Welcome back everyone! Today we complete the first third of our journey through Shocktoberfest and dive into the muddy waters of a creature whose characteristic change like the tides: the merfolk.
Usually when someone thinks of a merman or mermaid, this is the sort of image that comes to mind.
But before Walt Disney and Hans Christian Andersen portrayed them this way, most people imagined them looking more like this.
How did we go from scary to friendly? Let’s find out.
The name is pretty self-explanatory. The prefix “mer” comes from the old English word for sea (mere). While they can be beautifully alluring–both the men and the women–that attraction was part of their deadly trap. The ancient Greeks had their own version of merfolk called Sirens and would lure ships in with their enchanting songs in order to kill them more easily. Even heroes like Odysseus and Jason encountered them upon their journeys. To pass them safely, Odysseus had his crew plug their ears while they tied him to the mast because he wanted to hear their song without getting pulled to his death, while Jason simply called upon the help of the musician, Orpheus, to drown out their music with his.
However, in the 19th century, the merfolk myth began to take a turn. Hans Christian Andersen published his fairy tale, The Little Mermaid, in 1837 about a young mermaid who is willing to give away her life in the sea in exchange for a human soul and the love of a human prince. His story was so well loved that a bronze statue of the titular character was placed on display in his former home of Copenhagen, Denmark and is still there to this day.
After the success of Andersen’s story, mythological sea creatures–for the most part–were not as scary to people anymore. The deceptive Siren had been redefined in such a way that she was more comparable to a young heroine from a Grimm fairy tale. The only major aspect of the original inception–aside from being part fish–was that the mermaid had an enchanting voice, but unlike the old myth, she never uses it for evil. But then in 1954, Universal Studios released a new horror film that added a new face to their fraternity of monsters and brought merfolk back to terrorize audiences everywhere.
Not only was the creature (a.k.a. Gill-man) a vicious beast that would kill anyone who encroached upon his territory, but he also had an affinity for humans like the little mermaid, especially for Kay Lawrence (played by Julie Adams). But unlike previous conceptions of mermen, Gill-man was not luring anyone to their doom because of his looks. On the contrary, his appearance shocked audiences with his beastly form. Fun fact: Gill-man was played by two actors. When on land, he was played by Ben Chapman and when in the water, Ricou Browning played him.
Despite the film missing the apex of the 3-D trend of the mid-50s, the film was a great success that brought the merfolk back to their beastly roots and paved the way for more recent examples of monstrous sea people. Gill-man gave us Mer-Man from He-Man and the Masters of the Universe–for which he bears a striking resemblance–the ghoulish mermaids from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and even Disney was able to creates frightening mermaids in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.
Perhaps that’s why the merfolk myth has endured for so long; they can be whatever you want them to be. If the idea of sea people luring defenseless sailors to their deaths is too much for you, they can be endearing and beautiful creatures with a soft spot for humanity. But if you prefer a good scare, their legacy has been saved in the current public consciousness. Whether you’re a landlubber or a sea-faring swab, merfolk have the ability to enchant anyone who sees or hears them. Don’t say you weren’t warned though.