Fascinating and eerie: The real-life mystery behind the story of 'Picnic at Hanging Rock'

Colin Caldwell, one of Joan Lindsay's friends, said that Joan was able to "see" things that other people couldn't. However,Lindsay said the story of the book came to her in a dream

                            Fascinating and eerie: The real-life mystery behind the story of 'Picnic at Hanging Rock'
(Amazon Prime)

The first episode of Picnic at Hanging Rock will air on Amazon Prime later on this month and boy, are we excited! The series is an adaptation of the 1975 film made by Peter Weir and we can honestly say that the Australians are anticipating the release of this show with great enthusiasm.

It's slated to be one of the biggest TV releases of the year in the land Down Under and for good reason. The story is brilliant and the cast boasts the likes of Natalie Dormer, Lily Sullivan, Samara Weaving, and Madeleine Madden.

The main story gives off an air of mystery an attribute it borrows from the novel itself. The plot of the film revolves around a group of girls from a private school who end up disappearing in 1900. The film and the novel have served as an inspiration to many big fashion houses for photo shoots and editorials because the film, in particular, gave off a fantastical look. 

Apart from the sartorial beauty of the film, what caught people's attention was the story itself. The question that still begs an answer is whether the events described in the book ever happened in real life? With any theory that is put out into the world nowadays, there are definitely those that say it is based on a true story and then there are those that say it's all just a work of fiction and nothing more.

To make sure everyone is up-to-speed with what's fact and what's fiction about this fascinating story before it premieres on May 25, we've decided to start an investigation.  


What's the plot of the novel/film/series?

The novel, written by Joan Lindsay, was released in 1967 and its themes of mysticism, science fiction and thriller vibes made it an instant hit with audiences all over.

The story is centered around girls from a private boarding school in Victoria in 1900. Some of the girls plan a picnic for St. Valentines Day and head out to Hanging Rock. Four girls from the group — Miranda, Edith, Irma, and Marion — decide to go and explore the rock formation with their teacher Ms. McCraw after they all finish eating their lunch and sit around for a bit.

In the series of strange events that follow, three of the girls and the teacher disappear "into the rock" according to the lone survivor, Edith.

The distraught girl rushes back to the group and tells tries to explain what happened but she isn't able to because she is in a state of absolute panic.

Subsequently, the prestigious private boarding school and the town surrounding it descend into the deep, dark depths of chaos. Members of the public along with the police organize search parties. One of the missing girls, Irma, is found at the base of the rock unconscious but unharmed.

Students soon begin retreating into themselves, staff at the school start quitting randomly, a girl in the school commits suicide under mysterious circumstances and the headmistress takes her own life by jumping off the rock formation.

The 1975 film and the book end with the school and the police station being ravaged by a fire followed by some rabbit hunters finding a "frilled calico" at the rock formation which is thought to have belonged to McCraw. The missing girls and teacher are never found.

The weirdness is explained by the author...sort of

Years after the novel was published and in a biography of the author, Joan Lindsay, it was revealed that the first draft of the book had initially had one more chapter at the end that explained the mysterious disappearances.

This chapter was published as a separate book in 1987 called The Secret of Hanging Rock. In it, the girls and McCraw are at the rock then Edith runs back to the main group when a strange woman wearing a corset shows up and shouts, "Through!".

The woman then faints and is revived by the girls who loosen her tight corset. They try throwing their own corsets off the cliff but the clothes seem suspended in mid-air and don't cast any shadows on the ground below.

The remaining girls then follow a lizard into a crack that they found in the rock which has been described as "a hole in space". McCraw, Marion and Miranda were able to go through but something prevented Irma from passing through as well. She was then found unconscious in that spot by rescuers.


This strange phenomenon has been confirmed as being a time warp and that the two children and their teacher were now in another dimension. This ending was dismissed by the publishers and hence it was printed at a later date. 

The answer to whether this is based on a true story or not needs further digging but some things can be confirmed right off the bat. Readers can detect a biographical note in the novel since Hanging Rock is an actual place. and the boarding school in the novel is loosely based on Clyde Girls' Grammar School in Melbourne which is where Lindsay studied when she was a child.

The things that are off in the story, though, are the dates. St Valentine's Day in 1900 was on a Wednesday and not on a Saturday as was in the novel. 

Did something sinister actually happen?

Even though there are no official records of the disappearances or the murders that were written in the book by Lindsay, rumor mills kept churning out bits and pieces claiming it to be an authentic story.

The movie and novel created such a stir that Yvonne Rousseau wrote a book called The Murders at Hanging Rock that looked into any possible answers to the tons of questions and possibilities being raised about the story.


One former student of Lindsay's school in Melbourne told Janelle McCulloch, the author of Lindsay's biography: "We all knew about the girls who disappeared, but none of us really knew the details."

McCulloch told The Daily Telegraph after that: "It was then that I found out that Joan's great-grandfather was the police magistrate in the area. So I thought, 'OK, here's where she heard the story.'" She also searched through police reports where she did find reports of two girls, who loosely matched the descriptions in the book, had gone missing in the 1800s.

McCulloch said: "My own feeling is that two girls were abducted. I honestly believe these two men did it–and I have reasons for believing this–but I don't have concrete evidence. The men knew they were going to be there. The girls were possibly hidden in one of the bottomless crevices of the rock."


There's a paranormal angle as well

Of course, there had to be a paranormal angle to this whole thing. When the film adaptation premiered in 1975 to eagerly waiting audiences, the clock in the cinema hall eerily stopped at exactly 12 o'clock. A producer for the film told the Daily Telegraph that the same thing even happened on the set of the film: "All our watches seemed to be playing up. Mine stopped at 6pm on the rock… to ask the time became quite a joke."

Joan Lindsay herself had told her publishers while she was writing the book that the plot for the story had come to her in a dream and that the dream had felt so real. Lindsay had visited Hanging Rock when she was a child.

Colin Caldwell, one of Lindsay's closest friends, said that the author was able to "see" things that other people couldn't. He told the Sydney Morning Herald: "Oh yes, she was very much a mystic. She could sense things in the landscape that others couldn't."

So is it fact or fiction?

Well, after all the investigating we have done, it is safe to say that the answer is still a mystery. Although it looked like there were clues scattered around that the story was based on some fact, it looks like it may have all been the work of an active imagination.