Read my 1995 interview with Susan (Chrissie) Backlinie HERE.
The remains of Chrissie Watkins’ body were found washed up on Amity Island’s South Beach on this Thursday morning back in June 1974. We all know what happened after that. How Amity’s summer and reputation was ruined by the reoccurring attacks of a Great White Shark. How the shark was eventually hunted down and killed. How Police Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) became the island’s hero. How JAWS became the biggest movie of all time. Steven Spielberg became the hottest director in the world. Amity Island was never quite the same. Heck, even movies haven’t been the same.
But I want to take a moment today to remember the QUINT-essential sacrificial maiden who unknowingly triggered these events and paid the ultimate price for our entertainment.
For men of my generation, JAWS’ Chrissie Watkins holds a special fascination. For many of us, she was the first naked woman we’d seen in a movie even though we really don’t see much flesh in the film’s day for night footage: a naked back here, a side boob there, the silhouette of her lithe form gliding through the water.
We know precious little about Chrissie herself. In the 1970s, the name Chrissie was synonymous with bimbo or airhead. Peter Benchley could not have chosen a more demeaning first name for the shark’s first victim. She is an anonymous woman. Easy to pick up. Easy to take advantage of. Easy to forget.
She is a college student who seems to have wandered out to Amity Island on a Wednesday June afternoon in the early days of summer because she had nothing better to do. Maybe she tagged along with some friends who knew some boys renting a house on Amity for the summer. Tom Cassidy (Jonathan Filley) being one of them.
Cassidy tells Chief Brody that he met Chrissie when she got off the island ferry as part of a group though she was apparently not memorable enough for him to remember her name. Perhaps the group of guys and gals all palled around town for the afternoon. Perhaps they ended up at the house for a while. We definitely know they eventually got a keg and some clams and all headed down to the beach. The sun went down. The beer flowed. The weed came out. There was laughter and music and the beginnings of making out. Partners getting chosen.
Chrissie sits alone away from everyone. Maybe she doesn’t drink. Maybe she doesn’t do weed. She appears to not be having fun. Her chin is on her hands. Her hands rest on her knees. She looks bored. She doesn’t really know anyone here. And if she does, I somehow think she is not on good terms with the other girls at the party. She appears to be having doubts about even coming out here.
The evening is starting to wind down. Midnight is approaching (Brody’s accident report ID’s the time as 11:50pm). Soon, boys and girls will become couples and couples will begin sneaking off: back to the house or off behind a dune. That’s how college parties used to work back then. I know because I used to be the guy left alone by the fire, not chosen just like in gym class. It is the worst feeling in the world. Chrissie doesn’t want to feel that way.
A boy is looking at her. It is the cute boy that met them at the ferry. They’ve traded half a dozen looks (and a few smiles) over the course of the afternoon and evening. He probably doesn’t remember her name but she remembers his. Tom. Others call him Tommy.
She stares dead on at him now. Eyes to eyes. No point in being subtle. He stares back. She smiles. She knows that is one of her best features. Her hair and her smile. She can feel her heart starting to race. Her breath increasing under her turtleneck sweater.
He takes a drink of his beer and looks again. She has him. She looks away, a knowing smile on her face. The ocean looks beautiful with the moon and the sound of the waves. She can very easily imagine herself out there. Wet. Making love.
He gets up and walks over. Asks her name (she knew he didn’t remember). No problem. He will. She tells him. He asks what she is doing over here alone. She cuts in. Does he want to get out of here? She doesn’t wait for a reply. She grabs her purse and scampers up the dune: away from the fire and away from this boring party.
He asks her name again. He appears to be drunker than she thought. No matter. She knows how to fix that. A bracing swim and he’ll be ready.
She runs along the dune. Away from the fire. Off by themselves just the two of them so if they get too loud no one will hear. She peels off her clothes one by one: jacket, shoes, sweater. He follows though he seems pretty slow. She reaches the beach, steps out of her jeans just as he tumbles down the dune and onto the sand. She laughs and runs toward the water. Her legs are her best feature. Her legs and her hair and her smile.
She dives straight in. The water is colder than she thought but it feels really good. Like the lake she used to swim in back home in the summers before her parents got divorced. She considers swimming out to the buoy but soon realizes it is further out than she thought. She rolls over and backstrokes parallel to the shore. The feel of the water traveling across her skin makes her shiver. She stares up at the moon. It’s full overhead. That means it’s a night for passion and unexpected meetings.
She doesn’t really know what she wants to do with her life yet. She wants to be a dancer but she can’t dance. She wants to be singer but she can’t sing. She wants to write great poetry but she never finds the time to write. More than anything, she wants to be remembered. She stretches her right leg high into the now chilly night air. Feels the goose pimples on her wet thigh. Let’s herself slip under. Alone underwater, she remembers when she was a little girl, she wanted to be a mermaid, have a tail instead of legs, and live at the bottom of the sea. The memory makes her giggle.
She surfaces and smiles. For the first time today, she is having fun. For the first time in awhile, she won’t be spending the night alone. Where is he? She looks back toward shore.
He’s still on the beach! She calls for him to join her, cursing the impatient tone in her voice. How drunk is he? She starts to swim back in. Making it easier for him to reach her. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea. Maybe a swim is all she is going to get tonight. No poke. No grab. That’s OK, she thinks. There’ll be other chances. She’s only 22.
She pauses and waits, treading water. He’s laying on the sand now. She peers into the darkness trying to better see what he is up to. He appears to be falling asleep.
Her left foot brushes against something just below her. A sharp pinch around her calf and she gets yanked down hard…
Social scientists say that the emotion most in decline these days is empathy: the ability to relate and understand the feelings of another person. When I look at the insane number of characters killed off in today’s movies and video games, I can understand why. We are never asked to connect or relate to any of the victims. If anything, we are supposed to get some kind of cheap thrill from how they die.
It makes me think of Chrissie. A fun loving girl just looking for a good time who had to pay the price for our own selfish entertainment.
I wonder if we aren’t all going to end up like Chief Brody: standing on the beach holding her bag.