the immortality of jaws
By ALEJANDRA ALVAREZ
I have had multiple conversations with my father about the movies that have impacted him most throughout his 53 years of life. One particular response has remained constant for as long as I can remember. Whenever I ask him, “What is the scariest movie you have ever seen?” he invariably responds with the movie Jaws, without giving his answer any prolonged consideration. My father has seen a host of modern horror films. But no matter how much these films have frightened him, he swears that none compare to how Jaws made him feel while sitting in a movie theater as a 15-year-old, watching the legendary shark saga unfold on the big screen.
In popular culture nowadays, the horror genre has come to be dominated by plots and characters devoted to a handful of very specific themes—the first of which includes an exploration of transformation in existence or the exchange between the states of “human” and “animal” (vampires and werewolves, for example). Additionally, the genre is fascinated with drawing a delineation between mortality and immortality, with a specific interest in those who straddle this line. Here, we can think of our friendly poltergeists and demons—and who can forget our beloved, recurring American Horror Story spirits? Inquiries into the metaphysical as well as into superhuman capabilities or magical powers are made by budding witches and warlocks in many a film. And lastly, the classic murder mystery as featured in primetime television favorites like CSI and Law & Order, remains endlessly compelling.
But Jaws does not fall into any of the categories above.
If it does not feature a possession, a supernatural battle of strength and wits, a witch’s coming of age, shape-shifting human beings, or mind-boggling dimensions of the human character, then what is it about Jaws that makes it so extraordinarily captivating? What aspect of this classic gets our skin crawling, our minds racing, and our instincts directing us in the opposite direction of any proximate body of water?
An investigation into how cinematographically radical Jaws was for its time, its consistent evocation of instinctual fear, and the manner in which it masterfully personifies the film’s aquatic star, Rogue, may just give us some answers into this multidimensional question.
Everything about Jaws, from its production to its direction, from its musical score to its character development, utterly revolutionized the field of cinematography and obliterated the standard for creating audience connection with the action on screen. In 1975, a year when the horror genre was releasing movies featuring demonic activity (The Devil’s Rain and Race with the Devil), werewolves (The Werewolf of Woodstock), serial killings (Criminally Insane), and parodied alien encounters (The Rocky Horror Picture Show), few expected the animal protagonist and placid setting of Jaws to provide comparable terror.
Steven Spielberg, director of Jaws, explains in multiple interviews how he endeavored to create a believable atmosphere by including a relatable setting, “quaint” in nature and standard enough in appearance, scale, and population for multiple people to identify with it. Several locales were considered for the setting of Jaws, but none other than Martha’s Vineyard seemed to fit the bill that Spielberg set on the onset of production. Perhaps his steepest request was a setting that would facilitate shooting on the open ocean, something that had never been attempted before by any other film crew and posed several seemingly insurmountable problems for the team at the time. These problems included: unpredictable weather, choppy waters, and countless technological blunders, among other things. Yet the struggle of filming on the Atlantic as opposed to within a tank or along a lake enabled the crew of Jaws to cultivate believable graphics that encapsulated Spielberg’s vision of Amity Island: a sleepy, seaside village dwelling on the cusp of a “textured, violent,” and untamable ocean.
A testament to the success of Spielberg’s setting selection is that audiences saw and continue to see their status as individuals, as family members, and as friends reflected in the characters of Amity Island’s citizenry. They recognize the manner in which they themselves would react if something as elusively threatening as a shark of unimaginable size, strength, and bloodthirstiness was to swim along their coast one fine summer. The rawness of this primordial fear in response to threat, this innate fight-or-flight reaction all human beings are endowed with by evolution, is elicited in the audience and mirrored in the scenes in which Amity Island’s beach crowds evacuate the water as Rogue comes near. Jaws is ultimately the story of one such animal’s success in evoking this very reflex: to either fight—like Brody, Quint, and Hooper do for the majority of the film—or flee like most would if warned of a shark in close proximity.
In documentary-style features—“Shark Week” on Discovery Channel, for example – which seek to demystify the reality of sharks, scientists identify the habitual and evolutionary traits of shark behavior: they must swim in order to stay alive, they serve as the ocean’s essential “vacuum cleaners,” and they do not have a preference for human flesh when it comes to feeding time. On the contrary, most shark attacks are the products of confusion on the shark’s part; by extension, the resulting injuries they inflict are not premeditated nor intended, as most experts have assured us. However, it is implied that Rogue is a conscious and murderous creature—such an implication, no matter how ungrounded in scientific research or incongruent with the fact that Rogue was played by a mechanical shark, was enough to turn the audience’s world upside down at the time of the movie’s release. Something that had seemed so impossible before had come to life on the screen—a nightmare come true in which the animal kingdom, supposedly inferior to humanity in rationale and morality, could, in fact, possess a creature that employed these very traits.
Achieved by the film’s artistic components, what enabled the starring shark of Jaws to maintain this overarching presence of conscious intimidation was its personification. The movie’s omniscient camera angles, aquatic lighting, oceanic landscapes, and iconic musical score excelled in portraying this unlikely but poignant relationship between humankind and its beastly counterparts. Scenes presented through the eyes of Rogue as it patrolled the waters near Amity Island, terrorized Brody and his hunting crew, and attacked its multiple victims all lend themselves to the illusion that Rogue is aware and in pursuit of both flesh and fear. One such visual that comes to mind is that of an innocent swimmer’s silhouette viewed from below the surface. The preliminary strains of Rogue’s signature theme song begin to play ominously in the background as the shark ascends through the water, concluding in a crescendo as the swimmer falls victim to Rogue’s abnormal dietary tastes. Rogue’s repetitive nature, fictitious though it may be since sharks do not actually attack serially, ensures it remains a permanent threat until its inadvertent destruction in the film’s concluding tank explosion.
However, Rogue’s end is not brought about by humans—no matter how hard they try, it is ultimately credited to a freak accident. Even at the end of Jaws, the viewer cannot leave the theater with a feeling of accomplishment or with a solution to the mystery of this shark’s seemingly homicidal tendencies.
According to my father, most of his generation, and Bravo’s original “100 Scariest Movie Moments,” Jaws will forever be remembered as singular in its shock-factor and unique in its ability to incite fear and paranoia. Rogue’s gruesome attacks, its apparent consciousness and intentionality (reflected in its attacking consistency), and the inability of the protagonists to defeat the monster all lend themselves to the audience’s inability to process what is happening onscreen. And when humans cannot reconcile their preconceived notions about the way things in life should operate, we succumb to fear. Indeed, Jaws is a thrilling, chilling film that appeals to the cringe reflex in each and every one of us, despite it being nearly 40 years old and full to the brim with outdated CGI and special effects.
Viewers are left wondering, if humans cannot conquer the shark, then who can? And can it ever be defeated by sheer human force? The movie leaves these questions unanswered, alongside a plethora of sharks that remain in our world’s oceans, possessive of new and extraordinary character traits ascribed to them by their doppelganger in Jaws.