*CONTENT WARNING: DEATH, GRIEF*
*WARNING: THIS CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR LAKE MUNGO*
The production of supernatural horror Lake Mungo is something of a mystery in itself. Since its release in 2008, its director, Joel Anderson, seems to have disappeared from the film world altogether, leaving an extraordinary, singular work to his name. With a cast of largely unknown actors, a microscopic budget, and the look and feel of a late-night TV documentary, Lake Mungo is accompanied by a feeling that you’re not quite sure what you’re watching. In an interview from 2009, Anderson remarked that “we were thinking it’d be nice if we could make a film that was kind of a curiosity, but if you saw it years from now you wouldn’t know anything about where it came from.” Over ten years since its release, Anderson seems to have got his wish — the film has gained a cult following, with recommendations passed around the internet by horror fans billing it as ‘Australia’s scariest film ever’, ‘the best ghost film you’ve never seen’, or ‘one of the most underrated horror films of all time.’
Constructed as a documentary, Lake Mungo depicts the Palmer family from the small town of Ararat, Australia, dealing with the accidental drowning of their 16-year-old daughter, Alice (Talia Zucker). As the family process their grief in the aftermath of this terrible accident, they are haunted by their lost daughter — at first metaphorically, but increasingly in a more literal sense. Like her namesake and likely inspiration, Laura Palmer from Twin Peaks, Alice is a sad, unknowable teenage girl, and both her inner life and her untimely death are a seemingly unsolvable mystery.
The film weaves a narrative of who Alice was, and the mystery of how she died, from various family photographs, home videos, and other forms of found footage. At first, we see grainy video of her smiling and waving at the camera, baby pictures and children’s birthday parties, as her family talk about their fond memories and their overwhelming sense of loss. And then we are confronted with a different kind of footage – her brother Matthew (Martin Sharpe), setting up his video camera in various places around the family home, claims to have captured evidence of Alice’s ghost – a lonely, monochrome figure in at the back of rooms and caught in mirrors, long, dark hair obscuring a face that’s never quite in focus.
Photography and video have been part of mourning almost since their conception – as Susan Sontag notes in On Photography, ‘the dead relatives and friends preserved in the family album exorcise some of the anxiety and remorse prompted by their disappearance’. The image of the lost loved one provides a comfort, a substitute for their real presence that is now gone. But in Lake Mungo, the photograph functions as something else – an attempt to know what was unknowable about the deceased. This is where the film first clicked with me, and my own experience of familial grief. My dad died when I was a baby, before I was able to form solid, lasting memories. Every image I have of him in my head I formed through old film photos, printed on glossy paper and taped into family photo albums; the only memory I have of his voice is from a recording on an old VHS tape, stripes of black and white static glitching across the sunlit footage shot outside my parents’ old house. Just like with any deceased loved one, the attempt to reconstruct them in their absence, to know what has become unknowable about them through their image, it’s understandable desperation but also, ultimately, an unresolvable one.
Like Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks, Alice is the enigmatic dead girl at the centre of it all, the mystery of her death obscuring a larger and more unknowable mystery of just who she was in life. Our introduction to Alice is similar to our introduction to Laura Palmer – the first we see of her is her submerged body, a lingering shot of her (in the case of Alice, particularly gruesome) blue, lifeless face. Later, we see both girls in a kind of filmic flashback – Alice in her family’s home videos, Laura messing around with a video camera with her friends. In the pilot of Twin Peaks, we pause on a shot of Laura, grinning and seemingly carefree, and zoom in slowly on her eye, invited to consider the unknowability of her inner life. With Alice, the film repeats one piece of footage of her from a few months before her death – the image quality is poor, and light streams in from the window behind her, casting her form partially in shadow. In voice over, her mother (Rosie Traynor) narrates; ‘Alice kept secrets. She kept secrets about keeping secrets.’
Like Laura Palmer, we later find out that the image of wholesome teenage-girlhood obscures darker truths, with Alice having been groomed for an affair by the Palmers’ neighbours, whose children she was babysitting. In the process of this discovery, her brother confesses to having faked the ghost footage – with some simple editing using old videos, he has transposed the image of Alice into his recordings, in an attempt to provide some kind of strange comfort to his grieving parents. With this discovery of Alice’s double life and the admission of the ghost footage being a hoax, the Palmer family feel further away from their dead daughter than ever.
