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Are We Still Afraid of ‘Jaws’?

Spielberg’s classic emptied beaches in 1975, but does it still scare?

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Scene from Steven Spielberg's Jaws. (© 1975 - Universal Pictures. All rights reserved.)

Released on June 20, 1975, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws is commonly seen as the original summer blockbuster. It’s also considered one of Hollywood’s first “high concept” films. You can describe it in just three words: Shark menaces town.  

Despite this surface simplicity, or perhaps because of it, Jaws has given rise to countless—sometimes conflicting—interpretations. The shark has been seen as a stand-in for everything from Watergate to infidelity to immigration. While some have argued that the predator represents the evils of communism, Fidel Castro called the movie a Marxist masterpiece, in which the shark represents the capitalism that brutalizes ordinary Americans. Next year, when the movie turns 40, there’ll no doubt be commentators who will see it as a predictor of global warming—or of 9/11.  

Faced with this immense variety, philosopher-provocateur Slavoj Žižek has offered a kind of meta-explanation, arguing that what the shark from Jaws manages to do is unite all sorts of fears and allow us to trade them for a single, solitary one. It’s a strategy, he says, not unlike the one used by the Nazis, who, dizzied by the modern world, needed a single figure on whom to focus their confusion and blame.

Žižek’s take is interesting for what it can tell us about the malleability of anxiety. If it’s true that we can translate a fear of being exploited by big multinational corporations into a fear of a great white shark, then did the underlying fear really have much substance to it to begin with? 

Sharks don’t have to be figures of menace. If anything, in the Book of Jonah, the closest thing Jaws has to a biblical antecedent, the fish’s belly in which the prophet sits for three days and three nights is less a place of terror than one of quiet contemplation. It’s a little like a movie theater. 

Which brings us to what we look for as movie watchers. That our fears can be redirected is just one part of the story; the second is that they be alleviated through the cathartic power of film. We may walk into the theater nervous about our mortgage payment, but when the shark is blown to bits, we’re made to feel lighter. 

When Jaws first came out, it unleashed an all-out panic. Beach attendance dropped. People wouldn’t go in the water. Nowadays, it seems, we’re not so scared. According to a recent article in the New York Times, the Cape Cod town of Chatham is using the promise of sharks to help lure tourists. “Attitudes have changed,” the executive director of the Chatham Orpheum Theater told the Times. “In Chatham now, you yell ‘Shark!’ in the middle of town, people come running to the beach, not away from it.”

Earlier this summer, Mother Jones published a conversation between two of Richard Dreyfuss’s children on the topic of Jaws and its legacy. The general gist is that the film, which offered their father his first leading role, is the very picture of absurdity. The title of the piece captures nicely the chutzpah involved: “‘Jaws’ Is Ridiculous, Say Kids Who Owe Everything to ‘Jaws.’”

Filial impiety could also be how one describes the Syfy channel’s campy Sharknado franchise, which features not one shark but thousands and, to liven things further, has them pouring from the sky.

Jaws broke all the records and forever changed the way Hollywood did business. It’s possible that among its many legacies is that, after extended exposure, it has cured the movie-going public of the shark phobia it once provoked. Then again, perhaps the irreverence—the cuddly stuffed animals they’re selling on Cape Cod, the Dreyfuss children’s sassy talk, the silliness of Sharknado—springs from some other source.

Maybe old Jaws still has some bite.

Jaws will be screened at New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage on Wednesday, August 6, at 6:30 p.m. as part of the free summer-long series Close Encounters of the Spielberg Kind, which concludes with E.T. on August 13.

Previous: Is Schindler a Projection of Spielberg Himself?

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Are We Still Afraid of ‘Jaws’?

Spielberg’s classic emptied beaches in 1975, but does it still scare?

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