Next summer will mark the fortieth anniversary of the release of the film Jaws, a truly terrifying piece of cinema, the theme music from which pops into my head, if only briefly, every time I set foot in the ocean. The film is famous for its visual inventiveness and for the late Roy Scheider’s performance, improvising what turned out to be the film’s most memorable line: “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”
In the real world, shark attacks in American waters are vanishingly rare, averaging fewer than one fatality per year out of a nation of 300 million and a great deal of coastline. But there still is something uniquely terrifying about sharks — they attack from our blind spot, and they are physiologically and socially alien to us. There is no common point of reference with a shark, and so we dread them, even though we rarely encounter them. The wolf, a staple of our fairy tales and films such as The Grey, is another creature that haunts our imagination, though North American wolf attacks are so incredibly rare that wolf scholars work with individual episodes rather than aggregate statistics. Domestic dogs, on the other hand, kill dozens of people each year. “What if there’s bears?” may be the stuff of nightmares, but you are in fact more likely to be attacked by a moose.
But who has nightmares about Bullwinkle?
In June 2012, the academic journal Wilderness and Environmental Medicine published a survey titled “Fatalities from Venomous and Nonvenomous Animals in the United States (1999–2007),” and the results are about what you’d expect if you’re relying on your neocortex rather than your limbic system. The most common way for an animal to kill you is for it to be in the way while you’re speeding down the highway in your Prius, and that animal is most likely to be a cow or a horse. Crocodiles and alligators killed nine people during the years studied; wasps, hornets, and bees killed 509.
Sharks get John Williams’s terrifying two-note Jaws theme. But the real killers get Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s whimsical chromatic workout: “Flight of the Bumblebee.”
“Little Red Riding Hood” will always be with us.
But the rational man fears the moose.
It may be the case that we invent exotic and unlikely monsters to fear as a way of keeping our minds off of that which we really should fear. You can do something about great white sharks: Don’t go in the water. But bees? I once came near to serious injury as the result of a bee sting, not because I’m allergic but because I was riding a motorcycle at the time and the damned thing flew into my vest. (In fairness, I ran into it more than it ran into me.) I was startled by the sting (I’d never been stung before) and jerked just a little, which, on a motorcycle, can be enough to get you hurt. That didn’t happen in this case, though I imagine that many passing motorists were wondering why the guy on the motorcycle was punching himself in the chest. Bee stings hurt, as it turns out.
We certainly invent things to worry about when it comes to politics. Some of my more enthusiastic correspondents on the right send me missives about President Obama’s secret plan to install himself as president-for-life and suspend the 2016 elections, while political obsessions originating on the left are a staple of popular culture: Waterworld, Bladerunner and other corporate dystopias, Godzilla. The enduring popularity of conspiracy theories is almost certainly rooted in our refusal to look squarely at the quotidian horrors of the 21st century: Islamic State beheadings and Ebola abroad, failing institutions and a corrosive culture at home. If things go well and truly wrong — and they always do, eventually — it won’t be the Illuminati or genetically modified crops that get us. But we’d rather worry about Godzilla’s atomic breath than about Iran’s atomic ayatollahs.
Heavy debt, dysfunctional families, unfunded and unfundable liabilities, economic stagnation, official corruption, lawless government, overrun borders, social cohesion strained to the breaking point . . .
We’re gonna need a bigger boat.
— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent for National Review.