Visionary filmmaker Robert Eggers rose to notoriety back in 2015 with the Sundance debut of his film, The Witch. Four years later, Eggers dazzled us again with The Lighthouse, a hypnotic and hallucinatory tale of two lighthouse keepers (Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson) on a remote and mysterious New England island in the 1890s. As an approaching storm threatens to sweep them away and strange apparitions emerge from the thickening fog, each man begins to suspect that the other has become dangerously unmoored. Both of their behaviors become increasingly more erratic and odd, making for possibly the strangest movie watching experience of 2019. And one of my personal favorites of said year.
Now if you’ve seen this movie, it may come as surprise that Eggers drew inspiration from a real life incident for his sophomore film. Maybe not to the extent of sexy mermaids washing up on shore or tentacled monsters living in the lighthouse’s light. However, Eggers did take inspiration from the true story of a pair of lighthouse keepers as he told Vox in an interview,
“…How much truth there is to this ‘true’ story, who knows…Very little of that story aside from the fact they’re both named Thomas came into The Lighthouse, but the idea that they were both named Thomas struck a chord. I was like, ‘Okay, this is a movie about identity, and can devolve into some weird, obscure places.”
The incident in question, now exactly 219 years old, is none other than the mysterious Smalls Lighthouse tradgedy of 1801. The story starts with our lighthouse keepers Thomas Howell and Thomas Griffith. In all my prowling on Google, I haven’t been able to find anything on either man prior to this incident; except how often Howell and Griffith fought. The duo reportedly disliked each other and often argued in public. So, when they were stationed at the Smalls Lighthouse off Marloes Peninsula Pembrokeshire, Wales in 1801, tensions were no doubt high.
The details get a little fuzzy when Thomas Griffith dies. Some reports claim his death was the result of a freak accident, while others state Griffith succumbed to a mysterious illness. Either way, Griffith died just a few weeks after his arrival at the lighthouse. Howell feared that if he were to throw Griffith’s body into the sea the authorities would accuse him of murder. Remember, they fought constantly. It wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine an argument escalating into murder. In fact it would be pretty sound logic.
But as Griffith’s body began to decompose and no doubt smell, Howell decided to build a makeshift coffin then tie it to one of the railings outside one of the lighthouse windows. As time went on, a brutal storm began to close in, this made it impossible for boats or crew to reach Howell. Things took a sinister turn when strong winds destroyed most Griffith’s coffin. This led to the corpse being on full display for Howell to see from the island’s hut. The wind would even catch one of Griffith’s arms so it looked like the corpse was waving. It was as though Howell’s old nemesis was screwing with him from beyond the grave. Gotta love a ghost that doesn’t forget the past.
Despite the poor weather, low supplies and the waving corpse taunting him, Howell managed to keep the lighthouse’s lantern lit along with maintaining his other duties. After four months (yes, you read that right) Howell and Griffith were finally rescued from the island. The incident brought about a change in lighthouse policy to make teams rosters of at least three people on at any time.
It also left Thomas Howell a shell of his former self. It was reported that even his closest friends couldn’t recognize the now white haired Howell.
The Smalls Lighthouse incident has inspired several works of media aside from Eggers’ film. Said works include the 2011 BBC radio play The Lighthouse written by Alan Harris, the 2016 Chris Crow directed film (also called The Lighthouse), and the 2018 chamber opera For Those in Peril composed by Francis Lynch.
Now let’s breakdown the similarities and differences between the film and the mystery that inspired it. Spoilers ahead!
Time and Location
While the Smalls incident wasn’t documented particularly well, we do know Howell and Griffith were stationed to the island sometime in 1801. However The Lighthouse takes place sometimes in the 1890’s in New England.
Thomas and Thomas
A tiny nod to Howell and Griffith can actually be found about halfway into The Lighthouse. After a long night of drinking Robert Pattinson’s character, Ephraim Winslow, spills the beans on his strange past and confesses to his partner Thomas Wake (Dafoe) that Ephraim Winslow isn’t even his real name; it’s Thomas Howard.
Cause of Death
Throughout the film Howard and Wake quarrel for the most part. Their final argument ends with Howard killing Wake. At first by trying to bury him alive then finally finishing the job with an axe to the head. In the case of the Smalls incident, Griffith’s cause of death is technically undetermined. It’s likely he died from an illness or an accident. But murder isn’t entirely out of the question.
A Happy Ending?
The Lighthouse ending is a symbolic headscratcher that shows Howard finally getting to look at the sacred light before slipping and falling down the a spiral staircase. Then he seen being eaten alive by several seagulls.
With Smalls there is technically a happier ending. Eventually there was a rescue effort. Griffith was most likely given a proper burial and Howell walked away from the whole situation with severe PTSD. But, most would count that as a fate preferable to death.