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The Smell of Fear

By Jeremy Ireland, Psychotherapist on January 7, 2019 in Other

Memorable moments, by Amy Shark

Not too long ago I found myself late night channel surfing, glass of red in one hand, remote in the other. There was nothing worth watching and it seemed Netflix would win again. After almost giving up I stumbled across the cult classic, Jaws. I was hooked, literally. I refilled my glass, put the headphones on and settled into what many might consider to be the best thriller movie of all time.

The film works in so many ways. Like most thrillers, it’s fear that draws you in, as if it’s been placed like bait on a hook just waiting for you to have a nibble. Fear that evokes terror, panic, anxiety and possibly phobia. I remember seeing the film for the first time when I was a kid. I was totally freaked out, couldn’t sleep and was reluctant to swim at the beach for some time afterwards. In hindsight, I was way too young when I saw it. I wouldn’t say that watching Jaws sparked a phobia of sharks, but it certainly didn’t help.

So what is fear? Well, for starters, it’s an emotion, it’s primitive and it’s powerful. In cave man talk, it serves as an early warning signal for danger that in turn triggers fight or flight responses. Fear can be used to manipulate and change attitudes – think back to the grim reaper during the AIDS epidemic or cigarette packets with pictures of people disfigured from gangrene.

Campaigns in politics using fear are common – the fear of invasion being a favourite. In this sense, it’s no secret that high levels of fear can be extremely effective in getting people to change behaviour.

It’s a heavy concept, and perhaps it’s best to stick to the analogy of our freaked out moviegoer who’s now reluctant to put a toe in the water.

Let’s look again at old mate Jaws, who is wreaking havoc and attacking beachgoers at will. There’s something stronger at play here: fear of the unknown. Fear of the unknown can metamorphose in many ways, but in the movie it was Spielberg’s ace card. For most of the movie we never actually see the shark. It’s implied that it’s there through the use of music and camera movement. We can sense it lurking around, we see ripples on the water, washed up blood, people screaming, but still don’t see the shark.

My favourite Jaws moment was when they tried to catch the shark with a massive hook the size of an anchor with what looked like half a lamb on it, the hook being attached to a giant chain that was secured to the jetty. Jaws, of course, not only takes the bait but the entire jetty with him, and then he comes back still pulling the jetty to attack the guys who were trying to catch him. And still we don’t see the actual shark. Brilliant!

The movie ends with Jaws’ death, but afterwards I thought about why it is that sharks, especially great whites, have such a ‘branding’ issue. It boils down to ‘heuristics’ or, in layman’s terms, the most logical and procedurally driven way to solve a problem. In the movie it’s ‘see shark, kill shark’, a very useful strategy when trying to make a quick decision – good in the short-term, perhaps, but more problematic in the long-term.

Recently, there was a 4.5-metre great white found in the shark nets off Maroubra and multiple shark sightings at Bondi, which shut the beach. To hunt down and kill the Bondi shark would be a very ‘heuristic’ way of dealing with the issue. The more personally vulnerable people feel about a threatened outcome, the more attentive they are to the message and the more likely they are to follow its recommendation, i.e. kill the shark.

The real problem is we’re prone to lean disproportionately to events that are easy to recall, vivid and imaginable. In other words, we tend to remember impressionable events and thus overemphasise their importance, or the probability of them happening again, over less memorable events. For example, people think they are more likely to die in a plane crash than a car crash as plane crashes tend be all over the news, are more dramatic and are much easier to recall over the fence with a neighbour than your run-of-the-mill car crash.

The reality is you have way more chance of being killed by something on your way to the beach than actually being killed by a shark once at the beach. The latter is just more memorable for the average punter and is more appealing for news bulletins.

So next time you’re swimming at the beach feeling a bit spooked, remember that Jaws was really just a giant rubber mechanical prop that kept breaking down. Maybe that’s the real reason we never saw him.