Retro Nightmare Fuel: ‘The Pier Incident’ Is the Scariest Scene in ‘Jaws’

screenshot from the 1975 movie
© Universal/Screenshot from
Take our word for it, Charlie: Don't look back! Swim, Charlie, swim!

Steven Spielberg‘s 1975 masterpiece Jaws has plenty of suspenseful, scary and horrifying scenes. The most memorable of them tend to involve actual attacks by the shark or their aftermath — like the classic opening when Chrissy (Susan Backlinie) becomes the first victim, or Alex Kintner’s attack on his raft, or the brilliant jump-scare accompanying Hooper’s (Richard Dreyfuss) shocking underwater discovery of Ben Gardner at the bottom of his boat and plenty more.

But my favorite — and, I think, the scariest — scene in Jaws involves a near-miss by the shark and a potential victim who manages to escape the creature’s unrelenting appetite: the “Pier Incident” (I’ll refer to it as that since that’s the title of the musical track that accompanies the sequence from John Williams‘ iconic, Oscar-winning score).

The scene follows two guys, one named Charlie, the other whose name I’m not sure of. They are hoping to claim the bounty that’s been put on the shark by Alex Kintner’s mother, so they decide to use a holiday roast as bait for the monster.

Charlie isn’t too enthusiastic about the plan, since it’s his wife’s roast they’re using, but the other guy dismisses his concern, as well as Charlie’s wearily repeated desire to go home. Charlie goes along with it, but he’ll soon really wish that he had, in fact, just gone home:

The Pier Incident is a great example of how effectively Spielberg ratcheted up tension over the first part of the movie without showing the shark, and not even its fin is seen here.

In the middle of this scene, between the men throwing the bait in the water and the shark taking it, we cut away a bit to Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) as he pages through books about sharks. The images he (and we) see of these large, monstrous-looking killer fish, and pictures of the bloody aftermaths of some shark attacks, is enough to put in our minds what the great white stalking Amity Island is capable of when we are then brought back to Charlie and his pal on the pier.

So we do not need to see the shark once the action kicks in; our own imaginations have already been set up to do a lot of the work of scaring us … and they get a nice little push from Spielberg, of course.

Seemingly simple things like the camera angle in the water, the terrifying creaking sound of a wooden pier slowly turning in the water and, of course, Williams’ music — which escalates as the pier creaks and begins its pursuit of Charlie — help create the nightmarish and helpless realization that, although we can’t see it, *something* is under the water and is coming.

On top of this, the director includes some humorous elements here in these two men’s interaction, combining with the suspense to enhance the feeling of relief when Charlie gets away, perhaps letting the viewer finally exhale by letting out a laugh, even if it is a nervous one.

The sequence is a quintessential example of how Jaws as a whole plays so well on that primal thought/fear that probably passes through many people’s minds, even briefly, when they enter a deep body of water and cannot see what’s below.

That ancient dread of what lies beneath, along with memories of scenes like this from Jaws, which I had just seen for the first time less than a year earlier when it made its broadcast premiere on the ABC Sunday Night Movie, probably popped automatically into my head during an incident of my own in the summer of 1980.

I was on an inner tube being pulled behind a boat on an inland lake in Wisconsin, and at one point I fell off. While waiting for the boat to turn around and get me, I treaded water in the middle of this lake (with my life jacket on) and started getting weirded out as I felt weeds brush past my legs.

At least I think they were weeds. I was old enough and rational enough to know there were no sharks in the lake, but if even something like a pike or gar or bluegill or whatever had suddenly bumped into me, man … I might have reacted like poor Charlie during his Pier Incident.