Feature | ‘That’s not us!’ Wake in Fright and the Australian nightmare

Last year marked the fiftieth anniversary of Wake in Fright, one of Australian cinema’s most unsettling horror movies, as well as one of its most perceptive works of national self-interrogation. Adapted from Kenneth Cook’s 1961 novel of the same name and directed by Ted Kotcheff of later First Blood fame, Wake in Fright has attained a semi-mythical status firstly as a ‘lost movie’, only being fully restored for a 2009 re-release, and secondly as a cult film rejected by audiences on its theatrical release and with considerably less influence on the mainstream of Australian cinema than its contemporaries in the Australian Gothic genre.

Despite its critical reappraisal as a classic of Australia’s movie boom of the 1970s, with a place alongside cultural touchstones like Mad Max and Picnic at Hanging Rock, Wake in Fright remains relatively undigested by Australian culture at large, with its recent reception largely framed in terms of the retrospective review of an ‘underrated classic’ rather than its ongoing relevance for discourses around Australian culture, ‘values’, and the like. This is no doubt due to the bitter taste that its depiction of Australian life has left in the mouths of many of its viewers, a distaste that dates back to an early screening of the film, when a member of the audience stood up in the theatre and shouted ‘That’s not us!’ only to be rebuked by actor Jack Thompson: ‘Sit down, mate. It is us.’ This exchange, and its conflict over the identification of the film’s content with some form of Australian identity (‘us’), is typical of the ambivalent reception of the film and its place within the wider, unresolved matter of Australia’s self-image in respect to its place in the world and the national character it presents on the global stage. The formulation ‘that’s not us; that is us’ describes the tension at work in this self-image, which depends on an identification with a positive sense of national selfhood and the simultaneous expulsion of the elements that cannot be organised and incorporated into that image. The horror that Wake in Fright has provoked in its Australian audience hinges on this moment of identification and rejection (what might be called, in a more theoretical language, abjection) by summoning up some of the most unpleasant facets of the Australian national character as it presents itself in the clichés of mateship, pub culture, the fair go, and so on, and insists that these undesired elements must be recognised as aspects of Australian culture as a whole.

To put it plainly, Wake in Fright is best characterised as a dissection of Australia’s cultural cringe in the form of a horror story. This cultural cringe—a term that denotes the sense of inferiority felt by Australians in the face of foreign, that is British, culture—is in Wake in Fright interrogated as an inward-facing phenomenon, by which Australian settlers judge themselves and their fellows for their perceived parochialism. As it was originally defined by AA Phillips, the cultural cringe depends on the paradoxical proximity and distance of Australia to Britain, as a culturally subordinate colony and product of British imperialism, on the one hand, and on the other as a geographically isolated protrusion of British culture on the far-flung side of the globe. Situated in this manner, Australia’s cultural products cannot avoid comparison to their more numerous and acclaimed British cousins, while being at the apparent disadvantage of distance from the cutting-edge fashions and fads of the metropole. As Phillips writes:

We cannot shelter from invidious comparisons behind the barrier of a separate language; we have no long-established or interestingly different cultural tradition to give security and distinction to its interpreters; and the centrifugal pull of the great cultural metropolises works against us.1

Indeed, the centrifugal pull of the metropolis is a core narrative element in Wake in Fright, but whereas for Phillips the cultural cringe exists in orbit of a unitary centre, namely London as the ossified heart of the British cultural sphere, in Wake in Fright this metropolis is mirrored by two other, Australian cities: Sydney and the Yabba, the coastal capital and the rural backwater.

