Killtoberfest 2 – #2: Picnic at Hanging Rock / Megan is Missing

In All, Movies by Kyu

Killtoberfest 2: Kill Me Twice, Shame On Me continues with my second double-feature. The connection’s easy, this time: both movies are about young women who go missing. Set over 100 years apart, they demonstrate the ways in which social expectations of young woman have changed–and those ways in which they haven’t changed at all.

I’ll start with the classic, Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), a movie about an Australian finishing school for young girls. The girls, along with two teachers, head out to Hanging Rock for a picnic on Valentine’s Day, 1900. When they return, three girls (and one teacher) are missing. What happened to them is the question that drives the rest of the film.


Disappearances have long fascinated me. The Mary Celeste, the Bermuda Triangle, Amelia Earhart, Dan Cooper… Judge Crater hailed a taxi and was never seen again. Likewise Dorothy Arnold, who went missing in Manhattan in 1910, last seen leaving a bookstore on 27th Street. Five people vanished inexplicably on Vermont’s Long Trail between 1945 and 1950. Edward and Stephania Andrews, both 63 years old, left the Chicago Sheraton after a trade convention in 1970 and were never found. In Wales, Oliver Thomas, 11, went into the yard for water on Christmas Eve, 1909, and was heard crying, “Help! Help! They’ve got me.” His footprints ended halfway to the well. These stories (and there are surely tens of thousands of them) make me nervous. They suggest more than just social maladies, notions of psychotic predators, secret depressives, and seemingly normal individuals who decide on impulse to take a powder from their lives. They suggest holes in our understanding of the world. Holes big enough for a person to slip through.

Picnic at Hanging Rock is not a typical horror film. There is nothing overtly frightening about it. We do not discover that the missing girls were abducted (although that seems to be the opinion of many characters in the film). There are no vampires here. There are no answers at all, in fact. And it is that which allows the film’s domination emotion–a heavy, claustrophobic unease–to linger on. Answers would provide closure and allow us to forget about the missing girls of Appleyard College. Instead, the events of the film remain a tantalizing unsolved puzzle. In fact, many have researched the history of the area to determine whether the novel (and this film adapting it) had any basis in fact. At least one book was written about the fictional case, proposing any number of theories, none of them conclusive.

If anything, the movie reminds me of The Virgin Suicides, which I watched a few months ago. Like that film, Picnic concerns itself with an environment of cloistered female sexuality culminating in inexplicable tragedy. The girls at Appleyard are dressed in virginal white outfits, including tight corsets; the school’s headmistress informs them with great magnanimity that once the carriage has taken them past the nearby town, they may, in deference to the day’s heat, remove their gloves. Later, in a spirit of wild rebellion, several of the girls will remove their shoes and stockings. They are kept apart from any men, other than the school’s servants. Their behavior is strictly controlled, bordered and limited by social constrictions in general and by Appleyard in particular. But as the girls giggle over Valentine’s Day cards and lay idly in the shade of their umbrellas after lunch, the sense of buried passions, deeper feelings, become more prevalent (particularly with one girl, forced to stay behind, who seems to have more than a friendly love for one of the lost girls). The film’s lush cinematography and strangely intense score work to cast a spell over the picnic, the girls, and the viewer. A panflute seems to lead four of the girls up through the winding maze of the Rock–one shot shows each of them emerging at the top from a different outcropping, although they had all begun their ascent in the same place. Eventually the movie simply cuts away from them and never cuts back.

From that point onward, the film shifts focus, exploring the reactions of the men and women surrounding the mystery. The headmistress, Appleyard, finds her school’s reputation diminishing; the girl who was left behind pleads for her friend to return; a teen visiting from England, one of the last to see the girls alive, remains haunted by that vision of the four girls crossing a stream all in a row. Everyone speculates, especially when one of the missing girls is found out at Hanging Rock, unconscious but otherwise unharmed (she claims to have no memory beyond the picnic). In a striking scene late in the film, the returned girl stops by at the school’s dance class to say goodbye. The other girls are in plain white calisthenics outfits, but she is in a bright red dress and hat; the girl and her former classmates regard each other silently for a moment, the dancers sullen and accusatory. Something has happened; something has changed; she is no longer like them–freed, perhaps, from Appleyard’s emotional and sexual prison. Whatever it is, they hate her for it. They scream their questions at her, but she doesn’t know, cannot answer, or maybe will not answer. The film will not either, and leaves us with the missing girls in the forest, turning away to go and climb up Hanging Rock, from which they will not return. What happened to them there? Did a man take them? Did they step through a shimmering crack in reality, there to meet Dorothy Arnold and Oliver Thomas? Did the stone swallow them up? Mute, Hanging Rock keeps its secrets. And so the unease lingers on.

