The JAWS EFFECT
WHO WOULD HAVE THOUGHT that so many of today’s intrepid divers and indeed pro-shark campaigners got off to a shaky start as a result of this classic movie?
We will however take this opportunity to at least question a long-standing myth about Jaws – that open-water scuba certifications collapsed following the film’s release.
PADI tells us that it had already suffered a dip in certifications in 1974, the year before the film came out and when the world was still in the grip of an oil crisis.
Universal released Jaws in the USA on 20 June, 1975, and on Boxing Day in the UK. PADI saw a 22.9% increase in worldwide certifications that year, and an 8.76% increase in 1976.
“I’ve been at PADI for over 20 years and I’ve heard this myth many times, but I’m afraid it’s simply not true,” James Stafford Little told us.
“I can however confirm that the release of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in 1974 meant that people went out less at night!”
However, John Kean, one of our contributors to these pages, contends that growth rates in certifications for 1976 and 1977 were still low compared to previous and later years (not counting the depressed oil-crisis period), “so you could say that growth was down by 50% rather than overall certs being down”.
I remember queuing at the Tonic Cinema in Bangor, County Down with my parents. It didn’t come to my seaside town until the summer of 1976 and we stood outside in the evening light. There was a sense of occasion.
But, about 20 people away from the box-office, the manager came out and put up the sign saying “House Full”. It was the first time I had ever experienced that, and the disappointment was immense.
We went back the next night and, luckily, got in. I can still hear the screams in the darkened auditorium when the head of the dead diver rolled into view as Matt Hooper searched the wreck of Ben Gardner’s boat.
The idea that everyone could jump and scream at the same time was immensely exciting. I remember also finding Hooper’s character – as a marine biologist – much more interesting than either the obviously heroic Chief Brody or even grizzled Quint the skipper. The idea that someone could make a living studying fish and being on boats was intriguing.
Of course, I started reading everything I could about sharks. As a naturalist my fascination with the sea already existed, but diving and sharks were something new.
Cinematically, and culturally, Jaws was a childhood impression that’s unbeatably powerful. Few other films of that era have stuck in the memory so vividly, only perhaps Towering Inferno and the Airplane! series.
I remember watching Jaws with my brother on a Saturday afternoon on TV when I was a kid. I don't think we realised what we were tuning into.
I forget how old I was but I remember being paralysed with fear and burying my head in a cushion several times. I had never swum in the open ocean and I think it must have put me off for years.
Thankfully since then all that fear and the myths of shark attacks have been dispelled and I just love swimming with sharks, though always with respect.
But the film was so powerful, and however much I know about sharks and their behaviour those Jaws images still resonate when a shark gapes and shows its teeth. I just back off a bit, then!
I was still a teenager when Jaws was first shown in the UK. The film was to have such a profound effect on me that it’s a wonder I ever learnt to dive.
I can still recall the fear of getting out of my depth in our own murky waters off Brighton for years to come.
Even when I had already been diving for a while by my late 30s, I remember getting spooked on a night dive in the Red Sea, convinced that Jaws was just behind me and, in a moment of utter panic, suddenly swimming like the clappers to get back on board our boat.
But time is a great healer. I also recall, a few years later, actually choosing to do a night dive with sharks on the Great Barrier Reef, just by the light of the moon.
By then the feeling of fear had been replaced by awe and wonder.
Jaws was rated by the censors at a level just above Snow White & the Seven Dwarves. They didn't seem to know what to do with a film featuring a big angry fish, so gave it a PG.
After 124 minutes, not only was I scared witless but so were my PGs!
Thankfully, PADI later took precedence over Hollywood and I became a diving professional. It was a great film all right, and thoroughly deserving of its box-office success.
However, as a scuba instructor, I would like to invoice Steven Spielberg for loss of earnings until the Red Sea shark attacks of 2010. It wasn’t his fault after that, but his Jaws films did more damage to perceptions of our industry than the real thing!
I watched Jaws before I was a diver and it was in the back of my mind every time I swam in the ocean. There again, not many great whites are spotted off the coast of Cornwall! Knowledge is power, of course, and wisdom.
I’ve been diving for 20 years now but I’d be lying if I didn’t say I felt 10% anxious seeing sharks under water. Except perhaps sandtooths or whitetips.
Waiting on the surface to be picked up is another story, especially if you’re diving in an area where you know great whites have been seen (for example in Tasmania).
