Half-human, half-fish and totally fascinating, mermaids have been the subjects of legend for millennia. But do they exist? There’s no proof of that, but there is evidence, supported by scientific theories, that increases the plausibility. On May 26, Animal Planet will rebroadcast the highly popular special “Mermaids: The Body Found,” followed by the new program “Mermaids: The New Evidence,” speculating why mermaids could be real and what they might look like. Charlie Foley, “Mermaids” creator, writer, and executive producer and senior vice president of development for Animal Planet, gave us some insights.
MNN: Why are we so fascinated by mermaids?
Charlie Foley: I suppose the human psyche is fascinated by mermaids because they're an idealized version of ourselves — the idea of a humanoid creature that lives in the ocean and can breathe underwater. Mermaids belong to a world we know and a world from which we come, but which is now alien to us; that's the world of the oceans, and so we identify with them even as they occupy a place of mystery for us.
Of course, there's also the possibility that we are fascinated by them because they are a reflection not only of our psyche but our evolutionary selves — a direction we might have gone, and a direction, if you believe the legends and our conjecture in the film, that one branch of our family tree may very well have gone.
They've been depicted in art and mythology for thousands of years. What do you think that's based on?
The most frequent explanation is that of sun-strained sailors at sea too long who mistook manatees and dugongs for mermaids. But I think you'd have had to have had a lot of grog before you could mistake a manatee for a mermaid.
Where did you get the idea for “Mermaids?”
I came up with it after writing and overseeing another film imagining the history of a mythical subject, “Dragons: A Fantasy Made Real.” But where dragons are a legend that belongs to the dim and distant past, mermaids are a myth that persists into the present day. There are still reported sightings. The myth is so prevalent and so pervasive across so many cultures around the world — almost every seafaring culture on earth has a story about them — that it made me wonder how to imagine mermaids in a way that could biologically account for their origins and continued existence. And as enduring a myth as mermaids are, I’d never seen any story account for their origin.
This is what led me to learn more about the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis — the theory that human beings had an aquatic period in our evolution and that we retain features that seem to suggest an aquatic origin. If that theory were true, and humans were once becoming marine mammals but we stopped evolving in that direction, it made me wonder: what if one group never stopped evolving in that direction? Could there be an evolutionary basis for a legendary creature? That was the starting point for the story.
Why did you take this sci-fi pseudo-documentary approach?
I wanted the story to appeal to a sense of genuine possibility, and incorporating real science and evolutionary theory and real-world scientific examples — such as animals that have made the transition from land to sea, much as we suggest mermaids did — and citing real, albeit controversial theories like the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis, grounded it. Using a straight, documentarian approach made the story more persuasive by appealing more to a sense of intellectual possibility as well as emotional possibility. I think the story works because it's possible to believe that mermaids might have an evolutionary basis; I think it works because you can believe they are real. And personally, I don't think there's any story more appealing than a legend that can be believed.
The Aquatic Ape Hypothesis is a genuine theory, albeit controversial. But aspects of it, like the wading hypothesis, which accounts for how humans began walking upright, do have supporters. The examples of other animals that have made the transition from land to sea are all genuine. There also are a number of marine animals, including (incredibly enough) new species of whales, that just have been discovered in the past decade, and so it becomes easier to believe the oceans still harbor big secrets because we're still finding them.
And we also cite real-world phenomena, such as the Bloop recordings, the U.S. government cover-up and U.S. Navy involvement in sonar testing and deadly whale beachings. These make the story more convincing, because these phenomena are altogether real. There really has been a strange sound — the Bloop recording — that was recorded in the deep ocean that never have been identified. And the Navy really has denied conducting deadly sonar tests that have resulted in mass whale die-offs only to later acknowledge that, in fact, they really were conducting and still conduct to this day deadly sonar tests that result in mass whale die-offs.
Much of what's in “Mermaids” is not informed conjecture or made-up story but fact.
So do you think mermaids exist?
I'll answer the question with an example. Cultures all over the world have legends of little people — pixies, sprites, brownies, fairies, Hobbits. A few years ago, scientists in Indonesia discovered a new species of human that lived only 12,000 years ago, which would have been contemporary with modern humans, which stood only three feet tall: Homo floresiensis, famously dubbed "Hobbits" by the team that discovered them. Fully adult human beings that were three feet tall and weighed not much more than 30 pounds. Many scientists rejected these findings at first because they just seemed too impossible to be believed, but the prevailing consensus now is that these were, indeed, a miniature species of humans. So all of a sudden, all these legends of little people, including legends from Indonesia, the very place where the Hobbits lived, take on a very different cast.
They seem to be less fanciful, perhaps, and more like cultural echoes. Some of these legends, it turns out, were in fact real.
“Mermaids: The Body Found” was highly rated and very popular when it first aired. Why do you think it captured the audience's imagination?
I think it appealed to people's intellect as well as their imagination and that the story rang true: the possibility that mermaids are more than just a myth and legend was made credible.
What can we expect in "The New Evidence"?
“Mermaids: The New Evidence” offers, as the title suggests, amazing new evidence — new and historical documentary evidence and even more incredible real-world phenomena and real-world people. Real public figures appear in “Mermaids: The New Evidence” including actual government agents, who speak to the possibility that mermaids are real, and the mayor of a coastal town in Israel that has had so many mermaid sightings, there's actually a million-dollar bounty for video evidence of one. We see footage and talk with the mayor of this real town in an interview and also showcase other persuasive evidence, both historical as well as extraordinary, recent footage. The new special includes recently acquired footage that will be shown on television for the first time ever, which is nothing less than extraordinary.
I hope and believe that the evidence we present, including historical documents, interviews with eyewitnesses and government spokespersons and new footage screened for the first time on television, will capture the imagination of viewers as much as the original film and the story of our scientists who came forward with their extraordinary findings. And I further hope people watch with a sense of wonder and with an abiding sense of possibility.