"The fish was about forty feet away from the woman, off to the side, when it turned suddenly to the left, dropped entirely below the surface, and with two quick thrusts of its tail, was upon her."
The visceral passages that follow, from the opening chapter of Peter Benchley’s 1974 novel Jaws, became the quintessential description of a shark attack. The night swim of Christine Watkins, and her shocking end at the teeth of an unseen, powerful predator crystallised the unease with which many have approached the sea (or indeed not) since. The novel’s success, along with that of Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster film, gave a name and a shape to that unease: that, as intoned gravely by a reporter in the film played by Benchley himself, “of a killer shark.”
Almost 50 years since its first publication, a new deluxe edition of Jaws published by the Folio Society prompts a reckoning with a pop culture phenomenon that sent monster-filled waves through the public perception of sharks—for better or worse.
A fishy tale, or not?
Look at the tooth of a great white shark and you’ll see the bone-white, near-perfect triangle has serrated cutting edges on both of its long sides. A true double-edged sword; much like the impact of Jaws. The book and film, with its infamous duo-tone theme tune, made the species an object of both infamy and curiosity. It was a legacy that both enthused and devastated Benchley who, between the book’s publication in February 1974 and his death in February 2006, would dedicate much effort in championing the creature Jaws demonised. But did Jaws really create the fear? Or simply fill in gaps about a formidable, little-understood animal with scary fiction—and inspire scientific efforts to understand it?
Of course, in many respects Jaws isn’t really about a shark. From its first inception, the ‘s’-word could have been lifted out and all manner of primordial threat—from a disease, to a storm, to an infestation—dropped in without the principal themes having to sway too much.
“Before being commissioned to write his first, initially untitled novel, [publisher] Doubleday asked Peter to write a one-page description outlining the storyline,” says Wendy Benchley, a prominent ocean conservationist and the late author's wife. “Here is his description: ‘The purpose of the novel would be to explore the reactions of a community that is suddenly struck by a peculiar natural disaster ⎯ not an earthquake or a flood… but a continuing, mysterious devastation that as time goes on, loses its natural neutrality, and begins to smack of evil.’”
As it happened, Benchley did specify a shark, and the location—the fictional New England island resort of Amity—but it was still the human story that drove the plot. “The shark is the catalyst for the actions of all the other characters,” adds Wendy. “The novel is primarily a description of how a community and individuals cope with a menace they cannot control.”
Spielberg’s 1975 film, with its famously rickety mechanical shark, would capitalise on this by necessity: unseen until the final reel, the creature’s menace-in-absence lent the film a expectant tension that bolted saucer-eyed viewers to their cinema seats in their millions. The book, free from such restrictive props, sketched out its antagonist rather quicker – but it’s still often referred to simply as ‘the fish.’
However specific Benchley’s description, recognition is unlikely to have pinged too loudly. Early titles considered for the book were The Stillness in the Water and The Leviathan, with the now iconic cover art depicting either an anonymous torpedo-like creature or a hyper-stylised, dagger-toothed alien of the deep ascending on an unsuspecting swimmer.
All suggest the shark’s euphemistic nature—but also that before Jaws, people didn’t really know all that much about sharks. Not how they behaved, what they looked like or, critically, how afraid humans should be of them. Jaws supplied the answers they needed, but in the form of sensational fiction rather than the drier facts. Facts that, in 1974, were harder to come by – and harder to sell by the millions of units to a ravenously curious public.
Fear and loathing in New England
Peter Benchley was born in New York in 1940. “He spent his summers growing up on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts, where he was an expert body surfer and avid fisherman with his father,” says Wendy Benchley. “On many occasions, they landed a shark along with bass, blue and swordfish. This piqued his interest in sharks, and he remained fascinated by them.”
