Dismantling Time: Digital Existentialism in Lake Mungo (2008)

Amira Shokr

 In the pictures we take, the videos we save, and the printed-out images of ourselves in old photo albums, we exist amongst our ghosts; we see the shell of ourselves through the camera lenses we use. We don’t acknowledge the frightening mode of existence this reveals, running parallel with our “reality.” Media can create fractured moments of time and pieces of who we are. There are content and images that threaten our very understanding of reality, as they present a digital existence that coexists with our own. Lake Mungo (2008), an Australian film directed by Joel Anderson, explores the stakes of this digital reality through the mode of mockumentary and found footage horror, which comes to fruition after the Palmers lose their sixteen-year-old daughter, Alice (Talia Zucker), when she drowns in a dammed-up lake.

As the Palmers grieve their loss, their house starts to display signs of paranormal activity, so the Palmers begin to record footage of their home. Not long after, Alice’s ghost shows up in footage around their house. It is later revealed to the audience that Alice’s brother, Mathew (Martin Sharpe), manipulated the footage to include past recordings of Alice when she was alive, strategically placing it to look like her ghost was present in their house. We are led to believe in Alice’s ghost, in other words, only to be shown it was footage of her while she was alive, making us question the truth of the footage, and, by extension, of our perceptions of reality, time, and existence itself. This warped cluster of footage is at the heart of the film’s conception of how we interact with our own still images and with the loops of recordings that have captured us. At the same time, Alice represents a larger existential question: is our existence as meaningless as the flat ghosts we become in media?

Fig. 1 – Mathew’s photo showing a fabricated version of Alice’s ghost standing on the left, while an unseen and unfabricated Alice ghost sits on the right of the frame.

The film proceeds to make another turn, revealing that Alice’s ghost does indeed show up in images and recordings the Palmer family make of their home. In one of Mathew’s manipulated photos of the Palmers’ backyard, Mathew’s version of Alice’s ghost is there, but so is the actual ghost of Alice. Alice’s ghost is never seen by the Palmers, however. Lake Mungo then offers an even more complicated conundrum; how do we understand the presence of a ghost through a camera lens when it is something more than a digital capture? The sight of Alice’s ghost challenges our understanding of the digital image, as it shows that the presence of a ghost on screen is similar to, if not the same as, a person’s image when they are alive. In other words, the use of a still photo with two Alices – one from a picture taken when she was alive and another version of her that appeared after she died – proposes the coexistence of our digital and (im)material selves –  together, not separate from each other. Cecilia Sayad writes in “Found Footage Horror and the Frame’s Undoing” that “the false documentary claim of found footage horror invites questions about our affective relationship to the image” (55). Sayad’s argument is perfectly encapsulated in Lake Mungo, with its aim of questioning our understanding of existence through digital images. Lake Mungo also expands on what our affective relationship to the image is: the image, it suggests, is our reality.

The marker of time on Mathew’s backyard photo is an indicator that time and our concept of reality are arbitrary. It shows the date that Mathew took the photo, but the two different Alices indicate that the time as a marker of truth is inadequate to understanding the Alice figures. The markers of time within the film tease the audience that the footage is evidence of accurate time, but by representing the two Alices within the frame, the film dismantles accuracy and truth within the film itself and in video footage in general. The film even goes beyond questioning the concept of truth as captured by cameras, going on to explore the possibility that presence within media is a type of existence that surpasses us after death. This implies that our captured images do not exist within a specific time but rather exist outside of our understanding of time itself. Lake Mungo effectively shifts our understanding of how found footage operates: instead of acting as a form of proof or extension of reality, it acts as an indicator of the meshes of our complex existence, showcasing two realities co-existing.

At four distinct moments in the film, Alice’s presence challenges the idea that time complies with our digital selves. The first is when her father, after her death, goes to visit her bedroom and sees Alice there. She is seemingly unaware of his presence, until she stills and yells at him to leave her room. Her father only recounts this story, and the viewers are not shown any footage of this moment until later in the film, but this time it is footage of Mathew who has entered Alice’s room. He records Alice yelling at him to get out of her room in the same manner her father had described earlier. The disturbing nature of these moments reflects the ability of Alice’s digital existence to exceed her material existence. Her ghost within all the family’s recordings shows up to create odd moments of repetition and to dismantle the structure of media content as well as our own perception that there is a single, true reality. Lake Mungo argues that our digital selves are just as alive as we are, and, in doing so, the film not only challenges our grasp of what is real but also merges our digital and embodied realities together.

Fig 2 – Alice’s ghost caught on camera on the left standing near her sleeping parents

The second moment Alice challenges our understanding of these blurring realities is when her mother reads her journal after Alice dies, revealing that while Alice was alive she had stood at the foot of her parents’ bed in the middle of the night as an incredible sadness came over her, wanting to ask for help, but feeling that it was futile. The image of Alice doing this is seen after her death when unmanipulated camera footage of the Palmers’ home shows her standing at the foot of her parent’s bed, but this time as a ghost. The film almost tricks you into believing that this is a ghost caught on camera, and perhaps it is. A more intriguing understanding of this scene, however, is that this incarnation of Alice represents a merged existence – Alice caught on camera after her death and her written account of herself doing the same thing during her life. The film thus purposefully uses found footage to suggest that digital footage is akin to our actual off-screen lives, similar to our material world.

