When the movie Jaws hit the theaters in 1975, virtually everyone that viewed it saw it as a snapshot of what one might expect if they went into the ocean. The great white shark that was featured in the movie was horrific and huge, and the average person watching had no way of knowing the untruths and creative licenses that were utilized in making that film. Still, the movie was a huge hit in the horror genre and beyond, and that sense of reality is a big part of the reason why.
People genuinely were afraid to head back out into the water, and the fact that they were afraid based on ill-advised information made little to no difference. They perceived the information as valid and real, so they were logically terrified to go into the ocean.
Over the years, the research has proven many things that they did not fully understand about sharks. For example, a great white shark is not likely to grow to such epic size. They get incredibly large, mind you, but not over 30 feet as shown in the movie. At 20+ feet and over 5,000 pounds that size difference is negligible really. Still, the increase in size was for shock effect and incited “sightings” of 50 foot sharks across the globe. (None were ever verified) While the ancestors of great whites called Megalodons are being verified, modern day great whites are around 20 feet or so on the larger side.
Where creative license was truly taken was in the behavior of the shark. Real great white sharks generally do not count human beings as a food source, and almost certainly do not “stalk” an entire town as depicted in Jaws. They usually attack humans either by accident, mistaken identity or out of curiosity. Humans are literally a toothpick in comparison to the fatty favorites of the great whites – seals. They would much rather have a seal full of blubber than a human without much meat.
The point is, great whites would not be nearly as scary today as they were back in 1975 when they were considered man-hunting machines by the general public. This meant that Jaws was extremely scary because people thought it was realistic. This is why Jaws is still considered to be the standard bearer for shark attack horror movies.
In recent years, there have been countless shark attack movies that simply were not all that scary in comparison. Jaws sequels are certainly among that group as they became more and more outlandish in their delivery. By the time Jaws 3 hit in 3-D, the shark was no longer real in any fashion at all. Other shark attack films over the years have been similar in nature such as Deep Blue Sea, Megalodon, Hammerhead and countless others.
Why do directors move away from realism with shark attack movies? It is obvious that the true nature of sharks is plenty scary enough. For example, the hit movie Open Water and the little known docudrama 12 days of Terror both showed that the truth can be scary enough. Open Water is the ultimate scary movie for shark attacks, because it truly could happen to you in exactly the way the film shows it. The 12 days of Terror actually did happen, and was actually the impetus for the creation of Jaws by Peter Benchley.