The final image is haunting. Ephraim Winslow/Thomas Howard (Robert Pattinson) lies on his back, delighted by the unimaginable horrors and beauties he obtained by staring into the lighthouse’s beacon while seagulls peck at his stomach, devouring his liver and entrails. As the painful moments slowly pass, Winslow’s damnation is there, sprawled out for the audience to see as if they were watching a piece of art coming to life.
The Lighthouse is a delightfully insane movie that follows the isolated lives of two wickies, Winslow/Howard and Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe). As their time on the isolated island becomes an extended stay, the two seamen begin their descent into madness.
The ending of Robert Eggers’ horror film finds Winslow in a delirious and gruesome state, leaving the audience with an ambiguous ending that isn’t as black and white as the film presents it. Like the seagulls pecking away at Winslow’s liver, let’s dissect the many ways to interpret the ending of The Lighthouse.
The Simple Explanation
The easiest explanation is that Winslow lost his mind while trapped in an everlasting storm with Wake. No one, including Wake and Winslow, know how long they were stuck on the island. Wake asks Winslow, "How long have we been on this rock? Five weeks, two days? Help me to recollect." He is pushing Winslow toward doubting his sanity.
Winslow’s slow decline into madness begins with his backstory. In his backstory, the name Winslow belonged to the wickie's former foreman, Ephraim Winslow, which means that Pattinson’s character’s name is actually Thomas Howard (for clarity, I will refer to Pattinson’s character as Winslow).
Winslow reveals that he had a disagreeable relationship with the real Winslow, and saw the real Winslow die by “accidentally” falling beneath the logs. Winslow doesn’t say why he felt the need to take the real Winslow’s name or if he did or didn't kill the real Winslow, but the audience and Wake are suspicious of Winslow's state of sanity.
Whether or not Wake believes in Winslow’s innocents, the man constantly belittles Winslow and gaslights Winslow for his amusement. Wake pushes Winslow to his breaking point as Wake has done with his other wickies, the last one falling victim to madness and death.
Both characters are already broken by their past, but their tumultuous relationship pushes them past their breaking points.
'The Lighthouse'Credit: A24
The film also highlights their declining mental state through orthochromatic film, which creates an aggressive grain structure and eliminates any red light to make the sky washed out and people’s faces darker and more weathered in complexion. The boxy 1.19:1 aspect ratio feels tight and claustrophobic as it visually pushes the two men together, forcing the audience to live in a constant state of tension.
The tension snaps when Winslow learns that Wake recommends that Winslow be fired without pay through the logbook. Winslow, feeling betrayed by the man who had humiliated him and gaslit him for weeks on end, snaps and beats Wake into submission, demanding to be in charge of the lighthouse and all its inhabitants. After killing Wake, Winslow ascends into the lantern room where the Fresnel lens opens to Winslow as if it were Pandora’s box, revealing that he finally got what he wanted in the end—to see the light. Winslow then falls down the lighthouse’s steps before dragging himself out to the shore to be eaten alive by birds.
This is Pattinson’s preferred reading of the story. In an interview with Den of Geek, Eggers recalled that “Robert Pattison said to me before agreeing to this, ‘I don’t want to make a movie about a magical lighthouse. I want to make a movie about a fucking crazy person.'" While this interpretation of the ending is fine, it does not explain the power dynamic subtext or the obsession with the lighthouse’s light.
Robert Pattinson as Ephraim Winslow/Thomas Howard in 'The Lighthouse'Credit: A24
The Psycho-Sexual Dynamics
From phallic lighthouses to vaginal keyholes, sex is at the forefront of The Lighthouse.
Winslow and Wake are constantly vacillating between yelling at each other and slow dancing in silence. The queer subtext is there, and Eggers pointed out in an interview with the AV Club, “[N]othing good happens when two men are trapped in a giant phallus.”
