OPINION: Villainizing animals in fiction has real life consequences

Brianna Beassie 

bbeassie@uccs.edu 

     I will be the first to admit that I love animal horror movies; if it exists, I’ve probably seen it, or at least parts of it. Unfortunately, movies in which the primary villain is an animal tend to perpetrate false myths about the chosen beasts utilized for each  
“creature-feature.” 

     Whenever the entertainment industry releases a new animal-themed horror movie, audiences will either flock to the theater in excitement, or march to the nearest ocean or jungle or town hall to express their discontent with the animal species demonized in the newest blockbuster.  

     There are several examples of this phenomenon that immediately come to my mind. After Peter Benchley’s novel “Jaws” was turned into the classic film that it is today, many viewers (myself included) became terrified of the massive predator lurking below the depths of the Pacific Ocean.  

     Despite being released 25 years before I was born, I practically grew up watching Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws,” and it is one of my favorite films to date. While I eventually overcame this fear and grew to appreciate and respect sharks for what they are, many other people have built upon their fear and resentment of the animals.  

     In an article for Variety.com, Anna Marie de la Fuente discusses a new documentary entitled “Sharksploitation” and how our perception of sharks has been skewed over the years due to the entertainment industry.  

     As cited by de la Fuente, Benchley said, “There is no such thing as a rogue shark which develops a taste for human flesh. No one appreciates how vulnerable they are to destruction.” 

     In the years following, Benchley and his wife even began to advocate against shark hunting and pushed for more shark conservation efforts.   

     Another film that inadvertently promoted misinformation about animals was 1996’s Michael Douglass starrer entitled, “The Ghost and the Darkness,” which tells the story of two male lions from the Tsavo region of Kenya, Africa. The lions notoriously killed several construction workers who were building the Kenya-Uganda Railway from March to December 1898.   

     For the longest time, people believed that the film’s portrayal of rogue lions was accurate and that this pair of African felines were killing the workers for sport rather than attacking them as prey.  

     A little over 20 years later, in 2017, Mindy Weisberger wrote an article for LiveScience.com where she explained, “A recent analysis of the remains of the two man-eaters, a part of the collection at The Field Museum in Chicago, offers new insight into what led the Tsavo lions to kill and eat people. The findings, described in a new study, suggest a different explanation: that tooth and jaw damage — which would have made it excruciating to hunt their usual large herbivore prey — was to blame.” 

     Another example comes from the 1999 film, “Lake Placid.” This is another notable movie in which an animal’s nature is severely overdramatized. For those who haven’t seen it, “Lake Placid” is about a nearly 10-meter-long crocodile who feeds off the residents and livestock of a small town in Maine.  

     Keep in mind, I would be entirely wrong to say that this movie isn’t a fun watch. In fact, it has you laughing all the way to the lake at times and includes a cameo of Betty White in a small, snarky role that proves just how much of a queen she is.  

     Still, this film also makes crocodiles out to be far more sinister than they really are.  

     In September of 2013, a crocodile about two meters in length was shot and killed by contractors near at an actual lake called Lake Placid in Cairns, Australia. While there are likely many non-lethal methods that the contractors could’ve employed to remove the crocodile from the area, it seems like they favored a kill-shot.  

     Terri Irwin, wife of the late Steve Irwin, blasted the actions of the contractors. Irwin told The Cairns Post, “Simply stay well back from the water’s edge and you will always be safe with crocodiles.” 

     Fortunately, it seems like the contractors’ actions were not ones that inspired the rest of the Cairns community, as it was later reported that another local woman saw a different small crocodile and refused to tell authorities its location so that they did not unjustly euthanize the animal. 

     Other movies such as “The Shallows,” “Crawl” and “Anaconda,” which are arguably excellent (perhaps cheesy) films, continue to villainize predators as though they are man-eating, killing machines with a thirst for human meat. Yet, this is hardly ever the case in real life. 

     Of course, I am not at all telling you that you must stop watching these movies or similar ones. I only bring these points up to remind people that these animals, while they are wild and often dangerous, are not to be blamed for how humans portray them for entertainment.  

     For those interested in learning more about the false animal narratives and how their behaviors are portrayed in the entertainment industry, I highly recommend watching GQ’s Youtube video “Wildlife Expert Breaks Down Animal Scenes from Movies.”  

Stock photo courtesy of Nariman Mesharrafa / Unsplash.com