Today is a symbiotic day for me to write this piece. I spent the day traveling to Virginia and as I drove further and further south, I had flashbacks to scenes from Wrong Turn (2003) and Jeepers Creepers (2001). At one point I was certain that I drove past the exact point where Darry (Justin Long) climbed down that creepy pipe in the monster’s yard and I was momentarily convinced there were bodies down there. Unlike every horror film made, I was smart enough not to go back and investigate. That being said, I pondered something that I heard in a the documentary Why Horror (2014) where someone makes this beautifully obvious yet understated point that horror is really the only genre that leaves a lasting emotional imprint on a person. It becomes a reference point for so many things in our lives. Its images are the darkness beyond the trees, the monster beneath the bed, and the reason we know to never say “I’ll be right back”. Every time I drive south, I immediately picture these scenes from wrong turns down dusty roads. And every time anyone, I mean anyone goes in the water they certainly evoke images of…Jaws (1975).
This month marks the forty year anniversary of the original release of Jaws. And as we speak, I am able to google the word “jaws” and ripped from the current headlines is, “I felt like I was living through a real-life version of a scene from Jaws” and “Witness says it was like a scene from Jaws”.[i] No one references the 1969 film Shark! (For obvious reasons), so what is it about Jaws that allowed it to permeate the minds of millions across the world. Considering that the shark (Bruce) doesn’t show up until about an hour and twenty minutes into the two hour film, there must be something about this film that just captures horror at in its purest form.
My mother inadvertently answered this question for me. While on the road to Virginia, she happened to discuss the techniques she and her colleagues utilize to maximize learning retention in their students. She mentioned that the more portions of the brain that engage in a session of learning, the higher the chance is for holding onto that information. For example, by engaging multiple senses in the experience i.e. touch, sound, smell, and active participation it enhances the ability to recollect. I think this is exactly the same concept that makes Jaws the go to horror film in our muscle memory. The simple addition of the two notes from a bass E-F-E-F changed the face of the film. I argue along with documented comments from Steven Spielberg, that the music scoring in Jaws was half the horror. [ii] No horror film prior or since has managed to link our visual terror with such an audible tag (with the film Halloween (1978) being the only other film that comes close).
Music scoring coupled with high levels of tension, an environment of disadvantage, and tangible setting created a perfect storm. First, the film is relatable as almost every family has experience with going to the shore for fishing, beach going, or boating. Second, there is a certain vulnerability while we are swimming in the water. Out in the open water and often unaware of the inhabitants below, humans are not equipped to outmaneuver a shark. There is perpetual disadvantage to being a human in the ocean. Finally, the shark point of view throughout the film reminds us that we are no longer at the top of the food chain. It was largely mechanical difficulties with Bruce that led to these tension building and pivotal POV shots. These shots add to the eeriness of being so near to a shark and yet so unaware that it is there. Also the technical problems with the shark encouraged Spielberg to improvise and he successfully executed ways for the audience to infer the menace of the shark (showing a fin, a barrel being pulled). The POV and the process of inference made the audience an active participant in the film which most likely enhanced their retention of the threat. It is noted throughout history and it is undisputable that Jaws affected society on an emotional level. Numbers at the beach declined after its release and massive shark hunts ensued. The film had lasting ramifications not only for humans but also for sharks. Another measurable impact, East coast white sharks among other species suffered because of humans’ inability to regulate their emotions after Jaws.
No other genre of film offers such a popular reference point that also evokes emotion in the manner of Jaws. Business Insider.com ranks Jaws the second highest grossing scary film of all time. However, I argue that, despite falling behind the Sixth Sense (1999), Jaws holds the reigning title for scariest movie of all time. While it didn’t reveal shocking twists at the end, Jaws is a straightforward nightmare. It encoded something in our collective DNA. This film is a perfect indication of how the horror genre is unique in its ability to impact our consciousness forever. Forty years later, this film is referenced in real life stories that are nothing at all like the film other than their similarly archaic responses to the sharks. (Today on CNN revealed that some North Carolina groups suggested killing any shark appearing “aggressive” near the shore.) The sheer staying power, viewership, popular culture references, and visceral reaction from Jaws makes it arguably the best representation of why horror is so different, so relevant, and so amazing. It also makes a clear case for why Jaws remains at the top of the food chain when it comes to horror. Happy Anniversary Jaws!!!
**For credible information about real Atlantic great white sharks see http://www.atlanticwhiteshark.org/#welcome Visit, learn, donate, conserve.