Graveyard Shift

Behind The Scenes Of Every Death In ‘Jaws’  

Megan Summers
5 items

Jaws traumatized audiences when it was released in 1975, and the film's ability to generate scares has not subsided in the decades since its release. The attack scenes in Jaws have had a profound impact on our feelings about jumping into the ocean. In fact, the shark's reputation has been forever tainted by the film's use of this large fish as its monster. The author of the book the film is based on, Peter Benchley, openly regrets writing it because of how people now view and treat sharks.

In total, there are five death scenes in Jaws. Director Steven Spielberg decided to apply classic horror scare tactics that relied on the imagination more than on gruesome, vivid bloodshed. This strategy has contributed to the film's unchalleged status as one of the scariest movies of all time.

This list goes into detail about each scene, including first-hand accounts from the actors and stuntpeople who allowed themselves to be tossed around in the water by a mechanical monster shark.

Christine 'Chrissie' Watkins, The Skinny Dipper
Christine 'Chrissie' Watkins is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list Behind The Scenes Of Every Death In ‘Jaws’
Photo: Universal Pictures

The famed opening sequence follows a horror film trope to its logical conclusion: a young woman who decides to skinny dip in the ocean after a night of partying falls prey to the monster lurking below the surface. Chrissie Watkins (Susan Backlinie) becomes breakfast for the 25-foot great white shark that picks the shores of Amity Island as its new hunting ground.

Backlinie, a stuntwoman by trade, was cast for the role after giving Spielberg sound advice about the type of woman who should be selected for this scene: "If you got someone who could do the acting and the stunts," she told him, "you could film closer. You can sell it better." Backlinie's ability to turn a playful dip into a torturous, panicked fight for survival scarred moviegoers for generations. What also made her perishing in the film so realistic was Spielberg decided not to let her know when she'd be pulled under water. After feeling dissatisfied with early takes, Spielberg told the diver in the water not to give Backlinie warning before she was dragged beneath. Her gasps and shouts for air are genuine. In post-production, Spielberg had Backlinie scream while he poured water down her throat, adding a chilling auditory realism to her struggle.

When her arm is found on the beach, instead of using a prosthetic, Spielberg buried a crew member in the sand with only his arm exposed.

Backlinie looks back fondly on her experiences making the movie. Rumors about Backlinie sustaining cracked ribs are untrue, but filming a nude scene with a mechanical shark was no easy task. "They cleared set for me very nicely," she said in an interview. Backlinie also said she found out years later her boyfriend, concerned about her comfort level, asked one man in particular to leave. What he didn't know was the man in question was Jaws author Peter Benchley.

Alex Kintner, The Boy Who Should Have Listened To His Mother
Alex Kintner, The Boy Who Shou... is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list Behind The Scenes Of Every Death In ‘Jaws’
Photo: Universal Pictures

The second passing in Jaws turns a fun, lively beach day into a scene of carnage and terror. Despite the attack on Chrissie Watkins, the mayor of Amity Island does not close the beach. The New England town's most prosperous season is summer, and Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) refuses to heed police chief Martin Brody's (Roy Scheider) advice to shut it down. On July 4, the beach is swarming with activity: children swim in the shallows, mothers sunbathe, and a massive shark prowls in the distance.

Alex Kintner (Jeffrey Voorhees) is one of several kids jumping and splashing in the ocean. Against his mother's wishes, he decides to swim out farther and farther away from the crowd, where in a bloody, sunshine-reflected feeding frenzy, he becomes the shark's second victim. As the swimmers realize what's happening, chaos ensues. In a heart-wrenching moment, Alex's mother screams for her son while the audience knows his fate.

In the first cut of the film, this scene was much more graphic; however, Spielberg decided to curb the violent visuals and instead create terror based on what could not be seen.

Voorhees's only acting credit is Jaws. He lived on the island and was cast in the role after answering a call for extras. According to Voorhees, who was 12 at the time, there was nothing scary about filming the scene. "The shark was just a big machine," he said in an interview. "I was then told that they were going to put half of my raft on top of the mechanical device and then blow it up with all this fake blood going up in the air." According to Voorhees, it took many takes to get the shot right. "After about five attempts filming the scene they got two guys in wet suits with oxygen tanks to pull me down and give me air whilst I was underwater. That’s the take that made it into the film."

The woman who played Alex's mother, Lee Fierro, was an actor who worked with the Vineyard's Island Theatre Workshop.

Ben Gardner, The Amity Island Fisherman
Ben Gardner, The Amity Island ... is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list Behind The Scenes Of Every Death In ‘Jaws’
Photo: Universal Pictures

When Alex Kintner's mother offers a reward to anyone who can slay the shark ravaging the waters around Amity Island, seasoned fisherman Ben Gardner, portrayed by lifelong New Englander Craig Kingsbury, is one of the first to respond. A few days later, oceanographer Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and police chief Brody stumble upon Gardner's boat while scanning the waters for signs of the great white. Hooper decides to dive in and investigate, leading the one of the scariest moments in cinematic history.

As he scans the hull, Hooper finds large bite marks. At the exact moment he locates a large shark's tooth, the decapitated head of Gardner floats by, causing Hooper to lose the tooth and swim back to the surface as quickly as he can. This scene is considered one of the most successful jump-scares in horror history. Spielberg filmed this scene after the production wrapped up - using his own money - because he wasn't satisfied with the number of scares in Jaws. It was shot in editor Vera Fields's swimming pool, and he used the take that terrified the sound crew.

A special cast of Kingburg's head was made for the scene.

The Estuary Man, A Local Boy Scout Leader
The Estuary Man, A Local Boy S... is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list Behind The Scenes Of Every Death In ‘Jaws’
Photo: Universal Pictures

The fourth human-slaying scene in Jaws provides the best look at the monster up to that point. In an estuary, an unnamed boy scout leader in a red rowboat approaches a group of boys on a small sailboat - including Brody's son Michael - as beachgoers realize the shark is moving toward them. In a dread-filled chain of events, the shark knocks over both boats. The audience watches the shark move sideways along the water's surface and drag the man down below as he clings onto his capsized boat. Blood bubbles up just as the boys float nearby, helpless and in shock.

While the boys are able to get to shore, the scene amplifies the sense of imminent doom that had previously only been hinted at. The shark has officially arrived, and there is no denying its existence anymore. This reality settles in as the dismembered leg of the boy scout leader settles on the bottom of the estuary.

The man was played by the movie's stunt coordinator Ted Grossman. Spielberg wanted the shark to drag him through the water toward Michael Brody, where at the point of collision, Grossman would push the boy out of the way. According to Grossman, "The shark fin was behind me on a sled. I had the kid in my arms and was going to take him underwater and then the sled went underwater. It was so horrendous, that they couldn’t use it. It was too violent, period."