Updated: Jan 5
SPOILERS AHEAD FOR THE LIGHTHOUSE (2019)
As the COVID-19 pandemic and instances of self-quarantine drag on towards the end of the year, people continue to spend more time than ever watching movies and television. Strangely enough, one film from last year, The Lighthouse (Eggers, 2019), has a few eerie parallels with the way extended quarantines affect people. The film is about two men who maintain a lighthouse off the coast of New England. The two are only supposed to work for four weeks, but that changes when a storm traps them on the island. As food supplies and patience dwindle, Tom Howard (Robert Pattinson), an employee of Tom Wakes (Willem Dafoe), begin to descend into insanity. The psychological horror film that received praise for its cinematography, performances, and themes has been deeply analyzed by critics. Through my own analysis while recently viewing the film during a quarantine movie night, I couldn’t help but notice several eerie connections between the actions of the characters in the film and the way people were reacting to the current pandemic in the real world.
Robert Pattinson’s Tom Howard could be seen as a representation of what we know as the essential worker. He gets up early in the morning, and his work consists of tedious and frustrating menial labor. In fact, throughout the majority of their time on the island, Howard is shown doing essentially all the work there is to be done on the island, while Wakes sits around and sleeps by day and watches the lighthouse by night. He spends every day of the film getting up early in the morning to shovel coal, keep furnaces lit, fix things around the island, and catch food for the two of them to eat. The film uses the shot composition to show how tedious and hard it is to lug the wheel barrel around. Wakes’ reasoning for making Howard do most of the work is solely based upon seniority, as he is a Lighthouse “veteran”. Though Wakes cooks dinner before heading to the lighthouse, one of the few tasks he performs and is very defensive of, he leaves all the menial labor to Howard. Wakes also keeps a log of Howard’s work, intended to be shown to his other employees when the shift change comes after four weeks. What Howard does not know is that Wakes feels he is doing a terrible job and lists that he is lazy, does poor work, and is frequently drunk on duty. In addition, he locks the book away so Howard cannot see it, bars the employee from spending a night in the lighthouse, and never pitches in with the day-to-day labor on the island.
The main thing to note is: the lighthouse would not function without Howard’s hard work. In fact, even when their boat is overdue and the pair finds themselves stranded on the island for an extended period of time, Howard continues to take on essentially all the physical labor. Though it is often easy to side with Howard within this dynamic as he is subjected to the worst of the island, there are certain moments that also serve to create a sense of skepticism behind the true nature of the relationship between the men. For example, while painting the lighthouse one day, despite Howard reassuring he is sober and steady, he proves Wakes suspicions by drunkenly falling over on the job.
During the pandemic, there was a call for essential workers to remain in the workforce while businesses were closing up and other workers were sent home. Essential workers had to work tirelessly to keep the world operational as others deemed non-essential were left to collect unemployment or wait patiently hoping to return to work at an unspecified time. In comparison, Howard too works tirelessly as his labor is deemed essential, while an older Wakes lounges day after day. Clearly a similar parallel can be drawn between Wakes and the non-essential workers who were either laid off or working remotely in quarantine. The difference, however, is that Wakes’ truancy is by choice instead of by circumstance.
Discrepancy in Beliefs
Wakes is also noticeably staunch in his beliefs. While the man has older codes he follows strictly, such as praying before eating, the main beliefs to note is belief to never harm a seabird. According to Wakes, if you harm a seabird, misfortune will follow you and all who surround you. Though these beliefs can be easily dismissed as folklore early in the film, they do come back to haunt the two characters as the film progresses. In fact, once Howard kills a one-eyed gull that had been harassing him, things begin to go awry on the island.
In order to protect themselves from COVID-19 many people have been making sure to wash their hands constantly, wear masks, and socially distance. Some people go further and use sanitizer and gloves. Others take even further measures, completely isolating or sanitizing everything that enters their home, including themselves. It is easy to see the discrepancy of beliefs regarding this pandemic, as some view measures taken by others as too far, and vice-versa. This could be compared to Howard not believing in a lot of Wakes’ superstitions in the film. In the end, however, people that disregard the warnings and refuse to use any protection run a serious risk of getting infected with COVID-19. In a similar manner, Howard still kills the gull despite all warnings, and sets off a domino effect of unfortunate events eventually driving him mad presumably as a result.
After a series of events, their drinking water and food become spoiled. The men become increasingly dependent on alcohol to the point where Howard begins making a homebrew out of turpentine and honey after they run out of regular alcohol. This brew is even worse for them. Many people joke that they will end their quarantine and return to work either as very fit or very fat when the pandemic ends. Some people stop caring about their health altogether and look to indulge in sweets, fatty food, or alcohol in times of distress. This just ends up having an even deeper negative effect on them and makes their mental health deteriorate along with their physical health. These bad habits run the risks of just getting worse the more they are indulged. Howard claims that he doesn’t like alcohol and is repulsed by it early on in the film, yet he grows dependent on it. So much so that he brings a bottle with him while doing his rounds on a rainy day. Wakes also claims in his report that Howard was drunk while working. Those that exit quarantine with bad habits like drinking and overeating could find getting back into their jobs even more difficult than they thought.
