How the film Jaws creates tension?

Categories: AttackFilm

The phenomenal movie Jaws was based on a novel written by Peter Benchley, with the novel itself being inspired by past shark attacks in Jersey. In this movie, Steven Spielberg experiments with never seen before techniques, bringing a whole new meaning to horror and thriller movies. Using irony, motifs and of course music to trigger emotions, and address situations. As of this, Spielberg and his colleagues won 3 Oscars and secured top places in film charts; all of this at the mere age of 26.

Today as we know it, Spielberg is one of the most successful directors ever to have lived, and still has a great power over Hollywood. The opening scene plays a key role in manipulating the audience, using many tactics & techniques. At first the screen is totally black, but with the infamous score by John Williams playing, and sounds of the ocean. As a modern audience we already know the iconic value of the music, and how it's related to the shark attacks.

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Therefore, the music isn't of much value to a contemporary audience; they only relate the music to shark attacks later on in the film.

However, it does create tension. The black screen then fades into an oblique moving through the sea, accompanied with diegetic sounds. This is telling the audience it's some kind of creature, creating tension. Switching from the slow & sombre music, it speeds up along with the pace of the oblique shot. The audience are now sub-consciously prepared for an attack or for the creature to be revealed, but the scene then cuts and changes.

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The scene changes to a panning shot of a campfire, surrounded by people. Contrast is created instantly; it's a very relaxed scene with a "hippy" feel, compared to the underwater scene.

As the panning shot shows all the people in the scene, it stops on one person, a young man. Although it appears to be random, this effect causes a sub-conscious feeling in the audience, knowing that this young man is going to be involved with an attack. It shows the man looking at the girl, with their eyes meeting. The sea can also be seen in the background of the shot, showing some sort of connection. As they begin to run along the sand dunes towards the sea, it's naturally dark and is constraining to see. This difficulty causes confusion amid fears of what's going to happen.

As the girl is running into the water there is no longer any music, just diegetic sounds of the girl's breath. The audience are now confident something is going to happen, as they already know there is something in the see which is ready to cause harm. It then again switches to an underwater oblique shot of the girl, as if we are seeing the girl through the creatures eyes. Although we have not seen the creature, we already get a feel that it's a shark. This oblique shot goes closer and closer to the girl, as if the shark is going in to attack the girl, creating the uppermost tension.

The camera shot switches to the girl above the water, where you cannot see what's going on underneath which addresses a wide-spread fear, of not being able to see what's there. The first time the shark bites, she goes down underwater, as if she is being dragged under. The music also plays a prolonged, very high-pitched note, which automatically causes you to hold your breath during the attack with fear. To keep herself afloat, she is holding on to a buoy. This causes irony as they are there for help and for safety, yet it cannot help her.

It also symbolises how the buoy and the boy on the beach cannot help her. Whilst she is being attacked, the tide bell rings faster & faster which is telling you how the sea is getting choppier as of the attack. After the attack, a calm atmosphere is restored with dawn approaching, along with just the sound of the sea and the tide-bell slowly ringing, promoting the calm feeling of the sea. Even still, the audience still has not seen the shark, leaving it for their own imagination to determine how big the shark is, and what it looks like.

When the second attack takes place, even more new techniques are used. The scene begins by using a panning shot to follow a woman down into the sea and then follows the boy back up the beach, like you naturally would. The camera scans many people, leaving you to try and find out which person is going to be a victim of an attack. Brody is seen quite a lot in this scene, and one shot especially is used on Brody. In the shot we see him, and as one person walks past the camera concealing Brody it cuts to a closer scene of Brody, this is repeated twice, and ends up as a very close shot of Brody.

This gives you a feel that you as an audience are getting deeper and deeper into his mind, and you can see the despair and worry on his face clearly. You also see Brody just sat there staring out to the sea, trying to figure out what is going on, and it's like he knows something is going to happen. In this scene, Spielberg has used a couple of false alarms making the audience sit on the end of their seats with fear. One of these false alarms is when we hear a scream coming from the sea whilst the camera is focused on Brody.

This creates a lot of tension within the audience as we expect it to be another shark attack. We then see it was just a girl, messing about with her boyfriend in the sea, where as we were expecting to see a shark attack taking place. The sounds in this scene are diegetic, with the camera cutting in and out of conversations, as if you yourself are on the beach doing so. The conversations are often cut off quickly, showing the fact they are unnecessary to be heard of. The camera then cuts to the boy who we have already seen starts to look around, shouting for his dog that again we have seen the boy with.

