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Tabula Rasa

Australian Monsters

Bad Dreamtime

by Kyla Ward

First Appeared in Tabula Rasa#5, 1995

Every self-respecting nation has monsters. They are as much a matter of national identity and pride as heroes -- conceivably more. And I'm not talking about buying 'Golem of Prague' T-shirts or toy tartan Loch Ness Monsters in the appropriate places. That's the type of domesticated, sanitised 'creepiness' that is considered suitable for children and suburbanites. I'm talking about monsters.

Monsters are what a country, or other corporate identity like a city or a society, fears. In this type of situation -- and there are plenty of other ways a monster can come into being, plenty of other explanations [1] -- but in this situation, a monster can be related directly to what is most important, vital, for that body to overcome. These are the national monsters.

This may be a truism, but monsters are the negative side of definition. Un-canny, ab-normal, il-legal. But on the other hand, it is always the evil that arises first -- heroes cannot exist without monsters, but monsters can exist without heroes. The identity of what is good and nice is established purely in relation to what threatens it. These are the things that makes the idea of an alternative identity, a monstrous one, so interesting. Is it possible? Without performing the backflip of 'the real monsters are Intolerance and Ignorance, and if we just learn to accept blah blah ad nauseous.

I talk in terms of heroes, and good and evil, because it is appropriate. This is the matter of founding myths and legendary happenings at the birth of a nation. For these, history is no substitute.

Australia is often accused of having no history, let alone a mythology. You know what I mean by Australia; it's a Latin-based word anyway. Australia is also sometimes accused of being unable to produce genre fiction, something of which no-one will ever accuse the United States. The United States and Britain, that's where our most familiar monsters come from. And yet, the US is in the same position as Australia in that it was a colony of Britain.

It must be agreed there is some pervasive, nebulous link between setting, or background, and what can happen there. Try some associations. The court of Faerie. The Little People. Little, bald, UFO people. Surviving cults worshipping ancient gods. As a variant, Templars. Giant mutated animals. It has been suggested that each major city in the world has it's own particular kind of disaster [2]. London, for example, has fire. Los Angeles subterranean upheaval, geological or social. New York, it was suggested, has the vertical fault as Los Angeles has the horizontal; the collapsing skyscraper of the Towering Inferno, ruined businessmen flinging themselves from tall buildings, or King Kong.

Now picture King Kong on the Centerpoint Tower. Funny, right? Of course it is, or alternatively tragic, because everyone knows he's in the wrong place. We can appreciate his story and his function without living there, that's one of the points of fiction. We can also recognise when something goes wrong. In monstrous fictions, there is no room for anything to go wrong, scaring people is a delicate art requiring, as a rule, that the audience can at least take the monster seriously. Having a giant koala on Centerpoint Tower would be just as bad as an immigrant King Kong [3]. So would a koala with fangs.

The point is lost! The focus of the story becomes not the threat to the characters or the presence of evil, but that the monster has come to Australia. It's the Nightmare Down Under Special. In the 1987 movie Outback Vampires (Collin Eggleston, The Home Cinema Group), we are literally confronted with a group of German immigrants. They live in a large manor overlooking an isolated village, whose inhabitants warn the incoming travellers, 'Struth mate, you don't want to go up there.' Philippe Mora's third Howling movie (Bacannia Entertainment, 1987) was set in Australia and is at least, perhaps, more interesting. The full title runs The Marsupial: Howling III, and the revelation isn't long in coming. Were-thylacines. Understand me, I am not saying that Australian authors and directors cannot work in these rich veins, vampires and werewolves being very personal things. I am talking about national monsters, and these movies are examples of the difficulties that do exist.

The Russel Mulcahy film Razorback, (McElroy and McElroy, 1983) is a case that proves the exception, and incidentally won AFI awards for Editing and Cinematography in 1984. We are indeed dealing with a large, mutant animal, but it's not in any way related to either America, or nuclear testing, or to any tourist image of Australia (and that's the understatement of the year). This is also possibly the only film I'm come across that had a good reason to take shots of kangaroos -- in varying states of decomposition.

