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07 August, 2010

Summer of the Shark

June 20th, 1975 was a red-letter day in my eleven-year old life:  It was the first time that I stood in a long line to see a movie on its opening day.  It also effectively ended my love of swimming in the ocean near my hometown of Jacksonville, Florida.  That movie was JAWS, and no film, before or since, has had such a dramatic, traumatic effect on me.

Based on the novel by Peter Benchley, JAWS was brought to life by Steven Spielberg, a young director fresh from making Made-for-TV movies, including the very well received DUEL.  Still nearly a decade away from becoming a household name, following the blockbuster success of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, E.T. and RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, and even further away from the critical acclaim that he would find in films such as SCHINDLER’S LIST and SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, Spielberg was a 28-year old, untried director chosen to helm the latest project for Universal Studios.

JAWS did not have a smooth production.  There was friction between Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw, two of the three main stars of the film; repeated breakdowns in the mechanical shark that forced a rethinking of just how the film was going to be shot; the original shooting schedule mushroomed, from 50-60 days, to well over 150 days; there were numerous problems with the script; even the weather on Martha’s Vineyard threatened the production.  That the film was completed at all is amazing.  That it became one of the best movies ever made is a miracle.

However, all that was unknown to me the summer of my eleventh year.  I was a normal kid, more bookish than most of my friends, more into comic books and model planes than baseball and the outdoors.  If I had a passion at that age, it was Star Trek, with Monster movies a close second.  The first I indulged courtesy of re-runs every afternoon; the second was fed during the summer by the “Kiddie Shows” the local theater would run every Wednesday.

We would clip coupons out of the paper on Mondays and Tuesdays, and on Wednesday, mothers desperate for just a few hours peace and quiet would drop hordes of screaming children off at the theater, coupons clutched tightly in grubby hands.  Teen-agers, scarcely five or six years older than us, would herd us into line to buy our tickets.  For the miniscule price of 25¢, plus the coupon, we would be treated to cartoons, contests, a free box of popcorn and small drink, and, of course, the main feature.  Though occasionally these were Disney films, (bad enough…) or even worse, Pippi Longstocking movies, (almost universally reviled among my peers, with good reason…) the usual fare for these Wednesday idylls were Monster movies.  Universal Horrors; Giant Bugs; Japanese Kaijû, all were offered up for our education and edification.  It was at one of these fondly remembered festivals of childish hedonism that I first became aware of the motion picture that would become the most effective Horror film I’ve ever seen.

The posters on display outside the entrance, labeled “Coming Attractions”, always garnered much attention from us as we waited in line.  Most, usually featuring couples in various romantic situations, were the easy targets of ridicule and derision.  Some were simply ignored; like the movies they promoted they weren’t even worth the scorn of 10, 11, and 12-year olds.  But a few were noticed, commented upon, and mentally filed away for future reference.  Most of these we knew we would never get to see… films such as THE EXORCIST, SUGAR HILL, and the Holy Grail, the movie we knew we would never get a glimpse of, THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, all were introduced to us in that gleaming chrome and glass display case.

The poster for JAWS caught our imaginations instantly:  The massive head of the shark, rising from the depths towards the tiny figure (“Gosh, is she naked??!!”) of the female swimmer, screamed Monster Movie.  Best of all, it was rated PG, which meant we stood a realistic shot at getting our parents to let us see it.  I doubt all of us succeeded in that quest; I know that I did.

By 1975, I was hardly a novice MonsterKid.  I was on a first name basis with the Universal Monsters, had a thorough familiarity with most of the Godzilla and Gamera films, was the proud owner of a growing collection of monster magazines and models; I had even, (thanks to an older sister with a spacious trunk…) gone to an all-night Drive-In movie Gore-a-thon, featuring films such as BLOOD FEAST, CHILDREN SHOULDN’T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS, and NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.  I thought that I was past being scared by a movie.  Boy was I wrong.

From the first attack to open the film, to the stalking and killing of the young Kittner boy, to the climactic battle on board the doomed Orca, the movie was more than I could’ve imagined.  The sheer level of intensity and horror of what went unseen was far more effective than any amount of blood and gore could ever be.  Though the film was filled with images that were shocking, even genuinely frightening, there was comparatively little of the “blood and guts” usually associated with the horror films of this period.  While most of my friends (those who managed to see the movie…) felt that Quint’s death was the high point of the film, there was one image that stayed fixed in my mind… that of a severed leg drifting silently toward the sandy bottom following the attack on the boaters in the tidal pool.  That image, more than any other, gave me nightmares for weeks afterward.

First, in my defense, let me remind readers that I was born and raised in a state surrounded on three sides by ocean, so it’s not as though there wasn’t the remotest possibility of encountering a shark.  I doubt that my reaction to the film would have been as pronounced had I lived in Idaho.  But I grew up less than 20 miles from the Atlantic Ocean.  I swam in the ocean as often as we could get down to the beach.  We knew there were sharks in those waters; a record Hammerhead shark had been caught off a pier within sight of where we would swim.  Anglers would routinely catch sharks while fishing offshore.

But never before had I connected sharks with the monsters that inhabited my imagination; monsters that even an 11-year old realizes are just that:  Creatures of the imagination.

But sharks were different, because sharks were real.  Sharks existed.  Sharks behaved not all too differently in fact than the shark in the movie.  Sharks hunted.  Sharks fed.

Sharks… killed.

And sharks were in the water in which we swam.

And so I stopped swimming in the ocean.  I quit as completely, as suddenly, as throwing a switch.  No matter what was said, no matter how much anyone pled, cajoled, or threatened, I didn’t go into the ocean again, that summer or any since.  Nothing could tempt me into the water; not even the shallowest parts could be considered safe.  In my imagination, there was a monstrous shark hiding just under the surface, waiting for a plump, juicy kid to be stupid enough to jump in.  That overpowering image still resides somewhere, deep in my subconscious.  Though my fears have subsided with time, age, and hopefully, a modicum of wisdom, it’s still there, hidden away in case I should ever again give thought to a swim in the ocean.

Emotional scarring like that… you tell me that there is a more effective Horror Film than JAWS.

I’ll match you, nightmare for nightmare.

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