A Wilder View: Impact of ‘Jaws’ endures beyond the silver screen

If you're afraid of great white sharks it's easy to blame the classic movie Jaws which was released 48 years ago this week.
Great White Shark
Posted at 11:11 AM, Jun 21, 2023
and last updated 2023-06-21 13:11:42-04

MISSOULA - If you're afraid of great white sharks it's easy to blame the classic movie Jaws which was released 48 years ago this week.

Summer is here and people are off to take a dip in the vast ocean, a serene lake, or a refreshing pool, but there always seems to be a sense of something lurking below.

With a spine-tingling, two-note score, the thrilling depiction of shark attacks in Jaws tapped into people's deepest fears. The question of whether it's actually based on real-life events is quite complex.

Jaws is based on Peter Benchley's novel of the same name. Benchley had an enduring fascination with sharks. He credited the inception of his novel to a captivating incident he stumbled upon in 1964. It involved the capture of a great white shark by legendary fisherman Frank Mundus.

But there’s another narrative. In the summer of 1916, the shores of Jersey were shaken by a series of shocking and unprecedented events. Charles Vansant, a young man from Philadelphia, was swimming just off the coast when he suddenly screamed for help. People on the beach who heard his screams thought he was joking.

This became the first recorded fatal shark attack in U.S. history.

The shark struck again and again over a 12-day span, claiming more lives. In total five people were attacked and four were killed. The events in New Jersey were very real and to this day many claim this was the true inspiration of Jaws. But the author says this is not the case.

The rumor likely gained traction when a 2001 New York Times article suggested the 1916 shark attacks inspired Jaws. A correction was published a few days later after Benchley clarified this was a false statement.

The impact of 'Jaws' went beyond the silver screen and had real-world consequences that are as awe-inspiring as they are sobering.

Since the release of Jaws in 1975, the world has witnessed a staggering decline of 71% in shark and ray populations, and around 100 million sharks are killed each year. This depletion puts a whopping 75% of shark species at risk of extinction.

While Jaws may have initially demonized sharks, this fictional thriller would go on to inspire real-life research and conservation efforts. It became a catalyst for change.

Marine biologists and researchers rolled up their sleeves and embarked on extensive studies to unravel the mysteries surrounding sharks, aiming to demystify these misunderstood beings and advocate for their conservation.

Their tireless work aimed to foster a better understanding of shark behaviors and habits, helping pave the way for their protection. While there is greater awareness of their ecological importance and vulnerability, the public's psyche still clings to the perception of sharks as relentless man-eaters.

This fear is something Academy Award-winning filmmaker Steven Spielberg regrets. In a BBC interview, Spielberg candidly shared how the portrayal of great white sharks in his film contributed to the decline in shark populations.

Benchley also publicly expressed his remorse for the unintended consequences his book had on sharks. But he didn't stop there. Benchley transformed himself into a dedicated conservationist, passionately advocating for the protection of sharks

The legacy of Jaws is a reminder of the power of storytelling and our capacity to evolve. It’s a call to action for us to channel our love for thrilling tales into nurturing a deeper appreciation for the natural world.