A new horror movie, ‘The Lighthouse’ will be released this week. It’s from the mind of Robert Eggers, a kindred spirit of any horror nerd. Eggers directed a play based on ‘Nosferatu’ in his high school days, has gone on to work on several horror short films, and erupted as a leader in modern horror through 2015’s ‘The VVitch’.
Eggers’ work on ‘The VVitch’ shows that he fully appreciates how setting and atmosphere influence a horror experience. That film, set in the dark unexplored wilderness (Remember! Fuck the Woods!) is a story of deprivation, isolation, the unknown, and the risks brought by the comfort of human relationships.
Thus the use of a lighthouse, a place imbued with similar themes and eeriness, makes this horror nerd very excited for this upcoming feature. The reviews have rated high so far, so likely ‘The Lighthouse’ will prove another stepping stone as Eggers’ rises within the current horror movie renaissance. Also: apparently Robert Pattinson punches an octopus in it.
Lighthouses have popped up in several horror movies over the years. Sometimes they only pop up during location shots (‘Needful Things’, ‘Thinner’, ‘Pete’s Dragon’*) or for short scenes like in ‘The Fog.’ In films like ‘Shutter Island’ or ‘Annihilation,’ lighthouses are chosen as climax scenes, symbols of hope for the protagonist to find answers.
Some movies have centered entire horror plots on mysterious or ghostly happenings at lighthouses. But: Eggers’ upcoming film is likely to become the most notable lighthouse-centered horror movie.
*Oh it counts. Have you seen that thing?
So in honor of that, let’s dive into exactly what it is about lighthouses that makes them a good setting for a scary movie.
Lighthouses are Built on Death
Lighthouses are often said to be haunted. They certainly capture the darker side of one’s imagination—what would life be like in such isolated places? What kind of people would choose to live there? Lighthouses also share traits with hospitals (also frequently said to be haunted). Many lighthouses are now abandoned and empty, as are old hospitals, asylums, and sanitariums. But like medical facilities and battlefields, lighthouses are also intrinsically connected to death.
Lighthouses exist where they exist to prevent horrific shipwrecks. That means a bunch of horrific shipwrecks have already occurred in the area. Even with a light in place, harsh conditions might prevent the lighthouse from saving ships from danger. Or, a lighthouse might be built in the ass-wrong place and cause shipwrecks directly.
Because of where it might be built, the cost of building a lighthouse could be the lives of the builders. Lighthouses are placed where it’s strategic to have light, not where it’s strategic to safely sustain human life. Builders could die in shipwrecks trying to get to the building site or in hazardous storms during the building process.
Lighthouses also bear the risk of being attacked or seized in war. The Boston Lighthouse was considered so important in the Revolutionary War that the British burnt it down twice and the Americans blew it up before the war ended. During the Civil War at the Point Lookout Lighthouse, Union soldiers set up a hospital and a prison camp on the grounds. Not surprisingly, thousands of people died within spitting distance of the light, and the entire area is now said to be infested with hauntings.
Some lighthouses might be so plagued with death and tragedy, they might just be legit cursed.
A lighthouse might even have the massive karmic misfortune of being built on an island where post-shipwreck cannibalism occurred.
Lighthouse Keeping was a Deadly Business
In spite of what a quaint xkcd comic may show, lighthouse keeping was a harrowing job.
By definition, lighthouse keepers live in a hazardous environment. The storms that threatened ships out in the sea also threatened you. Harsh winter storms could make ice floes crash into your only shelter. If fog was heavy enough, a ship might not see the lighthouse until the ship crashed into it.
Surrounded by water, drowning was a common end to lighthouse attendants or their families. The Bakers Island Lighthouse supposedly had an incident where several former keepers had a reunion at the light, but drowned in a boat accident on the way back. So…that place is 1000% cursed, right?
Since ‘life and death’ was a lighthouse keeper’s bread and butter, it was also his/her job to assist sailors in trouble. That meant taking on the risk of drowning, falling through ice, or being swept away in a storm in the course of a rescue.
Keeping a lighthouse up to snuff required a lot of handiwork and upkeep, and there was no OSHA back then to snitch to.* Lighthouse towers offered a high risk of fall, especially when performing maintenance tasks like cleaning or painting the outside. Fire risk was particularly high. One real horror story about such risks comes from 1755 at a lighthouse in England. Because this was before anyone had common sense, the tower was made of wood and a lead roof. A fire broke out one night, and the lead roof melted onto the face and down the throat of the keeper. Spoiler: he did not survive.
