Movies as a Medium: Jaws

As a medium, film is an extremely powerful tool, but how powerful can it be? Throughout the years there have been movies and television programs produced all over the world, and many of those productions have been viewed by millions of people. One of those movies was the 1975 film Jaws. Based on the 1974 novel of the same name, Jaws is the story of a small town called Amity with a killer shark in the water, and the journey of three men who aim to kill that shark. Those men are Brody, the town sheriff; Quint, a local fisherman; and Hooper, a scientist from the Oceanographic Institute. The release of Jaws had an enormous impact on American society, and it continues to have an impact today. This terrifying story completely altered peoples’ view of the ocean. Jaws had a great impact as a movie for several reasons. Jaws was a great thriller movie, which caused it to be viewed by millions of people. On top of this, at the time that Jaws was released, people did not know enough about sharks to know how completely exaggerated the movie was. In addition, Jaws managed to glorify shark fishing, causing a decrease in shark populations on the coast of the US.

As a movie, Jaws employs several techniques in order to make the story thrilling. Movies are able to utilize both sight and sound, making it easier to affect people emotionally. Jaws utilizes the sense of sound through its music. Everyone knows the main theme song of Jaws. Those two deep notes alternating back and forth, slowly at first, then speeding up and becoming more powerful. Next come a few high-pitched, irregular minor chords. The two underlying notes almost sound like a saw scraping back and forth against something. As a saw moves one direction it produces a different note than it does going the opposite direction. John Williams, the composer of the music featured in Jaws, said, “It had the effect of grinding away, coming at you, just as a shark would do, instinctual, relentless, unstoppable” (Andrews 60). The ostinato sounds habitual and mindless, just as the movie portrays the shark to be. On top of that, the irregular minor chords also are inherently frightening. Nonlinear sounds such as the minor chords and other high pitched sounds used in the song sound similar to the shriek of an infant or a baby animal, which causes humans to respond with negative emotions or fear (Blumstein, Bryant, and Kaye). Hearing those chords brings out a fear that is biologically ingrained in humans. Together the ostinato, the high-pitched sounds, and the minor chords successfully instill fear in the viewer.

In addition to sound, movies also are able to use film as a way of communication. The most important aspect of film is that it is able to tell a story in a way one picture alone never could. They are able to show how a situation changes over time. Jaws uses several useful tools to make the film more frightening.  The first is the use of the dark. The dark is something that people naturally fear. “There are good reasons to have an instinctive fear of the dark. In our history, before civilization, the world was a scary place. There were many predators that hunted at night. In a very real sense, there were monsters out there. The world in which our ancestors lived was perilous” (“The Basics of Evolution”). This is why many of the scenes in Jaws, like the opening scene where the first victim goes swimming, take place during the night. In addition, there is less visibility in the dark. The viewer may not know right away where the shark is located, and therefore they cannot tell whether or not the characters are safe. This makes the night scenes more suspenseful.

Another technique in Jaws that creates suspense is how the attacks are timed. When the shark is on its way, the audience is aware: however, they do not know who the shark will take. Much of the suspense in the movie is built that way. In the scene where the shark arrives in the pond where Brody’s son is swimming, the audience knows that the shark is going there, and they also know that Brody’s son is in the water. Despite this, the audience must wait several minutes before finding out the fate of the boy. These types of scenes use the extended amount of time to make the audience feel fear for the characters involved. At the same time, the film also uses the opposite as a means to shock the audience. When Brody, Hooper, and Quint are hunting the shark, there is a scene where Brody is standing by the edge of the boat, when suddenly the shark jumps out of the water just next to him. Since there is no warning before this happens, it successfully shocks the audience. Those types of sudden movements as well as suspenseful scenes are part of the reason Jaws was so successful as a thriller.

While the music and the film itself are both important, the way the music interacts with the film is also important. The most important feature of movies as a medium is the fact that with movies, sound and film can work together to produce a certain effect. The music and images in Jaws are a very successful example of that. In the movie, the theme music was very specifically used as a signal to let the audience know that the shark is present. Each time that the shark was coming, the theme music played. This was used to give certain clues during the movie. For example, in the scene where two boys try to create panic on the beach using a cardboard shark fin, the theme music does not play. Because the viewer expects the music to accompany the fin, it instills a sense of curiosity in the viewer. Later on in the film, when the three men are in the boat with the shark swimming around below, the music does not need to play because the shark is already known to be present, which makes it that much more of a shock when the shark does jump out of the water (John Williams Talks about ‘Jaws’). It is in that way that the visual aspects of the movie and the music along with it can work together to create a suspenseful film.

In order to make the story a little more interesting, there were a few not so subtle exaggerations in Jaws. To start, the shark in Jaws is a great white, and it is 25 feet long. That is extremely large for a great white, since the average size of a female is 16 feet, while the average size of a male is only 12 feet. On top of that, the shark in the movie is incredibly strong. It manages to break into a shark cage by ramming its face into the bars, and it also is able to swim deep below the surface of the water after multiple barrels have been attached to it. Beyond that, the shark is constantly making an effort to attack people throughout the movie, as well as actually swallowing human flesh. The fact of the matter is that humans are not on the menu for great white sharks. Great whites have taste buds, so they usually take a test bite of something, taste it to see if it’s a good meal, and if it does not like the taste, it will spit it back out and move on (“Taste”).  This is what makes the attacks in Jaws so unusual. In the movie, the people who are attacked are killed immediately and eaten by the shark, while in reality, people typically die of blood loss after the attack. In addition, a great white would not be hunting humans. The movie features a shark that is actively trying to break into a shark cage to eat a man and jumping onto the back of a boat to eat people. This is a ridiculous idea. A shark does not have the capacity to work towards a revenge against its hunters in that way.