Even the serial killer comes, to an extent, with an American patent. The serial killer needs certain spaces -- to quote a review of Peter Carey's novel The Tax Inspector in 1991; 'Why is it... that every time I pick up a literary novel these days, I seem to end up in some cellar with a demented sexual pervert?' [4] And these spaces occur in America. Australian cities are simply different, I would hazard less dense, simply not enough territory. Translating 'the Gold Coast' for 'Los Angeles' will not work for the stalking, anonymous serial killer we all know so well, although Gerald Gleeson's Stalker, just out in paperback (HarperCollins, 1994), does perhaps a little more.

So much debate in Australia, so much of the work of identifying and analysing evil is framed by reference to America. The US can even be blamed for it; this influx of American trash, American violence, problems that we don't need. Our children losing their culture and absorbing a valueless ethos. Why should Australian artists produce, or Australian taxpayers fund the production of American genre clones?

Perhaps America is a valid form of Australian monster. Another nation can certainly be remade as all the projected evils of the one; in war-states this is essential. And yet we do tend to use an American vocabulary for dealing with 'their' monsters; the Backpacker Murders last January should still be clear enough in everyone's mind to realise how the phrase Australian Serial Killer was used. Australia has it's own serial killer. American expertise was brought in to assist in the search for bodies, FBI psychologists assisted in producing profiles. Everyone was quite familiar with all the terms and procedures, thanks to The Silence of the Lambs. It is difficult to distinguish between the creation of a Monstrous America, and the borrowing of American monsters.

Does this problem only occur when the 'Australian Image' is foregrounded? Like the godawful focus-on-koala in the otherwise exemplary Picnic at Hanging Rock. See? It's an Australian movie, can we have our funding now? Is it only then that a monster's identity becomes an issue? When we are speaking of not so much actual Australian productions, but Australian versions of 'x'.

There is always the option of borrowing from the indigenous culture, for a colony. And, face it, where are curses and vengeful spirits more likely to come from? What is the story we're talking of here? Group of contemporary kids engage in some ill-advised exploration, discover something strange somewhere strange that had better been left undisturbed, and one by one they are stalked and fall victim to the dreaded Aboriginal what? Of course, this is a Western story. Not an Aboriginal, or Koori. The natural habitat of the bunyip or mopaditi is quite different.

The monstrous beings of the various Koori myth cycles are frequently not even monsters as we would recognise them. They serve a different function in a different type of story. What we generally know as Koori myths are the Little Golden Book versions, motifs arranged into what constitutes our idea of a story. I'm no expert on the subject, but Aboriginal myths seem very seldom concerned with the fight between good and evil that underpins so much western narrative. And I'm not even going to start on the difference between a written and an oral-based culture.

The attempt to transplant motifs generally results in a dreadful mess such as Kadaicha (James Boyle, Premiere Film Marketing; Medusa Communications, 1987). As if A Nightmare on Elm Street didn't spawn enough direct sequels. And what we have here is not just the substitution of a bunyip for a dragon, we have an element -- the 'pointing of the bone' ritual -- taken out of the magical system in which it made sense [5]. Compare the treatment of basically the same concept in Peter Weir's The Last Wave, (McElroy and McElroy, 1977). However you may judge the movie's success, it does acknowledge that there is a difference, highlights it in fact. It approaches the indigenous culture from the one perspective we can be absolutely sure of, which although perhaps limited, creates a genuine frisson of something uncanny. But nothing's going to save a film as badly written as Kadaicha anyway [6].

The indigenous mythos simply doesn't answer our needs. Their idea of the country and their relation to it isn't ours -- that's the proverbial 'ours'. To us the country must be something different, alternatively, "- it isn't anything yet, because its had no time to pick up memories and attract local spirits. If there are any ghosts here, they're the tame ghosts of a salt marsh and a shallow cove; and I want human ghosts -- the ghosts of beings highly organised enough to have looked on Hell and known the meaning of what they saw" [7]. A little bigoted in expression, perhaps, but it is H. P. Lovecraft, and it sums up the situation. We need things that we can recognise to be frightened of.

