Put on your tin-foil hats and buckle up for a ride to Crazy Town, folks. I admit this one is out there.
In late July of 1974, a 13-year-old girl walking her dog in the dunes outside of Provincetown, MA, followed her beagle into a stand of stunted pines, and nearly stepped on the badly decomposed body of a young woman. For a time, the inconclusive investigation into her death gripped all of New England.
An attempt had been made to remove her head, probably with the blade of a shovel, but the decapitation had been unsuccessful. The killer had better luck taking off her hands, which were never found. Several teeth had also been removed, all part of an effort, one presumes, to make her impossible to identify. Her jeans and a blue bandana had been folded and placed beneath her head.
The press dubbed her the Lady of the Dunes and at the time of this writing, over 40 years later, no one has ever claimed her. She remains without a name or a history. Her killer has never been identified.
Much has been written about the Lady of the Dunes and I won’t bother to recap four decades of investigative work here. Deborah Halber dug about as deep into her story as anyone has ever gone in her book The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths are Solving America’s Coldest Cases. I recommend it to anyone interested in the granular details of the Lady and also for readers of true crime in general.
For now, though, accept that to this day there are only a limited number of established facts. We know about the blue bandana and the Wrangler jeans. We know she was between the ages of 25 and 49 years old… although 30 seems a particularly good bet. She had expensive dental work. Her hair was auburn or red. She was fit, 145 pounds, and when she was discovered her hair was in a ponytail, captured by a holder with gold sparkles in it. There have been several attempts to reconstruct what she looked like. Here’s one of the most recent efforts:
That’s it. That’s what we know for sure. Everything else is conjecture. And in all the time since her death not one person has stepped forward to say, “I saw her. I met her a few weeks before she was found. I can tell you her name.”
But what if we’ve all seen her? What if she’s been in front of us for decades and we just never noticed?
Who’s in the mood for a ghost story?
So let’s talk about JAWS.
JAWS was filmed in Martha’s Vineyard in the summer of 1974. It was a famously challenging production; originally scheduled for 50 days of shooting, it took over 120 days to complete, and was continuously teetering on the edge of disaster. The work was worth it – it is the summer movie by which all other summer movies are judged. (The story of how the film got made is a fascinating narrative in its own right. Carl Gottlieb’s The JAWS Log is probably the single best recounting of those hot, desperate days on the beaches of Edgartown, MA)
It’s also my favorite movie. Nothing else is even close. It’s a story I’ve returned to again and again. I think I was nine the first time I saw it, on laserdisc, a format which predated VHS and DVD (God, I loved those big silver platters!). I’ve seen it at least once, almost every single year, ever since. I’m sure I’ve viewed the picture 25+ times. I can recite the lines in much the way a tent revival preacher can recite long passages of the Bible.
And yet I had never seen it on the big screen until this summer. In June, JAWS was unleashed on theaters once more to celebrate its 40th anniversary. Naturally, predictably, maybe inevitably, I was there. For the first time I saw the picture the way it was meant to be seen. On the big screen, baby, that shark’s mouth is just about wide enough to ride a bicycle into it.
I was watching in my usual tranced out state of dreamy pleasure… and then, suddenly, found myself half-lunging out of my seat, prickling with gooseflesh.
Now understand, I had only just finished reading The Skeleton Crew a few weeks before. The Lady of the Dunes is in many ways the centerpiece of the book, and unlike the other crimes Mrs. Halber explores, it remains infuriatingly unsolved. After finishing the book, I had spent a few minutes online, acquainting myself with the latest details… and studying the recreation of the Lady’s face.
And now, suddenly, impossibly, there she was… life-size and looking over her shoulder at me. There for a moment in a busy crowd scene, and then gone.
