A few years ago, a group of friends and I were holidaying in Turkey and we found ourselves languidly chilling on a gulet boat, miles out from the mainland. The water had a deep, azure clarity to it, the kind you only envision within pages of travel brochures. One of my friends had been droning on about swimming with dolphins. Everyone yammers on about wanting to do that before they die. I think the best we could hope for was swimming with seahorses, but I kept that to myself in fear of being thrown off the deck.
There was a small island a mile away from where the gulet was anchored, so one of my amazingly stupid friends thought it would be a good idea to swim out and investigate the island like we were explorers discovering an uncharted part of the world. I squinted in the baking sun, looking out across at the island. A mile of deep blue. A mile swimming across a vast, dark body of water. An abyss. With no bottom that you could touch with your toes. “I’m good, thanks.” I said, hobbling across the scorching deck in bare feet to retrieve my book under the shade of the canopy. “Okay, we’ll see you in a few hours,” they said, before the amazingly stupid people dove into the sea.
“…sharks aren’t predictable. If they were, no one would ever get eaten by them.”
Now, I WANT to tell you that something horrific happened to my friends. Not because I’m callous, or that it would make a good yarn, but just for the mere fact that they were playing with the Gods Of The Sea like GI Joe figures. None of them were attacked by a great white shark. None of them reached the island and discovered a tribe of disfigured, swamp-like creatures that devoured them whole. They didn’t come across a lone sailor on a dinghy that turned out to be a psycho murderer. None of these things happened. They did get to look at seahorses, however. No, dear reader, my friends came back unscathed a few hours later and then we had some dinner. End of story.
If you had the same reaction as I did, that the boundless expanse of sea made you feel a little more than anxious, then you may be suffering from a common phobia called Thalassophobia. Although the name is long and complicated, the description is simple – it’s the persistent fear of vast, deep and often dark bodies of water. In particular, it is a person’s fear of the great unknown right below their feet. Water is the lifeblood and poison of humanity. If we go too long without it we die of dehydration…however if we consume too much we drown. There is a God, and her name is irony. She can be a cruel SOB.
So why is underwater scarier for a lot of people than say, the infinite, incomprehensible void of space? It might be because they’re both environments where one could find themselves without oxygen and without control, but maybe the truth is a little less fantastical and realistic. Maybe that irrational fear you feel in the centre of your tummy tum when looking out into the ocean can be ignited from a common situation we’ve all been in before. I mean, how many of you have been to space? I’m going to hazard a guess and say that 99.9% of people reading this haven’t. Sure, you’ve watched Alien (1979), Event Horizon (1997), Jason X (2001)– and the thought of actually launching yourself through the stratosphere in a metal cylinder with walls as thick as my skull seems as appealing as sticking your head in a bucket filled with amorous, enraged ferrets…but how many of you have been in the sea?
How many of you have a story about swimming out a little too far from what mummy and daddy said was safe, because you wanted to push yourself a little harder, and found yourself beyond that safety buoy? How many of you have ever felt the unmistakable and toe-curling sensation of having seaweed stroke your ankle when swimming? How many of you gulped down more seawater than you were expecting, and ended up feeling like your lungs were going to burst? I imagine the number is higher than having traveled to space.
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“Water is the lifeblood and poison of humanity. If we go too long without it we die of dehydration…however if we consume too much we drown.”
Audiences love to see characters in tense moments underwater, their action punctuated only by the rhythmic and eerie bubbling of scuba gear. Whilst music plays a pivotal role in most films, there’s just something electrifying about the muted silence of the ocean and a solitary human breathing underwater. It’s ethereal. It’s Cthulhu-like craziness. If you would consider ‘The Astronaut lost in space,’ type of movie to be one of the greatest cinematic subgenres, then the deep-sea diver lost at sea would closely rival it, if not eclipse it entirely. The aesthetics are basically identical. Both rely on character actors decked out in stocky exploration suits, blundering their way through Weyland-Yutani style LV-426 corridors while contending with klaxon wailing alerts from stern computer voices. Scary stuff.
The universe of the contemporary horror movie is an uncertain one in which good and evil, normality and abnormality are virtually indistinguishable. Together with the presentation of violence as a constituent of everyday life, added with the ‘boogeyman’ characteristic, creates a vibrant and unstable atmosphere. Now add in another element – the setting, which in this case is the dark unknowing depths of the sea, and you have a recipe for many films portraying the inefficacy of human action that will have audiences peeking out at the screen from the cracks of their hands covering their faces.
