On July 14th, 1974, 29-year old Christine Chubbuck, a TV reporter based in Sarasota, Florida, was helming a seemingly routine newscast when there was a technical hitch. Once the live feed returned to the studio, Chubbuck read the following statement: “In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in ‘blood and guts’, and in living colour, you are going to see another first – attempted suicide.” She then pulled a gun out from under her desk and shot herself in the head, dying in hospital several hours later. Footage of her suicide attempt was subsequently passed on to the police. In Killing for Culture (1995: revised and updated 2016), David Kerekes and David Slater discuss Chubbuck’s suicide alongside other notorious instances of “Death in the Media.” They note: “The tape has apparently yet to surface in any form. Despite some claims that footage of Chubbuck’s suicide had once circulated on the internet, there is no evidence to suggest it is there now. Frankly, it is unlikely that such material – any material – would ever surface and then simply disappear from the virtual reservoir” (2016: 355).
Footage of Chubbuck’s death may not yet have surfaced in the “virtual reservoir,” but that fact that it inspired two films in 2016 suggests that her story is one that still resonates. The meta staged “documentary” Kate Plays Christine (Robert Greene) is told from the perspective of an actress preparing to play Chubbuck. My focus here is on the more formally conventional take on Chubbuck’s story, Christine (Antonio Campos, 2016), which dramatizes the months leading up to her death.
Given the subject matter, it’s fair to say that Christine isn’t for everyone. Despite largely respectful reviews, and some talk of a Best Actress Oscar nomination for Rebecca Hall (who plays Chubbuck) the film was not quite the high-profile critical success early commentators anticipated following a well-received Sundance debut (where Kate Plays Christine also debuted to positive notices). In the end, it may be that many potential viewers couldn’t bring themselves to go see a movie with such a grim narrative trajectory.
However, the film is well worth seeing, not least because it so sensitively conveys the toll which mental illness can take both on the individual directly affected and those around them. The lynchpin is Hall’s magnificently raw central performance. She portrays Chubbuck as a brusquely likable, ambitious, and intelligent woman who, even at the best of times, is never quite at ease with herself. Hall uses her lanky physique to impressive effect, conveying in every scene the sense of an acutely self-conscious individual tremendously uncomfortable in her own skin. Her body is often awkwardly hunched over to convey suffering that is both physical – Christine has an excruciatingly painful gynaecological condition – and emotional. Christine’s escalating anxiety, depression and paranoia soon make even the most routine social or professional encounter a fraught one. Her interactions with a youngster at the local children’s home are particularly telling in this respect, especially in a scene deleted from the final cut (which can be found in the extras on the DVD). We see Christine here both as a kind-hearted soul displaying genuine kindness towards a lonely child and as someone who is unable to recognise that her compulsive oversharing and tendency to project her own issues on to others is entirely inappropriate.
Crucially, despite the obvious empathy that is expressed towards Christine and her situation throughout, the film never shies away from showing that her illness can also make her very difficult to deal with. As in many classic horror films in which mental instability propels the narrative (such as Psycho  and The Haunting ), we have here a protagonist in a state of arrested development. Christine may have a promising career, but she still lives with her mother Peg (J. Smith-Cameron) and has never been in a romantic relationship (which is another major source of anxiety and self-recrimination). Whereas Campos might have chosen to depict Peg as a controlling or suffocating presence, he instead makes it clear that she is a caring woman who is doing her best. Christine’s illness and self-loathing often manifest themselves in ways that make her angry, jealous and needy, but Peg’s desire to help is obviously sincere. Indeed, the tragedy of Christine’s fate is compounded by the fact that she is surrounded by caring and well-meaning people – her mother, her friend Jean (Maria Dizzia), and even her surprisingly sensitive workplace crush, news anchor George (Michael C. Hall). Each of them, in their own way, reach out to her, but like the viewer, are ultimately forced to stand back and watch the full horror of her misery achieve climactic violent expression.
Carnival of Souls
This is certainly not a horror film in the conventional sense of the word. However, it does feature a brief but important reference to one of the genre’s major cult classics. Towards the end of the movie, Christine can be seen watching Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls (1962). It’s a blink and you’ll miss it moment, but a genuinely illuminating one. Both films are, after all, about inescapably doomed young women. Christine depicts the final months in the life of someone who will soon take her own life. The heroine of Carnival of Souls, Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss) is killed in the opening moments of the film, but doesn’t know it until the very end.
Like Christine, Mary also finds herself mysteriously estranged from those around her. She is plagued by visons of ghoulish spectres, mysteriously drawn to a gloomy beachside pavilion, and stricken by eerie dissociative episodes during which she can no longer be seen or heard. Nothing as overtly fantastical happens in Campos’s film, which depicts events in a decidedly realist fashion throughout. Yet as Campos and screenwriter Craig Shilowich are obviously aware, Christine, like Mary, is also trapped in a waking nightmare. Despite the best efforts of friends and loved ones, the invisible barrier that seals her off from the rest of the world her cannot be breached, and she comes to believe that the true extent of her torment cannot be communicated through words alone.
Little wonder then that Christine’s desperate final actions literally broadcast her agony to as many unwitting bystanders as possible. She finally makes her point via the shocking, conclusive retort of a gunshot. Importantly though, Campos concludes the film not with her suicide but with a reflective sequence which focuses on the heartbreak and quiet courage of her friend Jean, one of those who has been left behind to pick up the pieces.
There’s nothing remotely sensationalist, sanctimonious, or tacitly admiring about the way in which suicide is depicted here. Nor is Christine ever transformed into a martyr or the harbinger of a cruder, more aggressive media era. Although the film is a work of fiction, it is still, as we are reminded in the opening seconds, “Based on True Events.” It’s all the more fitting then that we are again reminded that this story was inspired by the death of a real person, someone whose suffering and loss undoubtedly still haunts those closest to her.
Note: Chubbuck’s final words have been taken from this BBC online article, which also discusses the differing ways in which Greene and Campos dramatise her story.
Abraham Riesman has an illuminating discussion of the fact that footage of her death has apparently become a “holy grail” for those fascinated by real-life instances of death onscreen.
Bernice M. Murphy is lecturer in Popular Literature at the School of English, Trinity College Dublin where she specializes in American horror and gothic narratives. Her books include The Rural Gothic in American Popular Culture (with Elizabeth McCarthy), Lost Souls of Horror and the Gothic and, most recently, Key Concepts in Contemporary Popular Fiction.