The Christine Chubbuck tape (lost on air suicide; 1974)
|This article has been tagged as NSFL due to its disturbing subject matter.|
|The late Christine Chubbuck hosting an episode of Suncoast Digest.|
On the morning of July 15, 1974, at around 9:30, American talk show host Christine Chubbuck (then 29 years old) shot herself in the head on live television, following a fierce battle with depression; the now notoriously elusive broadcast stunned audiences, making headlines worldwide.
Chubbuck originally worked at Channel 40 (ie. WXLT-TV, now WWSB, a small market channel and ABC affiliate in southwest Florida which, up until relatively recently, only aired over three counties) as an evening news reporter, later moving on to host a morning community affairs talk show titled Suncoast Digest; in the lead-up to her suicide, Chubbuck (who was known to detest what she referred to as "blood and guts" reporting, i.e., sensationalised violence over legitimate journalism) had volunteered to produce a feature on suicide for the station, during research for which she had asked a police officer how someone would go about taking their own life (the sheriff proceeding to reveal what kind of gun and bullets that he would use if ever put in that situation). One co-worker has since recalled that around the same time, Chubbuck had said to him (in what he assumed was a joking manner) something to the effect of "wouldn't it be wild if I blew myself away on the air?"; unbeknownst to her colleagues, Chubbuck had actually attempted to take her own life several years earlier, by overdosing on pills.
July 15 began much as any other day, until Chubbuck (who was noticeably more enthusiastic and cheerful than usual) declared, just before Suncoast Digest was due to go on air, that she needed to read a newscast beforehand, confusing co-workers (as this was something she had never done before). Oblivious to her real intentions, the audience casually watched her read the newscast for eight minutes, as she covered three national stories. When she got to the fourth story (ie. that of a shooting at a local restaurant), the reel jammed, prompting her to shrug, nonchalantly turn towards the camera and proclaim "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." Chubbuck then drew a revolver that she had hidden in her bag, placed it behind her right ear and fired, immediately slumping forward violently onto her desk, as the technical director scrambled to fade rapidly to black.
Many viewers who had witnessed the broadcast proceeded to phone both the police and the station itself, some of the belief that it was nothing more than a morbid joke (several WXLT-TV staff members have even recounted that they too initially doubted the legitimacy of what had happened, on first impression also believing it to be a prank of some kind). After being rushed to Sarasota Memorial Hospital, it was discovered by WXLT-TV news director Mike Simmons that Chubbuck had left behind both a follow-up news story describing her suicide attempt (in which she accurately predicted that she would be taken to Sarasota Memorial Hospital) and a suicide note (in which she said goodbye to her co-workers and loved ones, also expressing the chilling sentiment that she wanted "everybody" to see the broadcast). Chubbuck's pre-written newscast script was sent to other networks, the majority of whom presented it verbatim in reporting on her suicide attempt; she was pronounced dead the following day.
Shortly thereafter, an injunction was brought against Channel 40 (by Chubbuck's family) preventing them from ever releasing the footage of her death; the 2-inch quad master tape, plus a copy (both of which had previously been confiscated by the Sarasota Sheriff's Department as evidence following the incident) were then handed over to the family, who are said to have destroyed them. A rumoured third copy has been speculated to exist in the FCC Archives. However, this claim has never been proven (and was, in fact, denied by the FCC when queried by a Findadeath Forum user). Interestingly, it was by Chubbuck's own will that the event was recorded in the first place (having requested that the episode is taped, something that was not normally done, due to the cost of tapes back then).
As the broadcast took place in 1974, it's possible (though highly unlikely) that the suicide could've been recorded by a home viewer, as several primitive VCRs had been made commercially available by that time (such as the U-matic, one of the first home video recorders; although due to the high cost of the unit, it was incredibly rare for a 1974 household to possess one). Until some form of hard evidence surfaces indicating that an additional copy still exists somewhere (or proof that the originals were not actually destroyed) the video is generally accepted as being impossible to obtain.
Notably, a significant number of people claim to have seen the footage via a number of sources other than the original live broadcast, including early websites, FBI training videos, and mondo films a la Faces of Death, though, given the circumstances, this seems unlikely.
Update: According to an article by Vulture on June 8, 2016, the video does still exist in the hands of Mollie Nelson, the widow of the former owner of WXLT-TV. Her husband, for reasons he never shared, kept a copy of the tape, and when he died it passed to her. However, when this was publicised, she started getting requests to see it, which made her uncomfortable. She says that the tape is now in the hands of "a very large law firm" for safe keeping, that she has no intention to ever let anyone see it, and that she only held onto the tape to honor her husband. Unless someone else recorded the footage, then, it will remain lost.
- Scan of a Sarasota Herald-Tribune article on the incident; 16 Jul 1974. Last retrieved 08 Oct 2014.
- Scan of an Ocala Star-Banner follow-up article on the incident; 01 Aug 1977. Last retrieved 08 Oct 2014.
- Ongoing Findadeath Forum Christine Chubbuck thread; 29 Dec 2007. Last retrieved 08 Oct 2014.
- The Existence of Christine Chubbuck’s Suicide Video Has Been Confirmed; 08 Jun 2016. Last retrieved 25 Oct 2016.
- Christine Chubbuck segment from an episode of E!'s Boulevard of Broken Dreams, via YouTube; 26 Feb 2007. Last retrieved 08 Oct 2014.
- An extensive collection of newspaper articles and documentation on the incident, via Flickr. Last retrieved 08 Oct 2014.