Hungover with my legs against the cool timber of an old Queenslander, I lay watching the 2011 crime thriller Snowtown, about the infamous Bunting killings. Justin Kurzel’s film is slow yet purposeful, shifting between long shots of remote South Australia, old tyre swings and the dreary coastline. There’s something chilling about its griminess, down to the way the characters eat their dinner. An unsettling grey hangs about the town, it emphasises every drop of gore so that it appears hyper-realistic and all the more disturbing.
When we were little, my sister and I spent our Christmas holidays stuck inside our grandparents’ farmhouse in rural Thailand. There was never much to do so we watched a lot of horror movies; the Thai classics—completely maximalist and humorous in tone—with drooling ghosts and witty dialogue. Then came the ‘mainstream’ Hollywood slashers like Friday the 13th and Halloween; they were dubbed in Thai so they were pretty funny too. They sustained my appetite for distraction and cheap thrills, but rarely did movies truly stick with me until I started watching Australian horror.
From the commercial success of films like Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) to Wolf Creek (2005), Australian horror films are slowly gaining genre recognition in the mainstream. Perhaps this is due to the unique and inherent ‘Australian-ness’ of the films; the heat, the flies, and an immense sense of spatial seclusion. Early titles like Night of Fear (1973) and Wake in Fright (1971) were largely defined within the Ozploitation genre—outrageous and dripping with blood, sex, and violence. Since then, Australian horror has evolved somewhat, finding new ways to evoke fear. Even with these changes I’ve noticed that many tenets of the genre remain the same, particularly the ability of Australian films to accentuate the rawness of nature, such as the Aussie outback and the lonely beach town, each creating a sense of vastness, of space, which is somehow shrouded by an unnerving sense of isolation.
Australian horror films accentuate the rawness of nature, creating a sense of vastness, of space, which is somehow shrouded by an unnerving sense of isolation.
The 1979 ‘nature’s revenge’ film Long Weekend still haunts me to this day. In the movie, married couple Marcia (Briony Behets) and Peter (John Hargreaves) travel to a remote beach coast to enjoy a long weekend. Peter is disrespectful to the land, killing animals, polluting the campsite and even shooting a dugong (which just feels like a bad omen). If the prospect of camping was terrifying to me before, what follows is a nightmare. The atmospheric tension rises as the pair struggle against the bush and attacks from snakes and other benign creatures. Much of the horror comes from a sense of physicality, an eerie stillness, reinforced by the protagonists’ separation from community, and an unease of the Australian landscape. The film is said to be a cautionary warning about climate change, but to me part of the horror comes from the haunted quality of the land, reinforced by Australia’s dark history, the dispossession and oppression of its First Peoples.
This use of ‘nature’ within Australian horror remains a common thematic element, where the outback acts as a separate, oppressive villain, different to the haunted houses or lonely cabins within American horror. Instead fear is evoked through the ‘isolation’ and ‘space’ of a dry and unpredictable sprawling landscape. In Wolf Creek (2005) a group of European backpackers are hunted by the brash ‘larrikin’ Mick (John Jarratt) through the desolate outback. Scarier still is that most of the action happens throughout the day, when the sun is at its peak and the horizon appears as if it goes on forever. Watching the film through the miraging heat haze creates physical discomfort, as if I would become sweaty by mere proximity to the screen. Maybe living in Australia I’m hyper aware of what this entails; of the realisation that escape does not guarantee safety.
Contemporary Australian horror flicks feel more sombre, stylistically grim and sparse. Another reoccurring characteristic, to me at least, is the way in which Australian horror is able to explore dark themes like loneliness, loss and trauma through the bleakness of the environment. The Babadook (2014), from Causeway Films, is one of my favourite horror movies of all time, not because it’s riddled with epic scares or violence, but because of the stifling isolation of the protagonist and her resulting trauma. In the film, Amelia (Essie Davis) faces fears of oppressive claustrophobia within her nightmarish suburban home where she must deal with visions of a titular, top-hat wearing monster—‘Mister Babadook’—from her son’s pop-up book.
