DAH-DUM, DAH-DUM: The real story behind “Jaws”

Jaws by Peter Benchley.
Jaws by Peter Benchley.

By Stacey Venzel

Terror surrounding the great white shark received a major boost in 1974 when Peter Benchley’s critically acclaimed novel Jaws debuted. The book spawned Steven Spielberg’s Academy Award-winning movie in 1975, which launched a four-part cinematic series that still haunts audiences today.

When historians discovered similarities between author Peter Benchley’s masterpiece—coupled with the subsequent screenplay he co-wrote—and a spree of shark attacks along the New Jersey shoreline in 1916, they were quick to conclude that the two were related. In 2001, The New York Times published an article in response to the public’s growing fear of sharks swimming near beaches, mentioning an inspiration of the 1916 attacks for Jaws. However, Benchley corrected assertion days later, denying the link and setting the record straight. Instead, he gave credit to a 1964 newspaper article reporting a Long Island fisherman’s prized catch of a great white shark weighing 4,550 pounds.

Great whites can reach a weight of more than 5,000 pounds. According to National Geographic, they can sense one drop of blood in 25 gallons of water. Perhaps more impressive, they are able to smell blood at a distance of three miles. Not surprisingly, these facts alongside the aggressive-looking portrait of a great white lay the groundwork for a thriller. It only took a man with a pen to turn the great white shark into a legend.

But while a story with a great white as the antagonist seemingly makes for a better blockbuster than one of its smaller, less ferocious-looking cousins, the public’s perception of Jaws has made the great white quite misunderstood. National Geographic reports that though great whites win the trophy for biggest predatory fish, less than half of the annual reported shark attacks are caused by great whites. And, in fact, few of these attacks actually prove fatal. Great whites are inquisitive individuals and tend to “taste test” a suspected prey. They have been found to mistake sea otters for sea lions and surfboards for sea turtles. Using their mouths as a human would hands, the great white spits out its prey when it is deemed undesirable, which explains why most unsuspecting beachgoers survive great white shark attacks.

The result of a bull shark’s predatory prowess is another tale. Of the noted shark attacks, bull sharks are viewed as the offending culprit the majority of the time. Much smaller in size than the great white, their attacks on humans have been deemed intentional, not incidental, a trait characterized by Bruce, the mechanical great white in the Jaws franchise. Because of this apparent hostility of their attacks on humans, the 1916 shark incident that spanned twelve days in New Jersey has been reinvestigated, suggesting the involvement of a bull shark, not a great white. Additionally, three of these five shark attacks occurred in a freshwater creek. Bull sharks are known to inhabit brackish and freshwater streams. Opponents to the “rogue shark” theory propose that perhaps a different shark was behind the attacks in the ocean. Although a shark marauder with reported human remains was captured in Matawan Creek shortly after the attacks, a necropsy could not determine whether the shark had hunted or merely come across one of the drowned victims.

Theories exist to support both species of sharks being behind the attacks. Unfortunately, documentation from this time period is not reliable due to exaggeration and opinions of the events clouding scientific fact. It might never be clear as to what animal caused the 1916 attacks and why, but we do know that Benchley based his character on a great white shark that became one of – if not the – most influential, though not necessarily scientifically accurate, sharks in film history.

Jaws does take place in a fictional town on the New England coast, but the author himself denies a connection to the historic New Jersey attacks. Instead, it seems, it was merely a small newspaper blurb of a harpooned great white that was instrumental in spawning a decades-long phenomenon that changed the public’s view of sharks. Maybe it’s time to debunk the legendary myth surrounding the man-eating nature of the great white shark.



  1. Gambino, Megan. “The Shark Attacks That Were the Inspiration for Jaws.” The New York Times. August 6, 2012. Web Accessed November 7, 2015.
  2. Benchley, Peter. “Peter Benchley Biography.” January 10, 2005. Web Accessed November 8, 2015.
  3. “Great White Shark.” National Geographic. Web Accessed November 8, 2015.
  4. Hile, Jennifer. “Great White Shark Attacks: Defanging the Myths.” National Geographic News. January 3, 2004. Web Accessed November 8, 2015.
  5. Filskov, Earl. “Bull Shark (carcharhinus leucas) Is The Real Bad Boy of The Ocean.” The Super Fins. March 16, 2015. Web Accessed November 8, 2015.