When I was a kid I believed that ghosts lived upstairs. To be specific, for years my grandfather encouraged me to believe that Boo, the ghost from Super Mario Brothers 3, lived in my bedroom. I remember how my heart raced as I climbed those steep stairs in the dark, hoping to catch a glimpse and prepared to run away at the first sign of danger. I used to be afraid of a lot of things. Flush toilets were an unending source of peril. I would dash out of the bathroom after pulling the flush lever because I believed that a hand would come out of the toilet and drag me into the pipes. When I was a kid, I lived in a mysterious world. The realm of possibility was so large. Ghosts and monsters and friendly spirits were just as feasible as gravity and magnetism. It was scary, but it was exhilarating too.

At some point, though, I lost my ability to appreciate the unexplained in everyday life. Maybe it was the hours of science classes. Maybe it was the way that modern life encouraged me to think in a reductionist way where I could naively assume that all phenomena can ultimately be explained with enough brain power. Maybe I just decided that I didn’t have time to enjoy frivolous things like the mysteries of existence. After all, what utility is there in what I can’t explain? Better to stick to the comforts of the predictable and the mundane. Better to stick to a little world where I understand everything.

Of course, there are times when an experience, a piece of art, or a conversation will pull me back into that world. For a short while, they help me return to a place where the unexplainable is something to be treasured and not an indelible ink-splotch obscuring a spot on my map of reality. Watching Picnic at Hanging Rock, the 1975 film from director Peter Weir, was just such an experience. This film, with its loose plotting and enigmatic dialog, reminded me that, where answers satisfy my need for order and regularity, it’s not knowing that makes the world feel alive. 

Picnic at Hanging Rock centers around a disappearance. On Valentine’s Day, 1900, three girls and a teacher go missing at Hanging Rock, a local geological formation, while on a field trip. The film traces both the disappearance itself as well as its aftermath. As I watched the movie for the first time, I did what I had been conditioned to do: find the kidnapper. I kept looking for clues. Did Michael Fitzhubert [Dominic Guard], a teenage boy who saw them approach Hanging Rock abduct them? Or was it his valet, Albert [John Jarratt] who was eying them lustfully alongside Michael? Or maybe Miss McCraw [Vivean Gray], the missing teacher, had something to do with it.

As the movie continues, though, it becomes clear that the movie isn’t going to provide any answers. Why do the clocks stop? Why did Irma [Karen Robson], one of the missing girls, return unharmed after days in the wilderness? Why does Michael become obsessed with finding the missing girls, and how is he able to find Irma even though the search party couldn’t earlier? What happens to people when they enter Hanging Rock? The mysteries pile up. None are answered. 

Even before the disappearance, the movie luxuriates in an air of mystery. The script is enigmatic from its opening lines when we hear Miranda [Anne-Louise Lambert], one of the teenagers who goes missing, intone, “What we see and what we seem are but a dream, a dream within a dream.” We later hear her foreshadowing her disappearance when she says, “I won’t be here for much longer” to her friend Sara. Whether she knew how the day would play out is open to interpretation. And as the girls climb up Hanging Rock, they proceed as though they’re possessed by a spirit that’s guiding them to a different plane of existence.

In the wrong hands, layering on question after question can lead to frustration. Remember Lost? That show, so intriguing at first, lost its momentum as its plot became tangled in its own web of unanswered questions. Picnic at Hanging Rock doesn’t suffer from this problem. Unlike Lost, which reveled in stringing its viewers along for season after season, Picnic never promises a great reveal. Instead, as I watched the film, my desire for answers melted away. Somewhere between the otherworldly scenery, the ethereal dialog, and the growing sense of foreboding that the film builds, I stopped caring so much about answers and started basking in the unknown. The film blanketed me in the sense that the world was bigger than I could ever comprehend. It returned me to the world I inhabited as a child where the wonderful, the terrible, the mysterious, and the mundane could exist beyond any corner and manifest in any moment. 

As an adult in the modern world, I’m addicted to knowing. I need to know I’ll get paid this month. I need to know I’ll have a job next year. I need to know that, when I open the door to my apartment, everything will be the way that I left it. I spend so much time trying to know things that there’s no room for mystery. It leads to a life that’s predictable, comfortable, and efficient, if mundane. A film like Picnic at Hanging Rock, for a couple of hours, reminds me that this life of mine, with its order and stability, is just an illusion suspended within a universe that I can never understand.

Here's what we'll have this week:

  • The Cinessential Podcast, Episode 16
  • Essays on the film's philosophy of mystery and elements of horror
  • Related Review of another Australian oddity, Walkabout
  • And more!