Four Historical and Cultural Events That Fueled Our Fear of Sharks

Considering that you're statistically more likely to be struck by lightning than attacked by a shark, our collective terror of the fish is disproportionate to the threat they actually pose. So why does that fear exist at all? In all likelihood, it is part healthy fear—sharks can and do injure and kill human beings, after all—and part culturally reinforced hysteria. Between 725 B.C. and now, hundreds of artists, authors, filmmakers, and other creatives have produced media that depict sharks as bloodthirsty killing machines. Here are four events that have exerted a strong influence on public perception of sharks, for better or for worse.

John Singleton Copley Paints Watson and the Shark

Completed some 30 years after the events depicted occurred, Watson and the Shark is a technically masterful rendering of an attack on 14-year-old Brook Watson in Havana Harbor in 1749, according to the National Gallery of Art (NGA). Blood pooling around his calf, a naked Watson floats, his hand outstretched in supplication to his fellow crew members, as the shark prepares to strike for a third time, mouth agape. While Watson survived and even went on to become a prominent politician, he lost his right leg below the knee, according to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. The wooden prosthetic he wore earned him the nickname "the peg-legged mayor of London," according to the museum. Watson and the Shark made a sensation when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in London in 1778 and remains one of Copley's most famous works, according to the NGA.

The New Jersey Shark Attacks Claim Four Lives in Less Than Two Weeks

An inspiration for the 1975 movie Jaws, the Jersey Shore shark attacks of 1916 terrorized the region. Over the course of 12 days in July of that year, four people were killed and one severely injured by what most experts believe to have been either a bull shark or a white shark, according to Britannica. While the first two attacks took place off the Jersey coast, the final three occurred in Matawan Creek, a freshwater creek miles from the ocean. On the afternoon of July 12, an 11-year-old boy swimming in the creek was pulled beneath the water and never resurfaced, according to While attempting to recover the boy's body, 24-year-old Watson Fisher was also attacked, the site stated. He was rescued and taken to Monmouth Memorial Hospital, where he died that same day. Half an hour after Fisher was attacked, a 14-year-old boy was bitten but survived. Two days later, fishermen caught and killed a shark that was said to have 15 pounds of human flesh in its stomach near the creek, putting an end to the killing spree.

Sharks Pick Off Survivors of the Sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis

One of the worst maritime disasters in American naval history, the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis deposited around 900 sailors, mostly young men, into the Pacific Ocean, according to the National World War II Museum. While the exact number will never be known, many were eaten by sharks as they bobbed in the water, awaiting rescue. When a U.S. Navy pilot finally spotted the survivors four days and five nights after the sinking, only a third—316—were still alive, according to the museum. Like the Jersey Shore shark attacks, the sinking of the Indianapolis also warrants a reference in Jaws. Fans will recall that Captain Quint's hatred of sharks stems from his experiences as a survivor of the wreck.

Jaws Is Released

Filmed nearly 50 years ago, Jaws made director Steven Spielberg famous. The movie tells the story of Martin Brody, the police chief of the idyllic seaside town of Amity Island, and his struggle to convince commercially minded Mayor Larry Vaughn to close the beaches in the wake of a series of fatal shark attacks. Grossing hundreds of millions of dollars in the U.S. alone, the movie pioneered the concept of a "summer blockbuster" and remains massively popular, not to mention culturally influential, today, according to PBS.

Blacktip reef sharks swim in South Africa.
Many creative people have produced entertainments and works of art that depict sharks as bloodthirsty killers. Above, attracted by chum, blacktip reef sharks swim near Durban, South Africa. MICHELE SPATARI/AFP/Getty Images