What would be Sydney or Melbourne's disaster anyway? What can be imagined happening there? Or in Canberra for that matter. Do you remember the line about Melbourne being the perfect place to make a film about the end of the world? That was Stanley Kramer, an American, shooting his 1959 film On the Beach, (United Artists). On the Beach is one of the grimmest of the Cold War movies. In it, Australians watch anxiously from their isolation as nuclear warfare erupts, and all contact with the outer world is lost. Then slowly, the tide of radiation begins to envelope them as well. The ideas of isolation, of silence are powerfully presented. The idea of normalcy attempting to continue in a hostile, even malignant environment.

In fact, post-holocaust Australia is really a genre. Certainly, everyone knows the conventions; bombed out Sydney with the desert sands sifting through it, the descent into barbarism, the journey across the vast, ruined terrain in search of some landmark or legendary succour. The image you are trying to remember comes from the cover of the 1985 Midnight Oil album Red Sails In the Sunset, with the ruined Bridge and craters in the dried-out harbour. Or possibly from the closing minutes of Mad Max III: Beyond Thunderdome (George Miller, Kennedy -- Miller Productions, 1984); otherwise the least interesting of the trilogy as regards any Australian point of view. The opening of II (1981) is interesting for its alternative graphics of the nuclear holocaust and the 'aboriginal' mythic re-telling of the events, the 'two great tribes', which became an almost irresistible way of phrasing the debate. The horrors of nuclear destruction seem to go well with Australia. Maybe it's just the colours and all the dust that's available. There are a lot of Australian movies about the end of the world -- and a surprising number of overseas projects that choose, like Until the End of the World (Wim Wenders, 1990), an Australian setting. There are also a lot of Australian children's books, or rather Young Adults, such as Taronga by Victor Kelleher, (Puffin, Penguin, 1987).

There is in any case one Australian city whose disaster is indisputable. Darwin. Darwin is the city that gets literally blown away. What do these ideas mean, and do they generate us any monsters? Fears of being blown away. Covered by desert. Dissolved in radiation. Radiation doesn't seem to assume the same forms in Australia as it does in the US or Japan, not as many giant mutated animals, (which brings us back to King Kong and my earlier point). Driven back by droughts and bushfires. Lost children. Perhaps there is some cumulative nightmare, about an unstable colony that clings onto the very edge of its hostile host. As if the land -- as certainly it is in The Last Wave -- is itself the monster.

It is an option. Certainly, one of the best known Australian macabre stories wraps its entire premise around the idea. Joan Lindsay published Picnic At Hanging Rock in 1967, and found herself immediately the focus of eager demands to know was it true? It is the type of story that can be imagined as real. It strikes a chord. And the Rock works throughout the book as an entity that can only be described as monstrous. 'Unnoticed, unseen, the pattern of the picnic darkened and spread.' Peter Weir's film adaption, (McElroy and McElroy), made in 1975, before The Last Wave, but after his other contribution, The Cars That Ate Paris, emphasised this trait, and particularly the inability of the 'foreigners' to in any way comprehend or deal with it.

Another example, in a very similar vein, is the Patricia Wrightson novel The Nargun and the Stars, and the this time TV adaption (Puffin -- Penguin, 1978 (73)) (John Walker, ABC, 1980). It is a children's book, and indulges in a little bit of the Golden Book of Aboriginal Legends -- but she creates a monster. The Nargun, the living stone that feeds on blood. A literal part of the land, against which the interlopers who released it have no defence.

