Ghostly Time in ‘Lake Mungo’ (2008)

Written by Dr. Adam R. Beach

“I feel like something bad is going to happen to me. I feel like something bad has happened. It hasn’t reached me yet, but it’s on its way. And it’s getting closer. And I don’t feel ready. I feel like I can’t do anything.” Alice Palmer in Lake Mungo.

Lake Mungo (2008, dir. Joel Anderson) is a quiet, sad, and stunning ghost movie set in rural Australia that tracks the haunting of the members of the Palmer family by their teenage daughter/sister Alice, who drowns during a family outing to a nearby dam. The film is a rich and complex text that lends itself to many different kinds of analyses. Its combination of the ghost story with the faux documentary genre raises questions about what it means to “document” both the lives of those who have passed away and the possible existence of their ghosts. The film’s fascinating engagement with photography and video asks us to think about such technologies both as creating ghostly and haunting images of our loved ones and as a potential means for capturing empirical evidence of ghosts. And the film expertly creates uncanny effects, especially in its final sequence, by making an already familiar Palmer family photo into something radically unfamiliar and incredibly sad—in this sequence, the film presents a textbook case of Freud’s version of the uncanny and the powerful and unsettling effects produced when the familiar becomes unrecognizably different in ways we never could have foreseen.

However, I am afraid that taking up these topics in more detail will give too much away for those of you who have not seen the film, and I have decided that, for the purposes of this post, I will focus instead on what is perhaps its most interesting theme: the way it engages with the issue of ghosts and time. In the many theoretical texts that we have read for our DLR class, the issue of ghostly temporalities was a recurrent theme. For example, Peter Buse and Andrew Stott write that: “Ghosts are a problem for historicism precisely because they disrupt our sense of linear teleology in which the consecutive movement of history passes untroubled through the generations” (14). They continue by pointing out that ghosts signal “the appearance of something in a time in which they clearly do not belong” (14). Humans like to think of time moving in a straight, ordered line with a clear distinction between past, present, and future. For Buse and Stott, as well as for theorists like Freud and Derrida with whom they engage, the ghost disrupts this desire for a well-ordered sense of time because it refuses to go away and stay in its proper time and place. In this way, ghosts respond to our own existential anxieties about time and death, our inability to control or fully understand either, and our nagging sense that categories like past, present, and future are not easily distinguishable from one another.

This idea of temporal deformation is put to great use in Lake Mungo: as the movie unfolds, we learn that Alice had been having unsettling dreams in the months before her drowning. In the quote with which I begin this post, Alice is describing one of these dreams in a videotaped session with local psychic Ray Kemeny, conducted some months before her death. Rather than living in a linear, temporal progression, one where past, present, and future are distinct and sequential, Alice senses an impending collapse of this sequential ordering or, more frightening, an intimation that such an order does not exist at all. If “something bad” has already taken place in the future and is trying to “reach” us in the present, what can our idea of past-present-future even mean?

The film pressures our ideas of time even further by the way it presents Alice’s monologue. Rather than showing us the actual videotape from her session with Ray (as we had seen earlier in the movie), the quote above is given as a voice-over to another much more disturbing and belated piece of video, namely the recently discovered and quite grainy footage from Alice’s camera phone that she recorded during a night jaunt with school friends at Lake Mungo. In the footage, we see a spectral image coming out of the dark towards Alice’s camera, first a small figure flickering far away, then moving closer and closer, until finally we see that Alice had inadvertently filmed a possible vision of her own drowned future self. While ghosts usually come from the past to haunt the present and keep past traumas or wrongs alive, Alice’s ghost proceeds from the future, serves as a kind of warning or omen of something bad to come, and, ultimately, has a devastating impact upon her. This specter appears in a time in which it does “not belong” and forces together that which should be kept apart: past and future come together and inhabit the same temporality as two different versions of Alice’s body—one alive, one drowned—confront each other in a way that collapses meaning in Alice’s life and precipitates her “untimely” death. After her passing, Alice reverts to the more typical ghostly behavior of refusing to go away and of perpetually haunting her parents’ home and the lake where she drowned. While both dead and alive, Alice seems to have no future.

Such a state speaks powerfully as a symbol for those teenage years in modern capitalist societies and for Alice’s deeply troubled mind: for those living through it, the teenage years can seem an almost endless liminal state in which one is neither child nor adult and in which one has no control over the future, a future that can seem both far away and menacing at the same time. Teenagers and ghosts, the film ultimately suggests, have much in common. Yet, who among us is totally immune to these fears about the future and of becoming locked into an economic, medical, or familial situation that shows no chance of improvement in the future. Ultimately, the film forces us to meditate on the unsettling ways that people and families can come to share in the ghost’s unbearable experience of time, a time in which there is no “moving on” to a better future, but only repetition, suffering, and an awful sadness.

Works Cited

Buse, Peter and Andrew Stott. “Introduction: A Future for Haunting.” Ghosts: Deconstruction, Psychoanalysis, History. Ed. Peter Buse and Andrew Stott. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999. 1-20.

Lake Mungo. Dir. Joel Anderson. Mungo Productions, 2008.

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