"Jaws" at 30: Film Stoked Fear, Study of Great White Sharks

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
June 15, 2005

Thirty years ago, in the summer of 1975, Jaws had moviegoers paralyzed by fear. The story, about a giant great white shark that terrorizes a seaside community, tapped into the most primal of human fears: What unseen creature lurks below the ocean surface?

Millions of beachgoers heeded the advice of the movie's tagline—"Don't go in the water." They filed into theaters instead, and Jaws became the biggest box office hit to date.

To the dismay of many scientists, however, Jaws cemented a perception in the minds of many people that sharks were stalking, killing machines. The reputation remains entrenched in the public psyche 30 years after the movie's release.

"It perpetuated the myths about sharks as man-eaters and bloodthirsty killers … even though the odds of an individual entering the sea and being attacked by a shark are almost infinitesimal," said George Burgess, a shark biologist at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

Burgess says the movie initiated a precipitous decline in U.S. shark populations, as thousands of fishers set out to catch trophy sharks after seeing Jaws. Later, in the 1980s, commercial fisheries further decimated shark populations.

But the phenomenal popularity of the movie also helped the study of sharks, researchers say. Before Jaws, very little was known about the predators. After the film's release, interest in sharks skyrocketed, resulting in increased funding for shark research.

"On the one hand, the movie did damage to sharks, because people saw them as monsters," said Robert Hueter, who directs the Center for Shark Research at the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Florida. "But for scientists, the whole Jaws thing started working in our favor, because of the overexaggerated public interest in these animals."

Mechanical Shark

In the hands of a young director named Steven Spielberg, Jaws, which was based on the best-selling novel by Peter Benchley, was widely hailed as a masterful thriller. Its music score, by John Williams, contains one of the most recognized themes in movie-music history.

Filming was plagued by technical problems. Scenes with a mechanical shark had to be cut, because it did not look believable enough. That, however, only made the movie scarier, heightening the unsettled feeling of helplessness that many moviegoers felt toward the beast, which remained largely unseen.

"The fear of being eaten is ingrained in people," said Mike Heithaus, a marine biology professor at Florida International University in Miami. "If we feel like we have some control or [a] fighting chance, a situation isn't as scary. With sharks there are no trees to climb, and you can't outswim a shark."

Real-life shark attacks, though widely publicized, are extremely rare. People in U.S. coastal areas, for example, are about a hundred times more likely to be struck and killed by lightning than killed by a shark. According to the Florida Museum of Natural History's International Shark Attack File, there were 61 unprovoked shark attacks worldwide in 2004, resulting in seven deaths.

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