Unresolved grief is an act of trying to solve something, of trying to find something still of this world that offers you closure or answers or resolution. You can try for years to find the site or the object that makes it all makes sense, that makes it something you can accept. Photos and videos can be a comfort, but they can also become bottomless, unsolvable clues – something to look at over and over, to extract everything of the grieved person you can from them. You can find yourself believing that if you look again, at the right place, in the right way this time, it will somehow all come together. My dad died when I was very young, in New Zealand. We moved to the UK not long after, and I wasn’t able to return to visit his grave until I was eighteen. Somehow, I really thought being at that grave would solve it. For a long time, I kept turning it over in my mind, remembering every detail, even looking up the cemetery on Google maps, because I really thought it held the key to something. The reality of grief is that you do not get an answer – you get a hole, and you live with it.
The Palmers, in their search for an answer, only find something that reveals a bigger, more unknowable mystery. On a trip to the titular Lake Mungo, a haunting, alien landscape in the Australian desert, Alice is seen in the background of her boyfriend’s cell phone footage burying something on the dry lakeshore. When her family repeats her journey, they find a package containing her watch and favourite bracelet, along with her cell phone. The last video on this phone is then played for us in full – in it, we see Alice’s perspective as she walks out into the dark of this barren, strange landscape. For a long time, we see nothing at all, until a form with a strange, grey-blue glow begins to emerge from the darkness. This shape is initially unidentifiable – I thought it may be an illuminated cross, then car headlights in the distance, then some sort of tall animal – and its approach fills us with an unnameable dread. Eventually, we realise it is a person, a face illuminated by the cell phone’s light. And then in the film’s singular, devastating jump scare, we recognise her; it is Alice as we first saw her – the round, unseeing face of her waterlogged corpse, one eye was swollen shut, lips black and unmoving.
Like Laura Palmer, Alice in her unknowability has come up against something beyond human understanding. In Laura’s case, it is the Lynchian nightmare-space of the Black Lodge and its inhabitants; for Alice, it is her doppelganger, this apparition of her own impending death. In attempting to understand the demises of these young women, we meet something that defies understanding of any kind – something these girls were both dealing with, alone.
On learning this, Alice’s family seem to feel that they have processed something. If they have not fully understood Alice, they have at least learned all they can, have come to the limits of their understanding and can in some way move on. They finally feel able to move on, moving house to literally leave their grief behind.
However, in the final shot of the film, as the Palmer family stand in front of their now empty house, the camera zooms in on a darkened window, and in it we see a small, sad, white face. As the credits roll, we are shown Martin’s faked ghost photos again, but this time we zoom in on a different part of the picture. Ignoring the cut-and-pasted images of Alice, we look elsewhere and see another, new shape: the familiar white face and dark hair, faint and translucent, standing sadly somewhere your eyes don’t catch her. Alice really has been there all along, they – and we – just couldn’t see her.
In an earlier scene, we contrast footage of Alice speaking to the psychic Ray Kemeny (Steve Jodrell) with later footage of her mother, June, doing the same. In these scenes, both women recount the same scenario from different perspectives, both walking around their homes with the same sense of loneliness. In June’s dream, she is looking for Alice but believes she is not there, while in Alice’s dream she calls out to her mother but knows June cannot see her. They are in the same place but are missing each other, are somehow out of time, unable to make contact.
Grief can often come with a sense of guilt when it begins to ease – the guilt of letting go, of putting down your grief, of moving on. In Lake Mungo, this is manifested in Alice’s presence that remains in the house — as her family leave their grief and her behind, she is unable to go with them. I’ve experienced family grief of a similar kind of unknowability – my dad passed away when I was very young before I really knew him – and I later came to a complete lack of belief in the supernatural. Lake Mungo had me worried for a night or two after that I may have been wrong.
After watching the film for the first time, I went to bed that night shaken by a feeling, despite my better judgment, that some trace of my dad may really exist in the house or the country we had left behind. So unsettling was this film that I felt, for a moment, that my understanding of the universe had been fundamentally incorrect. I found myself troubled by the idea that there was something about death, life, and time that this film had brushed up against the edges of, and that I, or anyone, would never be able to fully understand. In Lake Mungo, we feel the great, unfathomable weight of grief, and are left with the irreconcilable knowledge of loss. It is a perfect ghost story – one that always knows it’s about grief, and that grief is never fully resolved. In this strange, singular artifact, Joel Anderson has done something extraordinary with the found footage genre. Lake Mungo is a film about how images haunt us, how grief consumes us, and how we meet the limits of what we can understand.
by Clare Patterson
Clare Patterson (they/she) is a freelance writer based in Glasgow. Originally from Northumberland, they are currently pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing on the British countryside and the climate crisis at the University of Manchester. Their work has been published in Art UK, The Skinny, and Gold Flake Paint, and they love horror films about women becoming unhinged. You can find them on twitter @clarepttrsn, on Instagram @clarejmpatterson, and on letterboxd @davidbynch.