I have discovered a new favorite niche genre: paranormal mockumentary. Or whatever Mermaids: The Body Found can be defined as. Because this film, aired on Animal Planet in May 2012 and The Discovery Channel three weeks later, isn’t funny per se. There is no joke, no “mock” in sight. All 90 minutes are presented as an entirely straightforward, scientifically factual documentary on how mermaids exist—having branched off from human evolution some seven million years ago—and the US Navy is engaged in a vast conspiracy to conceal this from the public so they can continue testing SONAR weapons in the ocean.
I could make this up if I tried, which is why Animal Planet and The Discovery Channel should really hire me to write and direct a similar film on dragons—which they’ve made before, in Dragons: A Fantasy Made Real, but that took the coward’s way out and admitted that dragons do not, in fact, exist today. Mermaids: The Body Found does not for a moment admit to being fiction. In fact, it over and over includes just enough factual data to leave the viewer wondering, just briefly, “could this be real?”
Because there really has been debate about the Navy testing SONAR weapons and how those may or may not have a harmful affect on marine mammals. The “aquatic ape” hypothesis has been proposed twice, independently, in 1942 and 1960. Christopher Columbus really did claim to have seen mermaids on his way to the “New World”, there really are people in Brazil who partner with dolphins to fish, and there really is a cave in Egypt, in the desert by what used to be a shore, with primitive paintings of what anthropologists think are humans swimming.
Mind you, the people in the paintings don’t have tails, as Mermaids depicts. And historians are fairly sure Columbus saw manatees—he certainly didn’t describe them as having “pale, speckled bellies, dark blue backs, and paddle-shaped tails.” There was never a mass whale beaching in Washington in April 2004, and the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis has been discredited and disproved every time it’s been suggested.
Yet the film stands in fascinating contrast to something like What We Do in the Shadows, a 2014 mockumentary in which, per the explanation provided in text at the start, “each crew member wore a crucifix and was granted protection by the subjects of the film.” Yes, that’s right: it followed vampires around in their nightly lives.
In Wellington, New Zealand.
What We Do in the Shadows has all the mock. It parodies the sort of documentary that explores subcultures by presenting a subculture that obviously does not exist. It makes fun of vampires (and werewolves, zombies, witches…) by continuously playing with the incongruity between the darkness, terror, and perhaps even erotic intrigue the audience is led to expect from legends like Dracula and Nosferatu and the mundane details of living in a flat in Wellington, NZ. They bicker over the chore roster. Viago (Taika Waititi) puts down towels before he kills people, so the blood doesn’t get everywhere. And, my favorite (SPOILERS AHEAD): the romantic intrigue does enter with the Dracula-like character of Vladislav (Jemaine Clement), who once tyrannically ruled a small chunk of Eastern Europe before he was defeated in epic battle by his arch-nemesis “the Beast.” In classic documentary style, manuscripts and artwork of the battle are shown while Vladislav narrates his tragic story.
…Only for it to later be revealed that “the Beast” is his name for his ex-girlfriend, Pauline, who refers to him as “Asshole.”
Mermaids, however, has none of that. Even one of the most potentially incongruous moments, the one and only time a live mermaid appears onscreen in the modern day (rather than in the openly CGI segments set millions of years in the past) is absolutely serious. In Shadows, the head-height, handheld camera removes a great deal of grandeur from the occasional fights—as does the fact that the vampires look anything but elegant when they take to the air or hiss at each other like angry cats. It’s amateurish and ridiculous. Whereas the brief attack of two boys by a SONAR-wounded merman, shot with a shaky cameraphone from 2004, is amateur in a way that evokes true terror, not to mention unofficialism. That is, this is what the government doesn’t want you to see. The merman, too, hisses, as it lunges sideways into the narrow frame (who knows what else could be beyond the viewer’s field of vision…) But where the vampires, grown men is costumes from the 1700s and before, seem absurd, the mermaid is fierce and animalistic.
And terrified, and hurt. It’s already been established at that point that the other beached beings—whales—were literally bleeding from their ears, and had been something like physically bombarded by subsonic SONAR. They had blunt force trauma. It’s easy to see the merman’s distress as human, too. When the vampires in Shadows are humanized, they are made petty and amusing, with chore charts and ex-girlfriends—normal problems. The mermaids, on the other hand, are humanized with emotion, such as in the segment set 1.6 million years ago, in which one sacrifices himself to distract a megalodon shark away from the rest of his migrating pod. Though the voiceover calls the group of mermaids a “pod”, as if they were dolphins, rather than something more human like “clan” or “tribe”, the emotion in the merman’s eyes is as real as CGI can make it, and the music swells with piping sorrow as he awaits the megalodon’s jaws.
Yet the narration is dehumanizing, and it is the only words spoken in these part of the film in which the story of the NOAA scientists investigating mermaids in the modern day is punctuated with the same sort of flashback one would expect to see in any documentary on some animal’s evolution. The mermaids don’t speak a recognizable language, but the narrator has the same sort of deep, serious voice that always narrates nature documentaries. And we have all seen tragic nature documentaries, with death-by-predator and soaring, tragic pipes in the soundtrack. The conceit here is simply that instead of CGIing ancient mammoths or crocodiles or whatever, the teams at Animal Planet and The Discovery Channel have simulated mermaids. With just as much factual data as they would the mammoths and crocodiles.
I want more. I’m an imaginative woman; I can go along, laughing, with the conceit that there are awkward vampires living in Wellington. I’m perfectly to accept that as reality, just for fun. But it’s even better that every varyingly-accurate “fact” cited in this article was something I actually paused Mermaids: The Body Found in order to google, because I wasn’t sure whether to believe them or not. The film was entirely scientific, no magic in sight, but that only made it easier for my logic-conditioned mind to accept that the world might really be more magical than I had thought. That’s a gift.
So yes, I’d like one on dragons next, and then fairies—I know there’s a blurry photo of them somewhere from late 19th century England or so. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen that on the internet. Then maybe unicorns? Bigfoot? The Loch Ness Monster? I’m sure those already exist, but not professionally, by people actively making things up to support the theory. Yes, it might be confusing—but what’s wrong with looking up half a dozen different scientific and historical facts in an hour and a half? I learned things! And if you can’t be bothered to hit the search bar, well, the line between fiction and reality is overrated anyway