Picnic At Hanging Rock is one of the most celebrated novels and film adaptations in modern Australian history. But its effects on ancient Aboriginal culture aren’t worth celebrating, writes JOSEPH EARP.
Remembering The Rock: A History Obscured By Fiction
“The myth of vanishing white schoolgirls is obsessively retold, while the removal and displacement of Aboriginal people and cultures is actively ignored.” – Amy Spiers
The words ‘Hanging Rock’ have been drained of meaning in 21st century Australia. They are vague signifiers now, snipped off from their source like a budding plant pulled from the ground. What do we talk about when we talk about Hanging Rock? Certainly not the site itself, a six-million-year-old, 105-metre-high behemoth located in Wurundjeri territory, near Victoria’s Macedon ranges. The ancient volcanic blister is almost the last thing those two words denote – and its history means even less, blemished and forgotten thanks to decades of counterfeit stories carefully laid over the top.
Or perhaps that should read ‘story’. After all, it is almost wholly thanks to the prevailing power of Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel Picnic At Hanging Rock – adapted into the classic Australian film by Peter Weir in 1975 – that fiction has obscured the cultural history of the site. The book’s invented heroines, chief among them the blonde-haired, blue-eyed Miranda, have been implanted into the place, treated with all the reverence we afford to deeply ingrained cultural myths.
Hanging Rock is a key part in one big white vanishing myth Caucasian Australians have obsessively told themselves for decades.
For most white Australians, it is no longer of any matter that Hanging Rock itself was a dividing point for four Aboriginal territories, or that it sits at the very centre of historically and culturally valuable indigenous land. Nor is it recognised that the outcrop held such a degree of power to the local people – established tribes who had lived in the area for more than 26,000 years – that they refused to climb it. And, perhaps predictably, it is almost never acknowledged as a site of atrocities committed by white settlers, with introduced diseases such as smallpox ravaging the local population.
No. Instead, Hanging Rock has slowly come to denote something entirely different. Its meaning has been hijacked by the film and book that bear its name, and the site now conjures up neither the indigenous history of our country, nor even the country itself. Hanging Rock is code, a stand-in for images of white virginal women, floating through the outback, lost to time and to their people. And it is a key part in one big white vanishing myth Caucasian Australians have obsessively told themselves for decades; an integral cog in the reshaping of this country’s history and a wide-scale repurposing of its landscape.
That refitting continues to this day. The legacy of Picnic At Hanging Rock inspires cheap, hasty pilgrimages by (predominantly white) tourists, as travellers visit the site to bellow lines from the film off its uppermost point. Even the Lonely Planet guide to the area, not usually a text type to be dotted with even accidental irony, puts it thus:
“Those fey young girls in virginal white dresses have been replaced by large robust groups of picnickers, hordes of car club members involved in sparkplug-changing competitions and, well, anyone who can pay the $5 admission price. The two most important calendar events are the annual Hanging Rock Picnic (usually sometime in late February) with its emphasis on regional grog, and the New Year’s Day Hanging Rock Horse Races.”
This is the legacy of the novel and film. Though they were never calculated attacks on indigenous culture, both have contributed to a changing cultural landscape – one in which Aboriginal memory has been replaced first by virgins in white and then by “regional grog”.
“I think there’s a national shame going on,” writer and academic Amy Spiers tells the BRAG. “It’s difficult to talk about the frontier past. That’s why a lot of people are so invested in denying and avoiding it.”
There is a gasped line in Weir’s film that has become troublingly prescient now. Confronted by the sight of Hanging Rock for the first time, one of Picnic’s heroines dreamily mutters that the monolith has been “waiting a million years, just for us”. These days, the aside no longer reads like the tip of the hat towards youthful arrogance that it was meant to be – now, it has taken on the eerie ring of truth.
After all, Hanging Rock does largely belong to Weir and Lindsay’s protagonists. It is no longer of the earth. Instead, it is an artificial marker, designed to highlight fictitious Caucasian pains at the expense of very real Aboriginal ones – a great, towering fiction, hastily assembled and reinforced by years of cultural worship. In 21st century Australia, Hanging Rock is not itself.