This is of course only one possibility, one way fear may be invoked and symbolised into monsters, (for a start, rocks have definite limitations). What all the most interesting examples have in common is a certain genuiness in their attempts to interact with the setting. Where being in Australia becomes part of the horror. It is the actual process of symbolisation that is the subject of the 1986 film The Tale Of Ruby Rose, (Roger Scholes, Seon Films, FGH). Ruby, a semi-literate woman who has seen a total of six or so individual people in her life in the backwoods of Tasmania, has created her own myths to make sense of her world, based on a pathological fear of darkness, which she associates with the coming of death. The depiction it gives of winter nights in Tasmania makes it all seem perfectly logical, and genuinely frightening.

On the other hand, in The Cars That Ate Paris, (Salt Pan Films, Royce Smeal Film Productions, 1974) Peter Weir quite self-consciously took something he saw as being an essential feature of living in Australia -- the transport -- and turned it round into a real horror story. The opening, which looks and is paced like a contemporary ad for cigarettes or possibly the car, that suddenly becomes a ghastly road accident. And then the whole, inbred, little country town, that nevertheless could not be accused of being anything to do with Ray Bradbury or H. P. Lovecraft. Australian-ness can be something that just happens in an artist's work. After all, we're in the business of telling stories here, not producing some package deal image. As said, national monsters aren't the sort of thing you sell to incoming tourists.

In fact, sometimes I think all the fuss about an Australian identity and how it needs to be changed, or emphasised (one of our great tourist draw cards is the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, so what do we make of that, boys and girls?), is unnecessary at best and suspicious at worst. Particularly when it comes down to debating the value of a film like the hopefully-soon-to-be-actually-released-here Body Melt (Philip Brophy, 1993) on whether it is actually Australian, or a good image of Australia, etc. We need to be developing our own culture and imagery, not duplicating American pulp and so on and so on. Of course we do. But there is no way we can leave out the monsters. And Australian life does occur in cities, and does occur in the urban sprawl, and an insecure city will have nightmares all of its own; including, doubtless, disintegrating suburbanites. And if they can relate to that in Britain and the US, all the better.

Australia has monsters. And as history teaches us, you can't get rid of your monsters by deporting them overseas. Remember that, for at the outset, that is exactly what Australia was, one of the great monsters of the British Empire. I call to witness any number of nineteenth century novels, from Great Expectations to Lair of the White Worm. Perhaps nowhere else does history leave a clearer trace than in the fiction, especially the horror fiction, that is left behind.

Checklist

[154] The Philosophy of Horror, or, Paradoxes of the Heart, Nöel Carroll, Routledge, 1990. A good 'plain language' version of many of the psychoanalytic and aesthetic debates. Limited use otherwise.

* The Imaginary Industry: Australian Film in the Late Eighties, Susan Dermody and Elizabeth Jacka, The Australian Film, Television and Radio School, 1988.

[155] The Australian Film and Television Companion, Tony Harrison, Simon & Schuster, 1994.

* Inventing Australia: Images and Identity 1688-1980, Richard White, The Australian Experience, series ed. Heather Radi. George Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1981. Brilliant, everyone should read this.

Notes

[1] Monsters can arise from the individual psyche, for instance, as well as the collective. Monsters can be representative of such universal things as birth and death, rather than particular customs. Dreams and visions, it's all a matter of perspective.
[2] Jean Baudrillard, Fatal Strategies -- Crystal Revenge, trans. Philip Beitchman and W. G. Nieshuchowski . Semiotext(e), 1990 (1983).
[3] Or, given what may actually happen during the Olympics, worse.
[4] Richard Glover, Peter Carey's Sydney Babylon, Sydney Morning Herald, July 27, 1991.
[5] It is a truism that the Aboriginal magical system rests on belief. From what research I've done in the field, I would extend this to law; laws, identity as part of a group and transgression. Thus, sickness can be considered the punishment for breaking the law, or for leaving such an incident unpunished. There are records of colonists being affected by Aboriginal magic, but only in cases where a degree of acceptance had occurred on either side. Towhit, a group of suburban, eighties' teenagers? Not a chance.
[6] Except comparison to Outback Vampires.
[7] Howard Phillips Lovecraft, Pickman's Model, 1927.
 

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