Sexual Desires & A Turn to Fantasy
Throughout the film Howard has visions of a siren (a mermaid-like creature). He has sexual fantasies of her and pleasures himself to a small statue of a mermaid he finds inside his bunk. His sexual desires go further and it seems as though he begins to desire Wakes. This can be seen when it seems like he tries to kiss Wakes as they slow dance, when Howard mistakes Wakes for the siren while strangling him, and when he eventually goes mad and leads Wakes by a leash while calling him “dog”. With people spending so much time viewing internet pornography and not being able to pursue relationships it could lead to similar frustration in people’s lives. This is not to mention the countless hours people are spending in their homes binging series and movies on Netflix and other streaming services, spending time on the internet, or playing video games. Studies commonly say that sitting in front of a screen affects your ability to fall asleep and can result in inconsistent sleep schedules.
Fear of Unemployment
Despite having no idea when the next boat will arrive to pick them up, the moment that finally sends Howard over the edge is when he reads the ledger and discovers that he is going to be sacked with no pay. Before businesses began to reopen, people were forced out of work and had to rely on unemployment checks to get by. Some might find these checks comforting but more often than not, the idea of having to go without pay or having to rely on unemployment doesn’t sit well with others. This is amplified when essential workers are desperate to keep their jobs. Getting work during the quarantine is already difficult, but if someone was fired during the pandemic due to supposed bad work ethic, it could ruin their chances of getting hired again. The film leaves it up to interpretation whether or not Howard was actually a poor worker or if Wakes was just gaslighting him (Wakes claims that Howard attacks him much to Howard’s denial). Regardless, Howard already had to assume a new identity in order to get this job, so being threatened with losing his new chance at work eventually drives him to attempt to murder Wakes.
Stay Away From The Light
Since the beginning of the film, Howard has very desperately wanted to visit the lighthouse. At the end of the film, he finally gets his wish. Having suffered for weeks of hard labor and seemingly stranded on the island with no word on a shift change to come rescue them, Howard has only fallen deeper and deeper into madness. Despite weeks and weeks of isolation, Wakes stands firm in his belief that Howard should not enter the top of the lighthouse. Howard’s solution: kill Wakes so that he can freely enter the lighthouse. In response, Wakes again refuses to let him go up and attacks him with an axe. When Howard does overcome Wakes and finally reaches the top of the lighthouse, he screams at the sight of the light and falls to the bottom of the staircase. From here, the final shot of the film shows a severely injured Howard getting pecked at by seagulls. It is seemingly unclear if the fall from the lighthouse actually kills him or not, but regardless, the gulls peck away at his flesh, causing him to lose an eye (a direct callback to the one-eyed gull he killed earlier in the film). Interestingly enough, seagulls are a common symbol for bad luck. In real life, however, a comparison can be made to COVID-19. For people with COVID-19, though many survive, damage is often done to their bodies and lingers in unorthodox ways for long periods of time.
All in all, this also raises a major question about Wakes: was he really as unpleasant as Howard perceived him? While he did subject Howard to exhausting essential work, he also cautioned him against harming a seagull which ended up bringing upon some eerily "coincidental" bad luck. Plus, it’s mysteriously ironic that the one thing Wakes never allowed Howard to do (enter the top of the lighthouse) is what ends up sending him falling to his death. This coupled with Howard’s madness can lead one to compare Howard could to an essential worker who frustrated with quarantine and did not follow CDC guidelines. Whereas Wakes could represent health officials who prevented the public from engaging in certain activities for their own safety. This all ties back to many instances this year of people who have preemptively broken the quarantine for large social gatherings and holidays. These large events have presumably led to further spikes in COVID-19 cases (as spikes often occur two weeks after reopening). Every time there is talk of reopening there is worry of more cases appearing. When people aren’t careful or rush in and do what they want they, they are seemingly allowing the disease to continue and presumably putting others at risk.
The Lighthouse: A Final Comparison
The Lighthouse scarily captures the moody and depressing atmosphere that has surrounded the world throughout 2020. The film shows that people often need to be social if they want to survive. Howard was already an antisocial person before the job on the island, but his strained relationship with Wakes and his troubled past finally drove him over the edge. His hard labor goes unnoticed and unappreciated, and the heeds from Wakes of a threat that he doesn’t much believe in eventually causes his downfall. His indulgences worsen throughout the course of the film, and eventually contribute to his madness. This is not to say that the film is trying to say that people will go insane when alone, just that, in the worst case scenario, isolation can heavily affect a human-being. The Lighthouse was not made to be about what could happen to people in quarantine due to a pandemic, but with hindsight, it is easy to read that it could be.
Written by Jake O. Fenniman
Edited by Jake Zall & Nick Mandala