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An Unknowable Evil in ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’

An Unknowable Evil in ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’

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What you don’t see is scarier than what you do. This horror movie philosophy has been used time and again to great success. The Haunting utilizes little more than sound effects to represent the spirits that torment the characters. The camera in Rosemary’s Baby fades out just before revealing the contents of that menacing crib. The Blair Witch Project never shows its titular villain, preferring to rely on the sinister atmosphere of its forest environment. The human imagination can be a breeding ground for fear and paranoia, and filmmakers love to take advantage of it. By tossing their villains into shadows and ambiguity, they can force viewers to conjure up evils far more terrifying than anything they could show on the screen.

One man took this philosophy to the extreme. Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock augments ambiguity to a near maddening level. Not only is the monster never seen, but also there is no clear indication of what the monster even is. The fate of the film’s victims is similarly cloaked in uncertainty. At no point does the story ever strip itself of mystery and deliver concise answers. Such a quality has led to many detractors, but the ambiguities are what add to the brilliance of the film. Picnic at Hanging Rock defies interpretation and yields more questions with each viewing. The horrors of the film can never be fully understood, and this is what gives them their power. After all, is there anything really scarier than the unknown?

Opening with the eerie sounds of a pan flute, the story is set at a girl’s boarding school in Australia at the turn of the century. The students are preparing for a St. Valentine’s Day excursion to the nearby geographical marvel known as Hanging Rock. Just before leaving, Mrs. Appleyard, the school’s austere headmistress (played with a frightening severity by Rachel Roberts), informs that girls that, though they should enjoy themselves, they are forbidden from climbing the rock due to its dangerous structure. As a student of horror films, one should be familiar with such words of cautionary advice and realize that they will most likely be ignored. Indeed, it is not long before four of the girls become bored with the picnic and ask one of their teachers if they can explore the base of the rock. Led by the cherubic and alluring Miranda, played by Anne Lambert, the group defies Mrs. Appleyard’s rule and climbs the rock. With one exception, none of them returns.

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What happens to the girls prior to disappearing is arguably the most fascinating part of the entire film. As they climb higher on the rock, it seems as though they forget themselves. They begin to speak enigmatically and shed bits of their clothing. They start to dance in a sexualized manner. Then, amidst deafening silence, three of the girls walk into the opening between two rocks, ignoring the pleas of their unaffected friend Edith for them to return to the picnic. The film then cuts to Edith running down the rock, her piercing screams filling the silence.

From this point, a typical horror film would make a straightforward progression. The origin of the rock’s power would be gradually revealed to the audience, and the whereabouts of the girls would be established. But this doesn’t happen. If anything, Hanging Rock has less of a presence in the latter half of the film. Instead, more focus is placed on how the surviving characters must deal with the effects of the disappearance.

Mrs. Appleyard, in particular, is placed in a compromising situation after the events on Hanging Rock. Aside from the three girls, a teacher also vanished at the picnic. The parents of the remaining students worry about the safety of their children, and they begin to withdraw their girls from the school. Nearby communities are also affected by the mystery. People start to speculate about the fate of the girls, and many take part in searching the rock for them. One young boy eventually becomes so obsessed with the event that it nearly drives him insane.

All of this encompasses the entire second half of the film, and Weir never even hints at a possible resolution. Why does he remain with the local citizens rather than investigate the enigma that is Hanging Rock? A sense of vulnerability is what ultimately drives fear, and nothing makes people feel more defenseless than what they are incapable of understanding. People can scour the world trying to find answers, but the universe will always have more questions to yield. Weir keeps his audience at the same distance as his characters, and the results are effective. The unknown lingers everywhere, from Hanging Rock to death itself, and it has caused people to cower in fear and submission for centuries. Not even Godzilla could come close to achieving such a feat.

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