Contains major spoilers for The Lighthouse.
The Lighthouse has been wowing audiences around the world at festivals and previews for some time now, giving the film great reviews before it even hits UK cinemas. Focusing on two lighthouse keepers, played by Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson, as they face loneliness and isolation, it tells a very personal and frightening narrative.
However, the story is based on true events, and I’m going to try and shed some light on these real world happenings. Please be aware, whilst I’m going to be discussing real world events, these may inadvertently spoil events of the movie.
The Smalls Lighthouse is located on a tiny rocky island twenty miles off the coast of Wales, and is still present today. Whilst the modern Smalls Lighthouse is a solid stone structure, when it was first built in 1775 it was built on top of nine wooden pillars, which allowed the seas to pass beneath it. The main body of the lighthouse was essentially a small hut that sat on top of these pillars. This resulted in a lighthouse that would rock and sway in strong, stormy weather.
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Because of the often remote nature of lighthouses at the time it was always policy in Great Britain that there should be two lighthouse keepers, allowing them to take the duty in shifts and to keep each other from being completely isolated. A two-man team of Thomas Howell and Thomas Griffiths were assigned to Smalls Lighthouse in 1801, despite it being known that the two men didn’t always get along and could often fight.
During their stay at the lighthouse Thomas Griffiths complained that he was unwell, and Howell tried to signal to passing ships that they were in distress. Unfortunately, none of the ships saw these signals in time to help, and Griffiths died after several weeks of illness.
Following the death of Griffiths, Thomas Howell continued with his work maintaining the lighthouse, all the while trying to get a message out that he was in distress. After a while, Griffiths began to decompose, and Howell knew that he couldn’t keep the body of his companion inside the hut with him. He also knew that people were aware that the two of them didn’t always get along, and thought that if he threw Griffiths’ body into the sea he could be accused of murder. Keeping the body was the only way to prove that he hadn’t killed his companion.
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Howell constructed a coffin out of wood from inside the cabin and placed Griffiths inside. He then tied it to the outside of the cabin so that it would not be swept away by the sea. He tied the coffin to the outside railing, beside one of the cabins windows. Bad weather continued to hit the lighthouse, preventing Howell from sending a clear signal to passing ships. Unfortunately, the weather also broke apart the coffin.
Luckily, Griffiths remained tied to the railing, and stayed attached to the cabin even as the wood from the coffin crashed into the sea below. The heavy winds would hit the decomposing body, making it appear to be waving at Howell from behind the window.
Fo the next few months Howell continued to remain in the cabin, keeping the lighthouse light and signalling for help as his colleague decomposed on the other side of the window. Passing ships saw the distress signals that Howell was sending, but were confused as the lighthouse was still light. Ships attempted to land on the rocky island but were unable to as the weather was too bad. The potential rescuers would call out to the lighthouse keeper standing on the outside decking, trying to get him to respond, but he just remained silently where he was, waving calmly to them.
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When help finally arrived at Smalls Lighthouse several months after the death of Thomas Griffiths they discovered that the lighthouse keeper that had been waving to them from the decking was the remain of Griffiths, and that Howell had spent months inside the small cabin, staring at the body through the window.
Thomas Howell was, understandably, driven to madness by his experience on the lighthouse, and was said to be physically and mentally unrecognisable to people who knew him when he returned to the mainland. Giffiths’ body was also returned and given a proper burial.
Following the incident at Smalls Lighthouse regulations were changed to make it so that lighthouse keepers would be sent out in threes rather than in pairs, to try and prevent another incident like this from happening again.
A film based more directly on the events, also called The Lighthouse, was released in 2016 and starred Mark Lewis Jones as Thomas Griffiths and Michael Jibson as Thomas Howell.