Denegation and the Undead in Lake Mungo

This article examines the signification of the undead and the production of a supernatural ontology within the pseudo-documentary Lake Mungo (Joel Andersen, 2008). The narrative concerns Alice, a sixteen-year-old girl in the rural Australian town of Ararat who has drowned mysteriously at a reservoir on the edge of town and subsequently returns to haunt her family home and the site of her death. She is survived by her brother (Matthew), mother (June) and father (Russell) to whom she reappears both directly and through various media including video and still image sources. The investigation of the hauntings is reconstructed through fabricated news items, home video, and interviews with family and friends conducted in a largely observational mode.

Academic writing on Lake Mungo has focused principally on the family dynamics of the haunting. In her book Found Footage Horror Films, Alexandra Heller-Nicholas reads Lake Mungo as exemplary of how:

the diegetic appearance of filmmaking technologies … can add new dimensions to the way that family horror explores its internal power dynamics … [and] an increased sensation of intimacy as we experience the otherwise hidden domain of the family through the formal invitation of the diegetic camera’s first person gaze. [1]

For Jonathan Rayner, the film exemplifies the relocation of the “Australian Gothic” from “the unfathomability and inhospitality of the Australian environment … [to] the representation of malice hidden in the mundane”. [2] Rick Moody reads the film’s production of the undead as punishment for Alice’s sexual transgression. [3]

The key feature of the film that this analysis traces is the dialectical gauntlet of verification, falsification and de-falsification to which Lake Mungo subjects the representations of Alice’s haunting. These themes are foreshadowed in the opening credit sequence which presents a slow montage of nineteenth-century “spirit photographs”, each explored in close-up by the camera, and overlaid with intermittent fragments of speculative dialogue from the film in voice-over. The photos serve to orient the film within the domain of contested representations from which it denegates the undead over and above the binaries of living/dead and real/fake: as not living and not dead, not real and not fake. The film’s denegation of the undead also disrupts other binaries such as past/future and cause/effect as expressed in the voice over remarks that are only later attributed to 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’s on its way, and it’s getting closer, and I don’t feel ready. I feel like I can’t do anything.

In its evocation of “that which (in actuality) has not yet happened, but which is already affective in the virtual”, [4] the film resonates key “hauntological” themes. In order to capture the ontological productivity of haunting within the film, I employ Žižek’s “parallax image” in conjunction with Baudrillard’s concept of “precession”, both of which hinge on the analytic power of denegation.

For Žižek, the “undead” is instructive of how denegation can “short circuit” symbolic binaries to evoke a “pure difference” which cannot be grounded in positive substantial properties. He writes:

Kant introduced a key distinction between negative and indefinite judgment: the positive judgment “the soul is mortal” can be negated in two ways, when a predicate is denied to the subject (“the soul is not mortal”), and when a non-predicate is affirmed (“the soul is non-mortal”) – the difference is exactly the same as the one, known to every reader of Stephen King, between “he is not dead” and “he is un-dead”. The indefinite judgment opens up a third domain which undermines the underlying distinction: the “undead” are neither alive nor dead, they are precisely the monstrous “living dead”. [5]

Denegation, according to Žižek, can be traced through “parallax views” [6] which construct their objects through the coincidence of two divergent and mutually incompatible perspectives. The parallax of binocular disparity within stereoscopy produces the perception of a dimension that, like the undead, both is and isn’t there. It sustains worldviews and ideologies, for example, in the production of “global culture” through the gap between the universal and the particular. [7] Or, within the Cogito, “this new dimension that emerges in the gap … is that of the transcendental I itself, of its ‘spontaneity’: the ultimate parallax, the third space between phenomena and the noumenon itself”. [8] Parallax also provides the conceptual lever for Žižek’s reformulation of the Lacanian Real:

[U]ltimately, the status of the Real is purely parallactic and, as such, nonsubstantial: is has no substantial density in itself, it is just a gap between two points of perspective [for example the infant and its mirror image], perceptible only in the shift from the one to the other. The parallax Real is thus opposed to the standard (Lacanian) notion of the Real. [9]

In his revision of Lacanian film theory, Todd McGowan argues: “The most radical aspect of the cinematic experience lies in the ability of the gaze to show itself there”. [10] Described in this way, though he doesn’t use the term, cinema is itself a parallax between the film’s vision and that of its spectator.

Baudrillard articulates de-negation in relation to the phenomena of “precession” whereby signs produce referents that seem to pre-exist and ground signification. The “precession of simulacra” harnesses this productive power of signs to generate “models” of complex processes (economic, socio-cultural, scientific, etc.), which precede their referents as the “map precedes the territory”. [11] Precession thus operates (and oscillates) as a passive and active verb, which relates to the sense in which the sign actually comes first, but also the concealed productive force by which it installs its referent in advance. Baudrillard describes how contemporary media have been instrumental in coordinating simulation models into a self-referential system of signs which comprises the simulacrum of the “hyperreal”. It is through hierarchies of binary oppositions or “code”, such as real/imaginary, living/dead, authentic/fake, that the hyperreal stabilises itself in relation to an external world or “integral reality” which it retro-projects. For example, the very notion that signs are imaginary (un real) denegates or “precesses” a real material world by contrast to which they correspond. This is why for Baudrillard:

Above all it is the reference principle of images which must be doubted, this strategy by means of which they always appear to refer to a real world, to real objects, and to reproduce something which is logically and chronologically anterior to themselves. [12]

Denegation via “precession” thus provides both the key to the concealed negation beneath the illusion of positive properties behind coded binaries as well as the means to transcend them. As Lake Mungo demonstrates, a reverse strategy of doubting “the reference principle of images” lies instead in making them refer to a supernatural realm that empirically isn’t there. Such tactics are exemplary of “symbolic exchange” in which precession is enacted through reversals that liberate its productive power. Conversely, the hyperreal attempts to neutralise such attempts by appropriating precession within coded “simulation models” – including the simulation of symbolic exchange itself. Although Baudrillard identifies examples of symbolic exchange in pre-modern, ‘primitive’ cultures not yet disabused of the magical power of the sign, he argues that it still haunts contemporary hyperreality as an “abyss of reversibility”. [13] This informs my reading of Lake Mungo as displaced post-colonial allegory.