This multiplication of cities brings with it a more nuanced account of the logic of the culture cringe. As LJ Hume has argued, the cultural cringe was not a simple fact of Australia’s subordinate place within Britain’s empire, but a necessary invention to explain away the shame and inferiority that Australians feel towards their country’s cultural products.2 That is, the cringe is not an external relation between Australia and the distant imperial metropole but is an internal relation between Australia’s cultural hubs and the rest of the continent on which they are situated. Within this logic, Sydney (and the other coastal capitals of which it is emblematic) is defined not only by its failure to approximate the distant grandeur of London but also by its incapacity to separate itself from the parochialism of the country as a whole, and especially the outback regions that appear in the imaginary of the cultural cringe as the bereft, opposite pole to London, to which Sydney is bound. As we shall see, this opposite pole is given its emblematic city in the shape of the Yabba, where Wake in Fright’s protagonist is trapped in total separation from the two cities of cultural ambition and cultural fulfilment.

In the character of the schoolteacher, John Grant, the tension between a coastal culture and the country’s interior is made palpable, as Grant yearns for his release from government debt for his teaching degree and his return to Sydney. In both the novel and the film, the journey into the Australian outback is cast in the manner of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, as a voyage into Australia’s interior to uncover the hidden truth of the country at large. The name of this heart of darkness is Bundanyabba, or ‘the Yabba’ to the locals, a town that sits like a sore on the face of the earth, where Grant is waylaid on his journey home. In his exile from the purported civilisation of the Australian coast, Grant comes face to face with another Australia that is typified by an aggressive adherence to communal conviviality, a libidinal freedom brought on by the lack of care for the future, and the unquenchable consumption of grog. This is to say that Australia—the ‘true blue’ Australia adulated by bush poets and pub rockers alike—is portrayed in the pages and scenes of Wake in Fright as a waking nightmare.

To explicate this nightmare, if not to dispel it, it’s worth starting with a brief overview of the background and production of the book and film, to understand the different relations of their respective creators to the Australian cultural cringe. This grounds an analysis of the horror content of the film, and the formal structures of repetition, compulsion, and damnation which inform it. This reveals how the film version of Wake in Fright—but not its novelistic source material—inverts the negative evaluation of these formal elements and affirms the paradoxical utopianism of the Yabba, which remains the as yet undigested kernel of the film.

Distinguishing the book and the film

Both versions of Wake in Fright betray their origins. The novel is evidently the author’s debut work, betraying all the self-consciousness of a young writer whose tale is in large part inspired by his personal experience of the outback town of Broken Hill. The anxieties expressed in the novel are in this respect the anxieties of a Sydney-born Australian faced with the complexities of his own country. Just as Cook’s first-hand experience of culture shock in the heart of his own country lends some verisimilitude to his descriptions, his expression of these anxieties is limited by that same proximity to their source. In reading the book, one gets the impression that everything is too near at hand, too present in the mind, and that the confessions of the narrator too closely reflect the unprocessed fears of the author.

The film, on the other hand, is a work of interpretation exercised on those anxieties from outside. Based on a screenplay by a Jamaican-born British writer and directed by a Canadian, the film grasps the cultural cringe at the core of its source material—a cultural cringe shared by the other settler societies of the British Commonwealth—without being dragged into its Australian specificities. An alienation takes effect, as the film not only dramatises the encounter between metropolitan and regional Australia but communicates this encounter through a comparatively impersonal lens. The tribulations of Australian culture are set at a distance, and for that reason are realised with a clarity that could not be achieved in the immediacy of Cook’s confessional narrative.

The revulsion towards the Aussie outback is explicitly thematised in both the book and the film, but whereas Cook’s novel leans into the psychological torment of Grant’s internment in the outback, the narrative perspective of Kotcheff’s film is never entirely coterminous with that of the protagonist. The novel plays up Grant’s coastal horror of the outback, which is described entirely by way of a free indirect speech that centres Grant’s evaluation of the scenes and events he witnesses. Kotcheff’s divergence from the book, and his clarification of its core themes, begins with the excision of Grant’s role as narrator. Whereas the bulk of Cook’s novel is occupied by Grant’s internal monologue as he agonises over his situation and his actions, the film is comparatively sparse on giving reasons or justifications for Grant’s behaviour. Lacking the guiding thread of Grant’s narration, we either see the character thinking silently over his predicament, or we are thrust into the psychedelic blur of his inebriated, sunstruck confusion. Seen from outside, rather than narrated from inside his own head, Grant’s behaviour towards the denizens of the Yabba becomes ever more awkward, absurd and cruel. More so than in the novel, Grant becomes visible for what he is—a snob, whose disgust towards his countrymen is less a product of his cultural superiority than a sign of his own self-hatred, projected onto all those who do not possess the tact to conceal their boorish nature.

