Conjure an image of a mermaid and what do you see? In the popular imagination, mermaids are tender-hearted young maidens that live in an ocean realm of dappled light, friendly fish, and singing crabs. While many are content, others leave the sea in search of forbidden human love. Beneath this glittery image lurks the dark mermaid—Ariel’s blackened sister. Brooding and hungry for male flesh, she swims in the shadowy deep, a violent world of digestion and transformation. At once a projection of male fantasy and misogynistic terror, the dark mermaid is truly the witch of the sea—a wicked emblem to be reclaimed by feminist power.
The First Little Mermaid
In 1837, Hans Christian Andersen published The Little Mermaid, a story that would take on a strange life of its own. The narrative is a familiar one—the youngest daughter of the Sea King sees a statue of a human prince and falls in love with him. After saving his life, she determines to find a way into his heart and his bed. For help, she turns to the Sea Witch, who lives in a house “built with the bones of shipwrecked human beings” and allows toads “to eat from her mouth.” Upon meeting the Little Mermaid, the Sea Witch knows exactly what she is after and warns her that to become human for the love of a man is nothing short of stupid.
The Little Mermaid does not heed the Sea Witch’s warning, of course, and sells her voice for the opportunity to seduce her prince into marriage. Unlike Disney’s “happy ending”—in which Ariel alters her body in order to marry an authoritative male, thereby abandoning both her identity and autonomy—Andersen’s Little Mermaid does not get her man. After attending his wedding to another princess, the Little Mermaid turns to sea foam. In true romantic style, however, she is transformed into a “spirit of the air.” As a pure and sexless angelic being, she watches over children and performs good deeds in order to gain an immortal soul and live in heaven beyond the stars.
In Andersen’s narrative, both the “angelic” Little Mermaid who floats up to heaven and the “wicked” Sea Witch who clings to the ocean floor are rooted in anti-woman discourses codified in the medieval world. Through the male clerical gaze, women were corrupted vessels. Filled with Christ, they might be purified and redeemed. If a woman wasn’t a saint or virgin—or both—she was probably filled with demons. Left untouched by the patriarchal hand of the Christian god or his clerics, she was unable to slough off the sinfulness that held her fast to the earth. This false female binary is persistent in the world of mermaids. Good mermaids are most often virginal, helpless, and willing to change what they are in order to be with the man they love. Dark mermaids, however, are often demon-infested, duplicitous, and vicious vixens hungry for the blood and flesh of men.
Like the good mermaid, the construction of the dark mermaid is inherently misogynistic. What makes mermaids so seductive and terrifying, so wickedly powerful in the male imagination? Three horror films—The Lure (2015), She Creature (2001), and Mamula (2014) provide us with some tantalizing clues.
Let’s dive right in. As fish-human hybrids, mermaids are monstrosities that combine multiple elements of otherness. The mermaid’s lower half is that of a fish. Cold-blooded creatures, fish are non-human “others.” They live in a watery world devoid of air, lay eggs in dark dens, and do not nurse their young. And to the human nose, at least, they smell. The human half of the mermaid is female; as a woman, she is “not-man,” and therefore “othered” in the male gaze. From this perspective, she is also a sexual object—albeit a problematic one—since there is no obvious place to penetrate her, either forcibly or consensually. She has a mouth, but aren’t things supposed to be “better down where it’s wetter”? If she is beautiful but not penetrable, what good is she?
The 2015 Polish horror film, The Lure, deals directly with the sexual objectification of dark mermaids and by extension, women. In this modernized retelling of Andersen’s Little Mermaid, two pubescent mermaids are lured into an adult nightclub where they perform as singers and strippers. When they first arrive, the dark-haired Golden and her blonde sister, Silver, are inspected while in their human form. They are bent over and their legs are spread, revealing that they have no openings and are “smooth like Barbie dolls.”
A glass of water is then poured on the young girls, revealing long, spiny, phallic tails. The nightclub owner approaches them, asking, “Where’s it supposed to be?” There in the base of the tail he finds a moist slit and slides his fingers into it suggestively. He looks at his friend and says, “Smells fishy though.”
Golden and Silver are beautiful, but only sexually available when they are wet, fishy, and dangerously “other.” This becomes a real problem for Silver, who has fallen in love with a wanton blonde-haired boy. Climbing into the bathtub, she offers herself to him. She tells him to “put it in,” but he resists, replying that “No offense, but to me you will always be a fish. An animal, that is.”
Undaunted, Silver pursues him, ultimately submitting to a hemicorporectomy and lower torso transplant. Once she has recovered, he attempts to penetrate her sexually but winds up covered with blood. Silver has traded her fishy slit for a bloody vaginal maw—both of which are repulsive to her male lover.
Duplicity and Domination
The physiological duality of the dark mermaid is echoed in her duplicity, another source of male terror. In The Lure, Silver appears sweet and submissive—but even she joins her sister in ripping open a man’s throat, pulling his beating heart from his chest, and consuming it with juicy slurping. When these two mermaids get angry or hungry, they sprout needle-like fangs and give in to “cravings that aren’t quite wholesome.”
The mermaid in the Serbian horror film, Mamula (2014), is similarly duplicitous. She is beautiful, bare breasted, and helpless—irresistible attributes for cinematic males who are simultaneously driven to protect and penetrate. Once they are in her grasp, she reveals her true face, which is not that of a human being at all, but of a carnivorous fish, scaly and fanged.
She does not need men for love—she needs them for food. Some wander into her lair at the heart of an abandoned ocean prison where they are seduced and consumed. For the rest she relies on her manservant—a homicidal sailor who obeys her commands. He harvests human blood and dumps it down a well and into her hungry maw. The well here serves as a bloody vaginal passageway, at the bottom of which lies fishy dentata–a truly horrifying return to origins.
In She Creature (2001), cis-het male fantasies and fears about women are amplified. In this film, a sideshow man steals a mermaid from an aged scholar. His goal? Take her to America by ship, put her on display, and make a fortune. Like Golden and Silver in The Lure, men will objectify, commodify, and attempt to control the fate of this “she creature”—and they will fail. Unlike her sisters, this mermaid is hostile from the outset. She is wicked and manipulative. And she knows her own body! While at sea there is a full moon—the signal for her transformation from beautiful maiden to carnivorous lesbian sea queen. In this form she breaks her bonds, slaughters the crew, and drags them to the depths, and feeds them to her hungry sisters.
Witches of the Sea
Dark mermaids—like stereotypical witches—are born of anti-woman discourses. And like witches, they have the potential to become feminist icons. They are creatures of power, fully alive to their true selves and open to endless queer potential. They feed their hunger and care for their sisters. They embody male fears about female genitalia and a Freudian return to origins—and use these fears to fight the patriarchy. Honestly, let’s reclaim this shit for our own and set our cauldrons boiling at the bottom of the sea.
Header image: Mermaid by Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann (1873)