Australian divers have a different view about sharks, however – they want to protect them.
I know that the norm among us shark conservationists is to dislike Jaws because of the image it gave sharks and its promotion of the myth. Nevertheless, I must confess that it is one of my favourite films – I think I have seen it more than 50 times!
MICHAEL SALVAREZZA & CHRISTOPHER WEAVER
We were only teenagers when Jaws was released but we were already interested in the underwater world.
The movie didn’t frighten us away from the ocean – rather, it stoked our interest to get into the water and see these creatures for ourselves. We really wanted to be Richard Dreyfuss – and not Robert Shaw!"
I first saw Jaws at a school film club when I was about 10, which wasn’t the best move on the school’s part. Seeing it at that young age traumatised me and many of the other children.
The school ended up calling in parents to apologise for showing the film. I would still go swimming in the sea but wouldn’t go out of my depth for many years after that.
I hadn't yet turned double figures when I first saw Jaws. It terrified me as, like many others, I didn’t know fact from fiction. As years passed education taught me not to be scared but to revere these incredible creatures. That’s the power of education.
LESLEY ‘SHARK WARRIOR’ ROCHAT
In one of my talks as a motivational speaker I talk about conquering fear, given my history of being so scared of sharks that my dive buddies nicknamed me “Shark Bait”!
My fear was so real that I couldn’t relax while diving, darting looks around all the time in fear of the monster sneaking up from behind and devouring me. The worst was when my dive-buddies told me of a white shark that was caught and dissected to find a whole 45kg seal in its stomach. In those days I weighed only 45kg, so the nickname stuck!
Given my love of the ocean, however, I decided to conquer this fear and began to do some research (at this stage I had not seen a shark on a dive).
I almost fell off my chair (and more people die from falling off chairs every year than from shark-bites) to discover that my fear had a name, selachophobia or galeophobia, and that many people traced this fear back to watching Jaws.
It was then that I had to admit that my fear also stemmed from Jaws, which had scared the living daylights out of me, and had became so extreme that I had developed a phobia of sharks.
Jaws did a great job of exacerbating fear of sharks worldwide. It resulted in the senseless slaughter of many sharks, and almost prevented me from being a scuba-diver and dedicated shark conservationist.
I travelled a journey to conquer this fear, but that’s another story. I succeeded and now spend my days fighting for sharks’ conservation, and putting the fear 99% of people have of them into perspective – basically undoing the harm done by films like Jaws.
I have little respect for Jaws author Peter Benchley, who turned big-time shark conservationist but not before causing untold damage that still prevails in irresponsible media portrayal of sharks today – and not before he made a shedload of money out of demonising sharks.
Jaws came out just before I was born, and I must have been 12 or 13 before I saw it. By then I’d grown up on Jacques Cousteau and David Attenborough, with sharks portrayed much the same as tigers or wolves – dangerous, but beautiful and magnificent.
When I finally watched Jaws I remember loving Chief Brody but thinking the shark stuff was a bit stupid. I “knew” there weren’t sharks off Aberdeen (I was wrong, of course) so it had no real effect on my love of the sea.
The film gets blamed a lot for the demonisation of sharks but I think this is a lazy get-out. We demonised sharks for generations before Jaws. It’s ignorance, not a film, that was the problem.
I was only 10 when Jaws was released and remember my older brother Andy teasing me because he was allowed to watch it, whereas I was too young. He then proceeded to tell me all the gory details in Technicolor detail. Of course, I really wanted to see it.
When I did, eventually, several years later, I remember thinking: “Stupid people! Why would they go in the water with a dangerous shark… they’re only provoking it more!” I didn’t feel any fear of the shark, only curiosity. I was actually quite sad when it was killed at the end.
I was quite young when Jaws came out but I remember the first time it was shown on TV. I don’t think it scared me, but it did set me thinking.
The opening scenes were fascinating. Where was this wonderful world where women took off their clothes and ran into the sea? It certainly wasn’t the Yorkshire coastline where I had my holidays.
The “shark eating people“ scenes weren’t that scary to me, but I found fascinating the concept of an animal that preyed on people. Why was just the one fish doing this? Why didn’t all of them do it?
I also remember the scene when they cut a shark open and all manner of rubbish fell out of its stomach, including a car licence plate, which I thought a little implausible.
