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A 17-year-old girl starts panicking about sharks thousands of miles from the ocean. Did a movie cause her fear?
In the summer of 1975, a 17-year-old girl from western Kansas was admitted to Wesley Medical Center in Wichita for nuchal rigidity, jerking of the limbs, and hallucinations of being attacked by sharks. A thorough workup for meningitis was pursued, and the doctors concluded that the patient did not have a structural neurological illness but rather a functional one. While hospitalized, the girl had several episodes of anxiety and agitation, during which she screamed, “Sharks! Sharks!” and jerked her limbs in an asymmetric fashion. After she was discharged, her case was written up by the neurologist who had seen her and published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
How could a girl who lived in Kansas, more than 1000 miles from the nearest ocean, be admitted for somatic manifestations of a fear of sharks? The explanation was cinematic neurosis, or symptoms caused by the trauma of watching a film. During the patient’s admission, the doctors learned that she had recently watched Steven Spielberg’s film Jaws. Psychological trauma can happen with both real and imagined threats. Other films like The Exorcist, Child’s Play, or The Blair Witch Project have been noted to induce similar syndromes in viewers.
Let’s step back for a moment and analyze why Spielberg’s film Jaws (1975) has all the ingredients necessary to cause cinematic neurosis. Inspired by the novel (1974) by the same name, Jaws depicts the panic that engulfs a peaceful beach town after a killer great white shark begins to attack beachgoers. The fearfulness of the shark is intensified by the fact that it often remains unseen, attacking from underwater.
Humans have always feared the unknown. In environments where escape is made difficult, such as while swimming, this fear becomes even more intense. Add to this the way in which water provides a surface for the unknown to hide beneath. Whether it is a pufferfish, a sea urchin, a jellyfish, or a shark, the threat becomes known only after it is already upon us. By the time we feel the prick, the sting, or the bite, it is already too late to escape. Spielberg understood this about fear and water and used it to great effect. Take, for example, how actress Susan Backline, who plays Chrissie Watkins, the shark’s first victim, was not told by the crew when exactly she would be pulled underwater by her harness.
Swimming With the Shark
This summer, I had the opportunity to go to Martha’s Vineyard on June 20th for the 46th anniversary of Jaws. Like many other fans of the film who visit the island, I jumped off the Jaws bridge, swam the waters, and visited other Jaws film locations. I was lucky to meet John, who was an extra in the film. A boy at the time, John played a musician in the marching band. He had another scene as a boy scout that unfortunately Spielberg removed in the final cut. John was my Uber driver that day, and I hinted at what it must have felt like to be a part of such a legendary film. Jaws became the first summer blockbuster and pioneered a new shark film genre. In 2001, Jaws was selected by the National Film Registry as a significant cultural, historical, and aesthetic film deserving preservation. Today, the citizens of Martha’s Vineyard still recall the day that Spielberg came to the island to make a Hollywood movie. They say they were told that anyone interested could be in the movie. The pay for being an extra was $60 a day, a good deal for 1975. An even better deal if they had known their performance would be preserved in the National Film Registry.
Interpreting the Fear
Since Jaws was released in theaters on June 20th, 1975, cases of cinematic neurosis related to the film have been reported in towns and cities both close to water and far away. However, beyond cinematic neurosis, Jaws has had important influences in several other areas. Historically, the film was released soon after the Watergate scandal in the United States and loose parallels can be drawn between the Machiavellian politics of the mayor of Amity Island (Murray Hamilton) and President Nixon.
Psychologically, the film lends itself to multiple interpretations. In the Freudian realm, the triad of main protagonists could be read in terms of the psychic apparatus: Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) is the ego, modulating the passions; Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), the scientist, is the superego; and Quint (Robert Shaw), the warrior, represents the id. From a Jungian perspective, the citizens of Amity Island portray a perfect society, the persona, while the great white shark stands in for pure evil, our unacknowledged shadow, which we cannot integrate. From a Lacanian perspective, one may wonder why in an innocent, middle class beach town, a great white shark suddenly intrudes to annihilate anything it encounters. We may wonder why the great white shark is attacking the citizens of Amity Island. What is the shark attempting to suppress? Greed? The banality and superficiality of daily living? Spielberg leaves it to each of us to reflect on and think about for ourselves.
Acknowledgement: The author wants to thank Jonathan Chou, MD for help with editing.
Dr Forcen is founder of The Journal of Humanistic Psychiatry. For more information, see Dr Forcen’s book, Monsters, Demons and Psychopaths: Psychiatry and Horror Film. Podcast: El ÚltimoHumanista: https://elultimohumanista.libsyn.com.