The Lighthouse: New England Dread Meets Greek Myth

One of the very first shots in The Lighthouse, the new horror movie directed by Robert Eggers (The Witch), reveals a theme of the entire film. We’re in the 1890s somewhere off the coast of New England and a lighthouse keeper (played by Robert Pattinson) is dropped off on a jagged rock to take his post. He watches the ship that he was just on recede into the distance. Then, the ship gently vanishes like a ghost. Or did it just fade into the distance?

This uncertainty about what is real and what is not is the theme of The Lighthouse. The film could be a tale of a man slowly going crazy, or it could be an old New England nautical folk tale about the inscrutability and danger of the sea, or it could be a clever story that brings together a god and a man from ancient Greek mythology. Not being completely clear on the answer is part of the intrigue of the film, which is the work of a young director who over two movies has tapped into what one critic calls “New England dread.” A New Hampshire native, Eggers is fascinated with the history of New England, particularly the supernatural history. His first feature The Witch, set in 1630, features period language and was called “perhaps the most painstakingly realized film ever made about colonial Massachusetts, with all the austerity, religious hysteria, and demon goats that implies.” “New England is where the European white Protestant culture has been around for the longest,” Eggers recently said. “I grew up in a clapboard house in the middle of the woods, and my grandpa lived in a house from the 1740s. You’re around creepy stone walls, it’s just–it’s everywhere. I mean, Paul Revere’s house looks pretty creepy.”

This cold, haunting Northeastern aesthetic saturates the film. Two men, Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) and Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe), have a four-week assignment at a lighthouse on a small island off the coast of New England. Thomas is a briny tyrant right out of Moby Dick who occupies Ephraim’s days with endless chores, all the while preventing the younger man from access to a close-up view of the heavenly glow at the top of the lighthouse. The previous assistant, Thomas explains, went mad because he “saw some enchantment in the light.” This film earns the appellation of horror because of its portrayal of a slow descent into madness. The fading ship at the opening was just the beginning, as Ephraim soon begins to second-guess his sanity because he is seeing things, including a mermaid who emits a siren wail that Ephraim finds both irresistible and terrifying.

This is only Eggers’ second feature, but the director shows masterful control here. Every creak in the lighthouse itself sounds authentic, and the sweeping rain sounds are so punishing they threaten to spill into the theater. The actors are shot in tight, claustrophobic places. Sound designer Damian Volpe deserves an Oscar for his work, especially for the jarring foghorn noise that shakes Ephraim throughout the film. Actors Dafoe and Pattinson are both excellent.

A key to discovering what is going on in The Lighthouse comes from researching the screenwriters, Eggers and his brother Max. They based the dialogue in the film on passages out of Herman Melville, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Robert Louis Stevenson, and writings by the New England novelist and poet Sarah Orne Jewett. Thomas seems to relish this farrago of New England writers and primary sourced journals from workers at the time. Barking his words behind a wet and bushy beard (for example: “Damn ye! Then let two strike ye dead, Winslow! Hark!”), Dafoe’s character is a force of nature here, and his performance could be considered over-the-top until the viewer realizes that he may indeed be playing a god. (Spoilers ahead, so stop reading if you want to see the film fresh).

While there are elements of New England sea folklore in The Lighthouse, there is also classic mythology. The real giveaway comes from a recent interview with Eggers. The director revealed that he is telling a version of the Greek myths of Prometheus and Proteus, putting the two characters in the same story.“[W]e realized, ‘Well, Prometheus and Proteus never hung out in any Greek myths before, but that seems to be what is kind of happening here,’ and Prometheus might be taking on some characteristics that he hasn’t in the past,” Eggers said. “But you know what? The classical authors did that all the time.”

In Greek mythology Proteus was a sea god, a knowledge-keeper who could change shape and foretell the future. Prometheus is known for stealing fire from the gods, an act he was punished for by Zeus. Prometheus was chained to a rock where an eagle would arrive every day to pick out the Titan’s organs. The Lighthouse echoes this theme, with Thomas as Proteus and Ephraim as Prometheus. Ephraim is determined to ascend to the top of the lighthouse and acquire what has been hidden from him. The fact that what the light contains is never revealed allows for different meanings; it could be love or beauty or sex (Thomas refers to the light as “she”), or a form of supernatural knowledge that is too dangerous for a mortal to possess. Eggers has explained that the film’s final image was partially inspired by Jean Delville, a Belgian symbolist painter whose “Prometheus” portrays the Titan’s theft.

Understood as a face-off between Proteus and Prometheus, the elements of the film start to make sense. In the beginning of the film Ephraim refuses alcohol, deliberately pouring out an offered drink from Thomas. If he is there to steal fire, he wants to keep his wits about him. When Ephraim suddenly and briefly sees Thomas as a different, younger man, or Ephraim has a nightmare in which he is being smothered in the tentacles of a sea monsters, they would seem to be manifestations of the sea-god, who is described in classic accounts as a protean shape-shifter. At one point, Ephraim tries to pry a key from Thomas while the later naps, lining up with a description of Proteus in the Encyclopedia Britannica: “Proteus knew all things—past, present, and future—but disliked divulging what he knew. Those who wished to consult him had first to surprise and bind him during his noonday slumber. Even when caught he would try to escape by assuming all sorts of shapes.”

With this explanation, the film clicks into place. Thomas is Proteus and Ephraim is Prometheus, and they meet in a classic, windswept New England lighthouse. As the days drag on, the expected replacements are blocked by a violent storm. Ephraim’s obsessiveness for the top of the lighthouse continues to grow, finally becoming manic and dangerous. Those familiar with Greek mythology can probably guess what happens. The Lighthouse is a unique and engaging film by one of America’s best young directors.