As kids, my brother and I used to play a game called “Creature From The Deep.” Riffing on the underwater scenes in Creature From The Black Lagoon, one of us- give or take the company of friends- would stand on a bed or a couch while the other prowled the floor (the deep) below. The game itself was simple: if the Creature dragged you down, you died, so you had to stay on the bed. Monster kids of Caribbean heritage through and through. I have to laugh at this childhood reenactment of a story so old it’s basically epigenetic in nature.
So long as people have existed, we’ve told stories of sea monsters; of encounters with denizens of the deep, real and imaginary, whose confrontation makes up the stuff of epic myth. The terror in these monsters is always that they lurk in the unseeable, unknowable below- that they are symbolic manifestations of that void- and should they reach the surface break of human consciousness, it must be with one purpose only: to drag you under and devour you.
Jaws is, of course, the primordial example of such storytelling in the contemporary. Shudder’s new docuseries, Sharksploitation, dives deep into the film’s enormous cultural and ecological impact—a direct result of the widespread terror it inspired in audiences. The project examines how and why this particular movie unleashed a half-century of disaster in human-shark relations, tanked beachside tourism for years in its wake, and transformed the shark into one of Hollywood’s classic monsters. Stripping away the cinema of it all, my guess is because the story it tells is ancient.
Jaws is an adaptation of Moby Dick, but before the shark, before Nessie, Cthulhu, and the Kraken, Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under The Sea, and The Whale, were stories about all manner of oceanic deities. They appear the world over in the form of dragons, fish, whales, serpents, and other deep-dwelling creatures of monumental size and monstrous disposition, and therefore account for many of the earliest and most ancient manifestations of The Swallowing. Without doubt, the most relevant of these to James Cameron and his 1989 ocean adventure, The Abyss, are the biblical figures of Jonah and Leviathan.
A refresher: in the Book of Jonah, the title character is commanded by God to prophesy against the “wicked” citizens of Nineveh. Unwilling to do so, Jonah flees aboard a ship in an attempt to avoid this order, but when a storm befalls the crew (God’s wrath), he is sent overboard and swallowed by an enormous whale (or fish, depending on the interpretation). The short version goes that he spent three days and three nights repenting in the belly of the beast, but relevant to a more nuanced interpretation is the pair’s brief encounter with Leviathan.
During Jonah’s time in the whale’s stomach, the whale tells him Leviathan prowls nearby and will certainly swallow them both. A manifestation of the Devil in Christianity, in Judaism, Leviathan appears as a feminine-coded sea serpent, the oceanic counterpart to Behemoth as a monster of the masculine terrestrial. Commanding the whale’s trust, Jonah instructs him to challenge Leviathan in a David and Goalith-esque confrontation. Seeing Jonah- and therefore, the whale- as protected by God, Leviathan leaves them be. It’s after this encounter with the embodiment of chaos and the End Of Times that, having repented, the whale vomits Jonah out so that he can act on God’s commandments.
The Book of Jonah is read during Yom Kippur every year because it teaches the Jewish principle of teshuvah, repentance, but repentance as a verb, an action, and one which necessitates a certain amount of self-annihilation (ego death). While there’s also plenty to say about the story’s emphasis on obedience as virtue, at its core, this ego death is the abyss to which Cameron refers.
Heralded by Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, The Abyss centers warring exes, Virgil (“Bud”) and Lindsey, the respective foreman and designer of an experimental underwater oil rig based in the Caribbean. Approached by the Navy to assist in their search for survivors after a military submarine sank nearby, the exes- plus Bud’s team and a handful of SEALs- descend together into the deep.
Virgil is a name weighted with literary implication and, of course, refers to the ancient Roman poet who composed the epic, Aeneid and was fictionalized in the Divine Comedy as Dante’s (crush and) guide through Hell and Purgatory. Much as Dante eroticizes his fictional Virgil in his very romantic depiction of ideal Roman masculinity, so too does Cameron cast Harris’ character as a masculine ideal: a respected, capable leader; the type of man that can make people feel safe thousands of feet below the ocean’s surface. Only one thing, in fact, can shake him—his ex-wife.
Reviled by everyone and repeatedly described as a “cast iron bitch,” Lindsey is rendered as a domineering, stubborn personality who alienates and charms in equal measure. Much of this aggravation derives from the fact that she’s also extraordinarily capable. In a two-and-a-half-hour film with a constantly churning plot, Lindsey consistently remains at odds with the forces of masculine dominance around her, whether that be the marriage institution and her discomfort with the role of “wife” or the dumb arrogance of a paranoid military hivemind.
As a series of underwater disasters unfold, and new threats reveal themselves, Lindsey encounters something there in the deep. Strange as other people may find her, this unknown, nonhuman entity- a “non-terrestrial intelligence”- takes an immediate liking to her, and she to it, the two reaching a mutual recognition of sorts. In this movement is an alignment between Lindsey, her femininity, and the ocean itself, coalesced around the symbol of this underwater alien entity.
Though initially as dismissive as the husband in a haunted house movie, Bud soon can’t deny the evidence before his eyes. As a result, the schism between him, Lindsey, his crew, and the surviving Navy SEALs widens with their realization that the leader- believing the NTI (Non-Terrestrial Intelligence) to be evidence of Russian malfeasance- is experiencing paranoid delusions, a common symptom of “high-pressure nervous syndrome.” Since the so-called “rescue” mission was actually a mission to recover a nuclear missile, his madness poses an apocalyptic threat against which the feuding couple must unite.
One of the things Cameron does best with The Abyss is elucidate the fact that, as human beings experience them, little difference exists between outer space and the deep ocean as environmental settings. They are places we Do Not Belong, spaces of guaranteed obliteration without extraordinary preparation, contingency, and luck. Even if storytelling makes symbols of them, materially speaking, they are the densest, darkest, most unknowable spaces. For this essential unknowability, we tend to imagine them filled with monsters. This is equally true of how we often relate to other people—also essentially unknowable, ever in flux, whose depth can be impossible to estimate. A truth both terrifying and beautiful.
Cameron complicates this tendency to project monstrosity to difference by raising the possibility that what lurks beneath is perhaps not the horror we’ve always imagined it to be. In the tradition of classic monster movies and the Gothic literature that preceded them, it’s not the NTI- alien, Russian, or otherwise- that’s the true monster of this film. That designation is reserved for those entities sick with a mouth-watering desire for dominance at the cost of obliteration.
The ocean, the subterranean, and the void have often been symbols of hell, but they also symbolize consciousness and the expansiveness of human potential. Down in the dark depths while navigating a potentially world-ending conflict, Bud and Lindsey are forced to trust, depend on, and validate each other as complex individuals in order to survive (and, y’know, prevent nuclear holocaust). Like Jonah, they must confront and embrace symbolic and actual deaths to be transformed: sacrifices they each make freely, with devotional willingness.
When the bomb falls off an oceanic ridge, Bud must sink to unfathomable, never-before-seen depths in what is essentially a suicide mission to prevent it from detonating. Only there in the dark can he fully express his love for Lindsey. The film presents this exchange as the pinnacle of human interconnectedness: a man capable of surrendering self (ego) for love of another. And what is surrender if not a willingness toward transformation?
At its core, The Abyss is a romance. Though the deep still encompasses a space of hellish struggle- the stomach of the earth- the film also understands it as a place of wonder and possibility, where love uncovers itself while safe in the dark. It locates heaven and hell, the monstrous and the divine, in the same place. As different and unknown as the alien NTI may be, it can recognize and act upon love- perhaps is love- and from that difference emerges possibility: what dwells within and beyond the limits of imagination.