My essay meshes concepts from both theorists in its description of the undead, but adheres strictly to the philosophical projects of neither. I remain aware, in this respect, of the problems inherent in conflating the Lacanian understanding of the real in Žižek with Baudrillard’s account of the real as remainder drawn from Mauss and Bataille. Indeed, Baudrillard differentiates his own approach from psychoanalysis by describing the real as a product of signs rather than of the unconscious, which he also regards as a “simulation model”. [14] Grimshaw and Zeiher imagine an interlocutor working along a third track of analysis who combines conceptual elements from both theorists in order to create a “short-circuit of the parallax”. [15] One way this might be approached is through a reversal that reads Baudrillard in terms of parallax and Žižek in terms of precession. Within both concepts, denegation works alternately to stabilise and expose illusions, and also indicates the forward direction of dialectical analysis through binary deadlocks of philosophy and politics. One non-equivalence between these concepts, essential for attraction according to Grimshaw and Zeiher, arises as a difference of emphasis relative to space and time. Specifically, once parallax becomes temporalised as a gap between moments rather than spaces, it begins to act like precession. Indeed, this is reflected in Žižek’s account of the Lacanian Real “which can be reconstructed only retroactively, from the multitude of symbolic formations”. [16]

It is in this context that the series of parallax views within the film drives its image discourse through Baudrillard’s four phases of the sign, [17] generating a supernatural realm through processes analogous to the precession of simulacra. Baudrillard lists the four phases of the image as follows:

it is the reflection of a profound reality;
it masks and denatures a profound reality;
it masks the absence of a profound reality;
it has no relation to any reality whatsoever: it is its own pure simulacrum. [18]

The first and second phases correspond to the reliable image of Alice’s body identified by her father as juxtaposed with the unreliable – ‘faked’ – representations of Alice’s undead presence. The third phase relates to representations of the undead that defy falsification, and which in capturing apparitions – appearances of things that are not present – literally precess the referent. The fourth phase undermines falsification itself by asserting the positive power of fake images to conjure real apparitions. My objective here is not to argue that the film fulfils some agenda in Baudrillard’s thought, but rather to use the four phases of the image to organise my inventory of denegative tactics in a manner that maps onto its narrative development. Lake Mungo can also be read in terms of how the undead constitutes a special ontological domain for pseudo-documentary, itself a parallax between fiction and non-fiction.

Phase One and Two: From the Real to the Fake
Alice first appears post-mortem in a still image of her corpse, which serves as memory insert for her father while he narrates the experience of identifying his daughter. At this point, the film confirms – if only tentatively – the binary opposition of the living and the dead. The function of the image, which resembles a crime scene photograph, is not only to demonstrate undeniably that Alice is visibly dead, but – through contrast with other visible evidence which suggests she may still be alive – to re-mark the mutual exclusion of the living and the dead. The image thus confirms “the sacramental order” [19] that Baudrillard associates with the first stage of simulation. The photographic image epitomises the sacrament insofar as it indexically partakes of its referent through an exchange that presumes to consummate the bond between resemblance and reality. However, the film has already committed a pseudo-documentary sleight of hand. Although it trades on photographic, indexical certainty, the image of Alice’s corpse is never attached to an actual photograph within the diegetic world of the film. Rather, it is just directly inserted for the memory image of her father without any qualification. The signifier is thus slipped within a parallax view in which the mnemonic and photographic are conflated.

This move is indicative of the types of parallax specific to pseudo-documentary. The image functions discursively as a still photograph within the documentary, yet it does not exist as an artefact within the fiction. The implication that this image is the equivalent of seeing with his own eyes, is borne out by Russell’s remarks on his wife’s decision to not view the body: “June stayed in the car and on reflection I think it was a mistake because it didn’t bring her closure”. Russell’s lament assumes that there did not exist a photograph within the diegetic world of the film that could have been shown to June to settle her doubts. Her growing uncertainty is also portrayed as a contaminant to Russell’s own memory, for which the photo is never appealed to as support even though it is intercut again, ironically, in the very sequence when Russell expresses doubt that because of the condition of Alice’s body “it could have been anyone”.

Another level of parallax is thus introduced through which Russell both identifies and fails to recognise his daughter in the same image. The equivocal function of the image pries open the gap of non-identity between the thing and itself, which Žižek regards as a critical philosophical implication of parallax. A similar internal difference presents itself in June’s recurrent dreams, which she narrates to the camera: “Alice would come down the hall, still dripping from the dam and just stand at the foot of the bed, staring at us. But I couldn’t bring myself to look at her”. The sequence reflects McGowan’s point that the cinema, like the dream for Lacan, is marked by the fact “that not only does it look, it also shows”. [20] It is thus that the dream accommodates the contradictory structure in which June both sees her daughter but it also afraid to look. This equivocal nature of June’s dream is contrasted initially with the father’s identification of the corpse as clear and distinct perception. For this reason, Alice’s supernatural appearance to her father must cut the other way. Since he witnessed the corpse with his own eyes, he must now come to doubt his own direct perceptions. Russell narrates to the camera how while sitting alone in Alice’s bedroom, she just walked in through the door (as in life), noticed him, then shouted: “get out”. He quickly left the room, after which she vanished.

