Analysis & Opinions - Scientific American

Jaws: Classic Film, Crummy Science

| Sep. 18, 2020

Forty-five years after the movie made everyone afraid to wade into the ocean, it’s not too late to remind viewers of the truth about sharks.

The blockbuster film Jaws has been a perennial favorite here on Martha’s Vineyard since its release 45 years ago. The epic 1975 feature film, shot on the Vineyard in iconic places like the picturesque fishing village of Menemsha, pits a fictional seaside tourist town called Amity against a villainous great white shark whose fearsome triangular teeth—300 of them—bite and kill unsuspecting townspeople and summer visitors enjoying the local Atlantic Ocean waters. Jaws played recently at a COVID-safe drive-in theater here, allowing viewers to scream in the privacy of their own cars.

The movie took a deep dive into the psyche of audiences—and ocean swimmers—creating a larger-than-life fictional movie monster that evoked perpetual fear of the great white shark. However, the Jaws phenomenon also triggered admiration and awe of these magnificent marine animals in the wild, as well as a push for more scientific field research into their natural history.

Studies in recent decades have sought to demystify the demon shark in Jaws and to create a more nuanced view of this apex predator atop the marine food chain: white sharks eat seals, sea lions, dolphins, porpoises and many types of fish—but humans are not part of their normal diet. Ironically, the human threat to sharks is far greater than the shark threat to humans. Each year, fishermen kill, directly or indirectly, an estimated 100 million sharks of all kinds worldwide, the majority for shark fin soup or meat. Many deaths also occur after white sharks are snagged in commercial fishing gear.

Jaws author Peter Benchley later regretted the man-eating portrayal of the fictional white shark in his best-selling book and the more dramatic, bloodthirsty depiction in the Oscar-winning Steven Spielberg film. With his wife Wendy, he became an avid conservationist, working with environmental groups and research scientists on behalf of oceans and sharks everywhere until his untimely death in 2006.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Russell, Cristine.“Jaws: Classic Film, Crummy Science.” Scientific American, September 18, 2020.