By Stephan Lee
Updated April 01, 2011 at 01:00 PM EDT
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With the interest surrounding killer mermaids in the upcoming Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, mermaids are having a bit of a pop culture moment. As far as fantasy creatures go, it’s safe to say that vampires dominated entertainment from 2008 to 2010 (although zombies also made a big impact), but looking forward, there are plenty of fishy-tailed women on the horizon in the next couple years: A live-action Little Mermaid is in the works; a spate of mermaid novels are coming out this year (even Stephenie Meyer is writing about mermaids now!); Mermaids of Hollywood, an app-turned book, will feature celebrities like Ginnifer Goodwin, Anna Faris, and the Kardashians photographed as mermaids by Mark Anderson; and rumors have popped up of a TV show based on the YouTube series The 3 Tails (errr, not sure about this one … maybe TLC could give it a season).

To understand this unusual trend on the rise, I talked to author and expert on all things mermaids Carolyn Turgeon, who released the aptly titled novel Mermaid earlier this month. Her extensive research on the subject became bigger than her novel, turning into the basis of her fascinating, comprehensive blog, I Am A Mermaid. She also plans on writing a nonfiction book about the appeal of mermaids throughout history and the current practice of “mermaiding” — which is basically putting on a tail and swimming around in oceans or local pools (more on that later). Her research has taken her everywhere from Iceland (which is apparently merman central — who knew?) to Warsaw, and she’s spoken to a sirenology expert at Wellesley and even Tim Gunn about mermaids in our culture.

So why all the fascination with mermaids? We are all plenty familiar with the Disney-fied version of the mermaid wanting to be a part of our world, but the real appeal of mermaids in fiction might be a little more adult. Turgeon speculates that our culture is in “kind of a weird time, sexually,” and interest in mermaids may reflect that. “The mermaid is this really weird, beautiful, dangerous, hybrid symbol,” says Turgeon. “On one hand, she’s incredibly sexual with her bare breasts and her long hair, singing to and enchanting sailors. But on the other hand, she’s half fish. She has no genitals, and she’s totally inaccessible because she lives at the bottom of the sea.” It’s analogous to the appeal of the Twilight series, in which Edward and Bella experience all sorts of sexual tension but can’t act on their urges, at least at first, because of the danger and unpredictability of vampires. There’s also the image of the mermaid as the romantic outcast: “Mermaids are the ultimate outsider,” Turgeon explains. That duality of danger and beauty — the mermaid as part lovely ingenue, part fanged, scaly sea-demon — makes for a lot of potential dramatic thrills.

Mermaid obsession definitely isn’t confined to the realm of fiction. While in mythology, mermaids are often portrayed as lonely, somewhat barbaric creatures, people incorporate the fantasy into their real lives because it makes them happy. You might have seen some “real-life” mermaids in The Simple Life 2, when Paris and Nicole visited Weeki Wachee Springs in Florida, where swimming, be-tailed merpeople put on a choreographed show in a giant tank. But “mermaiding” without an audience is a growing pastime and yes, a booming niche business. Hannah Fraser, a pioneering “professional mermaid,” loves the freedom she feels when she puts on her tail and does deep-sea dives alongside Great White sharks. One man in Pittsburgh’s need to mermaid (or merman?) is so great that he takes it to public pools, despite the stares he inevitably gets. There’s even an awards ceremony dedicated to the mythical creature: The first annual World Mermaid Awards — which will also act as a convention — will convene this August in a giant pool at the Mirage in Las Vegas.

And judging from mermaids’ prominence in the Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides‘ marketing campaign, it seems the creatures won’t be swimming away anytime soon in the near future. Though the film has yet to win big at the box office (which it inevitably will… this is Pirates we’re talking about), the industry is already following its lead — just see the several aforementioned mermaid-inspired projects in the works. Turgeon said her agent was shocked when her novel was optioned for film by Sony last month because there are “a ton of mermaid projects in development.” So prepare yourself, everyone: Mermaids might just become the new vampires.

What’s your take, PopWatchers? Are you on board with the influx of mermaids on screen and in books?

Pirates of the Caribbean

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