Lake Mungo Explained – Revisiting A Ghost Story Wrapped in Trauma and Grief
With recent news that UK distributor Second Sight Films plans a Blu-ray release of the criminally underrated Australian film Lake Mungo, now is the perfect time to revisit this found footage/mockumentary gem. Underneath the narrative twists and red herrings lies a story about a family’s grief and a teen’s pain.
What Happened to Alice?
Lake Mungo tells the story of Alice Palmer (Talia Zucker), a teenager who drowned in a dam while swimming with her brother. Released at the height of the found footage boom in 2008, director/writer Joel Anderson fuses found footage techniques with mockumentary-style storytelling. Family members, friends, and neighbors comment on Alice’s death. News footage shows search and rescue divers at the scene, as they ultimately recover her body.
The docufiction style succeeds at establishing intrigue and mystery regarding Alice’s death. But more importantly, it allows family members to comment upon and process her death. This gets to what’s really at the heart of Lake Mungo and why it remains such an effective film. This is a story about grief and how a family handles it. It’s also a story about a teen’s secretive pain.
The mother, June (Rosie Traynor), comments that when they arrived home, she went into Alice’s room that night. “I remember how neat everything looked,” June says. This comment specifically captures what grief feels like. Memories linger. Possessions remain, as if waiting for the departed to return.
The dad, Russell (David Pledger), adds that they left the porch light on “just in case.” Each family member, meanwhile, handles the loss differently. Russell throws himself into his work. June has nightmares. The son, Mathew (Martin Sharpe), picks up a new hobby, photography.
Ghostly Red Herrings
Lake Mungo contains numerous head fakes, red herrings, and narrative turns. At first, the family believes they see Alice’s ghost in Mathew’s photographs and videos. A figure who looks like her appears in their house and in their backyard.
However, it turns out that Mathew faked the photos. This is revealed through video footage that another family has. It shows Mathew in the background, wearing Alice’s hoodie. He then confesses to faking video footage, too. This only compounds the family’s pain. June especially clung to the hope that her daughter had returned and wanted to communicate with her.
That said, this was Mathew’s way of handling the pain. Something’s better than nothing, he claims at one point. Evidently, he, too, wanted to resurrect Alice.
Who Was Alice?
It turns out that Mathew’s photos and video footage aren’t the only major red herring. It’s revealed that Alice had sex with a neighbor she babysat for, and it was captured on tape. The neighbor shows up in one of Mathew’s videos late at night, looking for the tape. As Alice’s friend, Kim Whittle (Chloe Armstrong) says, Alice is a woman who had many secrets. “There was another (Alice) none of us knew.”
In yet another twist, it’s revealed that Alice foresaw her own death and went to a psychic for counseling. Eventually, the family learns that Alice buried her major possessions at Lake Mungo, including her phone that contains a recording of a ghost. The spirit sure resembles Alice’s deceased body pulled from the dam. Even Mathew comments that she recorded “the future coming to get her.”
Further, the idea that death is inescapable is a reoccurring theme. June says at one point that death takes everything, keeps coming, and doesn’t care. Spooked by this incident and certain she’s about to die, Alice confronts her mortality by burying her possessions at the lake and meeting with a psychic to try to process it all.
The Dream, the Ending, and the Family’s Healing
June mentions early in the film that she has a recurring nightmare. Alice stands in her bedroom, dripping wet, trying to speak to her. June can’t respond. It turns out that Alice had a similar reoccurring dream and foresaw the day her family moved out. She mentions this to the psychic.
In the film’s closing minutes, June lingers in Alice’s bedroom one final moment, before she leaves the house. Outside, she joins the family for one more photo. In it, Alice’s ghost can be seen in the background, looking through the window at her family, their backs turned towards her. This final frame is significant. It proves the family is ready to move on.
This ending is quite powerful and sad. To heal from their grief, the family needs to move out. The past and Alice’s ghost, however, remain. The mom and Alice meet in the same dream, on the day the family moved out, but they can’t speak to each other. A disconnect between the living and the dead persists, but at least June has made peace with the loss.
This dream indicates that Alice indeed was able to see the future. Instead of trying to prevent it or change it, however, she surrendered to it, as indicated by the fact she buried her possessions after seeing the ghost at the lake.
Lake Mungo remains a strong, moving film. It utilizes found footage and documentary-style techniques to throw countless red herrings at the viewer. But more importantly, it highlights a teenager’s tragic story and her family’s subsequent grief.
You can catch Lake Mungo for free on Tubi. Check it out and tell us what you think.
Brian Fanelli is a poet and educator who also enjoys writing about the horror genre. His work has been published in The LA Times, World Literature Today, Schuylkill Valley Journal, Horror Homeroom, and elsewhere. On weekends, he enjoys going to the local drive-in theater with his fiancé, or curling up on the couch and binge-watching movies with their cat, Giselle.