In its filmic adaptation, Wake in Fright transforms from a narrative recount of events given in the past tense into an all-too-present barrage of images, presenting the viewer with a sequence of bewildering and horrifying images instead of their second-hand description. The film places Grant directly within his nightmare vision, which we as viewers perceive without the mediating presence of a narrator. This shift of perspective not only decentres Grant from his own narrative but also transfixes us in the place of the protagonist. We are not told of a descent into debauchery; we see the descent before our eyes as we are seduced into Wake in Fright’s infernal world.

Just one more spin

The seduction of Wake in Fright depends on the inexorable pull of repetition, typified in the images of the outback, the gamble and the drink. From its first moments, the film paints an infernal tableau. The desert stretches out as far as the eye can see. The opening scene captures its sun-swept enormity in a panning shot, which slowly circles along the flat, empty horizon of the Australian outback. The horizon’s vanishing point stretches in an enormous circle around the opening locale—a schoolhouse, a pub and a wooden platform passing for a train station—at once signifying the limitless expanse of the red-orange sands and delimiting the movements of all those caught within its circuit. Monotony reigns over the desolate landscape, afflicting its inhabitants with a boredom unto death. This boredom is communicated through the repetition of actions, characters and locales, which recur in a maddening procession of sameness. Repetition is first visible in the plight of the film’s characters caught in the endless plain, but over the course of the film this spatial dimension is coupled with repetition in time, as the protagonist finds himself caught in a cycle that constantly returns him to the same places, the same situations, over and over again. Hell is a place, sequestered in the heart of the Australian continent. Its walls are the limitless horizon and its fire is the stultifying boredom that keeps its denizens fixed in place.

For Grant, each instance of these elements is expected to be his last: one last stint in the outback in exchange for his freedom, one more flip of the coins to buy his escape, and one final drink before he walks away from the Yabba forever. For all his momentary conviction, the cinematography undermines the finality of Grant’s actions. Despite his protestations, we can readily see the endlessness of the landscape that prevents his escape; we witness the thrill of the gamble that so easily ensnares him; we recognise the irresistible thirst that drives him back into the pub for another round. The camera pans across the desert, reducing all movement to a running in place; the cut of a montage reduces the decision on a bet to an automatic sequence of actions, deliberate but unthought; the close-ups of the sweat-drenched faces bringing cold beers to their lips surpass all sense. To be seduced by these images is to recognise their inevitability. Everything that happens has happened before, it will happen again, and no matter Grant’s protestations we can see that his every move will only lead him circling back to where he began.

The Yabba’s nightly two-up game presents the perfect opportunity for Grant to indulge in the seductions of repetition. Seeing the coins rise and fall with the certainty of clockwork, Grant counts the money available to him and judges the number of wins necessary to extend his holiday, to pay off his university debt, and ultimately to escape the doldrums of his teaching position altogether. As Cook describes the scene, Grant is overcome by an incredible and inexplicable sense of certainty, ‘the mysticism of the gamblers’, such that ‘he knew the pennies would fall tails again. He knew that as surely as he knew that he existed. All that was required was the will to act on his conviction and he summoned that very easily.’3 A game of chance becomes his assured means of escape. In the Yabba’s gambling den, Grant experiences an irresistible desire for repetition, the desire to repeat a win or redo a loss, to see an unchangeable fate realised in the falling coins.