Against The Bush: Joan Lindsay And The Colonial Narrative
“Appleyard College was already, in the year nineteen hundred, an architectural anachronism in the Australian bush – a hopeless misfit in time and place.” – Picnic At Hanging Rock, Joan Lindsay
Joan Lindsay’s Picnic At Hanging Rock is almost as famous for what its pages don’t contain as for what they do. The legacy of the sparsely written, elegiac novel has been assured by its notable lack of an ending, and its central conundrum – the disappearance of three beautiful young schoolchildren and a teacher at Hanging Rock – never meets a satisfactory resolution. “The College Mystery, like that of the celebrated case of the Marie Celeste, seems likely to remain forever unsolved,” teases the book’s very last line.
Instead, what Lindsay aims to explore is the effects of the disappearance, as a range of further evils befall the confused, enigma-obsessed residents of Appleyard College and its surrounding township. Those left behind – chief among them Sara, a strange and sexually ambiguous young girl infatuated with one of the missing characters, Miranda – find they can never fill the absence that has been gouged into their lives. Instead, they tear themselves apart, meeting a range of violent and unfortunate ends, as the bush that swallowed up their friends remains silent, inaccessible and evil.
The novel has also earned a place in history thanks to its author’s considerable skills as a myth-maker. Aside from being a fine writer of prose, Lindsay knew how to sell her work. She long insisted that the novel was based on a true story, and worked hard to ensure that its narrative was regarded with all the hazily defined prestige and terror we afford to horror stories told around a campfire.
Some were so convinced that truth hid within the pages of Lindsay’s slim novel that they began to scour the State Library, desperately searching for some historical record to back up the myth. Lindsay remained coy about it all. “I can’t tell you whether the story is fact or fiction,” she told Melbourne’s The Herald at the time. “But a lot of very strange things have happened around the area of Hanging Rock.”
Caucasian Australians obsessively share tales of white tragedies to blot out other crimes they were actively complicit in.
Yet despite Lindsay’s vague prompting, amateur sleuths never found what they were looking for. They were being actively misled. As Terence O’Neill notes in Joan Lindsay: A Time For Everything, the origins of Picnic are mundane. The novel was not born of some great, ancient evil, or an obscured horror – instead, it was sparked off by “a brief article in [a] school magazine” that Lindsay read when she was young, written “by a Miss McCraw … describing a school photographic excursion she led to Hanging Rock”.
“There are striking parallels in Lindsay’s novel to a number of the descriptions in the article,” O’Neill continues. “In both, the picnic party is accompanied by a teacher named Miss McCraw … in both they arrive at the foot of the Rock in the late afternoon. In the article they depart the school ‘freshly clad’ and return at night as ‘sorry objects’.”
That explains why the host of Picnic-obsessed private detectives returned to the novel empty-handed, lacking the sources they were so convinced must be hiding out there, somewhere. Despite all Lindsay’s carefully placed asides to the media – despite her attempts to slot her tale into reality itself – her work came about from vague generalisations and a rather unremarkable magazine article.
Yet Lindsay was taking cues from her world. She might not have been assembling an eerie ghost story out of a mess of scattered facts like she thought, but she was subconsciously picking up on troubling biases that white Australia seems unwilling to address; pervasive lies that colonisation has left behind. That her heroines are not “sorry objects” but a heap of traumatised settlers is telling in itself, and helps lump Picnic in with a long and storied history of Australian white vanishing myths.
“The white vanishing myth started right from colonisation,” Elspeth Tilley explains to the BRAG. Tilley would know: as the Associate Professor of English at Massey University in New Zealand, she is one of the chief experts on colonial narratives and the author of White Vanishing: Rethinking Australia’s Lost-In-The-Bush Myth.
“I studied it, and found hundreds of examples – I think the first one I found was about seven years after colonisation. And the basic structure is the same. These tales have a familiar kind of feel to them; familiar now because there have been so many hundreds of them in Australian culture.”
