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Bones Got Bite (Pt. 2)

Sharks have gripped the popular imagination for centuries.

cultural galeophobia

Galeophobia, the fear of sharks, is pervasive in Western culture. Contemporary fears — and the subsequent war on sharks, while Hollywood made bank off them — are rooted in Peter Benchley's 1974 book Jaws and Steven Spielberg's 1975 film adaptation of the same name. The story involves an exceptionally large great white shark (larger than any on record, by the way) that terrorizes a New England beach.

However, monsters of the deep have been a part of Western lore since the Age of Exploration. And yet these beasts were somewhat more fantastical than sharks, perhaps due to a combination of alcohol and scurvy-driven hallucination. Nevertheless, sharks were reportedly a source of entertainment to sailors who enjoyed watching them frenzy over scraps of meat. The inevitable accidents contributed to a growing obsession with sharks as man-eaters; these (somewhat fictionalized) incidents were immortalized in paintings and naturalist writings of the 18th and 19th centuries.

"Watson and the Shark" (1778), John Singleton Copley — who reportedly had never seen a shark.

During these centuries, it was common for self-styled naturalists and ethnologists to write books on their curiosity of choice — often without actual observation or experimentation — and "armchair ichthyologists" were no exception, composing terrifying descriptions of sharks that used sailors' accounts or their own imagination. (Similarly, "armchair anthropologists" went so far as to catalog tribes and races based upon travelers' journals, without any ethnographic research of their own.) In the late 19th century, a number of books portrayed sharks as vicious beasts who would kill for sport and could swallow men whole. Some rightfully found these claims too wild, and in 1891, New York multimillionaire Hermann Oelrichs offered a $500 reward (adjusted for inflation, $13,000) to the one who proved that sharks preyed upon humans.

However, in 1916, the waters off the Jersey Shore began to turn red. Over the span of about two weeks, there were five attacks, four fatal, by a large shark. Some skeptics attempted to pin the attacks on other marine life (sea turtles?); others ran with the story and published sensationalist headlines. Fear gripped the nation, and did so again after the torpedoing of the U.S.S. Indianapolis when reports emerged of the stranded survivors being picked off by sharks. These events were the inspiration for Peter Benchley's novel, which renewed the fear of man-eating monsters in the water.

As had been the case, books and movies greatly exaggerated both the real-life events and the creatures themselves. The largest extant carnivorous shark on record is a female great white who measured about 20 feet; Spielberg's mechanical beasts were designed to portray a 25-foot behemoth. Although the cultural fascination with sharks helped boost funding for shark research, it also contributed to the mass killing of sharks for sport or out of fear. In his later years, Benchley apologized for Jaws and dedicated himself to shark conservation research, founding Bermuda Underwater Exploration Institute and serving on the National Council of Environmental Defense. As the spokesperson for the latter's Oceans Program, he said, "[T]he shark in an updated Jaws could not be the villain; it would have to be written as the victim; for, worldwide, sharks are much more the oppressed than the oppressors."

Nevertheless, as economic demand for American movies has increased, the horror industry and B-movie studios have happily dipped into galeophobia. Most notably, SyFy enjoyed an incredible boost in its original content upon the release of Sharknado (2013) and ordered four sequels.

a gallery of fins and teeth

Jaws (1975): A great white terrorizes the waters off the small town of Amity Island in New England.

Deep Blue Sea (1999): Sharks with enhanced brains used for Alzheimer's research become smart enough to cripple the research facility.

Open Water (2003): Stranded scuba divers wait for rescue. Despite the poster, they're threatened by more than sharks.

The Reef (2010): Stranded sailors attempt to evade a great white shark stalking them.

Sharknado (2013): Climate change causes weather anomalies that sweep up sharks and bring them to landfall.

The Shallows (2016): A stranded surfer endures an attack by a great white shark. (Notice a trend?)

47 Meters Down (2017): A shark cage breaks, and two swimmers are stranded on the ocean floor.


It appears that galeophobia is here to stay. While cultural anthropologists and marine conservation advocates work to quell the public's fears and promote responsible activity in the oceans, forensic anthropologists and marine biologists continue to study sharks and their real-world interactions with humans. As waters warm and sea levels rise, humans and sharks are encountering each other more often each year, and as always, education and preparedness are key to ensuring both swim away unharmed.

How can research help both humans and sharks? By studying both humans and sharks! Subscribe to our page and check back tomorrow. Be sure to see Part 1 of this series for an introduction to forensic anthropology.

further reading

Footnote: Story written and content curated by Rachel Wayne. This is part two in a three-part series about the intersections among the studies of humans, sharks, and their relationship.