Jaws (1975): The Danger From Outside

In an earlier post, I talked about setting horror movies in suburban towns, and how the foundation of the horror stems from the setting being invaded from outside, or possessed of horror from within. I used Halloween as an example of the horror coming from outside the town of Haddonfield, in the form of Michael Myers, (actually this is a little more complicated, because Michael was born in Haddonfield, and is essentially haunting, and hunting, his birthplace), but Jaws is also a good example of this. Jaws also makes the interesting point, that the town of Amity, in which the film is set, is so  inert, that its salvation can’t come from any of its own inhabitants, but must also, like the threat, come from Outside.

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The very first thing we learn when watching the movie is that the waters surrounding the island of Amity are are invaded by an external force, the shark, who takes its first victim, a young woman named Chrissie. The shark is not evil, but it doesn’t have to be, to be the focus of the horror. In fact, that the shark is indifferent to humanity is what gives the horror so much depth. The shark only has to upset the status quo, and the status quo, is that nothing happens in Amity that is worthy of note. The mayor of the town makes this point several times, and the new Sheriff has a short monologue in which he makes this point as well. Nothing exciting happens in Amity.

The next thing we learn is that there’s a new Sheriff in town, Sheriff Martin Brody. We learn, in the first real dialogue of the film, that he and his wife just moved to Amity a few months ago, Brody is often  reminded ,by the citizens, or the mayor,  that he is new at the job, that he is an outsider, or that he doesn’t belong, and Spielberg often shoots scenes with Brody separate from, or in isolation, against the other characters on screen.

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Both Brody and the shark are framed as dangerous to the inhabitants of the island. The shark is a physical danger, but Brody represents a more direct danger to the livelihoods of the islanders, as he attempts do his job of protecting them from the shark. He wants to close the beaches, something which the citizens don’t want, as that would directly impact their ability to make a living off the Summer tourists. The citizens of Amity have to choose between two external threats, but the shark is a danger the islanders do not wish to acknowledge, and Brody is something they can control.

Throughout the movie, Brody is constantly reminded, by the town’s mayor, that he is an outsider who doesn’t understand the needs of the people of Amity. Later, Brody calls in another outsider, Matt Hooper of the Oceanographic Institute, and the two of them team up with a resident of Amity named Quinn, but it is on Brody to save the town. Only another outside force for good can restore the order to which Amity had become accustomed. 

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Quint is a fisherman who lives in Amity, but he cannot save the town, as he is one of those anti-social town residents that doesn’t like his neighbors, and who probably don’t much like him. Quint is first introduced by one of the most annoying sounds in the world, as he drags his fingernails along a blackboard during the town meeting to discuss the shark attacks. That one moment, that sound, is all you need to know about Quint’s character, and how the people of the town view him. Like the town itself, (as represented by the Mayor), he is too beset by his weaknesses of character. He has inner demons of his own, that motivate his hunt for the shark, many of them stemming from his short stint on the U.S.S. Indianapolis, which is actually a true story.

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“There were a lot of sharks,” he says, his voice nearly a whisper. “So many. I’d see them swimming below me.”

Quint’s reason for wanting to hunt the shark are mercenary. He wants to get paid, and wants the glory of being seen as the town’s hero, so all his motivations are entirely self-serving.  Although its his home, Quint feels no real responsibility to the town of Amity, and is willing to exploit his neighbors fear of the shark, or monetary disaster by closing the beaches, for his own ends.

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Mayor Larry Vaughn is ineligible, because he is a deeply fearful man, who is too scared of the townsfolk’s anger, and his fears of re-election, to go against their desires. Several times he reminds Brody that he is not from Amity, and that he doesn’t know what the town needs,  citing himself as the only person who knows what’s best for the town. He constantly undermines Brody’s authority, refuses to take the shark attacks seriously, and even encourages beachgoers to get in the water, despite the danger of shark attack. He saddles Brody with the impossible task of protecting the town, within the parameters that he sets, where Brody is not allowed to make the townspeople angry, but cannot protect them by closing the beaches. The only time he makes a correct decision is when he orders the beaches closed, after yet another shark attack, and only because his children were on the beach, too. He only makes the correct decision out of fear, after it hits too close to him.

