Delving into the psychology and mythology of The Lighthouse (2019) *spoilers*

The Lighthouse is a symbol, an enigma, & a transcendental mood in which an occult phenomenon seems to occur. It almost appears to be alive, in an obscure way. The Lighthouse is a portal to a world of mythology- we don’t really get to see through it clearly, everything is merely suggested, partly fictive. We are all in limbo, drenched in the otherworldly light within the lantern room. The light is sacred. The light is obscene. The light is madness; it is forbidden arcane knowledge, leading to madness. The haunting sound of the foghorn penetrates your spirit. We’re inside the tower. As the camera makes its way upstairs, we hear the metallic clinking, the mechanical ticking and clicking of the clockwork mechanisms. We reach Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) in the lantern room. The eerie spiral-shaped lamp foreshadows the downward spiral into madness. Thomas Wake appears to be in a hallucinatory trance, enveloped by the ethereal veil of light; the atmosphere is enhanced by mystical uncanny sounds. Meanwhile, drenched in the dark, Ephraim Winslow/ Thomas Howard (Robert Pattinson) makes his way towards the sea. The sounds become increasingly alien. Seduced by the image of the sea, of the reflection of the lighthouse on the surface of the still sea, Ephraim’s silhouette treads lightly towards it, as if hyponotised. Horrified, he sees a dead body floating in the water. Getting closer and closer, he sinks and we hear the high-pitched screeching of a siren, who is ominously swimming towards him. Ephraim is woken up by water dripping on his face, in bed.

The mermaid is a sinister presence showing up briefly but memorably in supernatural & perverse images throughout the film. As the mental state of the new isolated lighthouse keeper becomes more and more unhinged, disturbing visions involving mythological apparitions haunt the protagonist. Despite his scepticism about folk tales and superstitions, supernatural elements seem to challenge his sanity. As a figurine/ an effigy, the mermaid is a sex object Ephraim masturbates to, resurrecting a mental image of the supernatural encounter. As an elusive, living presence (inhabiting the dark landscape of the psyche), the mermaid is portrayed as malicious, as a powerful, nightmarish sea creature Ephraim wants to dominate, but is also frightened by and can’t control. Ego-led and hot-tempered, Ephraim/Thomas Howard’s driving forces are power and control, and it seems the fight is mostly within himself- against his own demons. Ultimately he needs power over his mind, to no longer be plagued by mad thoughts. At times, his anger is hard to contain and all-encompassing. He has repressed emotions and traumatic memories of his dark, murderous past, as well as a high libido that is hard to fulfil, leading to aggressive testosterone-fuelled manifestations. His disturbing fantasy in a scene of self-gratification involves having sex with the mermaid (as opposed to many popular representations, this version features mermaid genitals), however, his mind can’t focus on her image, as it’s often replaced by intrusive memories of his haunting past. Associating the concept of woman with an ominous, dehumanised, screeching (albeit beautiful) sea creature hints at a slightly repressed fear of women.

Initially, what we see on screen – namely two solitary men within the bleak, foggy, turbulent coastal landscape…of toxic masculinity- seems to be found within the parameters of reality. Still, the mystery of the lantern room separates them. From the beginning, Thomas Wake, the old lighthouse keeper, is possessive when it comes to the mysterious light, protective of his role of tending the light. Ephraim expresses his wish to go to the lantern room, but Thomas Wake bosses him around, emphasising he should stick to his own duties (that he assigns to him). The young lighthouse keeper pays clandestine visits to the lighthouse at night, snooping in on Thomas Wake in the lantern room he forbids him entrance to. Ephraim hears moans, whispers, squelching, and then …frightening, inhuman, aquatic alien sounds, followed by a movement of tentacles. Whilst we are not shown what Thomas Wake sees within the light, it is implied that in his eyes, the light evokes feminine beauty. The next day, Ephraim gets murderously angry at a seagull (that Wake previously told him not to mess with as it’s a bad omen). Naturally, in a fit of anger, he butchers it. Bad luck to kill a sea bird. They are vessels for the souls of dead sailors, or so we learn.

Wake digs into Ephraim’s past to find out what led him to becoming a wickie. We find out he has been a drifter. Ephraim is slightly defensive about this, as he is about many things, saying there’s nothing wrong with starting afresh. Thomas Wake progressively reveals aspects of his own history too, but the details don’t add up; there are inconsistencies in his narrative. Similarly, in a drunken state, Ephraim Winslow discloses his real name- “Thomas. Tom. Tommy Howard” and wants to unload his guilty conscience, revealing the identity of Winslow, and how he couldn’t stand his insufferable, bossy treatment, reiterating his resentment for authority figures. During the same night, the two lighthouse keepers get drunk together, ending up singing and intimately dancing together. Thomas Howard (I will call him Tom for clarification) hugs Thomas Wake tightly as they dance, and, in a brief homoerotic moment of tension, Tom snaps out of his drunkenness, ashamed or repulsed (of his own feelings or the occurrence), forcefully pushing Wake away, starting to hit him instead. There are a few signs and suggestions in the story that Tom might repress some homosexual undertones in his thoughts during their isolation.

