What Holds the Dead? Lake Mungo at 15. 

Horror is not the first thing we think of when we think of Australia but it should be. Exploring beyond the coastal enclaves of Sydney, Perth and Adelaide we reach the outback. A dry, barren and red desert full of venomous spiders, lurking crocodiles and, if the films are to be believed, crazed killers. Australian horror movies really took off with the global success of the slasher Wolf Creek in 2005. Since then movies like The Tunnel, The Babadook and Relic have escaped the sub-continent to terrify the rest of the world. Lake Mungo was the scariest, saddest and strangest of this crop of Ozzy pictures and has remained so fifteen years on. 

Sixteen year old Alice Palmer (Talia Zucker) drowns while swimming in a reservoir on a family trip. Days later her brother Mathew (Martin Sharpe) sets up cameras to record what he claims are images of Alice’s ghost. Their parents June and Russell (Rosie Traynor and David Pledger respectively) consult psychic Ray Kemeney (Steve Jodrell) in the hope of contacting Alice’s ghost. The revelations that follow threaten to tear the Palmer family apart and point to a secret buried on the shores of Lake Mungo. 

Lake Mungo’s release was caught up in the second wave of found footage films that Paranormal Activity started in 2007. Compared to its contemporaries in that second wave like REC, Diary of the Dead and Cloverfield, Lake Mungo lacks the propulsive intensity and visceral gore many of these films shared. The slower burn on Lake Mungo makes it stand out from the crowd and its scares linger for longer. Instead of shocks and jumps director Joel Anderson, in his first and only feature, aims for chills and discomfort. Reports of people who claim to have experienced a haunting often say that sudden drops in temperature accompany the feelings of sadness or fear the presence brings with it. Lake Mungo conjures that feeling and it will stay with its audience long after its infamous credits roll. 

Calling Lake Mungo a found footage movie is only half-true. It’s filmed in a documentary format more than anything else and only the smallest, scariest parts of it are made up of found footage. The rest of the film is some beautifully strange B-roll footage with voiceover, talking head “interviews”, fake news footage and Mathew and Alice’s respective recordings. It takes more inspiration from the similarly minded J-horror Noroi: The Curse and the more unsettling parts of David Lynch and Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks. It was a film far removed from its found footage fellows and pretty out there in terms of the horror genre as well. Its complex mix of grief, encroaching dread and shockingly normal imagery contrasting with the nightmare at the heart of the story made Lake Mungo a tough sell. Released with little fanfare and less marketing, Lake Mungo sank like a stone at the box office before rising from the depths to haunt the darker aisles of streaming libraries. 


Anderson’s film became a word-of-mouth cult horror movie that gathered momentum through the years as many found themselves moved to tears by their newfound fears. Here was buried proof that modern found footage films didn’t have to be all shaky cam shots and brief glimpses of monsters tearing well-meaning fools limb-from-limb, Proof that The Blair Witch Project and Noroi: The Curse weren’t just flashes in the pan. Heartfelt but no less horrifying stories could be told in this format with style and grace at a slower pace. 

That slow pace is important as the film goes on as each new revelation hits that much harder. What holds the dead? This question is at the heart of Lake Mungo. Why is Alice haunting her family? What is buried at Lake Mungo? Can Alice’s spirit find peace? Only some of these questions are answered by the film. Others are left frighteningly ambiguous. One is answered only at the end of the credits in the film’s only jump scare. Not only is it enough to make you want to sleep with the light on, it also makes you want to call your loved ones and tell them how much they mean to you. 

When the reveal of what exactly is buried at Lake Mungo lands it opens up a whole new avenue of existential horror. Time is often a major concern in ghost stories and Lake Mungo is no different. Many ghost stories such as Crimson Peak feature ghosts as warnings from the past. Fewer ghost stories feature the even scarier concept of ghosts as a warning from the future. As Alice herself says in voiceover at the beginning of the film: “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.” This concept of a spirit reaching through time before they themselves have died would influence many more ghost stories throughout the years, perhaps most recently in ‘The Bent-Neck Lady’ the masterful fifth episode of Mike Flanagan’s The Haunting of Hill House

Lake Mungo remains one of the modern era’s most powerful ghost stories. By combining footage captured by its subjects, the documentary segments and cell phone videos shot by the enigmatic Alice – a ghost long before she died – Joel Anderson creates a film that not only proves how impactful found footage can be but also how far this relatively nascent and often maligned format can go. Its reputation as a metatextual work, as a rediscovered cult film and as a tragic, dread-inducing nightmare has firmly established it as a contemporary ghost story that still feels ahead of its time a decade and a half later. 

What will stick with viewers most, I think, is Lake Mungo’s ability to reach out and chill the blood like an injection of ice water. Especially in the moments of vulnerability and uncertainty we see Alice in. Knowing she’s alone, knowing there’s no one to help her, knowing that what’s happened hasn’t reached her yet but that it’s on its way. 

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