Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water, it’s suddenly that time of year again—when Discovery unleashes a week’s worth of shark-themed programming at the height of summer. On Sunday July 22, the cable network celebrates 30 years of its infamous Shark Week with a fresh lineup of terrifying tales dedicated to one of the ocean’s most fascinating and fearsome predators. And you can bet I won’t miss a minute of it.
The ocean fascinates me. It always has. It’s wild, beautiful, free and mysterious in that you never know how it will behave from one second to the next—or what lurks beneath its surface. I am a Pisces who was born on Staten Island in the early 1970s and I lived for swimming in pools, along the New Jersey shore and on summer vacations in Myrtle Beach, SC.
Then something changed. It happened to many of us of a certain age but clearly made deeper impressions on some than others. The event I’m referring to was the release of the movie Jaws. The film’s poster teased audiences they’d never go in the water again after seeing it. I was only 3 years old when the original Jaws hit theaters in the summer of 1975 and thankfully too young to have seen it then (though I do remember collecting trading cards from the movie and having several images of scenes etched into my mind!).
The real game-changer for me came in 1978 with the release of Jaws 2. I know many of you thought this sequel was just silly and nowhere near as mind-blowingly terrifying as its predecessor but remember—I was 6. Just an ocean-loving little boy who could stay in the water for hours without a care in the world, but all that changed that summer day my mom took me to see Jaws 2. I’d begged her for weeks to take me. I already had the cool T-shirt with the colossal shark lunging menacingly up from the ocean seconds away from swallowing a happy-go-lucky blond water skier whole. I had to see it!
I remember it vividly from its opening scenes to the last frame. That haunting music played sometimes to alert you to the shark’s presence, sometimes to fool you momentarily into thinking he was approaching and sometimes was omitted altogether so his appearance would come as a complete shock! I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen. I was mesmerized. What a movie!
Unfortunately after leaving the theater and heading home, I quickly realized the movie hadn’t left me. Many places on the East Coast of the 1970s could easily remind someone of the fictional town of Amity where the movie was set. Suddenly every place near the water looked like a forbidding death trap. Keep in mind I lived on an island, so I deemed few places safe. Since I was 6, I also became suspicious of lakes. I mean, if you are preoccupied with being eaten alive by a ginormous great white shark then why stop at just fearing the ocean? I was fine in pools, especially the above-ground variety, but night swimming with that dark water even made pools a dicey psychological trauma for me.
That haunting music played sometimes to alert you to the shark’s presence, sometimes to fool you momentarily into thinking he was approaching and sometimes was omitted altogether so his appearance would come as a complete shock!
I was tortured. I loved the water, but post Jaws 2, I no longer was able to have a relaxing swim. Instead, I was constantly on high alert. No matter how hard I’d try, I would hear that music taunting me as its notes started out slowly then quickly increased their speed and intensity in my overactive mind until I was sure a blood-thirsty beast was zooming toward me from some unseen angle.
This went on for years. Through adolescence and post high school and college and well into adulthood. Repeated viewings of the Jaws movies over the years because I’m a masochist who loves this franchise, would reinforce my always lingering fears. I think anyone who knows me, knows about my shark issues. It doesn’t keep me out of the water, but it’s always there and I’m not shy about discussing it. I think I’m just hoping to find someone as corrupted by Jaws as I am.
It has followed me to Martha’s Vineyard and Malibu to the Hamptons, the Bahamas, the Caribbean, Florida, San Francisco, Nantucket and anywhere I’ve ever gone near the water. Regardless, my lifelong love of the beach has somehow never diminished and in fact seems to grow stronger as I get older.
Recently, I had the good fortune to spend several hours on a beautiful beach in East Hampton, NY, with my family. We played in the shallow water because the ocean was way too rough to swim in, but it was still a great day, as most beach days are. I’m 46 years old. it’s been 40 years since that summer day when a lifelong fear of sharks was imprinted on my psyche, and there I stood today looking out across the Atlantic Ocean still hearing that music in the background of my thoughts. It’s funny how some things can really stick with you.
If I actually do get eaten by a shark someday, I think everyone who has ever known me will roll their eyes and say, “Oh wow. (Pause) Well, at least we won’t have to hear him talk about it anymore!”