But with each toss of the coins, this element of conviction lapses into something far less voluntary. As the game progresses, Grant grows increasingly frantic, manic and visibly possessed by nothing other than the thrill of the coin toss. In the film version, he voices no thoughts on the matter, makes no audible calculation of his odds, and appears altogether less composed in his actions than his novelistic counterpart. What began as a conviction becomes a compulsion, no longer even the peculiar mysticism of the gambler, which involves some degree of conscious belief, but a compulsion that precedes thought and directs Grant through the motions necessary to achieve its goal. The coins will rise again, they will fall once more, and whether they land heads or tails, a repetition will have taken place and the sequence of throws will continue again. Of course, every throw is to be Grant’s last. Just one more win and he will finally, truly be free. But each throw is only the most recent in a sequence of throws that never quite reaches its end.

Have another beer, mate

This repetition in time mirrors the spatial repetition of the Australian landscape and swiftly grows to encompass all the actions that Grant takes, from his gambling to his abortive attempts to leave the town, and most especially to his new-found dependence on the ritual of drink. In the Yabba there is an enforced and practically universal alcoholism. The constant flow of beer is irresistible, not only to quench the thirst of the desert but to satisfy the stringent social demands of the town. As Grant soon discovers, there is no lack of hospitality in the Yabba, and the bond between guest and host is always sealed with the sharing of beer. In the first instance the drink is irresistible because it is unconditional. Against Grant’s protestations that he cannot afford to return the favour, he is met only with incredulity: ‘I said I’d buy you one; you don’t have to buy me one! Now drink it down!’

Like the two-up game, Grant’s new-found alcoholism also depends on an infernal repetition, which refuses all possibility of escape from its cycle. As much as Grant swears off beer, only to accept one last swig from a friendly glass, he cannot arrive at the final drink. This logic of repetition is akin to that described by the philosopher Gilles Deleuze—himself no stranger to the pull of alcoholism, as his biographer François Dosse notes—who takes alcoholism as a typical example of the compulsion to repetition.4 As Deleuze remarks, ‘an alcoholic is someone who never ceases to stop drinking’, someone ‘who never stops having arrived at the last drink’.5 How? Each drink is situated within a circular sequence, such that the most recent drink is not the last but the first of a new cycle. The first drink repeats the last. As Deleuze elaborates, the drinker does not truly seek the last drink, which is always beyond their power, but instead seeks the penultimate one: ‘The penultimate is the last one before beginning again the next day.’ The sequence of drinks is without end because each drink only redoubles the confinement of the drinker in its circuit, and despite their best intentions the purported final drink is only the last for now.

In Grant’s circuitous descent into grog-fuelled oblivion, the line between volition and compulsion is blurred, as each repeated action becomes only the affirmation of the one that preceded it and a premonition of the one to come. The present moment is distended between a past and future indistinguishable from one another, with the passing of time marked only by the sinking of one beer after another. In Cook’s novel, this ambiguity of choice and necessity sits at the centre of Grant’s speculation on the actions that brought him to where he is:

What was so fantastic was that there had been no element of necessity about it all. It was as though he had deliberately set about destroying himself; and yet one thing had seemed to lead to the next … Everything had led to something else. There had been no necessity about any of it, but each event had carried within it the seed of the next.6

Grant reasons that he arrived where he is entirely by his own volition, although this volition only appears after the fact, as a justification for the impulses that had already set him in motion. The desire for another spin of the coin or another swig of beer precedes Grant’s choice to affirm that desire, such that, even as he consciously wills it, one thing inevitably leads to another whether he wills it or not.

In Kotcheff’s film, the paradoxical necessity of Grant’s actions is made all the more overt. Without recourse to private justifications, such as those Grant can supply as the book’s narrator, the actions he takes in the film appear more like automatic responses. Whereas in the novel Grant insists on his moral culpability for his downfall, his cinematic counterpart simply desires and acts, without recourse to retroactive justifications for his actions—actions which seem the products of a bare animal instinct that had, until his arrival in the Yabba, remained suppressed beneath a civil exterior. Pulled forward by the compulsions of booze and conviviality, Grant’s actions are at once necessary and chosen, such that his personal will and his unconscious desires become horrifyingly conjoined.

