Jess Cagle
June 14, 1991 AT 04:00 AM EDT

It was a simpler time, when a possessed kid rotating her head and spitting up pea soup could actually scare audiences. Up until the mid-’70s, The Exorcist was considered the epitome of movie horror. But that all changed on June 20, 1975, when Jaws opened wide, real wide. Told with masterful, terrifying realism, full of gurgling blood, severed limbs, and a half-eaten Robert Shaw, Jaws brought new dimensions to cinematic shock. And to American movies.

Never before had one film made such an impact on the public. Directed by Steven Spielberg, then 26, and starring Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss, Jaws quickly grossed $150 million in six months (surpassing The Godfather‘s record) and kicked off two trends: the summer blockbuster and repeat viewing. The catchphrase of the Jaws commercial, ”Just when you thought it was safe…,” became an instant cliché, as did John Williams’ pulsing dum-dum, dum-dum theme music. Jaws‘ shark jumped from the poster to op-ed cartoons, becoming a metaphor for the CIA, communism, and the energy crisis. Jaws inspired spoofs on Saturday Night Live and The Carol Burnett Show and inspired fear at the beaches. The Los Angeles County Beach Department, among others, instructed lifeguards to tell swimmers not to panic and to assure them that the thing floating out there was probably just a stray log.

Sixteen years on, Jaws has become a cottage industry. The film has spawned three sequels (the second in 3-D) and numerous knock-offs like Orca, Tentacles, and Grizzly, a ’76 saga about an 18-foot-tall bear that attacks campers. The Jaws thrill ride, in which the shark leaps from the water at spectators on a sinking dock, is one of the most popular attractions at Universal Studio Hollywood. The moviegoing habits that Jaws set in motion are now fixed parts of the American scene. Every summer is expected to produce one blockbuster, a mega-movie that fans will pay to see again and again. Bigger grosses and better special effects have come and gone, yet the original Jaws hasn’t lost its frightening power. A slick horror flick with a touch of comic genius, it still reaches deep inside and feeds on primal fears of water and the unknown. ”The movie still works for me,” says Roy Scheider. ”When I watch it, I’m always sitting there rooting for me.”

June 20, 1975

Moviegoers were abuzz about Nashville, while Little House on the Prairie was TV’s new hit. The Captain and Tennille reached No. 1 with ”Love Will Keep Us Together.” Arthur Hailey’s The Moneychangers was the best-selling novel.

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