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What’s Inside Robert Eggers’ ‘The Lighthouse’

No matter what, we’re hoping for major ‘The Fog’ vibes.
The Witch
By  · Published on November 9th, 2018

There’s a moment in the first 20 minutes of The Witch where I couldn’t believe my eyes. An act so shocking, so brutal, I expected Joe D’Amato to walk out and say “Gotcha!” But despite the hallmarks of a George Eastman shocker, The Witch (or as it’s also confusedly remembered, The VVitch) was a watershed moment for the horror genre. Robert Eggers’ film, along with The Babadook and It Follows, ushered in this modern golden age of horror we’re currently in.

Prestige, elevated, whatever you want to call it, it’s changed the shape of how not just fans, but global audiences, view the genre. These films feel like a complete 180 from how fright films are stereotypically remembered, The Witch in particular with its puritanical setting and slowly built tension contrasts by explosions of genre ideas. It may remind you of reading Arthur Miller’s The Crucible in high school, but you’ve got to give Eggers credit for actually having a witch!

It’s this embracing of legitimate genre storytelling with the type of filmmaking that gets cinephiles blood pumping that make Eggers such an interesting new voice for horror. That’s why we couldn’t be more excited that Bloody Disgusting and IndieWire are reporting that his new film, The Lighthouse, which is also coming from hit factory A24, has just wrapped filming and is eying a 2019 release.

So what’s the film about? Well, that’s where the well runs dry. We can glean some juicy bits of hot goss from a recent Willem Dafoe interview with Robert Pattinson, but Eggers is purposefully not showing his hand as to the plot of his second feature. What we do know is that the film has been shot on 35mm in black and white and is set in Nova Scotia, Canada. Most intriguing though? It’s said to be a “fantasy-horror story set in the world of old seafaring myths.”

Knowing how historically accurate The Witch aimed to be, the research Eggers has done can only be imagined as exhaustive. From phantom ships to complex mirages, ghostly apparitions, and creatures from the sea, the myths of nautical life are as varied as they are haunting. And if we can discern anything from his work on The Witch, it’s that Eggers will not attempt to broadly touch on multiple myths, but rather needle into one that will thematically carry the film.

So while we may not know what myths Eggers will play with, we can make a few educated guesses as to what secrets hide within The Lighthouse.

The Sea Will Have Its Own

If I were a betting man, which I’m not, my money would be on The Lighthouse being about a shipwreck. After all, that’s what lighthouses are for. The beam is to guide ships into port and away from the rocky terrain that could capsize their vessels. But if a body did hit the water, most sailors held a strict creed: “what the sea wants, the sea will have”. So rather than trying to rescue someone overboard, they’d routinely let them drown.

There was also the added bonus that, perhaps, if there was an angry oceanic god, maybe a simple sacrifice will grant the crew safe travels. And if you factor in one of the high seas iconic myths, that of Davey Jones’ Locker, we can piece together the fabric of a narrative where perhaps a ghostly body lost at sea mysteriously makes his way to Willem Dafoe’s lighthouse, because there’s no way it’s not Willem Dafoe’s lighthouse.

Ghost Ships

With The Lighthouse set in Nova Scotia, I could see Eggers being inspired by the local legend of the Ghost Ship of Northumberland Strait. The Northumberland Strait is the body of water that separates Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia. The titular ship is said to have three or four masts that become engulfed in flames while people watch from shore. This of course has been theorized to be moonlit reflections or natural phenomena like St. Elmo’s Fire, but it’s hard to deny how beautiful and haunting that image is.

Fata Morgana and Ocean Madness

While Fata Morgana, named for the Arthurian sorceress Morgan le Fay, are complex mirages that were the truth behind many phantom ship sightings throughout the years, they initially were believed to be false land masses created by witchcraft to lure sailors to their watery graves. Spooky! If you marry this with ocean madness, or calenture, wherein sailors imagined the water to be solid land, throwing themselves overboard, we could have a film about false perceptions. Perhaps this is how Pattinson’s character comes to the lighthouse, washed ashore after a bout of calenture from a ship thought to be a Fata Morgana by Willem Dafoe.

Willem and the Sea Monsters

Now, with his first film, Eggers wasn’t afraid to really show us the heightened horror right from the start. That’s why I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility that he will treat us to a monster movie. A historically accurate monster movie, but a sea monster nonetheless. And he has plenty to choose from in seafaring lore, from the legendary Kraken to the Leviathan, or even something a little more based in fact like the sea monster reported near a lighthouse in Point Aconi Nova Scotia, or even the first sea monster encounter recorded by Irish Monk St. Brendan in the sixth century that was reportedly the size of an island.

Other sightings of monsters in the region were further verified by Sir John William Dawson, a world-renowned scientist, including one encounter that lasted for up to an hour of a creature 60 feet long with a diameter of almost three feet. But there are also sailing tales of Muckle Men, Selkies, Finn Men, Mer-folk and any of the other names for the types of humanoids that sailors claimed to have seen. As the legend goes, mortals would kidnap Selkies and take them as brides. Maybe it’s just his countenance, but I can totally see Willem Dafoe trying to get frisky with a fish person in his lighthouse, a tale that surprisingly has already been touched upon in 2017’s Cold Skin

The Lighthouse of Eilean Mor

While not fully based in age-old seafaring myths, the true account of the lighthouse in Eilean Mor, and the mysterious disappearance of its keepers feels ripped from a modern CreepyPasta story and ripe for a cinematic retelling. The locals of the surrounding islands knew of Eilean Mor to be cursed, from how an Irish monk in the seventh century was “tormented by magical beings” to stories of an ancient race of “little people” known as Lusbirdan. But on December 26th, 1900, a ship arrived to relieve the three lighthouse keepers, only to discover all of the clocks had stopped, beds were unused, the fire long dead, and the lighthouse abandoned.

While the initial investigation concluded that the men were likely washed out to sea by a wave while attempting to secure equipment, not everyone was convinced. That is until the lighthouse’s final logs were released to the public, chronicling an almost supernatural storm, deeply frightening the hardened men who prayed for their survival. Strangest of all? There were no reports of bad weather on the day the enigmatic storm reportedly raged. Even if Eggers’ movie doesn’t draw from this historical mystery, I’m sure we’ll eventually see this Dyatlov Pass-esque story get the big screen treatment.

Long Shot: It’s Secretly His Nosferatu movie

Fact: Robert Eggers is attached to a new adaptation of F. W. Murnau’s seminal vampire tale. Fact: Willem Dafoe once portrayed Max Schreck, the actor who played the titular vampire in the speculative fiction masterpiece Shadow of a Vampire. Refutable Fact: The Lighthouse is Robert Eggers’ Nosferatu trying to pull a The Woods/Blair Witch style bait and switch.

While I don’t foresee Eggers being the publicity stunt kinda guy, Nosferatu does have a connection to seafaring tales. If you remember in the silent classic, Count Orlok leaves Transylvania for Wisborg, Germany, by boat. His mere presence causes most of the ship’s crew to die, which causes a panic concerned about the plague. Of course, we know it’s not the plague, and once Orlok touches shore, the deaths continue into the town. If we marry the promise of seafaring myths in The Lighthouse to Nosferatu, perhaps Willem Dafoe’s character will have more secrets than we’re expecting.

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Jacob Trussell is a writer based in New York City. His editorial work has been featured on the BBC, NPR, Rue Morgue Magazine, Film School Rejects, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the author of 'The Binge Watcher's Guide to The Twilight Zone' (Riverdale Avenue Books). Available to host your next spooky public access show. Find him on Twitter here: @JE_TRUSSELL (He/Him)