This article has been updated to incorporate new information about the existence of footage of Christine Chubbuck’s suicide.
In a bizarre coincidence, this year’s Sundance slate included two different movies — one documentary, the other narrative — about a grisly footnote in the history of American broadcasting: the on-air suicide of 29-year-old Florida morning-show host Christine Chubbuck, who shot herself in the head during a live broadcast in 1974. At the time of her death, Chubbuck was not by any means a well-known newscaster, so for decades afterward, her legacy — inasmuch as she had one — became defined entirely by her final act.
Chubbuck’s story gained a second life in the late 1990s, with the rise of internet subcultures that focus on gruesome, hard-to-find videos. Sites like Ogrish and LiveLeak sprung up to service those audiences, and on them today you can find clips of jihadi beheadings, brutal street murders, or the infamous public suicide of Pennsylvania politician R. Budd Dwyer. What you won’t find there, however, is footage of Chubbuck’s death.
Many people have attempted to track down a video of Chubbuck’s final moments; all of them, it seems, have come up empty-handed. There are those who claim they’ve seen it, but they can offer no proof other than hazy memories of an era before streaming video. Its scarcity makes it an object of fascination and obsession for those who learn about Chubbuck, and the release of the two Sundance movies is sure to only make it more coveted. In a twisted bit of irony, much of Chubbuck’s importance rests in the fact that footage of her public suicide has become one of the most mysterious and sought-after pieces of film in the world.
“It’s very much seen as a Holy Grail,” says Daniel Wilson, head of the Lost Media Wiki, an encyclopedia of hard-to-find documents and recordings. “I’m really on the fence as to whether I think the tape will ever be found.”
The specifics of what happened on that day in 1974 have been more or less established by now, much of them outlined in an exhaustive Washington Post profile by Sally Quinn written just a few weeks after the fact. Chubbuck worked at the news station WXLT-TV — channel 40 on the dial in its native Sarasota — in the early 1970s. She hosted a show there called Suncoast Digest, which focused less on news and more on local personalities and events. According to posthumous interviews with those who knew her, she suffered from depression and often clashed with higher-ups at the station because she felt they didn’t take journalism seriously. These details are backed up by other articles written at the time, an E! documentary, and new research done for the Sundance documentary Kate Plays Christine.
On July 15, 1974, a few weeks before her 30th birthday, Chubbuck did a few minutes of Suncoast Digest before reading a strange statement: “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: attempted suicide.” She drew a revolver from below the desk, placed it behind her right ear, and pulled the trigger. Her body slumped down, and the stunned tech operators faded the screen to black. It’s estimated that only a few hundred people saw the act when it occurred.
It’s possible that was the last time her violent act was ever seen by anyone in the general public. Home equipment for recording television was extremely rare in 1974, and there are no known cases of a viewer taping Suncoast Digest that fateful morning. Even the station itself seems to have only occasionally recorded its own programming. In Kate Plays Christine there’s an interview with one of her co-workers, a man named Gordon Galbraith, who claims he was at the station when the broadcast happened, and that Chubbuck had asked him to record the show that day. He says he did so, but that things got complicated immediately after the initial shock wore off.
“The biggest discussion was, What do we do with this?” Galbraith recalls in the film. “Finally, the station owner called and said that the lawyers — they had a bank of lawyers based in Washington, D.C. — they said, ‘Do not, under any circumstances, show the tape.’”
Steve Newman, WXLT’s weatherman at the time, picks up the story from there in Kate Plays Christine’s interview: “There is only one copy of that videotape for that last day that exists. Nobody copied it.” It seems to have had at least one viewer while still in the station’s headquarters: Quinn, who wrote the Post story, tells me she recalls watching a recording at WXLT “many times” while writing her story, but doesn’t have any information about what happened to the tape after that. The station — now called WWSB — confirmed that it doesn’t have a copy. Newman explains that the station’s then-owner, the late Robert Nelson, kept the tape for himself, and that his widow, Mollie, currently has it.* “She wants to throw it in the Bay,” Newman says of Mollie. “And I said, ‘Don’t do that. Give it to the Newseum or Columbia School of Journalism or something, for safekeeping.’ Because it is history, as unfortunate as the history is.”
