The term ‘Thalassophobia’ means ‘An intense fear of deep water

11.03.2023 0 By admin

The term ‘Thalassophobia’ means ‘An intense fear of deep water.

’ It is one of the most primal and understandable phobias — for the dark abyss has always been a birthplace of monsters.

Lurking below the waves are not only bizarre species known to science — but a vast multitude of imagined leviathans.

Something about the fathomless void floods the human mind with visions of nightmarish creatures, which have scared and fascinated us since we first gazed into the deep.

So, for this entry into the archive, we’ll dive into depths both real and imagined, and discover what terrors lurk within the heart of the sea.

“Beginning a descent… Cruising depth in roughly 40 seconds, standby.

” I’ll begin with the game Iron Lung… where you play as a convict, sealed inside a cramped submarine, exploring depths so far below the vessel’s safety limit that the only window has to be welded shut.

It’s a good starting point because despite its retro-style graphics, I believe that, short of falling into the Mariana Trench, it’s the closest you can get to experiencing the terror of the deep sea firsthand.

Iron Lung takes place in the wake of an event called “The Quiet Rapture,” in which every known star and habitable planet just… vanished, leaving behind only those who were on space stations.

And one remaining moon is now covered in what seems to be an ocean of blood — and it’s this ocean you’re diving beneath.

Very relaxing stuff.

With the window welded shut, your only way of navigating is using a primitive radar system that pings when you’re near a wall.

But soon, you start to get pings even when you’re in open water.

The sole method of checking what’s out there is using a camera that essentially works like an old polaroid — taking a few, nail-biting seconds to process the image.

At first, despite the pings on the radar, you see no monsters… but you do see other things.

Mysterious bones that defy explanation, twisting structures that almost resemble pipes — even, impossibly, what seems to be the remains of a building.

Until eventually you take a picture, and in the corner… It’s hard to convey how frightening this moment is.

Because of the delay, you know the creature might be right on top of you, but you take another picture and it’s… gone.

Like there was nothing there at all.

As you continue, despite the vastness of the sea around you, the interior of the sub comes to feel paradoxically claustrophobic, made worse by malfunctions like sudden electrical fires.

Later, the vessel starts flooding, blood rising up to your waist.

Eventually a huge object appears on the radar, and when you go to take a photo… This was about where I hit my limit, which is a testament to how expertly Iron Lung uses minimalist mechanics to simulate the terror of the crushing depths.

While its ocean of blood is of course fictional, the dread it conjures seems drawn from real encounters with the ocean depths… Frightening experiences with the ocean aren’t anything new.

Stories of sea monsters, likely inspired by fleeting encounters with abyssal marine life, have existed since our first days of seafaring.

But for much of history, many regarded the idea of life surviving in the deep as superstition.

In the 19th century, the popular ‘Abyssus Theory,’ proposed by naturalist Edward Forbes, held that no species could not exist deeper than 300 meters, or 1000 feet below the ocean’s surface.

While later studies would contradict this idea, it wasn’t until 1930 that someone attempted to dive below such depths to see for themselves.

Naturalist William Beebe, alongside Otis Barton plunged further into the abyss than any human had before in a metal tank called the Bathysphere.

And what they saw changed science forever.

Fish that flashed with bioluminescent color, see-through predators of the deep, surreal invertebrates that glided on fantastical fins.

One can only imagine what it was like for someone in the early 20th century to see the alien sights of the deep for the first time.

Especially when you consider that the men were observing the abyss in a heavily altered state of mind, as both were battered and concussed from a bumpy voyage down.

Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that not all the fish they claimed to have seen have been identified.

Beebe stated he saw a bizarre creature he named the Five-Lined Constellation Fish, and while no such species has ever been spotted again, the description bears a striking resemblance to a deep-sea comb jelly, which Beebe’s might have interpreted as a fish — unable to comprehend its true form.

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Even more incredibly, Beebe claimed that two giant dragonfish, larger than the sub itself swam by — which have also never been documented since.

It’s possible that once again Beebe saw another deep-sea species and misidentified it… or it’s possible these giants have simply eluded detection… In either case, the Bathysphere’s descent and others like it flooded the public consciousness with visions of the watery depths.

Over the next few decades, numerous leviathans rose up from the abyss and into early cinema — with movies about aquatic monsters terrorizing the land becoming exceedingly popular.

One of the most famous of these films was the 1954 adaption of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea — a movie with origins even older than the Bathysphere.

The novel it’s based on comes from 1870, and actually predicted the invention of submarines — making it foundational to all sci-fi interpretations of the deep sea.

Leading into the modern era, the vast majority of films about the ocean have continued to portray it as a hostile realm.

Nearly everything about the uncharted depths lends itself to horror — from the crushing pressure, to the low visibility, to the bizarre creatures that swim in the gloom.

The deep sea can be so alien, some works of sci-fi have imagined it as home to literal aliens.