From forbidden sexuality to rampant sexuality: the 2011 pseudo-doc Megan is Missing starts off as a typical “this is what being a slut will get you” story, only to flip the script.

The pseudo-doc (or mockumentary, or whatever) form fascinates me, partially because it’s comparatively rare (outside of comedies), and partially because it represents the logical endpoint of the push towards “realism” in filmmaking. During the first twenty minutes, I was thinking that if movies like Megan is Missing were real, they would at least have better acting and writing than this. During the last twenty minutes, I was thinking that if movies like Megan is Missing were real, it would be abhorrent–but I might end up watching anyway.

Essentially an update of The Vanishing for the Internet age, Megan is Missing treats its broad strokes as a foregone conclusion from the very start, telling us that best friends Megan Stewart and Amy Herman are in trouble–Megan is about to go missing, and three weeks later, so will Amy. Although the girls joke together about running away to Texas (largely to get away from Megan’s raging mother), that possibility never seems likely… not necessarily because the idea is outlandish, but because neither girl has the kind of self-confidence required to do it. Megan, 15, is driven by self-esteem issues to have sex with any guy who says he loves her (or who has coke, whatever); Amy, 14 and virginal, is mired in an inferiority complex that has her looking up to Megan. Together the two of them go to parties and interview each other with Amy’s new video camera. Into this mix comes Josh, a cute boy with a broken webcam. That doesn’t stop Megan from video chatting with him, putting herself on display while learning little about him. Eventually a Nancy Grace type is talking about Megan on the evening news, using language we’re all too familiar with: “beautiful, popular 14-year-old girl,” “desperate mother,” “straight-A student,” “disappeared without a trace.”

Like yesterday’s The Conspiracy, Megan is Missing purports to be a doc consisting mostly of footage pieced together from webcam recordings, cell phones, and video cameras. Both films achieve at least a limited verisimilitude, and both films essentially live and die on the strength of a third act uninterrupted found footage sequence detailing horrors. Both are more or less successful; it’s a good strategy, because the information you have already (characterization, emotional connection, foreshadowing) combines to power the tension, dread, and horror of seeing something that you’ve feared (or something even worse than that) over the first hour or so of the film. Megan is Missing even has the balls to call its shot, telling the viewer in a title card that the rest of the film presents “22 minutes of footage… unedited and unaltered.” It’s the modern equivalent of “abandon hope, all ye who enter here,” and it perfectly sets up the remaining, utterly horrific final portion of the film. Unlike Picnic at Hanging Rock, Megan is Missing solves every bit of the mystery, and at some point you’ll find you wish it hadn’t.

It would go too far into spoiler territory to explain how Megan is Missing turns the “slut got what she deserved” narrative on its head; but suffice to say that, however unlikable Megan might be, she surely doesn’t deserve what happens to her. Neither does Amy, although she apologizes anyway, in the film’s most heartrending and pitiable moment. Although the set-up is classic patriarchy–girls trying to grow up too fast, not valuing themselves, not being safe on the internet–the over the top horrors of those last 22 minutes undercut those ideas considerably. In fact, all throughout the film, what we see again and again is men victimizing women, taking advantage of their vulnerability and need to be liked. Female bodies may mature before male ones, but that doesn’t mean that girls are emotionally prepared at 10 or 12 or 14 to deal with sexual relationships. That’s not their fault; the fault lies with those young men who use that inexperience and immaturity to manipulate. One male character in the story tells Amy, viciously, that she’s fat, friendless, unattractive–expertly mirroring her inner voice of insecurity. Several pressure Megan into reluctantly or drunkenly performing oral sex. Even the film’s cinematography emphasizes the difference between the male and female perspective, the girls filming themselves from low or neutral angles, while men (and the computer webcams) film them from above, emphasizing their subjects’ vulnerability. Likewise, the film indicts the reactions of those around Megan to her disappearance, from the trashy news show (which at one point films an utterly pointless re-enactment of Megan’s abduction) to Megan’s mother, who praises Megan tearfully to reporters but has literally only been seen screaming at Megan up until this point, to Megan’s friends, who are vapid and self-involved both before and after the disappearance (except for one, who, as in Picnic at Hanging Rock, harbored a secret crush on the missing girl).

Between them, both Megan is Missing and Picnic at Hanging Rock paint a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” portrait of society’s expectations for women. If they act like proper ladies–lace up their corsets, stay away from boys, don’t go to parties–they might find that energy exploding out of themselves in unpredictable, even dangerous ways. If, on the other hand, they indulge themselves, allow themselves to be flattered or cajoled by men, they’re left vulnerable to unspeakable predation. That’s the real trap. There is no way for girls to win.

Hungry for more Killtoberfest? Click here for more horror (but not horrible) reviews.