The Inscrutable Mysteries of ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ (1975) and ‘Lake Mungo’ (2008)

In storytelling, we’re obsessed with the process of solving mysteries. Detective fiction has been around since the birth of the novel and you can’t turn on your television without seeing reruns of five different whodunnits or procedural shows. Writers can provide us with the smallest crumbs of clues and still completely hook us, leading us on towards the final, ultimate reveal. Because a mystery is not whole without its resolution. 

The uncertainty of a mystery is frustrating and confusing, and its resolution confronts these bad feelings and attempts to untangle our anxieties. We are comforted by the mystery being solved. In her book The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, mystery and true-crime author Kate Summerscale wrote, “Perhaps this is the purpose of detective investigations, real and fictional – to transform sensation, horror and grief into a puzzle, and then to solve the puzzle, to make it go away.” We are intrigued by not understanding the totality of something, and demand that it’s resolved by the end. But if an answer is not provided, and we are left unsatisfied, we realise that our reaction to the mystery was actually more important than its solution all along.

Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) and Joel Anderson’s Lake Mungo (2008) consistently deny the audience conventional answers to their puzzling narratives. In the former, a group of schoolgirls disappear at the top of a geological rock formation in central Victoria, Australia, whilst in the latter, drowned teenager Alice Palmer (Talia Zucker) starts appearing in her grieving family’s photographs and video recordings. Instead of satisfying the audience with a definitive resolution to the central mysteries, both Weir and Anderson highlight an often undervalued point – the struggle to solve a complex mystery can damage you in ways that won’t necessarily be healed by the resolution being discovered.

Left to right, Miranda (Anne-Louise Lambert), Marion (Jane Vallis), and Irma (Karen Robson) ascend Hanging Rock.
Image Credit: Atlantic Releasing

It becomes immediately apparent that neither the schoolgirls’ disappearance nor Alice Palmer’s reappearance is grounded in our recognisable reality. In starkly different ways, Weir and Anderson construct a feeling of overwhelming unease around the mysteries that will obstruct attempts to solve them. Weir shows the build-up towards the girls’ disappearance in the ascent sequence, where the hypnotic yet foreboding score serenades the girls’ pilgrimage up the rock. When looking down at her classmates’ picnic, Marion Quade (Jane Vallis) wonders, “Whatever can those people be doing down there?” These are her peers, the people she spends every hour of her school life with, and yet the further she moves away from them, the less she understands their presence. The gathering that Marion was moments ago a part of now seems foreign, her community with the other girls has been severed. Normality has become unrecognisable, she is breaking away from one reality as her group is drawn towards another. The camera looks down at the girls as they pass through narrow gaps in the rock and hides in darkness to watch them pass. It is clear that something is waiting for them at Hanging Rock.

In Lake Mungo, we are not supposed to be entranced by the paranormal like we are in Picnic, but instead are to be unsettled and scared. The film takes the form of a documentary, telling the story through talking-head interviews and recovered footage. The performances are muted and natural, sightings of ghosts are reported with, at most, a slight air of concern. Anderson chooses to ground the film as much as possible, with the only real indulgence being the cliched dramatic music that underlines every supernatural development or discovery. Tension bubbles under the surface, creeping through the viewer as the terror is incrementally dialled up. It’s the most anxious you will ever be watching someone zoom in on the background of a photo. Static images of a blank-faced girl may not be scary in concept, but because the film stylistically asserts its own reality so effectively, any deviation into unnatural territory is all the more affecting.

As Weir has chosen to show the uncanny weirdness of the ascent, watching Picnic we suspect that the search parties and rescue missions that set out to find the girls will not succeed. But in Lake Mungo, Anderson repeatedly assures the audience of the film’s factuality – we hear firsthand the accounts of Alice’s disappearance and see images of her bloated, lifeless corpse. We join the Palmer family in becoming increasingly frustrated when the mystery of her reappearance contradicts the supposedly concrete evidence we’ve witnessed.

