Blond girls dying: The Virgin Suicides, Picnic at Hanging Rock, and the endless search for answers

Some things just stick to us, I’m told, and The Virgin Suicides, a story of suicide and suburbia, has been part of my soul since I first indulged myself in it.

Blond girls dying: The Virgin Suicides, Picnic at Hanging Rock, and the endless search for answers
Picnic at Hanging Rock (1977)

by Sydney Bollinger

I’ve always thought that death’s mystery should be solvable — something I know can never be true, but still desire to resolve. My therapist, in our last session, pointed out my tendency toward black-and-white thinking, and I couldn’t argue that she wasn’t right. It’s easy to think in binaries; things are or they are not, they’re dead or they’re alive, they’re going to Heaven or Hell.

Growing up, death wasn’t this Great Unknown. When I died, I would go to heaven and celebrate with God. It’s a nice thought, isn’t it? Once Death comes for us, once he slices us with his scythe, our soul ascends to Heaven (or descends to Hell), where we spend eternity. The narrative is simple and purposeful — my evangelical faith provided an answer for the unanswerable. We’re sure about death, they said. Let’s get ready for the next life.

~

When I think about death, I think about The Virgin Suicides, both the novel by Jeffrey Eugenides and Sophia Coppola’s film adaptation. I don’t think I’ve written about a single piece of media more than I’ve written about The Virgin Suicides. It crops all over my writing: personal essays, poems, and even film analyses where it’s not particularly relevant. Some things just stick to us, I’m told, and this story of suicide and suburbia has been part of my soul since I first indulged myself in it.

Scene still: the Lisbon sisters ride in a car with the neighborhood boys on a sunny day
The Virgin Suicides (1999)

Don’t be worried that I think about death. My morbid curiosity is steeped in my desire for answers about my own demise, according to my therapist. I rationally agree with her, though I vehemently disagree that my interest in blond girls dying stems from some kind of journey toward reconciling my own eventual death. It happens to everyone, I said, and nobody knows what happens — except for those people who claim to have come back from heaven, but I don’t believe them.

Should I believe them?

The narrative of life’s cycle hardwired into my brain wants to believe that The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven near my hometown actually did. I’ve been trying to rewire my mind over the past several years  with limited success.

~

My wandering path of death thoughts connects me to the neighborhood boys who narrate The Virgin Suicides, in both the film and the book. They report on their dealings with the Lisbons, but their information comes through muddled truth and grandiose theories of what the girls must be like.

Lux, in particular, is a fascination for the boys, as she is for me. We know the most about Lux, yet hardly know anything at all. She likes rock music and had to burn her records in the family fireplace. She went to homecoming with Tripp Fontaine, but missed curfew. She had sex on the roof of her house after her mother imprisoned her there. She killed herself in the garage, a cigarette still in her hand.

Scene still: Lux's arm hangs out of a car window with a cigarette in her hand. Lux is dead.
The Virgin Suicides (1999)

That last image is burned into my brain; I can replay the scene in my head and give a play-by-play if someone were to ask. The cigarette, specifically, sticks out to me. Death compounded on death compounded on death, as if smoking is some kind of guarantee that she would never live again.

We can’t ask why; we’ll never know.

The boys endlessly search for answers and eventually just create an answer for themselves:

“The essence of the suicides consisted not of sadness or mystery but simple selfishness. The girls took into their own hands decisions better left to God. They became too powerful to live among us, too self-concerned, too visionary, too blind.”

Their critical explanation blames the girls for their own inability to know them, understand them, and properly love them.

My critical explanation of death leads me to Hell, where — according to my old beliefs — I am destined because I discarded the Faith for the Flesh. This is a common story in churches because fear of eternal suffering is an effective motivator to just go ahead and do the Jesus thing. Remember Pascal’s Wager?

~

When I think of what happens after my heart stops beating, I think about Picnic at Hanging Rock, a 1977 film directed by Peter Weir based on the novel by Joan Lindsay. Blond girls in white dresses die, leaving a community without answers.

Sound familiar?

This story famously provides no explanation for what happened when the girls disappeared on Hanging Rock. They were dazed by the heat, perhaps, or maybe something supernatural swallowed them up. The story isn’t really about the disappearance; it’s about the impact the disappearances have in the community rocked by this unexplainable event. Despite searches and investigations, no one finds any answers.

Scene still: four girls in white dresses lay, asleep, on Hanging Rock
Picnic at Hanging Rock (1977)

The magic of the story is that there is no explanation. The girls are there and then they’re not — not a trace of them left save for a scrap of a dress.

I remember the first time I watched Weir’s film adaptation. As the credits rolled I turned to my friend and said, “what the fuck happened to them?”

The desire to know hurt deep in my soul; mysteries must be solved.

Ten years after the film’s release, Lindsay published The Secret of Hanging Rock, additional chapters to supplement the original novel and explain what happened to the girls.

I bought it to satiate my desire for answers, but I never read it. As time went on, the book sat on my shelf collecting dust, as forgotten books do. Now a staple on my shelf, I have vowed to never open it.

In writing workshops, I was always told not to overwrite the ending. Cut the ramps, kill your darlings, all that. Ending in ambiguity is better than a definite answer — but why? For Lindsay, the follow-up to Picnic at Hanging Rock ruined what’s so great about the story. For as much as we want to know, we don’t.


I wrote a poem about Lux for In The Mood Magazine, published in 2021. In June 2022, I read the poem during an open mic.

Film Diaries — Issue 2 — In The Mood Magazine
Here’s what we’ve been watching lately...

I’ve also written about hell — and Survivor. The essay was part of my master’s thesis, a collection of essays titled Surface Tension: Essays on an Evolving Faith.

Bollinger — HASH

death wish: collected writings on life’s end

death wish, a zine-like collection of words on death by me (Sydney) will feature both previously published writing and new things.

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The zine will become available in late September/early October – just in time for Halloween


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