Beasts of the Deep: Sea Creatures and Popular Culture

Beasts of the Deep: Sea Creatures and Popular Culture


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Beasts of the Deep: Sea Creatures and Popular Culture offers its readers an in-depth and interdisciplinary engagement with the sea and its monstrous inhabitants; through critical readings of folklore, weird fiction, film, music, radio and digital games.

Within the text there are a multitude of convergent critical perspectives used to engage and explore fictional and real monsters of the sea in media and folklore. The collection features chapters from a variety of academic perspectives; post- modernism, psychoanalysis, industrial-organisational analysis, fandom studies, sociology and philosophy are featured. Under examination are a wide range of narratives and media forms that represent, reimagine and create the Kraken, mermaids, giant sharks, sea draugrs and even the weird creatures of H.P. Lovecraft.

Beasts of the Deep offers an expansive study of our sea-born fears and anxieties, that are crystallised in a variety of monstrous forms. Repeatedly the chapters in the collection encounter the contemporary relevance of our fears of the sea and its inhabitants – through the dehumanising media depictions of refugees in the Mediterranean to the encroaching ecological disasters of global warming, pollution and the threat of mass marine extinction.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780861967339
Publisher: John Libbey Publishing
Publication date: 01/10/2018
Pages: 200
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Dr Jon Hackett is a senior lecturer in film and screen media at St Mary's University. His research interests include film and cultural theory, film history and popular music. He is currently working on a monograph with Dr Mark Duffett of Chester University on popular music and monstrosity, to be entitled, inevitably, Scary Monsters. Dr Seán J. Harrington is a lecturer in film and screen media at St Mary's University. His research interests include Lacanian psychoanalysis, animation and popular culture. He has previously published work on animation and psychoanalytic theory and is the author of The Disney Fetish.

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"From Beneath the Waves": Sea-Draugr and the Popular Conscience

Alexander Hay

The sea looms large in human psychology, both as a source of guilt and its metaphor. As Joseph Conrad noted, the sea has never been "friendly to man" (Conrad 1907), nor has it shown generosity towards him or time for any of his professed values. Fittingly, Conrad's Pincher Martin had its protagonist undergo a purgatorial experience as he drowns in the sea, his 'survival' an extended penance where his guilt and sins are scourged (Sinclair 1982, pp.175–177).

For Coleridge's ancient mariner, meanwhile, the sea is a place of unending dread and a guilty conscience that cannot be absolved. As Miall has observed, the sea was the stage upon which Coleridge explored his own sense of guilt, haunted by the death of his father and a looming sense of some unfathomable judgement for sins committed (Miall 1984, pp.639–640).

Just as significantly, the Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1908) features walking corpses, in the form of the reanimated crewmates of the mariner, brought back to life once he admits his sins, who then steer his ship back to land. The Mariner himself is now the property of Life-in-Death, a sinister female figure that condemns him to a living death of his own, doomed to tell his story forever more. As the chapter will argue, this juxtaposition of reanimated corpses, guilt and the sea has become a recurring motif in popular culture, a means whereby guilt is confronted though not always resolved.

Walking corpses and the restless dead have, of course, been prominent in recent decades as metaphors and means of satire. As representations of mindless conformity and relentless social conflict, zombies are of course one such example. Though recently neutered in potency by over-exposure and their relegation to the rank of 'macguffin' for soap opera and sadistic, faintly right wing survival fantasies, as most notably depicted in The Walking Dead comic book and its attendant spin-off media.

Vengeful aquatic spirits are a common theme in horror films, as are tortured souls in need of salvation: in The Devil's Backbone (2001), we have a juxta-position of both, as is the case with Ringu (1998), though both involve a well as both crime scene and root of the ensuing horror, rather than the sea per se.

As this paper will discuss, however, the Sea-Draugr not only combines these but also demonstrates a recurring reckoning with guilt and its consequences. This has become more subliminal over time, to the extent that we have Sea-Draugr in function if not form, where there is no reanimated corpse per se, but there is a substitution that serves the same role. In other cases, the presence of Sea-Draugr swings towards the other direction, where these creatures are Sea-Draugr not only in function but in all but name. They have even begun to manifest themselves in our news media and press coverage, where depictions of disasters and tragedies at sea have strange parallels to the drowned dead and their role as both conscience and nemesis.