Following Russell’s direct sighting, Alice appears only in representations. An amateur photograph from the site of her drowning reveals a blurred figure in the background that both parents become convinced is Alice. Photographs from a series taken by her brother of the backyard from the same position every day over four years reveal Alice (after her death) standing in the background against the fence. By this stage of escalation, the film has troubled the living/dead binary on the level of subjective experience, but not yet on the level of representation. Indeed, representations serve provisionally to shore up binaries as the indexical record of some-thing that must be more than just a dream or, in Russell’s case, a hallucination.

Accordingly, Alice’s parents cannot at first conceive that the images represent paranormal phenomena, but instead take the representations as sightings of their (somehow still living) daughter. The attempt to secure the referent within the living/dead binary culminates in the exhumation of the body to determine its identity via genetic testing. The parents become so emotionally invested in negation on the level of the referent (that it is not Alice’s body in the grave) that they are totally unprepared for the implications of the opposite outcome. For if it is Alice in the grave, then her appearances are deprived their referent, which makes them pure appearances, or apparitions.

The family becomes increasingly isolated by their convictions, first that Alice is alive and then that she is undead. June seeks the advice of someone who understands this unfamiliar phenomenal domain in the person of radio psychic, Ray Keminy. Friends and neighbours express concern over the Palmer’s vulnerability to outside influence, and Ray’s insertion into the family dynamic represents a patriarchal crisis for Russell. June confides in Ray in a way she can’t with her husband, and Ray supersedes the role of Matthew’s own father by nurturing his interests (such as video and photography and the paranormal). Russell is overruled by his wife and son when Ray proposes that they conduct a séance in the house. This event and the associated video recordings mark another key shift in which the first attempt is made to communicate with Alice as an undead spirit. Ray’s request for “a sign” during the event seems to go unanswered, but video recordings of the séance later reveal Alice standing outside the room in the hallway. Other footage taken by the camera left ‘on’ in the house at night during the same period captures her ghostly images.

However, no sooner has the undead made its appearance than the brother makes the shock confession that he had impersonated Alice at the reservoir and faked the photographic and video apparitions in the backyard and the home respectively. [21] This shifts the film’s image discourse to Baudrillard’s second stage in which the sign is revealed as an unfaithful copy, corroding the reliability of representation in general. The transposition of the undead into the domain of representation thus reconstitutes it in terms of the binary between the real and the fake, where it is initially determined to be the latter. However, this judgment still hinges on the conflation of representation and referent as in the father’s identification of Alice’s body. That is, whether Alice is un-dead, or as her corpse attests merely dead, is made to stand or fall on the basis of the verity or falsity of images. The film thus generates a sort of false negative through the presumption that refutation of the visual evidence also excludes the existence of its referent. In other words, it promotes the illusion that because the images were faked, there must not be no haunting.

Phase Three: Un-fake Images
Rather than appeal to the referent through the production of additional direct sightings – indeed Alice is never immediately seen again – the film confounds falsification through additional representations that variously defy explanation. In a move that corresponds to Baudrillard’s third stage of simulation, de-negation generates the referent of the undead through the affirmation of the non-fake. Whereas, in the second stage “pretending, or dissimulating leaves the principle of reality intact: the difference is always clear, it is simply masked, … simulation threatens the difference between the ‘true’ and the ‘false’, the ‘real’ and the ‘imaginary’”. [22] In this case, simulation “precesses” the non-fake from the real/fake binary in a manner structurally analogous to the undead from the living and the dead.

Alice’s ghost first reappears in footage taken again by her brother’s video camera at night in the family home. However, there are significant external and internal factors that differentiate these representations from those previously exposed as fakes. In terms of external circumstances, Matthew is situationally absolved from being able to tamper with the equipment since he was out of town assisting Ray on a case at the time. He set the camera on a timer because he “was sure there was still something in the house”. Matthew thus verifies the fake representation yet still affirms a supernatural presence. This is reflected in his odd excuse: “It wasn’t like trying to trick people. I just thought something was better than nothing”. The explanation thus insinuates that he faked Alice’s apparition not because he thought her ghost didn’t exist, but rather because he thought it did. Indeed, the film never refutes the direct sighting of Alice by her father, or the other indexical evidence of a ‘presence’ such as the audible squeaking of Alice’s bedroom door even after the hinges are replaced – a metaphor for the double reversal of denegation.

Matthew explains in his confession how the faked videos were accomplished through the mirror reflection of images on monitors concealed out of frame, substituting the referent (Alice) with another representation, and thus enacting the “counterfeit” that for Baudrillard characterises the second order. However, in this new footage Alice directly approaches the camera, excluding the possibility that she is merely the reflection of another representation. However, neither can these be direct representations in any normal sense since the object, Alice’s living body, lies dead and decaying in the grave. It must, therefore, be a non-natural or supernatural referent in order to register on the video in the manner of a thing, and yet, at the same time, be not of this world. Unlike a worldly thing which appears in and beyond its representation, this apparition appears only in and through representation. The being of its representation is the nature of its being. It exists by virtue of its representation, which is to say in the manner of a simulation.

It is important to note that within the narrative the fake representations function as more than just misdirection, but as the necessary ricochet into denegation. The undead must pass through the fake in order to appear in its essence. As Žižek writes: “it is not possible to choose the ‘true meaning’ directly, one has to begin by making the ‘wrong’ choice … the true speculative meaning emerges only through the repeated reading, as the after-effect (or by-product) of the first, ‘wrong’ reading”. [23] Once the “wrong reading” is negated, Alice’s undead apparition can exist in spite of being faked, or, more radically, because of it.

