by Bracken MacLeod
I was five the year Jaws came out, and like all little kids who don’t know how to swim, I had a pretty genetic fear of drowning. That got turned all the way up that summer when (long story, better told elsewhere) I was deliberately thrown into a lake and almost drowned. As you might imagine, that trauma left me with a life-long hang-up about water. I don’t like being on it in a boat, I sure as hell don’t like being in it (I shower), and I’ll be damned if I’m going to go all the way under it. So, later in life when Jaws came out on home video, you can understand, I never had the desire to see it.
It wasn’t the shark; it was the water.
I like sharks. I like them better than people a lot of the time. I think about them the way Ash thinks about the xenomorph in Alien: I admire their purity. They’re “unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.” Of course, unlike the alien, they’re fucking real!
Eventually, I rented Jaws, but it took me a couple of tries to get through the whole thing. It’s the first ten minutes that’s the big hurdle. Let me explain. We open on a bunch of kids sitting around a fire on the beach looking like an ad for Swedish tourism. Chrissy gets up and leads drunken, horny Tom on a chase through the dunes, stripping off her clothes and diving in the ocean as he passes out, unable to even get his shirt over his head. “I’m not drunk! Slow down! Wait I’m coming! I’m coming! I’m definitely coming!” She swims out in the dark, and we get that first two-note music cue. You know the one. Duun-un. And then the shark’s POV rising underneath her as she’s treading water, naked and vulnerable, presumably wondering what happened to horny Tom.
Now, the next few moments are terrifying. She is jerked down, once, twice, and then whipped violently around, thrashing in the water—not all that realistically for a shark attack, one suspects, but still, it’s good and scary. The beast drags her over to a buoy and it seems for a moment she might be able to climb up and out to safety, but NOPE! The shark (a.k.a. “Bruce”—named after Spielberg’s lawyer) pulls her away for a few short screams of “NO!” and down she goes under the water. And this is the very point at which my worst fears are most on outward display for anyone who’s paying attention.
Only seconds ago, Chrissy was a living human out for some fun. Then her life telescopes down into its last moments, the entirety of her future… in the water. And then, there’s the shot of Tom passed out in the quiet surf, followed by the lingering view of the open ocean and the softly dinging buoy. A quiet scene of peace following terror.
And that’s the point at which my anxiety goes off the fuckin’ charts. Not the first bites, not the thrashing, or the screaming. The silence where we all know that there’s a human being in the water who wants to live, who wants to breathe and be back on land, and instead all we see and hear is the water and the bell.
There’s something primal in that opening. And it’s not the shark. It’s the water. The source of all life on Earth is bigger than us, and we are not at home in it. The shark is. And it cares not at all for us.
The beginning of Jaws is pure existential terror, and it scares the shit out of me.
I still can’t swim.
Bracken MacLeod has worked as a martial arts teacher, a university philosophy instructor, for a children’s non-profit, and as a criminal and civil trial attorney. His short fiction has appeared in various magazines and anthologies including Shotgun Honey, Sex and Murder Magazine, LampLight, Dread: A Head Full of Bad Dreams, Femme Fatale: Erotic Tales of Dangerous Women, Beat to a Pulp, Splatterpunk, and Shock Totem Magazine.
He is the author of Mountain Home, White Knight, and his newest novel, Stranded, from TOR Books is available for pre-order.