While shark attacks were rare then as they are now—around nine people are killed by sharks worldwide each year, versus a hundred or so by jellyfish and 200,000 from fishing accidents—when they happened, they were sensational. The media frenzy around the New Jersey shark attacks of 1916, in which four people were killed off Jersey Shore resorts over a fortnight, introduced the newspaper-reading public to the shark as an unconsidered holiday menace.
It also sparked an ominous rethink of shark behaviour. Until that point, there was doubt that a shark had ever bitten a human, let alone killed one, so this spate of repeated, fatal attacks was a shock. Similar incidents would lead to the now discredited ‘rogue shark’ theory, name-checked in the film of Jaws, which was proposed by Australian doctor Victor Coppleson in 1958. This suggested “the guilt, not of many sharks, but of one shark.”
What kind of shark was responsible for the 1916 attacks is still in dispute, but it’s likely to have been one of three species known now to be of particular concern to humans; the bull shark, the tiger shark, and Jaws’ jagged-toothed giant itself, Carcharadon carcharias, variously known as the white pointer, white shark—or great white.
Outside of real events, Jaws wasn’t the first time a great white shark had taken the stage as a subject. The 1971 documentary Blue Water, White Death by Peter Gimbal and James Lipscomb featured audacious footage of the predator, which had been first filmed underwater only five years before. Peter Matthiessen’s 1972 book Blue Meridian was a slow-burn stalk of the shark across the world chronicling that film’s making.
While both were products of a markedly different conservation landscape, they had natural history at their core. Marketing, however, keenly traded on the shark’s fearsome countenance as a ludicrously colossal, human-devouring monster—‘7,000 pounds of sheer terror with jaws like a steel trap!’—to pique public interest.
Both residents of the U.S. eastern seaboard, Matthiessen and Benchley were said to have been inspired by the local story of a 17 ½ ft, 4,550-pound great white caught by harpoon off Montauk, Long Island on June 6, 1964. For fisherman Frank Mundus, it proved grisly bait for the tourists he called ‘dock rats’ who would charter his Monster Fishing enterprise. According to Wendy Benchley, following Mundus’s well-publicised catch her husband “began to mull over the idea for a novel about a shark terrorising a summer resort community.”
With his fighting chair, harpoons attached to barrels and 42ft boat Cricket II, Mundus was a big character in the Massachusetts fishing community. Sharks were occasional bycatch, then a speciality; he once claimed to have found a ‘bunny rabbit’ in the belly of one. His methods were rumoured—not least by himself—to have been an inspiration for Benchley’s character of Quint, the hulking shark hunter of Jaws, which the author never confirmed.
The shark is released
Jaws the book was followed in quick succession by Jaws the film, on which—despite several narrative changes—Benchley served as co-screenwriter, and had a cameo role as a news reporter. As Wendy Benchley explains, Doubleday and Universal Studios joined forces to push both the book and the film. “This unusual partnership gave Jaws extra marketing muscle,” she says.
Inevitably, while the book launched the film, it was the film—not the book—that mainlined Jaws into the minds of tens of millions. Released during the 1975 summer season after a torturous production, it was a sensation, spawning a slew of monster tropes that persist to this day and firmly establishing the great white shark as oceanic enemy number one, and a pop culture icon.
Not everything about the heightened enthusiasm for sharks was positive. “During the summer of 1975 when Jaws was in hundreds of theatres across the [U.S.] and as it rolled out as a blockbuster internationally, we could see the fear that it was stirring up,” says Wendy. This fear articulated in some quarters by a simple reluctance to go swimming; another, more macho response was to emulate the film’s protagonists and jump aboard a boat to hunt down the creature depicted in the film.
The rise of sporting events such as Monster Shark Tournaments off the U.S. East Coast in the mid 1980s—which still controversially continue off some port towns—fed the perception of sharks as sporting conquests, the killing of which constituted a kind of legitimised civic duty. Wendy remembers: “It horrified Peter and me that some people's first reaction was to kill sharks.”