I settled back into my seat and after my pulse returned to normal, I was able to enjoy the film. By the time I got home I had mostly talked myself into believing I had fantasized the whole thing. Just to be sure, I queued up the scene in question my DVD and rewatched it, to see if my eye would find her once more. But no. At least on the 15″ screen of my MacBook Pro, at 11 at night, I was unable to spot her a second time.
But the thought wouldn’t leave me that my unconscious mind had, in fact, latched into something. In the weeks that followed I talked to several friends about what I had seen (or thought I saw). Finally, I broached the subject with an FBI agent I know socially. I expected a good bit of teasing. Instead, he raised an eyebrow and said, “You know, it might be worth going forward with your theory. There might be something in it. Odder ideas have cracked colder cases.”
With this modest encouragement, I watched the film yet again, going over the sequence in question on a big screen TV, frame-by-frame, with @VoodooDarling as an extra set of eyes.
@VoodooDarling saw her before I did.
Here’s that recreation of the Lady of the Dunes again.
And here’s a crowd scene that appears 54 minutes and 2 seconds into JAWS.
Is that her? On the left?
Let’s take a closer look.
Blue bandana. About 30. Fit, 145 pounds. I don’t believe those are Wrangler jeans, but a lady presumably owns more than one pair of jeans.
Is the Lady of the Dunes in JAWS?
I admit its pretty goddamn wild speculation. And yet…
Let’s go a little further down this very dim, very narrow alley of fantastic conjecture.
It is impossible to say with complete precision when they filmed the “July 4th – Crowd Arrives” sequence, which is where this shot appears. But we know it was almost certainly shot in June, because they filmed all the “on island” scenes they could early. The water was too cold for swimming, and the malfunctioning shark wasn’t ready for the “at sea” material until late July.
We also know the Lady of the Dunes was alive in June and that the filming of JAWS was a big deal locally. Lots of folks turned up to try and get a peek at the stars, or the shark, or to see if they could sneak into a shot.
The geography works too. Martha’s Vineyard is a short hop from Provincetown. It would be no surprise at all if a girl summering on the Cape decided to take a few days to explore the Vineyard… especially with the added bait of celebrity to draw her in.
Of course this is far from being even vaguely conclusive. The girl in my isolated frame of JAWS wears a blue bandana, but what of it? In the next sequence, on the busy beach, there are half a dozen women wearing blue bandanas. It must’ve been the style. Furthermore, it sure would be nice if her hair was in a ponytail, looped with a holder that has gold thread in it. But her hair is loose. It would be great if those were Wrangler jeans, but my Google Fu suggests they aren’t.
Here’s all we really have: an extra who bears a startling resemblance to a girl who turned up dead, some coincidences of time and geography, and a writer of horror stories who has a “feeling.”
Not exactly case closed, huh?
I create fiction for a living and I am always my own first audience. Telling stories to myself (especially ghost stories) has been my great pleasure – and compulsion – since childhood.
I am under no illusions about the situation here. I was watching JAWS, under the influence of The Skeleton Crew, and my subconscious invented an exciting little story about the Lady of the Dunes on the spot. It was so good, I persuaded myself it might be true.
It IS a helluva what-if, isn’t it? What if the young murder victim no one has ever been able to identify has been seen by hundreds of millions of people in a beloved summer classic and they didn’t even know they were looking at her? What if the ghost of the Lady of the Dunes haunts JAWS?
I know: to believe an extra glimpsed in JAWS is the verysame woman killed outside of Provincetown is a leap into the extreme hypothetical. That said, before her death, this woman had a life, and some of that life was spent on the Cape during the summer of JAWS. The odds are long that the Lady of the Dunes appears in the picture… but maybe not unimaginably long.
I turn this possibility over to the greatest puzzle solving instrument humans have ever created: the Internet. Give JAWS another watch. Look for the Lady.
Did you spend the summer of 1974 on the Cape or on the Vineyard? Were you in JAWS? Who else was there, the day they captured you on camera? Who did you talk to between shots? What do you remember?
This woman does not have a name:
Does this one?