The power dynamics between the two lighthouse keepers are displayed through the unleashing of forces linked to mythology, acts of violence, strange alcohol-fuelled discourses, and curses. The unreliable psychological states of the characters maintain the ambiguity of the suspenseful narrative delivered through entrancing (Oscar nominated) cinematography. In some moments, Thomas Wake appears to gaslight Ephraim/Tom Howard by denying and recreating his reality. Since the identity of the old lighthouse keeper is a mystery as most of his stories turn out to be made up and the two of them have several things in common, the viewer might wonder how far Tom Howard’s delusions go, and whether the old lighthouse keeper is a figment of his imagination. If Thomas Wake is a part of Thomas Howard’s psyche, then he is a part that he has not yet integrated, hence the fights, the dance, the rejected intimacy, and the power struggle. Thomas Wake reflects Tom’s id, the unconscious energy, urges, desires: he is a bad-tempered, often openly angry alcoholic, indulging in his vices, talking about his love for women in his life before his isolation. He has access to the light, associated with forbidden acts, with the occult, and esoteric knowledge. At other times, Thomas Wake also assumes the critical role of a father figure, scolding Tom for his personality, his attitude, his work discipline, his supposed sense of entitlement. Meanwhile, Tom initially tries to refrain from drinking and is not as assertive, he embodies a more composed masculinity, but we get a sense of anger boiling under the surface, of an unexpressed rage and darkness consuming him, behind his quiet, collected persona. He also struggles with the dominant side of his sexuality, which he represses. The prospect of finding a sort of salvation and answers in the light, as well as his natural curiosity and boredom, lead to him being unsurprisingly attracted to, enchanted by, and thus often gravitating towards the mystery of the light.

After Tom confesses about Winslow, things turn even more nightmarish: the disembodied voice of Thomas Wake echoes in the house and in the lighthouse. Tom Howard sees a body collapsed on the ground. He turns the man around: it is himself. The boundary between reality and delusion becomes imperceptible. Then someone does the same gesture, Tom turns his head, and sees Thomas Wake standing above him. The next shot is a memorable cinematic tableau vivant, inspired by Sascha Schneider’s painting, Hypnosis, 1904.

Whilst Tom’s symbolic association with the mythological figure of Prometheus is more transparently implied because of his fate and his sinister, torturous death, Robert Eggers, the director and writer of the film, points out that Thomas Wake is an embodiment of Proteus, the sea god. In retrospect, this makes sense, when we think of Thomas Wake’s prophetic and protean nature in the film, his divine curses and discourses, the knowledge he is reluctant to share, and the way he goes through metamorphoses and sometimes poses and is framed and portrayed as a god in shots resembling Symbolist paintings. Tom Howard as Prometheus is punished for his transgression by being feasted upon by sea birds. Tom Howard constantly wants to reach the mystical light, he is bewitched by it. When Willem Dafoe’s character, Thomas Wake talks about the previous lighthouse keeper, he also mentions that “He notioned that St. Elmo had cast his very fire into it [the light]. Salvation, said he.” The theft of fire is the central element of the Promethean myth, which has often been culturally interpreted as going on a forbidden quest for knowledge. In an interview with Vox, Eggers also associated the lamp from the lighthouse with the Cosmic egg hatching the primordial god in ancient mythology.

Both Thomas Howard and Thomas Wake also embody many aspects that are not based on the aforementioned myths. We don’t really know Tom’s backstory, only scraps of it, based on his brief confessions, hallucinations, and fragmented, flashing images of murder from his memory. We are also not shown what the light reveals for Tom, as the camera is fixated on his reaction during his transcendental experience. The emotions that can be read in his response shift from bewilderment, to climactic delight, shock, horror, and terrifying agony. Why did his experience differ so much from Wake’s encounters with the light? Was it his unstable mind, his demons, his trauma, his guilty conscience? If Wake is a part of Tom, then the vague impressions we got of Wake’s experience of the light would reflect Tom’s expectations and hopes. Perhaps Thomas Howard is not ready to face his trauma, perhaps the design of his mind and its fragmentation is his curse, which is exacerbated rather than healed by the light. Or his hubris (defying the will of the gods and antagonising the dead soul of a sailor) and murderous acts inevitably ruined him. The wound of his corrupt spirit can’t be stitched by some sacred thread. Maybe what he sees within the light towards the end is an episode unfolding in hell. Alternatively, it could be an image of the moment of his torturous death, which ironically leads to the fulfilment of this prophecy. In addition to repeating the fate dictated by the Promethean myth, there could be an explanation anchored in his past and the layers of his mind. This ambiguity is part of the enchantment of the film, as it tends to be, when it comes to psychological horror.

