Eline Powell in Siren

The murderous allure of mermaids

Contributed by
Jun 21, 2018

Mermaids are all the rage right now. Perhaps they’ve never really gone out of fashion in terms of fiction, but there’s a very specific type of mermaid swimming to the surface of more contemporary stories. From Freeform’s hit TV show Siren (which was recently renewed for a second season set to premiere sometime in 2019) to the Polish horror-musical film The Lure to Mira Grant’s Rolling in the Deep series, there’s one thing these sea-dwelling ladies all have in common: they’re dangerous.

The mermaid myth hasn’t always been associated with murder, but the first known tale of a creature who was part-fish, part-woman, dating all the way back to ancient Mesopotamia, does technically include a tragedy. After the goddess Atargatis fell in love with a mortal man, she accidentally killed him, and in her grief took to the sea to try to turn herself into a fish. According to the legend, her beauty was so majestic that it couldn’t be fully contained within the waters — which led to her taking the form of a mermaid. There’s no true consensus on Atargatis’ true image — some illustrations render her with only a human head and arm above a fish’s body — but beyond the visual, it’s interesting to note that even as far back as 1000 BC there were stories about how romances between mermaids and humans would likely end miserably.

Historically, mermaids have also been accompanied by tales of misfortune and disaster on the open sea. Several popular Scottish ballads make mention of “merrows” (loosely translated as “sea maids”), who have the ability to foresee potentially disastrous fates for the men on the ships they encounter. Elsewhere, Russian “rusalka” are described as being the ghosts of young women who died violently by drowning and now live beneath the water, calling out to men on the shore to drown them in a similar manner. These stories probably explain in part why, over the years, the legend of the mermaid has come to be frequently conflated with that of the siren in Greek mythology — half-bird, half-human creatures who could reel sailors in with their haunting song, which often led to ships wrecking on the rocky shores of the land they inhabited. (One of the most widely-read examples of this is found in Homer’s epic The Odyssey, when Odysseus orders his sailors to plug their ears with beeswax and tie him to the mast of his own ship as they sail past the Sirens’ island.) Mermaids have not always possessed the ability to tempt men to their deaths with the power of their voice, but more contemporary retellings have granted them that authority.

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Freeform’s Siren is one such show where the mermaids’ seductive song frequently disguises more deadly intentions. On Siren, the mermaids are an interesting dichotomy: clearly humanoid in form but prone to certain animal-type behaviors, communicating via sounds like hissing or growling. And, of course, they have their song: a haunting tune that they seem to be able to conjure from somewhere within that has the ability to lull their targets into a sense of peace and tranquility. There’s almost a drug-like quality to the singing, where humans develop a need to hear it more than once. After mermaid Ryn (Eline Powell) sings to marine biologist Ben (Alex Roe) early in the first season, he's asked her more than once to do so again — and it appears to have a calming effect on him. Meanwhile, it's implied that another character, Aldon Decker (Ron Yuan), is ultimately led to his death by his consuming need to hear the mermaid's soothing melody. By the Season 1 finale, the show indicates that the sirens' song is truly addictive, but some of Siren’s menacing mermaids already have the potential to be reformed.

The growing relationship between mermaids and humans on Siren isn’t without its complications, though, and there’s been tragedy on both sides as the two different groups try to co-exist when the mermaids are driven onto land due to overfishing. Some of the mermaids have adapted relatively well in spite of literally being fish out of water, but others within their society reject the idea that they need to seek aid from a weaker species and this leads to tension within. At this point, Ryn and Donna have more allies among the humans — including Ben, his girlfriend Maddie (Fola Evans-Akingbola) and Bristol Cove local Helen (Rena Owen) who, surprisingly, is revealed to be a descendant of the mermaids who has been living on land in disguise for the past several decades. Siren’s version of mermaids might be slightly friendlier, but they’re also fierce — and not to be underestimated.

