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Yelling “Shark!” 45 years after Jaws

The message of the 1975 summer blockbuster is loud and clear: the ordinary man can rise to extraordinary occasions.

It’s all psychological. You yell, “Barracuda,” everyone says, “Huh? What?” You yell, “Shark,” …we’ve got a panic on our hands on the Fourth of July.

As America fearfully reopens this summer and people cautiously creep with masks and distance-measuring eyes toward beaches and movie theaters, many may recall a classic summer movie about beaches, fear, and an unseen threat. The 1975 film Jaws provides a surprisingly suitable metaphor for our world of economic collapse, social uprising, and unseen killers.

Jaws is not a shallow picture, despite the deep defects of the mechanical shark. 27-year-old Steven Spielberg, embattled as he was with production setbacks, probably did not intend to create a fable for modern society with Jaws—much less a picture that even has Catholic undertones to it—but his dedication to telling a story well elevated a potentially campy movie to a film with a relevant message forty-five years after its release.

Jaws took the world by surprise with its pulsing two-note theme and an invisible aquatic menace that plunged audiences into paroxysms of exhilarating terror. The instantaneous popularity of Jaws made it the highest-grossing film of all time (until Star Wars came along two years later). Aggressive marketing and a wide release rendered Jaws the first of what is now known as the summertime blockbuster. Its commercial success remains matched by its historical impact, driving swimmers out of the ocean and maligning the Great White Shark for decades.

The value of Jaws as a cinematic social symbol lies in the phenomenon that the artistic expressions of popular culture—however wild or weird they may be—often unconsciously expresses diagnoses and remedies for popular corruptions. It is on a subconscious, allegorical level that Jaws is noteworthy, tapping, as it does, into the primal foundations of human nature and human economy.

The storyline is familiar. The island town of Amity relies on their tourist season for survival; but when a woman’s remains are washed up at low tide and the coroner assigns the cause of death as a shark attack, the chief of police closes the beaches. The mayor convinces the medical examiner to report the tragedy was due to a boating accident and demands the beaches be kept open for the sake of summer dollars.

After three more fatalities, the town hires a hard-bitten fisherman to kill the shark. The final act launches upon the high seas, as the cracked captain, joined by the rugged police chief and a quirky marine biologist, hunt down the leviathan in a desperate chase that employs overtures from Moby-Dick and The Old Man and the Sea in a Hitchcockian chess game of man against nature.

Forty-five years later, Jaws still resonates with viewers and withstands easy analysis and comparison. One angle of interpretation that renders the film a relevant and even powerful piece for those engaged in the struggle for Christian culture, is the theme of a society determined to willfully ignore a prevalent, pervasive threat instead of facing it and destroying it.

In the case of Jaws, the problem of the shark is undeniable and one that promises to destroy. Nevertheless, the powers-that-be explain it away by hook or by crook. This pattern is only too familiar nowadays. Say what you will of COVID-19, there is more blind avowal to perils nowadays than you can shake a stick at. From the Supreme Court’s Bostock betrayal, to Planned Parenthood’s organ harvesting, to Black Lives Matter communism, to the capitulation of Church before State, lies and false narratives constantly downplay the dangers that threaten to tear civilization apart as it swirls between Scylla and Charybdis, between modernity and the maelstrom—and all for the sake of money, uneven-keel economics, and political correctness.

Jaws is a cautionary tale of our times where people turn a blind eye and a blind mind to the plagues that threaten to destroy Western culture, moving silently—and slyly—beneath the face of placid waters. The jaws that gape beneath that surface are devouring jaws. Nature can breed monsters in her fallen state. She can betray man, and it is her betrayals that man must resist at all costs, and not attempt to accept as “evolution” or “progressive.” As in the film, the only way to react to such infiltrations is to take the risk of heroism, which is difficult in a society that champions insipid tolerance instead of the traditional norms of humanity.

The denials run deep, however, and are born of the madness of contradiction. Those who give in to insanity only serve to perpetuate the threat of unreality and the spiritual sickness in themselves and others. Though no one can ignore the unhappiness intimidating society, most ignore the cause. They deny it. If a cure is inconvenient to the markets, the malady is contradicted—even though it is everywhere and obvious.

What else can explain Islamophilia in the face of ISIS? Or the apparent fact that only white people can be racists? Or the polite, silent sanction of the secret, sterile slaughter of abortion? Or the deafening acceptance of transgenderism? Or the normalization of both pornography and radical feminism? These are deep and dark waters. Evil lurks within their depths, seeking to devour like a lion, as St. Peter wrote—or like a shark.

As the mayor said in Jaws, “It’s all psychological.” There are sharks we’re supposed to believe in, and sharks we aren’t supposed to believe in. The message of Jaws is loud and clear: the ordinary man can rise to extraordinary occasions. This old-fashioned American theme charges clear against the newfangled American miasma of paralysis and pusillanimity that fears litigation if the truth is spoken, or blacklisting if a stance is taken for reality. But the common man is still capable of uncommon change against the aberrations of nature bolstered by corporate moguls. He can strive against the surge to sanitize and suppress the firm knowledge of life and the peaceful acceptance of death.

In spite of its pop culture status, Jaws, now more than ever perhaps, endorses cultural continuity and stability in a culture that is disintegrating under senseless attack. It promotes those eternal elements of sanity fast becoming extinct as society slips into an undercurrent of relativism as indiscriminate in its victims as a killer shark. After forty-five years, we are still going to need a bigger boat. And the only boat big enough to withstand our predators is the Barque of Peter.

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About Sean Fitzpatrick 21 Articles
Sean Fitzpatrick is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and serves on the faculty of Gregory the Great Academy in Elmhurst, Pennsylvania. He teaches Literature, Mythology, and Humanities. Mr. Fitzpatrick’s writings on education, literature, and culture have appeared in a number of journals including Crisis Magazine, Catholic Exchange, the Cardinal Newman Society’s Journal for Educators, and the Imaginative Conservative. He lives in Scranton with his wife, Sophie, and their seven children.

1 Comment

  1. One of the most frustrating problems facing Catholic Laity in America is that we are not allowed to shout “Shark,” we must not challenge the status quo, because we will be deemed – unfaithful. Covid-19 has shown how secularly responsive our Catholic Hierarchy really is – almost mute in the belief that God MUST come first. There is a heavy price looming, one they brought on their own heads – the loss of the collection. Many will not return to the pews that were deemed unnecessary, by removing the Blessed Sacrament. All of a sudden there may be too many priests, because they have not been raised to be saints, but subservient clerics to bishops, raised in the same school that protects the turf rather than the truth. How inexorably consistent it is that the scribes drag Jesus to the Cross, where we join Him hanging and left alone in that hopeless no mans land before the Resurrection.

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