Why we're fascinated by animal attacks

"Piranha 3D" is the latest in a long line of movies and viral videos to explore our shifting fears of nature

Published August 18, 2010 11:01AM (EDT)

A still from "Piranha 3D"
A still from "Piranha 3D"

"People eat fish, Grogan. Fish don't eat people." -- "Piranha," 1978

That's generally true in life, but it's certainly not true in the movies. Or on TV. Or on YouTube. Humankind may have completely subjugated the natural world, yet we remain terrified of (or at least fascinated by) stories of menacing animals coming after us, teeth bared.

This Friday brings the release of "Piranha 3D," in which flesh-eating monsters from prehistoric times snack on unsuspecting swimmers. Discovery just wrapped up its most popular yearly marathon of programming, Shark Week, an event that makes the media's ongoing obsession with the finned predators official, and hangs a label on it. Monday's shark attack near Gracetown in Western Australia is merely the latest such attack to inspire a media, er, feeding frenzy. The most extreme example was in July 2001, when a series of attacks prompted Time magazine to declare "The Summer of the Shark." There were not that many more shark attacks that summer than in other summers, but it didn't matter; in some sense every summer is a "summer of the shark," for the same reason that "Jaws" remains a popular DVD: because people are fascinated by stories of animals attacking humans. (Remember this program?)

Hardly a week goes by without a heavily recirculated news story about a zoo animal, pet or wild creature attacking a human. You've all stumbled across these videos or news stories or had them e-mailed to you out of the blue. The woman getting mauled by a chimpanzee. The shark expert getting bitten while filming a TV special. A teenager getting bitten on the legs by a panda at the Beijing zoo. Werner Herzog's film "Grizzly Man," a documentary about the life of environmentalist Timothy Treadwell -- a fascinating man, to be sure, but one whose life may not have interested quite so many people had he not been mauled to death.

Why the obsession? Strictly speaking, animals don't pose a serious threat to almost anyone anymore. The majority of the human race lives in thoroughly settled areas, and has for well over a century. And those who live closer to nature, or in nature, still don't have much to worry about. It's not as if someone living within a few miles of a national forest, or even in the middle of the Amazon rain forest, has to worry about vicious predators leaping into their windows at night and chowing down on their families. Compared to, say, dying in a car accident or getting cancer, the odds of getting bitten or clawed or otherwise attacked by any sort of creature are minuscule. Fear of getting bitten by a cranky neighborhood pit bull that slips its leash might be more reasonable than fear of being devoured by a great white or torn apart by baboons, but even violence by domesticated animals isn't a terribly rational fear in the greater scheme of things. There are more mundane threats worth dreading.

My theory: The fear and fascination with deadly animals is from a mix of guilt and rationalization. As a species we feel guilt (even though we may not recognize it as such) about having almost completely subdued every other species on the planet. And we rationalize this dominance by giving tales of animal-related mayhem a disproportionate amount of attention, and presenting them in Manichaean terms, as if we were a bunch of Victorian English people reveling in horrifying stories of tigers mauling native porters on the banks of the Ganges or rogue elephants impaling Christian missionaries during a stampede. The human race's fixation on such tales (especially now, with virgin forest disappearing and the oceans being treated as dumpsters) sends a number of messages, few of them healthy or sensible.

One is that it is not truly possible for humans to peacefully coexist with nature, and it's even less likely that people can domesticate once-wild creatures, so we shouldn't pay too much attention to stories about the damage we're inflicting on natural habitats or the species we're wiping out through development. That which is not human is potentially a threat, this mentality says -- and even if you think an animal is peaceful or domesticated or otherwise not dangerous, you're naive.

Bottom line: Humanity's absolute dominance of the non-human world is justified, because if things weren't this way, we'd all be prey, just as in primitive times. (I can think of no better illustration of this notion than this video of two dogs ripping the bumper off a police car. "I'd get out quickly and empty a mag on those mad dogs," wrote a commenter, "but that's maybe why I'm not a cop.")

One of the more vivid illustrations of the "Do it to nature before nature does it to you!" mind-set is a subcategory of online videos showing naturalists, trainers or people who have chosen to keep wild animals as pets getting attacked by creatures that are theoretically not as vicious as their reputations suggest, or that are in captivity (or "trained") and therefore supposedly peaceable.

