Going to the dentist is one of those necessary life rituals that causes an irrational explosion of anxiety in otherwise sane, stable people. The ear-slicing whine of the tiny drill as it scrapes at enamel inspires more revulsion than that of a vegan served a slab of porterhouse, more terror than the prospect of a Rob Ford sex tape. Finding out today that I need a root canal, my mind is cast to the image of C.J. Cregg on The West Wing episode “Celestial Navigation,” wailing “I had woot canaww!!” and advising that the pwesident needs to be bwiefed immediatewy. Yet my dentist assures me that I can go straight back to work, it’s not like the days I needed off from school when I had my wisdom teeth out so many moons ago. They numb you up, drill inside the tooth, extract the pulp – which you don’t need anyway once the tooth is fully formed – and cap it with a sealant. Easy peasy, really. But that won’t stop dental work from being a reliable source of dread on TV shows and the like until the medium itself expires.
There are hundreds of things that the entertainment industry has convinced us to wet our pants at the mere thought of that are in reality quite benign. Sharks and air travel are the two that spring to mind right away. Up until 1975, shark attacks were the rarest of the rare, with beachgoers more likely to suffer a nibble from a petulant sea turtle. Then Jaws drops and nobody wants to go in the water, and the fear of the shark is so indelibly etched into our collective consciousness (accompanied by John Williams’ foreboding theme music) that almost forty years later we’re still using them as stock monsters for our schlockiest of movies, only now they’re flying out of tornadoes. They’re reduced to mindless predators driven into a frenzy for human flesh by the slightest whiff of blood, the standard pet of every supervillain, sometimes even with frickin’ laser beams attached to their heads. The documentary Sharkwater had to be produced to try to restore the reputation of these fatally misunderstood creatures – murdered by the thousands every year – and yet, the Mayor’s cautionary words from Jaws still ring in everyone’s ears: “you yell ‘shark,’ and you’ve got a panic on the Fourth of July.” Whether you realize it or not, you too scan the horizon for the telltale fin when you go swimming at a tropical beach. The primal fear is that entrenched.
And then there’s the terrors in the sky. Airplanes, and indeed air travel, are almost never shown in movies or TV unless something bad is going to happen mid-flight. The plane is going to be hijacked, or run out of fuel, or hit a deadly storm, or the crew will be incapacitated, resulting in the massive jet needing to be landed by the plucky kid who loves flight simulation games on his XBox. Look at Lost, the show whose entire premise revolved around the aftermath of a plane crash on a deserted island. The first episode began with an unnamed survivor opening his eyes and staggering around the plane’s debris field, and witnessing some poor schmuck get sucked into the still-firing engine – an airliner so lethal it was still killing people after having gone down. The media doesn’t help, shunting real-life crashes to the front of any broadcast. I’ll never forget the day in 2005 when that Air France flight skidded off the runway after landing at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport and CNN’s Wolf Blitzer sounded crestfallen that there were no fatalities to report. How often do planes crash in real life, though? Once every six months or so? Sounds like a lot until you consider that in entire world, there are on average 7,000 flights daily. That’s every single day of the year. So yeah, your odds of ending up dodging the black smoke monster on that time-traveling island are pretty much on par with having a sharknado drop on top of your house before you finish reading this sentence.
I feel for dentists, I really do. Just as airlines and sharks never get a positive portrayal in the movies, neither do dentists. (For a double whammy, check out Cast Away where Tom Hanks’ plane crashes before he can make a dentist appointment for an abscessed tooth.) They’re all drawn from the Little Shop of Horrors or Marathon Man mold, depicted as sadistic, domineering and utterly inconsiderate of the sheer agony they’re about to inflict on their squirming patient. All the better for us to laugh at, I suppose. And yet their real-life counterparts have to overcome this stereotype each time a new victim – er, client walks through the door, to say nothing of the years of training and certification required to be able to do the job in the first place. A job that requires them to stick their fingers into some pretty disgusting, halitosis-wracked mouths every day. I suppose the message in all of this is that we shouldn’t rely on the movies to tell us what we should and shouldn’t be afraid of – and that we need to remember to floss.