By Lindsay Hallam
When she comes across someone who claims to not like horror, Donna McRae’s response is to ask, “What’s not to like?”  Horror cinema allows us to explore not only our fears, but all facets of human experience—love, grief, trauma, tragedy and triumph. And certainly, throughout the history of horror there has been a particular focus on the experience of women, from damsels in distress to Final Girls, and a growing number of women behind the camera using the genre to tell these stories, harking back to a previous historical moment when high numbers of women authors wrote Gothic novels.
It is in this Gothic tradition that Donna McRae has chosen to work, her films providing modern takes on the ghost story. This fascination with ghosts came at a young age, starting with a love for Casper the Friendly Ghost, both the comic and animated series. McRae herself has written: “As an only child growing up in a family that didn’t provide any cousins of my own age to play with, a friend like Casper, one who would never grow tired and always keep me entertained, would be welcomed with open arms.”  Television provided further ghostly friends, as old horror films, such as those produced by Val Lewton, were broadcast throughout the 1960s and 70s, introduced by host Deadly Earnest. A key film is the Lewton-produced Curse of the Cat People (Robert Wise, 1944), in which a young girl befriends the ghost of Irena, the cat-woman from the earlier film Cat People (Jacques Tourneur, 1942). While in the previous film Irena turned into a ferocious beast, as a ghost she is nurturing and kind. This idea of the friendly ghost is one that endured for McRae, directly inspiring an early short film made while at film school, called She Wants to Play.
However, other films, and other forms of ghosts, soon became of interest, as McRae elaborates: “Growing up with Casper I was convinced that all ghosts were friendly, and the horrible and fiendish ghosts that I soon saw in films and in literature belonged to a different world, not the one that I had previously known. However, other types of ghosts are hidden, and need a certain kind of ‘mining’ to uncover them. These ghosts are part of culture and are borne into our psyche whether we are aware of them or not.”  The ghost provides a potent metaphor for our complicated relationship with the past, for things not quite left behind—this can be personal, felt as manifestations of guilt or loss, or it can be on a larger scale, connected to the history of a nation and the consequences of colonization, inequality, genocide, and war. In McRae’s two feature-length films, Johnny Ghost (2011) and Lost Gully Road (2017), ghosts roam the Australian landscape, in both urban and rural areas, and attach themselves to a female protagonist who tries in vain to isolate herself from the outside world. Of course, there is no hiding from a ghost.
In Johnny Ghost this isolation is self-inflicted, as Millicent (Anni Finsterer) tries to forget her past and the guilt associated with one tragic mistake from her youth. Her attempts to erase the past are manifested on her body, as she goes through the process of having a tattoo removed. If anything, though, this act releases dormant feelings rather than eradicating them, unleashing ghosts who have always been with her. Set in Melbourne, the city streets become home to spirits, yet these are not linked to a time long ago, but a time of recent memory—the post-punk music scene of the 1980s. McRae herself was a part of this scene, having worked the bar at the (in)famous Seaview Ballroom, and there is footage of this time and place incorporated at one key moment in the film.  As Millicent walks through the streets to (reluctantly) meet an old friend she pauses at an open door and suddenly there is a cut to grainy video of legendary Australian band The Birthday Party. We see a woman frantically dance as the bands play—could this be Millicent, at a time before grief and guilt caused her to shut down?
McRae herself has said in a Director’s Statement that Johnny Ghost is based on the concept of “cryptic incorporation”, which “occurs when grieving is incomplete and neither the mourner nor the mourned can move on.”  The film was made as part of McRae’s PhD; a scholarship provided much of the film’s budget. Although she has a background in acting, McRae soon decided to move behind the camera, and channelled her love of ghost films into both a film and an exegesis entitled “Projecting Phantasy: The Spectre in Cinema.” McRae still continues a connection to academia, teaching Honours students at Deakin University.
This grounding in theory informs both the visual style and the narrative in Johnny Ghost; this modern urban story is rendered in black and white, evoking the older Gothic ghost stories that influenced McRae’s early years. The ghosts from Millicent’s past, in post-punk goth attire of large black coats, pale skin and heavy eye make-up, take on a look associated with other ghostly presences in earlier films, and the wintry climate associated with Melbourne seems more European than Australian (even scenes at the beach feel cold and melancholy). As with many cities over the world, parts of Melbourne are becoming gentrified, as the upmarket bar where she meets her old friend contrasts sharply with the grainy archival footage that preceded the scene. Yet, traces of the past still remain, and Millicent must confront these in order to move on. This moment comes near the end of the film, as Millicent looks straight into the camera, the spectator now assuming the position of ghost and spectral observer.
A similar occurrence takes place in McRae’s second feature film, Lost Gully Road. In this film the protagonist is Lucy (Adele Perovic), who comes to hide out in a secluded home in the Dandenong Ranges to wait for her sister, Cassie, with whom she appears to have concocted some sort of scheme. Cassie orders Lucy to stay off her phone and social media, and in her isolation she begins to sense an otherworldly presence in the house with her. At first, in her boredom, Lucy becomes slightly intrigued, and in an extended sequence plays out a seduction scenario with this presence, making direct eye contact with the camera and climaxing in a moment of sexual pleasure.
