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This New Jersey Creek Inspired “Jaws”

Was the blockbuster movie “Jaws” based on a real story? Yeah, kind of, but the actual events may be proof that the truth is sometimes stranger than fiction. We’ll explore the facts versus fiction by visiting a place in New Jersey called Matawan Creek. This area is where a series of terrifying events involving a shark happened almost 60 years before “Jaws” hit the screens.

Are you ready to get to the bottom of a real-life connection to a classic film? Let’s dive in – if you’re not afraid to go in the water!

Where Is Matawan, New Jersey?

The borough of Matawan is several miles inland in central New Jersey and well south of Raritan Bay. The community is in Monmouth County and across the bay from Staten Island, N.Y. It’s about 20 miles east of New Brunswick and about 50 miles from Trenton.

From what you know so far, you might’ve assumed that Mataway is a resort town on the Atlantic Ocean. As you can see, it’s not true. That’s just one strange aspect of an event that gripped the nation’s curiosity and later influenced a book and movie.

What Happened In Matawan, NJ in 1916?

On July 12, 1916, a big shark killed two people in Matawan in a climax to a shocking reign of terror.  One of the victims was an 11-year-old boy, Lester Stillwell, who was swimming with a few buddies in Matawan Creek. The other was a 24-year-old businessman, Stanley Fisher, who had rushed to help and was trying to recover the boy’s body.

These two attacks happened in fairly shallow waters near a wooden dock. They were the last in a series of similar incidents that took place for 12 days. Those happened in the neighboring communities of Spring Lake and Beach Haven.

News of the shark attacks sent shock waves well beyond the community. They caused panic at first and contributed significantly to widespread awareness that sharks can – and will – attack people.

Close up of shark teeth
The famous shark attacks in Matawan Creek inspired the movie “Jaws.”

Why Was This Incident Unlike Other Shark Attacks?

At the time of the attacks, beaches and watering holes were tremendously crowded because of a sweltering summer heat wave. But while shark attacks typically happen in the ocean, the terrifying incidents in Matawan happened miles inland.

In “Jaws,” a gigantic great white shark is the aggressor. However, the real-life episodes may have involved a different species, a bull shark. It’s the only shark species that can live in freshwater and saltwater. Though they prefer open waters, bull sharks are known to meander into smaller waterways.

Was the Shark Ever Caught?

There’s still some lingering doubt about whether anyone caught the shark responsible for the attacks. Just two days after the deadly incidents in Matawan Creek, a fisherman landed a likely suspect in the nearby bay. The evidence seemed clear at first. The large great white, nearly 8 feet long and weighing about 300 pounds, reportedly had human remains in its stomach.

But other experts insisted that, because of the creek’s lack of salinity, a bull shark had to have been the culprit. The mystery deepened when others suggested that perhaps more than one shark was involved in the separate attacks.

One thing’s for sure. There haven’t been any other shark attacks in Matawan Creek since that fateful day.

Pro Tip: Scared of sharks? This story of a Terrifying Shark Overtakes Alabama Beach will send shivers down your spine.

What Can You See When You Visit Matawan Creek?

When you visit the site today, you may be surprised at how unremarkable Matawan Creek is – and how shallow. Even without its bloody history, it’s not very inviting as a swimming hole. And it certainly doesn’t look like a place where a deadly shark attack could occur.

The creek itself may not have changed much, but the surroundings have. Not much is left of the wooden dock other than the decaying remains of its pilings.

There are two small monuments in the area that recognize the tragedy. One is a brick monument nearby on Dock Street, and the other is a stone marker at a park on Main Street. Both offer details on the event and etched likenesses of the two victims. Calling attention to Fisher’s bravery, each has a touching inscription from the Holy Bible. They read: “Greater love hath no more than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

In addition, a graffiti artist has painted a shark on a railroad trestle near the scene of the attack. Reminiscent of the artwork from the landmark movie, it features a menacing creature with open jaws and sharp, jagged teeth.

Shark attacking
You’re 30 times more likely to get struck by lightning than attacked by a shark.

How Did Matawan Creek Inspire Jaws?

For his movie, Stephen Spielberg adapted a novel by author Peter Benchley, who had drawn direct inspiration from the Matawan incidents.

The actual setting for “Jaws” is the fictional resort town of Amity on Long Island, not Matawan. But there are many similarities with the 1916 events in New Jersey. These include the ensuing panic after the string of attacks and the vengeful hunt for the bloodthirsty offender.

And, of course, one of the movie’s memorable scenes involves a shark killing a boy in somewhat secluded waters.

Are Shark Attacks Common?

You should be careful and alert when swimming, of course, but shark attacks are extremely rare.

The Florida Museum of Natural History, which maintains an International Shark Attack File, reports 73 unprovoked incidents in its most recent figures. Of those, 47 happened in the United States, most off the coast of Florida. There were nine fatalities worldwide, including one in California and three in Australia.

“Bees, wasps, and snakes are responsible for far more fatalities each year,” the organization says. “In the United States, deaths occur up to 30 more times from lightning strikes per year.”

Shark attacks occurring in freshwater are much rarer but not unheard of. Much more recently than the mysterious mauling in Matawan, a bull shark bit a boy in Louisiana’s Lake Pontchartrain in 2014.

Pro Tip: While cruising along the east coast to New Jersey, spend the night at one of these 20 Best Free Camping Spots (on the East Coast).

Visit Matawan Creek to Learn About the Real Tragedy of 1916

The shocking attacks in New Jersey waters changed how we look at sharks. So did “Jaws” when it surfaced more than half a century later.

You can learn more about these horrific real-life events when you visit Matawan. Ask around – there may even be a few old-timers who share their personal recollections.

You may want to stop by the two different memorials in town for a somber reflection on the event. The Methodist Church also has a stained glass window that Fisher’s family donated in his honor. You can also pay your respects to Lester Stillwell and Stanley Fisher at Rose Hill Cemetery, where they were laid to rest.

And next time you see the movie “Jaws,” you may just see it in a new light – one that’s more personal and real.

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