Another “by-product” of denegation is a crisis of differentiation between real appearance and un-faked apparition within representations. Upon closer investigation of the footage, June detects another figure in the margins of the image, who she recognises as their neighbour Brett Toohey, sneaking down the hallway and searching in Alice’s room. Significantly, the two figures appear identical on the iconic level, in spite of the indexical impossibility of the referent in the case of Alice. As living person and undead apparition the two reconfigure parallax at another level within the video that implicates an ontological realm in which the living and the dead coincide. This logic of denegation, which retroactively installs the referent through a sign function, enacts the phenomena of precession that Baudrillard associates with third order simulation as a “phantasmagoria of the real”. Yet, it does so in order to construct a fictional ontology or real phantasmagoria, which it subjects to ‘documentary’ investigation.

Although the neighbour doesn’t find what he was looking for, his search prompts the Palmers to discover a hidden box containing Alice’s journal, and a video tape that depicts her in a sexual ménage à trois with Brett Toohey and his wife. The sex tape establishes the second perspective in yet another parallax expressed in the reaction of a close female friend that: “Alice kept secrets. She kept the fact that she kept secrets a secret”. To be secretive about keeping secrets becomes paradoxically (and parallactically) indistinguishable from appearing perfectly normal. The parallax of normality emerges from what Žižek describes as the gap of non-coincidence between the thing and itself: in this case, Alice as innocent girl and sexual persona. It is the “absolute difference” of such non-coincidence, according to Žižek, that sustains the multiplicity of perspectives on the video, expressed here through the equally incredulous but irreconcilable responses of characters for whom it collides with their memory of her has friend, sister, girlfriend, or daughter. As he writes: “the multiple is not the primary ontological fact; the ‘transcendental’ genesis of the multiple resides in the lack of the binary signifier: that is, the multiple emerges as the series of attempts to fill in the gap of the missing binary signifier”. [24] This lack establishes a structural parallel between Alice’s undead presence and her sexuality: both objects of the parents’ capacity to simultaneously see and yet not see their daughter, though from different orientations.

The sex tape also presents a twist on what Žižek describes as “the inherent deadlock of documentary cinema”; that “at the most radical level, one can portray the Real of subjective experience only in the guise of a fiction”. [25] This inner limit becomes marked in attempts to represent the most personal events, such as death and sex, which degenerate inevitably into “obscenity” – a lesson Žižek relates in the “fright of real tears” which drove Krystof Kieslowski from documentary to fiction filmmaking. [26] However, in Lake Mungo “this process through which fiction explodes documentary from within” [27] undergoes a reversal, which simulates the transgression of this limit through an over performance of documentary obscenity as reality effect within the fiction. This pseudo-documentary tactic occurs both in the sex tape and the memory/image of Alice’s corpse, which reappears in video recovered on Alice’s phone.

Discovery of the sex tape is followed by two major revelations from Alice’s journal: her videotaped session with Ray (unbeknownst to her parents) six months prior to her death, and the description of her own recurring dreams. Both parents feel betrayed by the psychic and decide to break off relations with him. In the immediate wake of these revelations, the Palmers also become aware of video shot by one of Alice’s friends on a school overnight trip to Lake Mungo (an ancient dry lake bed 500 km north within the Australian interior). The trip took place two months after her session with Ray and four months prior to her death. In the video, Alice is visible in the distance separated from the other girls and appears to be digging in the ground. The Palmers fly to Lake Mungo, locate the site by virtue of geographical features from the video, and recover a buried bag containing Alice’s phone, watch, necklace and other personal items. On the phone, they find a video taken by Alice on the same night which records a confrontation with what appears to be her own corpse.

Playback of the video from Alice’s phone is intercut with commentary by her family and video from Ray’s separate sessions with daughter and mother. Brief segments of June’s session are inserted intermittently but in linear order from her first meeting with Ray following the exhumation of Alice’s body earlier in the film. Alice’s session develops in similar fashion from the moment June discovers Ray’s business card in the journal and alternates in parallel with her mother’s session. Following the viewing of the footage on Alice’s phone, the pattern between the sessions continues almost to the end of the film at which point it accelerates into a condensed montage sequence revealing an intra-psychic connection between mother and daughter reflected also in their interrelated dreams.

In the recovered video, a body with a pale disfigured face approaches from out of the darkness. The footage is played, replayed, and paused in close-up. This apparition differs from those previous which resembled her as in life, presenting instead a reanimated corpse. It thus embodies what Žižek regards as:

the ultimate paradox of the ‘living dead’: as if death … is a mask sheltering a life far more ‘alive’ than our ordinary daily life. The place of the ‘living dead’ is not somewhere between the dead and the living: precisely as dead, they are in a way ‘more alive than life itself’, having access to the life substance prior to symbolic mortification. [28]

It is Alice’s father who instantly recognises the figure as her corpse. The film endorses the memory by again inserting the image from his identification of the body. Once again, this memory/image works its sleight of hand to simulate verification of an apparition by appeal to yet another layer of mediation masquerading as referent. For Baudrillard, the double “passes for the crude prefiguration of the soul and consciousness”. [29] However, the regression of referentiality it exhibits here is also exemplary of what Baudrillard describes as “media implosion” within the hyperreal. For Žižek – who would seem to short circuit Baudrillard on this point – the regress can be read as demonstrative of the fact that the referent is mediation itself; never finding ground but emerging through the gap of non-coincidence within the object, including the object of self-reflection. The paradox/parallax is that in self-reflection consciousness must make an object of itself from which it is cast out, or according to Žižek “dispossessed”. As resemblance, the double serves to underscore the ‘minimal difference’ between positions in the parallax of “that is/not me”.

