Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Jaws and galeophobia

Howard Fischer
Uppsala, Sweden

“Ignorance is the parent of fear.”
– Herman Melville, Moby Dick

An underwater tunnel, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. “Aquaria” photo by Mohd Fazlin Mohd Effendy Ooi on Flickr. CC BY 2.0.

The 1975 thriller film, Jaws, takes place in a New England summer resort town. People flock to the beach, and two swimmers are killed by sharks. A marine biologist brought in to help find the killer thinks the swimmers were killed by a great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias). After much drama and the death of a fishing boat captain when the monster fish (“Twenty-five feet. Three tons of him”) sinks his boat, the shark is killed. The trailer for the film describes the shark: “It lives to kill. A mindless eating machine…It is as if God created the Devil with jaws.”1

The film was based on Peter Benchley’s 1974 novel Jaws. The novel and the film were inspired by the deaths of four people in coastal New Jersey in 1916. These deaths were attributed to a great white shark by the press, but a bull shark may have been the actual killer. Shark experts at the time did not think that sharks attacked humans.2

The fear of sharks (galeophobia) was rekindled sixty years later by Jaws. The film opened in 409 US theaters and was also seen in other countries.3,4 Some viewers came away with the idea that sharks intentionally attack humans, and once they “get a taste for humans” they will continue their attacks, and must therefore be found and killed.5,6 A “collective testosterone rush”7 set shark hunts into motion worldwide. When the public perceives sharks as a danger, they demand that their elected officials “do something” about them. This usually means governmental shark hunting programs. This chain of events has become known as the “Jaws effect.”8,9

A study10 of 225 subjects, aged sixteen to sixty years old and 75% female, showed that 88% were afraid of sharks. Males were afraid in equal proportion to females. Seventy-two percent of the study population had seen Jaws, and a majority of them said that the film affected them. Some refused to enter the ocean for several months after they had seen the film. The study’s authors concluded that Jaws exacerbated the fear of sharks, but did not create it.

A 2004 survey11 reviewed college students’ descriptions of “fright reactions” after seeing a fear-inducing piece of media. Twenty-three students described their reactions to seeing Jaws between the ages of three and eleven. Nearly half felt that they still had ongoing fears after their viewing of the film. One individual could not swim at the beach for five years afterward. We leave aside the question of why parents would knowingly permit young, and therefore impressionable, children to watch this type of film.

A few particular interpretations12 have been made of Jaws. It has been suggested that the shark represented the Viet Cong, America’s enemy in the war in Vietnam, or even that the shark symbolized women’s increasing power in society and men’s fear of it. Fidel Castro felt the film showed how capitalism “will risk citizens’ lives to make money” rather than close the tourist-attracting beach when a shark attack was suspected.

How justified is our fear of sharks? According to the Florida Museum of Natural History, about seventy unprovoked shark bites and five deaths occur yearly worldwide.13 Their Program for Shark Research further states the vast majority of bites they record produce only “minor cuts.” Meanwhile, twenty people are killed yearly by dogs, roughly the same number as by horses, cows, and ants. About 300 are killed by elephants, 1,000 by crocodiles, and 3,000 by hippos.14,15 Many more people are killed by coconuts falling on their heads than by sharks.16 More people are killed in falls while taking “selfie” photographs or by toppling-over vending machines than by sharks.17 Three hundred thousand people drown each year for every one person bitten by a shark.18 People in US coastal areas in 2005 were one hundred times more likely to be killed by lightning than by a shark.19 In Australia, the odds of being killed by a shark are one in eight million, the same likelihood as being killed by a kangaroo.20

George Burgess, a shark biologist at the University of Florida at Gainesville, has said that “the odds of an individual entering the sea and being attacked by a shark are almost infinitesimal.”21 On the other hand, by a 2005 report, 20–100 million sharks are killed each year by fishing,22 and some shark species are near extinction.23 Fear of sharks may be diminished by education about shark habits, and by exposure to sharks in aquaria and “shark tunnels,” in which the visitor walks through a transparent tunnel that has sharks swimming on the other side of the glass.24

