In his seminal book, The Philosophy of Horror, or Paradoxes of the Heart, Noël Carroll examines the aesthetics of the horror genre, in an attempt to understand why we seem to find it so viscerally appealing. As he writes, “the imagery of horror fiction seems to be necessarily repulsive and, yet, the genre has no lack of customers.” While there are no real easy answers to this apparent paradox, there does seem to be a central psychological conceit that drives this allure. We become fixated by this horrific imagery for much the same reason we are drawn to thrill-seeking behavior like, say, bungee jumping; it gives us a sense of the feeling of danger (and all the associated chemical secretions, like adrenaline and dopamine) without the actual possibility of harm. Or, in the words of fellow horror-obsessed native Rhode Islander H.P. Lovecraft, “When to this sense of fear and evil the inevitable fascination of wonder and curiosity is superadded, there is born a composite of keen emotion and imaginative provocation whose vitality must of necessity endure as long as the human race itself.”
Few things reify this notion as savagely as a shark. You know, THESE guys:
They seem to check off every box in the fear/anxiety compartments of our half-monkey brains. They are unfamiliar; denizens of the largely invisible and mysterious world of the deep ocean. They share none of the physical characteristics that we find so endearing in our fellow mammals, making them seem especially alien and strange. Even lions, tigers, and bears (oh my!) can look cute and cuddly, but sharks are just an undulating tube of muscle, bare pale skin, and teeth. Even the word SHARK is evocative: a short, brutal syllable capped with that choking velar sound. They are physically intimidating in a way few other animals are, and make us feel especially vulnerable as we swim in murky ocean waters, knowing our survival is only by the shark’s good graces in deciding we aren’t really a part of their menu. And we all know on an intellectual level that they aren’t something we REALLY need to worry about, as most of us spend the majority of our time nowhere near the ocean (and thus out of danger), and even once in the ocean the chances of being attacked are astronomically low. You might say, their shark is worse than their bite.
And we are fascinated by sharks, are we not? There is a reason, after all, that “Shark Week” is not only an annual summer event with audiences reliably hovering around 20-30 million, but one that is now closing in on its 30th anniversary. And one that has, if you pardon the pun, really jumped the shark itself, with its recent focus on fake documentaries like Shark of Darkness: Wrath of Submarine and the even more puzzling decision to have Michael Phelps lose a race to a fake shark. Though, have to give them some props for that time the producers just shrugged their shoulders and let Andy Samberg improv aimlessly about being ‘chief shark officer’:
But let’s be real, “Shark Week” is so 2010. The real cultural force these days is “Sharknado Week”. And in case you live under a rock, far away from the reach of either sharks or tornadoes, let me be the first to tell you that this coming week sees the premiere of Sharknado 5: Global Swarming. Yeah, you didn’t think I was going to open an article talking about the paradox of horror without talking about the SyFy channel, did you? You must be new here. Here, permit me a quick divergence for a moment to give you a pop quiz … which of the following is NOT an actual name of a shark-themed SyFy original movie?
Mega Shark vs. Mecha Shark
Mega Shark vs. Kolossus
Sharktopus vs. Whalewolf
Sharktopus vs. Pteracuda
2-Headed Shark Attack
3-Headed Shark Attack
4-Headed Shark Attack
5-Headed Shark Attack
The correct answer is, of course, 4-Headed Shark Attack … though you’d be forgiven for thinking the answer was Sharkalanche, because technically that was only the working title for the film whose title was inexplicably changed upon release to Avalanche Sharks, and which even less explicably is not the only very literally-titled film about a shark eating people on a mountain, with the 2012 zeitgeist classic Snow Shark: Ancient Snow Beast.
Don’t think for a second, too, that I have not seen all of the above movies, and actually have strong opinions about which ones are best. That’s a story for another blogcat, but I’ll give you one hint: it’s NOT Atomic Shark.
Anyway, back to Sharknado. Granted, the franchise has lost a little bit of whatever luster it might have once had (believe it or not, the second one had a healthy viewership of 4 million, and the first one is 82% on Rotten Tomatoes, though admittedly there is likely some bias there given how few serious reviewers even bothered to watch it). It’s a tough premise to capitalize or extend on. The Sharknado franchise has turned the entire concept of ‘jumping the shark’ into a self-referential ball of irony so dense, there’s a chance that this series has a higher probability of destroying the planet with a supermassive black hole than either the Large Hadron Collider or Matthew McConaughey.
Here, let’s do another pop quiz. Which of the following is NOT something that actually happened in a Sharknado movie?
1) Gilbert Gottfried plays Mr. Exposition when he says, “The storm has been rushing through Texas; it hit an oil field, creating an oilnado. The oilnado exploded, creating a firenado. The firenado hit an electrical plant, creating a lightningnado. And it’s heading straight for Kansas.”
2) Mark Cuban plays the president of the United States, and says the line, “They used to call me a shark, but now I’m looked upon as a beacon of hope.”
3) Two characters are trapped inside the belly of a shark as it starts to burn up upon re-entry (as in, re-entry FROM SPACE), and one of them gives birth inside the shark while this is happening. And the other one lost the friggin’ lightsaber he was using earlier in the space sequence.
4) George R. R. Martin gets eaten by a shark, ensuring “Winds of Winter” is never finished.
5) A weather report notes that sharks are falling from the sky at a rate of two inches per hour.
6) A Chippendale’s dancer kills a shark in mid-air with a pelvic thrust.
7) Someone is brought back to life when a cyborg sticks her wires into two baby sharks and uses them as defibrillators.
Trick question, all of those actually happened.
And it really shows no sign of stopping. As I said, Sharknado 5 is on its way, and its IMDB page already promises cameos from Clay Aiken, Fabio, Bret Michaels, Tony Hawk, and Greg Louganis. The franchise has already also expanded into video games, books, Archie comics (?!), and just to push the irony meter one step closer to critical max they also made a mockumentary about the making of Sharknado called Heart of Sharkness (which is about them causing a real Sharknado trying to make a movie about Sharknado).
Really, whatever your feelings on the objective stupidity and ridiculous nature of the Sharknado franchise, you can’t help but marvel at the fact that it actually exists, and has been successful enough to sustain itself. Even when they inevitably stop making Sharknado movies, it seems unlikely they will stop making SHARK movies. Even if the ultimate goal of the franchise isn’t really to scare you, it’s just too bizarrely provocative on some level, simply by virtue of appealing to our psychological fixation with sharks. Even if every single one of the SyFy movies about sharks I listed earlier has the same exact plot structure, and they just Ctrl-Paste the locations and whatever makes the shark abnormal, there will always be room for another movie about people getting eaten by sharks. It is just too deep a well to mine (as Lovecraft said, one whose vitality must of necessity endure as long as the human race itself).
For the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our sharks, but in our selves.