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Shark Week Special: The Jaws Sequels and Engineered Mass Hysteria

Shark Week Special: The Jaws Sequels and Engineered Mass Hysteria

From what anyone can tell, it all goes back to 1916.

A young man sets out for a night swim in the Atlantic Ocean just off of Beach Haven, New Jersey.  Not long after, he dies from blood loss on the manager’s front desk of the Engleside Hotel, his left leg stripped of flesh as though he had dipped it in a bucket of piranha.

45 miles North and six says later, another man in the ocean is severed to the abdomen.

It was the first of July, a Saturday, when Charles Vansandt decided to take a quick swim before settling into the Engleside Hotel with his family.  The attacks would continue until July 12th, leaving in its bloody wake five victims.  The final victim, 14-year old Joseph Dunn, was the only survivor.


One can only imagine both the abstract fear that the majority of North Americans felt upon first learning that to even put your foot in the water might welcome mayhem.  The panic carried all the way from the boaters attempting to kill “man-eaters”  just beyond newly installed safety nets to Washington D.C.   President Woodrow Wilson authorized armed shark hunts and called a meeting to discuss the Jersey shark threat.

The panic ensuing across the country was only fed flames by the media.  Major papers ran the story on the front page.  Since most knowledge of shark behavior was at best speculative, the term man-eater took its place in history.  The sea was no longer a recreational paradise.  It was a world for which man was not suited to breathe and a world of gliding, prehistoric monsters with rows and rows of teeth lay in wait.

In the months that followed, fisherman caught and killed what is still debated to be a bullshark, and swimming resumed.


We’d like to assume the public has become more savvy; that America as a nation and a people have come to understand, with scientific background, that sharks have never been terribly interested in feasting on our species.  But one only needs to be reminded of this Time Magazine Cover from August of 2001 to know that little has changed:



We all know the catastrophic events that occurred just a month later.  Though looking back – much like the UFO-sighting craze that took place after news of Roswell broke, much like the panic left in the wake of the Zodiac killer’s brief tenure – there is a fairly straightforward throughline to why we still swim, and why we still fly.

“Before people swam for recreation, before sharks knew what they were missing, attacks were rarely reported.”

That well-known line, drunkenly recited by Roy Schieder in the classic 1975 Spielberg film Jaws, represented a common theme throughout the film.  Schieder, playing a small town sherriff, finds himself pitted against one of the oldest and most misunderstood forces of nature: a large, predatory animal that appears to live only to procreate and cause mayhem.

That it was 1975 and North America still felt this way about sharks is no surprise, nor is it an accident.

Ever since the 1916 Jersey Shore Shark Attacks – the inspiration for Peter Benchley’s bestselling novel-cum-blockbuster – public reaction and understanding of shark attacks has been met with vague understanding to outright panic.



It’s important to realize for how mainstream media used it as a springboard for successful frightening caricatures to create one of arguably one of the best and worst films of our time in the span of a single franchise.  Also, much like the Jersey Shore had a severe impact on media’s understanding of sharks, so too did Jaws change the face of cinema forever – for better or worse.



Shortly after Benchley’s novel hit the best seller list, it fell into the hands of Universal producer Richard Zanuck.  Overnight, he and producing partner David E. Brown had read it and were convinced they had a hit.  Brown and Zanuck had recently produced Stephen Spielberg’s first feature film, The Sugarland Express.

Spielberg’s interest stemmed from the fact that a TV movie he directed entitled Duel, about an unseen truck driver chasing a man through miles of highway, followed similar themes.  In fact, Duel’s climactic battle uses the same old, monstrous growl in the background as Jaws.  Considering the trajectory of Spielberg’s later work, it should be noted that it is the growl of a Tyrannosaurus Rex.

Location scouts worked quickly and found a small, New England town known as Martha’s Vineyard.  It would be the first time that the town was used as a film location.