One positive effect of Jaws creating interest in sharks is that increased funding has been made available for shark research.25 Peter Benchley, the author of Jaws, admitted that there was little known about sharks when he wrote his novel. He deeply regretted the “spasm of macho lunacy” that followed the film.26 “Sharks,” he said, “don’t target human beings, and they certainly don’t hold grudges.”27 He devoted the remaining years of his life to shark conservancy. Jaws director Steven Spielberg has said that the impact of his film on the shark population is something “I truly and to this day regret.”28

Speaking generally, biologist E.O. Wilson explained, “We are not just afraid of predators, we are transfixed by them, prone to weave stories and fables . . . about them. . . . In a deeply tribal sense—we love our monsters.”29


  1. Matthew Lerberg. “Jabbering jaws: Reimagining representations of sharks post-Jaws,” in Amber George et al, eds. Screening the Nonhuman: Representation of Animal Others in the Media, London: Lexington Books, 2016.
  2. Lerberg, “Jabbering jaws.”
  3. Jaws (film).” Wikipedia.
  4. Elizabeth Lundén. “Jaws: Creating the myth of the man-eating machine.” Dissertation. Stockholm University, 2012, https://diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:617342/FULLTEXT01.pdf.
  5. David Shiffman. Why Sharks Matter: A Deep Dive with the World’s Most Misunderstood Predator. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2022.
  6. Brianna Le Busque. “What is the Jaws effect?” Interview by Ross Williams, July 31, 2021, video, 33:56. https://youtube.com/watch?v=dt1pJqBr8Pc.
  7. Lerberg, “Jabbering jaws.”
  8. Shiffman, Why Sharks Matter.
  9. Le Busque, “What is the Jaws effect?”
  10. Alexia Curmi. “Taking a bite out of fiction-media effects and social fears. A case study on ‘Jaws.’” Dissertation, University of Malta, 2005. Google Scholar. https://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/document?repid=rep1&type=pdf&doi=7e0c96571d6f490845482a2c62d48399581a4f6a.
  11. Joanne Cantor. “I’ll never have a clown in my house — Why movie horror lives on.” Poetics Today, 25(2), 2004.
  12. Lundén, “Creating the myth.”
  13. Tyler Bowling. “The fear of sharks,” Florida Program for Shark Research, Florida Museum, January 19, 2022. https://floridamuseum.ufl.edu/sharks/blog/the-fear-of-sharks/.
  14. Lundén, “Creating the myth.”
  15. Le Busque, “What is the jaws effect?”
  16. Curmi, “Taking a bite.”
  17. Shiffman, Why Sharks Matter.
  18. Curmi, “Taking a bite.”
  19. Stefan Lovgren. “‘Jaws’ at 30: Film stoked fear, study of great white sharks,” National Geographic News. June 15, 2005. Archived at https://web.archive.org/web/20130526132655/http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2005/06/0615_050615_jawssharks.html.
  20. “Why are we so afraid of sharks?” The Nature Conservancy Australia. https://natureaustralia.org.au/what-we-do/our-priorities/wildlife/wildlife-stories/sharks/.
  21. Lovgren, “Jaws at 30.”
  22. Lovgren, “Jaws at 30.”
  23. Shiffman, Why Sharks Matter.
  24. Christopher Pepin-Neff and Thomas Wynter. “Reducing fear to influence policy preferences: An experiment with sharks and beach safety policy options,” Marine Policy, 88, 2018.
  25. Lovgren, “Jaws at 30.”
  26. Peter Benchley. “Great white shark, the fragile giant.” Interview by Geoff Metcalf. http://geoffmetcalf.com/QA/19634.html.
  27. Valerie Nelson. “Peter Benchley, 65; ‘Jaws’ author became shark conservationist.” Los Angeles Times, February 13, 2006.
  28. Charley Adams. “Steven Spielberg regrets decimation of shark population after Jaws.” BBC News, December 18, 2022.
  29. Quoted in Curmi, “Taking a bite.”

HOWARD FISCHER, M.D., was a professor of pediatrics at Wayne State University School of Medicine, Detroit, Michigan.

Winter 2023



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