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Hooper is also ineligible for destroying the shark, as he has no interest in Amity, at all. He doesn’t live there, and can also be seen as sympathetic to the shark. He is interested in the shark for science. He is not interested in killing it, but he comes along on the hunt, because he empathizes with Martin Brody, with whom he has formed a close attachment.  Hooper is also the polar opposite of Quint, who both hates and fears  the shark, and whose agenda is to kill it to assuage his inner demons.

Of the three shark hunters, Brody is the only one who doesn’t approach the hunt from a selfish perspective. What Brody wants is to do his job and protect the town, with tremendous guilt as a secondary motivating factor. His failure to save the lives of several inhabitants of the town, including a young boy, who died because he was not firm enough in putting his foot down about closing the beaches, weighs heavily on him. Earlier in the film, while talking with Hooper, he mentions why he left New York, saying that he felt helpless there, and that in Amity he could make a difference and save lives. Except, he didn’t, and he accepts the full blame for the deaths that occurred under his watch.

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In the end, it makes perfect sense that Brody would be the one to kill the shark, and to do so alone. From the beginning of the film, Brody and the shark are set up as parallels, and  adversaries. We are reminded, so often, that Brody is not from Amity, that it takes on a level of importance.The opening scene is the arrival of the shark to Amity’s waters, and its subsequent attack on a female swimmer. The scene just after the shark’s attack on her, is between Brody and his wife, about moving to Amity from New York, and the second conversation that Brody has, about not being an islander, is on the beach with the young man who reported the shark’s first victim as missing. In most of his conversations with Mayor Vaughn, Brody is reminded that he is new in town, and doesn’t know how things work there.

 

 

Jaws is an example of the Man vs. Nature conflict narrative, in which some of the tension is provided by the main protagonist having to overcome challenges to achieve his goals. The primary conflict is between Brody and the shark, and Brody’s goal is to destroy the shark, thereby saving the town. Three of the challenges he must overcome, before he can accomplish this goal, are external, the Mayor who undermines his authority ,and ability to do his job, and the townsfolk who look to him to save them from the shark, without it affecting their livelihoods, and one internal challenge,  his fear of water.

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Several times, Brody’s fear of the water is referenced by the other characters in the film.  One of the beachgoers mentions that everyone in town has noticed his fear of the water, and his wife discusses it with Hooper, when they’re having dinner. 

 The thing that makes Jaws an  immensely satisfying movie, is that most of Brody’s challenges get resolved by the end. He has stood up to Mayor Vaughn, forcing him to take his side in closing the beaches, and defying the will of the townspeople. He has destroyed the shark, protecting the citizens of Amity, and done so by overcoming his fear of water.

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It is made clear to the audience, several times in the movie, that Brody is an Outsider, which is the one challenge left unresolved. In an earlier beach scene, Brody’s wife is told that she and her husband will never be considered islanders, because they weren’t born on Amity. They will never belong, no matter what they do, or how long they live there, and that will not change by the end of the movie. This is also one of the primary themes, and the shark’s arrival is narratively equated with Brody’s earlier move to the island.

After Hooper is believed to have been killed by the shark, and Quint is eaten, it is down to Brody, alone, using equipment brought aboard the boat by Hooper, to dispatch this external menace.

Killing the shark, and protecting the town, doesn’t make Brody an islander, but by eliminating the threat to the town, Brody, who was treated as an Outside threat by the town, as much as the shark, will be seen as less of one. By killing the shark,  he proves he can be trusted with Amity’s welfare, and  eliminates, in one action, both of the town’s perceived external threats