The Lighthouse: Wake’s Curse (of Winslow)

Estimated read time (minus contemplative pauses): 4 min.

I cannot shake The Lighthouse, the newest movie from director Robert Eggers, written by him and his brother Max Eggers. It’s set in late-19th-century Maine with a cast of three, if you only count the humans: Willem Dafoe as Thomas Wake; Robert Pattinson as Ephraim (Efraim?) Winslow; Valeriia Karaman as Mermaid.

If you count the rest of the players, you’ll include, among others, the lighthouse (I swear someone has said, but I can’t recall where, that those living near the set, which was built on a slab of volcanic rock called Cape Forchu in Nova Scotia, didn’t want the lighthouse torn down after filming); water and wetness; rocks; innumerable gulls; crowded isolation; light; and sounds*, which consist of creaky wood, lighthouse keening, squawking seabirds, strategically blaring foghorn score, fa’ts! (see the movie), and the reason I’m here today: the language dear Lord don’t forget the language!

(*UPDATE 8/4/22 — As part of their free LABS collection, Spitfire Audio today released a fantastic sample library of sounds made from the Sumburgh Head Foghorn, which can be heard in the film; according to Spitfire:

“Originally built in 1905 to guide ships through dangerous fog, the Sumburgh Foghorn has since gained a reputation for its uniquely terrifying sound, leading to a prominent feature in Robert Eggers’ Academy Award-nominated film The Lighthouse.”)

All of the above still swirls around in my head weeks after having experienced the film (in a big-screened movie house, thank you) but, more than anything, it’s the language—especially as found in the sailor’s curse delivered by a brilliant, lit-from-below Willem Dafoe, who begins the thing furiously and ends it, two minutes later, exhausted, out of wind not words.

Here is the curse, copied from a script I found online and then revised to match what’s actually said in the movie. While there are no plot spoilers here (says I, but ye tell me), it does constitute an AESTHETIC SPOILER. So I strongly advise against watching videos of it until you’ve seen the film. In fact, I myself would likely have been annoyed to have read the below without first having seen the movie. But I’m melodramatically allergic to spoilers, especially for movies I care about: I avoid trailers and back-of-the box summaries when I can, and will close my eyes and cover my ears saying “NO SPOILERS!” And I certainly avoid blog posts. You might not be so allergic, if you’ve made it this far. Here goes.

(Thomas Wake STANDS UP, SAYS TO Ephraim Winslow)

Let Neptune strike ye dead, Winslow!


Haaaaark! Hark, Triton! Hark!

Bellow, bid our father, the sea king, rise from the depths, full foul

in his fury, black waves teeming with salt-foam, to smother

this young mouth with pungent slime…

(Thomas Wake OPENS EYES, LOOKS TOWARDS Ephraim Winslow) 

… to choke ye, engorging your organs till ye turn blue and

bloated with bilge and brine and can scream no more…

only when he, crowned in cockle shells with

slithering tentacled tail and steaming beard,

take up his fell, be-finnèd arm — his coral-tined trident

screeches banshee-like in the tempest and plunges right through yer gullet,

bursting ye, a bulging bladder no more,

but a blasted bloody film now — a nothing

for the Harpies and the souls of dead sailors to peck and claw and feed

upon only to be lapped up and swallowed by the infinite waters of

the dread emperor himself…

forgotten to any man, to any time, forgotten to any god or devil,

forgotten even to the sea… for any stuff or part of Winslow, even

any scantling of your soul, is Winslow no more, but is now itself

the sea.

(Thomas Wake TREMBLES, AWAITING Ephraim Winslow’s RESPONSE)

As terrifying as this maledictory monologue is, it’s a funny scene. But you have to see what comes before and after to get the joke.

This isn’t the first time a Robert Eggers movie has moved me. The language, and masterful delivery thereof, in The Witch (2015) is astonishing. Eggers, whom Dafoe has described as a “freak for research,” immersed himself in, and borrowed from, 17-century historical records to convincingly achieve the picture’s 1630s Puritan New England tone; the research paid off. He’s discussed this much in various interviews, but the film itself sums up the project nicely just before the closing credits:

This film was inspired by many folktales, farytales and written accounts of historical witchcraft, including journals, diaries and court records.

Much of the dialog comes directly from these period sources.

Eggers, and brother, researched for The Lighthouse as well, but may have taken a more speculative approach this time around, language-wise. From the press release (find with search term “lighthouse A24 press release”; it’s a good read):

When it came to dialogue inspiration, Eggers and his brother, Max Eggers, read the works of Melville, Stevenson, and more, consulting 19th century slang and nautical dictionaries for concise jargon. Dafoe’s character is prone to articulate soliloquies in the style of Shakespeare and Milton. For naturalistic dialogue, the Eggers brothers turned to the works of Sarah Orne Jewett, a Maine-based poet and novelist best known for her works set on the Eastern seaboard during the turn of the century, including Tales of New England and Strangers and Wayfarers, both published in 1890. As research for her own works, Jewett interviewed old sailors and farmers, often writing in their dialect.

“When you read Jewett’s work, the sea captains speak differently than the down-east farmers whose dialect was the model for Efraim Winslow—this is how we created dialogue for the movie,” says Eggers. “My theory is that there was a rhotic maritime dialect that existed in the Northeast during this period. That is what Thomas Wake is speaking in the film.”

This approach, too, paid off. I loved The Witch, but it’s The Lighthouse that haunts me. After seeing it, I bought a collection of works by Sarah Orne Jewet: The Country of the Pointed Firs and Other Stories. It’s near the top of my must-read short-stack.

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