The notorious on-air suicide of a news anchor has become the stuff of legend, bestowing a pointless posthumous celebrity on its ‘star’.
“In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in ‘blood and guts’ and in living color, you are going to see another first—an attempted suicide.”
In 2016, responding to the release of two films about his late sister, Greg Chubbuck expressed concern that both would focus ‘unduly’ on the manner of her death rather than the rest of her life and her ‘many positive aspects. The makers of both Christine and Kate Plays Christine were all keen to emphasise, however, that their movies were not simple sensationalism but rather sensitive portraits of the doomed newsreader. All this very much fits into an ostensibly touchy-feely culture, one where we are constantly reminded to #bekind (unless the target for our abuse is an approved hate figure, in which case have at it), one where Christine Chubbuck can be reinvented as an approved victim of the patriarchy, a malicious media, a capitalistic work culture or mental illness – essentially a dehumanised symbol that serious-minded filmmakers, journalists and social media gobshites can hold up as a misunderstood victim while pretending that they know or care anything about her, and are definitely not exploiting her in any way. The vicarious thrill of her dramatic death is hidden and denied, but make no mistake: if Christine Chubbuck had an ordinary death – or even an ‘ordinary’ suicide – none of the people wagging their fingers with moral disapproval at the ‘ghouls’ fascinated by it would give a damn about her. It takes a lot to write newspaper articles or make movies about someone and then stand in moral superiority over the people who might find that story interesting, but there you go – never underestimate the hypocrisy of the chattering classes.
The facts of Chubbuck’s life and death are this: she was born in 1944, earned a degree in broadcasting at Boston University in 1965 and began working for WVIZ in Cleveland a year later, moving from station to station as her career built and finally brought her to WXLT-TV in Florida in 1968. At WXLT, she briefly worked as a reporter before she was given the anchor job on the weekday morning show Sun Coast Digest. While the movie Christine shows her as a journalist under pressure from ratings-hungry male bosses to find violent and sensationalist news stories to cover, this was far from the truth – if nothing else, it completely misrepresents the role of a news anchor, whose job is to introduce the stories, not report them. Sun Coast Digest was very much a community-based TV show, and stories of bloody crimes were probably not its brief.
Chubbuck had long struggled with depression and feelings of social inadequacy, much of it stemming from her inability to form a meaningful relationship. She desperately wanted to be married and have children, but that seemed to be slipping away from her. At 29, she was still a virgin. A year before her death, her right ovary had been removed in an operation, and she had been told that she probably only had a two or three-year window left in which to conceive. She had a crush on a co-worker, but he was in a relationship with one of her close colleagues who was about to move away to a new job in Baltimore. In short, Chubbuck was unlucky in love. Her attempts to cultivate friendships of any sort were often scuppered by a somewhat stand-offish attitude that could come across as rudeness.
Chubbuck had already attempted suicide in 1970, and would often talk about it with her family. She was seeing a psychiatrist in the weeks leading up to her death, but her mother decided not to tell her employers about any of this, fearing that she might be fired. So Chubbuck’s turbulent mental state went unnoticed by all those around her other than her immediate family, who seemed in some sort of denial of it. This was not uncommon in the 1970s, where such things were not the subject of discussion in polite society, let alone a badge of honour to boast about on social profiles – but it probably meant that Chubbuck was not getting the help she needed. A week before her death, she told a colleague that she’d bought a gun and thought it would be funny to shoot herself on-air. He assumed she was joking. Well, wouldn’t you?
On July 15th 1974, Christine Chubbuck told her crew that she was going to read the newscast that opened her morning show at 9am – something that wasn’t usually her job. Everyone concurred because, understandably, they assumed that the order had come from above. The guests for her regular show waited as she read a handful of national and local news stories for eight minutes before a film reel of the report from the scene of a restaurant shooting jammed – a not-uncommon occurrence on TV news shows back then. Seemingly to fill in, Chubbuck went off-script, making her now-infamous announcement of “another first – an attempted suicide” and, before it had a chance to actually sink in with anyone watching, took a .38 Smith and Wesson revolver from under the desk and shot herself in the head, the gun pointing behind her right ear. As she slumped to the desk, the screens across Florida went black. When the broadcast returned, a movie was broadcast. Viewers at home, understandably shaken, either called the police or phoned the station demanding to know if what they had just seen was real or not – though why a morning news show would stage a fake on-air suicide is anyone’s guess. I suppose we all react to such things with disbelief, though. Who would expect a news anchor to actually kill themselves on-air?
As Chubbuck was taken to hospital, new director Mike Simmons found her script, which included not only the suicide – somewhat dispelling the myth that had the film not jammed, the death might have been avoided – but also a report on the suicide attempt, to be read by another anchor:
TV 40 news personality Christine Chubbuck shot herself in a live broadcast this morning on a Channel 40 talk program. She was rushed to Sarasota Memorial Hospital, where she remains in critical condition.
