Horror and Terror and the Better of Us

Horror and Terror and The Better of Us

Sharks and the idea of being bitten or especially eaten by one is an irrational fear many people have. We eat animals by the tonne but the idea of them being able to eat us is now such a distant possibility that the notion is loaded with more horror than ever.

“…non-human animals can be our food, but we can never be their food….Horror movies and stories reflect this deep-seated dread of becoming food for other forms of life: horror is the wormy corpse, vampires sucking blood and sci-fi monsters trying to eat humans (“Alien 1 and 2”). Horror and outrage usually greet stories of other species eating live or dead humans, and various levels of hysteria our nibbling by leeches, sandflies, and mosquitoes.”

Val Plumwood sums up the idea of them and us in Animals and Ecology: Towards a Better Integration (2003). Sharks have been linked to horror since humans first discovered them. Countless films and stories back up this deep-seated fear and the media continues to beat the terror drum.

From the Christians in the Colosseum being thrown to the lions to James Bond and his many (but always) victorious confrontations with sharks, snakes, spiders and other animals under the control of his enemy, sharks have been an effective tool of terror. And who can forget Robert Shaw’s incredible monologue on the sinking of the USS Indianapolis in Jaws. The idea of being in the water surrounded by sharks who pick you off one by one as you watch your friends die helplessly is by far the most effective scene in the film – no special effects or mechanical sharks needed – just the power of imagination and a fictional account of a real event where ‘nature won’.

Shaw’s character Quint is in a constant state of rage throughout the film that this shark could possibly get the better of him just as Ahab was about the white whale. Human literatures are rife with the idea that humans are masters and any inversion of this notion causes rage. The Australian governments’ shark culling program is a perfect example, and we know how that ends. The last Tasmanian tiger died in Hobart Zoo on 7 September 1936, the last known thylacine.

The use of sharks as a tool of terror is not just a modern-day media phenomena. It has been well documented in the slave trade. According to Marcus Rediker, History from below the water line: Sharks and the Atlantic Slave Trade (2008), the sharks were both the best friend and the enemy of the slave ship captains. “’Sharks’ would thus take its place in the lexicon of class description, a cant term signifying a worthless fellow who made a living by his wits, sponging, swindling, cheating and scamming. Sailors might invert the class meaning by saying of sharks, ‘we call them Sea Lawyers.’”

The slave ship captains used the fear of throwing disruptive slaves overboard to the sharks as a form of control and they used the sharks to dispose of the sick and dead bodies of the infirm by throwing them overboard and making the other slaves watch. “It comes as no surprise that a collective grouping of sharks is known as a ‘shiver’” (Rediker 2008).

How dare an animal get the better of us? Don’t they know who we are? This seems to be the underlying message here. As Plumwood states, “Being food for other animals shakes our image of human mastery.”

We cringe at the idea of cowering in a cave trying to fend off lions and tigers and bears, oh my! We cannot bide the idea that we have not moved beyond our primitive ancestors who often had to compete with other animals for food and also had to defend themselves in order not to become food. This idea is so foreign to most of us today – it plays in our minds like a comedy instead of the tragedy it is.

Plumwood points out that human predation of animals is usually based in culture, whereas animal predation on humans is based in nature. Our ability or even desire to eat animals is based in culture and quite often cruelty. Oysters are alive when the lemon is squirted on them, ducks are force-fed to enlarge their livers, marine turtles are placed on large fires to be cooked alive and sharks are finned alive. Plumwood came very close to being food for a crocodile in Kakadu many years ago when she was grabbed and rolled three times before escaping to safety albeit with bad injuries. She recounts the feeling of being watched by eyes unknown and of the knowledge that she had been preyed upon, that she was prey.

When a shark or other predators prey on us, there is no cruelty involved, thus no culture. It is usually swift, to avoid the animal expending much needed energy, and thus humane (in a strange inversion of the term). Sharks don’t ‘play’ with their food as so many marine mammals do. They don’t toss them about like frisbies or torment them. Cruelty is a uniquely mammalian trait. Sharks bite and then eat.

The idea of cruelty is so engrained in the human consumption of animals and has been for so long it is difficult to separate it. We have been shown what we do to animals and most of us don’t like it. Many reject the idea of factory farming live animals; battery hens, foie gras duck liver, veal, live seafood…the (usually urban) marketplace consumer is often reflecting public sentiment and supermarket chains are beginning to listen and respond with more responsibly sourced products.

This is happening more because the chasm between us and the animals who become our food is thankfully being shortened and we are becoming more aware of what is happening to animals who become our food before we eat them – they are being brought closer to us and so is their pain and suffering.

However, out on the shimmering horizon where wilderness and nature live, particularly marine animals, the public is not always aware of what is happening to these animals we share the planet with. And when people are aware and sound their disapproval, their voice is often not being heard.

Case in point is the shark culling in Australia where the majority of the public oppose any killing of sharks and yet the governments of NSW, Queensland and WA continue on this path of slaughter at a very high environmental and financial cost.
According to Leah Gibbs & Andrew Warren in Killing Sharks: cultures and politics of encounter and the sea (2014), the $6.85 million dollar WA Shark Hazard Mitigation Strategy was not preceded by an impact study, and as we know, the science shows that culling provides absolutely no reduction in bite incidents. In addition, “The lethal approach taken to shark management is a knee-jerk reaction rather than informed, effective environmental policy making.” As Gibbs and Warren discovered, “UMR Research found that 82% of Australians think that sharks should not be killed and that people enter the water at their own risk (SMH 2014).

How can the governments of a democratic country be so disconnected from their electorate? Why are they so hell-bent on offering us protection from animals we do not want or need protection from? Yes, sharks are predatory animals who live in the ocean and 82% of us are willing to take the risk of encountering them when we enter the ocean. Beaches have become human realms and as such humans have forgotten that they are in fact wilderness with wild animals inhabiting them. A re-framing of these spaces is needed.

We need reminding that beaches are not pools; they are the homes of others and are wild places. They are places where we may be preyed upon and where we may become food for other animals. The literal line in the sand where the surf meets the land is a time line and when we cross over it, we are going back in time – 400 million years back in time to a realm where creatures (hopefully still beyond our control) have evolved and lived long before us and without us.

The horror and terror we are entangled in with sharks is mostly coming from the human side of the entanglement. 100 million sharks slaughtered in a year when there were less than 10 humans fatally bitten by sharks is the true terror and horror we are dealing with.

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