The construction of horror in Picnic at Hanging Rock

Peter Weir’s 1975’s film Picnic at Hanging Rock, based on Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel of the same title, is the story of the mysterious disappearence of two college girls and a teacher. The film is considered Australia’s entry point into international art cinema. It is through the particular depiction of Australian culture and landscape, but also through the quality of imagery and sound that it attracted both an Australian and international audience.

 What happened on Valentine’s Day in the year 1900 to Miranda (Anne Lambert), Marion (Jane Vallis) and Miss McCraw (Vivean Gray) is never found out by the police. After the book was published, many believed the disappearance of the women and the absence of any kind of crime to be part of a true story. In interviews, author Joan Lindsay claimed that it is on the reader to decide wether these dramatic events are fact or fiction.[1]

The very successful film Picnic at Hanging Rock was said to have all the elements for a quality film considering the mise-en-scene, the language, costumes and the locations. According to Queensland University  professor Tom O’Regan, Picnic at Hanging Rock also “relieved anxieties about Australian cultural capacities in general and film-makers’ capacities in particular. With it  Australian film had come to maturity”[2]. He mentions further that Picnic “achieved the double gaze of local and international appreciation that the Ocker films , a genre of Australian action comedies with male protagonists, had not been able to attain”.

The audience could discover a film which was able to participate in the shaping of both Australian cultural values and what would be classified as Australian art cinema. Apart from the wild  Australian landscape of Mount Macedon, the film is particular in its creation of horror through imagery, music and the characters’ anticipation.

Credits: Cafeina
Sara observing the girls leaving for Hanging Rock
Credits: Cafeina

A presentiment of horror

The very intimate environment, Appleyard Girl’s College, serves as the entry point of the movie and situates the atmosphere in which the middle-class adolescent girls of Australia’s end of 19th century middle-class grow up. Although sentimental poetry and good-natured closeness are at the core of the girl’s relationships, their pure and gentle ways go together with a mysterious fatalism and foreseeing of horror and death. Sara, a quiet and mysterious character obsessed with the angelic Miranda, seems to anticipate the events. Miranda, in return, reacts to Sara’s feelings with a knowing look: “You must learn to love someone else, apart from me, Sara. I won’t be here much longer.”

Sara’s existence seems connected with Miranda’s: when she disappears and Sara is, later on, not able to pursue at Appleyard, the only thing left to attain is death. Sara’s strange alienatedness is underlined by Irma: “Sara reminds me of a little deer Papa brought home once. I looked after it, but it died. Mama always said it was doomed.”

Edith, another College student, fears  the mountain itself to be “nasty” and “doomed” before anything happens.

Miss McCraw, on the other hand, conveys mystery through her scientifical observation of the mountain. She has what Mrs. Appleyard calls “masculine intellect” which, ironically, relates to her study of mathematics, her watch and her scientific explanations.

Valentine cake
The cutting of the Valentine cake is a sign of what is yet to come
Credits: Moviewords

The disappearance of her, designed as a character of reason and astuteness, certainly indicates loss of control and overtaking of the situation by an unexplained order. The characters’ observations are central to the development of the film in which none of the horrible events are actually shown. The construction of horror is therefore very suble and consists  in the protagonists’ underlying a sort of mysterious force, before and during the picnic at the rock.

The imagery

The mystery lies somewhere in the wildness of Mount Macedon, “a million years” old mountain that seems to have waited for the girls. The woods around Hanging Rock are said to have been a sacred ceremonial site for Aboriginals. It is an example of Australian nature as a carrier of national Aboriginal mystique.[3] “An important landmark at the border of four Aboriginal territories, the rock was the site of large tribal gatherings for initiations, trade and marriage ceremonies.”[4] Appearently, the rock itself was not climbed, because it was believed to be inhabited by malevolent spirits.

In the film, the protective space of the college is abandoned for exactly this wildness and uncontrolability. The grey peaks of Hanging Rock become an important part of the film’s imagery: shots of the bare rock interrupt the events at many times, almost as if the mountain was a character that takes possession of the girls.

Wildlife is displayed in various shots of colourful wild animals such as birds, snakes and insects. Their position is aggressive, the eyes of the birds wide open and mysterious, their shreak is shrill and scary. Ants climb the feet of the girls while they lie down in a sort of trancy sleep.

A notion of horror is conveyed through repeated filming of the protagonists’ eyes staring at the peaks with an expression of anxiety. Electronically modified sounds complete these scenes and associate the mountain with loss of control and danger of what is yet to come.

At the foot of the dark Hanging Rock

Haunting sounds

At the beginning of the picnic, the rock seems calm and undisclosed from afar. The sound of flutes accompanies the ride to Hanging Rock. The girls imagine themselves to be alone up there, the only existing humans. The notion of paradise is underlined by calm sounds of relaxation and well-being. The camera movements that show the immensity of the rock, on the other hand, are already loaded with electronic sounds that presuppose dramatic events.

The more the girls climb up to the peaks of the mountain, the more the sound seems to signify loss of control. Wild drums and dark electronic beats accompany the girls’ adventure through the grass, until they arrive where there is no more vegetation.

At their disappearance, sound drastically boosts the imagination of the viewer about what is really happening to the group.

Picnic at Hanging Rock takes its success from the very suble creation of horror and the  film’s quality. Conveying a more positive image of what is “the” Australian culture and Australian cinema, Picnic is considered the first film that “needs no apology to be produced in Australia”[5]. The success of the film was based, on one hand, on the similarity with mainstream Hollywood releases that were popular in Australia and, on the other hand, on its entry in international art cinema and cultural TV markets.



[1]Skeptoid 308, May 2012,

[2] Tom O’Regan, A fine Cultural Romance. Aspects of Australian film in the late 1970’s,


[4] Jenny Brown, A haunt at the heart of tribal life, April 2012,

[5] Tom O’Regan, Idem.

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