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Lady of the Dunes: Was the Unidentified Cape Cod Murder Victim an Extra in Jaws

Horror author Joe Hill thinks so...

She was found on July 26, 1974, lying face down on a beach towel in the dunes near Provincetown, Massachusetts. Her hands were missing, and small piles of pine needles were left in their place. Her head had been crushed and nearly nearly severed from her body, possibly with some sort of military entrenching tool. Police suggested she could have died weeks before the July 26 discovery. With no clear way to identify her, the victim soon became known as “the Lady of the Dunes.”

Who she is, why she was slain so brutally, and who ended her life are all mysteries that remain unsolved to this day. When she was discovered, police conducted extensive searches of the surrounding dunes, combed through missing person files, and compared tire tracks found near the scene to those of countless vehicles. Yet they found nothing to explain the murder of the Lady of the Dunes.

lady of the dunes jaws
  • Depictions of the victim, created between 1979 and 2006.

  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

What do we know about her? Sadly, precious little. She was anywhere between 20 and 49 years of age, a more precise identification made impossible by the condition of the body. Though she had dental work, including expensive crowns done in what police called “the New York style,” consultations with dentists have failed to yield any clues. Some of her teeth were removed, along with both of her hands and one forearm. Her nearly-severed head was cushioned on a pair of carefully folded Wrangler jeans and a blue bandanna.

Related: Face on the Milk Carton: What Happened to Johnny Gosch? 

She was laid to rest later in 1974, but has been exhumed several times in the years since. Facial reconstruction was performed in 1979; her body was exhumed in 1980 and again in 2000 for DNA testing. In 2010, her skull, which hadn’t been re-interred with the rest of her body, was put through a CT scanner in order to produce more accurate facial reconstructions.

In 2004, serial killer Hadden Clark confessed to the murder of the Lady of the Dunes, saying that he had evidence that the police needed buried in his grandfather’s garden. Clark, however, suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, and authorities doubt the veracity of his claims to this and several other murders. 

Related: The Most Dangerous Animal: Is the Zodiac Killer the Next Cold Case to Be Solved? 

Over the years, police as well as amateur sleuths have pursued and put forth a wide variety of possible leads in the case. At one time, it was thought that the Lady of the Dunes may have been another victim of serial killer Tony Costa, but Costa was convicted of his crimes in 1970 and hanged himself in his cell in May of 1974, before the Lady was killed. Others attribute her death to notorious mobster Whitey Bulger, who was known to have removed some of his victims’ teeth, but no connection between the Lady and Bulger has ever been established.

Other leads have also been followed, including a number of missing persons roughly matching the age and description of the Lady of the Dunes. All of these leads have ultimately been ruled out. While investigators both professional and amateur have maintained a continued interest in the slaying, the case of the Lady of the Dunes has been cold since the 1970s.

lady of the dunes jaws
  • A scene from Jaws. Joe Hill suggests the extra at left bears a striking resemblance to the reconstructed images of the Lady of the Dunes.

  • Photo Credit: Universal Pictures

In August of 2015, Joe Hill, son of the famous horror novelist Stephen King, and no slouch of a horror writer himself, came forward with a new theory. He had been reading about the case in Deborah Halber’s book The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths Are Solving America’s Coldest Cases. Then he watched Jaws. At exactly 54 minutes and 2 seconds into the film, Hill noticed something strange: Among the crowd, on the far left side of the screen, stood a female extra dressed in jeans, a white t-shirt, and a blue bandana. She bore a “striking similarity” to the reconstructed images of the Lady of the Dunes.

“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?” Hill asks, in his August 2015 blog post. “What if the ghost of the Lady of the Dunes haunts Jaws?”

Related: 13 Chilling Episodes of Disappeared You Can Watch Tonight 

What if? Jaws was filming near Martha’s Vineyard, not far from Provincetown, in June of 1974, before the Lady of the Dunes met her untimely end. The film was a big deal in the area, and attracted plenty of attention. Many locals showed up for the film’s large crowd scenes. It is entirely possible that the Lady of the Dunes was one of them. Extras were not tracked as carefully back then as they are today, and there is perhaps no way to know for sure who all those people were. Like so many things about the case, it provides another tantalizing mystery, rather than a tidy solution.

“I create fiction for a living,” Hill points out in his own post, and he has later said that he initially thought that was all it was: “You’re telling yourself a ghost story.” But the theory has stuck around, and was recently given new legs when it appeared again on the Wondery podcast Inside Jaws, which explores the history and making of the film.

Whether the woman Hill spotted in that brief crowd scene in Jaws turns out to be the Lady of the Dunes, the theory has generated plenty of fresh interest in the case. And as the lead investigator for the Provincetown Police told People magazine, “Anything that generates interest is always good.”

Featured still from "Jaws'" via Universal Studios

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Created on 01 Oct 2018
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