Sea-Draugr and other revenants

What, however, is a Sea-Draugr? The archetype that will now be discussed is what can be best described as the Draugr, or reanimated corpse, an invariably malignant and dangerous reanimated corpse that figures large in Scandinavian mythology. They are sentient, calculating, cannibalistic objects of fear (Chadwick June 1946a, p.50). Draugr spread diseases and grow long talons. They inhabit their barrows, often full of treasure, and violently resist any tomb robbers. Those slain by a Draugr are sometimes bound to their killer as enslaved ghosts (Jakobsson 2009, p.310). Unlike their mainland counterparts, Icelandic Draugr are free-roaming, able to roam far from their barrows and pose a threat to any human they encounter, though a certain mischievousness means they may sometimes grant a gift rather than a violent death onto their victims (Chadwick 1946a, pp.54–55). They are fearsome foes, often requiring a ritualistic means of exorcism to be fully quelled. This ranges from being decapitated with their own sword, to being wrestled into submission, to being staked through the heart, and incineration – their ashes scattered, significantly, into the sea (Andrews 1913, p.48, Keyworth 2006, p.244, Chadwick 1946a, p.55).

While primarily land-based Draugr come in another variety, however, namely that of a drowned seafarer. A particularly vivid example of this is given in Eyrbyggja saga (Morris and Magnusson 1892), where a seafarer named Thorod Scat-Catcher and his men drown in mysterious circumstances. Their ship and its catch of fish are found but with none of its crew. Yet at their burial feast the drowned crew appear dripping with water, and take up their seats. At first they are welcomed but when they continue to appear in the subsequent evenings, now joined by another group of undead, they cause the mortal men to flee in horror, and subsequently cause the outbreak of an un-named sickness.

In response to this, the living organise a Thing, or court, and proceed to pass judgement on each of the Draugr who each say, in mitigation, that they had simply remained for as long as they could, before heading off into the night. Thorod himself states, rather caustically, that since he and his men are no longer welcome, they will go somewhere else instead. The dead no longer return and the sickness passes.

Unlike typical Draugr, these drowned men are not directly malign, though their presence causes, unintentionally, much trouble for the living. Instead, they seem sympathetic and willingly depart when told to go (One doubts a normal Draugr would be so accommodating, somehow). One interpretation of this story is as a metaphor for remembrance – of lost friends and acquaintances whose ongoing memory causes distress. The only way to be rid of them is to objectify them and their memory, in this case through a legal process. By passing sentence, the Thing drives the Sea-Draugr away, but their dignified response to this, and their own (not entirely unjustified) parting words suggest this is not in itself an answer. There is a comedic quality to the scenario, but also a melancholic one. Thorod and his peers seem to say "you can't forget us, even if you try." Here the real antagonist is the urge to forget those who have passed, to trivialise bereavement through omission. Perhaps it is fitting then that one way to drive off the undead in the Icelandic sagas is to verbally abuse and scold them – the troubling memories of the dead swept away by a wilful desecration of their memory.

Another alternative to dealing with Sea-Draugr is demonstrated in Laxdæla saga (Press 1880); here one protagonist, Gudrun, loses her husband and crew to drowning. On her way to church one evening she sees her husband, resurrected, along with his crew, but refuses to speak to them. Instead she goes into church "as long as it seemed good to her", only to find that her returned husband and crew had disappeared. Prior to this, she had repelled another ghost by insulting him. Gudrun's response to the affair is to embrace Christianity even further, digging up the remains and effects of an evil wizard and eventually becoming a nun and hermit. Despite this, she "lived in such sorrow and grief" and when pressed by her son as to which of her dead husbands she loved the most, she replies, enigmatically: "to him I was worst whom I loved best." Again, the notion of guilt, loss and mourning are subsumed by a dismissal, even a purging of the dead, and immersal in faith and the rejection of a troubling pagan past. Yet, as the saga observes, even this does not grant Gudrun peace. Jakobsson (2011, p.30) refers to the actions of these undead as being in the grip of 'spectral selfishness', though this underestimates a desperate need to relieve oneself of grief and the post hoc rationalisations that requires.

