When I first saw Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), I must have been somewhere between 17 and 21 years old, living in rural Southwest Ohio, where I was born and raised and which was, like Weir’s 1900 south Australia, an ostensibly free yet inwardly straightjacketed province. I recall being excited by the subtext that Sara’s affection for Miranda, and then Mademoiselle de Poitier’s appreciation of Miranda’s beauty, suggested, not to mention the visuals of the key scenes that I get into here shortly. Above this visceral impact, though, something haunting embedded in the film has made me ever since consider Hanging Rock part of my personal worldview, across multiple phases of my life, despite having seen it only once or twice.
The film is subversive, defiant, and wild, which is probably why I like it, and what makes it even more appealing to me now is that the veinery circulating these impressions is the god Pan (Catania).
The four girls’—Miranda, Irma, Marion, and Edith’s—slow trek up through the high grass and the sun-sharpened trees, then up the through the gaps of the coarse, towering Rock—always drifting upward toward their disappearance, disobeying all orders and reason yet responding to something higher (deeper?) than the reality they know—the film performs oppositional defiance toward the Mundane Expected.
Recently I was watching part of Hanging Rock again with my three-and-a-half-year-old daughter. When Miranda turned to the camera—“She’s beautiful,” my daughter said. I’d almost say it’s uncanny how my daughter at her young age voices the universal response to Miranda, but I know that Weir was painting in thick strokes meant to register on an objective level (Gauper).
The plot is brilliantly simple: Two locations, two antipodes of structuring the world. . . and a journey from one to the other and back again . . . and back again. It is “St. Valentine’s Day,” and the girls of Appleyard College are going to Hanging Rock for a holiday outing. Upon boarding their horse-drawn omnibus, they turn their heads up to school’s founder and matron, the widow Mrs. Appleyard, who calls from the steps: [stay near the base of the Rock; watch out for snakes], she tells them. Though Appleyard’s misgivings prove well-founded after three girls and one teacher go missing, it is not snakes that are responsible.
We now know the holiday simply as “Valentine’s Day,” a rite of exchanging consumable love symbols and, increasingly, through “story slams” and the like, the ironic celebration of postmodern serial monogamy. But St. Valentine’s Day once served a political purpose. Starting in the 5th century, it represented the Christian corseting of an ancient, popular, pagan festival that was much different: Lupercalia.
In Hanging Rock, through the convergence of sound effects, music, and mise en scene, Lupercalia—and its presiding god, Pan—erupt into the Australia landscape, in stark contrast to the scientific, domineering, managerial world epitomized by Mrs. Appleyard and her Victorian boarding school.
In ancient Rome, during Lupercalia a portal opened, metaphorically speaking, and evil spirits ran free (or perhaps these spirits, among the people all along, were only during the middle of February adumbrated with greater clarity). With no way to banish or dominate these wild spirits, the people sought the help of Faunus (the Romans’ name for Pan)—the half-man, half-goat god of Lupercalia—to bolster themselves through the sudden, panicky re-wilding of their Eternal City. Lupercalia was a cleansing festival. Its purpose was both the increase of fertility and the purification of the human zone of evil spirits.
The festival began with the sacrifice of a goat and a dog. From the skins of these, the priests—the Lupi—fashioned thongs or whips and ran naked through town, whipping any woman in sight. Being struck by these whips was thought to increase one’s fertility. In addition, Lupercalia allowed and encouraged frenetic, uninhibited sex.
(Although animal sacrifice is now thankfully repellent to our modern sensibilities, the destruction of animal life by us modern Westerns grotesquely outpaces ancient brutalities. Through the mechanism of “development” we have decreased wild animal life on this planet by 58 percent since 1970.).
(And though promoting fertility through the striking of women sounds nutty, some years ago I watched from the upper concourse of a Prague plaza, during Easter, as the boys whipped the girls with young fresh-cut sticks. To this day, the Lupercalian principle remains the same; only the holiday and the instrument are different.)
The film works in its transition from Appleyard College to Hanging Rock, from the Victorian now to the primal past, from Valentine’s Day to Lupercalia.
At the beginning of the film, before sitting down to breakfast, the girls of Appleyard College raise a statuette of Cupid, the camera frame centering the many hands raising the miniature Apollonic male form. “To St. Valentine,” the girls cant, and then carry the statuette to the table.