*But there was an ocean, har har har.
Lighthouse keeping almost always required living in the middle of nowhere—maybe a place with only enough dry land for the lighthouse and nothing but sea for hundreds of miles in any direction. Isolation is a psychological stressor for social creatures like humans, but also a serious physical danger. If you need help, there is no help nearby. If supplies from the mainland get disrupted, you have no alternative (no, not even Amazon).
Lighthouse Keepers Could Disa-fucking-ppear
If a lighthouse managed to be built and functional, and if you didn’t drown, get killed in an accident, or have the place burnt down by an invading army: don’t worry, things could still go bad. You might just get wiped off the face of the earth!
In 1900, three lighthouse attendants just vanished from the Flannan Isle Lighthouse in Scotland. On December 15, the light was reported to be out. With the light out, ships at risk, and the keepers’ possibly in danger, a rescue crew scrambled together and got to the island…a whole 11 days later. But they later didn’t find the three men annoyed, injured, or dead. They found everything more or less in order except for the three human beings that had disa-fucking-ppeared.
The keeper’s log painted a picture of the men’s final days. Three days before the light went out, the keeper wrote that there were ‘severe winds’ that he’d never witnessed in 20 years of lighthouse service. The keeper reported that the two attendants were exhibiting stressed behavior—one had gone ‘very quiet’ and the other (a noted brawly and brawny sort of guy) was crying at the sight of the storm. The next day, all three men prayed as the storm raged on.*
On the 15th at 9am, the final log entry was written. It included: “Storm ended, sea calm. God is over all.”
Evidently, the keeper was dead wrong about all of those things.
The original investigation and subsequent studies have largely concluded that a freak storm swept all three men away from a height of about 160 ft above sea level. Others have speculated the culprit to be a giant seabird, a ghost ship, or alien abduction.
*To Cthulu? If things were this bad, I’d start praying to Cthulu.
A more recent lighthouse vanishing occurred in the Bahamas in 1969. On August 4, the Great Isaac Cay lighthouse was found to be abandoned and its two keepers missing. The island was already a bit creepy. It was located in the Bermuda Triangle and was the site of a shipwreck, plus a resultant haunting, a century ago. The keepers were thought to be victims of a hurricane that had blown through a few days before. Nonetheless, after this disappearance and deciding no feng shui on earth would fix it, the lighthouse was automated and later deactivated. It is currently abandoned and listed as an ‘endangered’ lighthouse, but we figure maybe let this one crumble back to the depths from whence it came.
Lighthouse Keepers Tended to Go Nuts
If the elements and fate didn’t take lighthouse keepers out, there was a strong chance they would take themselves out. Isolated places are not great places for staying sane.
Worse, some lighthouses rotated their lights by floating the lanterns on mercury. And what’s better for a lonely, overworked man living on the edge of the murky abyss than a daily dose of mercury?
In the best case scenario, you might wind up like one of the Smalls Lighthouse keepers in 1801. The pair of keepers were known to not get along (they were both named Thomas, which must’ve been SO ANNOYING). One of the Thomas’s died—supposedly naturally—and the surviving Thomas was afraid that if he buried Thomas at sea (there was zero land available), he’d be accused of murder. So surviving Thomas made a coffin for dead Thomas and lashed him to the outside of the lighthouse. You know. Because only a totally innocent, sane person would do that.
While not-surviving Thomas had been a bother in life, now-dead Thomas was a waaaaay worse roommate. Surviving Thomas had to constantly work to keep the coffin lashed and intact in spite of winds and storms. After a while, the coffin was battered, the body was rotting, and surviving Thomas had to just endure it. When surviving Thomas was finally brought supplies and relief after rapid four months, he was not doing well. I couldn’t find where he wound up after the ordeal, but I bet it rhymed with ‘binsane basylum’.
Otherwise, keepers tended to manifest their madness by hurting themselves or others (hint: usually their wives). One charmingly named lighthouse in Oregon, ‘Terrible Tilly,’ was notorious for being a difficult job for attendants. A bleak little rock in the middle of vicious sea conditions, ‘Terrible Tilly’ had a lot of turnover between keepers—including one that supposedly went mad and tried to kill another attendant.
