Lisa Huberman is the author of the horror play Heart/Succor, which premiered at Fresh Blood in July 2012. Her monologue Easy Breezy Blood-Sucking was performed at Bloody Gore-geous Monologues in February 2013. -KP
The scariest movie I ever saw as a kid was The Little Mermaid.
That’s weird, right? For most people it’s something like It or Halloween or the wood-chipper scene from Fargo. Straight-up horror never really appealed to me-- I guess I’ve always liked being different.
As a plucky redhead with ambitions of being a singer, it’s not hard to see why I identified with the fiery, headstrong Ariel. Just like Ariel felt out of place in her undersea world, I felt out of place in suburban Ohio. Plus she had an irrational attachment to her collection of useless shit—a legacy that I carry on to this day, much to my dad’s chagrin.
Looking back to the film there’s lot that’s cringe-worthy. Take awkward 90s-era racism with the red-lipped “blackfish” in the “Under the Sea” sequence. Then there’s the regressive gender politics. Unlike the sensible, level-headed Belle and the cool, acerbic Jasmine of later Disney films, who keep their romantic counterparts at bay with their wits, Ariel is kind of the worst romantic role model ever. Girlfriend is so boy-crazy she puts herself and her entire marine kingdom in jeopardy for the self-centered pursuit of a dude with whom she has literally never had a conversation.
|Ariel refuses to take "He's just not that into fish," for an answer.|
Their whole conflict is meant to be metaphorical— in Ariel, we’re supposed to see the typical teenage girl struggling with her father about questions of prejudice and parental control. But for some reason, at six or seven, this image gripped me. And while the film itself never put Ariel in any real danger, Sebastian spends an entire song fleeing the knife of a French chef, and misses being devoured by Prince Eric’s manservant by a heartbeat. The idea that in another version of the story, Ariel— who I had come to know, love and-- could be captured by a fisherman and gutted and devoured like just another fish fascinated terrified, and disturbed me.
And in my idle hours, I started imagining those possibilities— poor Ariel dangling in a net, Ariel being auctioned off in the fish market, Ariel trapped in some crate in the chef’s kitchen, watching the knifes being sharpened, the smells of a marinade wafting through her nostrils. What would be going through her mind, I wondered-- how she might try to reason with her captors?
The scenes would rarely move beyond that point—I’ve never been much for blood, guts, or gore. It was the trapped feeling that interested me. That moment when the protagonist realizes she has gone too far in her ambitions, strayed from the path, and passed the point of no return. Nowadays, we’re told by our parents and self-help books that we can learn from our failings— in high school I once saw a poster that said “It’s okay to make mistakes: that’s why pencils have erasers.” We want to believe it, but we’ve been hard-wired for millennia with cautionary tales about the perils of curiosity, from the Biblical Eve biting an apple and being cast out of Eden, to Pandora opening a box and letting terror into the world, to Persephone eating the food of the dead and being condemned to spend half the year in the Underworld, to Little Red Riding Hood revealing her destination to the stranger that devours her grandmother. Towards the end of “The Little Mermaid,” King Triton takes Ariel’s place in the Faustian bargain with Ursula and our heroine is forced to watch her father transform into one the shriveled, krill-like creatures doomed to spend his life at the bottom of the sea witch’s lair because of her own impulsive actions. Prince Eric comes to her rescue in the end (again, regressive gender politics), but the threat feels real nonetheless: one false move and you’ll go too far, upset the balance of the universe, and the world— or at least your world— will never be the same.
The battle here is not so much between a physical life and death of the body, but innocence and survival. It’s the Donner party question: do you let yourself die of starvation in the wilderness or do you make a meal of your comrades’ corpses for the possibility of another day?
For most of my life these thoughts stayed mostly in my own head. In seventh grade I stopped sharing my genre stories after my parents became disturbed when they read a story I wrote called “Dream No Evil.” For my parents, the mind that created these stories didn’t square with the sweet little girl who played softball and wrote editorials in the school paper about having too much homework. Like King Triton, my parents didn’t want to think of me at such a young age being caught up in the fisherman’s net of fear and depression. So for the next decade, I burrowed these images away and reserved my messed-up fantasies to the contents of my mind, gaining occasional relief in the occasional Angela Carter short story or Buffy rerun.
I’ve enjoyed writing for La Petite as an opportunity to explore this emotional space. In last year’s “Fresh Blood” festival, I had short play that featured a new vampire contemplating her first kill as she meets cute with a hipster on the L train. Our heroine must balance her physical need for human blood with her attraction to this boy, who, in another story, in another reality, could be the Harry to her Sally, the Joel to her Clementine. In the original Hans Christian Anderson tale, the prince never does realize the mermaid is the one who saved his life on the beach, and because three days have passed, she will soon die and become sea foam. Her sisters obtain a knife from the sea witch that will allow her to turn back into a mermaid if she kills the prince. So now she has a choice: in addition to letting go of her humanity, in order to survive she must also accept the fact that a happy ending can no longer be part of her story.
Now that’s scary.