In James Cameron’s The Abyss, humans make first contact with a group of advanced aquatic extraterrestrials who settled in Earth’s oceans long ago.

The film seems to take inspiration from “In the Abyss” by early sci-fi novelist H.


Wells — in which an explorer discovers a similar hidden society of intelligent, undersea beings.

Perhaps it should be no surprise the ocean is portrayed as a hideaway for extra-terrestrials, as many real deep-sea species seem like they’d be right at home on another planet.

Take, for example, the Barreleye Fish — an animal with translucent skin that allows it to look upwards through its own head to spot prey.

Or the Vampire Squid, a cephalopod whose underside is covered with fearsome-looking spikes to ward off predators.

The lifeforms of the depths can be so unsettling, it’s understandable that most media interprets it as a terrifying realm.

Yet a greater understanding of the oceans hasn’t just led to fearful artistic reactions.

Abzû (Ab-zoo) is a soothing video game that makes a stirring case for the beauty of the undersea realm.

Following the voyage of a diver through stunning marine environments, the gameplay involves no combat or survival mechanics.

Instead, you spend your time drifting through shoals of simulated fish, taking the flipper of a porpoise and leaping over the waves, or diving with giants of the deep.

Abzú invites you into the beating heart of the ocean, where every moment thrums with the rhythm of life.

At the same time, it is a game that politely asks you to let your mind wander, to let go of your fears and meditate on the calm vistas around you.

But even in the cheeriest, most brightly-lit renderings of the ocean, there are often moments where the dread of the vast abyss creeps in.

One major example of this appears in Beyond Blue, an underwater exploration game where you catalogue different species of marine life.

Compared to Abzú, Beyond Blue takes a less stylized but equally peaceful approach to underwater exploration.

Yet even though it’s not intended to frighten, there are parts of this game I find scarier than the entirety of certain horror titles.

There’s a moment in Beyond Blue where from the pitch-black void, a giant squid attacks your camera, before disappearing again into the unknown.

The game suggests that even in an educational context, the deep can be unintentionally unsettling.

Perhaps the ultimate example of accidental horror is Subnautica.

A series that plunges you into the alien seas of a distant planet, Subnautica and its sequel bring you face to face with so many nightmarish aquatic predators they’re often described as horror games — or at least horror adjacent.

Yet that wasn’t the intention when the game was in initial development.

Originally, Subnautica was planned to be a more relaxed cruise through an aquatic realm, but early testers kept getting frightened by the unknown depths — leading the developers to realize the potential the game had as a more intense experience.

Yet the power of Subnautica comes from more than just jumpscares.

The game will stun you with the vastness of megafaunal filter feeders, befuddle you with the bizarreness of unclassifiable oddities, bewilder you with the blurred light of bioluminescent wonders.

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Though not set on Earth, more than perhaps any game, Subnautica presents the experience of the ocean in its totality — a realm that inspires both awe and terror.

I think it’s curious, then, that despite crafting a painstakingly complex, diverse biosphere of simulated life, Subnautica is typically remembered as a game designed only to terrify.

In today’s market, Subnautica doesn’t seem like it should be able to frighten audiences.

There’s no killer chasing you, no axe wielding maniac just around the corner — threats that are much closer to us land-dwellers than something thousands of feet below the waves.

And yet the dread that Subnautica evokes can be overwhelming, all-encompassing, to the point where you forget the more peaceful parts of the ocean and vow to never dip a toe in the water again.

Even when the ocean isn’t presented as something frightening, the vast majority of humans still feel some uneasiness towards immeasurable deep.

In regions where the light dims and visibility drops off, our rational mind fades out and our animal mind checks in and gets to work frightening us — conjuring images of immense leviathans twisting just out of sight… Of course, it doesn’t help that there are leviathans in the depths.

Abyssal Gigantism is a scientific term for the tendency of deep-sea dwelling animals to grow far larger than their shallow-water relatives.

While there are some proposed explanations for this phenomenon, the inaccessibility of abyssal habitats means that there’s still much we don’t know about the giants of our own oceans.

It can make you feel like anything might be down there.

And that can cause problems.

A few years ago, an infamous Discovery Channel documentary took advantage of the ocean’s potential to conceal monsters and suggested the long extinct shark, the Megalodon, still swam in the oceans.

This concept gained so much traction in the public eye that it seemingly inspired The Meg – a movie in which a somehow-still living Megalodon attacks modern beachgoers.

While it’s easy to laugh at the fact that so many people believed a prehistoric shark still lived that a major studio made a multi-million-dollar blockbuster about it, this cultural phenomenon shows the power of the ocean’s unknowable vastness to trigger human imagination.

Yet many of us had our trust shattered years earlier, with the release of a mocumentary called Mermaids: The Body Found.