Later, upon arriving at Hanging Rock, the celebrants unfurl a picnic blanket over the grass; Miranda then daggers into a cake that they’ve set on the blanket. But when Miranda, Irma, Marion, and Edith (forming an extra-serious Teen Girl Squad) climb up Hanging Rock, they reach beyond the Christian form of the holiday and emerge into its primal history.
A field of hues and textures depict this journey: the irregularly shaped bright greens of the lower-elevation foliage, the girls’ white cotton dresses, their black boots and stockings, the warm yellow sun falling on the rock where it’s walkable; the crispy, bolted grass that has clutched onto the rock, the cool and rough lichenous vertical rock surfaces, and the sky a searing blue and white.
Meanwhile the rock increasingly seems aware of the girls; the imaginative viewer can discern faces on the rock, even as the camera slips into the Rock’s crevices from which it watches the girls walking across the openings.
The soundscape is just as ethereally rich. Alternating Gheorge Zhamfir’s Flûte de pan (the most significant detail that confirms Pan’s presence in the movie) and a Gothic arrangement of haunting choral voices accompanying a rising and falling piano dirge, and the low bass rumblings that Weir fashioned from recordings of actual earthquakes, sporadically interrupted by what I can only describe as “sci-fi noise:” the tonal totality signals the girls’ crossing into the dimension of Lupercalia. It is midday, or, the group’s watches having stopped mysteriously all at dead-on noon, it is after-noon; at Hanging Rock time has no meaning. This is in contrast with Appleyard College, where grandfather clocks thunderously tic-tock away in every hall and working room.
Hear us, great Pan! . . .
Strange ministrant of undescribed sounds,
That come a swooning over hollow grounds,
And wither drearily on barren moors:
Dread opener of the mysterious doors
Leading to universal knowledge . . .
“Endymion,” 246, 285–89
Finding a space in which to rehearse Lupercalia at the top of the rock, Miranda, Irma, and Marion remove their shoes and stockings—scandalous in the Imperial Victorian world—and go barefooted among the stones and grass in a trance-like state . . .
It is this quest-journey portion of the film that has gathered much of the critical attention. What exactly does Miranda, Marion, Irma, and, later, Miss MacCraw’s ascendant hike attain them? Who or what is calling them, and how much agency do they have in responding to that call? In other words, how much of the wild uphill hiking comes from within, and how much from the rock itself?
After dismissing a theory that the girls “’slip’ through a tear in the fabric of time” as well-supported yet common conjecture, Annabel Carr writes that “Hanging Rock embodies a . . . carnal spirituality, beckoning kindred souls to transcend the oppression of sexless Victorian propriety and surrender to a more powerful and untamed meta-reality.” From this understanding, then, Carr wonders if “Hanging Rock is not so much a siren-like site of destruction but a deliberate and welcoming destination for transcendence” (129).
Akin to this wistful reading is Stephanie Gauper’s interpretation of the girls’ trek up the rock as quest for self-completion: “The girls seek their repressed animus as they surge up into the light of Apollonic principle, into the high noon of light” (223).
Others see something more sinister in the Hanging Rock sequence and, by extension, the intentions of Pan: “It is however at Miranda’s unlatching of Hanging Rock Gate that the Piper soars as the Monolith’s fluting fluidity disintegrating kindred spirits into absent presences,” she writes, finding “disintegration” where others find transcendence: “For what Miranda unlatches is her initiation into non-being: . . .” (Catania 86). It is interesting that both Saviour Catania and Carr assert an a priori relationship between the chosen girls and Hanging Rock—“kindred” souls or spirits, the girls know Hanging Rock holds mysteries that they want, while the Rock recognizes them as initiates.
In the latter reading, Hanging Rock functions as dark spell rather than transcendence portal. However, the return of Irma, discovered a week later lying at the top of the rock unscathed and little the worse for crossing over, would seem to confound this interpretation. Still, though, there is indeed a horror underfoot to the girls’ hiking, which Gauper also acknowledges: “The resonance of the quaking disturbs the optical just enough to make clear the ominous power of the landscape as it envelopes the girls, subsuming them back into nature” (Gauper 215). The apparent faces in the Rock then would suggest monsters, or an ancient cult, and Lupercalia becomes Pan’s spell of capture—a true Gothic reading. The “ominous power” of the wild Rock contests the non-ominous power of the College.