Unfortunately for Lucy, though, this supernatural romance begins to take a sinister turn, as the ghost begins to show a profoundly misogynistic rage. The genesis for Lost Gully Road came from a place of anger, as McRae became increasingly incensed by a series of high-profile cases where women in Melbourne were attacked and murdered. In some of these incidents the perpetrators were a woman’s own partner (recent statistics state that one woman each week is murdered by a current or former partner in Australia),  while other women reported being attacked while simply walking on their own (the Australian Bureau of Statistics reports that one in six women have experienced stalking since the age of fifteen). 
These true events colour the way in which the narrative of Lost Gully Road develops, as the ghost starts to slowly threaten Lucy, culminating in a devastating violent attack. However, Lucy’s supernatural experiences are not much different from the sexual harassment she experiences in the outside world; not long after she arrives, she has unsettling interactions with the local shopkeeper (John Brumpton), who speaks lasciviously and leers maliciously as Lucy buys supplies. The purchasing of underwear and the request for a home delivery are used as opportunities by the shopkeeper to assert his desire and power. When Lucy dares to look at her phone she is besieged by missed calls and text messages, which wish her happy birthday and call her “sexy”, but are clearly veiled threats. Similarly, the ghost also uses tokens often associated with romance and courtship, such as flowers and lingerie, as a way to intimidate and terrorize Lucy, letting her know that she cannot escape.
McRae’s camera placement and movement also shows that Lucy is constantly being observed. Lucy is shown in intimate moments, such as in the shower, in bed, and taking her medication, often from a distance as though she is being watched and drawing attention to our own voyeurism. The pace in Lost Gully Road and Johnny Ghost is deliberately slow, in both cases showing us the daily routines of the women, highlighting their solitary existences, but also indicating that they are not as alone as they seem.
Lucy is placed in a rural landscape, but one that is different to the typically arid outback landscapes most commonly associated with Australian cinema. Lucy’s red coat makes her stand out amongst the green rainforest, while also calling to mind the figure of Red Riding Hood, a young girl lost in the woods and at the mercy of the Big Bad Wolf. Further comparisons can also be made to Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973) another film about ghostly visitations, in which the protagonist sees a figure in a red coat and believes it to be the ghost of his dead daughter. Like Lost Gully Road, it, too, ends in a moment of shocking violence. The attacks that occur in the last part of the film also call to mind Sidney J. Furie’s The Entity (1982), where supernatural attacks become akin to rape.
This violence, which emanates from an unmistakably masculine force, situates Lost Gully Road very much in the current moment. As the #MeToo and Time’s Up campaigns draw more and more attention to abuses of power, the ghosts of the past are coming back to haunt both perpetrators and victims, but hopefully in a way that will correct these past injustices and cast light on how these wrongs still take place with alarming regularity. As more women tell these stories and take control of the narrative, the well-worn tropes of genre will become refreshed and renewed, presenting new perspectives on the past and illuminating the way for change.
1. Unless otherwise cited, quotes and information come from interviews conducted by the author at a Women in Horror panel discussion on July 14, 2018, and post-screening Q&As on July 15 and 17, 2018, as part of the 2018 Revelation Perth International Film Festival.
2. Donna McRae, Projecting Phantasy: The Spectre in Cinema, PhD thesis, Monash University, 2012, p. 28.
3. Donna McRae, Projecting Phantasy: The Spectre in Cinema, p. 10-11.
4. The Seaview Ballroom, also known as The Crystal Ballroom, was a venue within The Seaview Hotel in Melbourne, which became the epicenter of the Melbourne post-punk scene of the late 1970s and 1980s. Bands that played here included Melbourne-based acts such as The Birthday Party and Hunters and Collectors, as well as national and international bands such as INXS, Simple Minds, The Cure, The Dead Kennedys, and Iggy Pop, amongst many others.
5. Donna McRae, “Director’s Statement,” Johnny Ghost website.
6. Willow Bryant & Samantha Bricknell, “Homicide in Australia 2012-13 to 2013-14: National Homicide Monitoring Program Report,” Australian Institute of Criminology, 2017.
7. Australian Bureau of Statistics, “Personal Safety Survey 2016,” 2017.
Dr. Lindsay Hallam is a Senior Lecturer in Film at the University of East London, and is author of the books Screening the Marquis de Sade: Pleasure, Pain and the Transgressive Body in Film (McFarland, 2012) and Devil’s Advocates—Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (Auteur, 2018). She has written journal articles and book chapters on Dario Argento’s Three Mother’s trilogy, female vampires, mad science, Australian eco-horror, neo-giallo, desktop horror, trauma and torture-porn.
Additional Resources on Donna McRae
Bibliography of Further Reading
Matthew Eeles, “Interview: Donna McRae,” Cinema Australia, November 3, 2017.
Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, “Lost Gully Road—An Interview with Donna McRae”, 4:3, July 17, 2018.
Dov Kornits, “Donna McRae: Lost and Found,” FilmInk, July 21, 2018.
Donna McRae, Projecting Phantasy: The Spectre in Cinema, PhD thesis, Monash University, 2012.
Donna McRae, “The Making of Johnny Ghost" blog.
Donna McRae, “Director’s Statement,” Johnny Ghost website.
Simon Storey, “Lost Gully Road—An Interview with Donna McRae,” Film Blerg, October 3, 2018.
Cobby: The Other Side of Cute, 2018, co-writer, co-director, producer
Lost Gully Road, 2017, co-writer, director
Johnny Ghost, 2011, writer, director, producer, editor
Lonesome Dog Blues (short film), 2009, writer, director, producer, editor
The Favour (short film), 2006, director
The Usherette (short film), 2005, writer, director, producer
F.A. (short film), 2002, writer
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.