I recently saw Jaws for the first time in many years. Maybe for the first time from beginning to end since the 70’s. Do you remember Jaws when it first came out? It was terrifying. I was young when I saw it in the theater, and I never thought it was safe to go back in the water; to this day my toes have to be able to touch bottom. Nonetheless I assumed it would be almost laughably unscary now. Special effects have come a long way. That shark was bound to look like papier-mâché, right?
Wrong. Or kind of, but it doesn’t matter. This is the storytelling genius of Spielberg, a man who was young and relatively inexperienced when he directed Jaws, and who you don’t typically think of as a horror guy in any case. He gets what all too many horror writers and filmmakers fail to, even after making careers of it: startling does not equal scary. Gross also does not equal scary. It’s easy enough to make somebody jump or cringe. But that’s not the same as making them sprint from the light switch to their bed later that night, for fear of what might be reaching for them in the dark.
Jaws doesn’t depend on special effects or cheap tricks for its scares. It doesn’t even depend on the shark. He remains unseen until halfway through the film, and even then the tension is immediately lifted by one of the best one-liners in movie history. (To give credit where it’s due, Roy Scheider improvised that line.) Jaws is not without blood and gore, but it earns its scares honestly, by building suspense – thank you, John Williams – and tapping our most fundamental fears. What can be scarier than vulnerable naked limbs, dangling down into the black unknown?
Nothing is what. The shark when he’s actually biting poor Quint in half isn’t nearly so scary as the shark when he’s merely lurking, unseen, in the dark. And that head that comes lolling out of the half-eaten boat can’t even begin to compete. It’s a classic startle moment that makes you jump and squeal for sure, but it’s not going to be with you forty years down the road, making you think twice before swimming out too far. A thrill is temporary. A scare is something else. A scare stays.
Horrifying images are great. Thrills and chills and blood, all great. These things can be terrifying when they’ve been given substance by good storytelling. But you can’t just throw them out there and expect them to stand on their own. There has to be more to it than a jump and a retch.