The obscenity of the video resides not only in its representation of a thing that should never be seen, but in providing the spectator access to Alice’s own vision of her double as externalisation of an encounter that can occur only with and within one’s self. The gaze of the double qua corpse bars Alice from access to the “blind spot” within her own consciousness. However, this obstacle also acts as springboard for her transubstantiation into spirit. As Žižek writes: “Not only is the subject always-already dispossessed-ecstatic, and so on; this ecstasy is the subject – that is to say, the subject is the void which emerges when a substance is dispossessed through ecstasy”. [30] The video’s mediation of the encounter with the double emulates the “dispossession” that Žižek (channelling Hegel) describes as the ontogenesis of “spirit” as mediation.

Against the common vector of hauntings in which the dead return from the past, the video captures the corpse of a character who is not yet dead. Between Alice and her double is not only a gap in space but in time, thus enacting what – at variance with the prevailing spatial bias of his examples – Žižek is “tempted to call temporal parallax”. [31] Alice’s corpse must go back in time to be (pre)buried as a video of itself. Played forward, the sign would have thus preceded and somehow caused its referent: a literal enactment of Baudrillard’s description of the precession of simulacra in its expression of the already-dead. For Žižek, self-dispossession also sends its predicate back in time, installing it before the fact as subjective ground. He describes “the reflexive twist by which I myself am included in the picture constituted by me”. [32]

Alice’s encounter does not simply enact dispossession qua precession but exteriorises a moving allegory of its philosophical function. However, it does so in a way that disrupts its normal operation (otherwise reality would appear “normal”) and projects it onto another register within a new domain. After learning of Alice’s session with Ray the year before her death, June reads aloud a journal entry, which essentially re-describes her own recurring dream but from her daughter’s perspective. This time it is Alice who walks down the hall, into her parents’ room and stands at the foot of the bed. In a corroboration of June’s dream, Alice knows that her mother can’t see her. Daughter and mother are thus reciprocally interpolated as subjects within one another’s dreams. This marks the escalation of Alice’s haunting from visible ghost, to viewing position cinematically realised in her encounter with the double. It is as if each dream is one isolated half of a shot-reverse sequence in which mother and daughter occupy the inaccessible gaze within the visual field of the other.

The structure of the dream is cinematically realised in the montage of Alice and June’s guided visualisations with Ray. The film cuts back from the video on Alice’s phone to her session with Ray as he asks: “tell me about these dreams”. Alice’s response repeats her lines heard previously in her voice-over from the opening credit sequence:

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, and it’s getting closer, and I don’t feel ready. I feel like I can’t do anything.

Though cryptic at the opening of the film, spoken at the time of the interview they express the temporal gap between the parallax of a future in which something has already happened and a present in which she awaits it.

Prior to the guided visualisations, the Palmers express relief that the hauntings seem to have abated, and announce their plans to sell the house and leave Ararat. The guided visualisation sequence begins straight after this news with alternating shots in which Ray asks mother and daughter, on separate occasions, to lead him through the family home in their minds. The first stage of this process is organised through a parallel montage in which a handheld camera follows each through the front door and into their separate rooms. June ventures into her daughter’s room but reports to Ray that “Alice isn’t here”, while Alice, in the other strand of video, both sees her mother and (as in the dream) comprehends that she can’t see Alice: “I don’t think she knows I’m there”. Alice’s view predominates until the end of the sequence as she narrates her mother’s departure: “She’s going. She’s leaving the room. She’s gone”. These lines recur over the next and final scene of the film as her mother clears the family’s remaining things from the house where Alice remains unnoticed.

In burying the video, Alice not only conceals an image, but her own act of seeing. The effects of this exchange radiate outwards in non-linear time through the circuits of the shared dream and the guided visualisations in which she appears as viewing position. They partake in the same paradoxical temporality insofar as June’s dreams only begin after Alice’s death, in relation to which Alice, through her own dreams in the past, haunts this future as already undead.

Phase Four: the hyperreal and symbolic exchange
The third phase of the image is marked by the intrusion of simulation as a disruptive force within a world still defined by the dialectic between the authentic and the counterfeit. However, the fourth phase of the “hyperreal” marks the historical and metaphysical threshold beyond which simulation models proliferate so thoroughly that it becomes impossible to differentiate them from the real. At this stage, the only possibility of disrupting the hyperreal lies in the reversibility of the same mechanisms of precession used to sustain it. It is in this context that Baudrillard conceives “symbolic exchange” as “primitive” and unregulated forms of precession which hold the power to disrupt the hyperreal from within.

Baudrillard describes how precession, unleashed from the production of integral reality, reverts to symbolic exchange, which undermines the exchange value of signs within simulation as regulated by the code that stabilises and aligns the binaries of living/dead, real/fake, now/then. It does so by cultivating “relations of contagion and unspoken analogy which link the real, models and simulacra”. [33] Two particular tactics he identifies are forms of imitation that subvert the logic of simulation by turning it back upon itself, and the substitution of non-linear (or cyclical) for linear time. Alice’s burial of the video enacts both in an integrated way. It is in this context that June’s reaction to the video recovered from her daughter’s phone might be read: “I’m convinced that Alice knew she was going to die. The figure was an omen. The burial of her possessions was symbolic. It was a ritual”.

One of the most general characteristics of symbolic exchange is that, via denegation, it seems to enact the impossible. For her mother, the video of Alice’s double constitutes the return of the repressed from the two previous occasions on which she refused to look at her daughter: first as corpse and then as visitor in her dream. Now June, as spectator of Alice’s experience, is convinced of the authenticity of the video by virtue of the fact that “there is absolutely no rational explanation for the appearance of that image”. The exchange is impossible because Alice wasn’t dead yet, but by the same count it couldn’t have been faked because it presembles and “premediates” her corpse. [34] In his essay “How to Give Body to a Deadlock?” Žižek captures the dialectic by which:

the fantasy-space … changes the impossible into the prohibited … by means of the reversal, the impossible limit changes into the forbidden place…. The paradox (and perhaps the very function of the prohibition as such) consists, of course, in the fact that, as soon as the real-impossible is conceived as prohibited, it changes into something possible. [35]

In one sense, the forbidden place is the realm of the undead. As Žižek describes, “everyone who catches site of this amorphous life substance has entered the forbidden domain and must therefore excluded from the community…”. [36] For Baudrillard, death is particularly subversive within systems of economic exchange because as singular and particular (always someone’s death) it has no equivalent, though this doesn’t stop anyone from ‘bargaining’ with it. Hence his speculation that “perhaps only death, the reversibility of death is of a higher order than the code”. [37] Symbolic exchange subverts this limit by precessing through the denegation of the code but to a place above or outside its law. The return of the dead through representation compounds this function by mimicking the precessional power of simulation, and restoring its archaic function.

