HALLOWEEN BESTIARY 2022:
The role of mermaids in our popular culture is an interesting one. They've never really stopped being wildly popular, no, but it feels as if they somehow still went "more mainstream" in recent years, as if they had been taken for granted for decades before society suddenly screeched to a halt and said "wait a minute...MERMAIDS! HELL YEAH!"
Now, we see them more than ever and in far, far more contexts. The 2010's brought an explosion of them not just to every artistic medium but to every holiday season, and it's now relatively common to at least find mermaid skeletons as part of the usual Halloween decor, along with the occasional mermaid witch, or even just a living, non-sorcerous mermaid hanging out with a few pumpkins and ghosts.
Cala Maria in the Cuphead Show
Maybe some of you have forgotten however that mermaids have always belonged to Halloween. They've been a popular Halloween costume for as long as Halloween costumes have existed, and though presented as one of the "non-scary" costumes, they rest firmly in the category of a supernatural monster, and we have countless fairy tales, films, video games and cartoons to tell us that they're certainly not a monster to be trifled with. I would go so far as to propose that even the most sanitized and wholesome merfolk are as much "spooky creatures" as any witch, werewolf or ghost, with no additional horror motifs necessary.
Art by Rowena Morrill
...But if we are to emphasize their "horror" for the purposes of Hallow's eve, classical mermaids come with plenty of it. Interchangeable with the originally bird-like sirens by at least the middle ages, it's often assumed that a mermaid's voice is irresistibly seductive or simply hypnotizing to mortal humans, drawing them into the water where they either inevitably drown or are actively killed by the merfolk; sometimes because the creatures love to amass treasure, sometimes because they crave human flesh, sometimes because they just plain love killing people and sometimes all of the above.
Some Merrow from Magic: The Gathering
In Ireland, some merfolk were referred to as Merrow, the females of which had the classic human-like upper bodies in contrast the scalier and more monstrous males, who even had more "Black Lagoon" style humanoid legs in some depictions. More attracted to human men than their own weird-looking fish guys, a Merrow woman could come onto land by wearing a magical, red cap, take a human husband and bear only subtly odd children...until their fish-like traits became increasingly pronounced with age, and they found the underwater world impossible to resist. This curse could be passed down for many generations, each bearing children of their own shortly before their latent fishiness begins to emerge.
In Japan, "human fish" or Ningyo can vary from finned humanoid monsters to more mermaid-like figures to merely human-headed, but their horror wasn't typically in what they did to humans so much as the reverse. Eating their meat is assumed to grant immortality or at least centuries of longevity, driving humans to dark and heinous deeds in pursuit of it. This yokai and the power of its tasty, tasty flesh has been conflated often enough with the "Western" mermaid in anime and video games that I've now seen it integrated back into American cartoons and comics, so I think it's we can safely consider it a classic trope of the "generic" fish-maiden.
So what's really kept mermaids from achieving the same status as Draculas or Frankensteins? It's probably as simple as the fact that there are still, to this day, no culturally significant mermaid horror movies. There have been attempts, here and there, but most of them low budget, poorly reviewed and direct to DVD or streaming services. Possibly the closest to a "good" mermaid horror is Hideshi Hino's Mermaid in a Manhole, but it's far, far too nauseating to go mainstream, and the storyline admittedly has less to do with the presence of a mermaid so much as the fact that a mermaid is slowly decomposing alive. You've been warned, that is literally 90% of the film.
All we need is just one person to step up to the cinematic mer-horror plate and really, truly pull it off, just once. Maybe the film itself doesn't need to be "good" as long as the mermaid itself leaves an impression, even as a meme, but their potential for a seriously disturbing narrative is already there, successfully explored in folklore and plenty of other mediums. Who's been making the best reviewed horror movies lately, anyway? Jordan Peele? Ari Aster? What's Jennifer Kent been up to since The Nightingale? She showed she could handle monsters pretty well with the Babadook. Come on, one of you has to agree with me that mermaids are cool? Feature length psychological horror-thriller cool?? Just maybe????