Could Jaws hold the key to a cold case murder over 40 years old?
‘Lady of the Dunes’, it sounds like something out of an episode of Columbo doesn’t it? Which is ironic as Steven Spielberg directed the episode Murder By The Book, featuring the dishevelled detective played by Peter Falk, and Bruce also had a cameo in a later episode filmed on the Universal Tour. However, this is less Murder By The Book and more potential Murder Solved By The Film Based On The Book. Sort of.
I’d first heard about the ‘Lady of the Dunes’ story a few years ago, which was fascinating stuff but with an inconclusive blink and you miss it still image it seemed like nothing more than a tantalising Jaws footnote, Jack the Ripper and the assassins who killed JFK seemed more likely to be named. So why has the story gained lots of media and social media buzz lately?
Joe Hill, the son of horror meister Stephen King, originally spoke about the true story of an unsolved murder suggesting that the still unnamed victim may have featured as an extra in one of the Jaws’ tourists arriving scenes – 54 minutes and 2 seconds into the film to be precise - on his blog about three years ago. As if the making of the film Jaws wasn’t steeped in legend, rumour and conjecture enough already. Not that the unsolved murder isn’t known or hasn’t been covered by the media before. Here’s a segment about it on FOX 25 New that was added to YouTube back in 2016.
So what do we know?
On July 26 1974, a teenage girl was walking her dog in Provincetown, Massachusetts, on Race Point Dunes, when she came across a gruesome scene: a badly decomposed body of a young woman, lying face-down on a beach towel. It’s estimated she’d lain undiscovered for up to three weeks. Her hands had been cut off and she’d practically been decapitated. It’s thought that blue bandanna and a pair of jeans folded up under her head at the scene may be a major clue; these are also similar to the clothes that an extra appears to be wearing.
A computer forensic recreation of the murder victim’s face was created in 2010, but the case remains open and as yet unsolved. The Martha’s Vineyard scene that possibly features ‘The Lady of the Dunes’ were shot about 100 miles from where the woman's body was found in Provincetown. According to Jaws co-screenwriter Carl Gottlieb that scene was shot on May 25, 1974 by the Jaws second unit.
You can’t help but read of the circumstances of where the body of this Jane Doe was discovered without thinking of the parallels of finding the remains of Chrissie Watkins. You can practically hear the surf crashing against the otherwise tranquil beach and the piercing whistle of Hendricks. Jaws has always blurred fact and fiction, whether it’s been shaping people’s fear of sharks, using the very real USS Indianapolis sinking to frame Quint’s shark obsession and now a very real murder. If only Chief Brody was a real person.
This may not have been a boating accident, coral reef or boat propeller...unfortunately it turns out it was Provincetown’s own wannabe Jack The Ripper... With renewed global interest in the case and advances in forensics one can only hope that this is one Martha’s Vineyard mystery that won’t remain unsolved. However, we don’t seem to have anything more than circumstantial evidence of the ‘Lady of the Dunes’ fitting the description of a female extra forever frozen in time in Jaws.
As fascinating as this parallel is, it’s nothing concrete; it’s certainly no Zapruder footage. At the moment it’s a good story, and that’s just what you’d expect from the son of Stephen King. Where’s his dad’s Johnny Smith from The Dead Zone when you need him? By his own admission he says that it is wild speculation. On that original Tumblr blog post Hill wrote:
“It IS a helluva what-if, isn’t it? What if the young murder victim no one has ever been able to identify has been seen by hundreds of millions of people in a beloved summer classic and they didn’t even know they were looking at her? What if the ghost of the Lady of the Dunes haunts Jaws?”
What if, indeed. Certainly no one has come forward claiming to be the unnamed extra, likewise no one seems to have missed the young woman who was found murdered on that summer’s day. Both create more questions than they do answers and the Provincetown murder remains in purgatory.
With the media and social media interest in the case renewed it may get the break it deserves, or at least a special on Netflix. It could even chart Joe Hill’s journey from his ‘Eureka’ moment whilst watching Jaws for its 40th anniversary to the location in Martha’s Vineyard where the scene was filmed and the beach where the tragic ‘Lady of the Dunes’ story ended, but at the same time where it began…
By Dean Newman
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