The entire story is focused on power dynamics. Wake pushes Winslow, claiming absolute control, telling Winslow to throw the rule book away because he is the king of the lighthouse. Wake alternates between telling Winslow to do the hardest possible chores and yelling at him for having supposedly done the chores incorrectly. He even dangles Winslow from a rope just to be cruel.
These dynamics come to fruition in a bizarre mirror image when Winslow reclaims his power by taking Wake on a walk, forcing him to crawl on all fours like a dog. Winslow is expressing the dehumanization he felt when Wake regularly called him a “dog."
'The Lighthouse' mimicking Schneider's 'Hypnosis'Credit: A24 and Schneider
To emphasis the point of the erotic nature of the two character’s relationship, Eggers evokes the works of Sascha Schneider, a late 19th-century queer painter who fled to Italy because of his sexuality. In one of the film’s striking moments, Eggers recreates Schneider’s Hypnosis which depicts one man’s face shining light onto the face of a younger man, revealing a frightening and seductive truth. This moment is brought to life as Wake shines a light onto Winslow's face, possibly revealing how Winslow views Wake as an object of desire and hatred.
Regardless of the characters' sexuality, they enter a tacitly erotic relationship out of loneliness or genuine sexual attraction. They fulfill the other’s needs—Wake gets to feel in control despite living in a world dictated by the uncontrollable forces of the sea, and Winslow, according to Pattinson, “[S]ort of wants a daddy,” and finds one in Wake.
The pure erotic fascination plays out on screen as the characters secretly watch one another from a distance and openly flirt with each other (mostly Wake as he regularly comments on Winslow’s appearance).
There are soft moments of their relationship like when they sit peacefully by the fire and Wake takes part in traditionally domestic hobbies like knitting, but the peaceful, traditionally feminized tasks can easily transform into moments of hyper-masculine aggression. Their most tumultuous fight erupts over whether or not Winslow liked Wake’s cooking. Rather than express his pain and vulnerability, Wake becomes wildly violent, cursing Winslow with the wrath of Triton.
Wake’s monologue highlights the film’s treatment of sex and death, two ideas that become entangled with each other until one overpowers the other.
'The Lighthouse'Credit: A24
The Relationship Between Sex and Death
Think about the moment that Winslow sees the light. His distorted screams are both of pain and pleasure, but is there a clear distinction between those two experiences?
That strange duality of pain and pleasure has fascinated many, including Georges Bataille, whose book, Erotism: Death and Sensuality, outlines the odd relationship between these two aspects of human experience.
According to Bataille, we are individuals existing in a state of discontinuity—that is isolation and loneliness—from those around us. Death takes us out of this state of everlasting discontinuity, destroying our sense of a singular, separate self.
Since we both desire that continuity and fear our inevitable death, we search for continuity elsewhere, specifically eroticism. Bataille explains our turn towards eroticism by saying, “The whole business of eroticism is to destroy the self-contained character of the participators as they are in their normal lives.”
By uniting intimately with one another, the two participates destroy their discontinuity.
Willem Dafoe as Thomas Wake in 'The Lighthouse'Credit: A24
Both death and eroticism recover our lost continuity, overcoming our profound sense of isolation and separation, and this idea is very present in The Lighthouse.
The light, which has been sexualized by Wake and Winslow, becomes what Bataille defines as “the sacred,” a divine source of ecstasy and extreme horror. This phenomenon is also seen earlier when Winslow ends his masturbatory adventure on his knees in pain.
Bataille’s examination of eroticism is often violent since it requires the participants to let go of their usual self-containment. The violence and erotic manifest in the many physical fights between Wake and Winslow which can easily be seen as the two about to make love as they try to kill each other, but the dichotomy is most obvious in the moments right after the two almost kiss.
Instead of locking lips, the two men lock fists. They can’t distinguish between love and violence.
Winslow, whose backstory takes place in a similarly isolated wooded area of America with the real Winslow, has this similar conflict with the death of the real Winslow. Winslow couldn’t distinguish between love and violence and ultimately killed the real Winslow out of fear of his sexual desire. Out of guilt or remorse, Winslow took the dead man’s name to be reminded of his cruel actions toward someone he wanted to be with each time someone addresses him.
