When Hill trained his eye on “Jaws,” 40 years after Steven Spielberg’s tale of a man-eating great white shark first smashed box-office records in the summer of 1975, the writer saw something that prickled his skin with goose bumps and jolted him from his seat at a movie theater in Newington, N.H.
It wasn’t the marauding of the marine antagonist that stupefied him but, rather, the fleeting appearance of an extra cast member in a crowd scene approximately 54 minutes and 2 seconds into the film. The young woman seemed to have the same visage he had recently seen in a composite sketch of the victim of a grisly murder that has stumped police on the far reaches of Cape Cod for 44 years.
Hill first recorded his hypothesis on his Tumblr page in 2015, writing, “Put on your tin-foil hats and buckle up for a ride to Crazy Town, folks.” Now, a reference to his musings in a new podcast, “Inside Jaws,” which documents the making of the film that made Spielberg’s name, has renewed interest in his theory.
“My thing is writing ghost stories,” Hill said in an interview this week with The Washington Post. “I can’t tell if this is my imagination just doing the thing that it always does or if there’s actually something there.”
Authorities wouldn’t help settle that question. The detective working on the case, Meredith K. Lobur, didn’t return a request for comment on whether “Jaws” features in the ongoing investigation.
One morning in late July, in 1974, a teenage girl was walking her dog along the sandy dunes of Provincetown, Mass., when she came to a grove of scrub pine trees. In a clearing lay the naked body of a woman, already badly decomposed in the summer heat. She had been between 20 and 40 years old, police estimate, when she was killed by a blow to the left side of her skull. She had auburn hair, tied in a ponytail with a rubber barrette, and pink-painted toenails.
Her corpse, on its side on a green beach blanket, measured about five-and-a-half feet. Her exact height couldn’t be determined because her neck had been nearly severed. Her head rested on a pair of Wrangler jeans and a blue bandanna, according to police information and press reports at the time. Her hands had been cut off and were missing.
A clue lay in seven gold crowns found on her teeth that revealed what police described as “the New York style” of dentistry, but authorities have never been able to figure out her identity, much less that of her killer. They exhumed her body in 2010 to create a composite sketch, and the Boston Globe has documented tactics ranging from extracting DNA samples to using ground-penetrating radar, from contacting thousands of dentists to fabricating a three-dimensional plaster reconstruction of her face.
The forensic reconstruction of the victim that appeared in the Globe in 2010 drove the writer Deborah Halber to explore a collection of unsolved cases, as well as citizen efforts to crack them, in her book, “The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths Are Solving America’s Coldest Cases.”
Within months of its publication in 2014, that book wound up in the hands of Hill. He was especially struck by the case of the “Lady in the Dunes” — “the Holy Grail for amateur sleuths,” he said — and he took to the Internet to find out more. On Wikipedia, he became transfixed by the forensic recreation of the victim’s face. The composite sketch, which could be a photograph but for its translucent tinge, portrays a woman with shoulder-length hair, full eyebrows and youthful, well-defined features.
Soon after he finished Halber’s account, Hill found himself at a theater with his three sons for a 40th-anniversary screening of “Jaws,” his favorite film.
About a third of the way through the film, which was filmed in the summer of 1974, a ferry disembarks at Martha’s Vineyard, an island off the southern end of Cape Cod. In the crowd is a woman wearing jeans and a blue bandanna.
“I felt I had seen ‘Lady of the Dunes,’ that her face had come up out of the crowd at me,” Hill said, a boyish lilt rising in his voice. “It came and went in a moment, and there was no rewind button.”
He wondered: Had an extra in “Jaws” been brutally murdered 100 miles away from the site where the movie was filmed? The woman’s build looked similar. There was the blue bandanna. “I don’t believe she’s wearing Wrangler jeans, but presumably a girl owns more than one pair of jeans,” Hill said.
“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.”
That evening, he looked on his computer to see if he could zero in on the scene. But the screen on his 15-inch MacBook didn’t yield a clear enough picture. He let it go for a while, occasionally telling friends about what he had seen.
When he mentioned the theory to an FBI agent he knew socially, he expected the law-enforcement official to tease him. Instead, the agent told him stranger ideas had cracked cold cases and advised him to post about it online. He went back to the scene in question and flipped through one frame at a time. “And there she is,” Hill said.
The writer took to Tumblr, acknowledging that his idea was far-fetched but asking readers to consider 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.”
The cold case had already taken on the aura of legend. The best-selling author asks: Why not consider a lead arising from a rollicking tale of murder at sea?
When he brought his theory to the Provincetown Police Department, the detective working on the case told him, ” ‘That’s an interesting theory,’ ” Hill recalled. “I took that as a polite way of saying, ‘That’s pretty crazy and useless.’ But another guy who’s worked on the case recently said, ‘You don’t know, odds are long.’ ”
At the time of production on “Jaws,” Hill said, film studios didn’t keep the same sort of records on extras that they do now. An inquiry to an archivist at Universal Pictures made several years ago by a writer at Entertainment Weekly was unsuccessful, he said.
But he is optimistic that investigators will solve the case. “I don’t think they’ll ever quit,” he said.
As for whether his hypothesis can help, Hill allowed, “I’m aware that it’s probably only an interesting sort of ghost story, a tantalizing ‘what if?’ ”
At the same time, he said, calling attention to the hordes of people on Martha’s Vineyard that summer can only further the investigation. “There are people alive today who were in that shot in ‘Jaws’ and know they’re in that shot.”
And no matter how emphatically he tells himself that he was primed to see the “Lady in the Dunes” in “Jaws” because he had just read about her, he can’t get over the concurrence of two remarkable events.
“Two astonishing things happened on Cape Cod in the summer of 1974,” he said. “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.”
Meanwhile, the idea has fascinated not only Hill but his father. “Everyone in my family likes a good bit of weird, unsettling Americana,” the writer said.
But you don’t have to be a teller of horror stories to find the possibility that “Jaws” could bring heat to a cold case alluring, Hill insisted.
“When faced with grotesque, inexplicable tragedies, one of the ways that human beings master their own anxiety and concern is by trying to reduce it to a crossword puzzle, and if you have the right inspiration, you can bring order back to chaos,” he said.