Robert Eggers’ Historical Horror

Robert Eggers burst onto the horror scene in 2015 with his debut film The Witch (stylized as The VVitch,), which terrified us horror fans and made a confident statement about what kind of horror movies could be made this decade. This was in no small part due to production company A24’s belief in the profitability of art-house horror. But while the production house put out several such horror films in the 2010s, The Witch was easily their most standout horror feature. Other similar A24 films, such as 2017’s It Comes at Night, aspired to deliver a similar slow-burn, atmospheric horror, but it was only Eggers film that managed to tread the narrow line between watchability and ambition. In other words, it managed to provide a unique aesthetic without becoming a snooze-fest. 

Eggers made his return with 2019’s The Lighthouse, delivering a result that was not only more confident and challenging than The Witch but also boasted more production value and star-power. Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson deliver two of the year’s best performances (though neither were acknowledged by the Academy), which are only the icing on the cake in the film. The Lighthouse delivered a similar atmosphere of psychological horror while simultaneously turning the highly-stylized script and aesthetic up another notch. Now two-for-two, Eggers’ films have become the poster-children of this new breed of mainstream horror film. 

Both of Eggers’s films deserve Hollow Horror reviews of their own. But for the purposes of this post, I’m going to examine what unites the two movies and hopefully draw some conclusions about just what it is about Robert Eggers’ style that makes his work some of the most exciting on the horror scene.

The elephant in the room, apparent from the first line of dialogue in both films, is Eggers’ commitment to antiquated dialects. The colonial-speak of early 1600s Massachusetts, the salty ramblings of Willem Dafoe’s flatulent Ahab-esque part, make the films immersive, unique, and, for many, utterly inaccessible. I have never regarded accessibility as a critical component of a quality film. However, I understand that many people would not give either of these films more than 10 minutes of their time, much less a second viewing, to become familiar with these archaic dialects. Again, credit where it’s due to A24 for their willingness to produce two films which made people I personally know leave the theater due to frustration over the dialogue.

Of course, I have no way of knowing how realistic the script is when it comes to the sort of language used at the time. Apparently, Eggers took massive inspiration, in both screenplays, from period journals. I have no doubt that how people wrote at the time differed significantly from how they spoke, as is the case today, but it’s worth acknowledging the effect of this sort of language, which is in both cases deeply unsettling. It places our protagonists right in the depths of the uncanny valley of coherence. Where the language itself may be recognizable to our ear but is not our own. Lastly, I should point out that while I’m giving credit to Eggers and his committed research and writing style, just as much credit should be handed to the actors who, across the board, nailed it when it came to knowing how to play the uncanny aspect of the script for awe-inducing horror, and when to play it for camp (Dafoe being, in my mind, the true standout.)

This is the critical connection between the two films and is the heart of Eggers’ work: the link between the psychological and the supernatural. Here, Eggers touches on something that philosophers and scientists have struggled with… forever, really: the fallibility of human experience. While one can never deny what has been experienced, one can never be sure if that experience was real. In both of these films, that struggle is made very evident. Characters are forced to create new structures in their own belief systems to accommodate for this ontological insecurity. In The Lighthouse, Eggers goes even further into dragging the viewer along with the baffling misperceptions of Pattinson’s character, where time and reality appear as disquieted and tempestuous as the sea itself.

By focusing on this friction, that of the psychological when faced with the supernatural, Eggers’ uses classic horror tropes to place character drama front and center and allows the horror to emerge from that. As Lovecraft once said, “No new horror can be more terrible than the daily torture of the commonplace.” While disappearing children and evil mermaids are far from commonplace, the festering family resentments of The Witch and the cabin fever of The Lighthouse certainly are (both being especially relatable in a pandemic-age). In short, he introduces the slightest hint of the supernatural and lets the average, everyday craziness of the human psyche take over from there. It is precisely by making the drama inherent in an unraveling of the psyche realistic that he can amplify supernatural horror. (Side note: Another great example of a similar psychological exploration in screenwriting is Damon Lindelof’s work. The Leftovers (2014-2017) is the shining example, but also Lost and Watchmen to an extent.)

Ultimately what Eggers’ style boils down to is immersive historical fiction. It calls to mind works like Thomas Pynchon’s novel Mason & Dixon, which also utilizes a realistic (if not slightly exaggerated) parlance of the era to immerse and alienate the reader. By surrounding us with the borderline familiar (I.e., The uncanny), both the drama and the fear are accentuated in our half-understandings and fumbling attempts to grasp/relate to characters’ motivations. Eggers gives us footholds, but they are slippery. If we are ever drawn into believing a particular set of facts, it’s only because Eggers is setting us up to sweep the rug out from under our feet. By establishing a consistent level of unintelligibility, Eggers forces the viewers to create compromises in their own understanding of the narrative, allowing him to continually subvert their expectation of the film’s “reality.”

These two facets of his work — the semi-unintelligibility of the writing and the psychological/supernatural confusion — are the core of Eggers-style horror. It’s an unbalancing, a teetering on the edge of the uncanny, which forces viewers to either throw themselves into the pit of unknowability or try to feebly manage the balancing act required to exist in both worlds at once. 

I could go ever deeper into Eggers’ structures of symbolism, his inspiration pulled from art and literature, and his idiosyncratic representations of the psyche, but I think I’ve run on long enough here. If I’m inspired enough, maybe I’ll return to Eggers for a future blog post. He’s worth it. I feel confident saying that his work will be closely studied and picked apart for years to come.

I’ll conclude by mentioning that Eggers has already confirmed his next project, a “historical epic” revenge film titled The Northman. While it doesn’t appear to be a horror film, strictly speaking, I would not be surprised to see these similar themes from The Witch and The Lighthouse. Eggers has also expressed an interest in remaking the 1922 classic Nosferatu, although the project does not seem to have left the early stages of development. I hope he gets the chance to work on it so we can see his take on a more classic horror narrative with his own spin.

I hope you enjoyed watching, reading, and thinking about Eggers’ work as much as I have, and I’ll see you in the next Hollow Horror post. Thanks for reading.

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