‘The Lighthouse’, ‘The Witch’ and the Modern Relevance of Robert Eggers’ Old-Timey, Existential Horror

Both ‘The Lighthouse’ and ‘The Witch’ derive their horror from a place of existential despair, as relevant today as in the days of yore.

Let’s face it, the old-timey days were scary as hell. Writer/Director Robert Eggers’ honed in on this idea in his first two features, 2016’s The Witch and 2019’s The Lighthouse. Both films take place in a historical setting prior to the advent of modern conveniences such as smartphones, juicers, air-conditioning and running toilets, and as such, the lives they depict are, by today’s standards, rough ones. But beyond such superficial hardships, they both examine something much darker – the emotional and spiritual vacuum that the economic and sociopolitical climate of those leaner, less progressive times created. And while centuries of modernization and “advancement” separate us from their settings and characters, Eggers’ films, in looking backward, confront us with an unsettling sense of familiarity. The times may have changed (somewhat) but the struggle for meaning and enlightenment – something to lift us out of the darkness – remains.   

The Lighthouse, a tale of two “wickies” (lighthouse keepers) trapped together on a lonely New England island tending to the titular beacon, takes place in the late 19th century, a time of early industrialization, rapid growth and a mass influx of immigration heading out of the economic depression that followed the Reconstruction era after the US Civil War. While cities and wages were growing during this time and the top one-percent were profiting off of development and mass expansion, the sharing of the wealth among the working class was more sparing. It was a time of hard graft and a great disparity among the rich and poor, which would lead to a rise in labor unions and routine workers’ strikes. This era in US history later became known as the Gilded Age, referencing a gold veneer on what was, underneath, a time of major discontent and social upheaval.

The Lighthouse (2019), A24

The wickies of Eggers’ Lighthouse, Thomas Wake and Ephraim Winslow, are used to eking out a blustery, bleak existence. Theirs are lonely, thankless lives, full of back-breaking toil and little hope of advancement. Salty old-time seaman Wake (Willem Dafoe) dreams of becoming a head light-keeper, while the more sensitive, junior-level Winslow (Robert Pattinson) dreams of one day owning a plot of land, his own tiny slice of the American pie. But their surface-level aspirations hide a deeper sense of emptiness. 

As their weeks-long contract on the island drags on, their days devolve into soul-crushing tedium. With nothing but work, screaming seagulls and the sound of each others farts to keep them company, the pressure between them begins to build. Under the watchful eye of the giant phallic symbol of the lighthouse, Wake exerts his superiority over Winslow at every turn, forcing him to do menial and laborious tasks, while the emasculated Winslow struggles to maintain some sense of autonomy and pride.

The Lighthouse (2019), A24

Booze, the occasional bit of gruff conversation or drunken song and dance offer some respite, but it’s only when each of them is alone that they find any level of spiritual escape. Wake regularly sneaks up to the lighthouse lantern-room late at night to revel in the hypnotic power of the light, worshiping it as though it were a god. Winslow isn’t allowed access to the lantern-room – another source of diminishment for him. Instead, he finds a washed-up mermaid carving near the shore, which rouses in him vivid dreams of mermaid sex and mythic sea monsters. In these mystical moments, the men find some semblance of salvation, and yet these are also the moments in which we first begin to see them unravel. There be enchantment in the light, but there be madness as well.

When a storm traps the pair on the island indefinitely, their precarious relationship and tenuous grip on reality reach a tipping point, and their deepest fears, desires and impulses are unleashed. Winslow, determined to see the light for himself, eventually makes it to the lantern-room, but in the full brightness of its light he becomes blinded -and that’s only the beginning of his downfall. In the end, Winslow’s fate is similar to that of ancient mythological figures like Icarus, who ignored his fathers instructions and flew too close to the sun, and Prometheus, who was punished for eternity by the gods for stealing fire and sharing it with humanity.

In their existential despair, the wickies of The Lighthouse attempt to find spiritual enlightenment in, well, the literal light. While their tale has universal implications, it’s explored through a decidedly masculine lens. The Witch on the other hand has a more feminine slant – an exploration of female autonomy under the oppressive hand of the puritan patriarchy.

The Witch (2016), A24

The setting for The Witch, as in The Lighthouse, is an old-timey New England, in this case, the early 17th century. It was a time and place in which Puritan settlers had found their way to the new land but were still very much bound by their deep religious beliefs and the restrictive moral code of the church, one in which women, especially, were subject to suspicion and control.

When the teenaged Thomasin’s (Anya Taylor-Joy) parents (Ralph Ineson, Katie Dickie) are banished from their colony, they set up a new life for themselves, building a small farm at an isolated edge of the woods. One day, while Thomasin is playing with her baby brother near the woods, he disappears – stolen, we soon learn, by a witch – and the family quickly turns to blaming each other for inviting evil into their lives. Soon their eldest son, Caleb, also befalls the witch of the woods. After being seduced by her, he develops a terrible fever and dies.

The Witch (2016), A24

For Thomasin’s family, their puritan faith is a source of spiritual salvation, but, like the light of the lighthouse, it’s also a source of madness. Isolated and distraught over the loss of Caleb and the baby, they fall into a nightmarish fever-dream of prayer, self-flagellation and paranoia. As things fall apart for them further, the blame eventually shifts to Thomasin – her mother accuses her of having attempted to seduce her father and Caleb and thereby bringing the troubles upon the family.

Under the strict patriarchal control of her parents, and on a larger scale, the church, Thomasin faces a fairly bleak future. And so when their goat, Black Phillip – presumably possessed by the devil – offers her an opportunity to “live deliciously,” she decides to accept the offer. The final shot of the film offers her a salvation in which she is totally free from the constraints of her parents, the church and the patriarchy. In an otherwise oppressive world, Thomasin finds freedom and enlightenment, not in the light of a lighthouse but in the dark magic and paganistic power of a coven of witches.

In both of Robert Eggers’ films, the search for meaning, enlightenment, freedom and salvation are fundamental themes explored in an old-timey setting full of existential horrors. Yet these themes still resonate today because many of the fundamental problems of yore still exist in some form. While the United States today is one of the wealthiest nations in the world, class discontentment and wealth inequality is still an issue: the middle class’ share of wealth has steadily declined since 1995, while the top one percent’s share has steadily increased. Since 1981, the top 5% of families have garnered the most rapid growth in wealth, while the wealth gap between America’s richest and poorer families more than doubled from 1989 to 2016, not to mention the further disparities brought about by the current pandemic we’re living through. And while women in the United States have fought for and made great strides towards equal rights since the days of the early Puritanical settlers, major legislative power in the U.S. has remained mostly in the hands of men, while women’s reproductive rights remain in flux or have been rolled back in some States in recent years. In other parts of the world, women’s rights are even further behind. As far as we’ve come as a society through the years, we have still further to go.

The search for meaning in our existence, meanwhile, remains a timeless human pursuit. In the darkest of times, we may search even harder. Eggers’ films beg the question: As much progress as has been made in the last few centuries, aren’t we all still, in some sense, trapped on an island looking for the light? Or lost in the woods, seeking our own level of awakening, of freedom, of magic?

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