Interesting Facts

Reason Behind The Suicide Of Christine Chubbuck Live On Air

Actor Rebecca Hall had serious reservations about tackling the macabre story around why Chubbuck killed herself in 1974. So what changed her mind?

Christine Chubbuck, a 29-year-old television presenter, arrived at Channel 40, the local Florida TV station where she worked, on July 15, 1974. Sally Quinn wrote in a Washington Post editorial the following month, “She was in unusual good spirits.”

None of Chubbuck’s coworkers (a technical director, a male co-anchor, and two camerawomen) questioned her choice to change the running order of her show, Suncoast Digest, which would now begin with a story on a local shooting instead of an interview.

The show began at 9.30 a.m., as normal, but the team quickly ran into a technical hitch when the prerecorded VT failed to roll. Chubbuck then returned to her script, saying, “In keeping with Channel 40’s goal of bringing you the newest in blood and guts and in living color,” she stated, “you are going to see another first: an attempted suicide.”

Chubbuck then took a.38 caliber Smith & Wesson pistol from her bag of puppets, which she used to perform shows at a local hospital for mentally handicapped children, and shot herself in the right ear. Thousands of people watched her commit suicide live on television.

A coworker discovered a blood-soaked news piece on her desk as she was brought to the hospital (where she was later confirmed dead). Christine Chubbuck had written a longhand description of her own demise.

The Unfortunate footage

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Fair Use
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Fair Use

The news made headlines all across the world within hours. It was forgotten within months, save for those morbid detectives who would obsess over discovering the tragic footage once the internet age took hold. It remained a minor footnote in history until last year, when two films about Christine Chubbuck premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.

Indeed, Hall’s first instinct was to hide the screenplay from herself, believing that no one would want to witness such a macabre production.

“My immediate instinct was terror,” Hall adds. “I was perplexed as to why you would make this picture. The things she did have an infinite circular irony to them. Of course, she was afflicted with a terrible, terrible mental disease, and this is the result. However, the things she did had to be seen as a primal scream against a world that was growing increasingly predatory. In front of the world, she was practically abusing her own agony. This necessitates a delicate balancing act.

“You’re truly onto something if you can make a film about sensationalism without becoming sensational.” But I’m pleased to say that I believe we succeeded.”

The second of these, simply titled Christine, has received positive reviews for actress Rebecca Hall, who portrays Chubbuck in his dying weeks. When Hall initially met with filmmaker Antonio Campos (who also directed Simon Killer) and writers Craig Shilowich, she had never heard of Chubbuck.

Hall made her cinematic debut in 1992, at the age of ten, in the miniseries The Camomile Lawn, as the daughter of opera singer Maria Ewing and theatre director Sir Peter Hall. She has since demonstrated her acting prowess in a number of dramas (Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Frost/Nixon, The Town), blockbusters (Iron Man 3, The BFG), comedies (Everything Must Go), and award-winning theater productions.

senseless suicide

Chubbuck’s image by Hall is a stunning item, serving as a counterpoint to contemptuous statements like “senseless suicide.” Christine’s depressive episode is depicted as a nuanced account of depression in which she can giddily anticipate a date with her handsome co-anchor (Michael C Hall), engage in girl-talk with a colleague, Jean, and end up in screaming matches with both her mother (J Smith-Cameron) and her station boss (the indomitable Tracy Letts).

“I feel accountable that if I feel something for a character, I should probably strive to make other people feel something,” Hall adds. “I felt a tremendous sense of obligation to the real person.”

Screenwriter Shane Black claimed last summer that Hall’s initial villain part in Iron Man 3 was cut due to “merchandising problems.” The actor isn’t immune to or unaffected by misogyny. Chubbuck, on the other hand, was subjected to a far more uniform form of misogyny. When the journalist expresses concern about the news getting more graphic, her boss’s response is shocking, but not out of the ordinary for a 1970s workplace: “What’s your problem, Ms Chubbuck?” You’re a feminist, right? You believe that the best method to get ahead is to speak louder than the other person. In a nutshell, that’s the whole movement.”

“I believe this is a crucial exercise in human understanding,” Hall says. “There’s a comparison with the movie’s character Jean, who is a woman working in a similar high-pressure situation. In the video, she tells Christine, ‘When I’m unhappy, I eat some ice cream and sing a song.’ In other words, she’s saying, ‘I have the skills to keep surviving.’ I may not like it, but I can handle it.’

“With Christine, we’re asking her to spend two hours with someone who doesn’t have those tools.” Then, ideally, you’ll have a better grasp of how bad the situation is. Nobody should have to cope with that situation in the first place.”

Essentially unknowable

But why was Chubbuck the one who did it? There are no easy answers in the film. Did Hall come up with a working hypothesis to help her get through the show?

“An important part of the film’s balancing act is that it asks you to get close to someone who is fundamentally unknowable. It accomplishes it in a courteous manner, as it gives suggestions rather than generating false certainty. You’re dealing with a professional journalist. That was something we had to respect.

“I believe I came to the conclusion that if you have a strong desire to kill yourself for whatever reason, every day is a battle to stay alive.” She wakes up every day thinking to herself, “If I just succeed at this, if I just make friends with X, I won’t kill myself.” I’ll make it through the day’s challenges. She realizes that if she wants to stay alive, she’ll have to tell more juicy ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ stories. And he realizes, “If that’s what you want, I’m not going to be able to provide it to you.”

Last year, an experimental documentary on Chubbuck, Kate Plays Christine, was released. Why did these two films on a forgotten historical event come out so soon after one another? What’s more, why now?

“Her tale is incredibly indicative of so many things that we as a culture are wrestling with right now,” Hall speculates. “The idea of living your entire life in front of a camera.” The idea that it couldn’t have happened unless it was caught on video. False information. The fact that she continues to be subjected to gender prejudices. We still don’t know how to talk about or ask for help when it comes to mental health difficulties. The stigma associated with suicide.

“What she does is, in some manner, summarize everything and toss it at you, asking you to think about it.”

Christine has been released.

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