There’s something intangible and surreal about grief. The initial shock of learning someone close to you has died, the way that emotional confusion transforms into a lingering feeling of dull sadness and gradually fades into a melancholy acceptance – none of it feels like a natural part of our subjective world, like something with an organic place in our lives. Quite simply, grief feels wrong. And yet, grief is one of the few universal experiences of being human, a fact of life as common as all the other emotions we feel on a day-to-day basis and as certain, obviously, as death itself. No one is truly prepared to feel grief just as no one is prepared to die.
This sentiment pervades Joel Anderson‘s Lake Mungo, a 2008 ghost film that explores the grief of one family as they process the sudden, unexpected death of their daughter. Shot in a faux-documentary format, the film tracks the story of the three surviving members of the Palmer family – June (Rosie Traynor), Russell (David Pledger), and Mathew (Martin Sharpe) – over the course of several months as they come to suspect that their late daughter Alice (Talia Zucker) is haunting them.
Lake Mungo begins with Alice’s death, retelling the account of her accidental drowning at a dam through interviews with her family members and news coverage alike. The family tells their story plainly and without much emotion, but convey their accounts of the day with those bizarre, painful details you often remember more than anything else on the day you lose someone you love. “It felt strange on the way home because there was one empty seat. One minute she was there, the next… gone”, one of them recalls to the camera, more with bewilderment than any outward distraught.
The film continues to recount the Palmers’ grieving process through interviews with them, their friends, and neighbors alike. June, Alice’s mother, begins to take nightly walks (including through her neighbors’ open homes) after experiencing terrible nightmares of Alice standing at the foot of her bed, still dripping wet from the dam. Russell transforms into a workaholic in order to keep his mind off his despair, at one point retelling a terrifying story in which he went into Alice’s room late at night only for her to suddenly walk in and scream at him. Mathew turns to his passion of photography. All of their lives change when Mathew discovers what appears to be a faint apparition of Alice standing in one of his photographs. In their emotional exhaustion, the family leans into a supernatural explanation for the image, in a desperate wish to believe their daughter is still with them in the afterlife. They enlist the help of a local psychic (Steve Jodrell) and set up video cameras around the house at night. The images and videos they manage to capture, while grainy and difficult to parse, seem to confirm their belief that Alice is indeed haunting the house.
According to the film’s DP John Brawley, making an outright horror film wasn’t ever his or Anderson’s intention, but perhaps the restraint of the whole ordeal is what ultimately makes the work so genuinely affecting. As Brawley explains in an interview recorded for the Second Sight Blu-ray release of the film, Lake Mungo was originally conceived as a kind of lo-fi documentary first, aiming less to simply scare an audience than to explore the ways in which they can be emotionally persuaded by its fabricated presentation. The film is exceedingly smart in this regard, combining a whole range of different formats commonly associated with “real” documentaries, from news coverage to interviews to home videos to even (in perhaps the film’s single scariest moment) primitive cell phone footage. Special attention was paid to the type of film stock used for different scenes, with 16mm serving as the default format for interviews and 35mm for interlude shots of the town and environment. Like The Blair Witch Project, Lake Mungo was filmed with a self-consciousness for its production not dissimilar from the technique of method acting, both in front of and behind the camera. News coverage scenes were shot as if they were real, with Anderson stepping back and allowing the real EMTs, police officers, reporters, and characters to simply exist in this fictional space and act out the scenario. Even off camera, the cast and crew would reportedly often spend time together in character. While most of this detail isn’t necessarily visible in the film as a final product, all of it is certainly felt in its false authenticity.
As a devoted watcher of horror movies, there isn’t much out there that still legitimately scares me. Horror is my comfort genre, and the vast majority of the time I watch a scary movie I come away feeling more refreshed and relaxed than frightened. There are very few films in the genre that have legitimately gotten under my skin (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Blair Witch Project, and Pulse are the first three that come to mind), but there is something genuinely upsetting and discomforting about Lake Mungo that has persisted with me ever since I saw it. The first time I watched it was actually in broad daylight – I had just woken up, sipping my coffee as the late morning light poured into my living room. Even then, the movie legitimately rattled me, giving me chills, bringing tears to my eyes, and causing me genuine physical discomfort. Something about its creepy, lo-fi images, combined with the emotional realism of their grief-stricken context, freaked me out in a way I don’t think I’ve ever seen anywhere else.
But beyond my own visceral reaction to the film, I think what I find most fascinating and moving about Lake Mungo is the cerebral intersection it finds between its horrific images and grief. It’s often thought that a ghost is simply a psychological or emotional manifestation of our memories of a loved one, more an enduring afterimage that haunts our minds and occasionally spills over into our subjective perception of the world than a literal spirit. I can’t think of a film that better communicates this idea through its imagery alone, in the way its characters both consciously and subconsciously project their desire for Alice to stay with them onto the physical manifestation of their memories: their family photographs and home movies. Despite its uncompromisingly honest depiction of grief in all its uncomfortable horror and disorienting confusion, I think Lake Mungo is ultimately a quite hopeful film, one that understands that such feelings and memories don’t ever go away but soften and linger, like a grainy outline of a figure at the edge of a photograph looking back at us.