‘Shark Night 3D’ and the joy of fear

Kaitlin McNabb
12 min readMay 17, 2020


Cookie Cutter sharks: attack!

From the shockingly unwatchable to ridiculously good, the Sharkometer series dissects every shark movie according to the GOAT Jaws.

Shark Night 3D by David R. Ellis, 2011
Starring Sara Paxton, Dustin Milligan, Chris Carmack, Katharine McPhee, Joel David Moore, Donal Logue, Joshua Leonard, Sinqua Walls, Alyssa Diaz, Chris Zylka, Jimmy Lee Jr., Damon Lipari
Budget: $25 million USD
Box office: $40,136,479 USD

Number of times previously watched: 1

In a pandemic, everything feels like it’s about the pandemic. The book written five years ago. The lyrics of your favourite songs. The shark movie you watched in January (sorry guys) or rather your dissection of it (not to mention the shark blogs you wrote months ago). Now everything pulses with pandemic meaning.

Back in the now blissful-seeming Before Time of early January (re: it was -50 C here), I noticed my tendency to look away from uncomfortable scenes in movies be they scary shark scenes (The Reef) or awkward encounters (Center Stage cookie scene) because the tension or awkwardness was too much. It seemed like a natural flight or fight response to me though (run!).

I’ve documented my fear of watching before, but I decided, in the Before Time, as a “fun experiment,” I would force myself to watch Shark Night 3D, eyes glued to the screen, to see what would happen to me and my perception of fear — a particularly prescient experiment, if ever.

Now, in The Times of Corona, it feels rather nauseating to study your fear. At the time, I was just curious, now it’s just way too on the nose. We get it. We’re all trapped inside, physically and metaphorically, forced to reconsider what life and living are actually about.

But, here we are. So, I studied my fear via Shark Night 3D, a movie about a group of senior-year college kids vacationing in the Louisiana Gulf, which is now filled with a wide assortment of sharks from (spoiler alert!) a Shark Week profiteering water sheriff and an ex-boyfriend who definitely tried to murder our lead gal Sara before she left for college (and she still has not grasped that concept). Also Ted from Schitt’s Creek is in this!

Okay, let’s put Shark Night 3D through the shark-o-meter and study our fear. *Mark Wahlberg pounds chest*

Divine Intervention: An experiment in fear

I’ve always been fascinated by people who find comfort or joy in watching horror movies because that is literally the exact opposite way I feel. (I’m more an anxiety rewatcher.)

The scientific theory for this posits that when people get scared it activates their flight or fight responses (again, I would run) and releases chemicals like adrenaline that keep our bodies in an enhanced sense of excitement, increasing any emotions thereafter. Also, apparently some people are just “wired differently” and enjoy an adrenaline rush — the oft-maligned adrenaline junkies (again, I’m running). I’ve also seen a theory — though I can’t find the citation so take this with a grain of salt — that horror movies make people feel in their bodies because they activate responses. A sort of comfort in knowing you’re connected to your body or that it can produce the “normal” responses, which makes sense, and I certainly felt something like that while watching. Probably that whole “it makes me feel alive” nonsense adrenaline junkies are always on about.

However, Adam Pottle suggests a more sociological theory for why people like horror movies: connection.

As our Hitchcockian Flare subsection suggests, horror movies are all about the subtext of what’s scaring us now. For example, the 1980s brought us Poltergeist and suburban conformity; the 1960s brought Rosemary’s Baby and the rise of feminism; and the 1950s brought Them! and nuclear war. “[Horror movies] not only frighten us; they enlighten us by giving us a vocabulary that allows us to articulate — and therefore confront — our fears,” says Pottle. We can escape while still keeping one eye on the reality around us.

But it’s more than that too. Horror movies have always featured outcasts, perhaps misunderstood (Frankenstein’s monster) and perhaps also seeking vengeance (Jason Voorhees), and outcasts beget outcasts. However, these movies were mainly shaped by white men and didn’t go far beyond those point of view parameters of “white as the normal experience.” Now, Pottle notes, horror movies feature and are created by more marginalized people than misunderstood white guys and the no-limits genre allows for no-limits storytelling, revealing the full visceral truth of experiences and providing more opportunities to connect (and even understand!) for viewers.

So, with both theories in mind, I fully watched Shark Night 3D, no look-aways, no takebacks. My nervous system was definitely activated at certain times (there’s a couple good jump scares!) and I did feel for the characters more, though I’m certain my love for Katherine McPhee is more Community-based than Shark Night 3D-based, but I think it worked?

Scientifically, the experiment’s results were inconclusive for this specific scenario (no baseline), but based on the evidence below and *~my emotions~*, one could deduce I enjoyed the movie more than I would have because I allowed myself to be fully immersed and be scared instead of outwardly casting it off as disappointing.