In 1975, people knew very little about sharks. To them, what was shown in Jaws was realistic or even a decent representation of what sharks are. Because of the fact that people had little or no exposure to sharks, this movie played a big role in affecting the way people look at sharks.  To fully understand how Jaws has affected society, it is helpful to view it as an archive of feelings, a concept from Ann Cvetkovich’s An Archive of Feelings. While Jaws is a fictional film, it still remains a part of the archive of feelings on sharks as a species. This movie documents a time where sharks were viewed as monsters. “Although sharks certainly have a fearsome reputation nowadays, incredibly, ‘at the turn of the 20th century, there was this perception that sharks had never attacked a human being,’ said George Burgess, director of the Florida Program for Shark Research in Gainesville. ‘There was even a reward offered if someone could prove they were bitten by a shark — money that was never collected’” (Burgess LiveScience). It was not until the 20th century that shark accidents started becoming common, and over time they have become more and more common. This is due to the fact that each year, not only are there more people in the ocean, but they are also spending more time in the ocean. Another piece of the shark archive is the information collected about the Jersey shore shark accidents of 1916. Although Peter Benchley, the author of the Jaws novel, denies the connection, the accidents that occurred in 1916 are the only series of accidents that bear any resemblance to the accidents portrayed in Jaws (“Corrections”). During that series of accidents, five people were injured, and four of those people died. This was the only documented occurrence of a series of shark accidents, and it is the only series of accidents similar to those portrayed in Jaws.

It was during those 1916 accidents that negative language surrounding sharks began to appear. That language was very similar to the language used in Jaws and it continues to be used by much of the population today. When talking about racism, Cvetkovich said, “Everyday forms of racism, many of which are institutional or casual and thus don’t always appear visible except to those who are attuned to them, are among the effects of longer histories of racial trauma” (6). While people’s feelings towards sharks are not the same as racism, it is very similar. There is an underlying hate that causes people to talk about sharks the way they do. Newspapers of the time as well as the Jaws movie call sharks “man-eaters.” The phrase “shark infested water” is also a common phrase despite the fact that the ocean is the natural habitat of the shark. People also frequently use the phrase “shark attack” even when no one was injured. “…our research showed that 20 percent of reported shark attacks in the Australian state of New South Wales did not involve any injury to the bather” (Neff). While this type of language is used out of fear and desire to grab attention, it results in a systematic oppression of an entire species.

While the movie initially caused a fear of sharks, it ended up having a more complicated effect than that. Another initial effect that it had was that it caused more people to go fishing for sharks. “…what happened when the book and the movie Jaws came out in the 1970s. It spawned a huge upswing in recreational fishing for sharks with fishing tournaments. There was this collective testosterone rush that occurred on the East Coast of the United States following those events because every guy wanted to go out and catch a shark, have his picture taken with his foot on the head of a shark and have a shark jaw hanging up in his house” (Burgess Smithsonian). This was a serious contribution to the overfishing of sharks in the late 70’s and 80’s. It is estimated that between 20-100 million sharks are killed by humans each year. After the shark population was sufficiently damaged, scientists realized that sharks are a very important part of the underwater ecosystem. Because of this combined with society’s newfound interest in sharks, funding for shark research increased dramatically. Before, there was no funding for sharks because they were viewed only as pests that eat the fish that fishermen wanted to catch. Now, much more is known about sharks, and public interest in sharks remains strong. This interest is the reason that there are things like Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, and that there have been more than 50 shark movies released since Jaws.

After the release of Jaws, shark populations off the coast of the US took a big hit, and sharks continue to suffer at human hands. In addition, funding for shark research has increased, and public interest in sharks has increased. These have been the result of only one movie. Jaws was an amazing thriller movie, and it is a classic, but no one could have known what a large effect that it would have on the world. This just goes to show that movies are an incredibly powerful tool that can shape the way people view the world.


Works Cited

Andrews, Nigel. Nigel Andrews on Jaws. New York: Bloomsbury Pub., 1999. Print.

“The Basics of Evolution.” Indiana University. Indiana University, 15 Jan. 2009. Web. 2 Mar. 2015. <http%253A%252F%252Fwww.indiana.edu%252F%257Eoso%252Fevolution%252Fplanning.htm>.

Blumstein, D. T., G. A. Bryant, and P. Kaye. “The Sound of Arousal in Music Is Context-dependent.” Biology Letters 8.5 (2012): 744-47. Web.

Burgess, George, Interviewed by Charles Q. Choi. “How ‘Jaws’ Forever Changed Our View of Great White Sharks.” LiveScience. TechMedia Network, 20 June 2010. Web. 02 Mar. 2015.

Burgess, George, Interviewed by Megan Gambino. “The Shark Attacks That Were the Inspiration for Jaws.” Smithsonian. Smithsonian Magazine, 6 Aug. 2012. Web. 03 Mar. 2015. <http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-shark-attacks-that-were-the-inspiration-for-jaws-15220260/?no-ist=&page=1&gt;.

“Corrections.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 07 Sept. 2001. Web. 02 Mar. 2015. <http://www.nytimes.com/2001/09/08/nyregion/c-corrections-091162.html?pagewanted=all&gt;.

Cvetkovich, Ann. An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2003. Print.

“John Williams Talks about ‘Jaws'” YouTube. YouTube, 26 Apr. 2011. Web. 03 Mar. 2015. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BQKLJ2MuHvY&gt;.

Neff, Christopher. Interviewed by Emily Shenk. “How Should We Respond When Humans and Sharks Collide?” National Geographic. National Geographic Society, 04 July 2013. Web. 02 Mar. 2015.

“Taste.” The Shark Trust. The Shark Trust, n.d. Web. 03 Mar. 2015. <http://www.sharktrust.org/en/taste&gt;.

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