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Searching for Great Whites in Blue Shag: One Man’s Experience with Jaws

Written by: JackHork, Special to CC2K

CC2K's Jack Hork struggles to figure out why the simple, friendly shark inspires such pants-shitting terror in him.

ImageThe idea of aliens arriving and massacring us is frightening, but highly improbable. So I don’t fear Aliens, or Predators, or The Blob, or the War of the Worlds. The Men in Black will protect us from those clowns, even the Killer Klowns from Outer Space. (That, by the way is a pretty fun movie!).

Psycho-killers with a touch of the supernatural don’t bother me either; I have no fear of Freddy, Chuckie, Jason, Michael Myers or any of their compatriots.

Vampires don’t scare me; they suck.

Werewolves don’t bother me; they bite.

Zombies don’t infect me; they rot.

And so on, and so on, for ever and ever…I’ve seen enough Slasher films, read enough Stephen King, and been to Universal Studios (Florida) Halloween Horror Nights enough times to be permanently immunized against such pedestrian drivel.

So, if nothing scares me, why am I writing an essay for Fright Week 2008? Well truth be told, fellow CC2K’ers, one movie did frighten me. And, my god, it scared me so much that everything since has barely even registered a blip on my fright meter. Hopefully, writing this will get me a little closer to dealing with that fear.

Allow me to paint the picture for you: it was a simpler time then, way, way, way back in the mid ‘70s, before many of you dear readers were born. A corrupt President had been disgraced and a bumbling fool took over for him. Vietnam was over; disco was sweeping the land and summers in Central Florida were all about heat, humidity and finding some shade. For middle class kids, the mall was as popular a hang out then as it is now. There were still drive-ins to be found, but even at night being outdoors in Orlando was not a good idea unless one enjoyed being the food of choice for the billions and billions of mosquitoes and gnats that infested that flat swampy land. The chance to go to an actual indoor movie theater with comfortable seats and a sound system that didn’t rely on a speaker hung on a car window was almost too good to be true.

Summer movies were generally lackluster, everyone knew that the only time to release a film was at the end of the year when Oscar voters would have the movie fresh in their minds and patrons would be willing to spend some of that Yule-time cash. That is, until 1975. 1975 changed the rules. 1975 started a trend. 1975 made me hate the beach, the ocean and the creatures the dwelt within. No, not ‘hate’. Fear.

I was 11 (and a half) years old. Eleven and a half! My mother and her friend took me and her son to the mall. They didn’t know what to expect. “It’s just a movie,” the must have thought. “They’re young boys; this is a film about a fish,” they must have reasoned. Little did they know. Little did any of us know. The studio didn’t anticipate this kind of reaction, nor did the critics. The director thought he was going to be fired every day he was making it. The special effects (not so special by today’s standards) failed to perform for much of the shoot. And yet, it all worked. It all worked magnificently. It all worked magnificently to scare and scar me.

From the half-seen shadows just beneath the ocean’s surface, to that haunting music (I will have my vengeance on you, too, John Williams!) this movie worked on every level. This was not a creature from outer space, no it was all too local to planet Earth, and in fact 70% of the Earth’s surface can hide this behemoth. This is not some deranged psycho-killer; this is an evolutionary success story: speed, strength, cunning, and hunger wrapped up in one neat little merciless package, well if you consider 3 tons a neat little package. This is not some supernatural beast. No, this is flesh and cartilage and teeth; teeth that are constantly replenished, huge sharp serrated teeth that are lined up in a huge gaping mouth that can bite cleanly through a seal, walrus, or yes, even you. No one and no thing is spared in this movie. Adults: eaten. Children: eaten. Dogs: eaten. Rump roast: eaten. Boats: eaten. Quint: (sadly) eaten.

Jaws opened in the United States on June 20th, 1975, and changed the way movies were marketed in the summer. On June 21st, 1975, I ceased going into the water. Our back yard swimming pool (with a max depth of 4 whole FEET!) terrified the excrement out of me. Here’s how bad it got: my bedroom back then had blue carpet. Blue is the color of the ocean. Therefore, blue carpet was bad and if I could bring myself to sprint from the light switch to the bed, not a single millimeter of any appendage could extend beyond the edge of the mattress because that’s where the shark would get me. I did not have a monster under my bed; I had schools of great whites circling it…in the ratty blue carpet on the floor. Yes, I know it’s unreasonable. Yes, I know it’s psychotic and irrational. Yes, yes, yes, I KNOW! But, I was 11 and a half, dammit, and Steven Spielberg, Peter Benchley and a mechanical fish-robot named Bruce scared me. A LOT!

The fear of being eaten is probably embedded in our DNA. It’s probably that fear that triggers our ‘fight or flight’ survival instinct. Swim in the ocean, go ahead; swim there. Surf, ski, boogie board or just wade, it won’t matter. How can you ‘fight’ what you cannot see, but can certainly find you? How can you ‘flight’ when you swim like a paralytic yak, but it swims like a hungry torpedo? We are simply outclassed there. Our big beautiful brains do us no good there. We are not dominant in the ocean. That’s sobering, but powerful, powerful enough to keep me OUT of the water.

No movie, no book, no TV show has ever gotten to me like Jaws. Maybe it’s because I was so young, young enough to be easily fooled by cinematic magic but smart enough to realize the possibilities, the potential for tragedy in an ocean full of mystery. Maybe it was because I saw it in a full theater in the middle of summer and I was pulled into that collective consciousness of awe and terror. Maybe I just don’t like fish.

I lived in Florida another thirty-one years, and I still consider Central Florida my home. Every year I join my brother and his in-laws at Ocean City, MD, for a week of fun, food, and fellowship. However, I’ve probably been to the beach less than an albino with a family history of melanoma. That’s how bad it was. That’s how bad it is. I still don’t go to the ocean. And I never watch Shark Week.

If you’ve never seen Jaws, then I heartily recommend that you go get it right now. It’ll be good on your big screen T.V., but nothing like it was back in 1975 in a crowded movie theater, especially to a pre-teen boy who didn't yet know the meaning of fear.