Lake Mungo (2008): Grief Explored Through Found Footage



Lake Mungo (2008) is a chilling, depressing film about a young girl who drowned and how her family copes with the loss. Featuring unsettling, pixelated videos and photos of her spirit as well as a few harrowing twists, this film is now a Ghoul's favorite. Gabe discusses the horrors of found footage and explores some fan theories. Kat explains how your brain plays tricks on you, convincing you of ghosts in the darkness and what spiritualism photography is.


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Media from this week's episode:

Lake Mungo (2008)

Strange things start happening after a girl is found drowned in a lake.

Director: Joel Anderson

 

Lake Mungo: Exploring Grief & Mortality in Found Footage Horror

by Gabe Castro


RED: Quotes, someone else's words.


Synopsis:

Something bad has happened to Alice Palmer. Lake Mungo is a mockumentary about the untimely death of Alice. We begin with creepy spirit photography, over which we hear a disturbed Alice, ‘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 is on its way. And it's getting closer. And I don't feel ready, I feel like I can't do anything.' When the film truly begins we see interview footage of her family and friends talking about her. Her brother, Mathew, and father explain the fateful day at the reservoir. Mathew and Alice had been swimming when Mathew decided to head back in. After some time he asks, “Where did Alice go?” For the first 20 minutes, this film is a sad Investigation Discovery show about dealing with the unexpected death of a loved one. We learn about how each of Alice’s family members is coping with the loss.


Exploration of Grief:

Her dad has thrown himself into his work in an attempt to shut off the part of him that grieves. A response I greatly related to. There’s nothing like normalcy to distract you from tragedy. However, he’s not quite disconnected as he does recount a vulnerable tale of him visiting Alice’s room after her death. He sat at on her bed and looked around at it, unchanged. Then he saw Alice come into the room, sit at her vanity, and begin to sharpen a pencil. Moments later she looked up, saw him, and screamed for him to, “Get out!”


Her mom has had trouble sleeping and decides to wander the neighborhood late at night to ease her mind. While wondering, she often finds herself in other people’s homes. (Nothing is done about this!) She later seeks out help from a local psychic and develops a strong connection/reliance on him. She also refuses to see Alice’s remains to confirm her death. The journey to see the body is incredibly symbolic as the couple’s vehicle gives them trouble, refusing to drive unless in reverse.


Her brother, though mostly fine, has some inexplicably bruising all over his body which is never addressed as it simply goes away with time. He begins a hobby of photography. With this new hobby, he has decided to photograph their backyard repeatedly, on different days, to mark a change. It’s due to this that things begin to get rather supernatural.


Mathew makes a chilling discovery, finding a shadowy and opaque Alice in one of his photographs. Soon after, another resident of their town captures what appears to be Alice again, this time while he is out at the very place she died. This causes the family to set up cameras throughout the house in hopes of capturing Alice in frame.


Mockumentary/Found Footage:

Mathew’s cameras run throughout the night and at first, there’s nothing to tell. Then, one night Mathew catches Alice walk through the hallway. Later, we see her in the reflections of decorative plates, mirrors, and as a shadowy presence in the dark. I love found footage and this film does a really amazing job of building tension. I’m a sucker for any of those ghost TV shows where they show photos, videos, and voice recordings of supposed spectral beings looming in the background. You strain your eyes and ears to pick up on the spooky presence. Then they usually highlight it by circling the ghost and you think, “Ah ha! There it is!” or they enhance the audio and provide subtitles so you hear exactly what the ghost is communicating.


What I appreciated about this film is that it didn’t feel as hokey or silly as those ghost shows often are. (Don’t get me wrong, I still love them). Lake Mungo gives us slow zooms and a haunting soundtrack that’s too honest. It lingers just too long that you feel uncomfortable, staring into the voided eyes of ghost Alice. The music a natural and solemn track befitting a documentary of a lost loved one, not a silly spectre show on Syfy.


This film is serious and it wants you to focus on the grief and pains of this family that is so desperate to hold onto Alice. These photos provide them with hope that something is incomplete - perhaps Alice isn’t dead and she’s communicating with us so we’ll look for her? Or maybe, something more sinister has happened and she’s been murdered, begging us to catch her killer. These videos allow the family to hold on to those possibilities and even results in them exhuming her body to be sure it’s really her. Remember, her mother never identified her body, only her father and even he is willing to believe he was wrong if it meant she was still out there somewhere.


