A Short Meditation on Grief
Grief is supposed to be that little space which we share with the dead, until we are ready to move on and leave them in the past, their home. Grief is their form of presence, where they have a present, but no future; a gift to the dead, or a promise rather, of life surpassing the living.
The film Lake Mungo (2008) begins as a classic haunted house mockumentary: A girl, Alice, drowns in a lake, and suddenly starts appearing in photos and video footage. Yet, it turns out that it was her brother who was manipulating the images, using old video recordings of her, or even disguising as her to appear in the background of a couple filming their trip. What he doesn’t realise, though, just as everybody else, is that her ghost is indeed present in the images, just not where she was supposed to be. Her actual haunting remains unnoticed, the whole drama of the film takes place among the remaining members of the family and their being “haunted” by their own grief.
Our dead are never where we think they are, where we put them, for us to be able to say what has been left unspoken. Closure is a work of fiction we narrate to ourselves. In the end of Lake Mungo, sessions of both the mother and Alice visiting a psychic, recorded at different times, are superimposed: The mother having a vision of entering her daughter’s room and not seeing her, the daughter seeing her mother entering the room without being seen. While the brother’s stagings stemmed from his inability to accept Alice’s death, the mother, just as her family, has now moved on. The feeling of being haunted has passed. But in one of the last images of the film, showing the family that is about to move away, Alice is seen in the window of the house.
Lake Mungo is full of missed encounters. In the process of grief, Alice’s presence is felt, but it is a displaced presence, where she is never where her family wants her to be. Once they have moved on, she becomes an absence, or, rather, an absent present: She remains where she is, but, with all the faces of the living turned away from her, her being is completely negative. Even when we’ve moved on, what is left is the empty space that the lost one has once occupied. The film is just as much about Alice’s solitude as it is about her family’s efforts to deal with her death; not only in the impossibility of the shared space between the living and the dead, but also in her fear and premonitions that have been looming over her long before the accident: “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.”
There is only one encounter in the film that one might say has really “occurred”: It is when Alice, wandering at night on a school trip at Lake Mungo, is suddenly confronted by a horrid pale figure. Right afterwards, she buries her phone that has filmed this event, together with her most treasured possessions. Her father, when looking at the found footage, recognises the figure, saying that it looks exactly like his drowned daughter after she was pulled out of the lake (plus, Lake Mungo is a dry lake, so the circularity between the two lakes is obvious). In the dark of the desert, Alice has met her own death. But she is unable to speak about it to anyone, closing off, pretending that everything is alright. She has renounced her earthly possessions, but it has not offered her the peace that asceticism is said to offer. Indeed, her solitude has commenced long before the accident, and she is unable to deal with it.
Grief, both as an effort to process the loss of a close one, and as an effort to anticipate the loss of one’s own life, is marked by inhibited communication. The mourners’ attempts to make the dead present, the “haunting,” turns out to be a monologue that eases the process of letting go. But Alice is indeed haunting the family, it merely remains unperceived, just as her being haunted by her looming demise. She was alone with her death up until the accident, she is now alone in death, unseen by the living, forced to forever remain in the past. Lake Mungo is an incredibly dark film.
It is a trope in ghost stories that ghosts haunt us because of a secret reason, and that uncovering it will allow them to let go. The process of grief thereby becomes a detective’s work, and so does the family’s attempt to unravel all of Alice’s secrets — until all secrets are revealed and the haunting stops. The dead, it is claimed, cling on to life only because something has remained unresolved. Seemingly, closure concerns the dead, not the living. But it is highly doubtful if Alice really wanted everyone to know about her sex tape, her encounter with death in the desert. After all, she had buried the mobile phone that filmed that nocturnal encounter. What the ghost of Alice wants is her mother to see her, to stay in the lives of her loved ones. She wants them to help her with her solitude. The case which grief helps us to solve has nothing to do with the haunting presence or absence of the dead, it just helps us not to see them. Just the same, the solace that Alice was seeking in her friends and family, might just as well come down to efforts to unsee the face that she was confronted with at Lake Mungo.
Indeed, grief serves the living, and maybe in that thought, unexpectedly, emerges a small glimmer of hope: In the negated encounter with the dead, in life’s displacement of death, the insight that life belongs to the living, that it is radically separated from death, despite that the latter is always, unquestionably, here.