That’s one version of the story. Another version, told in dubious accounts on Wikipedia and the Lost Media Wiki, says a tape was given to the Sarasota police at one point. But when I reached out to the Sarasota Sheriff’s Department, I was told unequivocally that they have never had such a tape in their possession. “I doubt you will ever get your hands on it,” the public-affairs rep went out of her way to add.
Then there’s the version that places the tape in the possession of the Chubbuck family. They’re understandably secretive, but Chubbuck’s brother Greg recently spoke to People and briefly touched on the rumors of the tape. He says that the family got an injunction to prevent the station from releasing the footage, that “authorities” seized it, that those authorities turned it over to Chubbuck’s mother; the rest, he says, is hazy. “I don’t know to this day where it is,” Greg said. “But I know no one knows where it is, and no one ever will if I have anything to say about it.”
And then, of course, there’s the story that Chubbuck-footage obsessives subscribe to: that somehow, somewhere, at least one viewable copy exists. Some people even claim to have watched it.
“A long time ago, when the internet was fairly new, I remember seeing the video,” says Tracy Kelly, a San Diego author who is fascinated by Chubbuck’s life and death. She says she viewed it in the late 1990s or early 2000s, possibly on Ogrish. “I’ve always been interested in true crime and murders, and I was curious to see what she actually did. So I clicked on it, and I can remember her sitting behind the desk, with her black hair and her black-and-white dress. I remember her saying that line and shooting herself. I know I saw it.” She’s never been able to locate it again.
But even morbid hope springs eternal, and Kelly has found fellow believers at the unofficial headquarters of the hunt for Chubbuck’s death tape: FindADeath.com. It’s a site dedicated to information and media about famous deaths, from photos of the car crash that killed Princess Diana to Divine’s death certificate. In its forums, there is a truly massive message-board thread where the search for film of Chubbuck’s gunshot never ends.
The discussion began innocently enough — relatively speaking — on December 29, 2007, with a post from one of the site’s users, which are collectively known as “Death Hags.” This user, ichabodius, appears to have copied and pasted what looks like a brief encyclopedia entry about Chubbuck. The very first reply, from a Death Hag dubbed MbalmR, kicked off the quest: “That story has always haunted me. Am I correct that no footage of the suicide is available?”
Seven years and more than 2,600 posts later, MbalmR’s question has not been conclusively answered — but not for lack of trying by the Death Hags. For the first six months, people mainly just popped in to express frustration (“Pisser there’s no video,” said cleanskull) or remark on Chubbuck’s melancholy (“Some jobs will break you if you’re in a bad way,” wrote RaRaRamona). There were, of course, a few tasteless jokes: When one Hag said, “One can only imagine where her mind could have been,” another replied, “probably all over the walls.”
But starting in June of 2008, the investigations and rumors gained traction. A user named Seagorath emerged as the thread’s guiding light, saying they had heard of “a gentleman (who claimed to have been a veteran law enforcement officer)” who saw the Chubbuck footage on “an FBI/Law Enforcement training compilation video.” Seagorath later said they’d reached out to Steve Newman to ask for any video of Chubbuck he might have — suicide or otherwise — but that Newman brushed him off. They suggested that the Hags pool funds and locate Christine’s brother Greg and pay him for information. “Can’t wait ‘til my eyes meet hers … the footage is coming,” Seagorath wrote in 2009. “Somebody out there knows something. Trust me.”
There are a select few in the thread who swear up and down that they saw the footage at some point, either in the early days of the World Wide Web or on a Faces of Death–type VHS. “I rented it about 15 years ago at one of our local video stores,” wrote DexterKitty. “You could almost feel her eyes when she looked at the camera. It was almost like she was looking directly at you, and speaking directly to you. It was creepy as hell.” Briefly, they were convinced they’d remembered that the tape was something called Bizarre Deaths. But when another Hag called Michael555 bought that tape, they reported Chubbuck was nowhere to be found.
There is, of course, a slim chance that Tracy, DexterKitty, and the others did see this mysterious piece of video. The underground-video network is vast and long-running. But it’s also possible to be 100 percent sure you saw something that you 100 percent did not see.