I liked the researcher played by Richard Dreyfuss and thought Quint (Robert Shaw) was a nasty piece of work.
I wonder if my preference for the scientific approach rather than the “let’s hunt and kill it” idea was formative – I did end up studying ecology, after all.
I also remember thinking, would a cylinder really cause that much damage when hit by a rifle bullet? More plausible than the shark biting through a power cable in Jaws 2 and flames popping out of its eye-sockets perhaps. I’m sure any shark species would avoid an electromagnetic field generated by a cable.
I should have just enjoyed the film for what it was. There was some quite ground-breaking cinematography used, but it never did for me what it did for so many people, who recoil in horror when I tell them about seeing sharks in the wild and say: “Ooh, I saw Jaws and that was it for me!”
I understand that Peter Benchley later regretted the damage his book and screenplay had done: “Knowing what I know now, I could never write that book today,” he said. “Sharks don't target human beings, and they certainly don't hold grudges.”
My then girlfriend dug her nails hard into my arm each time the bloodied open-mouthed monster appeared on screen. The scars remain some 40 years later. I am still in doubt about which was more dreadful.
I vividly remember going to see Jaws on its original UK release, though the queues were so long I think we spent more time outside the cinema than inside.
I say “we” because it was me and my first girlfriend, so I didn’t actually get to watch much of the film until it was shown on telly a few years later.
I do remember the collective gasp of horror throughout the cinema when the head popped out of the wrecked boat, however, and that might be what prompted me to become a wreck-diver, knowing that the man-eating sharks were generally outside the wreck and not inside.
And years later we had a lad in my first dive-club who would yell: “Get three barrels on ’er, she’ll not stay down for long with three barrels” in his best Quint voice, given the slightest opportunity.
I don't recall any reaction except perhaps “Wow, that is scary!” (but not as scary as being sized-up by two porbeagle sharks under water off Rockall).
I must have been 9 or 10 when I first saw Jaws and, thinking about it now, I can’t quite believe my parents let me watch it at that age!
I used to borrow shark books from the library long before I’d seen the film and vividly remember gawping endlessly at an image of a diver who’d just had one leg bitten off. So Jaws wasn’t my introduction to these “man-eaters”.
For me as a youngster the film was terrifying, not necessarily because of the (then) gruesome scenes of characters like Quint being devoured by the pesky great white, but more the anticipation of such an event occurring.
Whether it was a result of the film or perhaps those books I didn't much like being out of my depth in the sea, and even had reservations about the deep end of a swimming pool!
Today many consider Jaws the catalyst for that “man-eater” reputation. Others would say that it has instilled a lifetime of shark fear into some.
I believe it’s a classic film that has its place in history, and as long as we continue to support shark-conservation projects and educate today’s youngsters in the right way, we’re all heading in the right direction.
ANDREA ‘QUEEN OF MANTAS’ MARSHALL
The first time I saw Jaws I was terrified and fascinated all at the same time. It is such a compelling film that it’s hard not to get caught up in the horror of it all, but as a shark-lover I recognised that they were being painted in an unfair light.
I remember feeling a bit helpless and frustrated in conversations with people at the time, particularly my mom, who knew I wanted to study them when I grew up.
Unfortunately the film made all sharks international villains overnight and it was a long time before anyone saw them as anything more than man-eating monsters.
A lot has changed over the past 40 years and I’m grateful for more positive media coverage of sharks these days!
JOHN ‘SHARK BYTES’ BANTIN
Seeing JAWS scared me to death of course. It taught me that sharks were malicious and undiscerning predators.
I got some pay-off when I was commissioned to shoot a Guinness advert timed with the first TV showing of the movie. I shot the brand toucan’s beak breaking the surface in the manner of a shark’s dorsal fin.
It wasn’t long afterwards that I learned to dive and decided to retreat back to the boat when I saw my first shark – a large nurse shark!
Alas, the boat had sunk at anchor in the meantime, which put the actual dangers of diving very much into perspective for me. Better to be under water with a shark than at the surface with no boat.
I thought it an excellent, entertaining movie, more humorous than frightening, and still replay my DVD every year. "Here’s to swimmin' with bow-legged women!"
I remember queueing for hours in the rain outside a Cambridge cinema to see Jaws on the day it was released. It was a massive event. The hype from the USA had been huge.
As a teenager, did it make me scared of sharks? Not at all. Fascinated by sharks – definitely!