The Lighthouse is thoroughly researched, incorporating mythological motifs and Jungian symbols, as well as drawing from art history, especially the Symbolist movement, as Eggers reveals, plus elements from H.P. Lovecraft’s stories and the concept described in Mircea Eliade’s essay on “Spirit, Light, and Seed” from “Occultism, Witchcraft, and Cultural Fashions”.

In “Spirit, Light, and Seed”, Mircea Eliade describes different experiences and connotations of “mystical light” in various cultures and religions. He touches upon the duality between the profane universe of the uninitiated and the transcendent and holy dimension a man can unlock access to through a sacred light-experience, a moment of inner light and personal discovery, in which he enters the realm of the Spirit.

The experience of Light radically changes the ontological condition of the subject by opening him to the world of the Spirit. In the course of human history there have been a thousand different ways of conceiving or valorising the world of the Spirit. That is evident. How could it have been otherwise? For all conceptualisation is irremediably linked with language, and consequently with culture and history. One can say that the meaning of the supernatural Light is directly conveyed to the soul of the man who experiences it-and yet this meaning can only come fully to his consciousness clothed in a preexistent ideology. Here lies the paradox: the meaning of the Light is, on the one hand, ultimately a personal discovery; and, on the other hand, each man discovers what he was spiritually and culturally prepared to discover. Yet there remains this fact which seems to us fundamental: whatever will be the subsequent ideological integration, a meeting with the Light produces a break in the subject’s existence, revealing to him or making clearer than before-the world of the Spirit, of holiness and of freedom; in brief, existence as a divine creation,[…]

Eliade also reveals the religious belief depicting a cosmic episode unfolding in primordial times when “a portion of the divine light is captured by the power of darkness”. This is another relevant connection to the symbolism and meaning behind The Lighthouse.

He [the Father of Greatness] “evokes,” that is, emanates, the Mother of Light, who, in her turn, projects a new hypostasis, the Primeval Man. Together with his five sons-who are, in fact, his own being, an armor consisting of five lights-the Primeval Man descends to the frontier; but he is conquered by Darkness, and his sons are devoured by the Demons. This defeat is the beginning of the cosmic “mixture,” but it is also the guarantee of God’s (Light’s) final triumph. For now Darkness (Matter) possesses particles of Light, and the Father of Greatness, preparing their release, prepares at the same time the definitive victory over Darkness. In a second creation, the Father “evokes” the Living Spirit, who, proceeding to the boundary of Darkness, grasps the hand of the Primeval Man and raises him to the Paradise of Light, his celestial home. Vanquishing the demonic Archons, the Living Spirit makes the skies from their skins and the earth from their flesh. He also carries out a first liberation of Light, creating the Sun, the Moon, and the Stars from those parts which had not suffered too much as a consequence of their contact with Darkness.

Finally, in order to rescue the still-captive particles of Light, the Father emanates the Third Messenger.[…] Consequently, the Third Messenger shows himself to the male Archons in the shape of a radiant, beautiful, naked virgin, while to the female Archons he appears as a nude, shining youth. […] Indeed, sexual intercourse and, especially, procreation are evil, for they prolong the captivity of light in the body of the descendant. For a Manichaean, the perfect life means an uninterrupted series of purifications, that is to say, separations of spirit (light) from matter. The redemption corresponds to the definitive separation of light from matter, in the last analysis, to the end of the world.[…]”

And finally, he writes about solar theologies and religious systems revolving around the luminous nature of the soul, around light experiences, photisms, and ritualistic hallucinations, as well as associations between spiritual and sexual communions, emphasising“the connaturality of light, spirit, and semen”.

The goal of the yage ceremony is to strengthen religious belief; indeed, the participant can see that the tribal theogony and cosmogony are true. Besides, the visions permit a personal encounter with the supernatural beings, an encounter which is interpreted in sexual terms. A native who was educated by the missionaries explains: “Taking yage is a spiritual coitus; is the spiritual communion, as the priests say.” On the other hand, it is also said that the one who takes yage “dies,”  because the return to the cosmic womb is equivalent to death. […] If everything which exists, lives, and procreates is an emanation of Sun, and if “spirituality” (intelligence, wisdom, clairvoyance, etc .) partakes of the nature of solar light, it follows that every religious act has, at the same time, a “seminal” and a “visionary” meaning. The sexual connotations of light experiences and hallucinatory visions appear to be the logical consequence of a coherent solar theology.

– “Spirit, Light, and Seed” in “Occultism, Witchcraft, and Cultural Fashions”, by Mircea Eliade: [https://monoskop.org/images/f/f1/Eliade_Mircea_Occultism_Witchcraft_and_Cultural_Fashions_1978.pdf]

Published by Diana Marin

Photography. Film. Poetry.

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