Lake Mungo contests Sayad’s argument that “the playful categorization of a horror movie as documentary reflects a postmodern sensibility; it crosses boundaries, blends generic categories, and challenges distinctions between fictional and factual, as well as between film and reality” (53). Lake Mungo goes beyond crossing boundaries between what is real and not real and suggests that the digital realm is part of our multiple realities, realities that are blended to the point that questioning the boundaries between them is moot. Alice is alive within the same space as her digital self—they live with each other. This co-existence implies a lack of boundaries, and even time ceases to separate Alice and her digital self. Alice’s ghost is her image; therefore, the film suggests that this “ghost” is not her spirit, her soul, or her emotional connection to her family or to Earth – nothing, in short, that conforms to how we traditionally see a “ghost.” Instead, Alice’s ghost is everything that she was in life and on screen, the two inseparable. Alice’s digital self is less of a double and more of a shell, a technological skin that exists within our reality and that troubles our use of time as a marker for reality, proof, and truth.

The third moment in which Alice represents a rupture in our understandings of time and reality occurs without the use of screen evidence. Towards the end of the film, Alice’s mother gets a psychic to hypnotize her in order to psychically enter Alice’s room, where she does not see Alice. This is shown to the audience with cuts from the past when a live Alice was hypnotized by the same psychic, and had psychically been in her room to see her mother. Alice also recognized that she was invisible to her mother. This moment shows Alice and her mother reaching the same point at different times in their lives, and it asks us to reflect on the possibility of how existences can stitch together and create fractured realities that challenge everything we know about time and our digital selves. More importantly, though, Alice is not seen by her mother and therefore represents the more frightening idea, that, like the images of ourselves, we are small and fractured and susceptible to be unseen. If Alice signifies that our existence is prone to merge with our digital selves, then it also marks how we (both our images and our ‘real’ selves) can be lost and invisible to those around us.

Lake Mungo extends this point still further when, at the end of the film, all the pictures and videos that Mathew manipulated, along with even more footage that the Palmers overlooked, are revealed to have captured another Alice, an unaltered version of her ghost that had always been present in the media they possessed. Alice’s family had not seen her ghost, however, which already existed within the frame. Alice shows audiences that everyone lives amongst their digital selves within the frame of an image or video, but also within our waking moments, while we are alive and after we die. Lake Mungo proposes a horrific understanding of how we operate within our digital age: that all we are can be summed up as the digital footprint we create, that meets us in past, present, and future.

Fig 3 – The Palmer family portrait in front of their home. Alice’s ghost is in the window behind them, unnoticed by her family.

Time’s place within our digital footprint is explored in the fourth moment – when Alice herself encounters another version of herself at Lake Mungo. Her bloated, dead body emerges out of the darkness to attack her as she records it coming towards her. The recording on Alice’s cell phone makes it possible for audiences to see her dead body come for her in that moment, but we have also seen her dead body earlier in the film as it was taken out of the water by police and clearly showed evidence of her death. Therefore, the audience understands that the future was seen in the past: Alice sees what she will become. The warped sense of time in this scene evokes a boundary-less existentialism, reflecting the horror of understanding that the logic of time itself defies Alice’s encounter with her dead body.

Fig 4 – Alice’s dead body is seen coming towards her.

After Alice records her dead body, she buries her cell phone in the sand. The act of Alice burying her phone was caught on camera by one of her friends, indicating that erasing footage is impossible. Alice is unable to escape her digital self and is unable to bury what she saw, which challenges the idea of footage as truth. Alice’s footage is less the truth of her death than it represents how, when something is recorded, it remains alive and continues to exist in the material world. Alice’s very existence, both before and after her death, is inextricably linked to the liminal space she occupies during the events of the film” (Thomas); therefore, Alice and her ghost represent the lack of boundaries between digital and material realities. Alice is not seeing her future but rather another version of herself that has lived with her the entire time within the space of both a digital frame and her material world. By offering this analysis of human existence, Lake Mungo provides us with a terrifying understanding that our material and digital worlds coexist, and it dismantles our perceptions of ourselves as the only versions of who we are.

As audiences watch the moment when Alice’s dead body appears before her when she is still alive, it becomes much more than a traditional premonition. Mathew says “I believe she recorded a ghost. I believe she recorded the future coming to get her,” and perhaps he is right. But this vision of Alice’s corpse goes beyond a premonition of the future; it is neither future, past, nor present (01:12:54-01:13:00). It is existence in its rawest form—without the structure of time. This lack of structure poses a terrifying representation of our conscious realities as completely out of our control, and it threatens to expose the ways that versions of us exist beyond our deaths that are just as shallow and forgettable as the pictures and videos of us in our camera rolls.

Works Cited

Lake Mungo. Directed by Joel Anderson, performances by Talia Zucker, Rosie Traynor, David Pledger, and Martin Sharpe. Mungo Productions, Screen Australia, SBS Independent, 2008.

Sayad, Cecilia. “Found-Footage Horror and the Frame’s Undoing.” Cinema Journal, vol. 55, no. 2, 2016, pp. 43–66.

Thomas, Ande. “The Hauntological in Lake Mungo.” What Sleeps Beneath, 18 July 2021.

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