The Palmer family, left to right, Mathew (Martin Sharpe), Russell (David Pledger), and June (Rosie Traynor) are interviewed about Alice's death
Image credit: Arclight Films

When the attempted solvings of the central mysteries are confounded, both filmmakers use the motif of obsession. In Picnic, schoolgirl Sara Waybourne (Margaret Nelson) is characterised as an outsider, not even allowed to attend the titular picnic. Late in the film, we see she has built a miniature shrine of Miranda, the leader of the missing group. Within the rigidly ordered school, conformity is necessary and free expression is curtailed, shown by the stern headmistress Mrs Appleyard (Rachel Roberts) cutting off Sara’s recital of an original poem and instead insisting she memorises the set text of the syllabus, one by Felicia Hemans. Within this restrictive environment, the disappearance of the schoolgirls becomes an event of intense fascination; the others see it as a puzzle that they are desperate to solve. When one of the missing girls, Irma (Karen Robson), is found, she is brought to see her classmates, who frenziedly demand to know what happened at Hanging Rock. Concerns about the missing girls’ wellbeing have completely dissipated, their identities have been replaced with the all-consuming mystery.

Similarly, unhealthy obsession plagues Lake Mungo as a coping strategy for grief. The son, Matthew (Martin Sharple) has been faking the ghostly apparitions of his late sister, editing innocuous photos and projecting her in mirrors. Visual evidence is supposedly trustworthy, but it can also be mutable and corruptible, manipulated to prey on vulnerable people and existing insecurities. Instead of being unsettled by the paranormal footage as the audience are, the family find themselves increasingly attached to them, anchoring themselves to the semblance of Alice they see from beyond the grave. “I wouldn’t say the mood was good,” Matthew says after Alice impossibly appears in a photograph for the first time. “But it was better than before.” Matthew’s fakery is just like the construction of a film, a combination of audio and visual stimuli to provoke a reaction.

The mystery of why Alice is returning appears to have a self-fulfilling resolution as the family, unable to move past her death, keeps propagating her presence and will themselves to believe she’s not really gone. But a final piece of footage confounds them for good. Footage is found on Alice’s phone, a phone Matthew had no access to as it was buried months before her death in the titular dry lake. The video shows someone approaching Alice in the darkness. It’s her own bloated, lifeless corpse.

“There is absolutely no rational explanation,” says her mother June (Rosie Traynor). Just when they thought their haunting was nothing more than grief-induced hysteria, something impossible rears its head. 

Sara (Margaret Nelson) is quizzed on her poetry by schoolmistress Mrs Appleyard (Rachel Roberts)
Image Credit: Atlantic Releasing

But instead of being terrified at this confrontation of the supernatural, the Palmers choose to heal. “We just collectively made a decision to move forward,” the father Russell (David Pledger) says. The fact that they cannot explain the footage on Alice’s phone is, in some ways, a relief. If there’s no way they can rationalise it, then there’s nothing they can do. It’s best just to leave it, a lesson that the girls of Appleyard school can’t comprehend. Focusing and worrying about the paranormal evidence will only make their recovery harder. Alice’s death has a damaging emotional fallout, but no investigation will bring her back. 

These films aren’t predicated on leaving audiences satisfied. They want to unpick and study the legacy of unease and pain generated by unsolved mysteries, suspending everyone in numb panic by the lack of consoling answers.

The real solution isn’t an explanation of the events, but instead an understanding of context. Both films are set in Victoria, Australia, and both have real geographical locations in their title. In 1969, 40,000 year old human remains were discovered in Lake Mungo, and removed without consultation with the indigenous peoples, specifically the Mutthi Mutthi, Ngiyampaa, and Paakantji tribes.

In addition, Hanging Rock is a sacred site for the Dja Dja Wurrung, Woi Wurrung and Taungurung people, before they were forcibly displaced from the land. Many succumbed to diseases introduced by colonisers. Not only are our characters ignorant of the true nature of the mysteries, they are ignorant of the very land they happened on, and the long history of disturbances there.

These locations are haunted by past pain, and our characters are unable or unwilling to understand the roots of the mysteries stretch deeper than their personal grief. Because of this, they will never find a clear explanation. In both films, the trauma of the mysteries spreads and infects anyone interested in finding a solution, and they have the same lasting message. A mystery can remain unsolved if its solving irrevocably damages you.