“Instead of the cross, the Albatross around my neck was hung” laments the narrator of the Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem “The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner.” When the titular seaman shoots down an albatross with a crossbow, a string of misfortunes befall him and his shipmates, as consequence for breaking nautical code. The same lore that holds seabirds sacred in Coleridge is exhumed in Robert Eggers’ feverish black-and-white second feature, The Lighthouse. “Bad luck to kill a seabird!” sneers Willem Dafoe’s weathered lighthouse keeper, Thomas Wake, to his underling, Efraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson), enraged victim of constant harassment by a particularly annoying gull. Yet kill the bird is precisely what Winslow does, beating the fowl to a feathery pulp in one disturbing long take that precipitates his descent into madness.
On the glorified rock the two “wickies” temporarily call home, Winslow is met with an onslaught of surreal and bizarre challenges. A palm-sized mermaid figurine triggers wet dreams of topless, marooned fish ladies and other many-tentacled horrors, while the flatulence-prone, rum-happy Wake grows more tyrannical by the day. But Efraim’s greatest nemesis is that damn bird, whose death makes manifest the Coleridgian metaphor for burdens. The gulls—symbols of nature’s omnipotence—taunt the forsaken seamen with their blaring squawks and constant hovering, pecking at their sanity. As the humans grow more vulnerable, the birds seem to multiply, their freedom to come and go as they please a bitter reminder of Winslow and Wake’s own captivity. Unfazed by these increasingly decrepit humans, the birds wait for whatever meat might make itself available…
This is not the first time Eggers have deployed avian actors to uncanny and unsettling effect. Recall the teat-sucking raven in his debut, The Witch. A dream sequence sees mother Catherine nursing her missing baby, but this image of maternal longing morphs into one of horrifying perversion when an enormous raven is revealed pecking at the cackling woman’s exposed breast. In these two films, the budding horror maestro puts the creepy back into birds, preying on our anxiety about the amorality of the natural world and drawing on a long cinematic tradition of feathered fiends.
While biblical scripture and the films of John Woo envision dainty white doves or swans as symbols of innocence and moral clarity, holy birds hardly have the same lingering impact as their more pestilent cousins. Black birds like ravens and crows are, somewhat superficially, linked to“evil” in Western cultures due to their coloration, their violent cawing, and their scavenging tendencies. Beyond this tradition, their reputation is varied. In Celtic mythology, for instance, the crow is considered a sacred being with prophetic capabilities, while some North American indigenous folktales hold ravens in high esteem as the cunning creators of the universe. For many, though, it’s hard to look past the animal’s association with death. The image of the blackbird as a miniature grim reaper feeding on human corpses is not purely a product of imagination— consider historical accounts of crows gathering at Civil War battlefields in anticipation of the opportunity to nibble on some dead soldiers. From the Gothic lore of Edgar Allan Poe through to Hollywood pictures, art has drawn from reality and perpetuated the notion of these particular species as harbingers of tragedy and ill fortune. James Stewart’s pet bird in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), for instance, makes conspicuous appearances whenever Stewart’s Bailey is met with news of death or financial ruin —a devilish foil to his guardian angel.
Beyond serving as mere markers of impending doom, birds sometimes pose a more explicit, nominally “realistic” threat in horror. In 28 Days Later, Cillian Murphy’s makeshift family manages to escape a London overrun by “fast zombies” to enjoy a brief, idyllic romp through the English countryside. The appearance of a squawking crow pecking at an infected corpse kicks off the film’s grisly second half, beginning with the infection of Brendan Gleeson’s den-father character. The crow here functions not just as a symbol of death but a literal vehicle for it as well, recalling the role of birds in the spread of deadly disease from the Black Plague to the Avian Flu. The way in which our cultural fictions articulate the menace of birds has evolved to account for more concrete ways in which these creatures disrupt the control we anxiously impose on the world in our efforts to feel comfort within it.