Which brings me to the first twist of the film and our *spoiler warning* for the episode.


SPOILER ALERTS - The Twists & Terrors

It is revealed that the photo the local townsperson took of Alice was actually not Alice at all but rather, Mathew wearing Alice’s sweater. Which is a strange idea to begin with, why is Mathew wearing her clothes and walking around the place she died? Don’t worry, that is never addressed. After this comes to light, Mathew comes forward and admits that he’s been manipulating the footage and splicing it with home videos of Alice. He claims this was to help his mother and her grief, to inspire her to confirm Alice’s death as she hadn’t identified the body and therefore couldn’t have closure. Weird way to do that but grief is different for everyone. However, there’s a line here that I found strange.


Mathew is asked if these videos essentially did more harm than good to which he responded, “I do think that these videos maybe made it harder for her.” The her he is referring to here could easily be his mother but I felt like he actually meant Alice and was looking at it in hindsight thinking how his forging of the videos invalidated any possibility for the real presence of ghost Alice. If she really is trying to communicate for some reason, then the family would only dismiss her real outcries as another trick from Mathew. However, the family finds a new video of Alice (this time while Mathew is away) and decide that maybe there is some truth to the ghost images. Upon reviewing the videos, her mother sees another presence that isn’t Alice but rather, a man lurking in her room. The mother identifies him as their neighbor. She quickly investigates Alice’s room and finds a secret stash with a VHS tape. The tape contains footage of Alice and the neighbor, and neighbor’s wife, in a threesome. We don’t know when this tape was made but we do know Alice died at 16. The age of consent is 16 in Australia (gross). But these folx should certainly be held responsible. However, they have fled town and simply disappeared (hella sus). Could this be the secret Alice wanted everyone to know?


It’s at this time that Alice’s friends come forward with another video, this one taken before her death. Her and her friends had gone on a trip to Lake Mungo. There, they had fun but at some point Alice became a little distracted and solemn. The video provided is incredibly pixelated because its taken on a phone in 2008. However, the family decides that they see Alice digging under a tree and us viewers have to take their word for it. They visit Lake Mungo and here we find an entirely different twist.


Alice had been digging under a tree. What they find when there is a bag with all of her favorite belongings and her cell phone. Getting rid of your prized possessions is a sign of someone looking to unalive themselves, which makes this revelation heartbreaking. (there’s also another level to this but I’ll mention it in my theories section). On her cell phone, the family finds a horrifying video that will haunt my dreams forever. While wandering Lake Mungo alone and filming video (again, alone), Alice encounters a strange figure in the dark. It slowly moves its way towards her and reveals itself. The figure is Alice, more specifically, dead Alice. Her father recognizes the face immediately as the one he identified when they found her body in the reservoir. The film shows us a comparison and for certain, her disfigured face is eerily similar to Alice’s. This encounter leads Alice to seek out the psychic, the same one her mother found solace in at one point, where she shares with him her nightmares and that awful feeling that something bad will happen or has already happened but she just hasn’t caught up to it yet.


Her family interpret Alice burying her things as a resignation, she had seen her own death and knew she could not outrun it. And so she gave up. They feel they’ve given Alice the closure she needs. They decide to move out of the house and on with their lives. Their grief filed away and sealed in their boxes of memories, buried under their own trees.


Yet, Alice is still there. In an audio recording of Alice with the psychic, she shares a dream in which she is in her own room watching her mother come in. Her mother can’t see her and doesn’t know she’s there, and then she leaves. Did the family leave too soon? Or were all the secrets Alice held revealed in the end? Her spirit lingering only to say goodbye?


Theory:

Time for theories! I watched a decent video by Discount Final Girl on Youtube where she explains a theory she found on Reddit and it made me very happy. There were some pieces of the story that left me feeling incomplete. While recanting pieces of the film to a friend, I remembered Mathew’s bruises and how it was never resolved. The biggest shared theory among watchers is that Mathew killed Alice and her ghost is trying to tell the family. Here some things that support that theory.