However, despite its wholesome routines, scientific instruments, and study of the fine arts, Weir’s Appleyard College is no site of learning or human progress. Instead it is a site of repression, even torture—we see Sara Wayborn—the fledgling Poet, the Lover—strapped to the wall while the other girls practice their steps in dancing class. Just as the students and women wear corsets to every function, no matter how mundane, so must Sara herself be corseted entirely; because of her attachment to Miranda and, by extension, to the mysteries of Hanging Rock, she is scapegoated and quarantined within the school. (Sara’s travails (and eventual suicide) could also be explained by her guardian’s nonpayment of her tuition—a prevailing subplot in the film—but one gets the sense that this is an expedient pretext for the administration’s mistreatment of her.)
Contrast this with Irma’s transformation, as evidenced in her mature bearing and the scarlet clothing she wears when, after her rehabilitation, she comes to say goodbye to her schoolmates. Despite her amnesia about what happened at the top of the Rock, the nominal damage she sustained seems to be outweighed by an expanded sense of self.
Although the eruption of Pan—never seen, only suggested by the soundtrack—into the Bush causes a spiral of misfortune in the local community (and the far-away centers of civilization where the wealthy parents of Miranda and Marion live), it is only because the ordered world has failed the likes of Miranda, Marion, Miss McCraw, and Sara. Peter Weir’s tragic vision of modernity, as an era hallmarked by the over-compression of the human being by consumer capitalist culture, evident throughout his work (invariably dramatized in the plight of effusive, beautiful young people, as Gauper notes), unites Lupercalia and Hanging Rock’s wild setting to offer a glimpse into a primal world that we have long suppressed.
And though we suppress Pan-ic terror and mystery, and are encouraged to do so, it comes at a cost. At our core there still remains an essential anxiety about our place in the universe that always seems beyond our reach of discovery. Our central measurements of time—the 40-hour workweek, the k–12 years, the sequence of symbols of the weather app and so on—lose their meaning in the context of the actual, more-real time of the universe that we can hardly fathom and which we can encounter only in the wild.
“Waiting a million years . . . just for us!”
With Pan and Lupercalia and the Sacred Wild being subsumed under Valentines Day, corset, and clock, we exorcise our anxieties in other ways. On the surface, order seems to reign; but stand back, and the picture of human modernity is as frenetic and chaotic as any ancient orgiastic festival. In place of the rituals of our ancestors, we consume the planet that has, to the best of our knowledge at this point, total possession of us for all time. Though we don’t believe in half-human, half-goat deities, or invisible evil spirits, we live in just as much of a fantasy when we call it “progress” to chew up the planet as fast as we can. Sequential time abets this by shifting awareness of Error out of the Now.
At the same time, the space open for encounters with Pan-ic dark timelessness and awe has been pushed far from inside the city to the outer margins and cordoned off as recreational parks. (Indeed, Hanging Rock is one such holiday park. It is wild, yes, but it is sanctioned wild—the girls reach the top of the rock by a trail, after all.)
In our times, however, “Wild” has come to be almost meaningless; find it, and it is gone; even the Arctic and the Antarctic are disintegrating (showing that, if it cannot be purposed for human recreation, its only other possible function is to be exploited).
By turning an orderly, officially sanctioned holiday outing in the wild into a terror-inducing mystery, Picnic at Hanging Rock punctures our modern, Enlightened hubris. It is a film about encountering the unknown, an encounter that “reveals the limitations of . . . our knowledge” (Carr 131). Our ideas about how we groom our young to encounter the world, about education, and about our self-faith come under attack, just as the film attacks our sense of security that we grant ourselves as prize for eliminating Wild Mystery from human life. When time stops, and wild space overwhelms, Pan steps out of erasure to remind those of us who intuit our primal beginnings of what we are, as beings.
Carr, Annabel. “Beauty, Myth and Monolith: Picnic at Hanging Rock and the Vibration of Sacrality.”
Catania, Saviour. “The Hanging Rock Piper: Weir, Lindsay, and the Spectral Fluidity of Nothing.” Literature/Film Quarterly, vol. 40, no. 2, 2012.
Gauper, Stephanie. “Aborigine Spirituality as the Grounding Theme in the Films of Peter Weir.” The Midwest Quarterly, vol. 42, no. 2, 2001.