Jaws (1975) was by no means the first or last aquatic horror to arouse our curiosity of the deep. Our fascination with the abyss goes back to cave-man times and has traveled with us from story to story. From ancient sea monsters depicted in Moby Dick to Underwater (2020). There are many types of aquatic-based horror films. These can be broken down into three main categories – You have the monster, or ‘otherworldly’ movie type, including Sphere (1998), Leviathan (1989), The Abyss (1989), It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955), DeepStar Six (1989), She Creature (2001), The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), Deep Rising (1998), Sea Fever (2019) Dagon (2001). Then you have your ‘mutated or experimented upon shark/croc/squid’ creature features like Anaconda (1997), The Host (2006), Deep Blue Sea (1999), The Meg (2018), The Bay (2012), Lake Placid (1999), Piranha (1978), and The Rift (1990).
And then you have your lost-at-sea affairs, the ‘I’ve been isolated with the elements/creature that’s going to kill me!’ trope, which may sometimes have the title card ‘based on a true story,’ at the beginning of a film. You know, just to make the terrifying thing you’re watching on-screen even more terrifying. The Perfect Storm (2000), Dead Calm (1989), The Shallows (2016), The Reef (2010), All Is Lost (2013), The Life Of Pi (2012), Jaws (1975), 47 Meters Down (2017) Open Water (2003), to name just a few. Yep, there’s also the sub-genre of the ‘abandoned ship at sea,’ ghost story narrative, like Ghost Ship (2002), Below (2002), Virus (1999), Triangle (2009) and Death Ship (1980). The list is immeasurable. The binge-watching almost impossible within a weekend.
“Our fascination with the abyss goes back to cave-man times and has traveled with us from story to story.”
Personally, I’m a sucker for the sci-fi/horror hybrid. Underwater thrillers like Sphere, The Abyss, Leviathan and Deep Rising are my kind of jam. Bring a motley crew of blue-collar workers and put them in a pressurized situation…spending months 20,000 thousand leagues under the sea in a rickety subaquatic base and you’ve got me hook, line and sinker. Perhaps it’s the exploration of the psychology behind our fascination with unknown fathoms, exploring the mental intersections of fear and fascination with tight, claustrophobic settings that tickles my fancy with these types of films. Perhaps it’s the symbolism of submergence, and the subconscious primordial elements of the deep that draws me down into the void to witness the horrors of the strange and unfamiliar. Regardless of the bait, the underwater sub-genre movie is the kind of lean and mean escapism that gets you into its action instantly and then doesn’t release the pressure valve until the ending credits.
There’s also a survivalist element to the Underwater films that piques my interest. We’ve all asked ourselves, ‘would I survive on a desert island?’ or ‘if there was a worldwide pandemic how long could I survive with family members until I throttled one with my shoelaces?’ (The latter may be closer to the truth than we think…) Take Adrift (2018) for example. Shailene Woodley plays the real-life survivor Tami Oldham, who got caught in a hurricane and had to sail on her own towards Hawaii with a defective boat. Whelp, I know almost nothing about sailing. I only recently discovered that portside meant ‘the left-hand side of the boat.’ Oldham had little chance of rescue and needed to sail herself to safety. If I were in her shoes, I likely would have brought out a fiddle a la Titanic and started screeching My Heart Will Go On until the boat sank. Or how about The Poseidon Adventure (1972)? We’ve all had fantasies about being caught on a cruise liner that had been capsized by a Tsunami, right? Right?
Yeah, I guess I would likely share the same fate as Shelley Winters, but these are the questions these types of films conjure within the horror aficionado. We know that gravity keeps us out of the cold vacuum of space, just as buoyancy keeps us from the crushing depths of the ocean. But do we tempt those Ocean Gods? Of course we do. We do it every time we see an island a mile from where our boat has been anchored and dare ourselves to swim. Why do we do it? Because we’re alive and we want to feel it.
Any of the films mentioned above would be worth your time, if not just for deep tentacle sea monsters, but also for tension, catastrophe and award-winning character performances. I still get a tear in my eye when I watch Ed Harris trying to resuscitate Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio’s character in The Abyss. The horror associated with the Underwater type of film is usually combined with the paranoia of the deep sea, and just like my uneventful holiday on a gulet boat in Turkey, it was my imagination that prevented me from getting in the sea that day. It was my paranoia of sharks with razor-sharp teeth and tentacles from the depths and fear of the unknown that forbade me from going to that island. Will there ever be a time that I get over my thalassophobia? Probably not…but just remember kids, sharks aren’t predictable. If they were, no one would ever get eaten by them.
What scares you more? The vast nothingness you may never experience first hand, our the dark depths waiting for you just a short drive from where you are reading this now? Share your fears of the briny deep with us on Twitter, in the Nightmare on Film Street Subreddit, and on Facebook in the Horror Movie Fiend Club!