The swimming pool is a symbol of luxury and money, of having ‘made it’ in life. The poolside location has associations of summer relaxation, parties, and fun. Storytellers regularly subvert these connotations with deliberately surprising, sometimes shocking, contexts: using the swimming pool setting to signify excess, decadence, laziness, disconnection, and moral imbalance. In The Big Lebowski (1989) a millionaire’s wife, sunning herself by the poolside, offers the protagonist sexual gratification for $25; in this dysfunctional version of the American dream things are not what they appear to be. In Harper (1966) a wealthy heiress dances on a diving board as her boyfriend enjoys the sun: they are idling their time away, oblivious to the world outside of their luxurious bubble — icons of excess, living a decadent lifestyle while the less privileged struggle to pay their bills.
There was a time when huge swimming pools were filled with glamorous women in sparkling swimsuits, smiling as they demonstrated their synchronised swimming skills to the sound of catchy music — from Busby Berkeley’s 1930s musical extravaganzas and on, the fetishisation of the swimming pool as a Modernist fantasy provided a glamorous and healthy diversion from the drudgery of reality. The swimmer-actress Esther Williams personified these water ballets, staring in numerous films, like Million Dollar Mermaid (1952).
Horror stories either dramatize threatening places, or subvert safe ones (locations we associate with innocent family fun, such as theme parks and seaside resorts). In Cat People (1942, 1982) atmospheric, low key lighting turns a familiar indoor swimming pool into an alien and frightening environment. The film noir lighting and the play of reflected light from the water onto the walls and ceiling creates an enigmatic, ethereal space. In Poltergeist (1982) a family’s suburban home is about to be completed by the addition of a backyard swimming pool, but the hole in the ground fills with rain water and the buried corpses (from the graveyard beneath the house) rise up. In Final Destination 4 (2009) a series of bizarre accidents produces a scenario where a character is trapped on the floor of the swimming pool and his entrails are sucked out of his body by the pool’s pumping system. These stories warn us that terrible things can happen, even in family-friendly environments.
The mansion, a sports car, and a swimming pool: these are visible status symbols associated with mainstream success. As a status symbol, storytellers appropriate the poolside location to comment on the superficiality of success — especially when it has been gained without merit, through dubious means, or at great emotional cost — and question if wealth brings genuine fulfilment.
In The Ice storm (1997), affluent, middle class lifestyles are exposed: the hypocrisy and double standards of 1970s America has created a moral vacuum that permeates society all the way up to Nixon’s presidency. In a material, status-obsessed culture, it is impossible to become emotionally happy or spiritually content. Everyone loses. It takes the death of a young adult within the community — a sensitive misfit on a midnight walk to an empty swimming pool — to realise their selfishness. Like a drained swimming pool on a freezing winter’s night, the boy’s existence is incongruous: he is the biblical sacrifice necessary for the community to realise itself.
The swimming pool in The Graduate (1967), is a metaphorical symbol of Benjamin Braddock’s inability to get along in the real world, he is literally out of his depth. Given a diving suit for his birthday and goaded into the water, he literally sinks like a stone to the bottom of the pool.
The millionaire industrialist, Herman Blume, in Rushmore (1986), watches his wife flirt with another man, as he throws golf balls passively aggressively into the water. Then his does a ‘bomb’ into the pool and sinks to the bottom in a foetal position. In Garden State (2004) one of the characters is unable to dive into the water, symbolising his inability to participate effectively in the real world. And, similarly, in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) Ferris Bueller’s depressed friend Cameron Frye jumps into the pool knowing he cannot swim, trusting that Ferris will save him, thus restoring his faith in humanity. Emerging from the water, reborn as an adult, Cameron is now able to stand up for himself, and confront his domineering father. In Sexy Beast (2000) the pool is symbolic of undisturbed peace, and when a huge rock crashes into Gary Doves’ swimming pool, it symbolises an unwelcome interruption — but the person responsible for this interruption ends up buried underneath the swimming pool.
The contrast between the pristine or idyllic poolside setting, against a backdrop of dirty secrets and unpleasant truths is too tempting for storytellers to resist. In Oblivion (2013) a stunning, transparent swimming pool reveals everything, which is ironic because Jack Harper, ‘Tech-49’, and his co-worker/lover are completely unaware of the truth about their predicament. The poolside party in Boogie Nights (1997) appears to be a wholesome social event, but is in fact a get together of people from the pornographic industry.
Sometimes the irony can be shocking: in Dirty Harry (1971) a woman enjoys an innocent swim in a pool (situated on an apartment block roof), but her swim is interrupted by a psychopathic killer watching her through the telescopic sights of a sniper rifle. Sunset Boulevard (1950) begins with the lifeless body of Joe Gillis floating in the water, and Joe narrating his demise. The Swimmer (1968) is a study of self-delusion, as Ned Merrill, an apparently successful advertising man ‘swims’ his way back home through a wealthy Connecticut neighbourhood: the sad truth about his situation gradually unfolds as he progresses.
Hope, and humour
The swimming pool is also celebrated as a place of hope and comedy. In The Way, Way Back (2013) a young adult works in a water resort, and befriends a man who reluctantly becomes his mentor. The film Old School (2003) satirises The Graduate (1967) when Frank darts himself in the neck and falls into the pool, sinking to the bottom (Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘The Sound of Silence’ playing in the background). In Land of the Lost (2009) the time-travelling Rick Marshall ends up drinking a hallucinogenic juice in a pool with a chimp-like alien. Because, with killer dinosaurs and giant crabs on the prowl — there’s still hope. If you’ve time-travelled into a weird and terrifying dimension, the least you can expect is the consolation of a cool dip and a refreshing cocktail.