Given Baudrillard’s identification of the origins of symbolic exchange amongst pre-modern cultures, it is significant that the “impossible” exchange of death converts to “prohibition” at the “forbidden place” of Lake Mungo; the ancient dry lake bed and site of the archaeological exhumation in the mid-1970s of the oldest known human remains (dated at 42,000 years), colloquially named Mungo Man and Lady Mungo. Continued state possession of the remains provided an ongoing source of controversy with the Aboriginal people of the region. This history is recounted in the documentary, Message from Mungo (Andrew Pike & Ann McGrath, 2014), which provides both context and intertext for Lake Mungo produced just six years prior.

The film’s choice of location is ironic given the (almost) total absence of Aboriginal people or reference to Aboriginal culture, save its title. It thus constitutes a structuring absence akin to Baudrillard’s articulation of “The Remainder”:

When everything is taken away, nothing is left. This is false. The equation of everything and nothing, the subtraction of the remainder, is totally false. It is not that there is no remainder. But this remainder never has an autonomous reality, nor its own place … It is anonymous, it is unstable and without definition. Positive, but only the negative gives it the force of reality. [38]

From the secret of a secret to the absence of an absence, the film produces another “obscenity” in its reality effect of a world from which nothing is missing, which by the same stroke sidesteps the problematics of stereotyping and appropriation. The frame of the postcolonial has been pushed so far out that it appears to have vanished, remaining, in Žižek terms, only as “invisible threat”, [39] and displaced onto the film’s sublime mystification of landscape as empty space and terra nullis. It is this vanished frame that sets the stage for symbolic exchange within the echo chamber of what Homi Bhabha describes as the “site of dreams, images, fantasies, myths, obsessions and requirements” through which the coloniser constructs the colonised. [40] This is why symbolic exchange within the hyperreal cannot help but traffic in essentialised yet inchoate understandings of dispossessed others.

Throughout Lake Mungo, scenes of domestic drama routinely alternate with establishing shots of dramatic outback landscape in time-lapse, punctuated by elemental forces of lightning, wind and shadow. This refrain serves as reminder that even if the film exemplifies a “Suburban Australian Gothic”, Ararat is still a rural town in relation to which the alternate spatio-temporality symbolised by Lake Mungo is both 500km away and looming right at the city limits. As Vijay Mishra argues, “The gothic passes the sublime, unresolved, to future generations”. [41] In this respect Lake Mungo channels the haunted landscape of “classic” Australian Gothic of films like Walkabout (Nicholas Roeg, 1975), Picnic at Hanging Rock (Peter Weir, 1975) and The Last Wave (Peter Weir, 1977) but under erasure and through a generation gap.

It is in this context that the burial and exhumation of Alice’s belongings both “imitates” that of Lady Mungo and prefigures her own. On one level, Alice exchanges her belongings for the body of Lady Mungo. The “ritual” becomes “symbolic” precisely in its exchange of signs (including her gaze and the image of her double) and signifying technology (the phone/video and watch) for another body at the site from which it was taken, and at which her own corpse (buried and exhumed elsewhere in the future) appears. On a second level, this portends another exchange by which she trades positions with her own corpse – as apparition and within representation – once she too is dead and buried in the ground. It by virtue of this exchange that she travels through time and into the dreams of her mother, recalling W. E. H. Stanner’s description of Aboriginal “dreaming” as an “everywhen” of ancestral encounter. [42] The term is itself a product of transcended binary opposition and reversal; exchanging a temporal for a spatial suffix within a compound preposition to conjure a space-time in which living and dead, past and future can co-exist and interact.

One way to read this compound transaction is in terms of the exchange of one form of the double for another. Baudrillard describes the alienated function of the double within the modern world as follows:

With the internalisation of the soul and consciousness (the principle of identity and equivalence), the subject undergoes a real confinement, similar to the confinement of the mad in the seventeenth century as described by Foucault. [43]

By contrast:

The primitive has a non-alienated, duel-relation with his double. He really can trade, as we are forever forbidden to do, with his shadow (the real shadow, not a metaphor), as with some original, living thing, in order to converse, protect and conciliate this tutelary or hostile shadow. The shadow is precisely not the reflection of an ‘original’ body, it has a full part to play, and is consequently not an ‘alienated’ part of the subject, but one of the figures of exchange. [44]

As with Žižek’s account of dispossession as ecstasis, the double of symbolic exchange does not become dispossessed, it was always already out there. The “confinement” of possessive individualism within the liberal humanist subject is itself a simulation model within the hyperreal, which ethnologically precesses the indigenous as its origin: “posthumous … [and] protected to death, they have become referential simulacra […] artificially resurrected under the auspices of the real, in a world of simulation”. [45] The visitor centre at Lake Mungo conspires in this with the condominium accommodations where the Palmer’s stay overlooking the site as “‘open’ museum”. [46]

The fraught attempt to enter into symbolic exchange with the double as other (and double of the other) results in Alice’s afterlife as domestic confinement. It is as if she exchanges the Christian eschatology in which the spirit ascends away from the world, for an indigenous model in which it dwells in place. As Stanner observes: “The blackfellow’s after-life is but a shadowy replica of worldly life, so none flee to inner sanctuary to escape the world”. [47] In Message from Mungo, an Aboriginal woman relates her dreams in which Lady Mungo is “crying because she’s been taken out of country. She should be brought back into country”. By contrast, in the shared dream of mother and daughter, Alice cries because she is still in place and alone. The final scene of the film intercuts a photograph of the Palmers standing in front of their house sans Alice on the day of their move. It is identical in every way with a photo in the film’s opening scene, save for one key difference as the camera moves in to reveal Alice’s apparition standing in the window. Re-examination of the first photograph confirms that Alice’s apparition was not yet present. This poignant moment marks the closure of the narrative, but also overflows into the closing credit sequence as extra-diegetic space and outside.

