Land Down Under: Australian Gothic Horror
In one of the first studies of Australian cinema, Susan Dermody and Elizabeth Jacka’s The Screening of Australia Volume 2: Anatomy of a National Cinema, “Australian Gothic” is cited as one of the key trends in Australian film production of the 1970s. For Dermody and Jacka, Australian Gothic is expressed through portrayals of Australian rural spaces revealed to be hotbeds of perversion, populated by grotesques, with the pervasive atmosphere of a living nightmare, typified by films such as Wake in Fright (1971), The Cars That Ate Paris (1974) Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), Summerfield (1977). and The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978).
In this lecture Lindsay Hallam will explore what is meant by “Australian Gothic” and survey its use in films from the 1970s to the present. She will discuss how the representation of Australia as a Gothic landscape reveals the horror that has been enacted upon it through the process of colonisation. In these films the land is revealed to be haunted by secrets, holding within it knowledge of past crimes that are beginning to emerge, seeping into the so-called civilized society that has formed on top of it, twisting relations within families and communities.
The original conception of the Australian Gothic viewed it as grounded in a recognisable reality, operating within a Gothic space through an inversion, and perversion, of the everyday. However, there is a wealth of Australian films that use more traditional Gothic elements within a supernatural narrative. Hauntings, possessions, and ghostly visitations occur to expose secrets within a family, in films such as Cassandra (1987), Alison’s Birthday (1981), Next of Kin (1982), Lake Mungo (2008), Inner Demon (2014) and Relic (2020). This focus on the family also leads to a shift in location from rural to urban and suburban spaces, as in Boys in the Trees (2016), Observance (2015), Johnny Ghost (2011) and most notably The Babadook (2014), where the titular monster embodies the rage felt by a grieving mother.
The land itself gains sentience in The Last Wave (1977), Long Weekend (1978), In the Winter Dark (1998) and Primal (2010), becoming the ultimate vengeful force and agent of apocalypse. These films don’t feature the rampaging men usually found in eco-horror films, but instead involve people who are ignorant of the power of the land. Even those who seek to gain knowledge of these forces must realise that they are inherently unknowable, their power impossible to comprehend, let alone control. In these films, white settlers must acknowledge not just their guilt at what they have wrought upon the land, but also their fundamental insignificance.
While many films look to Aboriginal cultures and spiritualities for inspiration, such as The Last Wave, Dark Age (1987), The Dreaming (1988), and Kadaicha (1988), it must be noted that most representations of Indigenous cultures in Australian horror cinema are primarily in films made by white filmmakers. Indigenous filmmakers are beginning to tell their own stories though, as in Tracey Moffatt’s beDevil (1993), Warwick Thornton’s The Darkside (2013), anthology film Dark Place (2019) and short film The Moogai (2020). These works employ familiar genre tropes and monsters, such as ghosts and vampires, using the conventions of the Australian Gothic and horror cinema to expose and work through historical trauma, while also expressing, and celebrating, cultural identity in a variety of ways that is no longer homogenised.
All events start at 19:00, for 19:15, please do not be late.
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The Horse Hospital, Colonnade, WC1N 1JD London
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