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Thursday, May 24, 2018

Horror Histories Vol. 3 - JAWS and The Twelve Days of Terror

Jaws.  It’s one of the most iconic movies in the history of cinema.  Steven Spielberg’s film is a master class in building terror and suspense by keeping the killer shark off camera for much of the movie.  It was the thought of what could be out there rather than the giant shark itself that made people avoid the water.  

The movie is famously based on Peter Benchley’s novel of the same name and Benchley took his inspiration from real life events.  In particular, the twelve days in 1916 where five people along the Jersey shore were attacked by a shark or sharks, four of them dying horrible deaths.

Things started on July 1, when Charles Epting Vansant was taking a quick swim at the beach next to his hotel.  He quickly started shouting for help but bystanders thought he was shouting at the dog who had gone out to swim with him.  A lifeguard eventually pulled him in to shore but Vansant’s legs were mutilated.  He bled to death while awaiting emergency services and the lifeguard reported that the shark actually followed them into the shallows.

This caused a sensation in the papers, but just like in the book and film, authorities did not close the beaches.  Instead, they figured it was an isolated incident and despite the fact that local boat captains were reporting large sharks in the area, no warnings were issued.  Five days later, the bell captain of a local hotel went for a swim and was killed.  The shark bit his legs completely off and he bled to death as lifeguards pulled him to shore.   The papers had a field day with reports of local women fainting as the body was brought to shore.  Now people were officially staying out of the water, worried that they may be the next headline. 

That’s what makes the next three attacks so strange.  They happened on July 12 in Matawan Creek near the town of Keyport.  Even with the attacks along the shore making headlines, people living along the creek figured they had nothing to worry about.  After all, when does a shark swim up a creek for food?  Right?

That explains why when a local sea captain named Thomas Cottrell said he spotted an 8-foot-long shark in the creek, no one really paid him any attention. It was a hot day and some of the local boys decided to go for a swim.  As they got in the water, one of them spotted what he thought was a log.  By the time they realized it was a shark, it had already grabbed Lester Stilwell, age 11, and pulled him under.  The boys ran for help and a local businessman, Watson Fisher responded.  He dove in and grabbed Stilwell’s body but before he could bring it to shore, he was also attacked.  Both of them died.

The final attack happened a mere thirty minutes after Fisher and Stilwell were bitten.  It was a half mile from where those attacks happened but this time the victim, Joseph Dunn, was rescued by his brother and a friend who literally pulled him from the mouth of the shark.  He was rushed to a local hospital and recovered from the attack.

All of this made for anxious times along the Jersey shore.  Resorts needed tourists but tourists needed protection.  Some of the local businesses eventually put in mesh nets to protect bathers, but prior to that, a small armada of boats went out to try to catch the maneater that was terrorizing the beach.  On July 14, Michael Schleisser caught a 7.5 foot shark while fishing in Raritan Bay, very near the mouth of Matawan Creek.  The shark was so aggressive, it almost sank his boat.  Once brought in to shore, it was opened up and determined to have human remains in its stomach.

As a side note, Schleisser had a hell of a resume and was just the kind of man who would wrestle in a great white.  He was actually both a taxidermist and a lion tamer for Barnum and Bailey.  He mounted the fish and put it on display.  After it was caught, the attacks ended.

All of this captured the imagination of Peter Benchley who released his novel thinking that he may make a few bucks from it but never expected the cultural phenomenon he was ultimately responsible for.  

When the movie hit theaters and became the very first summer blockbuster, interest in sharks and particularly great whites soared.  Hell, I wasn't even allowed to see the film until the rerelease in 1979, but even I became shark obsessed during the original run.  Sharks were all over the news and featured on TV movies.  It was that kind of phenomenon. 

As a result, great whites became highly prized by sport fishermen and soon their populations were plummeting.  Benchley had always been a waterman and an avid scuba diver.  While he loved the money and fame he received from JAWS, he detested the impact it had on shark populations.  He became a tireless advocate of shark conservation and lobbied for protections on certain species all the way up until his death.

One final note about this.  When it’s all said and done, that great white that Schleisser caught was probably not the same shark that attacked the three people in Matawan Creek.  Yes, I said that human remains were found in the stomach, but that’s according to the scientists at the time.   The material they recovered was said to be “suspicious fleshy material and bones”.  It could easily have been seal flesh.

The problem with the great white theory is that one would be pretty unlikely to swim as far upriver as the shark that attacked the people in Matawan Creek.  A more notorious culprit would be a bull shark and while they’re not common in the Jersey area, they’re actually more common than Great Whites. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I never have seen the movie, outside of about 10 minutes of it on TV recently. Shameful I guess. It just isn't my cup of bloody saltwater.