Indeed, the trope has become so recognisable that Tilley is able to recite its bare-bones structure without missing a beat. “A white person goes into the bush and becomes suddenly disoriented – they may have been able to see a track, and it’s as though the track suddenly disappeared. Or maybe they might have known what time of day it was and all of a sudden they become disoriented about what time it is.
“Then they get very panicked and they either die and are never recovered or they are rescued by their gallant white community. But either way there tends to be a marker placed on the landscape recognising where they were and where they died … and then the story gets retold.”
Tilley accepts that the structure has its roots in reality: white settlers did of course go missing, and some of the monuments set down in the landscape to honour them still remain. But she argues the sheer volume of the stories has drowned out the historical record, as Caucasian Australians obsessively share tales of white tragedies to blot out other crimes they were actively complicit in.
“There were obviously real white vanishings, but they became overtold,” Tilley says. “They became retold and fictionalised intensively. So probably for every five real vanishings there were about a hundred to 200 retellings that were fictionalised exaggerations.”
In that way, Picnic is the definitive white vanishing myth – an almost beat-by-beat recreation of the subgenre’s essential form. After all, the missing girls do become disoriented; one of them is recovered by their gallant white community; and, tellingly, a watch does stop just before they disappear.
That last point is more telling than one might think. The old stopped watch trope is not just some idle way of creating tension, or creakily heightening the central characters’ disorientation – it is, Tilley explains, a fundamental signifier of colonial anxiety.
“European people bring Cartesian ideas of time when they come and colonise,” Tilley says. “They just impose them on places as though that’s what time is. But our understanding of time is actually cultural – time is what we have chosen to describe it, it’s not a thing that exists as a material reality. Indigenous peoples have their own measuring of time. So when colonisers come and impose these things, there’s always an underlying anxiety or recognition that they have put something arbitrary in place and pretended that that’s the way that things are.
“It’s almost like a repressed knowledge,” she continues. “Colonisers know that they’re colonising when they do it, but they kind of try and tell themselves that they are civilising and being very generous. But there’s always this repressed knowledge that, ‘Actually, we just marched in here and used a legal fiction to steal the land, committed massacres…’ That knowledge is there, and that knowledge seems to come out via anxieties about space and time. Anxiety erupts in that everything we think of as normal and rational might actually come undone if we stray off the path a little bit.”
Of course, in order to tell that particular story, the landscape itself must be painted as inherently hostile – as fundamentally foreign, in a way that the settlers and colonialists themselves are never seen as being. To that end, in Lindsay’s novel, Hanging Rock is a kind of mythic, unfeeling threat. It is unreadable; its recesses are “teeming with unheard rustlings and twittering, scufflings, scratchings”. In many ways, it is the antagonist of the book: in lieu of a human threat, it swells up to become a hostile force, killing off up to three separate characters.
And yet even still, the book misrepresents Hanging Rock. In her search to transform the outcrop into a vicious, alien force, Lindsay was obliged to obscure the reality she so endlessly claimed to be capturing.
“Hanging Rock is explicitly rendered in the book as trackless,” Tilley explains. “But of course what [we] have found with all the research that has been [done] is that it was a heavily tracked space already. It was a meeting point and a training point for multiple tribes. It was never a wilderness. But the white mythology always goes in and creates a wilderness, erasing everything that there was before.”
Hanging Rock is no villain, nor does it deserve to be described as one. Rather than some maw of ancient evil, swallowing up schoolgirls as they trot into its crevasses, the Rock is of profound cultural significance; rich with history and dotted with tracks. That it has been so desecrated by a book routinely described as one of Australia’s best isn’t some minor fib – it is one tragedy among many, all of them obscured by a weepy schoolgirl named Miranda and her waif-like, wearisome friends.
Cementing The Self: How Hanging Rock Ignited The Aussie Industry
“Whenever anyone starts to talk about Australian film, Picnic is going to come up very quickly. Because it’s a memorable film … It’s profound.” – David Thompson
Though Peter Weir might now be considered one of Australia’s most important directors, a cultural icon responsible for work as varied as Dead Poets Society, The Truman Show and yes, Picnic At Hanging Rock, the Sydneysider wasn’t always held in such high regard. In fact, once upon a time, he was considered a bit of a hack.
