Subtle, unsettling horror: Picnic at Hanging Rock (updated)

I’m constantly amazed at how many really good films exist, even in a relatively narrow genre like horror, that I’m completely unaware of. A few months ago I stumbled across a description of Peter Weir’s 1975 film Picnic at Hanging Rock, bought it, and last night finally sat down to watch it.

The story, set in 1900 at the end of the Victorian era, concerns an outing to the ominous, looming Hanging Rock by a number of students and teachers from Appleyard College, an exclusively women’s institution. While there, four students go exploring the labyrinthine mountain, followed soon after by one of their teachers, and only one returns, in hysterics. (This isn’t a spoiler, as a text introduction describes the disappearances at the very beginning of the film.) The teacher and the three students have disappeared without a trace, and most of them will never be heard from again.

The director does a masterful job of keeping a continuous, low level of tension throughout the film, leaving the viewer unsettled for reasons which aren’t entirely clear. The scenery and the filming are breathtaking. Hanging Rock itself is one of the main characters in the film, and shots of its irregular, craggy surfaces more often than not suggest faces looking or leering down on the people below.

What has happened to the missing girls? Hints, both subtle and unsubtle, are drizzled upon the viewer as the story progresses. Were they victims of a natural or supernatural threat? Were they victims at all? The film ends having given us more questions than answers.

Repressed, and suppressed, sexuality is one of the main themes explored by the film. The outing takes place on Valentine’s Day, and the girls give worship to Saint Valentine before the trip. Victorian era sensibilities not only hinder our understanding of what has occurred, but may have even been part of the cause.

The movie is based on a novel by Joan Lindsay written in 1967, which I now plan on reading. There is also, interestingly enough, a ‘secret’ chapter to the book which was removed from the text prior to publication, and only released to the public in the 1980s. This secret chapter evidently details the actual fate of the missing women.

All in all, I found Picnic at Hanging Rock an exemplary example of subtle, unsettling horror. We are most disturbed by what we don’t see and cannot understand, and the film gives us plenty of both.

Update: I completely forgot to mention that there are similarities between this story and a Ramsey Campbell story, The Man in the Underpass, which is collected in Alone With the Horrors.  That particular story concerns a strange mural in a freeway underpass, and the terror it creates in a number of young children.  Similar themes to Picnic at Hanging Rock are dealt with, albeit much more explicitly.

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6 Responses to Subtle, unsettling horror: Picnic at Hanging Rock (updated)

  1. Personal Demon says:

    Critter and I just watched this film based on the above blog entry. I thought it was OK, and he loved it. I found the ambiguity to be a bit too much, but I have to concede that there is a certain genius to constructing a compelling mystery with no resolution. The novel and the film are popular for the same reason that people are still fascinated by Amelia Earhart’s disappearance or the Jack the Ripper murders. A really good unsolved mystery will keep people speculating for centuries.

    SPOILER ALERT:

    If you want to know the “secret” of Hanging Rock, you can sleuth it out on Wikipedia. I won’t provide a direct link. Anybody who really wants to know should put in a bit of effort. I would be curious to read the removed chapter myself, but it is out of print and pretty valuable.

  2. oz says:

    Ive read it, was ok, I have an origional copy & have it also as Ebook
    dagbro@hotmail.com

  3. mel says:

    I really want to no the truth behind the story of hanging rock. I belive there is more than meets the eye in this mystery .. If anyone nos anything or has some sort of proof that it may be real please email me im really quite curios =) thanks

  4. oz says:

    just to clarify my previous statement, I only have the e-book of the 18th chapter which wasnt published for 20 years after the original book was published, and after Joan Lindsay’s death. The last chapter is a book called “The secret of hanging rock” which explains what actually happened to the girls in the book “the picnic at hanging rock”. Seems I have confused many into thinking I had an ebook of the picnic at hanging rock. Sorry

  5. Oz says:

    I do have a copy of the picnic at hanging rock as an ebook now … dagbro@hotmail.com

  6. Oz says:

    I have ebook copy of both “picnic at hanging rock” and “secret of hanging rock”. No longer use the dagbro@hotmail.com but you can email me at dagbro67@gmail.com

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