As human civilization encroaches on natural habitats, intelligent and sturdy species like crows and gulls have proven particularly resilient by learning to adapt and co-exist with humans. These emboldened birds in some cases subvert the predator-prey hierarchy that puts people at top-rung as the most feared of all predators. Consider a 2015 report by The Observer bluntly entitled “Killer seagulls,” which brings attention to the increase in aggressive gulls along the British coastline and cites multiple attacks on humans, as well as the unnervingly bloody deaths of a few pet dogs. Earlier this year, an article in the Wall Street Journal told of members of a vacation community in Marlborough, Massachusetts, living in fear of constant dive-bombings by a species of red-winged blackbird. In an update to the superstition that a dead bird brings bad luck, various wildlife protection laws make it illegal to kill certain species of birds, however treacherous they may be.
No discussion of killer birds, real or fictional, is complete without mention of the quintessential film of avian horror, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 classic The Birds. At once an early entry in the ecological horror genre and a contemporaneous expression of Cold War anxieties (i.e., the birds are the Soviets), the film finds multiple airborne species descending upon a sleepy California vacation community, suddenly and inexplicably wreaking havoc, invading homes, and launching concerted attacks on bewildered humans. Beyond the threat of pointy beaks and sharp claws, what makes Hitchcock’s birds so terrifying is the scope of their ranks, and their instinctual flock mentality—an alien concept to a species as individualistic as humans. The world order is mysteriously turned on its head: No one knows what triggers the attacks or what lulls the birds back into quietude, and the most innocent and vulnerable members of society—the children and older women—become fair game.
The Birds upends comfortable notions of a food chain, and The Lighthouse further tinkers with this subversion. Winslow and Wake become increasingly haggard, losing their claim to man’s physical superiority. Eventually, their bodies are whittled down to suitable bird food. There’s a variation on that horrifying idea in the 2010 remake of I Spit On Your Grave, wherein the heroine tortures one of her rapists by tying him up and smearing fish guts on his face, so that hungry fowl can make a meal of his eyeballs.
As our understanding of animal psychology develops, so too are our superstitions occasionally reaffirmed, rather than debunked by science. From Dario Argento’s Opera (1987) to Alex Proyas’ The Crow (1994), crows are employed as supernaturally intelligent creatures, capable of remembering the faces of those that have wronged them. Proyas’ crow resurrects Eric Draven from his early grave, then guides the wronged musician to exact vengeance against his murderers. Meanwhile, Argento unleashes over 140 live crows in Opera’s climax, which has the birds circling madly over a terrorized audience in a brief suspension of the animal hierarchy. Frustrated by an incompetent police investigation, Argento’s protagonists, Marco and Betty, hatch a kooky plan that involves locating the killer by raven. The hope, in short, is that one of the released birds will intuit the enemy and attack—which it does, in bloody, eye-gauging fashion. Oddly enough, these intentionally fantastical notions unintentionally align with biological reality. A 2008 study confirmed that a species of American crow is capable of remembering a human deemed dangerous, potentially up to five years past the time of the initial offense, which accounts for the myth-with-a-little-truth that crows hold grudges and pass them on to their flocks. Such an evolutionary development in part may account for the species’ success in human environments, but knowledge of this behavior hardly puts one at ease. If anything, it makes birds seem like a greater threat, like an even more formidable foe.
Even non-vegetarians are likely repulsed by the slaughter that takes place before the burger flipping, obscuring that step in the consumption process by keep killing out of the ritual of eating. Meanwhile the natural savagery of most animals is kept in the shadows of the wilderness—it’s the reality, largely unseen and partitioned away, of “the circle of life.” Yet some birds, the ones fictionalized in horror particularly, defy the realm we’d have them occupy and invade our own, bringing with them a hunger unhindered, in some cases, by fear of human resistance. And for as much we like to sentimentalize these feathered animals as cute or friendly, their claws and beaks tell a different story—one that creeps even into an all-age entertainment like Finding Nemo, which depicts seagulls in a menacing light, as practically mechanized eating machines.
In shooting The Lighthouse, Eggers made use of three trained seagulls—an ironic testament to human dominion. But the effect hauntingly overshadows the means of achieving it. What we see, disconcertingly, is animal intelligence inhumanly applied towards the brutal end goal of a tasty meal. Perhaps birds remain staples of horror because of their ubiquity, paired with our inability—or is it a refusal?—to recognize ourselves in them. Have you ever looked into the eyes of a bird? It’s terrifying. They don’t emote.