We all know the statistics: A person is more likely to be killed driving to the beach or by lightning strike once he’s there than he is to meet his end in the jaws of a shark. And yet, reason be damned, the American public is still very much afraid of the sea’s most notorious leviathan.
According to a new online poll provided to The Daily Beast by Ipsos, of 1,006 adults, half of us (48 percent) report being scared of sharks, a zoological fear only barely eclipsed by snakes (54 percent) and alligators (52 percent).
A healthy fear of snakes makes sense. It’s a primal, biological phobia learned long ago to help keep us alive when the limbless reptiles posed a very real threat to our very existence, a threat that neuroscientists and evolutionary biologists have posited actually factored in the evolution of the primate brain. And venomous snakes still bite around 8,000 people in the U.S. every year, according to the CDC, five of whom die from their wounds.
It is far less rational for a majority of grownups to actively fear alligators. Think of them as the legged sharks of the swamp: Alligator attacks are rare and avoided by common sense—they have killed just 16 Floridians in the last quarter-century—and yet lore made up of the gruesome killings of toddlers and small animals plagues the freshwater creatures, and feeds our fears.
Only 29 percent of people said they were afraid of bees, although bee stings kill about 100 people in the U.S. That’s compared to the single person in the U.S. that dies of a shark attack each year.
So far in 2015, there have been just 14 unprovoked shark attacks in the U.S. In 2014, there were 52 total attacks here, according to the Global Shark Attack File.
So if we—especially those of us who don’t surf—know how unlikely we are to be thrashed beneath the ocean by cold-blooded savages, what’s really driving our fear? With their razor-sharp teeth and intense focus, sharks are undeniably cool. And whether it’s fear or admiration, you can’t watch one glide through the ocean without feeling something. But ignoring that natural fascination, the true cause of our fear might lie in one of our nation’s most popular pastimes: blaming the media for our irrational shark phobia.
There’s Jaws, of course, the 1975 Steven Spielberg joint that made us all residents of the sleepy island town of Amity and branded the Great White shark a national symbol of terror. The film celebrates its 40th anniversary this month, and according to the Ipsos poll, 81 percent of Americans have seen the film. Just having seen it increases the chance one will fear sharks by 6 percentage points.
But irrational shark fever didn’t begin with Jaws and it certainly didn’t end there.
In July of 1916 in the seaside community of Spring Lake, the “Jewel of the Jersey Shore,” a young hotel bellhop was pulled from the ocean with two fewer legs than when he had entered, the imprint of a shark’s teeth embedded underneath his bloodied arm. Women fainted and children shrieked as the wounded boy was brought to the beach, where he soon died.
Within weeks, similar stories of beachgoers mutilated and killed by the bloodthirsty fish came from Asbury Park, Beach Haven, and Matawan. Swimmers wouldn’t go back into the water. Men grabbed dynamite and harpoons and began hunting sharks for sport. Soon, the nation was gripped by a shark-induced panic that it hasn’t yet let go.
Since Jawsmania swept the nation 40 years ago, fear-mongering filmmakers have terrified and delighted us with a seemingly neverending stream of sea monster fantasies starring everyone’s favorite underwater predator, from the campy Sharknado series to the realistic nightmare of Open Water.
Now with every local news report of another shark attack, we’re spellbound. This month alone, three children were injured in separate attacks off the North Carolina coast. In two of the attacks, teens in Oak Island lost an arm.
History and science, however, says it won’t happen to you.
No promises on snakes and bees.