“Alice kept secrets. She kept the fact that she kept secrets a secret.”
Horror movies love girls. Or, I should say, they love including girls, though that representation is often questionable. They’re often about girls getting tormented, girls saving the day after being tormented, girls as monsters causing said torment, and girls as victims turned to vengeance. But rarely are they about the quiet horror of how we, as a culture, fail those girls, without help from any monsters at all.
That’s the theme underlying 2008’s Lake Mungo, a low-key, tragic, and terrifying piece of Australian horror, written and directed by Joel Anderson. This documentary-style film follows a family, the Palmers, through the year and a half following the drowning death of their sixteen-year-old daughter, Alice. Through interview segments, bits of amateur film, news clips and still images, the movie tells the story of her grieving mother, father, and brother as they seek to come to terms with Alice’s sudden and unexplained passing.
As with any shocking tragedy happening to a comfortable, happy family, the surviving members have trouble coping. Alice’s father, Russell, throws himself into his work. Her mother, June, starts to wander the neighbourhood at night, drifting into other people’s houses as though she could walk into someone else’s life and escape her own. And her troubled teenage brother, Matthew, picks up his camera to view the world through the distance of the lens, and in the process, captures Alice’s ghost.
Or does he? It’s hard to talk spoilers with Lake Mungo, because it is the definition of a movie where nothing happens. Everything is seen through the past-tense lens of the documentarian, meaning that anything that happens in the movie has already happened, and the subjects have just been gathered to debrief. But there are plenty of secrets hidden in the images Matthew and others take, and many of them aren’t supernatural at all. The more the Palmers unravel the mysteries in the photographs and videos, the more they realize that what they may not know about her afterlife is tiny compared to what they didn’t know about her before she died.
The trope of The Dead Good Girl With The Shocking Double Life is pretty well trodden territory, to the point where I strongly suspect that Alice’s surname is more homage than coincidence. But unlike stories like Twin Peaks, where this trope functions as a means to uncover lurid, seamy drug- and sex-filled underbellies of quiet suburban lives, Lake Mungo is less concerned about the particulars of Alice’s secrecy and more interested with how exactly her inner life might have remained a secret for so long.
Being a teenage girl is its own particular hellscape of identity formation, caught between expectation and reality. That transition itself isn’t particular to young women; growing up brings everyone to that point of crisis. However, the highly gendered assumptions of the Good Girl, especially in “respectable” families, can lead to awful, stifling conditions where nothing short of full explosive rebellion attracts concerned attention. The more a family exists in a culture obsessed with perfection as a sign of moral rectitude, the more pressure there is to maintain that status via the appearance of perfection, whether or not it’s true. Girls often get the back end of this, having to walk a much narrower tightrope of acceptability, with much worse penalties for misbehaviour. Instead of keeping girls good, though, this policing serves mostly to teach them how to conceal the bad.
Alice isn’t rebellious, but the discoveries made after her death paint a picture of a girl on the cusp of adulthood who was obviously in a world of hurt, alienated and making poor choices and finding herself with no one to talk to. All the signs are there, easy to see for someone willing to believe that they’re there to be seen. But the people who love her are so invested in the narrative of her being the perfectly happy daughter/sister/friend that they refuse to acknowledge what’s in front of their faces, even to themselves. In doing so, Alice becomes invisible long before she becomes a ghost.
Death destroys the narrative of perfection the Palmers tell. Alice’s secrets aren’t the only ones that come out; June and Matthew fall into patterns of erratic, often fraudulent behaviour after she’s gone. The idea of being able to capture Alice’s spirit on film becomes a powerful motivation to for them to move past the paralysis that often comes with grief, and Alice’s boyfriend, Jason, talks about the supernatural as a way people make up stories to deal with loss. However, the more the family mobilizes around the possibility of seeing her ghost, the more it becomes clear they never put that much effort to seeing her when she was alive.
Part of what’s so complicated and painful about the film is that the Palmers love Alice. It would be so easy for the narrative to paint them as terrible, negligent characters, and the movie avoids that at every opportunity. Instead, it lets the fact of how much they love her be the core of the tragedy. The Palmers just can’t believe they didn’t know all these things about their dear Alice. But as the ghost photographs begin to prove, Russell, June, and Matthew have all worked themselves into a place where they can’t see what they don’t want to—and they were there long before Alice’s passing.