In Maine, one lighthouse has a murder-suicide legend worthy of Stephen King. At the Seguin Lighthouse, supposedly in the 1800s a lighthouse keeper brought his wife with him. She asked for a piano so that she had something not-lighthouse related to do now and then. The keeper figured a mix of piano tunes might be nice, so he had one ordered. However, when the piano arrived and the wife began to play, she only played one tune. Over and over. Out of revenge for being dragged out to this godforsaken rock in Maine? Perhaps. The repetitive piano tune drove the keeper insane. So he took an axe to the piano, then to his wife, and then killed himself.* Now one or both of them are ghosts, yadda yadda yadda.
*There’s a next to zero chance of any of this being true. However: apparently, we live in a world where Robert Pattinson punches octopus, so I guess anything is possible.
One of craziest cases of a lighthouse keeper losing his cocopuffs took place on Clipperton Island. Clipperton Island is hundreds of miles off the coast of Mexico, and in the 1900s it was a profitable guano mine colony. This was extremely appropriate, as a lighthouse keeper named Victoriano Alvarez was about to go batshit.* The colony was 100% dependent on supplies shipped from the mainland to survive. But that got disrupted in 1914 when the Mexican Revolution broke out. 13 miners, about a dozen women and children, and Victoriano Alvarez were left to survive on their own.
One by one, all of the adult men except for Alvarez died from disease or in failed escape attempts. At one point, Alvarez tossed all the weapons of the colony into the ocean, save one rifle for himself. In a fashion that I only wish I could say was ‘unique’ among men throughout history, Alvarez declared himself king of the island and made the handful of surviving women and children into his personal slaves. This included sexually coercing and assaulting the women daily. R. Kelly would’ve been proud.
After 2 years, two of the women made a move that would’ve made Charlotte Corday proud. They ambushed Alvarez and murdered him with a hammer and a knife. Shortly later, the survivors were rescued. Victoriano Alvarez, hopefully, rots in hell to this day.
*I came up with that joke all on my own.
Lighthouse Women were ‘Final Girls’
Much like the women of Clipperton Island, keepers’ wives could end up being the final girl in the battle of human v. lighthouse.
Because lighthouses required so much work 24/7, it was all hands on deck to run the place. If a keeper brought his family to live with him, he was more bringing his own sub-employees to live with him. So if a keeper died from all of the many, many, many possibilities available, and his wife managed to not get murdered, she was usually seen as a competent and convenient replacement.
These women inherited difficult, dangerous jobs—but in some ways it was to their benefit. They held federal jobs, with equal pay, living miles and miles away from any guy who would tell her to ‘just smile once and a while.’ And they did all of this before they even had the right to vote. Many of these women took on these jobs while also raising up to 10 children—er, 10 ‘helpers.’
One hero of note was Ida Lewis. This badass bi-otch was rescuing sailors from the age of 12. Over 54 years she lived, worked, and tended the Lime Rock Light in New England, saving a total of 18 lives. Her final rescue was achieved at age 63. And because of her documented awesomeness, she became the highest paid lighthouse keeper at the time (in spite of the whole ‘no Y chromosome’ flaw).*
*Didn’t have room to squeeze it in here, but check out Katherine Walker, who took over a lighthouse after her husband passed, and reportedly saved up to 50 lives.
There’s one ghost story out of Michigan about one of these women. In the 1870s, Peter Brown was placed as keeper of a lighthouse off the Saginaw River. He moved his wife Julia out to live and work with him on the isolated spot (lucky her!)
But in 1873, Brown passed away, and Julia inherited keeper duties (lucky her?). In 1875, Julia remarried to a man named George Way, but stayed in charge of the light…until 1877 when the job was passed to George (lucky…her?) George died a few years later.
The legend is Julia killed both husbands to maintain the status, control, and pay of being the head keeper. Muahahaha! …except Julia was in her 60s by then and just moved out after 17 years of lighthouse life rather than sticking around to rule her empire of spiral staircases and back-breaking daily labor.
Well, dear reader, I never thought I would write this much about the terrors of lighthouses. But it’s clear why they capture our imagination—they’re as interesting as they are morbid.
Here’s hoping Robert Eggers’ ‘The Lighthouse’ will hold up to the weirdness and fear of the real legends and histories.
And hey, maybe Willem Dafoe will eat Robert Pattinson’s face or something.
‘The Lighthouse’ premiers Friday October 18, 2019.