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Disney’s Ariel might have gotten a happy ending, but her origin story is certainly in line with the more murderous depictions of mermaids — in the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, the Little Mermaid is meant to kill her handsome prince on his wedding night, using his blood to turn her legs back into a tail before the sun comes up. Instead, she sacrifices herself, throwing herself into the sea where she turns into foam. That’s the piece of the classic fairy tale that director Agnieszka Smoczyńska deliberately draws from for The Lure. Amidst the Technicolor visuals and the disco-infused soundtrack that make up the film, there are subtle references to Andersen’s original fairy tale ending in the story of Silver (Marta Mazurek), a mermaid who, along with her sister Golden (Michalina Olszańska), is discovered by a rock band and subsequently taken back to the nightclub in Poland where they perform. Eventually, the mermaids are given their own stage act called The Lure, but their overnight success is not to last. 

At the beginning of the movie, Golden and Silver establish a plan to make their way to America on the coattails of their newfound fame — but each of them winds up making choices that throw a significant wrench in that scheme. Silver finds herself falling in love with bassist Mietek, while Golden is acting on more bloodthirsty desires, attacking nightclub patrons at random and consuming their hearts. Both decisions have potentially fatal consequences for their future goal; Golden’s murders are drawing negative attention to their peaceful existence on land, while Silver risks her own life (and voice) against the warning that if Mietek marries someone while she loves him, she will turn into sea foam. In the end, that’s exactly what happens — though Golden’s ferocious tendencies mean that her sister’s demise won’t go unavenged. She doesn’t hesitate to rip Mietek’s throat out before returning to the ocean, shrieking in pain and anguish over her loss. It’s a tragic ending, but like Siren, The Lure offers a manifold depiction of more than one kind of mermaid, with some more likely to fall in love than to rip your throat out.

That’s definitely not the case in Mira Grant’s Rolling in the Deep series (so far, consisting of the Rolling in the Deep novella and its sequel novel Into the Drowning Deep). In this modern reimagining, the fictional Imagine network has commissioned a team of experts in various fields to film a documentary about the existence of mermaids. Aboard the cruise ship Atargatis (a callback to the Assyrian goddess), the team ventures deep into the Mariana Trench — which, coincidentally, is the deepest parts of the world’s oceans, located in the Pacific near the Philippines. Early on in the novella, we learn that Imagine is planning to stage footage for the documentary, using professionally trained “mermaid” divers wearing tails to give viewers the impression that they’ve stumbled upon genuine mermaids after all. That’s the plan, anyway — until the real mermaids show up, angry that their territory has been invaded. 

Grant’s mermaids aren’t attractive women with shapely figures, seashell bras and long, flowing hair. They’re more monster than maid, the true horror of the story, and the biggest source of heart-pounding tension throughout both narratives — first of the doomed crew aboard the Atargatis, and then of the group sent to uncover what happened to them seven years later in the follow-up novel. Their song is less of a beautiful tune and more of a mimicry. They learn to impersonate specific voices in order to deceive their targets into coming within striking distance. In essence, Grant’s mermaids are truly predatory, and they respond the way any hunter would if they perceived a threat to their domain. These mermaids don’t stop at merely killing their enemies. They derive a unique satisfaction from the hunt, not to mention the consumption of their prey. Once they start to get a taste for human flesh, there’s no going back.

Of course, genre hasn’t limited itself to only spotlighting mermaids either. Guillermo del Toro’s film The Shape of Water and Melissa Broder’s novel The Pisces are among the stories that depict a romance between a human woman and a fish-man. Not all of those tales have concluded sadly either. In The Shape of Water, against all odds, Elisa gets a happily-ever-after with the creature she loves. But in recent years, it does seem that when the gender roles are reversed, the mermaid presents more of a danger than a security to those humans who encounter her in the water, the femme fatale with gills and a tail — like the mermaids of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.

Outside of fiction, mermaid sightings have persisted over the years, with one of the most recent occurring in Zimbabwe in 2012, where reservoir workers refused to return to their site after reportedly being chased away by mermaids. Subsequent rituals were performed in order to appease the mermaids before any work could continue. Even in reality, mermaids are quite the paradox: enticing, terrifying, romantic, tragic — but always something to be feared at first instinct. Thanks to some of their more modern renderings on the screen and on the page, that probably won’t be changing any time soon, but the popularity of the myth and the mystery of what really lurks in the deep ensure that the murderous mermaid will endure in some form for years to come.