The Exaggerated Terror of “Creature Features”: From Jaws to Cocaine Bear
In a strange way “creature features” like “Jaws,” “Anaconda,” “Crawl,” or “Ghosts In the Darkness” sadden me. They of course aren’t intended to be sad. These gruesome horror/adventure films are primitively engaging, even if (as in the case of “Lake Placid” or “Anaconda”) they are a bit cheesy. But they sadden me because they have the capacity to misrepresent the kind of danger predatory animals actually present to humans.
Life is difficult for human beings. We deal with social, financial, and health-related challenges all the time. Natural forces like cancer, earthquakes, and malaria or Covid threaten us, but generally the greatest predatory threat to human beings is other human beings. You can always move somewhere with no mosquitoes, sharks, crocodiles, or snakes. But moving somewhere without sexual predators or assailants, thieves, serial killers, terrorists, or even non-criminal, non-violent people with terrible personalities is much more difficult. There is a reason French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre once wrote: “Hell is other people.” “Other people,” though, can just as often be “Heaven” as they can be “Hell”, which is of course the eternal existential struggle.
We learn about Rwanda or Nazi Germany or even the local corrupt politician or high school “mean girl” and we lose faith in humanity. Then we hear stories about nurses and doctors saving lives, and our opinion changes. It’s difficult though. We don’t want shades of grey. We want things simple- all people are ultimately good or ultimately evil and nothing in between. Except that of course isn’t the case.
And it isn’t the case with non-human predatory animals either. I’m certainly not going to jump into a shark tank, but the odds of being attacked by a shark, lion, or tiger are astronomically low (at least in today’s world). If they were actually the only threat, we’d be living in a pretty perfect world!
Consider, for instance, we don’t set up internet firewalls to protect ourselves from alligators. Anacondas don’t troll the internet for children. Great whites don’t commit mass shootings. No bear or wolf has ever engaged in police brutality. Gustav (the infamous sub-Saharan crocodile) threatened people, but his motivation (hunger) was very simple. Gustav never taunted wildlife officers with letters boasting of his crimes! Only one animal is responsible for those types of acts! And yet when any other predatory animal besides Homo sapiens is featured on the big screen, they come off as only threatening and evil and scary!
Sometimes it’s all just in good fun. We hear the “duh-duh…duh-duh…duh-duh-duh-duh-duh” soundtrack, for instance, and we dread visiting the beach. But other times it’s very serious. Western civilization’s most significant religious text almost immediately vilifies serpents. Don’t get me wrong. I find snakes pretty creepy…especially big ones. I don’t despise them but I’m not getting near them! Going on a hike in a jungle filled with pythons isn’t on my bucket list! And they certainly did often threaten our ancient, tree-dwelling ancestors. But we’re way beyond that, and we’re even way beyond that metaphorically! We don’t need to compare unscrupulous people to “snakes.” Unscrupulous, duplicitous, or otherwise deceitful people are just that. Dragging any reticulated reptiles into the mix (even if only as a point of comparison) is unnecessary!
For many of us, the sight or even thought of any animal- especially a dog or cat- on the receiving end of human cruelty is heartbreaking. We can watch action films where hundreds of people are “killed” (although not in reality because it’s all acting) but if someone kicks a puppy we break down in tears. The truth is, though, I’d extend that same tragic sentiment to dangerous predatory animals as well. A snake, shark, or crocodile on the receiving end of human cruelty can be just as upsetting!
And this itself speaks to the complex nature of human empathy, compassion, and justice/mercy. We want our enemies to suffer, but we need our enemies to be fully, deliberately, and absolutely evil before we do, and that is more often not the case. Occasionally a truly rotten person like Ted Bundy or Vlad the Impaler comes along. But they are few and far between. Most “bad” people are “bad” because of circumstances. There are plenty of stories of criminals, klansmen, and Neo-Nazis who’ve rejected their hateful ways. The film “American History X” (1998) presents one such (fictional) example.
Now, obviously, non-humans are not going to “see the error of their ways” like humans do. If “Cocaine Bear” has a taste for human flesh, that’s never going away. But those are very rare cases. In general, though, if we give snakes, sharks, crocodiles, or other big predatory animals plenty of space, they won’t bother us (despite what we may see on the silver screen)! The two-legged creature is a little trickier though!