The Lighthouse and the male fantasy of the mermaid

Mermaids are man’s horror of rejection made manifest: teasing and forever out of reach.

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 lighthouse-keepers Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) and Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) as the former embarks on a four-week stint assisting the latter 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 …read more

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