This widely aired faux documentary sets out to convince you that Mermaids are real hominids descended from aquatic apes — and for the time, it was pretty convincing: using fake cave paintings, manufactured artifacts, and even full CGI recreations to lend plausibility to the absurd concept.

The film honestly goes so far into fictional mermaid biology it almost feels like a work of Speculative Evolution.

It even folds in real-world unusual phenomena, like The Bloop, and claims they were the result of mermaids.

For those of you who don’t know, The Bloop is a strange underwater noise recorded in 2002 that was many orders of magnitude louder than even the largest whale calls.

While the sound instigated speculation of an undiscovered creature, further analysis shows it was almost certainly the result of a glacier moving.

But the speed at which these hoaxes and misunderstanding have spread shows that the skeptical part of our psyches shut down when gazing into the abyss.

It’s no accident that one of the most widely reported childhood fears is of a shark lurking in the deep end of a swimming pool.

Plausibility doesn’t matter — when it comes to deep water, anything could be waiting in the darkness.

Paradoxically, sometimes the best way to convey the power of the ocean is to reveal very little of it.

And few pieces of media make use of the unseen better than the anxiety inducing Water Womb World.

A deeply surreal pixel art game created by indie designer Yames, the game follows a religious man who believes he’s found the origin point of life deep below the waves.

The game is dark — not just thematically, but literally.

At any given moment, the vast majority of pixels on screen are pure black as you gaze out from your helmet into the unyielding vacuum of the ocean.

Much of the gameplay involves sifting through silt, where you find things that should be there like a pair of goggles… and things that definitely shouldn’t, like a human skull that’s over ten thousand years old.

The more unsettling objects you find, the more you become convinced that a big scare is coming, that any moment now something will pop out from the darkness, but nothing comes, until back at your undersea lab, you hear this… (eerie call).

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Returning to the abyss, you find the darkness is more all-encompassing than ever… and then, from the gloom, emerges this.

…The main character interprets the being as an angel, and continues to dig up increasingly disturbing artifacts, while their mind and body become increasingly diseased.

And the ending comes not long after that — for Water Womb World is a short game, only offering a tiny glimpse of a far wider realm of nightmares… which only adds to how unsettling it is.

In the same way that the ocean’s dreadful power comes from how much of it we’ve never seen, the game’s restraint makes the atmosphere of unease all the more palpable.

Another indie game that captures the ocean’s might despite never showing much of it is In Other Waters.

Although the game is focused on exploring a vast alien sea teaming with life, the entirety of the game’s environment is communicated through nothing but text and minimal icons.

In most games, you have a heads up display in the bottom corner to help you keep track of various in-game systems.

But when playing In Other Waters, the entire game is the heads-up display.

While this can take some getting used to, it’s a clever way for a smaller budget game to feel expansive.

As you play, you learn to visualize each lifeform as they’re described — picturing luminous creatures gliding through the water, armored lifeforms with tough shells, or fungal organisms that grow in endless rows.

It’s a game that embodies the enigmatic nature of the ocean — taking advantage of the human instinct to imagine what swims below opaque waters.

The ocean doesn’t need to be filled with imagined monsters to instill dread, though.

Even singular, real datapoints can be haunting.

Point Nemo, for example, is a spot in the Pacific that seems utterly uninteresting — except for the fact that it’s the place on earth furthest from any land.

Should you find yourself floating at Point Nemo, the closest people to you are the astronauts aboard the International Space Station when it passes overhead.

Yet monsters are a primal part of our relationship with the deep, and for our last stop on this plunge into the void — there’s one final leviathan we need to confront.

SCP-3000 is an entry into the famous community-driven paranormal anthology the SCP series, and is perhaps the ultimate personification of the sea monster archetype.

SCP-3000 is, in the simplest terms, a giant Eel, measuring over eight hundred and fifty kilometers, or five hundred miles in length, located somewhere in the Indian Ocean.

It also secretes a substance that causes amnesia and mental shutdown — although just seeing such a large creature could cause anyone to lose their mind.

And that’s… basically the whole concept.

Considering how complex many entries into the SCP series are, it’s noteworthy that SCP-3000 is one of the most famous — inspiring incredible fan art and animation despite its relative simplicity.

There’s something about the purity of an unfathomably vast eel that just works — made all the more intriguing by the fact that the eel isn’t aggressive, or curious.

It simply is.

To me, it’s the ultimate, oddly reassuring proof that even in the age of the internet, our innate fear and fascination with giants below the waves hasn’t left us.

In the end, perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the watery abyss still holds power over the human psyche.

The ocean is deep space in our back yard — an alien realm of alien creatures right here on Earth.

As long as a significant percentage of the deep blue remains unmapped, we will never cease to speculate on what swims beneath the waves.

Despite our rational minds telling us otherwise, in the depths where light cannot penetrate, the monsters of our oldest myths will continue to lurk — forever just out of sight.

As always, thanks for watching.

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