Horror Homework

Although I haven’t been writing much on horror here lately, I’ve been doing my homework.  At least for homeroom.  Horror Homeroom, that is.  I’ve published on Horror Homeroom before, and, surprisingly, they’ve let me do it again.  This piece is on the films of Robert Eggers.  It’s pretty unusual for me to get in on the ground floor with a director’s oeuvre, but my wife has a tolerance for what is being called “smart horror” or “intelligent horror,” or even “transcendent horror,” and so we can get to the theater to see movies like The Witch and The Lighthouse before they go to DVDs or Amazon Prime.  In order to write up my thoughts about these two films I had to rewatch them a few times.  There’s so much going on here that both stories are difficult to summarize.

Holy Horror treated The Witch in the context of its biblical worldview.  The Calvinistic religion of William, and by extension, his family, is pretty scary stuff.  In The Lighthouse we find two men each grasping for their own ideas of the divine, as found atop the eponymous structure they inhabit.  Both films explore the psychology of isolated individuals, and, perhaps not surprisingly, finds frightening things.  We are social creatures, even those introverts among us.  When deprived of the interaction of those who think differently (hear this, o Republicans!) we soon begin to wilt.  We need not agree with all we hear, but conversation cannot be had without being open to at least the possibility that one might be wrong.  Nobody wants to think they are incorrect, but unless they can admit that possibility, there will be no discussion, by definition.

Horror quite frequently thrives on separating people from their fellows.  One of the fascinating aspects of the genre is the way in which it does this.  Groups, even, that separate themselves from the rest of humanity soon begin to behave in odd ways.  Checks and balances are necessary for any health in a society.  Those who claim absolute positions often can’t admit this.  Do I hear the violins of Psycho coming to life?  I suppose community is why I try to publish once in a while in wider venues like Horror Homeroom.  Even people who like to watch horror prefer not to do so alone.  Maybe having seen The Witch and The Lighthouse in theaters was a crucial part of their impact upon me.  And what is a good shudder without someone with whom to share it?

Houses of Light

The Lighthouse is a movie we’ve been waiting a month to see.  Since its opening weekend my wife and I haven’t had two consecutive hours free during any weekend showtime.  Now that we finally managed it, I’ve been left in a reverie.  Robert Eggers, whose film The Witch opened to critical acclaim, has repeated the feat with this one.  His movies require a lot of historical homework and the end results have a verisimilitude that pays the viewer handsomely.  The details of the plot are ambiguous and the influence of King, Kubrick, Melville, Hitchcock, Poe, and Lovecraft are evident as two men in isolation grapple with insanity.  Also obvious is Greek mythology, with one reviewer suggesting Tom Wake is Proteus and Ephraim Winslow is Prometheus.  The end result is what happens when literate filmmakers take their talents behind a camera.

Naturally, the symbolism adds depth to the story.  The eponymous lighthouse is phallic enough, but the light itself—often a central metaphor of religions—is, like God, never explained.  Encountering the light changes a person, however, and the results can be dangerous, even as Rudolf Otto knew.  This light shines in the darkness so effectively that no ships approach the island.  The monkish existence of the keepers requires a certain comfort with the existential challenge of isolation, even if God is constantly watching.  The light never goes out, even when a reprieve would be appreciated.  Having reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s Learning to Walk in the Dark since the film opened, this makes some sense.  Horror movies lead the viewer into such territory when they’re thoughtfully made.

The concept of light is central to at least two similar forms of religion that have moved beyond doctrinal Christianity.  Both Quakerism and Unitarian Universalism emphasize the light as central to their outlooks.  Whether it be divine or symbolic, light is essential to spiritual growth.  In novels like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road the idea of an inner light keeps the father and son going.  In The Lighthouse the external light, when taken internally, leads to madness.  Since I watch horror with an eye toward religion—I do most things with an eye toward religion—I didn’t leave the theater disappointed.  I knew that, like The Witch, I would need to see it again but when it comes down to the price range of one ticket for repeated viewings.  Finding the time to get to the theater once was difficult enough, despite the payoff.  

The Witch

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The Witch, by Robert Eggers, is a parable. The movie accepts, and to appreciate it the viewer must too, that there is actually witchcraft in New England. Unless the witch too is a parable. Set in the days before the Salem Witch Trials, the movie is worthy of Lars von Trier on history. William and his family are exiled from their unnamed community due to differences of religious opinion. William and Katherine are a devout couple, steeped in the Puritan belief that all people deserve Hell and those who are good have no choice in the matter. They have a family of four children, and after they set up homesteading in exile, a fifth comes along. When the baby disappears, the eldest daughter, on the cusp of sexual maturity, is blamed. Portraying well the boredom of children raised in a world with no diversion, the girl, Thomasin, tells her little sister that she is a witch. In reality, she is a fearful, sin-sick girl, frightened for her future salvation. There is a witch, but it is not she.

Tragedy follows tragedy for the isolated family. Their religion permits them to believe it can only be punishment from God. They pray, recite Bible, and work hard. Their oldest son, abducted by the witch, returns home to die. The two youngest children begin to have fits, claiming that Thomasin has confessed to being a witch. Her mother, Katherine, believes them. Her father too, convinces himself that she is a witch and urges her to confess. The paranoia grows and Thomasin accuses her two younger siblings of witchcraft, speaking to the family’s black goat as their familiar. Confused, angry, and out of hope, the father locks the children in with the goats for the night, determined to find the truth in the morning.

I won’t add any spoilers for the ending here. Suffice it to say, this is a parable. Thomasin’s very name suggests “sin,” and her doomed brother is Caleb, the Hebrew word for “dog.” His recitation of the Song of Songs is distinctly creepy. God is absent from the movie, despite the family’s constant prayers. The only voice heard is that of the Devil. This is a parable of what happens when a religion goes wrong. The family left England to exercise their religion freely and the free exercise of it turns them against each other. The only ones who seem to find peace are those who leave their faith behind. It is a movie that I’ll ponder for many days, I suspect. Less a condemnation of religion than an open probing of what it’s logical outcome might be, The Witch is one of those movies that demonstrates the ongoing power of parables.