The credit sequence cycles through video clips and photographs previously established as fakes. However, closer investigation reveals what appear to be unfake apparitions hiding in the peripheries of the same images. For example: the camera scans one of Matthew’s faked photos of Alice in the backyard to reveal a second apparition under shadow in the corner of the image; the video that captures Matthew impersonating his sister at the Norval Dam now also depicts Alice among the trees; and faked footage of Alice inside the house reflected in mirrors now shows her unreflected image hiding in plain sight. These sequences are unprecedented within the diegesis in the way that they render faked and unfake apparitions indistinguishable within the same representational space. As such, they emphatically reference the fourth phase of the image described by Baudrillard by creating a shared space in which the discrimination between the fake and the real as different orders collapses. As Baudrillard states, there is “no longer a Last Judgment to separate the false from the true, the real from the artificial resurrection, as everything is already dead and resurrected in advance”. [48] The double of the fake is thus not the real, but the unfake and the undead.

As with the opening photo of the Palmers in front of the house, the second apparitions of Alice are not visible in the first iterations of these images. The implication being that she has somehow entered these images subsequent to their initial production; as if they constitute an autonomous realm of pure simulation in which Alice can timelessly dwell in the same manner that media can be endlessly replayed. This image realm no longer preserves the real by exclusion of the fake. Instead the film imparts something like a causal power to the fake in relation to the real itself. This denegative power of the fake, which characterises the way that simulation models are mistaken for the real, is also expressed in symbolic exchange. For Baudrillard:

Until now, reversibility has in effect remained metaphysical … But it now may be in the process of disturbing the physical order and shaking it to its very foundations. With it disappears the rational principle that prevents the effect from turning back on the cause to cancel it out; it prevents the effect from being the cancellation of the cause – or prevents there never having been causes, but a pure and simple chain of effects. [49]

In Lake Mungo even representations that are faked, like Baudrillard’s “fake robbery”, [50] provoke chains of real effects: Alice’s mother doubts whether she is actually dead, the body is exhumed, etc. However, the film takes this phenomena to another level by implicating the fake in the prediction, then production via precession of the undead. This delivers us back into the domain of imitative magic, as in Baudrillard’s description of the nuclear accident at Harrisburg:

a ‘real’ incident which happened just after the release of The China Syndrome … TV is also a nuclear, chain reactive process, but implosive: it cools and neutralises the meaning and energy of events … Harrisburg is a kind of simulation in the second degree. There is indeed chain reaction; but it is not the nuclear chain reaction but that of the simulacra in which all the energy of the real is effectively engulfed. [51]

In Lake Mungo, a parallel is established, similar to this “chain reaction”, between Matthew’s explanation of the techniques of superimposition and reflection employed to fake the apparitions of Alice. He demonstrates photographic superimposition by showing how he laid a negative image of Alice over another of the back yard to render a positive compound/parallax image in which her figure appears to inhabit the space. As discussed prior, Žižek describes how the fascinating power of apparition reveals something of the parallax nature of subjectivity itself which emerges in the gap of “internalized overlapping”. [52] He points to “the strange attraction of old Hollywood films … in which actors are so obviously acting in front of a projected background”. [53] Referencing examples from Hitchcock and Welles, he argues:

It is difficult to deny the strange psychological resonance of these shots, as if the very discord between figure and background conveys a key message about the depicted person’s subjectivity … [It] generates the effect of something artificial, acquiring a spectral dimension, as if the hero is moving not in the real world but in a phantasmagoric virtual universe … And does not the same go for modern subjectivity? [54]

The difference from Lake Mungo of course is that, in the examples Žižek mentions, the discontinuity of figure and ground is pronounced. Although Alice’s ghost does appear to be seamlessly present in this world, she dwells within a space-time which is transparent to it as backdrop. It is within this superimposed unreality that Alice navigates time and space with the plasticity with which characters move in cinematic representations.

This analysis also extends to the second technique employed by Matthew: the remediation of video images of Alice reflected in mirrors. As in Lacan’s account of the formation of the “I” and the Real, the mirror produces what it presumes to reflect – the illusion of an un-mediated referent. As McGowan explains: “The subject is incomplete or lacking because it doesn’t have this object, though the object only exists insofar as it is missing … it does not exist prior to being lost”. [55] The substitution of mediation for referent in the production of the fake thus trades on the true mediated nature of referentiality and subjectivity. As symbolic exchange, this reversibility also evokes the lost knowledge of an earlier culture in Ray’s discussion of mirrors as a portal for the undead: “In the old country they block out all the mirrors in the house to stop the dead from finding their way back. It’s things like these that can make a difference”. In other words, the mirror enables the ecstatic mediation that is the spirit to continue to reflect the illusion of the real, thus permitting it back into the world. This reversal is exemplary of Baudrillard’s remarks that:

the image is interesting not only in its role as reflection, mirror, representation of, or counterpart to, the real, but also when it begins to contaminate reality and to model it, when it only conforms to reality the better to distort it, or better still: when it appropriates reality for its own ends. [56]

Within this context, the entire repertoire of ‘special effects’ employed for faking could be re-described as forms of symbolic exchange for conjuring the undead. This recapitulates the principle that there is no way to the undead except through the dead and no way to simulation except through the fake.

