Something in the water is calling out for Ephraim. He follows its cries until his eyes and nose are filled with the salt of the sea. In the blackness he sees her: fishtail weaving through the riptides, skin pearl white from a life without sunlight, hair thick and black, a noose. She’s about to reach him when he wakes up from his dream. Or was it a nightmare?
This scene occurs early into Robert Egger’s gothic horror film, The Lighthouse. Set in 19th-century Maine, it follows junior lighthouse-keeper Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) as he embarks on a four-week stint assisting Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) with tending a lighthouse on a wind-lashed rock in the Atlantic ocean. With his days full of emptying chamber pots, layering white paint onto already white brick, eating bad food and farting, it doesn’t take long for Ephraim’s polite detachment to give way to something angrier. As he becomes increasingly overwhelmed by thankless domestic labour, Ephraim reaches a crisis point. This is when he throws himself into fantasies of mermaids.
Mermaids have been part of folklore since before Eve was given Adam’s rib. One of the oldest known mermaid tales is that of the Assyrian goddess Atargatis: the story goes that the divine love she held for a shepherd was too strong, and his mortal body withered and died under it. After discovering his corpse, Atargatis was so distraught she drowned herself in a lake only to come back half-fish. Since Atargatis’s reincarnation, mermaids have continued to operate as harbingers of tragedy, either cursing sailors ships with stormy seas or dragging men underwater themselves.
Mermaids are bad omens, but why should they be?
Perhaps men have always feared the independence of the mermaid. On the sea floor there are no rules; no aprons, dirty dishes, dusty window panes or nappies. Slippery and ephemeral, women of the sea inhabit a world beyond the domestic. In Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem “The Mermaid”, she gains power through entrapping men as they fall into the ocean in pursuit of her song: sailors “from aloft […] Would lean out from the hollow sphere of the sea, / All looking down for the love of me”. The men want to possess the mermaid, but to do so would end in death. Grasp on and she will drag you to a place where there’s no air, your lungs will fill with water and you won’t be able to breathe.
Scared of their powers, some men have tried to tame the legend of the mermaid. In these stories, mermaids become mute and childlike, lured onto land to fall in love with powerful men: captains of boats or kings. In the 1914 Neptune’s Daughter, a mermaid princess takes on human form to avenge the death of her younger sister, who was caught in a fishing net. The film ends with the princess falling in love with the man she holds responsible. In Disney’s 1989 version of The Little Mermaid, Ariel gives up her voice to be with her prince. In Hans Christian Andersen’s original fairytale, Ariel’s tongue is exchanged for her legs, in a deal with an evil queen that will allow her to live on dry land only so long as she can make the prince fall in love with her. When he marries someone else, she is offered a reprieve: stab him and regain her fishtail. Ariel refuses, choosing to dissolve into sea foam.
The mermaid in The Lighthouse is less obliging. Ephraim sees her cold and breathless, washed up on the seafront’s jagged rocks. He runs to her aid, pulling seaweed from her lips, his eyes slanting downwards with worry. When the mermaid wakes, she lets out a scream cracked through with laughter. Ephraim runs from the rocks but the piercing siren call echoes in his eardrums like barbed wire.
Taunting him, polluting his dreams, calling out for more, the mermaid in The Lighthouse is the ghoul of Ephraim’s unfulfilled sexual desires. In one of the opening scenes, Ephraim finds a crudely carved mermaid in a hole slashed through his mattress. He rubs a thumb down her scaled tail and tucks her in the pocket closest to his heart. (Presumably, the keeper who came before left it in the bed for safekeeping. It seems many men are haunted by lust.)
Like Ephraim, the protagonist of T S Eliot’s “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock” suffers from the pains of celibacy, though Prufrock’s fate is perhaps worse: no sea lies between him and women, instead he’s held back by an awareness of his own inadequacies. As the poem comes to an end, Prufrock laments that he’s so insignificant, not even mermaids can be bothered to tempt him to his death: “I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each / I do not think that they will sing to me.”
Mermaids are man’s horror of rejection made manifest: teasing and forever out of reach. But like the women they are modelled on, is the mermaid really saying “follow me”, or is that just what the man likes to think that he heard? Do incels see mermaids in their dreams at night? Are they haunted by monstrous vaginas with emerald green scales?
Men are scared of mermaids just as they are scared of the idea of women exceeding their control. Writers and filmmakers have tried to silence the image of the mermaid by writing stories where her one desire is loving him, but she always comes back, screaming even louder than she did before.