“This kind of thing has occurred with a lot of other public events, particularly major events that capture public attention,” says Elizabeth Loftus, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Irvine. She specializes in the phenomenon of so-called “crashing memories” — recollections people can have of seeing things they never saw. “People can visualize something like this, and these vizualizations get interpreted as if they’re actually memories. Sometimes they know so much and it feels so familiar that they draw an inference that they probably saw it or might have seen it. Those visualizations can start to feel like actual recollections.” Loftus has researched a wide array of examples, like people thinking they saw footage of the Princess Di crash (which was never publicly available) or of United 93 crashing on 9/11 (which was never filmed in the first place).
Regardless of whether these people actually saw what they thought they saw, the FindADeath thread plowed along. There are chronicles of misleading BitTorrent downloads, unfulfilled requests for that purported law-enforcement-training clip, and fruitless searches on the so-called Deep Web. The 54-page epic is a chronicle of raised hopes (“My heart skips a beat every time this thread comes up”), crushing disappointment (“I’m thinkin’ about throwing in the bloody WXLT towel”), internecine fights (“for some reason I get the feeling you don’t want this footage to be found”), and the occasional bit of sexual leering at the dead woman in question (“I would have let Christine Chubbuck ride it :D ”). There are similar — though less exhaustive — threads on Reddit, NewGrounds, AVManiacs, and even IMDb. One phrase pops up over and over again: “Holy Grail.”
But scarcity notwithstanding, why quest for such a grisly grail? Each searcher has his or her own theory about the fixation.
“The reason we want to find it is because Christine would’ve wanted it to be seen, otherwise she wouldn’t have done it on air,” says Tracy. “I just wanna know what made her tick, what drove her, what was her passion, why did she suddenly decide to commit suicide on air instead of trying to get help or overcome what she was going through? Did she want to prove a point? Or was she just at the end of that spectrum where she had no hope?” Tracy’s intentions may be empathetic, but she concedes that “a lot” of her fellow Hags “want to see it for the gore factor because they’re into gore.”
Or maybe it’s personal. “A story like this one, people just get invested in it,” says Death Hag Ken McWatters. “They might have a sense of loss about her that they tie to some loss in their personal life. So they feel like, if they can get some closure here, maybe it can help them feel better in other ways, too.”
Not everyone who’s fascinated by Christine Chubbuck wants to see her death, though. The creators of the Chubbuck narrative movie at Sundance, Christine, never even tried to find the footage. Playwright Michael Finke created a musical about Chubbuck in 2010 called Reporting Live, and he says he gave up quickly. “I wondered if watching it is also condoning it,” he says. “I believe in what she wanted to say, but I very much don’t believe in how she said it.”
Then, of course, there’s the strangest question of all: If you found the Holy Grail, what would you actually do with it? Robert Greene, director of Kate Plays Christine, says he came close — he could have called up Mollie Nelson while he was shooting and asked to see the video. But he chose not to because doing so would have “somewhat betrayed the spirit of the film,” which focuses largely on the massive challenge of trying to understand why people choose to kill themselves: “The movie is about trying to fill in meaning for this thing where there’s such a hole or a vacuum of meaning, such a vacuum of information.”
Perhaps unearthing the video would not only be the end of the search for it, but also of the fascination it has inspired. “If it ever became available, people would just be like, Huh, that’s interesting,” says Scott Michaels, founder of FindADeath and of a death-site tourism company called Dearly Departed. “It’d get a million hits on YouTube, but ultimately, there are no mysteries to it. The only mystery left is that the footage hasn’t been released. There’s nothing we’d discover.” It would merely confirm well-reported details that we can already imagine in tragic clarity. The video would be a spectacle, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
“You’d be like, There’s a woman, she blows her brains out,” Michaels adds. “There it is.”
UPDATE, 6.7.16: Months after this story was published, Mollie Nelson, widow of station owner Robert Nelson, contacted Vulture to say her late husband did, indeed, possess a tape of the suicide and left it to her after his death. She says she received requests for the tape after Newman said as much in Kate Plays Christine and, fearing for her safety, she gave the tape to “a very large law firm.” She says she would have preferred that the tape be destroyed, but wanted to honor Robert’s wish for it to exist, though she says he never explained to her why he kept it.