“There is no such thing as paranoia. Your worst fears can come true at any moment.”
– Hunter S. Thompson
One lazy Summer night back in 2015, I was watching a late night broadcast of the 1983 thriller “Jaws 3-D” at a friend’s house. As it played softly in the background and we chatted about something unrelated to what was happening on the screen, my attention drifted and I became absorbed in the movie. On the screen, I saw a 35 ft shark lodged in the broken window of an underwater control center, chomping away like Pacman as the people inside slowly carried out their MacGuyver-esque plan to blow its head off with a hand grenade and end their watery nightmare once and for all. This was probably the fiftieth time I’d been exposed to this disaster-piece of a movie – mostly as a child and occasionally as a nostalgia seeking adult. It was, objectively speaking, a standard piece of trash cinema that received plenty of scorn from critics when it came out. Soon after its release, it was filed away and forgotten with the hordes of other money-grab sequels capitalizing on the success of a classic film.
Yet, even as a jaded 31 year old man, I still felt some lingering fondness for it coupled with an undeniably sad yearning to re-experience it from the perspective of an impressionable 7 year old. Back then, I wasn’t discriminating between the brilliant original Jaws and the b-movie bombs that followed nearly as much as the critics. For the most part, I viewed all four films as equally terrifying and seductive – nothing more than different shades of the same wonderful color. I’d like to think that I sensed the superiority of the first film and it was certainly my favorite of the bunch, but despite the shark getting faker and the stories getting dumber, I loved them all.
When I originally saw these films, I was young, naive and ultra-sensitive. This left me immune to all the terrible direction, special effects and almost surreally bad concepts that should have broken the spell for adult viewers. Like most children, I was naturally trusting of adults and just assumed they knew what they were doing, so the acting and dialogue weren’t much of a problem. All of the logical questions like why the Brody family insisted on returning to live near the water or why sharks target specific families and form psychic connections with them evaded me, so that took care of the bad plot lines. As for special effects, I didn’t give too much thought to how the shark worked and frankly didn’t really want to know, nor had I seen many real-life sharks up close despite my fascination with them.
Of course, every child is different, and I’d say that I could be an especially serious-minded young person. I wanted very much to have monsters to believe in and I’m sure I was easily seduced by even the weakest attempt at dramatic horror partially due to this desire. But I think it’s safe to say that when we’re young and our critical thinking skills are not yet at an adult level, it’s generally easier to pull one over on us. In this way, I was free to experience the deep level of primal fear that the creators of Jaws 2-4 certainly intended, and usually failed at, producing for an adult audience.
As I continued watching this movie about a shark breaking into Sea World, which, in a simpler time, I’d nonetheless played on a loop with little irony from the time I got my mom to rent it until the time it was due back, I wondered if it was possible to look back on my childhood obsession and somehow distill from the jumbled mess why it was exactly that these movies affected me so strongly then. If overanalyzing the details leaves us disenchanted, then a return to simplification might renew the magic.
I soon made plans to start scanning all four films for stills that might work as a series of paintings and finally got to it over a year later. I set aside a day strictly for a marathon viewing of Jaws 1-4, eventually stepping out of my unlit studio bleary eyed with 5 images that I felt captured distinctive moods, palettes, angles and settings (above or underwater in this case). I wanted to avoid direct representation through the painting process – doing away with faces and eyes from both human and shark as much as possible. Any clear details in an image that hinted at a narrative would be taken out – the more pixelated and out of context the image, the better.
As a lifelong enthusiast of both good and bad horror alike, I’ve always been fascinated by the way our desire to run from unpleasant thoughts is often met with an equally powerful desire to seek out and witness traumatic events from a distance. There are many theories as to why this is: that we’re simply drawn to anything that will give us an adrenaline rush, or that we’re all inherently violent and this is one effective way to purge, or maybe horror serves as a stand-in for real impending danger to the more primitive regions of the brain – by seeing a movie and facing the threat we’ve been alerted to in a preview, we can conquer it and survive.
My guess is that they’re all more or less valid and most likely contributed to my beloved childhood ritual of watching a shark chase, injure and kill other humans on screen from the safety of my living room. But there’s another important motivating factor behind our widespread consumption of all things horror: that is the need, among both children and adults, for a monster. Within most adults who routinely seek out forms of entertainment with the sole intention of scaring the shit out of themselves, I imagine there’s a deep yearning for something foreign to our human-centric understanding of the real world. Drawing from my own experiences, I’d say I get a strange comfort from indulging in the possibility that there’s an outside threat I don’t fully understand. It allows me to channel the black and white simplicity of childhood when there was a much clearer divide between “us” and “them”. I would guess this feeling isn’t too different from the comfort one can receive from practicing religion. The concept of a celestial life giver is replaced by an alien life taker, but in both scenarios there is another entity with supernatural powers that’s steering the ship for us and deciding our fate.
Oddly enough, one could say that the scariest part of the scary movie is the one thing we’re convinced will relieve us of our fear: the end of the threat. As children, we don’t often think about the fact that life must continue after the movie’s climax. Once the shark’s been blown up or the masked murderer has been killed with fire, there’s silence – and in the silence, we’re forced to look at ourselves and consider that maybe, in reality, we’re scarier than any monster in our imagination. Maybe the threat of death is the only reason to try and stay alive. Maybe without the distraction of having something to be constantly running from, life is sad and empty and pointless. So, maybe we find another horror movie and lose ourselves in the rush of being chased by the “other” once again.