So that seems pretty divine.

Divine Intervention rating: 0.75/1 Waterfalls

Hitchcockian Flare: Who are you?

For those of you new to the Shark-o-meter, a bit of housekeeping: (1) welcome! Things are weird here. (2) Hitchcockian Flare has become shorthand for the aforementioned underlying subtext of a movie and (3) if you’re really, really new to shark movies, oftentimes these “added meanings” are pretty sloppy, incomplete or nonsensical, with notable exceptions like Jaws (obvi) The Shallows, and 47 Meters Down (guys it’s good!). If shark metaphors were on the chaotic/neutral bingo sheet, they’d be chaotic good.

Of the movies I’ve seen, Shark Night 3D falls squarely into the category of “trying to do the most to make a point and then failing and/or going off the rails” — think Sharknado and Deep Blue Sea (the Queen of the category). The watchability of this category is always up for grabs, but the ability to impart meaning onto a plot-hole-filled nonsense film is its true essence and beauty.

Shark Night 3D has some pretty obvious themes, which I’ll present as New Yorker articles below:

  • The Evils of Capitalism and Consumerism: How Greed Gaslit a Nation
  • Sex, Temptation, and the Death of a Woman
  • Murder on the Bayou: The Corruption of Power
  • Review: A Modern Day Hamlet Still Ends in Total Death

I’m not going to lie: the main plot that the popularity of Shark Week drove these two deranged men to fill a lake with sharks so they could make shark attack snuff films is pretty great and wildly out of the box. It’s a good attempt at a Capitalism vs the World take, which was unfortunately watered down by the weird morality policing of sexy women and desperate men.

However, another underlying meaning stands out.

In Carmen Maria Machado’s new book In The Dream House, she says “places are never just places. Setting is not inert. It is activated by point of view.” She described this for writing (of which is particularly true for Southern Gothic writing) but it got me thinking about Shark Night 3D (lord) and why it was senior-year college kids vacationing in an isolated southern bog town in a swamp swarming with stolen sharks instead of say senior-year high school or college freshmen. (Here we go!)

The setting represents being trapped: trapped in our pasts, our lives, our roles, which feels both right and wrong for a movie about college kids. College is about being freed from the shackles of high school, people say, and beginning the journey to adulthood. This always feels hyper intense for American reality and a little less so for Canadian because you’ll probably still see a lot of the same people at university (and forever) and Canadian high schools don’t have football culture. But! With post secondary, there’s this ability or theory that you can reinvent yourself, become who you think you really are, or just get away from the places that lock you in and hold you down.

But the structures of life (right now! Let’s hope the wheels fall off capitalism soon.) and those of university, especially if you’re in America, never shift enough. As you push through to the end of school, you’re still bound by the questions “what will you be?” “what will you do? “ and “what will you make of yourself?” Shark Night 3D asks its characters (and us): You were the freak in high school, the slut in university, who are you now, Beth? You were the girl next door in high school, the frigid pretty girl in university, who are you now, Sara? You were the jock in high school, the jock in university, who are you now, Malik? (Well, dead for 2/3.)

As Machado said, the setting does the work to show they are trapped. The movie doesn’t have to spell it out, even though this movie loves to spell things out. So what does all this mean? Well, I guess the proverbial “you can’t go home again” yes, because things will never be the same, but also because your murderous ex-boyfriend still has an ax to grind. And maybe if you can’t break free of the restrictions people place on you, you aren’t really living (because you are dead via shark).

In our current pandemic world, trapped in our houses, trapped in our fear, our unknowing, maybe it means fear that it will all just go back to normal, out of some desire for normalcy, in a post-pandemic world (or in this too soon post-pandemic world). I originally thought I would come out of this situation changed: a better person or closer to the person I wanted to be. I would bake bread weekly, call new friends for walks, call old friends during walks, write shark blogs monthly. I started doing these things, but then I stopped. I made the bread, I didn’t make the bread. Fuck the bread, the bread is over.

Maybe this the shark, as metaphor and reality, is coming to eat us and maybe we should we let it.

Hitchcockian Flare rating: 7/10 gold medals

Filmin’: The reliably unnecessary and boring 3D filmin’ technique

Shark Night 3D is the second 3D movie in our canon, second only to Bait 3D, and, much like its predecessor, uses the medium to have things pop out at us or slowly float towards us. It’s unnecessary and uninspired.

The final animatronic shark cage scene though was great. This whole film should have been that. The rest is shot fine and most defiantly looks like a movie.

Filmin’ rating: 2/4 video cameras



Mother Cutter rating: Oh, Verna.