Another trait of Sea-Draugr, as this paper will discuss later, is how their idea can spread, adapt and yet retain their essential meaning. This has lead to the more recent Norwegian myth of the Draug, which, as the name suggests, reflects a cross-pollination within Scandinavian cultures (Jordahl 1975, p.12). Draug, according to the Folklore of North Eastern Norway, are the reanimated remains of drowned fishermen, often headless or with heads replaced by seaweed. They are invariably omens of impending disaster, or agencies of it, and in one particular legend have been said to rise from the depths en-masse to wage war against land-dwelling ghosts or perhaps Draugs, who are closer in form and function to their traditional Icelandic equivalents. Interestingly, in this folktale, the land ghosts or Draugr prevail, having emerged from a Christian churchyard, a heavily symbolic clash between an orderly, ritualised death, in the form of a Christian burial, and the ambivalent horror of being lost at sea, and so unable to be disposed of in a decent fashion. Again, this can be read as an attempt to address deep-seated fears and anxieties. For coastal communities, losing sons, fathers, brothers and husbands at sea was an all too regular occurrence. The story ends with the caveat that the Sea-Draugr never return, which appears to be wishful thinking. After all, the story does not say they have been destroyed, but merely driven back. Mourning, guilt and lives ended before their proper resolution can be pushed aside, but they cannot be completely dismissed.

Another Draug narrative features a family pursued in a boat by another, this time piloted by a Draug. All attempts to outrun the other boat fail, and the entire family is washed away bar one child who manages to cling on until rescued (Jordahl, p.15). Interestingly, the boy later marries the family's servant girl and never goes to sea again, a poignant juxtaposition of survivor's guilt and the urge to move away from grief by avoidance and forgetfulness. The boy, let us not forget, has created a new family and a new life, but only by avoiding the source of the original trauma – the place where the Draug lurk – does he managed to elude his bereavement.

In many ways, of course, the traditional Draugr and their surrounding mythology are not that far removed from the Sea-Draugr either. The archetypical Draugr is huge, bloated and either pale or black (Keyworth 2006, p.244). In other words, they more closely resemble the distended corpses of the drowned than the withered, rotted or skeletonised contents of barrows. Perhaps this was due to the nature of death in Iceland where corpses were buried as soon as feasible, but where, like Norway, an altogether more grisly sight could be found washed up on a beach at any time.

This is not the only connection with the sea that land-based Draugr demonstrate. Many barrows and pre-Christian burial sites were either on the Icelandic coast or close by (Vesteinsson 2011, p.42). Beaches were the scenes of executions, such as hangings (Chadwick 1946b, p. 126). Even some of the means of disposing of Draugr had a maritime element, with the ashes of a slain (or rather, re-slain) Draugr being thrown into the sea as a final act of exorcism (Ellis Davidson 1968, p.38). Water was also seen as a place where valuable objects could be obtained, whether it be a mighty sword from the stomach of a fish (Andrews 1913, p. 627), or gifts awarded for saving a troll's child from drowning (Simpson 1966, p.5).

However, how did the Sea-Draugr continue its journey, or perhaps rampage, into modern popular culture? Certainly, the Icelandic aspect of the myth continued into the early modern period, with reports of Draugr being made as late as the 17th century (Keyworth 2006, p.246). The Old English poem Beowulf (Hall 1892) suggests one route. The cannibalistic monster, Grendel, resembles a Draugr in terms of his predatory behaviour, cunning and physical monstrosity. Aspects of the Sea-Draugr meanwhile, can be seen in the titular hero's diving down to the bottom of the lake to finally vanquish the monster and his mother. Similarly, the pathos and surprisingly sympathetic aspect of the mother echoes aspects of themes already discussed – of regret, mourning and pain:

"Known unto earth-folk, that still an avenger Outlived the loathed one, long since the sorrow Caused by the struggle; the mother of Grendel, Devil-shaped woman, her woe ever minded, Who was held to inhabit the horrible waters," (Hall 1892)

With both mother and son disposed of, Beowulf later dies in battle fighting against a dragon threatening his kingdom. He is buried in a barrow, perhaps significantly, overlooking the sea. Though his soul may be at rest, the poem nonetheless laments his loss:

"Thus made their mourning the men of Geatland, For their hero's passing his hearth-companions: Quoth that of all the kings of earth, Of men he was mildest and most beloved, To his kin the kindest, keenest for praise." (Ibid)

Parallels can therefore bemade between Beowulf and Sea-Draugr narratives. Nonetheless, there is one challenge to this reading; the poem may have been composed as early as the 7th Century (Clark 2009, pp.678–679), and written down in manuscript form in the 10th or early 11th Century AD (Vandersall 1972, p.10). By contrast, Iceland was only permanently settled for the first time in the late 9th Century (Byock et al 2005, p. 198), and the Icelandic sagas recorded in the 13th Century onwards (Ólason and Tómasson 2006, p.125). How, then, can it be said that Beowulf spread the idea of the Sea-Draugr? Both should instead be seen as stemming from an original myth and set of cultural motifs that were expressed in one form in Iceland and another in Old English. Indeed, it is the similarities that are most interesting here; the spread of a series of sinister maritime and personal traumas with their roots in a shared Scandinavian experience. As Kiessling (1968, p.201) has argued, Grendel's description as a Maere, or night monster, has shared roots with the Icelandic Mara, or night demon, and the Old English Mare, or latterly, Nightmare.

