It's a tantalizing mystery: while on a Valentine's Day field trip, three schoolgirls and their teacher all vanish into thin air in broad daylight, never to be seen again. Where did they go? What happened to them? And is Picnic At Hanging Rock based on a true story? These are all questions that viewers will be asking themselves as they devour the haunting new series starring Game Of Thrones' Natalie Dormer, premiering on Amazon Prime on Friday, May 25.
In a world obsessed with consuming as much true crime entertainment as possible — including recent Netflix phenomenons Wild Wild Country and Evil Genius — it makes sense that many viewers might assume Hanging Rock is also based on a real occurrence in turn-of-the-century Australia. However, the direct inspiration for the upcoming series is actually a 1967 novel by author Joan Lindsay, which takes place at an all-girls boarding school in the year 1900. But is the source material itself based on a true story?
Actually, that question has been the subject of much debate over the years. Both the novel and its first onscreen adaptation — Peter Weir's 1975 feature film starring Oscar nominee Rachel Roberts — are so beloved that the mystery they present has become something of an urban legend in Australia, one that blurs the line between fact and fiction.
Weir's adaptation is often held up as the preeminent example of the Australian New Wave, alongside the likes of George Miller's Mad Max — one of the most influential films to come out of that country, which continues to have its inspiration felt in such American works as Sofia Coppola's The Virgin Suicides (about a group of cloistered, repressed young women) and Season 2 of HBO's The Leftovers (which is structured around the unexplained vanishing of three local girls).
If the impact of Hanging Rock can still be felt in America, then it's even more formative in its home country. The real-life Hanging Rock — a distinctive geological formation in central Victoria, an hour north of Melbourne — has become a popular tourist destination over the decades since Weir's film was released. "Every year fans flock to the landmark, attracted by the mystery of Lindsay's missing schoolgirls," a recent Vice article explained. "It's even custom to cry out 'Miranda!' at the top of the rock." (Miranda is the name of one of the vanished students.) "Down at the base, you'll find an 'interpretative Discovery Centre' where visitors are enthralled by life-sized dioramas and video displays about the schoolgirls who mysteriously disappeared."
"What I love about Picnic At Hanging Rock is everyone thinks the original novel was based on a true story," said Dormer, the star of the new version told The Straits Times, at the show's premiere at the Berlin Film Festival. So is it a true story? "It's excellent marketing," the Game Of Thrones actor teased. "It's incredibly spooky, whether it's a true story or not."
In 2017, for the 50th anniversary of the publishing of the seminal novel, The Sydney Morning Herald revealed the inspiration for Hanging Rock — at least according to what her housekeeper Rae Clements says that Lindsay told her. The piece reads:
"Joan had woken that morning with the flecked remnants of a peculiar dream imprinted on the edges of her conscious. She knew immediately … that it would make a good book. The dream had centered on a summer picnic at a place called Hanging Rock, which Joan knew well from her childhood holidays. …The dream had felt so real that when she awoke at 7:30 AM, she could still feel the hot summer breeze blowing through the gum trees and she could still hear the peals of laughter and conversation of the people she'd imagined, and their gaiety and lightness of spirit as they set out on their joyful picnic expedition.
"As the cold winter's day wore on, Joan continued to remember the dream of the picnic at Hanging Rock with unusual clarity. She spent most of that day trying to write it all down. That night she had the dream again, and the next day she rushed to write the narrative before it escaped her. This happened again the next night, and then every night for a week."
Some people think there's more to the story than a recurring dream. Janelle McCulloch, who wrote the 2017 book Beyond The Rock: The Life Of Joan Lindsay And The Mystery Of Hanging Rock thinks she has discovered a real-life inspiration behind Lindsay's book. In an interview with The Daily Telegraph, she claimed that her research into local archives turned up the disappearance of two schoolgirls in the area in the late 1800s, which would have been shortly before Lindsay visited Hanging Rock for the first time as a young child in 1900. According to McCulloch, Lindsay — who "was known to be a mystic" — could have encountered the spirits of these missing girls during her trip to Hanging Rock, and been haunted by this encounter for the rest of her life.
So did Picnic At Hanging Rock really just originate in a particularly lucid dream? Or could there be a more mystical explanation for the mystery that has haunted Australian imaginations for 50 years? It's up to you to decide… and that's always been part of the fun of Hanging Rock.