Underwater Terror: ‘Jaws’ and the Birth of 70s Eco-Horror Media

‘Jaws’ is just one of the many iterations in a line of eco-horror media. Let’s explore some of its impact on both audiences and nature itself.

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The best type of horror takes place in reality. Such is the case with the animals that began to dominate the media in the 1970s. This era marked the growing presence of the “Nature Strikes Back!” genre. An unsuspected contributor to this genre was Peter Benchley, who had previously served as a speechwriter for President Lyndon Johnson. He quit this job so he could focus on writing his book about a villainous killer shark that was wreaking havoc on a small island community. This book was titled Jaws, and it would go on to sell more than 10 million copies.

From Book to Horror Film Classic

With its success, it was no surprise that the 1974 book then went on to be adapted into the 1975 summer blockbuster of the same name. Directed by Steven Spielberg, the film mostly stayed true to the book’s plot, but the themes differed. Benchley’s novel spoke to the greed of humankind. Even with shark attacks becoming more prevalent on the island, the resort was more concerned with losing tourism revenue should they close the beaches. It was essentially Man vs. Greed in this instance.

Spielberg’s take, on the other hand, offered a Man vs. Nature outlook that would become more prevalent in eco-horror books and films. The danger in the film is more specifically the shark and the community’s desperation to stop it. Either way, both the book and the film entertained their respective audiences.


Horror’s Not-So-Sinister Predator?

Additionally, this genre contributed to the growing concern over the environmental crisis that began to develop. When analyzing Jaws, one might ask: Is this a hungry shark or a vengeful shark? Despite their positions as predators, many people forget that humans are not typically their cup of tea. Even Benchley, who expressed regrets about giving sharks a bad name, was aware of this. Before Jaws, Benchley had worked with National Geographic, therefore making a name for himself in the media as an oceanic expert.

“What I now know, which wasn’t known when I wrote Jaws, is that there is no such thing as a rogue shark which develops a taste for human flesh,” Benchley told the Animal Attack Files in 2000. “No one appreciates how vulnerable they are to destruction.’’

When writing his novel, Benchley had access to scientists and environmentalists, which brought him closer to the ocean. More often than not, sharks themselves were falling prey to human technology like hooks and nets used to bring in fish. The narrative of the killer shark going around hunting humans only provoked the unnatural decline in the dark population. People who wanted to go out and kill sharks could do so under the guise of making their waters safer.


Jaws and Its Scientific Evolution

This is not to say that Jaws brought only bad press to sharks and the natural world overall. Prior to the novel’s release, the global population had little knowledge of how these sea creatures worked. Most shark research was concerned with merely classifying them as a side project to research deemed more important at the time. This led to conversations about sharks being highly mythological and exaggerated.

With the release of Jaws, sharks started to emerge in the public’s consciences, for better or for worse. While the public’s fascination with sharks led to fishermen killing for sport, it also sparked a more professional interest in sharks and shark attacks. Students and scientists alike began to study the life history and ecology of sharks. They learned that sharks were far more complicated than we give them credit for.

These studies from the 1980s and 90s started a surge in management policies and conservation measures to offer more protection to sharks. In addition, the extra attention allows for the discovery of other species of sharks in the ocean. No one would have expected that a piece of fictional media would spawn these kinds of worldly consequences. It is not too far-fetched to say that our observation of sharks also sparked an interest in observing human interaction with animals in general. As environmental destruction clashes with conservancy efforts, we are left questioning who are the true antagonists of eco-horror.

For more insight on how Jaws became a successful hit in the movie industry, click here!