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The great white way

A shark tale that's sometimes hard to swallow



Three years ago, you’ll remember, all America was buzzing about a movie called The Blair Witch Project. Not just buzzing, but vomiting in terror and needing to be led by the arm to the nearest exit in full-blown panic. That’s for me! I thought at the time, This kind of thing hasn’t happened since The Exorcist!

Every bit of enthusiasm I had for Blair Witch evaporated at precisely the moment in the film where someone actually describes what the witch looks like. From that point on, all the hydraulic lifts in the world couldn’t have suspended my disbelief long enough to find anything even remotely scary about some old hag with hairy boobs hanging mobiles in trees in a Maryland state park. Just that brief description torpedoed any possibility of real scariness, polluting my mind with the mental picture of a hairy-breasted sasquatch lady leaping and mugging around outside the tent like someone’s embarrassing mom at a Key Club haunted house.

It was 27 years ago that Jaws first hit theaters—the movie, as everyone knows, that literally scared millions of Americans out of the water for an entire summer. If it hadn’t been for film editor Verna Fields, however, it might just have had everybody crying with laughter. The strategy of not showing the shark until halfway through the movie was actually devised in the editing process, when even the gadget-crazy Spielberg couldn’t help but notice how cheesy the mechanical sharks looked.

“Verna was the key figure in what happened in post [production],” Cohen told author Peter Biskind in a 1995 interview. “She began to realize that what you could imagine was worse than what you could see.”

Indeed. Nothing in the horror-movie annals of the past 80 years cuts to the queasy quick like a shark attack. The sandpaper skin, lifeless eyes, teeth like baling knives. The sudden violence, the “abhorrent mildness” and “dumb gloating of aspect” that Herman Melville seized upon. A prehistoric eating machine that strikes without warning in just the environment where our best bet for survival—running—is out of the question.

Moving on: It was 86 years ago this month that the events fictionalized in Peter Benchley’s novel and its subsequent screen adaptation actually happened—not in make-believe Amity, but in three different spots on the northern coast of New Jersey. Between July 1 and July 12, 1916, four swimmers were killed and a fifth seriously wounded in a series of shark attacks, two of them at popular resort beaches and three of them along one short stretch of murky creek several miles inland. Having already been ransacked once for Benchley’s bestseller and again for Spielberg’s blockbuster, the real-life events behind Jaws finally get their nonfiction due (well, almost) in a book-length mesh of social history and forensic detective story written by shark-attack expert (and New Jersey native) Richard G. Fernicola.

The historical backdrop to Twelve Days of Terror couldn’t be more resonant with foreboding and end-of-innocence sentiment. The United States hadn’t yet entered WWI, and lots of Americans were banking their election-year hopes on Woodrow Wilson to keep the country out of the carnage strewn across the daily headlines. On the other hand, with just over a year elapsed since the loss of 128 American lives in the torpedoing of the Lusitania, there was a sizeable contingent grumbling that Wilson wasn’t involving the country enough. With the United States still a neutral power, German U-boats were a frequent sight at American ports of call.

Meanwhile, there were dozens of instances of German sabotage and intrigue on American soil. Just weeks after the shark attacks, a terrific explosion at a munitions depot at Jersey City’s Black Tom Island on July 30, 1916 shattered the windows of office buildings in Manhattan and raked the Statue of Liberty with shrapnel. An outbreak of polio, abetted by searing heat and pre-chlorine public bathing areas, was literally paralyzing hundreds of children every week and driving New Yorkers who could afford the seasonal move to the more hygienic environs of the coastal resorts. With President Wilson himself in the midst of a summer move to the then-thriving resort of Asbury Park, the last thing anyone needed was a shark scare.

Unfortunately, with all this backdrop looming over the rash of shark attacks, author Fernicola is just a little too shark-happy to tie it all together in a seamless and satisfying way. He looks at bite marks, bull shark habits, and tissue avulsion every which way, but somehow fails to deliver a compelling story. An enthusiastic shark-attack detective he may be, but Fernicola just isn’t a muscular enough writer to sustain the momentum required to propel the book through so much jumping back and forth between the history, the science, the all-important attack narratives, and frequent breaks to explain his own research methodology.

To his credit, Fernicola does try really hard to keep the human drama of the attacks at the fore. A little too hard, maybe. Just when you think it’s safe to get back in after a particularly dull passage, he slaps you with a sentence or two so maudlin that the average Readers Digest “Drama in Real Life” reads downright dispassionate in comparison. The author’s spelling is also horrible—numerous instances of “hoards” where it should be “hordes,” “peak” where it should read “peek,” etc.—though at this level the fault probably lies with the editor.

On the bright side, Fernicola’s 20-plus years of research on the subject and his exhaustive (though exhausting) recap of it brings some truly odd theories to light, like the hushed whispers that German agents somehow using shark-attracting devices to wreak havoc on coastal recreation. It’s also interesting to note that local business owners tried to get the press to blame the maulings on German U-boat propellers. Then, as now, a little opportunistic flag-waving never hurt business.

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