Jaws made shark phobia a household name, but the film's success was improbable at best. In 1975, Steven Spielberg was a struggling director with no major films to his credit. Richard Zanuck and David Brown were the heads of a new independent production company who were hungry for a hit. The trio teamed up to produce a new thriller/horror film that would change their fortunes forever.
Jaws preyed on our most primal fears. Animal phobias are one of the four main categories of specific phobias in the DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, 4th Ed.), and sharks are among the most feared of all animals. The film used many of the techniques of suspense that were pioneered by Alfred Hitchcock to create an intense experience that was rated #1 on Bravo's list of 100 Scariest Movie Moments in 2004 and #2 on the American Film Institute's 100 Years…100 Thrills.
Set during the summer of 1975, the film opens dramatically with the underwater killing of a young female swimmer by an unseen attacker. Both the police chief and the medical examiner believe that the perpetrator was a shark. Chief Brody decides to close the town's beaches. However, the town mayor is more concerned with a possible loss of revenue from the upcoming Fourth of July celebration. He puts forth the story that the young woman was killed in a boating accident, a tale with which Brody reluctantly agrees to go along.
The undeniable shark attack on a young boy in front of a crowded beach changes everything. His mother puts a $3,000 bounty on the shark, leading to a frenzied hunt. Grizzled professional shark hunter Quint arrives on the scene to offer his services, albeit for the fee of $10,000. A tiger shark is soon caught by a group of fisherman and blamed for the attacks.
As the mayor still refuses to close the beaches, further attacks lead him to finally acquiesce to Brody's request that he hire Quint. Brody, Quint and marine biologist Matt Hooper set out on their own quest to find and destroy the killer shark. After a series of near misses and dangerous situations, the trio is eventually successful.
The Mechanical Sharks
The original script called for a more traditional "slasher" feel. The shark was to appear prominently throughout the film, leaving a trail of carnage and disaster. However, the film suffered from endless production problems. Most of these difficulties were focused on the mechanical sharks, which never worked properly. Spielberg ended up naming the shark character "Bruce" after the lawyer he hired to sue the shark manufacturers.
With the sharks out of commission, Spielberg had to be resourceful. He decided to utilize some of the techniques pioneered by master of horror Alfred Hitchock, representing the shark with floating yellow barrels and spooky music. This change added drama and suspense, as the audience was almost never given the relief of tension that would be associated with the shark's appearance.
The Real Shark
Part of why Jaws works so well is the sheer size of the film shark. During the movie, it is described as 25 feet long and weighing 3 tons. Camera tricks are employed to reinforce the enormity of the predator bent on destruction.
In the movie, Jaws is classified as a great white shark. However, Spielberg has stated that the shark was actually based on the megalodon, a much larger prehistoric shark. Researchers believe that the megalodon employed a much more aggressive hunting strategy than the great white, which is more opportunistic in its attacks.
The PhobiaJaws was an unexpected smash hit, breaking box office records to become the most successful film at the time. The film's success was in large part due to skillful direction and the finely tuned performances of its cast. However, part of its success can be attributed to its subject matter.
At the time, public opinion of sharks was generally that they were mindless killing machines. Sleek, powerful and easily large enough to see humans as food, the shark has been the subject of primal fear throughout recorded history. While today, advanced research has dispelled many misconceptions about sharks, in the 1970s the average moviegoer had little reason to disbelieve the way that Jaws was portrayed.
Nonetheless, the average moviegoer did not spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about shark attacks. The beach was a popular vacation destination and while shark attacks were occasionally recorded, they rarely led to widespread hysteria. The film brought the possibility of shark attack to the forefront of people's minds, and the effect was noticeable. From coast to coast, beach towns reported a downturn in tourism following the release of Jaws. Even today, nervous references to the movie can be overheard at virtually any beach.
It is unlikely that Jaws would create a new shark phobia in viewers today. The slasher films of the 1980s have largely desensitized us to onscreen violence. Nonetheless, fear of sharks is a deep and primal fear, and it is possible that in those who are sensitive, Jaws could aggravate the fear, potentially resulting in a full-blown phobia. If you are afraid of sharks, you may want to think twice before seeing Jaws.
American Psychiatric Association. (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th Ed.). Washington, DC: Author.