Over the course of this semester, we have talked about a lot of Australian media, be they novels, short stories or short movies. Since the semester is ending, I find it only fitting to go out with a bang and talk about the iconic Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay, rightfully considered by many to be one of the best in Australian literature. I agree wholeheartedly and would even go as far as to say that, though my overall knowledge is still limited, Picnic at Hanging Rock is an essential for the Australian Gothic. Why? Good question! Let me invite you to learn more about it, don’t worry, there are no spoilers.
But first, here is some basic information:
The movie I am basing this post on, was directed by Peter Weir and came out in 1975, but is actually based on the Joan Lindsay’s novel of the same name. It is set in Australia (surprise!) in the year 1900 and focuses on Appleyard College, an ‘’Educational Establishment for Young Ladies’’ which is under the strict monitoring and regulation of its headmistress, Mrs. Appleyard. On Valentines Day of that year, the College plans a trip to the Hanging Rock, for the girls to be free and enjoy themselves for a day. Needless to say, that is not exactly what happens.
Let’s now look at some of the Gothic elements present in the movie, starting with the most obvious, the Hanging Rock itself. Many years ago, the indigenous people of Australia used the rock formation to hold sacred rituals and practiced their role as its custodians, before being forcefully ‘uninvited’ by colonialists. Its’ unusually sharp edges and overwhelming size loom silently above the people’s heads and the mere aura it gives off is almost tangible. The name ‘’Hanging Rock’’ alone is mysterious enough to pique your interest completely (at least that was the case for me). Truly a fantastic example of the sublime with a distinctly Australian twist. In complementary fashion, the surrounding environment helps flesh out the sublime nature of the location even further. Wide, open fields of uneven, pale yellow and light brown terrain with hills and scattered groups of trees, varying in density. It evokes a sense of infiniteness that fits the Gothic genre like a glove. The thought of the cast being out there in this infiniteness, not guarded by the confines of Appleyard College helps strengthen the feeling of eeriness exuded by the rock. I find that the outback is a pretty genius spin on the staple of the Gothic, the fog. Whereas the fog aims to reduce vision to scare characters, readers and viewers alike, the outback does the exact opposite. Our sight is not hindered whatsoever, we can see precisely how empty and barren the land before us is and that is what makes the great outback just as scary as the fog. You know you’re at the mercy of nature.
Naturally the movie also has its fair share of uncanny moments. It may be debatable, but I think even Appleyard College itself can be considered uncanny from a modern point of view, as the regulations and restrictions for the girls are so twisted and far removed from what we consider acceptable today, it makes the facility seem even creepier than the rock itself. Though there are plenty of traditional examples as well, like all clocks simultaneously stopping after they arrive at the rock formation. On top of being creepy on its own, it helps blur the concept of time which supports the previously established atmosphere. Later on some of the girls start behaving in strange ways, acting outside of the norm they’re used to at Appleyard College like disregarding orders by their supervisors. It appears as if they are being lured in by the rock and have no control over their bodies.
To really get the whole picture, I highly recommend you watch the movie (or read the novel but the movie really is excellent), as my words can do neither the cinematography nor the soundtrack justice in any way. There is so much more to uncover, like the theme of order vs. chaos being represented by Appleyard and the outback respectively, but I wanted to keep it concise and focus on the Gothic elements. Once more, I urge you to watch the movie yourself, even if it may be fairly slow and definitely not an action-packed blockbuster. In regard to the Australian Gothic though, it is undoubtedly one of the all-time greats.
Bonus fun fact: Legendary Australian Singer-Songwriter Nick Cave held an amazing concert right at the real Hanging Rock not long ago (November ’22) together with Warren Buffet, which you should also check out 😉