The ripple effect
The fear didn’t stop there. A 2015 study by Christopher Pepin-Neff, Senior Lecturer in Public Policy at the University of Sydney, suggested how the fictional narrative of Jaws—and its effect—was weaponised to influence a controversial shark-culling policy in Western Australia. This ‘Jaws effect’, Neff wrote, rested on three perceived tenets in response to episodes of real life shark attacks: ‘the intentionality of the shark, perception that these events are fatal and the belief that ‘the shark’ must be killed.’
‘Studies have shown that fear of sharks is directly related to whether people think the shark is intentional in its actions,’ Pepin-Neff told National Geographic (UK). “And it is here that Jaws was most diabolical. Once people felt that sharks could intentionally come after them, fear of sharks skyrocketed in a way never seen before.”
This fantastical idea was heightened in the film by the Jaws shark’s scale (25ft and three tonnes (6,613 pounds); great white sharks typically reach around 15 feet in length, with the estimated size of ‘Deep Blue’, mooted as the largest living great white, is a mere 20ft and two tons (4,409 pounds), though larger sharks have been reported. The Jaws shark also had the formidable impulse to smash up a 40-foot Nova Scotia timber boat out of spite, a set-piece that forms the tale’s grisly climax. Real sharks were filmed for the production, with a miniature cage—complete with a diver of smaller stature—used to enhance believability.
All good fun in the context of science fiction. But as Pepin-Neff argues, when a film is your first exposure to a creature with an authentic counterpart, the prejudice can transfer to reality. “There is no way to look at the data on public fear of sharks and not feel like Jaws is a primary factor,” says Pepin-Neff. “Even if someone has never seen Jaws, filmmakers copy the music, story, and cinematography to capture and repeat the essence of a ‘shark movie monster’ story. This is bad for sharks because most people's only experience of [them] is what they see on the screen.” Pepin-Neff adds that “Jaws' legacy is one of tragedy for sharks—and treasure for shark research.”
The film of Jaws, despite its unacknowledged departure from reality, is held with almost universal acclaim as a piece of cinema. “Jaws is an incredible film. The script, direction, and acting are all amazing,” says Yannis Papastamatiou, a marine biologist, shark researcher and National Geographic Explorer. “[But] Jaws is a monster film in the same way that other films may feature killer spiders, birds or rabbits—and yes, such a horror film exists! It wasn’t meant to be scientifically accurate. I do think today that if Jaws were made, it would have a conservation campaign to make clear that it’s a work of fiction.”
Predator and prey
Despite clear links both good and bad, the direct impact on sharks in response to the themes in Jaws is difficult to measure. Sharks in any event have had a rough ride in recent decades. Up to 100 million are killed by humans every year; many species have been pushed to the brink of extinction. Overfishing—including the controversial catching of sharks for sharkfin soup—and bycatch make up much of these statistics. But a 2014 study by 302 international experts found that the “intentional killing of sharks and rays due to the perceived risk that they pose to people, fishing gear or target species is contributing to the threatened status of at least 12 species.” The great white is currently assessed as vulnerable by the IUCN Red List.
But did Jaws cause the fear, or was it there all along? “This is a great question, and one that is difficult to answer, having to think in hindsight about a non-Jaws world,” says Dr. Brianna Le Busque, a psychologist and lead author of a 2022 paper entitled Sharks on Film, analysing how shark-human interactions are portrayed onscreen. “I do think that apex predators such as sharks were always going to be portrayed as ‘villains’ given both the behaviour of the species, and also the long-standing human-wildlife conflict that has occurred with [them] across the globe. I do however think that the popularity of Jaws—both book and film—perhaps kickstarted this.”
Le Busque refers to her study, which found that many shark films were released in the wake of Jaws to capitalise on the popularity of the subject. “I do think that the popularity of Jaws did and has continued to pique an interest in sharks,” she says. “For some, this interest will hopefully lead them to researching sharks and watching reputable documentaries—and to realising that Jaws is a fantastic, fictional, movie rather than an accurate portrayal of white sharks.”
