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J Is for Jaws

Jaws1 These days, with cannibalism out of vogue, sharks in rapid decline, and fewer man-eating tigers, saltwater crocodiles, or grizzly bears around as well, it’s hard to find a place in the real world where one is in much danger of being eaten.

But that doesn’t seem to make much difference to our collective unconscious. Deep down, we all fear being eaten as much today as we did back in the times when – either by an animal or a fellow human – it was an actual possibility.

What’s the scariest thing about being eaten? The fact that it hurts shouldn’t be discounted, but there’s also a psychological component involved. To be eaten is to be taken apart – either by the jaws that do the biting or by the digestive process that takes over once we’re down in the belly of whatever man, beast, or monster has made a meal of us. (Or, as with the unfortunate Dallas in that deleted scene from Alien, once it has placed us in one of its nests for gradual digestion.) It’s that being-taken-apart feeling that we really fear.

But at the same time, we also desire it. Why? Because unconsciously, we associate being eaten with being initiated – sucked back down into the belly of mother earth so that we can be taken apart and put together again as different people than we were before. Every corner of the world has its myths and legends of people who are devoured by large, dangerous animals or monsters, only to emerge again in better shape than they were when they went down. Horror movies are one of our best modern methods of telling these old initiatory stories in a new guise.

Does that mean it’s a good thing to get eaten in a horror movie?

Often, yes. Consider Brody and Hooper in Jaws. Though neither is actually eaten by Bruce the shark, their companion Quint is, and all that action when the Orca sinks at the end of the film can be seen as their being symbolically devoured. When it’s all over and the two of them are paddling for shore, it’s clear that both characters have somehow been made better by their encounter with the shark. They’re braver, more confident, more complex… LARGER characters than they were when the action started.

This happens again and again in horror films that feature devouring creatures. The characters who deal with them end up being better people, after the action is over, than they were at the start.

Not that EVERYONE always makes out well in these kinds of films. Some characters just get eaten and that’s the end of it.

Sorry Mrs. Kintner. 

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