What drives this home even more is the relationship between June, Alice and June’s mother, Iris. Family friends remark how alike June and Alice are, and how they didn’t get along as a result of this similarity. Iris compares her relationship to June to June’s relationship to Alice, talking about how neither mother was capable of being fully present for her daughter. This isn’t just one family letting its child fall through the cracks, then; this is a legacy of women forced to conceal themselves and therefore, unable to connect with their mothers and daughters. Alice’s invisibility, before and after her death, is just its tragic conclusion.
One of the most interesting moves Lake Mungo makes is to all but silence Alice. Even the frequent home movies are played at a volume so low their contents are unintelligible. Though she gets the movie’s opening lines, they’re part of a taped conversation that’s only played at the middle of the movie and which is only contextualized at the end, to devastating effect. Minus that one narrative bit, everything you know about her is filtered through someone else.
Even so, as the movie continues, it becomes clear that the only person not shocked by Alice’s death is Alice herself. Though she doesn’t kill herself, it becomes clear that she learned a few months prior to her death that it was a certainty, that the future was coming for her, as June puts it. On a class trip to the eponymous Lake Mungo, she has a vision that directs her actions for the last six months of her life, but she tells no one, not even the kindly psychic who later befriends the rest of the Palmers. As obviously shaken as she is, she hides it all.
“Alice kept secrets. She kept the fact that she kept secrets a secret,” one of her friends says, quoted both over the opening images and later after several big revelations. But don’t get too smug about how you surely would have seen the signs, because as the set of images over the closing credits makes clear, you too have just spent a whole movie looking at things you didn’t see. The camera is amazing at directing your eye in the same way the Palmers’ presumptions directed theirs, making you just as complicit. To the end, Alice stays hidden in plain sight.
Maybe one of the best things about Lake Mungo is that it too keeps secrets. It never puts forth a unified theory of apparitions, speculates about Alice’s premonition, or spends time rolling around in some expert’s explanation of the reasons behind spirit photography. It treats the more mundane mysteries in much the same way. Later in the movie, it turns out that before she died, Alice was involved in a particular relationship that we can learn almost nothing about (up to and including how consensual it was). Pieces of evidence are introduced that cast doubt on the trustworthiness of all the evidence presented, from pictures to individual recollections to psychic insights. But the movie never makes a final weigh-in on it all, because at the end of the day, they’re not the point.
Whether or not you’ll find this movie as terrifying as I do depends on what you find scary. Horror movies, like pornography, are completely hit-or-miss when it comes to arousal, in a way that sometimes has nothing to do with the source and everything to do with the viewer. I personally find spirit photography/EVP just terrifying, so this is a movie that has me curling up into a ball and whimpering quietly. (If that’s not a thing for you, then maybe not so much.) But regardless of whether you’re going to sleep with the lights on after you watch it, Lake Mungo is an exceptional tragedy. Like the best ghost stories, it’s less scary and more just sad.
I almost hesitate to use the word “horror” to describe Lake Mungo, because that brings to mind a totally different atmosphere. No one gets stabbed or savaged in this movie; there’s no opportunity to yell at someone to not go upstairs or down into that basement. There are grisly crime-scene photographs of a decomposed body, but they’re static, not dangerous to anyone around them. It’s not even documentary style in the sense of more conventional found-footage horror, where the camera is there to document the terrors experienced by the hapless protagonists. There is exactly one thing that even might be considered a jump scare, a bit of cell-phone camera footage, and it’s telegraphed so explicitly that it’s hard to be startled by it.
In that way, the film mirrors the wrongness present in Alice’s life. Prior to her death, nothing overtly “bad” ever happens to her. But the quiet alienation caused by her family’s cultural pursuit of perfection isolates her such that when the future decides to come for her, Alice has no one to turn to and no option except to stand back and let it.
This piece is part of Galloween, Cinefilles’ month of all-girl horror coverage. Click the image to read more.