It’s not just Mister Babadook that’s horrifying—it’s the bleakness of the environment, coloured in greys and dripping with the juxtaposition of a dull, terrifying atmospheric tension. Though situated within an urban sprawl, the underlying stillness of the film is not unlike the quiet rural landscape in which previous Australian horrors are based. I still have nightmares about a scene in which Amelia is driving, delirious and trapped by the screams of her young son. Eventually, in a moment of frustration, she yells, ‘why can’t you just be normal?’. It made me think of the notion of ‘isolation’ through a new lens—not spatial isolation, but a loneliness born from trauma and pain, made worse by the sprawling yet claustrophobic environment.
The more Australian horror I watch, the more I wonder how much of it is moulded by the colonial experience which makes themes of isolation and entrapment a uniquely settler-Australian fear.
The more Australian horror I watch, the more I wonder how much of it is moulded by the colonial experience which makes themes of isolation and entrapment a uniquely settler-Australian fear. I recently binge watched Dark Place (2019), a horror anthology series from First Nations filmmakers. Titles like Perun Bonser’s The Shore, shot in black and white, gives us a different perspective on the gothic Australian bush. This time it isn’t the Westernised threat of nature which creates fear—in fact the Indigenous protagonist is at home in her surroundings. Similarly in Bjorn Stewart’s Killer Native, the protagonist navigates the land with ease, at times even mocking his new white friends for their relative incompetence. The cinematic portrayal of the Australian landscape as ‘bleak’ and ‘empty’ is a hangover from the terra-nullius fiction used to justify the genocide of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and a Western perception of ‘nature’ as something to be conquered.
Similarly, writer and director Jennifer Kent (who also created The Babadook), in consultation with plangermairreenner elder Jim Everett, highlights this contrast—that of the convict versus the First Nations experience—in The Nightingale (2018). Throughout the film we witness the entirety of cruelty and violence, derisively bleak and symbolic of white or non-Indigenous Australians’ disconnection from ‘home’, and from nature as a result. The disquieting imagery and stillness of the film instils a ‘separateness’ between people and nature; Irish convict Clare’s (Aisling Franciosi) struggle through the seemingly hostile environment contrasts with that of the Aboriginal tracker Billy (Baykali Ganambarr). Here we see the protagonist grapple with bloodied leeches, and almost drown in a river after Billy warns her that ‘river’s the boss’. Eventually, with Billy’s guidance, we see Clare begin to embrace and ultimately appreciate the land.
The emphasis of a remote landscape is historically present in Australian texts, and is reflected in classic gothic Australian literature, as can be seen in the works of Barbara Baynton, Nick Cave or Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, each of which details the violence and the madness of Australia’s natural terrain. Perhaps this is because Australia, being the largest island in the world, is known for its most rural aspects, its arid desert and dangerous wildlife.
Horror films are often influenced by the fears of a society, which is why contemporary American horror is noticeably violent, laced with anxiety over external threats or the ‘Other’; claustrophobic in their distrust of society and bound by the walls of shady apartments and the monotony of suburbia. The scares are born from the darkness, from the ghosts in abandoned buildings and the serial killers who hide in forgotten towns. In Australian horror we are reminded of the violence of colonisation, the alienation of early settlers and their subsequent disconnect from the land through the grittiness and vastness of the landscape. This creates an ominous mood and dreary aesthetic, often distinguishing it as Australian horror. It adds to the gothic and violent nature of Australia’s history and, consequentially, its unique horror genre. Needless to say, despite being somewhat traumatised by Australian horror titles, I will continue coming back, if only to be terrified all over again.
Dark Place is available to stream on ABC iview; Long Weekend, The Nightingale and The Babadook are available to stream on Amazon Prime Video; Wolf Creek and Wake in Fright are available to stream on Stan.