Long before Disney introduced the family-friendly Ariel, mermaids were used in fantasy fiction as a safe representation of female sexuality, apropos for even the most puritanical of societies. But in Freeform’s new series Siren, the sea-dwellers we get are much more intimidating than a Disney character, or even a siren from Greek mythology. These mermaids are fierce, terrifying predators who surface because overfishing has depleted their natural food source… and they’re hangry.
Star Eline Powell, who plays the mysterious Ryn—a woman who appears in the small coastal town of Bristol Cove and causes some trouble (spoiler alert: she’s a mermaid)—told Nerdist on a visit to the show’s Vancouver set that, in researching the role, she found a wide variety of different depictions of mermaids throughout history.
“I found this string in the Middle Ages when Christianity was rife and the woman and sex was also a red zone,” Powell said. “They painted mermaids as a way of still exploring but safely seeing the female body. But then they got this reputation of being evil because they were the ultimate temptation. They were beautiful on top but then they didn’t have lady parts.”
Star Sibongile Mlambo, who plays the mysterious Donna, dived into depictions of mermaids in mythology she found in her native Zimbabwe.
“I actually found some stuff about mermaids from Zimbabwe, which is where I’m from, which I didn’t expect to find,” Mlambo said. “Our mermaids are freshwater mermaids, they’re in lakes, and we call them ‘njuzu,’ for ‘mermen’ and ‘mermaids.'”
The mermaids in Siren have made their way to land because they want to find food. These aren’t sweet-singing creatures looking for true love—they’re terrifying predators who will lash out when they feel threatened. But mermaids throughout history have been portrayed as both chaste and as sexy temptresses who lead men to their deaths. (And they’re usually smokin’ hot, at least at first.)
On Siren, the mermaids are “scary in the way sharks are scary,” Mlambo explained. “They’re scary in the way people are scared of lions or cheetahs or something like that. We’re not scary just to be scary. There’s totally a reason behind it. We’re predators and so we would be scary to everyone else because if we’re at the top of the food chain, we will scare you. It’s more of just a natural means to survive. We need to hunt and if you happen to be what we hunt, you will be scared of us. That’s just the way it is.”
Ian Verdun, who plays deep sea fisherman Xander, told Nerdist that the series represents both the mermaids and its many women characters as empowered and strong, which naturally frightens people who don’t feel empowered—men and women alike.
“That can be very terrifying to disempowered people and that can be threatening,” Verdun said. “So to say, ‘Oh, this is scary, this is fear,’ these mermaids, these creatures, these women, are just powerful creatures living within their nature. And whether that’s about their sexuality or all these other mystical things, they are in and of themselves acting within their nature and they’re powerful, so it’s scary.”
The mermaids in Siren aren’t necessarily sexy sirens leading men to their deaths, but they do have an alluring nature to them that fascinates marine biologist Ben (Alex Roe), in particular. Since he’s a scientist, he’ll try to use science to explain the existence of these creatures that he thought only existed in folklore (and popular culture).
“We’re creating a sense of where lore meets the possibility of reality,” Verdun said. “So what are the things that were myth, and—we live in a grounded, real world—what are the things that a mermaid would actually probably be if they did evolve in the ocean?”
Roe added, “As far as why these creatures exist, how they exist, is something that he looks to science for and I think that’s what the show looks to science to try and figure out how these things could exist.”
He joked, “If 95 percent of the oceans are unexplored… chances are mermaids exist. We’ve got real mermaids acting in this show!”
Siren premieres Thursday, March 29 at 8 pm on Freeform. Will you be checking out the series? Let us know!