All the little devils

Gentlemen of the city, what surprises you? That there is suffering here, or that I know it? —Dillard

The compulsion to repetition is the key to Wake in Fright’s infernal vision. It is the logic that reigns over the inferno of the Yabba and keeps its denizens confined within the bounds of the town. To return to Gilles Deleuze once more, in his commentary on the theodicy of Leibniz, this willed compulsion is the very definition of damnation. As Deleuze writes of Leibniz’s vision of hell, ‘the damned does not pay retribution for a past action, but for the hate of God that constitutes the present amplitude of his soul and fills it in the present. He is not damned for a past action, but by a present action that he renews at every moment.’7 Damnation is not a punishment for past deeds, but an act continually reaffirmed in the present. The irresistible desire for that act multiplies the torment. Hell is an itch you cannot help but scratch; it is a scar that burns and reopens, a compulsion it is not in your power to resist, because its repetition is experienced first as pleasure and only secondly as self-destruction. Like the proverbial dog that returns to its own vomit, the damned redouble their own damnation. ‘All the little devils are proud of hell’ is how the town’s drunkard doctor, ‘Doc’ Tydon, describes the state of his fellow inhabitants of the Yabba. Indeed, more offensive to Grant than the behaviour of the people of the Yabba, which he observes with an instinctive derision, is the pride that they show in their moral destitution, as if hell were filled with wilfully and blissfully lost souls.

But even as Tydon entertains Grant’s displeasure with the Yabba, his intrusion into the story opens it up to a wider narrative than Grant’s private pity party. Thanks largely to Donald Pleasence’s immensely captivating screen presence as the doctor, Tydon occupies the centre of every scene he is in, drawing the camera away from Grant’s mopery to be transfixed by his performance. In contrast to Cook’s novel, the thematic centre of Kotcheff’s adaptation of Wake in Fright is not Grant’s internal monologue but Tydon’s spontaneous proclamations on the nature of the town, civilisation and human nature. This is in contrast to the Tydon of the book, who is a comparatively minor character whose appearance is limited primarily to the scenes of debauchery surrounding the kangaroo hunt and whose monologues are filtered through Grant’s displeasured narration.

In the film, Tydon appears to stalk Grant throughout his wanderings, showing up in the bars and parties at precisely the moments that Grant might be left alone with his own thoughts. The doctor assumes a stature akin to that of Colonel Kurtz several years later in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), itself a more direct adaptation of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Like Brando’s Kurtz, Tydon’s character appears to possess an inhuman force of will, communicated in his extemporaneous speeches on any topic that passes his fancy, and manifested in his supreme knowledge of himself and his place in the world. Whereas Grant is bound by his pretensions and self-deceptions, Tydon knows exactly what he is and why.

‘And what do you do?’ asks Grant of the doctor, who laconically responds ‘I drink.’ In his free admissions of alcoholism and sexual promiscuity, Tydon assumes a properly demonic position in Grant’s eyes.

Whereas the other denizens of the Yabba, and eventually Grant himself, appear to lack the self-awareness to understand their infernal confinement, the doctor knows exactly what he does, and by his own admission has sought out the life he now leads. For Grant there is nothing more disgusting than this man who not only takes pleasure in his damnation (as do all the residents of the Yabba to one degree or another) but who, despite having the means of bettering his circumstances, wilfully sinks into his allotted place in hell. More horrifying still, it is in this respect that the character of Tydon may also be recognised as a repetition, as a double of Grant himself. He is the man who does what Grant does—drinks at the same establishments, scrounges off the same men, attempts to seduce the same woman—but consciously, actively and with a good deal more success. The doctor is the man that the schoolteacher could be, if he let himself shed his affected exterior and become who he really is. As much as Grant wishes to perceive the features of the devil in Tydon’s face, he instead sees his own face staring back.

Where the bloody hell are you?

