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Looking Back On: Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)

On Valentine’s Day in the year 1900, the students of an Australian girl’s school held a picnic near a place called Hanging Rock, a million year old erupted volcano. Three of the students and one of their teachers would never return. 

Peter Weir’s dreamy and surreal adaptation of the 1967 novel by Joan Lindsay is one of the best and, unfortunately, overlooked entries in the Dead Poets Society director’s filmography. The 1975 film was an important installment in Australia's growing cinematic New Wave movement and although it was critically acclaimed and a relative success commercially, it has been largely forgotten by the general public. However, its bold and notorious ending that chooses to not reveal the fates of the missing girls and giving the other characters no chance of finding them has cemented it in the film community as an extremely important and influential film. Infused with heavy symbolism and opportunity for significant interpretation as well as being simply beautifully done, Picnic at Hanging Rock is one of the most haunting and unique mystery films to ever come out of Australia.

Picnic at Hanging Rock successfully casts a meditative spell over viewers, its off putting strangeness being extremely subtle. It benefits from being the kind of film where nothing makes much sense. Viewers get the sense that it could become horrifying at any moment, transforming into an unsettling kind of horror, free of dramatic shlock. It subverts expectations this way, as it is given so many opportunities to be silly or ingenuine and choses instead to commit to its frightening and simultaneously beautiful mood. Its superimposed shots are not outdated or cheesy the way they often are in many other older films, instead they are natural and fitting. The film’s score is inconsistent, made up of different organ based music, sometimes with mystical pan flutes. Other times it is made up of dramatic string ensembles playing major classical pieces or understated piano. Occasionally operatic singing or synth can be heard and yet despite its lack of constancy, it’s combined into something distinctly meaningful and characteristic. 

Cinematography also plays a large role in the meaning and overwhelming mood of the film. Much of it is supposed to have been inspired by an artistic Australian impressionist movement known as “Heidelberg School” which was popular in the late 19th century, around the time the events of Picnic at Hanging Rock are meant to take place. Many paintings of this movement were of the Australian bush, and were all painted with a distinctly unrefined and unblended style. This is reflected in how the film is shot, with lines blurred and light colors. The film also seems to draw inspiration from a variety of other important art movements as the girls of the school are often referred to by others as “Botticelli angels”, a reference to the famed artist of the Renaissance art period. This combined with the contrast of the audial ambience of the music and occasional eerie wind (a mood-setting technique that can also be heard in films like Eraserhead and My Own Private Idaho), it almost convinces audiences to forget the devastation of the story and the state of the missing girls. 

The film seems like it is meant to be based on a real story, and although there is no evidence that it is, it is told in the way an old news story may be told. It's a strange film but the pointed and practical dialogue from all of the characters viewing this event as a problem that needs solving keeps us grounded in a mystery that can not and will not be solved. The dialogue contrasts with the peculiarity of events and this has a way of encapsulating the specific sort of horror that comes with mysteries as old and unsolved as this one. The emptiness of the characters and their dialogue reflects how we don’t get to know the people in old stories as personally as we would in different films. Their stiffness proves that this isn't a film that needs complicated people to lead it. Picnic at Hanging Rock is a rare breed of supernatural happenings combined with the stuffiness of a 1970s period piece that revolves around the refined and wealthy.

As the mystery of the film is notoriously unsolved it seems like something people would commit to researching, an old and frustrating legend with a plethora of wild theories about the fates of these girls. But this is a film with a simple lack of conclusion and so audiences can only theorize what this lack of a conclusion means symbolically. 

There have been many different interpretations of what the girl’s unsolved disappearance and the film as a whole are meant to represent.

One of the most popular theories that the story represents the colonization of Australia which began in the late 18th century when the British began to use the land as a penal colony. The disappearance of the young women in Picnic at Hanging Rock could reflect the fact that they simply do not belong there. There is a stark and deliberate contrast between the barrenness of the raw Australian landscape and the extravagance of the architecture and decoration of the places where the other characters reside. The territory they were never meant to be treading on swallowed them to prove its power and danger.

Another popular theory reflects the religious themes often found in stories like this. This one theorizes that the girls were taken by some kind of holy rapture and since the rest of the story focuses on the impact of this on the rest of the community it is meant to call out religious hypocrisy. The other characters are extremely upset and confused by something caused by God.

There may be some symbolic significance of the disappearance occurring on Valentine’s Day, as another popular interpretation connects the story to that of a typical sexual awakening. The girl’s implied repression due to the time setting can be connected to the volcano and their disappearance. Several of the girl’s close connections could also imply this symbolic sexual awakening is of a lesbian nature. Their disappearance could be interpreted as them hiding their sexualities or losing this part of themselves once entering adulthood. 

What makes all of these theories the most interesting is that the girls give us knowing glances, reminding us that they know what they are doing, they are sure of their choice. They know where they are going so we don’t have to. In the end, it doesn’t matter what happened and it doesn’t matter what it means. It’s meant to be a story left in the subconscious, the half remembered kind that we picked up from childhood, the type of story that haunts the backs of our minds. In the words of film critic Robert Ebert  “it exists as an experience”. 

“We worked very hard at creating a hallucinatory, mesmeric rhythm, so that you lost awareness of facts, you stopped adding things up, and got into this enclosed atmosphere. I did everything in my power to hypnotize the audience away from the possibility of solutions.” 

-Peter Weir 


Abbott, M. (2014, June 24). Picnic at hanging rock: What we see and what we seem. The Criterion Collection. 

» Gothic Representations of Colonisation in Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1967)BAVS. (n.d.).

Ebert, R. (1998, August 2). Picnic at Hanging Rock movie review (1975) | Roger Ebert. Roger Ebert.


Andrea "The Schis" Schisler is a senior at Poudre High School. She has been held on suspicions of being a dork. She failed her driver's test twice and should be regarded as extremely dangerous. If seen, do not attempt to reason with her. It won't work.

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