Weir’s first five films were slightly sloppily assembled thrillers and dark comedies, and he built his reputation on such bizarre, fascinating fare as Homesdale and The Cars That Ate Paris. The latter might actually be his most interesting work; a 1974 horror-comedy hybrid that remains a brilliantly effective take on small town ignorance and the intertwined evils of industrialisation and violence.
But although such work might have been mould-breaking, it wasn’t exactly winning Weir a great deal of acclaim. Despite the accolade he picked up for Homesdale – an AACTA Award in directing – The Cars That Ate Paris failed to find an audience, instead coming into direct contact with a near landslide of critical derision. It was too ugly, they argued; too vicious, too lacking in cultural worth.
It’s hard to say whether or not such a uniform critical cold shoulder influenced Weir’s work moving forward. After all, the director is famously tight-lipped, giving only the rare interview and even then deigning to talk more about technical concerns than personal ones. But whatever his motivation, it’s certainly true that he changed after Cars. Gone were the broad, ocker voices he stuffed into his films. Gone was the humour and the stylised scenes of cruelty. Instead, he fully embraced the European masters – craftsmen like Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni – and headed off into the bush to shoot a film about schoolgirls disappearing into a mountainside.
In the process, Weir solidified all that was troubling about Lindsay’s book. His version of Picnic is obsessed with ideas of repression and regression; one that can’t take its eyes off its virginal characters as they swoon around homoerotically in white and lace up each other in fetishised corsets. He emphasised lust, painting Hanging Rock as some great, phallic force of sexual freedom, one that tears apart the thin veneer of respectability draped over Appleyard College to reveal the teeming sexuality below. “While the novel plays it cool, more interested in social mores and their unravelling, the movie is all heat,” writes author and critic Megan Abbott.
Of course, in order to make such a thematic case, Weir was forced to tap into all sorts of underlying biases and an undercurrent of colonial guilt. Using Australian nature as a kind of elemental force required Weir to paint it – and, by extension, Aboriginal culture – as inherently lesser. The rock is primitive; base. It is as removed from ideas like ‘culture’ as the Appleyard girls and their corsets are from nature. Yet even as he disparaged the locale, Weir still endlessly romanticised it, casting Hanging Rock as a savage, seductive beast; one that enraptures and fascinates its white victims.
“It’s colonial nostalgia,” Tilley argues. “Colonising people think [their subjects have] lost something in the process of becoming civil. They sort of believe they are further along on this evolutionary hierarchy – that they’re further along and that they’re better evolved. But they also miss this deep, spiritual connection with the land. So they will try to reclaim that through motifs of white people merging with the landscape, as they do in Picnic At Hanging Rock.”
Not that any Australian critics picked up on such subconscious biases at the time. Indeed, Picnic was widely hailed as a masterpiece upon its release, almost unequivocally loved by critics and the audiences that flocked to see it. A box office smash, it is often cited as beginning the Australian New Wave, inspiring filmmakers such as Bruce Beresford and George Miller and cementing Weir’s own reputation.
It helped that the film depicted a vision of Australia that the nation’s government was keen to sell. Rather than the cruel, viciously imaginative horror films being produced at the time, Picnic drew from European cinema instead of local art, and had an air of respectability about it that industry and political figures could not help but love. Picnic touched a nerve for white Australia – touched a nerve and found a home, almost immediately finding itself assimilated into the Caucasian culture of the land.
“It came at a time when Australians were trying to depict themselves on screen and trying to formulate a national character,” says Spiers. “So you can see why it’s captured the public imagination.”
Yet the scars the film inflicted still remain. The damage has been done: Picnic remains the dominating myth of the area, the pervasive lie that cannot be dismissed. And that’s not just thematic, spiritual pain either – the film literally impacted the earth of Hanging Rock.
“These stories just obliterate the way stories about Australian landscape could be told,” Tilley explains. “There’s actually a massive track up Hanging Rock from where they made the movie. When they were filming they put in tarmac so that they could run the dollies for the cameras up and down the rocks. So in telling the story about this trackless mountain, they went and put a track in it.”
