The year was 1900, the place southeastern Australia. A class of young women from a private boarding school, along with several chaperones, visited a scenic landmark in the country called Hanging Rock for a picnic. What happened that day has become a curious mixture of fact, fiction, and fantasy. The story holds that in a series of strange, almost dreamlike episodes, several of the girls went missing and were never seen again. Others went into inexplicable hysterics, and still others lost their memories of what had happened. By the end of the tale, two of the girls and one teacher were never seen again, and a third girl appeared to have taken her own life. The story became widely known in a 1967 novelization, which was soon made into a 1975 feature film, both titled Picnic at Hanging Rock. Today we're going to see if we can separate what really happened from what was dramatized, and study how the story went from one to the other.
Hanging Rock is a small volcanic formation about 50 kilometers northwest of Melbourne, Australia. In the midst of a broad green plain checkered with farmlands and vineyards stands a 100m tall bump of rock, the result of an ancient bulge of magma that rose and cracked and split apart. These spires and pinnacles and other formations are wreathed with forestry, and are popular with hikers, climbers, and photographers. The most famous formation is Hanging Rock, a large boulder that fell and jammed between two steep walls that you can now walk beneath and marvel up at. Mystery is a common theme at the park. The entry sign displays the tagline "Experience the mystery", and rangers report that tourists regularly mail back pieces of rock that they'd illegally removed, reporting that it had brought them bad luck. Some visitors even report haunted encounters with the ghosts of the missing girls.
Like many other landmarks in Australia, Hanging Rock had been a sacred ceremonial site for Aboriginals, and thus it carried with it a theme of mysticism. Australian author Joan Lindsay was inspired by the place, and particularly by the juxtaposition of ancient spiritualism and modern colonial immigrants. Using this theme, she invented and wrote a novel, in only a single month, in which sophisticated upper class Europeans became trapped in a fanciful world in which they were, both literally and metaphorically, swallowed up by the ancient Earth. Yes, Picnic at Hanging Rock and the story that it tells are now, and have been ever since they were written, complete fiction. Our task today is to understand how and why a fictional story came to be perceived as fact.
The story goes that while exploring the rock, it's noted that three of the girls — Miranda, Marion, and Irma — along with their teacher Miss McGraw, have not been seen. A fourth girl, Edith, is in some sort of hysterics and reports that she saw the girls disappear into a cleft in the rocks, and also that she saw Miss McGraw inexplicably climbing the rock in her underwear. Men searched for several days, and finally found Irma alive four days later but with no memory of what had happened; strange, since Hanging Rock is small enough that it could easily be searched quite quickly. Where had Irma been? She's later demonized by other characters for failing to explain what had happened. At the college, a girl who was not allowed to attend the picnic takes her own life. The school's headmistress is later found dead, in unexplained circumstances, near Hanging Rock. No trace ever emerges of Miranda, Marion, or Miss McGraw.
Time was a motif in Lindsay's story. Flashbacks and missing time characterized her narrative, and the tragedy itself was foreshadowed by two characters whose watches stopped at exactly the same moment. Columnist Phillip Adams wrote that Joan Lindsay believed "times present, times past and times future coexist; that time isn't the simplistic continuum that most of us believe." She had no clocks in her home, and had titled her previous autobiographical book Time Without Clocks. Time was what separated the colonials from the Aboriginals. This culture clash is something that many Australians feel keenly, and it may well be responsible for why so many people have sought fact in the legend, to better confront their own place in an ancient land.
Lindsay did her own part to start the rumors that the book was based on fact. In the book's introduction, she wrote the following:
Whether Picnic at Hanging Rock is fact or fiction, my readers must decide for themselves. As the fateful picnic took place in the year 1900, and all the characters who appear in this book are long since dead, it hardly seems important.
Near the end of the book she also referenced a newspaper article from 1914 about the disappearances. Said article never existed outside of the author's imagination, but few people fact check something like that.
