Weeki Wachee Springs is a legendary Florida roadside attraction. The theme park features the usual enticements like water rides and animal shows, and one unusual feature — mermaid costume shows.
According to their website, since 1947 they have ignited tens of thousands of imaginations with an underwater show featuring “beautiful women dressed as mermaids with fins about their legs [swimming] in the cool, clear spring waters.”
When documentarian Ali Weinstein read a story about the place in The New York Times Magazine she was intrigued.
“They had interviewed a bunch of women who worked there and who had worked there back in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s,” she says. “The way these women spoke about their job as a mermaid fascinated me because they talked about it as though it was the most important thing they had done in their whole lives; like it was this completely transformative experience for them.
“I started thinking about what it would be like to be able to put on this alter ego, this costume, and transform physically,” Weinstein says. “I started researching mermaids from there and saw there was this subculture I had no idea about.”
That interest sparked the idea for a film, Mermaids, which took her to Weeki Wachee Springs and beyond. But the film isn’t a historical look at marine folklore or the history of the Starbucks’ logo. Stories of the underwater half-fish, half-humans luring sailors to their death have been written for centuries, but Weinstein took a humanist approach, deep diving into the lives of people living the mermaid fantasy.
“I grew up loving the water,” she says. “I was a synchronized swimmer for many years and even though I never put on a tail before I started researching this film, I immediately connected to what some of the women were saying about feeling more at peace with themselves and more beautiful underwater because I had experienced that. I definitely expected to have that kind of healing power in the stories I was going to hear but the ubiquitous of that was shocking to me.”
The 75-minute film introduces a variety of women for whom the wearing of a prosthetic tail is a cathartic act. There’s incest survivor Cookie (her husband tailors her tails) whose love of dressing as a mermaid helped her overcome feelings of worthlessness. There’s also Julz, a transgender woman who found acceptance in the mermaid community.
“I think there is something about a mermaid where she is both free and independent and powerful,” says Weistein, “which makes her an easy figure to aspire to. At the same time, in so many of the legends she is depicted as lonely or having this unrequited love or a yearning to be something different than she is. I think that duality in a mermaid is something that people connect to very easily.”
Weinstein lets the women do the talking in Mermaids, presenting slices of their lives. The thing that binds them is the inclusive and empowering nature of the mermaid world. “All tails are welcome here,” says one woman.
“I was hoping from the start that someone who walks in and watches the film might find it amusing at first,” Weinstein says, “but by the end they would feel they could really relate to these people even if they don’t share the desire to wear a tail.”