From about 2007-2012, I developed an unfortunate proneness to severe panic attacks. They were usually brought about by the heavy drinking I was involved in at that time, but I didn’t want to stop drinking, so the attacks kept coming. During that time, I would regularly and without warning be thrown into an intense state of irrational fear that would typically last for hours, until I’d eventually give in and head to the hospital for the only certain cure I knew of at the time: Benzodiazepine. Underlying the endless series of fearful thoughts you come up with to justify your emotions (usually over events that could technically happen but are highly unlikely, such as “This airplane could take a nosedive into the ocean at any moment, this building could come down on me at any moment”, etc.) is that shrill and frightened inner voice that’s saying with utter certainty: “You’re going to die”.
The unfortunate thing about a panic attack is that, unlike being confronted by an actual threat, there’s nothing to really defend yourself from. The threat is nameless – all around you and inside of you – and if it’s intense enough, there’s no relief outside of the passing of time or drugs that are usually difficult to get. Trying to control your thoughts and deep breathing exercises can provide minimal relief but they only go so far. Adrenaline is largely indifferent to your self-control attempts. I would be sitting in the quiet corner of a library and in an instant the fear center in my brain would tell me that I’m in the middle of a war zone, or trapped in quicksand, or stranded in the ocean and being pursued by a massive, blood-thirsty shark.
That inexplicable feeling we have when we suddenly know we will soon be erased, that there’s no way out, is something that most of us don’t experience often. In a strange way, I don’t feel regret in having gone through what I did because I’d like to think it’s forced me to better understand how fear works and how to adapt when it strikes.
I think one of the most important jobs of an artist is to resist the mind’s tendency to snuff out anything that’s too scary, sad, or confusing for most of us to think about for too long. These mental filters of course serve an important role – we can’t function when we’re paralyzed by the fear that someone we care about deeply could suddenly be taken from us at the hands of a falling air conditioner, so we do what we need to do to carry on with our lives. Unfortunately, this constant avoidance can also make us complacent, and ultimately keep us from connecting with one another over the scary, uncomfortable and embarrassing realities we all have to face.
Throughout these years of consuming copious amounts of alcohol, having a hungover panic attack and repeating daily, I was obsessed with exposing myself to traumatic things. This was certainly due in part to morbid curiosity, but also to a deep conviction that it was wrong not to. I found myself listening to countless recorded phone conversations between dispatchers and 9/11 victims moments before they were crushed or jumped from the flames. In those conversations, you can hear masks come off – people at their most nakedly afraid and vulnerable. I felt it was somehow selfish not to be there with them in that state – for at least a few minutes – and I felt more connected to them because of their vulnerability. Allowing myself to see 9/11 as a fading anniversary calendar event and these people as faceless victims – to give in to the lull of that insistent wishful thinking that tells us “it was over quick” – was the worst thing I could do as a fellow human.
In retrospect I don’t think this was much different than my repeat viewings of simulated shark attacks 30 years ago – the 100 story building standing in for the massive great white (with the significant added dimension of reality in the case of the former). I held this with me while painting the first piece in the series (header image for this post), and the monstrous silhouette of the shark dragging it’s overwhelmed victim into darkness carried the same emotions I felt from watching the collapse of the WTC buildings and imagining the horrific scene inside. In both scenarios, I’m using sounds and images to rattle myself out of my stable and privileged existence so that when terrifying reality finally comes knocking, I’ll somehow be more prepared.
Now, at 37, I can honestly say that while my love of horror movies and true crime has never really waned, my imperative to routinely seek out grisly material from the dark underbelly of the internet has mostly disappeared. Not only is it an unproductive use of time and generally time spent in isolation, it turns out it’s not so great for your mental health either. As mentioned a few paragraphs earlier, there are good reasons why most of us have a hard time staying constantly tuned in to the potential horrors life has to offer. We simply can’t function like this. Letting our guard down allows us to experience growth and change – to appreciate what we have instead of worrying about what we’ll lose. The HST quote that opens this post is absolutely true – but we still have the power to tune it out when it’s paralyzing us.
I list a number of reasons why one may fetishize a feeling of being pursued by the other, but of course it’s all just speculation on my part. We each have our own unique reasons for being attracted to things that we should not logically be attracted to, and I can’t say for sure why I loved and feared Jaws while other people either weren’t scared by it, or didn’t like being scared by it.
This Is The End went on in the foreground and background for about 5 years until I finally decided to stop. I had imagined more pieces including one massive 40″ x 70″ centerpiece, but I realized at some point that it had run it’s course, and it was time to move on to other ideas.
While working on most of the larger pieces, I blasted a white noise video on YouTube through my speakers that sounded a lot like being deeply submerged in the ocean – the bass would rattle the easel at times. Through all the predictable distractions, frustrations and moments of boredom that inevitably come from executing a painting, there were definitely times where I could say I found myself feeling like I was 7 again – imagining myself in that shark cage, terrified and staring off into the endless murky water that might as well have been the atmosphere of another planet as a blurry white shape slowly emerged in the distance, heading directly toward me.
In the end, and I couldn’t tell you why…I think that sensation was all I was really looking for.