Did the movie ‘Jaws’ cause a woman’s mysterious death?
In 1975, Steven Spielberg and Universal Pictures released the iconic film Jaws. This runaway hit brought in almost $500 million, more than making up for its $9 million budget. But it was its cultural impact that really blew people’s minds.
Almost twenty years later, a young woman was found dead of an apparent shark attack. Her body bore all the signs of having been killed in the water – or so authorities speculated. Further investigation revealed something more sinister at play.
What does one have to do with the other? Take a deep dive into this murder mystery!
Michelle von Emster
On April 14th, 1994, Michelle von Emster and her friend & roommate, Coco Campbell, attempted to enter a Pink Floyd concert. But they had the wrong tickets and ended up going back home to San Diego, CA.
Rather than go straight home, Campbell alleged Emster requested to be dropped off at a pier by their house with the intention of walking home. That was the last time she, Campbell – or anyone else – saw her alive.
The next morning, a couple of surfers found her mutilated body on the beach. Autopsy examiner Brian Blackbourne initially ruled her death the result of a shark attack based on her injuries. She had several broken bones and her body was covered in bruises. But her missing right leg would become the biggest point of controversy.
Blackbourne was inexperienced with identifying deaths caused by shark attacks when he made his ruling. He noticed her right leg had been violently removed from the thigh down, knew she had been found at the beach, and made an assumption.
Ironically enough, shark attack expert Ralph Collier strongly disagreed with that ruling based on how the leg had been removed. He claimed that the cut from Emster’s missing limb was too jagged to have been done by a shark. With no definite ruling, what seemed like an open-and-shut case became a murder mystery that many a sleuth is still trying to solve.
Buzzfeed Unsolved: True Crime
Emster’s story saw a resurgence of interest when it was covered by Ryan Bergara and Shane Madej on their YouTube hit show, Buzzfeed Unsolved: True Crime. They discuss high-profile murder mysteries and their prevailing theories with a touch of levity, compassion, and professional interest.
Once a shark attack was ruled out as the cause of her death, the next theory was murder. Some speculate that she died at the hands of a bartender named Edwin Decker. The two had spent time together and he was one of the last people to see her alive.
Others speculate that she died at the hands of an unidentified man. He’d allegedly stalked her at her previous job at Cabrillo Stationery & Office Supply. Emster’s former boss, Denise Knox, even speculated that he’d shown up to make copies of Emster’s autopsy report.
This would mean that her would-be killer is still at large. But with so much evidence pointing toward a human suspect, why the speculation over a shark attack? That’s where Jaws enters the chat.
The Jaws Effect
Jaws was not just a film about a series of horrifying shark attacks at a popular beach in Massachusetts. It was a cultural phenomenon. A big part of that was its long-lasting impact on how people see sharks. To this day, many people are afraid to go to the beach in fear of a shark attack.
This impact can be summed up in the academic theory known as the Jaws Effect. Dr. Christopher Neff coined the term in 2015. It describes how the film catapulted people’s already-existing fear of sharks into mass hysteria.
Maybe this was the real culprit in Emster’s case. Maybe Blackbourne watched Jaws and assumed, like so many others, that it was accurate in some way. Either way, the mystery was never fully solved despite what seemed to be a plethora of evidence pointing to specific causes. But whether or not Jaws caused her mysterious death remains unknown.