Fortean Author Claims "Picnic at Hanging Rock" Was Based on a Psychic Vision of Its Own Manuscript's Editing Process
I wasn’t planning to write an original blog post today, but in the Daily Grail news feed I came across a bizarre claim in an article about the classic Australian movie Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) that is worth discussing. The film, for those who haven’t seen either it or the recent Australian TV adaptation released in the U.S. by Amazon Prime, revolves around the mysterious disappearance of a number of school girls in the early 1900s while out on a school trip to a rock formation in the woods. Because of the spare, poetic, but plausible depiction of the events in the film, which focus on the guilt and sadness of the survivors, many people wrongly believe that the completely fictional story was based on a real-life event.
Fortean writer Eric Wargo published an article in The Night Shirt analyzing the history of the film, particularly the development of the novel on which it was based. This novel, by Joan Lindsay, underwent some radical changes as it moved through the editing process. The novel and the movie have an ambiguous, haunting quality because the girls’ disappearance is never explained. There are a few hints that something supernatural happened, but nothing is confirmed, and it is that sense of unresolved mystery that gives the story its emotional staying power. But it wasn’t how Lindsay wanted to end the book. Originally, she had a final chapter of twelve pages that “explained” the mystery in fantastical terms, but the publisher asked her to cut it to improve the novel. The excised chapter saw print in 1987, after Lindsay’s death, as “The Secret of Hanging Rock,” and it told how the girls threw their corsets into the air only to see them float in midair. Then a hole in space-time ripped open, the girls’ teacher turned into a crab-monster, and the rock formation opened up to swallow them all. It was, to be blunt, completely at odds with the rest of the novel in both tone and theme. It was, however, reflective of Lindsay’s personal belief that time was an illusion and that time functioned unusually around her, to the point that clocks would stop when brought near her.
Wargo’s discussion is thoughtful and informative for about two-thirds of the article, until he gets down to brass tacks, which is to say, gets down to promoting his new book Time Loops. You see, he believes—bizarrely—that Joan Lindsay’s novel was indeed based on a true story, but one that hadn’t happened yet. Lindsay wrote the book in one week in 1966 as a result of emotional and powerful dream she had. Wargo thinks she channeled the story from the future through psychic dreams about the cutting of her last chapter from the final novel. Read it and weep:
Consider: Picnic at Hanging Rock stages a traumatic disappearance—a group of schoolgirls go on a picnic and come back minus three, and minus one math teacher—and then describes the ripple effects of that disappearance. While there was no actual disappearance of schoolgirls at Hanging Rock either around the turn of the century or in the 19-teens when Lindsay attended Clyde School, there was a traumatic disappearance in Lindsay’s near future when she wrote her manuscript: none other than the cutting of her final chapter, with its beauty and strangeness and its mathematical-physical musings.
He then compares this to Freudian theories about the fear of castration, which really ought to have disappeared from literary theory when Freud’s fraud came to light decades ago.
But no matter. What interests me is the way that Wargo has basically adopted Helena Blavatsky’s expedient excuse for why Theosophy resembled science fiction. Blavatsky claimed, with astonishing audacity, that science fiction writers received their inspiration from the spirit realm: “Our best modern novelists, who are neither Theosophists nor Spiritualists, begin to have, nevertheless, very psychological and suggestively Occult dreams […] [T]he clever novelist seems to repeat the history of all the now degraded and down-fallen races of humanity.” Wargo imagines the dreams pulling from the future rather than the deep past, but otherwise, the idea is the same.
It’s also stupid in a postmodern way when Wargo imagines that future trauma ricochets back in time and that somehow the novel’s own editing process triggered its creation in the past. This contrasts with Lindsay’s own claim that her dreams were actually about the plot of the novel, not her future editorial conferences. Wargo seems to feel that Lindsay spent years traumatized by the removal of that chapter, but she couldn’t have been that upset. She sprinkled parts of it into the rest of the novel as little Gothic nuggets, and she later agreed that the editing made for a stronger and more commercial book.
Wargo believes, against all evidence, that our society is opposed to the paranormal and therefore could not abide a novel about the supernatural. “The fate of Joan Lindsay’s Chapter 18 is the fate of the paranormal itself in our culture: to be excised, ‘cut,’ from the rest of life in order for everything to add up and not challenge our conventional views of time and causation,” he wrote. Even in the 1960s, there was plenty of Gothic literature and supernatural literature and science fiction. He calls this “low” fiction and that the supernatural was cut from Hanging Rock to make it acceptable to the literary genre, but what then is he really saying? It’s not that the supernatural has to be “cut” from life but that the publisher gave the author a choice of genres, and she agreed to adhere to the conventions of the one she wanted to publish in. A different choice would have resulted in a weird and unsatisfactory science fiction novel rather than literary fiction. Wargo’s complaint, at heart, is that he wishes to claim Picnic at Hanging Rock for his preferred genre and is upset that it wasn’t done up to his taste. The rest is just a fancy cloud of fantasy designed to obscure this fact.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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