As phenomenal instruction for how the undead actually appears, the film’s redemption of the fake extends reflexively to pseudo-documentary itself as parallax of fictional subgenre and documentary modality. Its supernatural sub-variant, in particular, foregrounds the concealed role of denegation in retroactively producing the realities that documentary pretends to discover. Considered in terms of parallax and precession, pseudo-documentary holds open the possibility of not just faking representations, but experimentally reconstituting the real itself as ontological difference.

[1] Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, Found Footage Horror Films: Fear and the Appearance of Reality (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Co., 2014), p. 167.
[2] Jonathan Rayner, “The Suburban Australian Gothic in Lake Mungo and Beautiful”, in Filmurbia: Screening the Suburbs, edited by David Forrest, Graeme Harper, and Jonathan Rayner (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), p. 191.
[3] Rick Moody, “‘A Fun-Loving Girl with a Zest for Life’: Sex, Death, and Punishment in Lake Mungo”, PsyArt 20 (2016): 140–49.
[4] Mark Fisher, “What is Hauntology?”, Film Quarterly 66, 1 (2012): 19.
[5] Slavoj Žižek, The Parallax View (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006), pp. 21-22.
[6] Ibid., p. 4.
[7] Ibid., p. 34.
[8] Ibid., p. 22.
[9] Ibid., p. 26.
[10] Todd McGowan, The Real Gaze: Film Theory after Lacan (Albany: State University Press of New York, 2007), p. 15.
[11] Jean Baudrillard, “The Precession of Simulacra”, in Simulacra and Simulations (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1994), p. 1.
[12] Jean Baudrillard, The Evil Demon of Images (Sydney: Power Publications, 1987), p. 44.
[13] Jean Baudrillard, Symbolic Exchange and Death (London: Sage Publications, 1993), p. 35.
[14] Ibid., pp. 135-37.
[15] Mike Grimshaw and Cindy Zeiher, “Baudrillard and Žižek: Short-circuiting the Parallax?” International Journal of Žižek Studies 10, 1 (2014): 3.
[16] Žižek, The Parallax View, p. 26.
[17] Baudrillard, “The Precession of Simulacra”, p. 6.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Ibid.
[20] Jacques Lacan, Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, p. 75. Quoted in McGowan, p. 15.
[21] Another video shot at the reservoir at the same time as the Smeet footage reveals Matthew unmistakably in the background.
[22] Baudrillard, “The Precession of Simulacra”, p. 3.
[23] Žižek, The Parallax View, p. 33.
[24] Ibid., p. 38.
[25] Ibid., p. 30.
[26] Ibid.
[27] Ibid., p. 31.
[28] Slavoj Žižek, Enjoy Your Symptom! (New York: Routledge, 1992), p. 116.
[29] Baudrillard, Symbolic Exchange and Death, p. 312.
[30] Žižek, The Parallax View, p. 45.
[31] Ibid., p. 32.
[32] Ibid., p. 17.
[33] Ibid., p. 20.
[34] As Richard Grusin observes although “sharing remediation’s insistence on the ontological continuity between reality and mediation, premediation insists that the future itself is already remediated”. Premediation: Affect and Mediality after 9/11 (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), p. 40.
[35] Slavoj Žižek, “How to Give Body to a Deadlock”, in Thinking Bodies, edited by Juliet Flower MacCannel and Laura Zakarin (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994), p. 65.
[36] Žižek, Enjoy Your Symptom!. pp. 115-16.
[37] Baudrillard, Symbolic Exchange and Death, p. 41.
[38] Jean Baudrillard, “The Remainder”, in Simulacra and Simulations (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1994), p. 143.
[39] Žižek, The Parallax View, p. 373.
[40] Homi Bhabha, “The Other Question”, Screen 24, 6 (1983): 24.
[41] Vijay Mishra, The Gothic Sublime (Albany: State University of New York Press,1994), p. 23.
[42] W. E. H. Stanner. “The Dreaming (1953)”, in White Man Got No Dreaming: Essays 1938-1973 (Canberra: Australian National University Press, 1979), pp. 23-40.
[43] Baudrillard, Symbolic Exchange and Death, p. 142.
[44] Ibid., p. 141.
[45] Baudrillard, “The Precession of Simulacra”, p. 8.
[46] Ibid.
[47] Stanner, “The Dreaming (1953)”, p. 31.
[48] Baudrillard, “The Precession of Simulacra”, p. 8.
[49] Jean Baudrillard, Fatal Strategies (New York: Semiotext(e), 1999), p. 84.
[50] Baudrillard, “The Precession of Simulacra”, p. 20.
[51] Baudrillard, “The Evil Demon of Images”, pp. 19, 21
[52] Žižek, The Parallax View, p. 36.
[53] Ibid., p. 44.
[54] Ibid., p. 45.
[55] McGowan, The Real Gaze, p. 6.
[56] Baudrillard, “The Evil Demon of Images”, p. 16.

About the Author

Kevin Fisher

About the Author

Kevin Fisher

Kevin Fisher is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Media, Film & Communication at the University of Otago. His research interests include phenomenology, intermediality, indigenous cinema, and documentary. His essays have appeared in the anthologies Meta-Morphing (2000), Cinephilia in the Age of Digital Reproduction (2008), The Fourth Eye (2014) and Film on the Faultline (2015), as well as in journals such as, Science Fiction Film & Television, The New Review of Film and Television and Refractory. He is currently writing a book on film phenomenology and the fourth dimension.View all posts by Kevin Fisher →