The relationship between sex and death and love and violence can be symbolic or literal in the film’s context. In horror, sex and death are entangled, making the line between both experiences blurred.
'The Lighthouse'Credit: A24
The Mythology of The Lighthouse
I have touched on the idea of elements of the story being drawn from the art of Schneider, but The Lighthouse evokes parallels to numerous other myths, fables, and folklore.
One of these myths the story uses is the idea that seagulls contain the souls of dead sailors. This real maritime myth was most famously described in the 1798 poem, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," which shows a sailor doom his ship by killing a large seabird. As punishment, he is forced to wear the dead bird around his neck like a scarf.
Winslow is constantly tortured by a one-eyed seagull who taps on his window all night and follows him around as he does his chores. Out of frustration with the job, Winslow takes his anger out on the bird by beating it to death. The bird’s death seals Winslow’s fate as the winds suddenly change, causing the storm to brew in the island’s direction.
It turns out that the previous junior wickie went mad and died. Winslow seems to hallucinate the severed head of a man with one eye, similar to the bird. The relevance has very little importance to the story but serves as the explanation to why the ship never came to pick up the two men.
'The Lighthouse'Credit: A24
The mermaid that washes up on shore in Winslow's fantasies is equal parts beautiful and terrifying, with her vagina modeled after a shark's. Mermaids have symbolized erotic danger in all of literature. Sirens lured many sailors to their deaths by dragging them underwater. In one of Winslow’s fantasies, the mermaid becomes another link between sex and death as she calls in Winslow to be with her. Winslow’s reaction to seeing the mermaid’s body could also be an indication of his repressed sexuality.
There is other assorted oceanic imagery that tends to revolve around Wake. Wake seems to turn into Trition whenever he is asserting his dominance of the lighthouse. This connection between Triton and Wake is most notable during the men’s deadly fight in which Wake seems to spontaneously turn into the Greek god of the sea. Winslow beats Wake to a pulp, ultimately taking the title of sea god away from Wake/Triton.
The film ends on that gruesome final shot the mimicks the Prometheus’ fate. Prometheus was sentenced to eternal torment from stealing fire from the gods to give to humankind. For sharing the gods’ wisdom, Zeus bounded Prometheus to a rock, and an eagle was sent to eat his liver each day, which grew back each night.
'Prometheus Bound' by Peter Paul RubensCredit: Bridgeman Images
In this myth, the fire symbolizes humanity’s curiosity for knowledge over nature, ultimately teaching humanity about violence. In The Lighthouse, the forbidden knowledge and the object of Winslow’s obsession is the light (a literal flame).
We can see the symbolism of Winslow sprawled out on his beach of purgatory, dying with the knowledge he was never supposed to have. What’s the knowledge? Well… we don’t know. A possible answer is Winslow’s realization of the power of nature. Throughout the film, Winslow works to be free from the constraints of supervisors who dictate his pay, workload, and day-to-day life. When he finally becomes free from the oppression of man, he sees the horrible truth that nature will reclaim ownership of what once belonged to it.
The final shot in 'The Lighthouse'Credit: A24
There are many other ways to explain the ending of The Lighthouse, and Eggers purposefully made an ambiguous ending to make the film weird. In an interview with Esquire, Eggers states, “It’s just that I wanted this movie to be a more hallucinatory movie than The Witch, and for us to not know what’s real and what’s not real…”
This brave approach to having such an open-ended climax highlights the skills Eggers has as a filmmaker, showing that you don't have to have a clear ending if you are confident in the structure of the story. The surreal story will speak to viewers on different levels, letting some dive deep into the folklore while others speculate about Winslow's declining mental state. Each viewing of The Lighthouse will be different, and that's a great thing. As you change, your interpretation of the film will change, too.
Did you interpret the ending of The Lighthouse in another way? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!