shark takes to the skies in Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus.

Much like the 2006 Samuel L. Jackson film Snakes on a Plane relied on the surprise factor of slithering reptiles wreaking havoc at 30,000 feet, a crucial component of shark movies is sharks’ seemingly inherent knack for appearing where and when you least expect them: Just where are the sharks going to be lurking today?

Spoiler alert: They are everywhere.

Sharks are smarter than us — and we cannot stop them from seeking the revenge they deserve

If you don’t think your average shark is a super genius hell-bent on avenging the atrocities perpetuated against its species by the human race, you’ve never watched Jaws 3-D (mama shark seeks revenge against SeaWorld for killing her baby), Jaws 4: The Revenge (shark seeks revenge against Lorraine Gary’s character Ellen Brody, ostensibly for killing its shark family but more broadly for the sad and rapid demise of the entire Jaws franchise), Mega Shark Versus Crocosaurus (shark seeks revenge on Jaleel White for Jaleel White’s entire acting career), or Deep Blue Sea (shark seeks revenge against scientists for experimenting on it).

To wit: Please enjoy the following GIF from Deep Blue Sea, in which a shark holds a stretcher-bound Stellan Skarsgård captive underwater so that it can throw him against an underwater window in order to spite his grieving girlfriend:

Deep Blue Sea (1999). Yep. That happened.

I mean, come on, who among us hasn’t wanted to throw Stellan Skarsgård against a window? Bring on the shark uprising!

Sharks are endlessly modifiable

The shark can do what no other villainous horror movie creature really can: In addition to engaging in epic bite-offs against other creatures, it can combine with those other creatures to create animalia supervillains. Sure, Hollywood will invent a demonic vampire here and there, but you can’t really give a demonic vampire tentacles. That’s simply not the case with a shark. In the world of shark movies, if you create an undead demon sharktopus, that’s just the first act.

Would you like your shark with one head or two? How about three? Would you like an actual prehistoric mega shark? How about a giant robot shark?

Spidey-shark concept illustration by Calene Luczo

Few, if any, animals have enjoyed such creative big-screen depictions as the noble shark. There are demonic sharks! Sharks with tentacles! Zombie sharks! This shark-horse! Ghost sharks! A shark that walks on land! And coming later in 2017, there will be flying sharks controlled by Nazi zombies!

In other words, if part of the fun of any shark movie is rooted in the nervous anticipation of where and when a dangerous shark might appear, a significant number of shark movies up the ante by combining their shark threats with other things. Not only does this approach allow the sharks to travel farther and kill harder, it ensures an endless supply of shark movies, because Hollywood will never run out of shark-based combination hazards. Killer koala shark from Down Under? Done.

Shark movies can scale — and so can their sharks

Shark movies can be as minimalist or as full-scale as you want or need them to be.

As Blake Lively illustrated in 2016’s The Shallows, shark movies can be a one-woman-versus-one-shark show where the shark is a threatening but largely implied presence. They can involve just two people facing off against a small but deadly herd of sharks (47 Meters Down, Open Water), a tiny ensemble of stranded swimmers trying to avoid getting picked off one by one (The Reef), or a full-scale cast with big-budget shark action like Shark Night 3-D or Dark Tide.

The giant shark from last year’s The Shallows wasn’t even huge by shark movie comparisons.
Javier Zarracina

And one of the best things about shark films, regardless of their scope, is that shark size has no correlation to shark excellence — as anyone who actually saw Shark Night 3-D or Dark Tide can attest. The bigger shark doesn’t always have the better bite. In fact, films like Open Water and The Reef can succeed without showing any sharks at all. Believing they’re there is all that matters.

On the other end of the spectrum, the first appearance of a shark — it’s always bigger than you were expecting, no matter the film — never gets old:

Jaws (1975).

Sharks satisfy man’s existential need to face the elements, nature, and the unknown

This is a pretty obvious reason, but it remains the most compelling of all. Stories pitting man against the terrors of the deep have always been a mainstay of human folklore, from the biblical fable of Jonah and the whale to nautical tales of the great kraken, from Moby Dick to The Old Man and the Sea to Lovecraft’s tentacle monster Cthulhu to Disney’s Pinocchio.

Super Shark (2011).

Each of these narratives involves great sea creatures that provide opportunities for heroes to face their fears, come to terms with their humanity, and, you know, be manly men who fish and hunt and conquer the wilderness.

But as formidable opponents, many of these sea creatures lack a significant, shall we say, bite. Giant squid generally stay too far below the surface to really pose a viable threat to humans. Even a big swordfish is no match for a skilled modern fisherman — and the swordfish wouldn’t want to eat you anyway. As for whales, the bigger they are, the more peaceful and harmless they seem to be. Even the ones with teeth are passive and don’t really want to hurt you (unless they’ve been subjected to lifelong animal cruelty).

Sharks, by contrast, are big. They have teeth — sometimes really big, really sharp teeth! They come into the shallow parts of the ocean where humans like to swim and play. Because they are drawn to loud noises and activity in the water, it’s possible, if not probable, that they could be lurking in the water where your loved ones are splashing around. They’re durable and intimidating, and even though in real life sharks are almost never aggressive toward humans, the biggest ones have the power and the potential to chomp you in two.

The Last Shark.

In sum: Like all man-versus-nature tropes, man-versus-shark movies — and man-versus-sharks-versus-other-creatures movies — can reveal important truths about human nature and serve as fascinating, in-depth character studies. Unlike most other man-versus-nature tropes, they do it with a side of terrifying, razor-sharp teeth.

Sharks combine mankind’s desire to conquer nature with its fear of and fascination with the mysteries of the ocean. Even in this modern age, when we’ve been able to plumb the depths of the seas, we still know surprisingly little about sharks. Jaws’ famous description of a shark’s "cold, dead eyes, like a doll’s eyes" in the film’s USS Indianapolis monologue (which was based on the real sinking of a US World War II Navy ship and subsequent shark attacks on its sailors) is still a testament to how unknowable they are.

In essence, in fiction if not in real life, sharks are the perfect scary force of nature: an ever-present threat waiting to happen, in a deep blue setting that humans are still learning to navigate.

But when all is said and done? As with all great horror movie villains, ultimately we’re always rooting for the shark.

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