How 'Picnic at Hanging Rock' Became Australia's Greatest Mystery

How 'Picnic at Hanging Rock' Became Australia's Greatest Mystery

Why you should care

Because many believe these events to be true.

Four schoolgirls — Miranda, Edith, Irma and Marion — and their math teacher, Greta McCraw, scale the Hanging Rock monolith under a moody sky in the Australian bush. It’s St. Valentine’s Day, 1900, and the group from the prestigious Appleyard College is on an excursion. As the quintet ascends, a possibly supernatural event occurs, and three of the girls and McCraw disappear into the rock, locked in a trance. Edith survives, but has no recollection of what happened.

Local theories about the disappearances fuel the intrigue, from tales of molestation and abduction to murder. Search parties are sent out, and one young man finds Irma, dazed but alive. Parents start withdrawing their daughters from Appleyard, and teachers begin resigning. One teacher dies shortly after in a hotel fire. A schoolfriend of the girls commits suicide, as does the college principal — by jumping from Hanging Rock’s peak.

’Picnic at Hanging Rock’ taps into national myths about the bush and what some commentators call the national psyche.

Therese Davis, media professor, Monash University

This is the plot of Picnic at Hanging Rock, the classic 1967 novel by Joan Lindsay, which, in 1975, became an iconic film directed by Peter Weir. Whether the story is fact or fiction is a debate that has gripped Australian popular culture since its publication — even though the notion that the story is based on real-life events has been disproved time and again.

Imaginations were ignited by a small nugget that conspiracists took as truth. “Whether Picnic at Hanging Rock is Fact or Fiction, my readers must decide for themselves,” Lindsay wrote in the novel’s introduction. She continues the tease by noting how “all the characters … in this book are long since dead.”

Picnic mythology has become inescapable in Australia. “[It] taps into national myths about the bush and what some commentators call the national psyche,” says Therese Davis, a professor of media at Monash University. Think of it as the original Blair Witch Project — an unsolved, potentially real-life mystery that proved hugely popular in both written and cinematic form. Indeed, the book’s afterword is pseudo-historical, seemingly extracted from a local newspaper in 1913. The story reports that soon after the events at Hanging Rock took place, Appleyard and the local police station — where records of the incident were supposedly kept — both burned down in a bushfire, leaving no traces.

Picnicathangingrock

First-edition cover art for Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joanna Lindsey.

Source Fair Use

In “Beauty, Myth and Monolith: ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ and the Vibration of Sacrality,” Annabel Carr writes that Picnic “coerced audiences beyond the parameters of comfort in its unmistakable allusion to some incorporeal ‘other’; a domain which represents both the unknown and the unknowable.” Those who buy into the Picnic myth relish in its complexities. Many have hung themselves up trying to figure out whether Appleyard was a stand-in for the Clyde Girls’ Grammar School that Lindsay attended as a child, and which has since been relocated to the same physical location as the fictional Appleyard.

Lindsay herself had several experiences that encouraged conspiracists. She reported, for instance, that she couldn’t wear a watch because timepieces tended to stop when she wore them. She also recalled seeing a half-dozen nuns running across a field while she was driving with her husband (he saw nothing). Later, Lindsay’s mother-in-law told her there had been a convent in that area, and that it had burned down years before.

In The Secret of Hanging Rock, John Taylor attests in the introduction that “reality had a way of behaving a little differently toward Joan.” He recalls that when discussing the obsessive fans who had been trawling through newspapers and historical artifacts to unearth the “real” events, he and Lindsay agreed the search was “fruitless,” but that Lindsay absent-mindedly added, “[B]ut something did happen.”

Lindsay, of course, might well have been stoking the flames of hearsay on purpose. During filming of the movie, Lindsay, when on set, would call actor Anne Lambert, who played Miranda, by her character’s name, creating speculation that Lindsay knew “Miranda” in real life. Whether or not this was calculated remains unknown, but it certainly added to the mystery surrounding Lindsay’s literary secrets.

In an interview for the 2003 Criterion Collection edition of Picnic, Weir recalled how, when meeting with Lindsay for the first time, he couldn’t help but ask if the story was true, despite being warned not to. “Young man,” she said, “I hope that you do not ask me the question again.” Undeterred, he pressed her further, asking if the girls fell to their deaths, or were abducted by aliens. “Any of the above,” was Lindsay’s reply. And isn’t that the very essence of what makes a cultural myth so rich and beguiling? We can make of it what we will, and Australians have managed to galvanize this particular myth … or, to many, this unresolved, mystic disappearance.

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