Welcome to Jaws Week! When it was announced that Steven Spielberg's Jaws was arriving on Blu-ray, we thought it'd be perfect to dedicate an entire week to the movie that created the summer blockbuster. Every day this week we'll be posting an assortment of really fun features tied to the film, its production, its legacy, its fans, its merchandise and so much more.
Writer Peter Benchley was inspired to write Jaws not long after Long Island fisherman Frank Mundus caught a 4,500 pound great white shark off of Montauk back in 1964, but that wasn’t his only inspiration for the story of the rogue man-eater. He was also influenced by a series of shark attacks that terrified the Jersey shore back in 1916.
During a 12-day span, a shark killed four people and injured a fifth, and terrified the seaside area in a way not unlike "Bruce" does Amity in Spielberg’s film. The perpetrator of the attacks remains a mystery, but modern-day scientists assume the killer fish was either a great white or a bull shark. The idea of a “rogue” shark coming into an area and refusing to leave was one of the core components of Benchley’s novel.
Since shark knowledge was so primitive at the time, even published reports stating that a great white was captured after the attacks – and had two victims’ remains in his stomach – remain dubious. Since several of the attacks took place up a freshwater stream, many people suspect the actual killer was a bull shark instead (bulls have been found thriving in fresh water lakes and rivers on many occasions. Think about that next time you dive into a river…). Of course, a story about a killer bull shark doesn’t quite have the same pop as one about a giant great white. “You yell ‘barracuda!’” and all that….
Smithsonian Magazine recently discussed the attacks with George Burgess, the man who curates the International Shark Attack File, which records each and every reported attack across the globe. Burgess offers interesting insights into the events of 1916, and surmises that perhaps the shark attacked so many in such a short amount of time because it was injured or had some sort of deformity. We’ll never know for sure – reliable records from the time period are hard to come by – but we do know this story played a key role in inspiring one of the greatest movies of all time: Jaws.
For more info on the 1916 Jersey shore attacks (which were presented as the historical basis for a Jaws sequel at one point), check out Richard Fernicola’s 12 Days of Terror and Michael Capuzzo’s Close to Shore, two books chronicling the incident from different angles.