Blake Lively's 'The Shallows' Prompts the Question — Why Are We Still Scared of Sharks?


One of the summer's most buzzed-about blockbusters, The Shallows, will hit theaters this Friday. The film is a shark attack thriller starring Blake Lively as a woman facing off against one of nature's most ferocious killers — the great white. But let's be real: Sharks actually aren't all that dangerous, so why do we still love them as our movie villains?

The plot of The Shallows is simple: Blake Lively plays a chill surfer gal just trying to hang 10 on a secluded beach when she inadvertently becomes prey for a hungry great white. Somehow she manages to scramble onto a rock where she bleeds and plots her break for the shore/a sequel. 

According to the film's official synopsis, "Nancy (Blake Lively) is surfing alone on a secluded beach when she is attacked by a great white shark and stranded just a short distance from shore. Though she is only 200 yards from her survival, getting there proves the ultimate contest of wills."

The Shallows is just the latest entry in a great cinematic tradition of killer sharks. Sharknado, Open Water, Dark Tide — hell, sharks even have their very own week on television. But the most famous entry in the shark canon, of course, is the classic 1975 Steven Spielberg film Jaws, in which the predator also happened to be a great white shark. 

Jaws arguably established some of the tropes of the shark attack genre: the shot of submerged swimmers' legs kicking as a fin slices through the water. The movie's ominous "doo doo/ doo doo" theme strikes fear in the hearts of beachgoers to this day.

But Jaws wasn't the first shark attack movie. That honor likely goes to White Death, a 1936 Australian film about the search for a fabled shark. So clearly, shark attacks have been riveting audiences for well over half a century. What makes this confusing is that, well, sharks really aren't all that dangerous.


According to Oceana, an ocean conservation advocacy organization, the risk of a shark attack during a visit to a U.S. beach is 1 in 11.5 million — and the risk of that shark attack being fatal is even smaller: "Considering that more than 200 million people visit U.S. beaches each year, the number of shark attacks is relatively small. Of those millions of beachgoers each year, about 36 are attacked by sharks, while more than 30,000 need to be rescued from surfing accidents."

From 2006 to 2010, there were 179 shark attacks in the U.S., and a whopping three of them were fatal. Oceana notes that the odds of some other fatal accident on the beach are actually much higher.

Not all sharks even pose a threat to humans. According to Oceana, "only about a dozen of the approximately 500 shark species should be considered potentially dangerous to humans." 

Scott Barbour/Getty Images

In fact, many are concerned that fictional accounts of bloodthirsty sharks, like The Shallows, along with sensationalized news stories about real-life shark attacks, only serve to reinforce unnecessary fear about an animal that is much more likely to be harmed by us than we are by them.

"Before we start killing sharks, let's all relax. Shark bites are few and far between. They occur for reasons overlooked amid the breathless broadcasts and suspenseful scenes from Jaws," George H. Burgess, director of the Florida Program for Shark Research at the Florida Museum of Natural History, wrote in an opinion piece for CNN in 2015.

"The human population is growing," Burgess wrote. "And each year, more people visit beaches, surf, snorkel, scuba dive and otherwise find themselves in sharks' natural habitat ... In short, more people in the water means more total shark bites. However, the rate of shark attacks has not increased. In fact, it has actually decreased. Because of overfishing, there are less sharks in the water these days."

So, by all means, go out and enjoy The Shallows this summer — but remember: Although movie sharks may be an effective tool for creating suspense and fear, real life sharks are not all out to get you. Yes, it is indeed safe to go back in the water. 

Just watch out for the jellyfish.

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