This post is part of The Moviola’s Friday column The Moviola Horror Corner, hosted by Meaghan Clohessy.
The small town mentality is a staple fear in horror films. A Nightmare on Elm Street used a dream killer to shatter suburban expectations. The Wicker Man used a giant wooden statue to make an island existence terrifying. Then there are films that do not utilize the supernatural. The horror is not what invades the small town, but the small town itself. Such a film is Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock. Taking place in Australia, the film captures the true story of the disappearance of a group of schoolgirls and their teacher. The film is an acquired taste but offers an interesting study in the social construct of small towns.
In the film, Weir examines two small communities: Appleyard College and the town of Woodend. Where Appleyard represents the aristocratic class, Woodend represents the poor farming class. A key scene depicting this class representation is when the Appleyard girls are traveling by stagecoach through Woodend to get to Hanging Rock. The Appleyard girls are presented in white flowing dresses, using pristine manners without a shred of an Australian accent.
By contrast, the Woodend villagers are dirty, wearing disheveled clothing, and have thick outback accents. The stagecoach itself denotes class and forces the Woodend villagers to look up to the Appleyard girls as they pass, depicting Appleyard as the ruling community. Despite outward appearances, Weir breaks from the central narrative to provide intimate portraits of individual characters. Behind closed doors, audiences are privy to secret relationships, homoerotic tension, and greed. As the film continues, these portraits become more intriguing than the mystery of the missing girls.
Within these communities, there is an inner social hierarchy that is maintained. The best example of this is the character of Sara, an Appleyard student. Unlike the rest of the girls, Sara is an orphan. Her family background causes her to be ostracized by both classmates and teachers. She is unable to adapt to the aristocratic nature of Appleyard and as a result she subject to physical and emotional abuse. There is a moment in the film where Sara is strapped to the wall unable to move. Audiences discover that this is her punishment for not sitting up straight.
While this punishment is not uncommon for the time when the film takes place, she still becomes the victim of a crippling social hierarchy in her community. Her mysterious death at the end of the film demonstrates the sadistic lengths some members of the community go through to secure that hierarchy.
What brings down the social commentary is the film’s pace. There is almost an hour of build-up before the initial disappearance. From there, the mystery drags on to emulate the cold case it eventually becomes. Weir uses slow pacing to document the social tension in these two communities, the real story of the film. Yet with scenes of potentially riotous villagers and the return of one of the missing girls, tension seems to be built in hopes of a payoff. It doesn’t help that audiences don’t sympathize with the main characters. The missing girls are pretentious, the residents of Appleyard are cruel, and Michael, who searches for the girls, is led by his sexual obsessions. They are all part of Weir’s commentary, but without sympathy, there is little motivation to continue watching. Horror in the film is built through tension. There isn’t someone jumping from behind the cliffs of Hanging Rock with a shot gun. The tension is effective, but not for audiences that enjoy the payoff at the end of most horror films.
There are two basic types of horror audiences: those who are scared of what’s behind the corner and those who are scared of what could be behind the corner. Scare vs. tension. Picnic at Hanging Rock, while a wonderful social commentary detailing social structure in small town communities, appeals to the latter type of horror audience. If you are a horror fan who needs the active fear, they will do their best to stay away.