It’s a beautiful dawn on Martha’s Vineyard (a.k.a. Amity Island), where a young woman dashes into the sea for a swim at sunrise. She paddles peacefully through calm open water, with not a care in the world. This must be heaven, right?
Then we hear it: duh-nuh… duh-nuh… The simple but iconic notes from the Oscar-winning score to Steven Spielberg’s thrilling 1975 masterpiece Jaws can only mean that danger is approaching. The woman may be free, but she has strayed into the realm of monsters, where human conscience and reason mean little. Nature has no mercy. Before we know it, this image of tranquility morphs into a murder of the most violent proportions. After failing and thrashing at the whim of an unseen killer, she is pulled under surface, stripped of every sense of the vitality she embraced just moments earlier.
Jaws is filmmaking at its best, constantly toying with the human emotions of fear and anticipation to prevent all but the most hardened and skeptical souls to come away unscarred.
Even more horrifying than the shark attacks themselves, however, is just how real and possible they feel. Few who have ever seen Jaws have gone rushing right back into the ocean, and I personally know several who struggle to get into a pool. One could argue that no film has had a more powerful impact on the psyche of the population as Jaws has, as an entire generation of swimmers thinks of that music and those atrocities every time they get into the water.
Subsequently, sharks have received the label of “man-eaters,” even by those people who can separate the movie’s fictitious embellishment of a shark’s thirst for human flesh from reality. Of course, most sharks are relatively harmless unless provoked, and most humans rarely encounter a shark outside the friendly confines of an aquarium.
Yet, even though it is unlikely for a shark to go on a killing spree, that does not mean it has not happened … or won’t happen again. In fact, the most prominent case of man-hunting sharks in the U.S. occurred in an area many Georgetown students know very well—the Jersey Shore.
From July 1 to July 12, 1916, four individuals were killed and seven more were gravely injured by sharks in a two-week tragedy that gripped the local population. These attacks have been credited as the inspiration for Jaws, though the Jersey Shore attacks were far less concentrated than those depicted in the Spielberg adaptation, in which one Great White terrorizes a single island community. But the reality of the Jersey Shore attacks elicits even more fear than their exaggerated depiction in the movies. While the people of Amity Island were held hostage by a crazed and oversized Great White in an almost supernatural scenario, the Jersey beachgoers were victims of an uncharacteristically aggressive bull shark population, a change in behavior that remains unexplained.
Not only is a group of hungry sharks much scarier than one, but the bull shark possesses the unique ability among these sea monsters to swim in fresh water, which allowed them to commit several of the Jersey Shore attacks miles inland within the state’s many rivers and creeks. In other words, no water was safe from the clutches of the real Jaws.
So, as a word of caution to those who think Snooki is the scariest thing you’ll see near the beach: tread carefully. Remember that Jaws actually happened, and much closer to home than you might think. I hope everyone has a nice summer. Happy Shark Week.