Joe Hill’s day job is to scare the hell out of the American readership, much in the same mold as his father, Stephen King. The author has built a successful career of high-profile novels, several of which have been adapted into films, such as Heart-Shaped Box, Horns and the upcoming NOS4A2, along with the comic book series Locke & Key. But the horror/thriller author also has a keen interest in crime reporting and cold cases, and he may have stumbled onto a long-lost key to a decades-old case … just sitting in plain sight, and viewed by millions since 1975. Because Joe Hill believes that a key to the case of “The Lady of the Dunes” might actually show up on-screen in Steven Spielberg’s Jaws.
The case of The Lady of the Dunes is a sad, strange one. That name belongs to the body of a woman, whose corpse was discovered among the sandy dunes of Provincetown, MA. Already decomposed due to the heat, not much could be determined about the woman at the time: She was judged to be between 20 and 40 years old, with auburn hair that was tied in a ponytail with a rubber barrette, and pink-painted toenails. She had been killed by a powerful blow to the left side of the skull, which had almost entirely severed her neck. She wore a pair of Wrangler jeans and a blue bandanna, and her hands had been cut off and removed. One clue stood out: She had seven gold crowns among her teeth, but the identity of the woman was never determined, even after the body was exhumed in 2010 in the hopes of creating a DNA profile. There have been many composites made of the woman, one of the most recent of which is below.
That’s where Joe Hill comes in, and his theory isn’t new—he’s actually been putting this information out onto the web since 2015, but a new wave of interest has arrived after Hill appeared on the podcast “Inside Jaws,” which documents the behind-the-scenes making of Spielberg’s famous film.
“My thing is writing ghost stories,” Hill said in a Washington Post interview. “I can’t tell if this is my imagination just doing the thing that it always does or if there’s actually something there.”
Hill’s interest in the case was initially piqued by the book The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths Are Solving America’s Coldest Cases, published in 2014 by Deborah Halber. Hill read the book at took special interest in The Lady of the Dunes, which he called “the Holy Grail for amateur sleuths.” Shortly afterward, he attended a screening of Jaws with his three young sons and was suddenly dumbfounded by a shot that briefly appears at 54 minutes and 2 seconds into the movie—he saw what (to him) appeared to be The Lady. The scene takes place at Martha’s Vineyard, as a ferry disembarks for Amity Island, where the action in the film takes place. In the crowd, there’s clearly a woman in jeans and a blue bandanna, who matches all the descriptors of The Lady of The Dunes.
“I felt I had seen ‘Lady of the Dunes,’ that her face had come up out of the crowd at me,” Hill said to WaPo. “It came and went in a moment, and there was no rewind button. I don’t believe she’s wearing Wrangler jeans, but presumably a girl owns more than one pair of jeans.”
The site of the murder is around 100 miles from the filming location of Jaws, but the film was indeed shooting in the summer of 1974, when the murder occurred. And as a large, hype-raising production, it’s conceivable that the woman could have traveled to the set to check it out—or try her luck as an extra.
“I’ve heard it said that everyone who was out on Cape Cod in the summer of 1974 appears in the movie Jaws,” Hill said. “I’m sure that’s an exaggeration, but there’s a nugget of truth. People knew there were movie stars on Martha’s Vineyard. The possibility that a person would make a stop on the island and appear in the movie is not unreasonable.”
This is the shot in Jaws that so transfixed Hill:
That’s when Hill started sharing his thoughts online, and the possibility that “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.” Hill then brought his theory to the Provincetown Police Department, which has been working on the case for decades, although obviously there hasn’t yet been any kind of breakthrough.
Obviously, Hill knows that the odds aren’t exactly in his favor here. Even if the woman in the shot is indeed the Lady of the Dunes, there isn’t likely to be any record of the woman’s identity among records from the filming of Jaws. But what Hill is hoping is that as the story spreads, perhaps any of the other living extras who were present in that scene—and there must be a lot of them—will remember the woman, or perhaps interacted with her that day. Someone present at that particular day of Jaws shooting might hold the key as to the Lady of the Dunes’ identity.
“Two astonishing things happened on Cape Cod in the summer of 1974,” Hill said to WaPo. “One is that Steven Spielberg filmed Jaws, and other is that someone murdered this woman in the dunes outside Provincetown and got away with it. Anything that stirs people’s memories could potentially be productive.”