That’s not to mention the diminishing of the film’s lone indigenous actor. As much as Weir’s Picnic claims to be about the Australian landscape, it underplays the agency of this country’s real owners.
“There was an Aboriginal actor in Peter Weir’s film, but he didn’t get a speaking part,” explains Spiers. “And he didn’t get listed in the cast as well. This kind of structural racism goes even to the point where the Aboriginal actor doesn’t get named in the cast.” She laughs ruefully. “It’s so crazy.”
Retelling The Story: Miranda Must Go
“The myth of a young white girl being lost at Hanging Rock: it’s not true. It’s a novel. And somehow it’s turned into some reality. [White] Australia’s got no real history: I suppose they’re grabbing at whatever they can get.” – Robbie Thorpe
When Amy Spiers launched Miranda Must Go, a campaign designed to emphasise the indigenous history of Hanging Rock, she expected to encounter a bit of a pushback from what she describes as the “usual places”. Australia is certainly full to the brim with white male mouthpieces who have a vested interest in upholding the work of Caucasian Australians as the country’s real cultural life.
Yet what she wasn’t expecting was the opposition from a range of leftist academics and literary theorists. These academics criticised Spiers’ initiative, arguing that there was no need to underplay Weir’s film or Lindsay’s book in order to emphasise the local history of the Rock.
“One of the responses a lot of people have had to the campaign, particularly literary theorists who have written about Picnic At Hanging Rock, is that it has a latent subtext which is all about our inability to talk about colonialism,” Spiers says.
“So that’s one of the arguments: that Picnic deals with colonial aggression. And I suppose my argument is that that subtext is lost on a lot of visitors to Hanging Rock. They don’t see that subtext. They just see Miranda and the white schoolgirls in a really literal sense. And I guess given that white Australians are so invested in denying our colonial past, it seems kind of inappropriate at this time to be dealing with colonial violence through subtext. I feel like we need to address it directly.”
You cannot argue the value of fiction that has been built on years of colonial oppression while simultaneously claiming to honour the historical dead.
That, in unabashed terms, is the aim of Miranda Must Go. Through awareness-raising community drives, articles Spiers herself has written, social media campaigns and extensive media coverage, the academic and activist is attempting to make clear the indigenous history of Hanging Rock, and to reclaim a truth too long ignored in favour of a fiction.
“The Miranda Must Go campaign is trying to point out that white Australians are very good at marking out their own sufferings in the landscape. And I guess that’s what the Miranda campaign is trying to point out: we are actually invested in denying this Aboriginal history, or minimising it. Because the minute you start talking about dispossession and illegal occupation of the land, then that leads to conversation about Aboriginal land rights, and that makes a lot of white Australians quite uncomfortable.”
Ultimately, this is why Tilley and Spiers argue that paying homage both to the real-life history and Lindsay’s tale is a fundamental cop-out. You cannot hold in your mind two narratives that negate each other. You cannot argue the value of fiction that has been built on years of colonial oppression while simultaneously claiming to honour the historical dead. And you cannot argue that stories of white anxieties still hold a place in this, a society in which even Caucasian falsehoods are honoured over atrocities committed against Aboriginal Australians.
Tilley puts it best. “Who cares if white people are anxious?” she laughs bitterly. “They bloody well should be. They should do something else about it instead of whingeing via the white vanishing novel endlessly, because that doesn’t help or fix anything. It’s kind of a Band-Aid solution that prevents our culture from coming to grips with the reality underneath.
“It stops us from going, ‘Hang on, do we have a treaty?’ ‘No.’ ‘Do we need one?’ ‘Probably, yes.’ ‘How much are we making reparations?’ ‘What are the things embedded in our institutions that are dispossessing and disenfranchising indigenous Australians?’”
This is the true crime of Hanging Rock. It’s not the fictional mystery Lindsay so endlessly documented and lied about to the press, or the sexual repression Weir drooled over. It is the atrocity of one culture being upheld at the expense of another: a crime with roots in a colonial history white Australians can still barely stand to acknowledge.