Using the Gothic for good with ‘’Ghost Species’’ and ‘’Picnic at Hanging Rock’’

With my first blog post being about ‘’Ghost Species’’ and my second on ‘’Picnic at Hanging Rock’’, what better way to end the trilogy than by combining the two. For those that have not yet seen or read ‘’Picnic at Hanging Rock’’, I want to once again recommend you do. It’s not only a great and iconic piece of Australian Gothic, but also just a stellar work in general. Now then, on with the topic:

By now we’re most likely all very familiar with typical Gothic elements and their intended use. I will focus on three of them for this blog post. These being the uncanny, which blurs the lines between what is real and what is not, effectively heightening the sense of unease. The sublime, which evokes feelings of both sheer horror and simultaneously sheer beauty through vast landscapes for example. And finally the monster, arguably the most famous Gothic trope which unsurprisingly serves as a source of looming terror for both the reader and the characters. In short, these tropes are closely linked to horror and the macabre. But that is not always the case.

Here is where ‘’Picnic at Hanging Rock’’ and ‘’Ghost Species’’ come into play. Take Eve for example. Initially, everything about here is presented in a way that makes it clear for the reader that she is something not human, more specifically not like the rest of the humans in the story. Her appearance and her behavior are always purposefully kept in the twilight zone between human and not human, a state of uncanniness. As the story progresses and her character gets much more fleshed out, it becomes apparent that her differences are much more superficial than previously assumed. She is a Neanderthal, though possesses qualities that resemble those of a Homo Sapiens. She is much stronger than those around her, but can be just as delicate and is very capable of feeling and expressing deep emotions. The entire sequence at the party is a great example of that, where it shows Eve pondering feelings of love not unlike anyone in this day and age would. Towards the very end of the novel, when Lucas is almost killed, the source of the uncanny becomes a source of hope when Eve decides to use her inhuman strength to fend off Drago. I consider this a really great and effective subversion of the classic monster trope in Gothic literature and a nice twist on the uncanny on top of just being a really exciting moment in general.

In ‘’Picnic at Hanging Rock’’, the ominous rock, looms silently and is always made to appear alluring yet threatening. Both its beauty and its terrifyingly mysterious aura capture the essence of the sublime quite nicely. It is initially framed by Mrs. Appleyard as something dangerous that is not to be explored, only to be observed from a safe distance. To the girls that eventually decide to explore the rock though, it serves more as a symbol of emancipation and independence. They can be seen taking off both their gloves and eventually their shoes the further they ascend, which shows how they free themselves from the chains of Appleyard College and the strict societal norms of the early 20th century in general. This gained independence is thanks to the previously demonized rock that is now painted in a completely different light than in the beginning.

Overall, the use of Gothic elements in both ‘’Picnic at Hanging Rock’’ and ‘’Ghost Species’’ serves to subvert what readers and viewers have come to know as traditional elements of the Gothic. Instead of purely horror and fear, these elements are a symbol of strength and independence among others. Eve uses her inhuman abilities to protect and the rock gives the girls the freedom to explore a world outside of the confines of a facility that is arguably more fit as a symbol of the uncanny and sublime than the rock itself.

Picnic at Hanging Rock – A spoiler free introduction to an Australian Gothic classic

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 😉