The audience will feel slightly concerned at this point by seeing the worried look on the boy's face, wondering where his dog is and what has happened to it. We sub-consciously feel that this dog has been attacked. Then the underwater filming comes on again with the oblique shots, along the famous music. We realise that this time it's not a false alarm, as of the oblique shot and the infamous music is played once again, like it was in the first attack. As of the oblique shot used again, the audience cannot see the shark still as the filming is through its eyes.

This still leaves the audience to guess what it looks like, creating fear. Again the shot is closing in on the boy on the lilo from underneath, as with the music is getting louder, creating panic once again for the audience. Whilst the attack is happening, Brody realises what is going on. At this moment, Spielberg is using a never used before shot. This contra-zoom shot zooms in on Brody, but meanwhile it zooms out on the background. This portrays that Brody is in such panic and fear of what is happening, that nothing else matters besides that attack.

Causing confusion in the scene, people everywhere are running and screaming, in a chaotic manner. Although the audience know that a shark attack has taken place, most people do not realise what is happening on the beach; they all just run out because everyone else is. When the lilo washes up on the shore in the blood soaked sea, all the people just stand and stare, in silence. One mother steps out of the line causing contrast, looking for her son. When she sees the lilo, she realises it's her own son that has been killed, as does everyone else. Again the scene has a sense of calmness, silent except for the diegetic sounds of the sea.

This again causes contrast from the sheer horror that has just happened. In the third key scene, when the attack in the lake takes place, more techniques are again used by Spielberg to increase tension for the audience. It starts with a shot of the whole beach, accompanied with jolly music, which shows a happy and enjoyable environment. However, there is still a feeling of slight unease as everyone is reluctant to go into the sea. Even the Mayor notices this; as he approaches an elderly couple that he appears to know well, he pleads them to go into the sea, more of a demand infact.

Reluctant to disagree, they go into the sea although feeling unsure and not at ease. Soon, most of the people on the beach are getting into the sea. As others have seen the family going into the sea, other people feel a slight reassurance and go into the sea too. The beach seems of a rather calm and enjoyable atmosphere, with another establishing shot that shows so. We then see the boats out on the water, looking for the shark. We feel slight anticipation and danger; the characters are looking worried and anxious creating these feelings in the audience.

This then creates contrast, and slight tension. The audience then feel a sense of relief, when they think Brody and his son Michael have been removed from where they think the danger is; by taking the boat to the lake instead. They feel this relief because the audience have become attached to the characters almost, as they've got to know them throughout the film. Tension is built when underwater oblique shots are used again, which the audience now recognise as a sign of danger from previous attacks. Plus, there is also no music at this point; we just hear the diegetic sounds of the water splashing.

Spielberg then uses a sea-level camera shot from the sea; this makes the audience feel like something is watching the characters, as it goes around focusing on different people. Spielberg cleverly chooses to use another false alarm here. We see what appears to be a shark fin in the sea, as do the people on the beach. This causes fear and worry among the people, as it does among the audience. The camera also quickly shows different character, giving you a sense it's showing you all the possible victims of another attack.

As of this apparent shark fin, everyone is running out of the sea and frantically collecting their families, causing confusion. The audience is then shown that it was a false alarm, and infact two boys messing around with a fake fin. The famous score of music starts once again, and the audience realise this could be another real attack from the use of the music. When Brody realises, and starts to run towards the lake, where his son is. Brody's face is overcome with panic; and the audience empathise with Brody as they feel they know him well now.

After the attack on the man, the camera almost becomes the shark, and heads towards Brody's son Michael. We feel a sense of worry about Michael, but the camera swerves away at the last minute, as if the shark is deciding not to attack Michael in the end. When Michael is back onto the beach and away from harm, another interesting shot is used. The camera shoots Brody from a low angle, making him appear powerful and almost heroic, logically being called a low angle shot. Brody then looks out into the sea, and true to this heroic look, he appears to of decided to go and look for the shark.

In conclusion, I feel that Steven Spielberg manipulates the audience to create tension very well, using many new techniques in different ways. There are different levels of tension throughout which makes it more interesting, and the tension gets to its highest point just before each attack. Since Jaws was made, many other film directors have used these techniques in other films to enrich their movie and to entertain the audience. After watching all of the film, the audience experiences many emotions as of the different levels of tension, and the different atmospheres created.

Updated: Aug 10, 2021
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How the film Jaws creates tension?. (2020, Jun 02). Retrieved from

How the film Jaws creates tension? essay
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