The doubling of Grant in the doctor not only unsettles the dividing line between the schoolteacher and the denizens of the Yabba but undoes the basis on which his judgement of the Yabba is made. From his first moments on screen, Tydon offers an acerbic rejection of Grant’s cultural elitism and its basis in class bigotry. Grant’s perception of life in the Yabba as governed by a deathly boredom depends on his position as an outsider, as someone who believes that he can leave at any time to return to the civilised freedom of the coast, if only the Yabba and its people would not get in his way. For the townspeople, this vain hope is a luxury than none can afford. As the doctor proclaims:

Discontent is the luxury of the well-to-do. If you’ve got to live here, you might as well like it … It’s death to farm out here. It’s worse than death in the mines. You want them to sing opera as well?

Tydon’s is therefore the voice of sympathy for the devils—even those who are proud of hell. What Grant dismisses as ‘the arrogance of stupid people who insist you should be as stupid as they are’ the doctor recognises as a disposition brought about by the necessity of making do in the depths of hell. It is not only this necessity that Grant reviles, but the means by which people grow accustomed to it, such that the endless bacchanal of the Yabba is for him as much an object of pity as it is a source of horror.

In the final pages of the novel, Grant arrives at a kind of sympathy for the people of the Yabba that does not entirely eschew his blinkered judgement of the outback. Listening to the drinking songs belted out on the train leaving the Yabba, he contemplates how ‘the thread of melancholy which ran through even the most boisterous of their songs was something that was part of them, possibly born of this very sadness of the plains … this plaintive, suppressed misery’.8 But this realisation that the people he patronised are themselves human, and at least partially self-aware of their melancholy condition, comes as too little too late. The judgement of the Australian outback is not undone but is carried to its patronising conclusion in this sudden eruption of pity. The romanticism of the ‘empty’ landscape and its proud, perseverant settler communities is offered as a half-hearted attempt at recuperation of an Australian identity that at its heart remains riven by the introspective logic of the cultural cringe.

As a thinly veiled analogue for Broken Hill, counterposed to the Sydney of Grant’s daydreams, the Yabba of Cook’s novel is a clear figuration of the unspoken object of the cultural cringe: it is not so much a realistic portrait of rural life as it is the fantasy of what goes on in the outback as it is imagined by the ashamed conscience of the coast. The Yabba is the discarded remainder of Australia’s national consciousness; it is what Sydney imagines in its attempts to expiate the shame felt at its own inability to become more than an outpost of one empire or another. The shame that Grant feels when confronted with the people of the Yabba is the shame of self-recognition, and his pity is therefore a disguised self-pity, which causes him to turn up his nose at any hint of the provinciality of Australia with respect to the world at large.9 But, as the film recognises, this cycle of shame and pity is not all that Wake in Fright is about.

Through Tydon’s monologues, the film diverges from its source material by redirecting its pity away from the people of the outback and back towards Grant and his ilk. At the height of the film’s bloody kangaroo hunt, the doctor muses to nobody but himself and the camera:

Affectability, progress, are vanities spawned by fear … The aim of what you call civilisation is a man in a smoking jacket, whiskey and soda, pressing a button, to destroy a planet a billion miles away, kill a billion people he’s never seen.

Having adopted the Yabba as his home, Tydon directs his ire towards coastal Australia from the standpoint of the outback, to denounce the so-called civilisation that feeds on death at home so that it may spread a greater death abroad. Seen from the continent’s interior looking out, the pleasures of coastal Australia reveal their monstrous true face, as pleasures paid for with blood. As Walter Benjamin well knew, progress is the accumulation of ruins and graves, and culture a marker of past barbarisms.10 In taking Tydon as its focal character and bringing the unspoken anxieties of Australian culture to the fore, the film diverges from the logic of cultural-cringe-as-horror that defines Cook’s novel and moves into a more nuanced space, in which the moral order of city and country becomes inviable. The shame that structures the cultural cringe is turned inside out, as the purported civilisation of the coast becomes an object of derision, while the purported barbarity of the outback loses its aura of pitiable ignorance.