Immediately, the production was struck by issues.  The Screen Actor’s Guild (SAG) memberships were set to expire, and no movie that could not be finished before June 30th 0f 1974 would be allowed to enter production.  It was February, and screenwriter Howard Sackler had just turned in his first script.Jaws_novel_cover

Spielberg also wrote his own draft from scratch.  Soon, actor and writer Carl Gottlieb was on set.  Initially, he was hired as an actor but soon found himself as a script doctor.

“Benchley’s novel included too much,” said Gottlieb.  “You needed a throughline, and I felt that throughline was [Sherriff Brody, marine biologist Hooper, gruff seaman Quint].”

The novel included several subplots that Gottlieb cut out immediately.  The Mayor, later played by character actor Murray Hamilton, had a much more sinister desire for wanting to keep the beaches open: he was severely indebted to the mob.

The character of Hooper, portrayed likably by Richard Dreyfuss in the film, comes off snobbish and rude.  He engages in an affair with the Sheriff’s wife.  Toward the end of the book, Brody shoots him in the neck while supposedly aiming for the shark – his actual motivations left for the audience to interpret.

The television show “Mythbusters” famously debunked Jaws’ climax.  Shooting a compressed air tank with a rifle will, indeed, not cause the tank to explode.  Author Peter Benchley found the concept ridiculous.

“The ending of the book is a downer,” said Gottlieb.  “The shark just rolls over from one too many harpoons.”

“Then [Spielberg] said to me, ‘If I’ve got them for two hours, they will believe what I do in the next two minutes,’” explained Benchley.

Soon after, as Richard Dreyfuss famously tells to apparently anyone who’ll ask him, “The shark is working,” Spielberg had a massive hit on his hands.

He also had a major PETA problem as, like in the film, hunting for Great White Sharks as they do in the film became sort of a gentlemen’s game.  Whites were, at the time, to be considered vicious monsters who gleefully glided through the water tearing humans limb from limb.  Benchley, in turn, became a conservationist until his death, even trying to correct his error in later fiction by mentioning the fact that most shark attacks on humans are accidents.

Nevertheless, the sequels rolled out.  Zanuck and Brown saw the potential for millions and Jaws 2 followed in 1978.  Incidentally, this was the same year credited with the rise of the slasher film.  So the sequel plays out much more of it’s era, with the shark picking off teenyboppers one by one.

Two more sequels followed, each worse than the last, until the franchise lost traction and suffocated, dead in the water.

In between, of course, a series of unapologetic ripoffs both foreign and domestic followed.











Today, killer shark movies have been relegated to direct to DVD trash like Roger Corman and The Asylum.  With the recent success of high camp like Sharknado, it would appear that it’s safe to go back into the water.  Even modern killer shark movies that received a theatrical release had their tongues planted firmly in cheek.  Have our fears moved on from the ocean?

It’s not the audience’s job to look on in horror muttering, “It’s happening again.”  That’s reserved for the lead character in most horror sequels, a hardened, cynical, grizzled character who’s seen it all before.  Sure enough, most of the Syfy-watching public groaned a similar sentiment when Sharknado 2: The Second One was first announced.  There is no possible way to make the same intentionally terrible movie twice.

And yet, for the most part, Sharknado 2 is almost entirely successful.  And, perhaps most importantly, its self-awareness level stays at an appropriate level, only once heading into embarrassing Friedberg and Seltzer territory.

Somehow, in a movie where sharks fly over dry land in tornadoes because something about global warming, his maladjustment to the spotlight is the most unbelievable moment.  It’s harder to get snakes off a plane than Ian Ziering out of the way of a camera.

And so Asylum rules where once theatrical releases roamed.  There is pure, unabashed glee where there was once terror.

But wait. reports that Great Whites have more in common with serial killers than we once thought.  They do, in fact, hunt for pleasure.  And just like that laughably silly Time Magazine cover, news has taken notice that shark attack in the US are on the rise this summer.

Enjoy Shark Week.