Horror Month Day 12: Picnic at Hanging Rock

Today’s guest review comes to us from Jeff Barrus, one of the hosts of long-running tv podcast Television Zombies. He writes about his favorite horror movie, Picnic at Hanging Rock.

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When thinking of horror films, Peter Weir’s 1975 film, Picnic at Hanging Rock, may not immediately come to mind. After a cursory glance, one might assume that it’s a period costume drama set in the Australian outback. But like its successors — most notably David Lynch’s Twin PeaksPicnic at Hanging Rock operates at a much deeper level, fusing dream-like surrealism with themes of female sexuality, social class, and yes, horror.

Picnic at Hanging Rock title

The film centers around an exclusive all-girls boarding school in the 19th century outback. One morning, the teenage students are taken on a picnic to nearby Hanging Rock, a secluded hillside topped with jagged boulders and ominous crevices. As the midday sun beats down on the girls and their teachers, many are overtaken with a sudden need to nap. The camera shows them, illuminated in beams of light, as they rest from the heat, a legion of ants invading their lunch.

One of the girls, an ethereal blonde named Miranda, proposes that she and several friends climb the nearby rock. The teachers reluctantly give their permission, and Miranda and her friends head out on their expedition. Along the way, they are observed by Michael, a young Englishman who is immediately smitten with Miranda. He watches as they cross a creek and make their way up the rock.

The characters of Picnic at Hanging Rock explore

When the girls reach the top, the film becomes increasingly surreal and ominous, the stones looming around them. Like their classmates at the foot of the rock, the girls become overtaken by the heat and lay down on the ground. Shortly after, Miranda rises in a dreamlike state and leads two of her friends into the maze-like crevices, while another girl, Edith, watches on in horror. She pleads for them not to go, but Miranda and her friends ignore her, disappearing into the darkness.

It’s this moment when the film truly begins — we soon learn that Miranda and her friends have simply vanished. The school and the local townsfolk search in vain for them, but find no trace of where they might have gone. Their absence from the film is the source of its horror — did Michael and his servant follow them unseen and kill them? Did they simply get lost and die of exposure? Or, more sinisterly, did they pass into another world, taken by the spirits who inhabit the rock?

The rest of the film finds society crumbling in the girls absence. Michael becomes obsessed with Miranda, seeing visions of her everywhere, with the audience left to question if he’s really seeing her, or if we’re merely privy to his imagination. When one of the girls is recovered alive, but with no memory of what happened to her friends, we are as frustrated as the rest of their classmates. Why won’t she tell us? Why doesn’t she know?

The girls of Picnic at Hanging Rock

In the end, Picnic at Hanging Rock‘s terror is driven by the absence of knowledge. With no clear answers, we’re left to imagine the fate of Miranda and her friends for ourselves. It is also the terror that most of us feel when contemplating death — the unknowable absence of life. Perhaps the truth is worse than any fantasy we might have — or maybe it’s better. We’ll never know the answer.

I first saw the film many years ago, when I was in college in the 1990’s, and it left an indelible impression on me. I remain entranced by its dreamlike quality and continue to be troubled by its central mystery. The cinematography, tinged with natural light, as well as the haunting soundtrack, build a surreal, dreamlike world that is almost a costume drama, but also almost a nightmare. It is this overlap between the real and the imagined that makes it so memorable.