The Sydney of which Grant dreams is revealed as just that—a dream—with little bearing on the realities of Australia and its place in the world. Within the logic of the cultural cringe there is no positive conception of Australia, which can only be defined based on the parochial outback which it does not want to be, on the one hand, and the imperial exterior that it desires but cannot be, on the other. Between the Yabba and London stands the mirage of a lucky, laidback country, of sun and surf, which cannot be realised outside of dreams, sentimentalist kitsch, and tourism commercials. ‘Where the bloody hell are you?’ we might ask of this imagined Australia, to which it can only answer: Nowhere. The film begins with Grant’s abortive departure from the outback and ends with his reluctant return, never having left that place where he began, never having seen the coast outside of his fantasies.

Wake in Fright interrogates the central logic of the cultural cringe—the inferiority complex of Sydney to London transposed onto the imaginary Yabba—not so that it may be resolved in the emergence of a proud, self-conscious Australian culture, but so that the very possibility of Australian culture becomes an absurdity. The negativity of the cultural cringe is maintained and heightened such that it cannot be assimilated back into some pseudo-mythic aesthetic of Australiana. In the figure of Grant, Sydney does not cast off its parochialism and rise to become another London, a proud inheritor of bloodshed and theft, but collapses into the shadow world of the Yabba, where all the false pretences of civilisation slip away.

Yeah nah, or, determinate negation

An oasis of horror in a desert of boredom —Baudelaire

As Grant descends into his drunken stupor, Tydon’s presence grows all the more overt, as if the schoolteacher’s double were finally supplanting him in the world. As a man of the Yabba, the doctor is presented as the horrifying vision of a devil who enjoys his damnation—the psychic double of the urbanite who can neither enjoy nor even acknowledge this devilish aspect of himself—and therefore functions as both a figure of disgust and of fascination. The element of disgust forms the visible part of the cultural cringe, which abhors the horror of self-recognition, while the element of fascination saves the source of that cringe from being entirely disavowed. In the film, the horror of Cook’s Wake in Fright remains present, but by its end the element of disgust is wholly supplanted by that of fascination, and in this manner the film surpasses its origins in Australia’s cultural cringe to express a deep sympathy for its community of the damned.

Sequestered within the novel’s petty horror story are the seeds of another story entirely, which reverses the core terms of Cook’s narrative by supplanting the escape from the Yabba with an escape to the uncivilised interior of the continent. What first appears as enclosure within the limitless horizon of the outback is finally revealed as an exit from the rest of the world’s orderly march towards death. In a reversal of Baudelaire’s phrase from Les Fleurs du mal, the Yabba takes on the qualities of an oasis of boredom in a desert of horror—a small, quiet hideaway from the barely-concealed barbarism of ‘civilisation.’

Even as it engages in the negative stereotypes of the Australian outback, Wake in Fright inverts the evaluation of those stereotypes, transforming the much-maligned ‘idiocy of rural life’ into something far preferable to the rarefied, repressed, and hypocritical kinds of idiocy that reign in the city.11 Without affirming the whole of Australia’s settler culture—the racial foundation of which is sorely underexamined in both book and film—the film locates the elements that disrupt the colonial imaginary from within, the terms that cannot be fully assimilated to the placid image of a lucky country or which reveal the contradictions of cultural subordination to the metropole. Neither London nor Sydney, the Yabba functions as the negative space at the heart of Australia’s national ideology, which harbours within it the seeds of its own dissolution.12

What could not be spoken in Grant’s Sydney daydreams becomes legible only in his nightmares. At the climax of the nightmare, just before the moment of waking, is revealed the hidden, unspeakable wish that underpins the entire dream, which cannot be spoken, let alone realised, in waking life.13 In Wake in Fright, this wish is for something other than the stultifying logic of the culture cringe, for a way of life that is neither of London nor of Sydney, and which is therefore opposed to the reigning orders of cultural imperialism and nationalist identity that those cities represent.

