I went to a 40th anniversary showing of JAWS on the big screen last night.
How did that movie not scare me as a five-year-old?
Seriously. How? How did that movie not bother me? How did it not send me into a lifetime of nightmares that would drive me slowly insane and end with my teen years spent taking a “break” in a sanitarium?
Yes, I saw it when I was five. With my grandparents, if you can believe that. I had grandparents who let their five-year-old granddaughter watch JAWS.
“What is this movie about?” I remember asking skeptically, because it looked old and had grown-up people talking about boring stuff, and my grandmother answered, “It’s about these men who are looking for a shark. And when they find him—he’s huge!” Huge? Okay. I was sold.
In my grandparents’ defense, they’d raised four kids and baby-sat five grandkids by that point. They’d had little children around since 1942, and it was now 1988, and they wanted to watch some gosh-darn grownup TV, dangit. I just happened to be the one kid left in the kid line when they got old enough to lose their kid filter. I also remember watching a morbid 19th-century vampire murder-mystery which ended with a violent hanging, but that’s for another day. I guess you can blame mainstream TV programming as much as anything; it’s not like Grandma ever rented this stuff.
You’d expect that my parents came home from their date night to find me sobbing and my grandparents apologizing. Instead, they came home from date night to a five-year-old asking if we could please rent JAWS from the video store tomorrow, because she was sad that the shark had to die and wanted to see him again.
That’s right. I was sad that the shark had to die.
The death of the humans was unfortunate too. I mean, y’know, I felt sorry for them and all. I didn’t want them to get eaten. But JAWS himself was pretty awesome, so his death seemed tragic, as well. (Admit it, you thought that was the shark’s name when you were a kid, too). If only they could have found him an aquarium to live in, I thought. If only he had stuck to eating fish and become the pet of Amity Island. I was quite adept at drawing cartoons, even at this tender age, so I drew one of Jaws saving drowning stick figures while the stick figure lifeguards looked on in surprise and gratitude.
All that flailing and screaming and bleeding and eating didn’t scare me in the least. At the showing last night, I wasn’t able to look when Quint slides down the sloping deck and gets eaten, but twenty-six years ago, at age five, I watched his gory demise calmly, thinking at one point, “Ew, they made that actor spit red paint out of his mouth so it would look like he was throwing up blood.” At that point, I seemed to have a stronger sense of detachment that this was “all just pretend” than I do as a grownup. Or maybe I was just too excited to finally have a clear view of the shark to care about anything else.
I also learned a smattering of swears from this movie. I was a very swear-proof kid, though. My parents were frank with me about what swear-words meant, and the general threat was that if I ever said any of them, all movies which portrayed them would be off-limits until I was grown up. I assure you, no stronger deterrent could possibly have existed. It took me until college to be completely comfortable using the word “ass,” for fear that my dad would jump from behind a rock and say that I was not allowed to watch JAWS anymore.
Looking back, I’m a little surprised by how much of the movie I understood. Granted, I watched it now and then throughout childhood, probably picking up more and more as I went along. But even during that first viewing, I understood clearly the conflict between the greedy mayor wanting the beach to be open, and the worried police chief and Richard-Dreyfuss-man warning him of the shark. I understood the uneasy partnership with Quint—understood that he was a rough-edged man, that he was conditionally on their side, but also that he could turn on them any time he had a mind. (Maybe that’s the reason his place on the buffet line didn’t worry me). In fact, I’m a little surprised by how well my younger self understood all the nuances to that relationship. I even got the irony of his death. Escaping the sharks during his military service was the great battle of his life, and he spends his time hunting them, only to be violently dismembered by one at the last.
There isn’t really a point to this post. Or, if there is, it’s this: Let your kids watch JAWS.
No, not really, the point is, let your kids decide for themselves what scares them. I had a boyfriend who was terrified of people being eaten, and would have been thrown into a psychological whirlpool if he’d seen JAWS as a kid. My husband was scared of people turning into animals (humans to donkeys in “Pinocchio,” humans to pigs in “Willow”). I was scared of muppet movies—don’t judge.
Everyone’s different. Every human comes with a different “trigger warning” on their instruction manual. So learn your kid’s trigger warning, and maybe let them test the boundaries of their bravery on things that don’t bother them as much.
Or just let the grandparents do it, because that seemed to work out in our family.