*mild spoilers for Lake Mungo below*
Grief and horror are often thought of as strange bedfellows. Grief is what comes after horror, when we begin to mourn what has been lost. Horror films deal with death, torment and pain but rarely explicitly with grief. Grief often has to do with the death of someone close to us. It can feel like an open wound, metaphorical bleeding that may never clot because that person is irreplaceable. We remember what they meant to us, our interactions and the elements that were unique to them. Grief is not something that necessarily makes us stronger or better but it does touch at the core of our humanity; our ability to mourn and remember is a large part of what makes us human.
Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973), Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook (2014) and Ari Aster’s Hereditary (2018) are a few of the horror films that have used grief as a central thematic element. Each family unit in these films is dealing with the loss of an immediate family member and ultimately discovers how that loss turns upside down the reality they thought they knew. They are scared to accept the present lest it means a forgetting of the past, specifically of the loved one that they lost. Each of these films tackles in its own way the fear of a new reality, one in which the deceased is not part of and can never know.
The tricky thing about dealing with grief in film is that grief is loss; it is the absence of something or someone. Film is about showing something, as goes the great film adage: show, don’t tell. Here lies the tension between grief, an all-consuming human emotion, and film, one of our most accessible modern mediums for storytelling – how does a filmmaker depict the absence of a person to create emotional pathos for the viewer? How does someone *not* appearing create an understanding of grief? Cinema is filled with ghost stories, some horrifying, some tragic.
Joel Anderson’s 2008 Lake Mungo is a film which uses its medium to distance itself from its narrative, allowing the audience a rarefied view of a tragedy. Shot in a mockumentary style format which centers on the Palmer family whose teenage daughter Alice (Talia Zucker) died suddenly in a tragic drowning at the titular Lake Mungo in Australia, the film picks up with the family several months after the accident. It utilizes its format to speak with her immediate family and friends, setting up the various ways in which they deal with Alice’s death. The film develops a supernatural tone when Alice’s brother sets up video cameras around the house in hopes of capturing Alice’s ghost.
Often in paranormal/ghost narratives, the specters of the dead are unwanted presences, but in Lake Mungo, the Palmer family is desperate for some element of Alice to remain in their world. As they search for some element of proof of a ghostly presence, they discover more and more that they barely knew Alice while she was alive; in many ways, she was already a ghost to them. There is also a discovered videotape, a psychic and a chilling cell phone video, all of which serve to drive the narrative towards its haunting conclusion. The conceit of Lake Mungo is not that of a found footage documentary, but rather it is a heavily edited, ready for television effort. The rehearsed and controlled tone of it lends itself to the slow burn of the film, the sinking feeling of terror when the unexplainable elements remain unexplained.
Where Lake Mungo transcends as a film about grief is in its multiple reveals throughout the film, all of them leading to the conclusion that this family’s grief, which is felt so deeply throughout the film, is for someone they never truly knew; and in never knowing their teenage daughter Alice, they are mourning for an idea of her, rather than the young woman herself. Anderson explores the notion of grief by showing the variety of ways Alice’s death has affected those around her and how they tragically never understood her. Her death, while full of meaning, is not full of understanding. One of the great tragedies of grief is that eventually, people move on. They have to. This all-consuming feeling that can burn so brightly within us can often, quite suddenly, be extinguished. Lake Mungo is about the tension between the idea of Alice and the Alice that still haunts the Palmer family fading away with time. We the audience can still sense her, even though her family is moving on. The onus is put on the audience to remember Alice as her family moves on.
The mockumentary style of Lake Mungo presents an objective view of the events rather than the family’s subjective view. As an audience, we are able to sympathize and empathize with the Palmer family, maybe even relating to them at various points, but we are never truly them. The gaze of the film is similar to that of Alice’s – forever on the outside, unable to touch or affect them. While it is the Palmer family who narrates the story, they never see the full picture.
The horror of Lake Mungo not only comes from the creeping dread which Anderson so beautifully executes throughout the film in one of the slowest of slow burns of all time, but from an oft-repeated horror trope – you can never truly know another person. We’re not talking about in a Jack Torrance kind of way where a haunted hotel can make someone snap, but in the inverse, the idea that we will never know all the intimacies, hopes and dreams of those closest to us. This could be because of shame and fear of their desires or because of our own inabilities to see beyond our notions of them. Lake Mungo perfectly expresses the painful, devastating idea that we can mourn “wrong”. That in our attempt to accept and know someone, we can miss them when they are right in front of us, pleading to be heard.