The Murky Waters of the Horror Genre: Should JAWS be Considered a Horror Movie? by Paul Lonardo


It’s summertime, and people are headed to the beach in droves. They’re bringing their towels and blankets with them, their sunglasses and sunscreen, their pales and shovels. They’re also bringing their fear of the water. More specifically, their fear of being bitten and eaten by a shark while swimming. For that, you can thank the Steven Spielberg film, and to a lesser extent the Peter Benchley novel of the same name, Jaws. The sheer terror that this movie continues to evoke in people around the world is the subtext of this article.

Stephen King has said that horror deliberately appeals to all that is worst in us. He says, ‘It is morbidity unchained, our most base instincts let free, our nastiest fantasies realized.’

King identifies three distinct types in the genre. The Gross-Out is the most explicit, leaning heavily on blood and viscera to elicit a response. The Horror focuses on the unnatural, such as the walking dead, and abnormally large or aggressive animals, insects, spiders. The Terror is more psychological, such as the feeling you get when you are plunged into darkness and sense that something is there with you.

In 1975, soon after the release of Jaws, the film overtook The Exorcist as the then-highest-grossing film of all-time. So, there’s a connection between two of my favorite classic horror movies. Today, when browsing your streaming service for a horror movie, you won’t find Jaws listed, and after nearly a half century a robust debate continues to wage about whether or not this is justified. For me, the terror of the unknown swimming beneath the waves and the appearance of an unnaturally large and aggressive shark is horror in the most fundamental sense. However, there are many who staunchly reject the premise that Jaws is a horror movie, and they make compelling arguments in doing so. While individual opinions may vary, it’s apparent that the movie studio wanted to steer clear of labeling Jaws a horror film, calling it a thriller/adventure instead. But isn’t thriller just a label people use when they don’t want to admit that a movie is horror?

 The thriller/adventure proponents would cite the lack of blood and gore, and that much is true. Universal hung a PG-rating on the film, and while most horror fans would consider Jaws tame by today’s standards, there were a number of intense scenes of violent shark attacks, featuring a severed limb and a decapitated head with a detached eyeball that gave audiences one of the best OG jump scares in cinema history. But should Jaws be considered a horror movie?

Going strictly by definition, any story that is intended to disturb, frighten or scare is a horror movie, and Jaws certainly evokes these emotions. The rebuttal against Jaws being a horror movie amounts to little more than quibbling about intent. The filmmakers may not have set out to make a horror movie, but, indeed, they did.

Fine acting and a plausible storyline may not be the hallmark of a typical horror film, but that doesn’t preclude a film with these features from being considered a horror movie. The Silence of the Lambs is a movie that had a similar image problem, as it were. Jonathan Demme’s adaptation of Thomas Harris’s novel generated the same controversy sixteen years later. Many filmgoers and critics alike were adamantly averse to calling it a horror film, particularly after the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded the film about the FBI’s pursuit of a cannibalistic serial killer the Oscar for Best Picture in 1991.

A good majority of cinematic horror may be comprised of B-grade movies, but that is by no means the limit of where horror can go in the medium. Jaws and The Silence of the Lambs are two films that may be exceptional horror films, but they are horror films. They’re so good, they murk up the horror waters for those who tend to look down their noses at the genre.

Jaws offers a wonderful storyline and plenty of human drama and conflict, with well-defined characters who find themselves in genuine action and adventure situations, yet horror is always lurking below the surface.

We can all agree that Stephen King knows a thing or two about horror, so let’s analyze Jaws based on the criteria that he offers. Of the three types of horror he identifies, The Gross-Out is one we can dismiss out of hand. There are a few cringeworthy moments in Jaws, beginning with Chrissie being eating alive and screaming for her life in the opening sequence. While disturbing, it’s not graphic. The filmmakers save the best for last when Quint, a character the audience grows to love, is horrifically devoured by the shark onscreen. In between, besides Ben Garnder’s eyeless head and a severed leg sinking to the bottom of the estuary, we get a long shot of a massive spray of blood in the water depicting the death of young Alex Kintner. All pretty tame by today’s standards in horror cinema. An interesting note is that the original demise of the boy was also intended to be shown onscreen, with the shark rising out of the water and biting down on the boy’s body as he floated on his raft. The scene was ultimately determined to be too graphic and shocking, and it was deleted. Even this scene, however, had it been left in, would not have been considered a Gross-Out.