By the time the script was released to other stations, however, Chubbuck was dead.
In a world where on-screen death is shared almost immediately across the world, Chubbuck’s suicide is uniquely unavailable. In a world before VCRs, the only recording of the death was the one made by WLXT, and while it must have been presumably viewed by the authorities at the time, no additional copies seem to have leaked out. You may think that you’ve seen it, but you haven’t – a few fake reconstructions have done the rounds over the years. Station owner Robert Nelson kept the footage under lock and key for decades, and his widow Mollie has done likewise since his death. Notably though, it still seems to exist – for all their protective custody of the footage, no one has actually wiped it. Those journalistic instincts remain – this footage, as old and mostly forgotten as it might be, remains both important and valuable.
Again, the public claims of the morally upright are that the footage should never be seen. The makers of Christine were adamant that they did not want to see or include the footage (how decent of them!) while the director of the artier Kate Plays Christine at least admitted to having sought it out. The lack of the footage – or any footage of Chubbuck – online was the starting point of his movie, which plays with fiction and documentary and again tries to tell the story that modern liberal audiences want it to be rather than what it might actually be.
But here’s the thing. Christine Chubbuck planned her death so meticulously that the damn thing was scripted. You shoot yourself on live television – and oh-so-calmly introduce it in such a cynical manner – and you are making a definite statement. You probably don’t become a TV star unless you are something of a narcissist, and Chubbuck’s suicide was perhaps the ultimate ‘look at me!’ moment – the point that she almost certainly knew would take her from being just another anonymous local news anchor to someone who we are still talking about today. Her death might symbolise everything that we want to think about ratings-hungry television and public ghoulishness, but let’s not be distracted – this was Chubbuck’s plan, and hers alone. Suicide seems to be the sort of exit that is either deeply private or very public – either you want to slip quietly away or you want the whole world to see your final moments. Regardless of the wider issues that pushed her to this point, Chubbuck was clearly determined that as many people as possible saw her last stand.
So the question is: does the continued suppression of the footage respect Chubbuck’s privacy or does it go against her final wishes? You might argue that by keeping it hidden, a positive message is being sent to other people – your desire for infamy will not be rewarded, so please don’t do this. You will not be granted a virtual immortality because of your actions. But of course, Chubbuck has been given that immortality. Two movies. Fictional works inspired by her. Articles like this. In that sense, her plan worked. She is not, of course, around to enjoy the fame, which ultimately makes it entirely worthless – but no one really thinks about that once they have reached this point.
In any case, I rather doubt that the legacy of Chubbuck’s death would be the one she hoped for had the footage been released. Imagine it, turning up on increasingly grubby shockumentary titles like Traces of Death or Death – The Ultimate Horror, chortled over by beer-chugging ghouls, and then posted on true gore-hungry tube sits where commenters could complain that the quality is not as good as the latest Jihadi John beheading. Ironically, by locking away the footage, those looking to protect Chubbuck’s dignity have helped mythologise it and her. The suicide will forever be the stuff of speculation and legend, a death so public and yet so unseen that we can all read into it whatever we like. She remains a figure of fascination, a victim for our age, simply because of the mystery. If we saw her death – indeed, if any of her life was still out there to be seen – she would become more ordinary and less ambiguous.
There is a sad truth about Christine Chubbuck that no one wants to acknowledge, because it seems to say something terrible about us all. That truth is this: she is only interesting because of how she died. Not to those who knew and loved her, of course. But in the grand scheme of things, no one would remember Christine Chubbuck if she had simply been a local news anchor who came and went, as local news anchors tend to do. Perhaps, for Chubbuck, her life seemed so meaningless that her death – not so much the act of suicide, but the way that it was carried out – was the only thing left that might give it value. It’s a terrible way of thinking, and the fact that she has been proven right is probably even more awful.
Christine Chubbuck certainly had her fair share of blows in life, but at the age of 29, she still had everything to live for. Her posthumous notoriety doesn’t compensate for all the lost opportunities, you might think. I suspect that in our celebrity-obsessed world, there will be people who see Chubbuck’s last stand as better than nothing – being remembered is better than being forgotten. But is it really? Life rarely lives up to our youthful hopes. Most of us are woefully anonymous in the grand scheme of things – hardly anyone knows who we are and hardly anyone will notice when we go. But it’s surely better that the ones who do remember us are the ones who know who we are and care about us. All the biopics in the world are no substitute for time spent actually living. Posthumous fame – based entirely around your final moments – seems the most worthless sort of fame of all, because what does it matter if you are not around to enjoy it?
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