  1. Home Movies: Mathew has many home videos of Alice. Some of them are normal but most feel a bit like a strange, lurking presence. Mathew is constantly watching Alice. In one video Alice asks him what he is doing there to which he replies rather shyly that he doesn’t know before she shouts at him to get out. (This scene has another element to it as it seems to be the exact interaction the father had with her ghost, as if she’s reliving some uncomfortable moments or trying to share with them the suspicions). This is a film about Alice, so it makes sense for the films to be about her but for him to have so many that he’s able to make these hoaky videos of her…seems odd.

  2. Last to See Her: Mathew and Alice were both swimming in the reservoir that day. Their father was on the shore while they were out there. Mathew comes back in and moments later asks, “Where did Alice go?” not “Did Alice get out?” or anything like that. He was essentially the last person to see her but it’s never talked about. A Reddit user also mentions that it’s odd that he never brings this up. He never feels any guilt or sadness about being the last one to see her alive. He never says anything like, “If only I’d have stayed out longer or asked her to come in.” Nothing like that.

  3. Her likeness: it’s also terribly strange that he’s been going around pretending to be her, even before the fake videos. Why did he return to the scene of her death, wearing her clothing? The videos themselves are also pretty strange and though he passed them off as a way to help his mother, they’re very sus.

  4. His bruises: This is the most damning of all the evidence. The scenes where they discuss his bruising feels misplaced. They’re brought up and them dismissed quickly. If his bruises aren’t supernatural, then it could be the result of Alice fighting back.

  5. Alice’s Secrets: Alice has many secrets but when she chose to bury her prized possessions, I feel it wasn’t only because she saw the specter. I believe she’d been suffering from abuse from Mathew for years and was at the end of her rope. Her parents, though they love her, seem incredibly disconnected from her. Discount Final Girl mentions how her mother was the only one to say the siblings were close. Leaving no footage or testimony from another to confirm this.


If Mathew did kill her, then her mystery remains unsolved to the family. That is why she remains in the house, sad that her family is leaving and still can’t see her. In the post credits scene, we see the same images Mathew altered only this time, the film chooses to focus and zoom in on a presence in the background. Alice was there and always had been, hoping someone would notice and figure out what brought her pain. It’s as Mathew had said, his fake videos did make it hard for her.


This story was not just about the grief a family feels at loss, but also the pain, isolation, and misunderstandings of a young, teenage girl who desperately wanted to be heard.

 

Seeing Ghosts in the Darkness: History of Spiritualism Photography

by Kat Kushin


RED: Quotes, someone else's words.


So I know this week was supposed to be Gabe’s fear time but this film surprisingly scared me a lot. As a fun fact, my grandpa used to take pictures of ghosts when I was a kid. He would intentionally go into really old houses and take a bunch of pictures of windows, doors and in rooms throughout the house looking for distinguishable faces, orbs, etc. To my knowledge he didn’t alter the photographs, or have that technical ability, but it’s something that has always been interesting to think back on. There is something inherently interesting about the possible existence of ghosts, as well as the way the human brain fills in empty space. This can be both through interpreting auditory and visual cues that give context to our overall existence.


For example, all images are things our brain interprets based on our memories and previously experienced concepts of shapes, colors, etc. Our brain connects with our eyes and gives its best guess of interpreting what we are seeing. These things are completely dependent upon our brain connecting neural pathways to one another, and not by any semblance of universal fact. What is in front of us is largely based on our own personal perception, and how we take in the world. This is why if you are laying in bed, and looking at objects around your room, a pile of clothes that you’ve left on a chair can look upsettingly like a person sitting and watching you sleep. There are layers to this. As a neurospicy individual, my brain sometimes does this with sounds as well, where it will heighten certain sounds over others. It all ties back to sensory processing. This has translated to me hearing the carbonation in my soda, or conversations of my neighbors through the walls. There are many times that this has been fear inducing, especially when late at night, or while home alone. For instance, one time, I had a terrifying combination of the two experiences. I woke up at like 2am, opened my eyes after having a nightmare and looked off to the side of the bed. A sweatshirt in the darkness looked like a person crouching on the floor, which in its own right is a stressful visual. To add to that horror, my brain redirected the sound of my partner's breathing to be in the same spot as said sweatshirt, giving me the intense and terrifying feeling that someone else was in the room, BREATHING loudly and watching me. As a horror fan, my brain immediately went to, my partner is dead next to me, and the murderer is toying with me until I notice they are there. I calmly checked my partner's pulse to ensure he was in fact breathing, my brain fixed the sound direction from this confirmation and I then calmed down. All this to say, that your brain is doing the best it can, and sometimes it’s wrong in its processing.