Good Humour: One-dimensional humour flattens everything

Shark movies have become too serious or too reliant on one-off jokes — it totally flattens them! Creating movies that transcend broader genre boundaries is what makes them so good and realistic (see: this). We don’t live in a 2D world of emotions, even if they film them in 3D.

Good humour rating: 0/3 popsicles

Lack of CGI: The animatronics that could have been, but never were

There are two really great behind the scenes videos explaining the shark animatronics in Shark Night 3D. The first is of the director choreographing the final shark cage scene, which plays out GREAT in the movie and the still of this scene was the initial reason I was SO EXCITED to watch this movie. The second is of the animatronic effects supervisor Walt Conti explaining the two sharks the company made and the incredible detail and effort put in to making them, and I would say you see about 25% of this onscreen and is the main reason I was SO DISAPPOINTED with this movie.

In short, I thought it would be all animatronic, or all noticeable animatronics with few CGI scenes (a la Deep Blue Sea — Conti’s company did make those animatronics after all). Instead, I think the forced 3D filming obscured what we actually got, which was one great final cage scene, a good hammerhead shark body thrashing scene, and the rest a bad, uninspired CGI montage.

Props have to be given for the first Cookie Cutter shark death scene though and that folks is a sentence I literally never thought I’d write.

No CGIs allowed rating: 2/3 mechanical shark fins

WILDCARD: Don’t call it a comeback. Please.

The late 1990s/early 2000s, or Y2K era, is an influential cultural era that often gets maligned for the very things that make it special: glittery manufactured pop icons; ill-fitting clothing made of questionable materials and patterns; and the beginnings of DIY Internet culture, to mention but a few.

The movie-specific rap video by a rapper-turned-actor at the end of “their” movie has got to be my favourite though. LL Cool J’s “Deepest Bluest (My Hat is Like a Shark’s Fin). Will Smith’s veritable feast of classics: “Wild Wild West” “Men in Black” “Hitch” (it’s a bop!). Lil Bow Wow’s “HardBall”. Blaque’s “I’m Good.” It was a special thing, with varying degrees of success.

The thing about it though, is they all remain charmingly specific to their time and rebooting this trend (as we’re wont to do) would seem antiquated and tired, perhaps even offensive, especially if say a parody version were done.

Enter the Dustin Mulligan-directed “Shark Bite” by the Shark Night Cast.

I…um. Oh Dustin. Did we think dressing up as a “gangsta” version of ourselves in 2011 was still funny? Did we think this charmingly specific rap would play out as a well-intentioned homage? Aww, Sweetie, no.

I don’t recommend you watch. I did. It was appalling and added to my (rightful!) theory that Ted is still too boring and controlling (editor’s note: I just finished Season 6 of Schitt’s Creek and appreciate the growth) for Alexis, no matter how many beards they give him.

Wildcard rating: 1/1 Spielberg head (A memorable disaster)

Final Thoughts: What even is joy?

Disappointed. I was so ready to love this movie! I even pre-wrote the intro “Spoiler alert: I loved this movie!” months ago. I saw that image of an animatronic great white breaking through a cage and convinced myself it would be great.

Even in my pre-pandemic clarity, this movie didn’t hit right. Now, in my current pandemic haze, things hit a bit differently, which is…whatever. When everything feels like coping, it’s hard to find meaning in anything. But, I still don’t love this movie.

I will say this, I liked the myriad of sharks in it — Sand Tigers! Threshers (my fave)! Hammerheads! Great Whites! Cookie Cutters! — I liked the plot about capitalizing on Shark Week, I don’t think everyone should have died (more should have found redemption), and this movie could have been great. Seems like I say that a lot: it could have been great, it should have been great. There’s probably a metaphor in that too. Oh well. Go do or watch something that will bring you joy (even if it’s scary).

Next up: The multi-plotted ‘Red Water’

For a complete list of Sharkometer movies, swim here.

References and Recommended Readings

References are hyperlinked or below and some choice additional things that helped shape this piece.

On the Zeitgeist by Allison Driskill (subscribe to her fabulous newsletter Friendmmendations)
In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado
The Sweetly Subversive Marriage at the Core of Schitt’s Creek by Hannah Giorgis
Fuck the Bread. The Bread Is Over. by Sabrina Orah Mark
In a Pandemic, Is ‘Wellness’ Just Being Well-off? by Amy Larocca
Quarantine Fatigue Is Real by Julia Marcus
Quarantine Book Club with You’re Wrong About!
Starting a weekly movie night with your friends that either “Bad Movie Good Friends” in which everyone watches Deep Blue Sea and agrees it’s great (thanks Dustin!) or “Ladies Night” where you watch all your favourite movies as a teenager starting with Center Stage.
Rewatching Gilmore Girls (we all need the escape)