And so from the moment the book came out, there was broad speculation that it may have been based on a true story. Independent researchers tried to verify some of its facts, such as whether the school named in the book (Appleyard College) was real or not. It wasn't, so researchers found no record of it; but all that does is leave the question open. Newspapers from the period were combed to see if any disappearances or deaths happened at Hanging Rock around 1900. One did; a young man slipped and fell to his death on New Year's Day in 1901. This lack of news coverage for what should have been a major headline should serve as circumstantial evidence that the event didn't actually happen, but enthusiasts keen on promoting the factual nature of a mysterious event are often hard to sway based on something so nebulous. In any case, the lack of a newspaper article doesn't prove one was never published; it just proves that such an article hasn't yet been found.
At some point, a rumor appeared that the local police station in Woodend had burned down sometime in the early 1900s, thus destroying any records of the girls' deaths that may have existed. There is (and was) an actual police station at Woodend, but there's no record that it ever burned down. The granddaughter of a police constable from Woodend, Richard Lawless, is reported to have phoned into a radio station and reported that her grandfather's theory is that the girls had fallen into a crevice which was then covered over by a boulder. If what she said is true — and there really isn't any way to know at this point — it proves nothing more than she believed her grandfather's tale.
What really stirred the pot was the 1980 publication of The Murders at Hanging Rock by Australian science fiction author Yvonne Rousseau. Although she prefaced her book with a statement that Picnic at Hanging Rock was fiction, she then went on to offer five possible explanations for the disappearances, since Lindsay had given none at all. Rousseau suggested:
That everything happened in some sort of parallel universe where time was slightly offset, thus accounting for why the bodies were never found, and explaining a major factual error in the original book. Lindsay had set her story on Saturday, February 14, 1900. However this date was actually a Wednesday.
A confusing suggestion that an alternate dimension was somehow involved.
They were all abducted by a UFO, which Rousseau suggested was consistent with Irma's amnesia.
A supernatural event of some kind must have taken place.
That it turns out to have been a conventional murder. The two teenage boys in the story, stable hand Albert and Michael, who was obsessed with Miranda, beat and raped and murdered Miranda, Marion, and Miss McGraw; but Irma escaped, having been beaten to the point of amnesia.
Although the first four explanations have never gained much traction outside of the New Age community (who still frequent Hanging Rock with crystals and robes), the murder story did take root. Among the many visitors who come to the rock today and ask the rangers about the mystery, it turns out that most of them have heard that the girls were murdered.
Finally, Joan Lindsay did eventually spoil her own party. As published, Picnic at Hanging Rock has seventeen chapters. But the first version submitted to her publisher had eighteen, and an editorial decision was made to cut out the final chapter which explained what happened with the girls, as it was felt that the mystery stood better without a solution. Lindsay left the manuscript with instructions that it be published three years after her death, and it was, in 1987. Titled The Secret of Hanging Rock, it turned out that all five of Rousseau's proposed explanations were wrong; and that what actually happened to the girls was so strange that the publishers were probably right to cut it out.
The whole chapter is ethereal and dreamlike. Miranda, Marion, and Irma are napping atop the rock. Fresh from her underwear rock climb, Miss McGraw (though she's never actually identified in the chapter) comes out of the bushes, still unclothed. In a gesture symbolic of burning the bridge from their previous culture, all four remove their corsets and throw them off the rock, but for some reason they hang suspended in midair. The girls follow a snake that descends into a strange hole. Miss McGraw magically transforms herself into a small half-crab, half-lizard thing and disappears down the hole after the snake. Marion does the same. Irma decides she doesn't want to and runs away. Finally, Miranda makes the same transformation, goes down the hole, and a rock falls and permanently seals it off.
It's unlikely that fans of the movie or the novel would have been satisfied with this ending, as up until that point, the story has all the makings of a proper mystery story. If the bizarre ending had been left intact, the book may have been a more fulfilling commentary from a metaphorical point of view, but it almost certainly would never have gained the popularity that the shortened version did. Mysteries crave solutions, and those mysteries that remain unsolved are the ones that perpetuate the craving. That's why Rousseau's book is probably always going to be more popular than the original author's own solution: it keeps the mystery going. And this is exactly why so many people want Picnic at Hanging Rock to be a true story: because it is a genuinely enduring and provocative mystery.