Christine Chubbuck: Her Live TV Suicide And Everything That Led Up To It

By Grace Taylor

WVIZ, WTOG, and WXLT-TV reporter Christine Chubbuck in 1974, two weeks before her death. (John Cloud/Wikimedia Commons)

It was an sunny summer day in Sarasota, Florida when a seemingly ordinary daytime local news segment took a dark and horrific turn as the young news anchor, Christine Chubbuck, suddenly pulled out a gun from beneath her desk and shot herself in the head on live television. As shocking as it was, Chubbuck's suicide didn't stay in the headlines for long in crime-ridden 1970s America, but decades later, the internet revived Chubbuck's gruesome story as the hunt for the much-sought video of her suicide became a morbid fascination within the darker corners of the worldwide web.

Chubbuck's Early Life

Chubbuck had a seemingly ordinary upbringing in Ohio with her parents and two brothers. She earned a degree in broadcast journalism from Boston University in 1965 and worked her way up through different networks before finally landing her own show on WXLT, the local ABC affiliate of Sarasota. Chubbuck's greatest passion in her life was her show, which she hoped to use as a platform for everyday small business owners while also shedding light on the underserved members of the community, particularly those suffering from addiction.  

Boston University, 1975. (City of Boston Archives/Wikimedia Commons)

A Lonely Life

Chubbuck's passion for her work seemed to leave little time for her personal life, however. While she was very close to her family, Chubbuck never appeared to have many friends or romantic interests, though she was no doubt aware of the cultural pressure on women in the '70s to focus their lives on other people. She was part of the the "Dateless Wonder Club" in high school for girls who didn't have dates on the weekend, and even her own mother referred to the 29-year-old as a "spinster" in the aftermath of her death.

Still, Chubbuck seemed unable to connect with people outside of work. Many of her colleagues found her cold and dismissive, but there's reason to believe her standoffish nature stemmed from insecurity and that she was, in reality, aching for companionship. According to her mother, Chubbuck lamented the fact that her invitations for platonic coffee dates to women she wanted to be friends with were always turned down. When Chubbuck developed a crush on a young coworker named George Ryan, she went so far as to bake a cake for his birthday and present it to him at work, but she soon discovered he was involved with her only work friend, Andrea Kirby, dashing her hopes. Chubbuck's romantic life was further complicated by the loss of an ovary a year prior to her death, which lowered her chances of conceiving a child with every passing year. As a virgin at almost 30, she didn't have time to waste.

Anti-war protest against the Vietnam War in Washington, D.C. on April 24, 1971. (Leena A. Krohn/Wikimedia Commons)

Ignored And Isolated

Meanwhile, the show she had worked her entire adult life for was moving in a direction she didn't like as her managers continued to pressure her to cover harder-hitting, more violent news stories to hook viewers in with fear and gore. It's clear by Chubbuck's later actions that this kind of terror-based sensationalism was antithetical to her goals as a reporter.

At the end of the day, however, Chubbuck seemed to be suffering from a resounding case of depression. Despite the fact that she sought mental health care from a psychiatrist for depression in the weeks leading up to her demise, her ongoing talk of suicide was not taken seriously. She didn't disclose this to her colleagues for fear that it would cost her her job, so the offhand remarks she made about buying a gun and harming herself was taken as a joke among her coworkers.

Ampex 2 inch portable Video Tape Recorder. (gunnar_maas/Wikimedia Commons)

Chubbuck's Final Day

The tragic tale of Christine Chubbuck came to a head on the morning of July 15, 1974, when she showed up to work "in extraordinary good spirits" and set aside time to write, which was outside her normal routine of showing the guest commentator around the studio. Apart from her liveliness, the only oddity her coworkers noticed that day was her asking that the show be taped, which was rare in the '70s, as few people had VCRs or any reason to play back a local news show. Likewise, she delayed the guest interview in order to read a self-written news report, which was also out of character for her show.

Chubbuck read two stories before reporting a shooting, which took place just days before at the local airport, and then concluded rather nonchalantly: "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." Chubbuck then revealed a revolver, held it to the back of her head, and pulled the trigger just behind her right ear before she fell against the desk. The station cut to black and then started a movie.

Although it's never wise to speculate, it seems Chubbuck meant to only attempt suicide rather than succeed. In addition to introducing her act as an attempt, she left copy for her fellow news anchors to read in which she listed her condition as "critical." Whatever her goal was, she was pronounced dead 14 hours later without regaining consciousness.

A court gavel rested on a sound block. (Blogtrepreneur/Wikimedia Commons)

Chubbuck's Legacy

The few hundred people who witnessed the horror of Christine Chubbuck's suicide called either the police or the station, but as the headlines of the late '70s were stuffed with names like Gacy and Bundy, Chubbuck's story simply fell out of the public consciousness for two decades. When the internet began to enter people's homes, however, Chubbuck's suicide tape became the "Holy Grail" of forbidden images for many people at the time, as it was not only taboo but almost impossible to find. Many people claimed to have seen the tape in the '90s, but without fail, they couldn't prove it, and many began to doubt that the tape even existed.

In 2016, however, it was revealed that the widow of the owner of Chubbuck's former network had possessed the tape ever since the authorities released it, though she had since given it to "a very large law firm" to keep it away from prying eyes. Ethical concerns over the existence of the tape have never been fully settled, as many view it as something to be destroyed while some see it as media history and still others simply have a thirst for gore. In the end, Chubbuck was a woman suffering from an extreme mental health crisis, and her brother has made it clear that he disapproves of anyone seeking out her final moment.

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Grace Taylor