The Horror focuses largely on the unnatural, and this is where there could be some disagreement. Sharks are obviously animals that exist in the natural world, but Bruce, the name that the mechanical shark in Jaws was given, is considerably larger at twenty-five feet. The ocean’s most feared predator, the great white (Carcharodon carcharias) reaches a maximum size of 15-16 feet in females, and 11-13 feet in males. Even though the largest great white ever measured was no more than twenty feet, it doesn’t seem like a stretch that one could reach twenty-five. Afterall, we had a human, Robert Wadlow, who was 8’11” tall.

What I think makes a stronger argument for The Horror, as far as Jaws is concerned, is the relentless way the shark pursues Quint, as if he had some kind of vendetta against the seasoned shark hunter. Revenge seems to be an unnatural trait for any shark, regardless of the size. Of course, Quint wants the shark just as badly, but with such a vast ocean to swim, and countless boats in the water to harass, the shark chooses to play a game of cat-and-mouse with the one fisherman who is hunting it.

There have been plenty of animal attack horror films, including Stephen King’s own Cujo. Besides dogs, humans have been victimized in films by a variety of critters and all manner of species, including birds, bees, spiders, snakes, bears, and alligators, to name a few. Their abnormal size might make them scary, but it’s their relentless aggression that makes them truly terrifying. The shark from Jaws has both. Bruce is Jason with gills.

The Terror is the form of horror that solidifies Jaws in our favorite genre. This is the fear generated by something you don’t see, but you know it is there. The ocean is a perfect metaphor for the unknown. As you float around near the surface, you can never be completely at ease that you are totally safe. Fear of drowning aside, there are a host of animals besides sharks – depending on what part of the world you are in – living in the same waters where you are swimming that can hurt you. There are poisonous creatures like the blue ringed octopus, a variety of jellyfish, stonefish, scorpionfish and the shell of the cone snail. And like the shark, you don’t know they’re out there, until they bite you. In Jaws, the audience knows from the start that something deadly is in the water, and the constant psychological terror felt every time someone wades in the ocean is intense. This is the stuff of horror.

Whether intended or not, the shark was seen infrequently, and for a limited amount of time on the screen, just four minutes total, which plays on the psychological terror that keeps the audience at the edge of their seats the entire 124-minute run time of Jaws. We also get several shark POVs as it swims through the depths This shot is standard in many horror movies, with the audience seeing through the eyes of the killer as they sneak up on their next victim.

This brings me to one of my last points, because as the audience is taken on these shark POV swims, the overall anxiety is heightened by an iconic musical score, which is something that you’ll find in ALL horror movies. The music lets you know you’re about to see something shocking, and In Jaws, composer John Williams’ simple two-note ostinato is practically primal in the way it induces fear.

Added to all this, 1975 was one of the weakest years for horror movies, and for that reason alone, Jaws should not only be considered a horror movie, I would go so far as to assert that Jaws was arguably the best horror film of the year.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show and The Stepford Wives were also released that year. As excellent and impactful as these films were, they might be even less deserving of the horror label than Jaws. Dario Argento’s Deep Red was a more standard horror fare, with plenty of over-the-top gore that Argento was known for, and David Cronenberg’s Shivers was nicely done by the master of body horror. If I were to pick any horror movie released in 1975 that was better than Jaws it would be Trilogy of Terror. This made-for-television movie, based on short stories by Richard Matheson, featured plenty of truly terrifying elements, but for me all of these films fall short of capturing the raw terror that Jaws brought to silver screens around the world in 1975.

Spawning bad sequels is only limited to horror, but the three that followed the original Jaws have done nothing to diminish the lasting impact of Spielberg’s first directorial triumph.

You know where I stand on Jaws. What do you think? Horror movie or thriller/adventure?


Published 7/11/24

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