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The Lighthouse Ending Explained: Lovecraft, That Light and More

Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse tells the story of two lighthouse keepers assigned to run and maintain a lighthouse off the coast of Maine. But since this is a Robert Eggers movie, things don’t go quite according to plan. “It was always the idea to have this film be a bit obscure and ambiguous and, for lack of a better word, weird,” Eggers recently told Esquire. “That it would be, maybe not scary, but tense and hallucinatory and strange and provoke more questions than it would provide answers.”Well, let’s dive into those questions about the film, particularly its unsettling ending and all that head-scratching symbolism, and provide those answers for what (we think) it all means.

Thomas Is Proteus

In an interview with Vox, Eggers revealed that the film is loosely based on a real-life event that took place in the 19th century somewhere in Wales. But where things get really juicy is his mythological inspiration for the film:

“Well, Prometheus and Proteus never hung out in any Greek myths before, but that seems to be what is kind of happening here. And Prometheus might be taking on some characteristics he hasn’t in the past. But you know what? The classical authors did that all the time.” That morsel of information confirms suspicions that Winslow (Robert Pattinson) is Prometheus and shines a much-needed spotlight on Thomas (Willem Dafoe) as a character.

After Winslow insults Thomas’ ability to prepare a lobster, he retaliates with the biggest overreaction of all time where he curses Winslow with all the wrath of the Seven Seas and Poseidon.

This over-the-top curse comes to fruition after a night of binge-drinking honey-dipped kerosene, during the climax of the film when Winslow learns that Thomas has been chronicling the rookie lighthouse keeper’s ineptitudes. The two keepers then explode into a fight.

Watch our review of The Lighthouse:

Winslow gains the upper hand and upon looking at a broken Thomas, sees him transformed; drenched in ocean water, clusters of tentacles in place of legs, and a body made of barnacles and seaweed. A single horn of coral extends from his forehead. He is Proteus, the sea god known as the Old Man of the Sea. Often attributed as the son of Poseidon, Proteus represents the changing nature of the sea and all of its unpredictable, often violent tide. Proteus is also a known shape-shifter — which makes sense given the obvious.

Whether or not Thomas is actually Proteus himself is up to debate, but Winslow certainly thinks his co-worker is the Old Man of the Sea. Thomas commanded respect as a knowledgeable lighthouse keeper, surveyor of the sea, and sailor. Qualities that go hand-in-hand with the Old Man of the Sea.

But what about the events that unfold after Winslow kills Thomas with a shovel? And what the hell is up with the lighthouse?

What is the Lighthouse?

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Eggers made it very clear that he was inspired by the pulp magazines that published the works of H.P. Lovecraft in the creation of the movie

The word Lovecraftian gets thrown around often. Usually associated with madness and elder gods, Lovecraft often gets misconstrued as scary things that makes people go crazy. The Lighthouse is Lovecraftian; hell, it even has its own eldritch abomination. But it isn’t Cthulu or Dagon — despite the movie’s similarities with the short story, Dagon.

The Lighthouse itself is an eldritch monstrosity. It is the oldest thing in the film, and for all we know, it’s always been there. The source of its power is the fire its servants have been tasked with keeping alive. An ancient Greek philosopher named Heraclitus had this to say about the fire of a lighthouse: “That which always was and is, and will be everlasting fire, the same for all, the cosmos, made neither by god nor man, replenishes in measure as it burns away.”

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Symbolreader, a site dedicated to unpacking symbolism, has observed: “Keeping the fire ablaze while living on the edge of society, bearing loneliness as a price paid for individuation, is the main task of the (symbolically understood) lighthouse keeper.” Which sounds eerily similar to one of the many cults devoted to Elder Gods in detailed in those pulp magazines that featured Lovecraft’s mythos.

Like an Elder God, the Lighthouse’s bellows (or howls) are its otherworldly fog horn that oppresses its servants throughout their entire stay. Even the duties of the servants, specifically Winslow’s, all feel like upkeep on an entity incapable of taking care of itself. And yet, the act of maintenance is heralded as worship. At least Thomas views it as such, which is why he loses it when Winslow does a less than perfect job.

And like an Elder God it possesses forbidden knowledge within its confines and that source is the light. Diving into pure speculation, that knowledge imparts its seeker godhood. If Thomas can handle the power of the light, then surely Winslow can as well. At least he seems to think so.

Since Thomas had experience with the light of the lighthouse, he himself became a god in the form of Proteus. His service as a veteran lighthouse keeper grants him the capacity for the forbidden knowledge housed within the light…at least to some extent. The dude still stands naked in front of the light during rainy nights.

Eggers himself addressed the Lovecrafian influences and the “mystery in the lights” in a new interview with Esquire: “I knew there was a mystery in the lights, and that that could not be disclosed. There are Lovecraftian influences to this movie, but if this were properly Lovecraftian, when Rob finds Willem’s journal, it would have been filled with occult Dagon stuff that would explain that Dafoe is part of a Dagon cult and that there’s a slimy god that lives inside the tentacles and so on, you know what I mean? [laughs] That’s definitely what we did not want to do.”

Still not sure just how weird The Lighthouse is? Then watch the trailer:

Winslow is Prometheus

After slaying what he viewed as Proteus, Winslow deemed himself worthy of bearing the knowledge of the lighthouse. So he ascends the spiral staircase to the heart of the monstrosity, eager to learn its secrets.

The lighthouse captivates Winslow and lures him in. But the weight of the forbidden knowledge proves too great to bear. The sheer intensity of the light represents the weight of the knowledge that often drives characters in Lovecraft insane. And Winslow is no different. He lets out a guttural scream upon receipt of the knowledge and that scream tears his reality apart. Winslow falls from the light and tumbles down the stairs — his sanity gone.

When we see Winslow again he’s almost unrecognizable. His screams fill the air as flocks of seagulls rip his body apart. He’s doomed to live out the rest of his days being torn apart by the birds, or as Thomas described them, the souls of dead sailors. Whether or not you view it as poetic justice for the seagull he slew early on the film is up to you, but the irony is delicious. The whole “being torn apart by birds while still alive” is a clear allusion to the ancient Greek myth of Prometheus.

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Prometheus was a Titan who stole fire from the Gods and gave it to humanity. As punishment for his crime, Zeus had Prometheus chained to a rock or as we see in this movie, a small island, and forced him to endure having an eagle eat his liver. His liver would regenerate every night, only to have the eagle return the next day, dooming the Titan to an eternity of agony.

Winslow likely won’t have his body regenerate every night, but it’s safe to say what little he does have left of life will be filled with complete and utter agony.

What did you think of The Lighthouse? How did you interpret the ending? Let us know in the comments.

For more on The Lighthouse, find out what we thought of it in our review, and if you’re in the mood for some more horror, check out our list of the best Horror movies on Netflix right now.

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