Thanks to Noah Berlatsky for a much improved title!
Jaume Coller-Serra’s new film The Shallows follows Blake Lively in a test of wills against a great white shark. Apart from an unintentionally farcical and groan-inducing last act, it’s a pretty well shot and acted story. It is one of countless stories about wild beasts threatening the lives of humans. Most of these are, from a statistical or scientific perspective, no less ridiculous than The Shallows‘ silly conclusion. These stories almost always involve absurd science. And towards what end that bad science is deployed tells us a lot, as does the selection of which killer animals are portrayed.
In The Shallows Blake Lively’s character is out surfing when she happens upon a whale carcass. A shark near the carcass sees her as a potential meal and decides to have a bite to eat. Over the next day the shark ignores the massive quantity of food available with the whale carcass while stalking Lively, and during that time eats two and a half other people.
All this is exceedingly unlikely. The shark ate somewhere around 200kg of people over those two days which is, using the most conservative estimates, around two months of food for an adult great white (other studies suggest this is closer to six months worth of soylent green). So the shark ignores (or leaves, it’s not clear) a massive whale carcass which could feed a host of sharks for months and instead goes after a bunch of swimmers and surfers that don’t have the yummy (for sharks) smell of rotting meat. And it does so in order to overeat by quite a bit! For contrast in the infamous 1916 New Jersey shark attacks a shark ate a maximum of .3 people over twelve days (though it killed four).
This is common in these kinds of stories. For example the T-Rex in Jurassic Park should be done eating after she eats the company stooge. That’s (probably) enough calories for a T-Rex for two days. That it keeps hunting seems pretty unlikely. The shark in Jaws eats even more beyond its likely diet. And it is exactly this voraciousness that identifies the creatures as antagonists in these stories.
There is a species power dynamic in play obscured by this. My back of the envelope math says humans comprise about .0000042% of deaths in fatal human-shark encounters. No big surprise here. It’s common enough knowledge that humans kill exponentially more sharks than the other way around. And given the challenge in imagining a shark’s point of view, it isn’t all that surprising that humans with almost no exceptions tell the stories of those .0000042% of fatalities rather than the 99.9999958% percent of them. Sure, the Discovery Channel trots out the annual shark slaughter statistics during “Shark Week” but they’re invariably mixed with stories of shark attacks lending a false narrative symmetry even as the statistical symmetry is denied. Man-eating bear, wolf, lion, snake and other such stories all follow this same pattern.
This is how power generally works, both between our species and others and inside our own species. The oppressive relationship is inverted no matter what the science says. So despite all populations using and selling drugs at nearly identical rates, it is Black people who are portrayed as the drug-dealing criminals thus positioning them not as victims of racist mass incarceration, but as justifications for the oppressive system. Despite Israel dispossessing Palestinians on a daily basic, it is Palestinians that are portrayed as the violent aggressors, much as natives are commonly portrayed in US Western stories. The dynamic is analogous to how the tv show Zoo tells of a worldwide animal revolt that threatens humanity while we are in the midst of an anthropocene/capitalocene mass extinction event. The bad science of insatiable predators is deployed justifies the bad practice of exterminating them.
The inter- and intra-species analogies are, of course, imperfect even as the racist narratives invoke a certain dehumanization and animality. But the racialized component of which killer animal stories are told tells us just as much about inverted narratives of threat and power. For some animals do kill, and even kill and eat, vast numbers of people every year. Blake Lively will likely never star in one of these stories.
Nile crocodiles kill somewhere between several hundred and several thousand people every year in Africa throughout their range. We don’t even have sound estimates because relatively few resources are dedicated to tracking African deaths. Crocodiles eat people on a daily basis because people have to spend so much time in crocodile habitats with minimal protection. Though there is nothing that would end crocodile attacks entirely, this largely isn’t a problem of reptilian predation , this is a problem of capitalism and colonialism. The stories told of crocodiles eating humans are instead like Lake Placid, a fun film that is science fiction both because of the vast numbers of people consumed and because of which people are consumed. Out of some three dozens feature lengths films about killer crocodiles and alligators, I know of only one that takes place in Africa, 2006’s Primeval, a racist story of white people in constant danger from both Burundians and the crocodile.
Though not eating us, snakes kills tens of thousands of people every year, predominantly in South and Southeast Asia (and to a lesser extent in Africa and parts of South America). These are predominantly tied to poor labor and housing conditions which are, again, a problem of capitalism and colonialism. The Anaconda tetralogy and Snakes on a Plane do not tell these stories.
Dominating both of these are mosquito-related deaths which number in the hundreds of thousands every year despite malaria being, for the most part, easily treatable were resources dedicated to the task.
These killer animal stories are not told on screen because the victims aren’t fully human in the eyes of those choosing what stories get produced. And those stories with fully human victims like The Shallows invariably invert the material world predator-prey relationship. The exceptions are exceedingly rare and even then are told with circumscribed or regressive politics. The Ghost and the Darkness and Prey for example, are pro-colonialism stories of animals preying on humans based upon the man-eating lions of Tsavo. The body count is attributed to lions and not the colonial railroad project (a dam in Prey‘s version) that brought people into the lions’ habitat in the first place. But telling such stories can illuminate vast political economic problems and indicts the systems that produce the death tolls. Capitalism and colonialism continually produce horror stories of animals killing people with body counts beyond all but apocalyptic imaginations. Jaws simply cannot compete.