“There is no question that Jaws made a lot of people scared of sharks and some responded by killing these animals,” says Yannis Papastamatiou. “However, in my opinion, that is the fault of the viewer not the film. Jaws had the opposite effect on me. I wanted to work with sharks. I thought Matt Hooper was a great character and I found sharks even more fascinating. I know several other marine biologists who feel the same way.”
Wendy Benchley agrees. “I have seen tremendous changes in attitudes over the past 50 years. Peter received thousands of letters over the years from people around the world telling him that Jaws had inspired them to learn more about sharks and the ocean. To become a marine biologist, or to photograph and video sharks in ways never seen before.”
She adds: “The public now understands⎯we need sharks. They keep the ocean food chain in order, but more than half of all shark species are endangered or critically endangered.”
A legacy for good
In the second half of his life, Peter Benchley demonstrated his eagerness to impart an enlightened view of ocean conservation. He wrote dispatches for National Geographic on the deep ocean, watery locations such as the Galapagos and the Bahamas, and—of course—great white sharks. He was a champion of marine protected areas, and an award named in his honour appointed 83 grants to ocean conservation champions. His later books compiled a life of learning from the sea, and included Shark Trouble—which was critical of the media’s tendency to sensationalise shark attacks out of proportion to the threat the animals pose to humans.
While none of his work reached the giddy commercial heights of Jaws, his 1982 book The Girl of the Sea of Cortez was acclaimed by critics and was, according to Wendy, his favourite. Tellingly, it was a poignant fable about a young island girl who encounters a benign, giant manta ray—a creature she attempts to protect from callous exploitation of the ocean.
The film Jaws, meanwhile, would spawn three sequels each featuring an ever-larger and more vindictive great white which, by the 1987 series nadir Jaws: The Revenge, had gained the ability to roar.
Following the aggressive campaign of the original, publicity for the sequels skilfully capitalised on the public's fear in the guise of myth-busting. In 1978, a text-heavy poster entitled Sharkfacts: A public service by the producers of Jaws 2 was printed, containing 14 damningly-written statements—and a prominent authentication by shark expert Donald R. Nelson—to allow the naive citizen venturing into the sea to ‘at least know their enemy.’
‘The seas off our shores are aprowl with many killers,’ it read, before adding assurance that you weren't even safe from sharks in fresh water, that even brushing up against a shark is likely to wound you—and that a shark is quite capable of sinking a boat.
Fascination or atonement?
In December 2022 Jaws director Steven Spielberg candidly told the BBC's Desert Island Discs that he “truly and to this day regrets the decimation of the shark population” following the release of the film in 1975—an event he called a “feeding frenzy of crazy sport fishermen.”
In later interviews, the author of the book that started it all was clear he would have done things differently had the knowledge of sharks been available at the time. “Environmental sense didn’t really exist [when I wrote the book] Benchley told Greater Boston News in 2004, “and we didn’t know anything about sharks. We still don’t know a great deal, but what we do know… I certainly couldn’t demonise the animal.”
But those who knew him insisted his activism was motivated by a fascination with the ocean and dismay at humans’ treatment of it—not guilt at what his work may have done for the public perception of sharks.
Wendy Benchley says her husband was proud of the book’s legacy. “It jumpstarted research into sharks and their essential place in ocean ecology,” she says, while acknowledging the impact of his ‘fish book’ had aspects he didn’t expect. “As the world learned, so did Peter. He said many times that he would not write a novel like Jaws again. Sharks are too magnificent, an evolutionary marvel 450 million years old and vital to ocean life. Destroying them is a recipe for long-term decline⎯not just for sharks, the entire ocean.”
She adds: “I think Jaws tapped into the indelible power of good storytelling, compelling characters, and our primal need to make sense of things we fear.”
This story was adapted from the National Geographic U.K. website and has been updated.