On July 15, 1974, Sarasota, Florida news anchor Christine Chubbuck read out the following statement: “In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in blood and guts and in living colour, you’re going to see another first: attempted suicide.” Drawing a revolver from below her desk, she placed it behind her right ear and pulled the trigger.
I discovered the story of Chubbuck earlier this year, while reading about one of the most improbable coincidences in the history of Sundance Film Festival: not one, but two films about the elusive news anchor will be released this year.
The first, Christine, directed by Antonio Campos, is a fairly straightforward, albeit unsettling, character study of the newsreader in the months leading up to her suicide. The second, Kate Plays Christine, is a rather subversive take on the story: partly a documentary, it follows the actress Kate Lyn Sheil (House of Cards), as she prepares to take on the role of Christine in a fictional biopic. The two films are unrelated, but they inform each other, raising many of the same questions – above all: can we ever really know what drove Chubbuck to her final act?
Chubbuck’s on-air suicide was only broadcast once. However, it possesses a certain level of notoriety amongst obsessives who believe a viewable copy still exists somewhere. Threads on websites such as findadeath.com (a site dedicated to discussion about famous deaths), are made up of thousands upon thousands of messages, uniting those determined to get their hands on the tape. Some are fuelled by the grisly nature of the act; others: by the hope to reach some sort of clarity of why Chubbuck did what she did. “I actually don’t want to see the death but I’m very interested in her demeanour in the moments before the deed,” one user writes. “If she had wanted to disappear she wouldn’t have made such a statement,” another suggests.
She was depressed. She was frustrated with the pressures of being a woman in a 1970s newsroom. She had a disappointing romantic life. Theories about her suicide continue to abound; those hoping to get some insight from the two films will end up disappointed. “The movie is about trying to fill in meaning for this thing where there’s such a hole or vacuum of meaning, such a vacuum of information,” Robert Greene told Vulture last month. Our obsession with Chubbuck’s motivations and the fervent interest in the tape prove to be an almost fruitless attempt to fill that vacuum.
It is fair to argue that the real question here extends far beyond Christine Chubbuck’s suicide. Her life would have been otherwise inconsequential, had it not been entirely defined by the violent act that ended it. At the end of the day, her story is a distressing reminder of the fact that humans are unfathomable beings. The ongoing quest for her tape will forever remain an uncomfortable symbol of the way we constantly try to bring transparency to things doomed to remain opaque.
Words: Catherine Karellis
Copy edited by: Elena Stanciu