One other route of transmission was through Scotland. In Grettirsaga, witch fire is described as burning above the barrow of a powerful Draugr: This was a sign of a supernatural, and malign presence. In Scottish folklore, meanwhile, strange lights at sea were seen as harbingers of a death by drowning, with the lights often also signifying where a drowned body could be found floating (Maclagan 1897, p. 211). At other times, the lights not only foretold a death but were accompanied by a physical haunting:

Further, the whole family, father, mother, and several sons and daughters, respectable and reliable persons, assert that during that season, for a good while before the drowning accident, they over and over again heard rapping at the door, not one, but all of them; and when they went to the door, no one was to be seen (Maclagan, p.216).

Again, a death by drowning is accompanied by a dread and a supernatural horror that seems to represent a deeper sense of grief and foreboding. Another example of Scottish folklore echoing Sea-Draugr motifs is the folk song, 'The Wife of Usher's Well'. First collected in 1802, where the titular wife's three sons die after she had "sent them over the sea", and who return like the Sea-Draugr of Eyrbyggja saga, after she vows neither the wind nor the flood will stop until her sons return "in earthly flesh and blood." This happens one night, and the three sons appear at their mother's house. Sadly, for the Wife, this is for one night only, and her sons leave once more the following morning, departing with an apology, and some flirting with "the bonny lass" who tends their mother's fire. As in Eyrbyggja saga, the returning dead have died at sea and gather around a fire. There are, of course, differences – the sons leave reluctantly after only one night and it is plain that their mother would rather they stayed, unlike the still-living Icelanders and their gate-crashing Sea-Draugr. Nonetheless, the themes are the same – loss, guilt, heartbreak, mourning and an inability to let the dead go. Similarly, the means are similar – the dead walk, though they are not malign, and they must all be laid to rest or at least sent on despite the regrets they feel. In both examples, the process of grieving is demonstrated as neither without end nor, ultimately, relief. Themain difference is that the three sons leave on a bittersweet note, while the Sea-Draugr leave with sour humour.


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Table of Contents

Part 1: Folklore and Weird Tales
"From Beneath the Waves": Sea-Draugr and the Popular Conscience – Alexander Hay
The Depths of our Experience: Thalassophobia and the Lovecraftian Horror – Seán J. Harrington
From Depths of Terror to Depths of Wonder: The Sublime in Lovecraft's Call of Cthulhu and Cameron's The Abyss – Vivan Joseph
"Is there sound in the deep?": Representation and resonance in radio dramatisations of The Kraken Wakes – Farokh Soltani
Part 2: Depths of Desire
Beauty and the Octopus: Cephalopods as Sexualized Monsters – Marco Carbone
The Octopussy: Exploring Representations of Female Sexuality and Animality in Victor Hugo's The Toilers of the Sea (1866) and The Laughing Man (1868) – Laura Ettenfield
Transformations of Desire in The Life Aquatic (2004) – Pete Fossey
Psychedelic Deep Blues: Jimi Hendrix's, 1983 (A Merman I Should Turn to be) (1968), Tim Buckley's, Song of the Siren (1968) and Captain Beefheart's, Grow Fins (1972) – Richard Mills
Part 3: Aquatic Spaces and Practices
Fan Totems: Affective Investments in the Sea Creatures of Horror and Science Fiction – Brigid Cherry
Mermaid Spotting: the rise of mermaiding in popular culture – Maria Mellins
Journeys in Liquid Space: Representations of the Sea in Disney Theme Parks– Lee Brooks
Rivers of blood, Sea of bodies: An analysis of recent media coverage of migration and trafficking on the High Seas – Carole Murphy
Part 4: Screening Sea Creatures
Becoming the Shark and/vs. Controlling the Shark: Jaws Unleashed, the Animal Avatar, and Human-Animal Relationships – Michael Fuchs
Songs of the Sea: Sea Beasts and Maritime Folklore in Global Animation – Mark Fryers
Jurassic World's Mosasaurus as the saviour of the classic cinema blockbuster – Damian O'Byrne
Nessie Has Risen from the Grave – Ian Hunter

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