In one final twist on its source material, the film version of Wake in Fright presents Australia’s heart of darkness in the form of a utopian space. Hidden from the outside world, the denizens of the Yabba are freed from the moral strictures that make up so-called civilisation. Despite the apparent uninhabitability of the Yabba’s environment, it is also a society freed from the economic bondage of wage-labour, that central pillar of capitalism which took centuries of bloodshed to be imposed on the world’s ‘free’ labour. ‘It’s possible to live forever in the Yabba without money,’ Tydon declares, presenting himself as living proof of an existence lived in total freedom from property, debt, and want. For Grant, the prospect of an eternity in the Yabba is a vision of hell on earth, missing the simple fact that he has stumbled on one of the few places on the earth where living unconditionally is a tangible possibility. In Tydon’s presence, the central terms of Wake in Fright assume bizarre reversals of meaning: the aggressive sociality of its residents fosters an unreserved hospitality; the boredom of repetition transforms into a melancholy quietude; and the torments of hell reveal the utopian desire for a world without want. But Grant, ever the upstanding city boy, educated in the ways of civilisation and progress, would rather die than live a day—let alone forever—in a hell of his own imagining.


1 AA Phillips, ‘The Cultural Cringe,’ Meanjin, 1950, 9(4): 299. Available at: https://meanjin.com.au/essays/the-cultural-cringe-by-a-a-phillips/
2 LJ Hume, Another Look at the Cultural Cringe, Centre for Independent Studies, 1993, 48. Available at: http://www.the-rathouse.com/Another_look_at_the_Cultural_Cringe.htm
3 K Cook, Wake in Fright, Text Publishing, 2012, 44.
4 F Dosse, Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari: Intersecting Lives, trans. D Glassman, Columbia University Press, 2010, 3.
5 G Deleuze and C Parnet, Gilles Deleuze from A to Z, trans. CJ Stivale, Semiotext(e), 2012. Available at: https://deleuze.cla.purdue.edu/seminars/gilles-deleuze-abc-primer/lecture-recording-1-f
6 Wake in Fright, 181–2.
7 G Deleuze, The Fold, trans. Tom Conley, University of Minnesota Press, 1993, 71.
8 Wake in Fright, 198.
9 The ‘outback’ and its place in the Australian national consciousness may therefore be understood as not only designating a geographical interior, but a psychological one as well. The outback is a space at once ‘over there’ and ‘behind our backs,’ reflecting the unconscious of a coastal culture that feels itself stretched between the distance of what lies overseas and the proximity of what lies inland. The effectiveness of Wake in Fright’s version of the Australian Gothic aesthetic may be explained by its commonalities with the structure of Gothic fiction in general. As it is described by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, the Gothic style is preoccupied with ‘what’s inside, what’s outside, and what separates them’—in this instance, the repressed interior of the continent, the absent culture of the metropole, and the anxious Australian cities that lie on the thin sliver of coast separating outback from out-there. See: Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, The Coherence of Gothic Conventions, Methuen, 1986) 12.
10 W Benjamin, Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn, Schocken, 2007, 256.
11 K Marx and F Engels, ‘Manifesto of the Communist Party,’ in Karl Marx, The Political Writings (London: Verso, 2019), 65). Available at: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/ch01.htm
12 On the doubly negative space of the ‘neither-nor’ and its use in the criticism of apparently closed ideological structures, see: F Jameson, Allegory and Ideology, Verso, 2019, 73, 349–59.
13 On this logic of the nightmare and its hidden wish, see: S Zizek, The Sublime Object of Ideology, Verso, 1989, 44–5.

Gregory Marks

Gregory Marks is a writer and researcher living on Dja Dja Wurrung land. He completed his PhD in 2020 with a thesis on Thomas Pynchon and the Posthuman Gothic, and is presently interested in the convergences of literary and critical theory, philosophies of history, and ecology. More of his work can be found at thewastedworld.com

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