What do you get when you mix a former Spider-Man villain with the latest, greatest iteration of Batman?
No, not the Marvel and DC comics mash-up we’ve all been secretly waiting for. What you get is The Lighthouse, a new black-and-white horror movie starring Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson. The movie follows Dafoe and Pattinson as two lighthouse keepers, Thomas Wake and Ephraim Winslow, stationed on a remote New England island in the 1890’s, left with nothing but each other and their thoughts, secrets, and beards to occupy them as they inevitably descend into madness (and probably longer beards). But where did the idea for this wild seaside tale come from? Is The Lighthouse based on a true story? Well, yes and no. And, spoiler alert, the fact that it’s even a little bit “yes” should disturb you. This movie gets wild.
As he's explained in a few interviews, director Robert Eggers was inspired by a real incident that took place at the Smalls Lighthouse in Pembrokeshire, Wales, in 1801. Eggers told Vox that the story was more inspo than source material, though.
"The way the story is told and ends is like a folk tale, so how much truth there is to this 'true' story, who knows," he said. "Very little of that story aside from the fact they’re both named Thomas came into The Lighthouse, but the idea that they were both named Thomas struck a chord. I was like, 'Okay, this is a movie about identity, and can devolve into some weird, obscure places.'"
Still, it's worth looking into the story that started it all, in which two men named Thomas Griffith and Thomas Howell were charged with tending to the lighthouse, a job that required keeping the lamps lit to guide ships. (I would say that it was the nineteenth century version of TomTom, but then I think I’d have to hang up my comedy hat forever.)
Because nothing is ever easy, the two men reportedly disliked each other, and had a reputation for constantly arguing. So, when Griffith succumbed to an unfortunate illness and died just a few weeks after the pair arrived at the lighthouse, Howell had a choice to make. Fearing he would be accused of good old fashioned murder of his now-dead nemesis if he simply threw the body out to see, he spent weeks with the decaying corpse until he decided the best course action: building a makeshift coffin, which he tied to the railings just outside one of the lighthouse windows. If you’re thinking this already sounds like the plot to a new season of American Horror Story, well, you’re not wrong. Except for the whole “being set in Wales” thing. So, Welsh Horror Story? Ryan Murphy, call me.
Here’s where it gets worse (because yes, in a tale of a man’s isolation surrounded by sea and a slowly-decaying body, things can always get worse): The weather took a turn for the worse, and during a particularly strong period of gale winds and waves, Griffith’s coffin was destroyed, leaving the body tied to the railing on full display, the wind moving it so that it looked like might have been waving.
Howell put up a distress signal (read: a nondescript flag that couldn’t quite articulate just how dire his situation was), but the bad weather continued for four months, during which time no ships or crews could get close enough to the island to provide relief. And, when any ships did get near enough to attempt to assess the situation, they simply saw a silent (read: EXTREMELY, EXTREMELY DEAD) figure, seemingly peacefully waving to the crew from the railings. If something were really wrong, he wouldn’t just be out there waving, right? So, off they went, leaving Howell alone with the friendliest dead body you ever did see. Are you screaming? Because I am.
If you’re wondering, the two Thomases were eventually rescued from the island, both obviously worse off than they had been when they arrived.
So, The Lighthouse doesn't recount this story exactly. Doing so would be a waste of Pattinson’s patented brooding abilities and Dafoe’s glorious beard (really, I can’t stress enough how lush of a beard we’re dealing with here) to kill one of them off right away. Rather, Eggers used this tale as a jumping-off point for what has been billed as a hypnotic and hallucinatory (my two favorite h’s!) tale.
The Lighthouse is in theaters October 18.