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."
Other than the very few people who suffer death-by-shark while employed on the oceans, shark deaths can be prevented entirely if you follow the instructions of the Jaws tagline: "Don't go in the water."
Moreover, it's sharks that should be afraid of us — humans kill roughly 50 million sharks each year, for an unsustainable fatality attrition ratio of 9,000,000-to-1. Yet we continue to indulge our fears of the "perfect predator," with more than 27 million Americans watching some portion of Discovery Channel's "Shark Week" programming, which premiered Sunday and is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.
Enough already, people! It's time to set the record straight. Here, then, are 10 items more likely to cause your death in the United States.
Trampolines: 1.1 deaths per year. Thankfully, after years of injuries and lawsuits, this hot, new Olympic-medal sport "is now mostly conducted in specialist gyms with certified trainers."
Roller coasters: 1.15 deaths per year. Unless you decide to take a spin on the Euthanasia Coaster, keep your hands inside the car; your next thrill-ride could be to the coroner's office.
Free-standing kitchen-range tip-overs: 1.31 deaths per year. If your home lacks a built-in stove, the next meal you cook could be your last supper.
Vending machines: 2.06 deaths per year. If too many of the high-fat snacks or sugary sodas don't take a leg or your life prematurely, rock or tilt one too violently while looking for a freebie, and you'll be sleeping with the Pepperidge Farm goldfishes.
Riding lawnmowers: 5.22 deaths per year. This mobile Grim Reaper might save your legs the grueling chore of walking around your lawn, but be sure to avoid the very sharp blade spinning 100 times per second.
Fireworks: 6.6 deaths per year. Most people are killed by powerful illegal fireworks and stupidity — "When the fireworks did not go off, the victim looked inside the PVC piping" — even as this terrifying safety poster warns: "Sparklers Can Burn at 2,000°F. Hot as a Blow Torch!"
Dogs: 16 deaths per year. Man's best friends, or Cerberus? Play too rough with pit bulls and Rottweilers — the most lethal breeds of canine — and that dog's leash could be your hangman's noose.
Skydiving: 21.2 deaths per year. You're a thrill-seeking adrenaline junky, but if your parachute fails to open, you'll go from 120 mph to zero in no time flat.
Crushed by television or furniture: 26.64 deaths per year. As I've noted, this is a bigger killer of Americans than terrorism, which led to a Colbert Report "Threat Down" warning against the perils of "terrorist furniture."
Noncommunicable diseases: 2,200,000 deaths per year. The risk factors of smoking, poor diet, lack of physical activity and alcohol kill 87 percent of Americans prematurely. So get off the couch, and turn off Shark Week. Better yet, go for a swim.
Zenko is a fellow with the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations. He writes the blog Politics, Power and Preventive Action.