Stephen King's Son May Just Have Solved a 44-Year-Old Murder Mystery
In 2015, Joe Hillstrom King sat in a New Hampshire movie theater with his three teenage sons, stoked to see a special 40th anniversary screening of Jaws, his all-time favorite film, for the first time on the big screen as it was intended. Better known by his pen name Joe Hill, the comic book and horror-thriller writer—and son of Stephen King—watched with rapture. But 54 minutes in, he leapt out of his seat, his arms prickled with goosebumps and his heart pounding, at a scene that startled him for the first time despite the many times he had watched the movie.
It wasn't your typical jump-scare, no image of a hungry Great White Shark attacking a beachgoer. Instead, it was a scene in which a crowd boards a ferry on the Fourth of July, a seemingly innocuous moment in Steven Spielberg's iconic masterpiece. In the shot, a female extra wearing a blue bandana over her auburn hair caught Hill's attention. She was "almost a twin of the figure" in a forensic recreation image he recently saw of the Lady of the Dunes, the still-unidentified murder victim discovered in Provincetown in 1974—the very same year Jaws was filmed on nearby Martha's Vineyard.
"The movie and the murder overlap geographically and chronologically," Hill tells Esquire.com. "Allowing for the possibility that the Lady of the Dunes was in the right place at the right time—or, rather, the wrong place at the wrong time."
Hill first developed a macabre fascination with the Lady of the Dunes after reading about her death in Deborah Halber's 2014 book, The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths Are Solving America's Coldest Cases, which details the modern phenomenon of citizens using Internet resources to identify unidentified human remains.
Thought to be in her mid-20s to -30s, the Lady of the Dunes was discovered on July 26, 1974, about a mile east of the Race Point Ranger Station on the northern tip of Cape Cod. The nude, decomposing body was discovered by a 13-year-old girl who was walking her beagle in the dunes; the woman was estimated to have been deceased for up to three weeks.
Her long, reddish-brown hair was pulled back in a glittery hair-tie, and she had seven gold crowns in her mouth that were worth thousands of dollars. Her hands were cut off and missing, presumably so she couldn't be identified through fingerprints. Her skull was crushed, she was nearly decapitated, and her body was lying on a beach towel "as if she’d been sharing it with a companion," according to the Provincetown Police Department.
Her head rested on folded Wrangler jeans and a blue bandana—very similar to the outfit worn by the extra in the ferry scene from Jaws.
After the immediate shock, Hill sat back down in his seat, his pulse returning to normal. "I was like, 'No way,'" he recalls of his disbelief. "I have the kind of imagination that churns out ghost stories almost automatically. I’ve just done it so much that I told myself, 'You’re telling yourself a ghost story!'"
Still, he couldn't get the woman from Jaws—her blue bandana, her auburn hair—out of his head. When he got home, he rewatched the movie on his laptop, thumbing through the ferry scene frame by frame. He told friends about his theory, including a buddy who works for the FBI, who said it "was interesting, and [that] sometimes very cold cases have been caught by stranger ideas."
"I thought there really might be something there," says Hill. "[So I did] what any sane person would do: I put it on the Internet!'"
He described the idea in a Tumblr post, noting the similarities between the Lady in the Dunes and the extra from Jaws:
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.
I admit its pretty goddamn wild speculation.
And yet… 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.
He included the caveat that he literally makes up stories for a living (Hill's most recent book, Strange Weather, is a collection of four short chilling novels).
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?
Hill's theory went viral this summer after it was featured on Inside Jaws, a podcast devoted to Steven Spielberg’s journey from inexperienced director to influential filmmaker. And it's not the first time his idea has been picked up. In 2015, VICE published an article about it, and Hill even told the publication he received offers from other amateur sleuths to search for payroll records for Jaws extras and to hunt down data that could help solve the mystery.
Three years ago, a writer from Entertainment Weekly took interest, offering to help track down the name of the extra, which—if she were alive—could disprove Hill's wild theory. Hill claims a Universal Studios archivist told the writer they couldn't find the extra's name; Shari Rhodes, the casting director for Jaws, died in 2009.
Hill never went directly to the police with his idea; he feels "silly," he says, about the possibility of wasting an officer's time. Provincetown Police have not returned Esquire.com's request for comment at the time of publication. According to their website, however, the body of the Lady in the Dunes was exhumed in 2000 in "an attempt to confirm her identity." In May of 2010, a new composite was created using state of the art technology and computer analyses.
According to a 2014 Boston Globe article, detectives have consulted dentists and psychics in an attempt to solve the case. They’ve also used "ground-penetrating radar" and made a plaster reconstruction of her face.
"I HAVE THE KIND OF IMAGINATION THAT CHURNS OUT GHOST STORIES ALMOST AUTOMATICALLY," JOE HILL SAYS. "I’VE JUST DONE IT SO MUCH THAT I TOLD MYSELF, 'YOU’RE TELLING YOURSELF A GHOST STORY!'"
"How does someone end up here, of all places, not to be identified for 40 years?" Detective Meredith K. Lobur of the Provincetown Police Department, the lead investigator on the case, told the publication. "She’s always some part of my day... Some murders are never solved. I refuse to believe this is one of them."
Lobur works on the case on her days off, according to the Globe, and is convinced that the killer will be found when the victim is identified.
"I know there’s a murderer out there somewhere loose," retired Acting Chief Warren Tobias, who led the search for 22 years, told the paper. "There’s a family out there that needs closure."
Meanwhile, Hill recognizes that his theory is a fantastical one, and "there's probably nothing" to the connection between the unknown murder victim and the unknown Jaws extra. "But at the same time," he says, "two incredible things happened in the area of Cape Cod in the of summer 1974. One, a woman was killed. The other was that Jaws was filmed and became the summer film to define all other summer films. It’s not that hard to believe that a person in the area of Provincetown might have scooted off to Martha’s Vineyard… to see all the movie stars [and wound up being an extra].
"My subconscious kind of spun up this possibility," he continues. "If nothing else, it’s a pretty good little ghost story."
Hill says his father, the master of horror and suspense, also thinks the story is a powerful one. "He always enjoys puzzling over a bizarre bit of Americana," says Hill. "Old, unresolved stories [is] something of a family hobby."
At the very least, Hill hopes bringing attention to the case might lead to more clues—or encourage someone with information to talk.
"A woman died and she’s never been identified," he says. "She's someone's daughter—you have to hope sooner or later there will be a resolution. But I keep wondering how come that woman [in Jaws], if she's [not the Lady in the Dunes]... Why hasn’t she—or someone that knows her—come forward to say, 'This is me'?"
This story originally appeared on Esquire.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.