Before the Toronto After Dark’s Werewolf Night, we got to see the emergence of a myth. A myth is less a lie and more of a creation story: a narrative that tells us why things are the way they are. Folktales and urban legends are also made to explain the mysteries and dangers of the world and, sometimes, they come with rhymes and rituals in which the listeners participate. To some cultures, myths are why they have their current reality just as specific individual make their own stories to cope with, or control their environment.
In some ways, horror stories and films — and works similar to such — are extensions of myth-making and ritual. They create the monster or the danger that operates on its own laws: showing you how they can be defeated, or how they are essentially unkillable. This is definitely clear in Chad Archibald’s The Drownsman.
Serial killers can also have their own rituals. They do so in order either justify their murders or out of some kind of warped longing to possess an object. The Drownsman starts off with a story that is pretty much ending. A serial killer drowns his victims in warm water as he embraces them. However, Sebastian Donner — the aforementioned Drownsman — is deceived and drowned himself by his erstwhile victim Isabella.
So here we have the story of a serial killer which, in itself, can be something of a fictional urban myth or legend. But then Archibald does something else. He starts off the story many years after this event. A group of stereotypically depicted young girls in horror, with the feel of being a sorority, are having a party until one of them, a girl named Madison falls, hits her head, falls off a pier and nearly drowns. She begins to have visions of a twisted, green, rot and sea-weed covered man always stalking her. Eventually, she sees him even when she is awake and always in the presence of water.
So now the serial killer becomes a murderous ghost or a monster. This is no new thing. In the Q & A period after the film, Archibald even explains that movies such as Friday The 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street inspired elements of The Drownsman. I mean, you can see the myth of a ghost or a monster coming from someone that was once human in many horror films and stories. I mean, look at The Candyman. Or Bloody Mary.
But the idea of linking the figure of The Drownsman to water has two elements involved.
First, there is the fear factor. Archibald himself stated that he utilized his fear of swimming or, perhaps more accurately, drowning in tandem with the creation of a monster coming for you in the water to create the twisted, green, pale mouldering heart of The Drownsman. Aquaphobia itself is terrifying enough as a debilitating mental illness. Unfortunately, Madison’s close group of friends tend to take neither mental illness or the possibility of the supernatural seriously. It’s actually very frustrating to watch especially when you consider that most of her friends are genuinely concerned for her and their solution is to stage a fake seance and use ultimatums to get her to obey them: for her “own good” of course.
How many awful things throughout history have happened because people have wanted to do something, supposedly, for someone else’s “own good?”
I mean, this film could be horrifying for that in and of itself. You could, if you’d like, even look at it as a metaphor for mental illness and people’s attitudes towards it. Certainly, sufferers can form rituals and patterns from it. But then we have the supernatural element.
Water is a natural medium in some traditional interpretations of magical practise. It can be seen as an intermediary between worlds: between the mundane and the supernatural. Water is life. Some cultures even use it in baptisms to symbolically rebirth their members. Most of the world is made of it and we also come from it. So what happens when someone drowns people, over and again in the same place, the same bath tub, for the same reason time and again. What happens when that person is seeking essentially the origin of life — seeking to reunite himself with his mother’s heartbeat in the womb or, barring that, some other woman’s — and gets drowned in his own ritual tub?
Now consider the age-old phrase from Star Trek in which we, as humans, are described as “ugly bags of mostly water.” We evolved from it, we come from wombs, and we need a lot of it to survive because we are made of it. So what happens if a spirit made from the above process is tied by blood to someone else who has a traumatic experience: a shamanic nearly dying and crossing over (or in this case experiencing your last breath) experience? Doesn’t that give them a tie back to the world somehow? Doesn’t also prove that they can play the long-game to get what they truly want?
It’s funny how one of my gripes with this film is also something that fascinates me. Someone at the After Dark asked how Madison cleans herself if she is afraid of water for attracting The Drownsman. Yet I have two questions. First, wouldn’t someone who gets their water intravenously for a year have some serious medical issues and look a lot rougher as a result? And second: if The Drownsman can manifest through water: why can’t he simply manifest through their bodily fluids? I suppose I’m being rather pedantic at this point and maybe he needs pure uncontained water to do so: or this might have been a whole other kind of horror movie.
I also have to admit that The Drownsman going after Madison’s friends after their failed seance really didn’t surprise me. But what did surprise me was the fact that I didn’t feel the satisfaction of watching, essentially, some gaslighting shallow people die by the very thing they were mocking. There was an even a neo-pagan, Wiccan, or New Age “Fluffy Bunny” stereotype in the form of Cathryn: whose attempt at a seance and a naive overestimation of her supernatural knowledge leads to an inevitable conclusion.
A crystal on a necklace verses the grand medium of water. I mean, what did you think was going to happen?
Yes, for the most part the girls come across as stereotypical but their love and care for each other is unquestioned. And Madison’s friend Hannah, the one whose marriage Madison misses due to her phobia, actually begins to go along with Madison in her own investigation of The Drownsman’s origins. I even enjoyed watching Madison’s character (played by the actress Michelle Mylett) transform from carefree girl to traumatized victim and all the way to reluctant bad-ass.
This was an excellent beginning to a new horror mythology. The problem is: can there be any stories after this one based on how it ends? I am curious to see if anything can be done and I really admire the story that Chad Archibald and his team took the time to craft.