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Queering Prometheus in Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse

Robert Eggers’ new horror The Lighthouse exhibits a close familial bond with the themes and ideas explored by its older sibling, The Witch (2015). Having watched the film, it makes sense to personify the Lighthouse. It’s not simply a structure or setting, like the Witch’s lair in the woods; the lantern room represents the fleshy heart of the film, its relentless rotations setting the pace for the plot’s quiet development like a steady heartbeat (sometimes uncomfortably noticeable; most times a silent, immutable truth).

Like its older sibling, The Lighthouse revolves around the horrific effects of social isolation: where The Witch documented the bleak existence of the newly founded New England in the early 1600s, The Lighthouse seeks to capture the stark and bare life of the lighthouse keeper, Thomas Wake (played by Willem Defoe), and his new wickie (another term for a lighthouse keeper used in the film), Ephraim Winslow (played by Robert Patterson). Interestingly, Eggers has chosen to retain the setting of New England: all of the film’s events unfold on an isolated island just off the mainland, although it could be an island at the end of the world as far as the characters are concerned.

Where the young protagonist in The Witch, Thomasin, is forced into isolation by the religious zealotry of her father, both Thomas and Ephraim have chosen to lead lives of social isolation. For the older man, a career as a lighthouse keeper has allowed him to escape the demands of his wife and son and become king of his own castle (or more appropriately, the God of his own realm), as well as a raging alcoholic. Ephraim’s reasons for becoming a wickie are shrouded in mystery for a large part of the film, although it is made explicit that his decision to leave the mainland comes as a result of a deeply traumatic event, the memory of which haunts Ephraim from the minute he steps onto the island’s shores.

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The plot can be understood as a reworking of the Greek myth of Prometheus, the Titan who steals the fires from Mount Olympus as a gift for humanity, a crime that Zeus punishes him for by having him bound to a rock, where each day an eagle would land and eat out his liver only for it to grow back overnight and be eaten again the next day. Shot in black and white, the narrative documents Ephraim’s struggle to wrest control of the lantern from his master, who jealously guards the keys to the lantern room. Many nights Ephraim stands out in the darkness staring hungrily up at Thomas, his master’s figure expanded to godly proportions by the blinding light of the revolving lantern. In this sense, Ephraim’s obsession with and fear of the lantern room is intertwined with his simultaneous desire for and contempt of Thomas. 

The homoerotic undertones of the pair’s tempestuous relationship are thrown into stark relief by the film’s third figure: the Mermaid. One might first assume this reincarnation of the monstrous-feminine would be the locus point of the characters’ horror and desire, as is the case in The Witch. Where the witch functions as a magnet and object of Thomasin’s desire for freedom from the constraints of family life, the mermaid and its monstrously-feminine form functions to assault Ephraim’s senses and abject onto him the reality of his own sexuality: the queerness he has been running from his whole life. In one particularly traumatic scene, we watch in silence (a silence that is mirrored in the diegesis) as Ephraim frantically masturbates over the wooden mermaid-figure he finds in his mattress upon arrival, only for the scene to end not with the climax of ejaculation, but with the muted screams and moans of Ephraim, exhausted yet unable to find sexual pleasure in the contours of the feminine body. In comparison, Ephraim finds himself uncontrollably fascinated by the old lighthouse keeper, despite his disgusting habits and terrible personal hygiene. In an early scene, Ephraim is fixing a hole in the roof of their shared bedroom when he catches sight of Thomas sleeping on the cot below, his hips convulsing slightly as his body unconsciously contorts itself as he dreams. The camera traces Ephraim’s long stare, before he abruptly begins hammering nail into wood, literally shutting himself off from the sensual vision. This is just one of many fraught encounters between the two of them that become emblematic of Ephraim’s Promethean battle with his own queerness.

Eggers’ follow-up to The Witch has consolidated his status as one of the most influential horror directors of the present moment: he is clearly building a body of work that exhibits a unique visual and conceptual style. The Lighthouse’s chiaroscuro palette produces a vision of the stark horror of nature, which is utterly distinct from the muted and bleeding oppressiveness evoked by the dark greens and browns of The Witch. And yet despite their clear aesthetic differences, both films succeed in producing an almost claustrophobically immersive portrayal of their respective historical and cultural moments. Eggers seamlessly blends the visual representation of the lighthouse on the rock with monotonous soundscapes, punctuated by unbearable silences, that only serve to heighten the abject horror of The Lighthouse. And that’s not to mention the seagulls. Keep an eye on the seagulls… 

The Lighthouse is out in UK cinemas on 31 January 2020.

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