A similar phenomenon is when listening to sounds, your brain will try to form distinguishable language from the sounds. If you have text in front of you while listening to the sound, sometimes that can influence how your brain interprets it. This is why if you hear whispering or creepy moaning, you’ll sometimes distinguish words being said. This is something that is effectively used in horror movies through subtitles. To someone not viewing with subtitles, it could sound like anything else, or just indistinguishable moaning, but with the subtitles reading “I will kill you”, that is now what you hear. Your brain thanks the subtitles kindly for the context and asks no further questions.


Some of the best horror films play with our perception of auditory and visual cues in ways that trigger fear or play upon our natural curiosity. Lights Out is a good example of this, where much of the fear in that film comes from the unseen, and instead relies on sound design. The same can be done with visual cues, a great example being paranormal activity, with the oscillating fan, or the movement under the covers. What Lake Mungo does that was very fun and unique, was providing you with a “this is fake” narrative on top of a perceived real narrative. The altering of the video and pictures by the son, intentionally drew our eyes to the fake narrative, hiding the “real” ghost for an even more satisfying or shocking reveal. What was very cool about this is when the viewer is told to look at the image, we search for our dead protagonist immediately, and our eyes go to the most obvious standout. The zooming of the camera in this section also skews our perception to focus on the image being spoken about, instead of the image to the side. The end credits highlight the areas where the “actual ghost” is in a very satisfying ‘where’s waldo’ like experience. This film is so smart in its commitment to the found footage documentary presentation. The story progression and the changes in reality add so much to the overall experience.


Something that is pretty cool, is that ghost photography and video is something that is not only pretty popular, but also something that people have used professionally to scare, connect, and trick people throughout history. The intentional altering of photos and videos to create ghost sightings is pretty interesting. In an article titled, the intriguing history of ghost photography by Howard Timberlake, they say “The roots of spirit photography can be traced back to the 19th Century. During the 1850s and ‘60s, many photographers were experimenting with new effects such as stereoscopic images and double exposure. But some unscrupulous photographers soon realised that these techniques could be exploited for profit. An enterprising American amateur photographer called William Mumler is thought to be the first person to capture a ‘spirit’ in a photograph in the early 1860s.” The image in question shows the “ghost” of Abraham Lincoln, standing behind Mary Todd Lincoln. Mumler continued to get more popular, capturing the images of spirits standing with their loved ones in images. They apparently were also accused of fraud, and accused of going as far as to break into customers' houses to get images of their deceased relatives. It’s said this method was popular with individuals experiencing grief from the loss of their loved ones, and the appearance of them still being with them in photos provided comfort.


With the increase of people purchasing cameras, the development in spirits captured on camera grew. With manipulation of lenses, and shaking of cameras, among other methods, many perceived spirits were captured on camera. There aren’t any images that I was able to find that are still under debate for their validity, and almost all have been debunked as fraudulent. In more recent times, the use of photoshop has also allowed for images to be altered in ways that present the capture of ghosts on camera. Apparently smartphones, and their methods of taking pictures has also led to an increase in spirit sightings. “The way smartphones take a photo in stages can lead to ‘spirits'. Unlike analogue film, phones tend to take a photo in stages – in the same way a scanner moves over a piece of paper. It is a slower process, especially in darker places where the camera phone’s image sensors need more time to record enough picture information. This is called 'image aliasing'. As a result, anything moving through the shot at the time could appear distorted.” Similar methods have led to incorrect facial recognition, as a computer desperately tried to find a face to imprint dog ears onto. This was cleverly used in the film Host to scare viewers.