For instance, the above-linked clip of a shark expert getting bitten has an "I told you so" element that verges on black humor -- as evidenced by its comments thread, which contains  a lot of self-righteous chortling. "It shows you the 'expert' is full of crap," wrote a commenter. "That is the real lesson here." This clip of a Polish bear trainer being attacked during a TV appearance inspired similar quips. ("What do humans expect," wrote one commenter, "a bear, a wild animal, NOT to attack someone?") This clip of a lion attack is prefaced by an announcer telling us that the incident occurred in Pakistan, "a country where it's legal to keep exotic animals as pets." Great idea, Pakistan!

Also worth noting is the evolution of the "animals-on-the-warpath" film. The gold standard for this sort of entertainment is still Steven Spielberg's "Jaws," based on Peter Benchley's novel. The post-1975 hysteria over sharks can be largely attributed to the box-office success of Spielberg's film, and Benchley, who died in 2006, later said that he regretted writing the book because it demonized creatures whose complexity and intelligence are only now beginning to be understood. The plot is loosely modeled (no, really!) on Henrik Ibsen's play "An Enemy of the People," about a heroic doctor fighting self-interested officials and businesspeople to close a local tannery that's contaminating local waters. The hero of "Jaws," Chief Brody, endures a milder version of such opposition when he tries to close Amity Island's beaches to prevent further casualties from shark attacks. Both book and film make it clear that civilization's blithe arrogance is the root cause of shark attacks -- that such attacks became more common with the advent of seaside resorts and recreational swimming, which encroached on the animals' territory, disrupted their feeding patterns, and supplied them with lots of new kicking-and-splashing entrees to consider.

But that's not what audiences took away from "Jaws." What they got from it was, "Sharks like to eat people, so don't go in the water." Da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM.

"Jaws" inspired rip-offs about wild animals purposefully stalking and devouring humans, including "Orca," "Tentacles" and "Grizzly." The subgenre was part horror movie, part disaster film, playing equally to humanity's innate, primordial terror of other predators, and a collective fear that by carrying on as if we were the globe's invincible alpha dogs, we should not be surprised to experience a bit of push-back (and that, in the end, we'd reassert our primacy by destroying the animal that aimed to destroy us). 

The two modes, horror and disaster, began dovetailing in the 1950s in pictures that played on fear of nuclear weapons and nuclear power, generally; radiation mutated "normal" beasts and turned them into voracious, gigantic super-predators.

The tradition continued post-"Jaws" with a curious variation on the formula. Starting in the late '70s we started to see films about people being menaced by animals that were faster, smarter and more bloodthirsty than their real-world equivalents, while still being recognizably animals rather than uncategorizable "monsters."

Some films in this vein offered 1950s-style mea culpas for the rampaging creatures. For instance, the disfigured bear attacking campers in "Prophecy" was mutated by industrial pollution, and the arachnid swarm in "The Giant Spider Invasion" was the fault of pesticides. Other post-"Jaws" animal thrillers took a "Frankenstein" approach; the title creatures in the original "Piranha," for instance, are made meaner and tougher by military science run amok, and the super-smart, razor-toothed predators in "Deep Blue Sea" are the product of top-secret experiments to grow stem cell samples by implanting human brain tissue in the brains of sharks (or something like that). The creatures in these films are still physically similar to actual grizzlies, spiders, piranhas and sharks. But they've been amped up, tricked out and otherwise made badder.

Still other films in this vein show familiar species possessing powers far beyond what any naturalist would verify, yet they feel no need to explain how those powers came to be. For instance, the title creatures in "Anaconda" and its sequel, "Anacondas," are much larger than the jungle snakes you know from biology texts, and more monster-like, too, basically sea serpents that can exist on land as well. They're as long as city buses, have heads the size of truck tires, and can leap from the water like dolphins and enfold supporting characters an an instantaneous death grip. ("Eeet wraps its coils around you, and holds you tighter than any lover," intones Jon Voight's Peruvian snake hunter. "And then you have the pleasure of feeling your bones break ... and your veins eeesplode!")

What all these animal-disaster flicks have in common is an unstated conviction that nature by itself is not quite frightening enough to sustain a contemporary two-hour movie. The animals have to be augmented somehow, made bigger and faster, smarter and hungrier -- because how else to level the playing field against human foes?

Preposterous as they are, such narratives are of a piece with the fascination over real-world animal attacks by wild creatures in nature or in captivity, and tales of supposedly "domesticated" pets that turn on their owners (the p.c. word now is "companion") and take off a finger or an ear. These stories are presented out of context, oversimplified, exaggerated, sometimes pumped up with the hot air of showmanship.

But the purpose is always the same: to titillate and terrify, and to reassure us that the world as it is -- humans on top, everything else beneath our boot heel -- is inevitable and right, and not too different from how animals would treat us if, God forbid, the tables were ever turned.

By Matt Zoller Seitz

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