The Beautiful Mind of Christine Chubbuck: How Christineand Other Films Portray Mental Illnesses
By Emmanuel Gundran
Christine (Campos 2016) places the viewer into the perspective of a person with a mental illness and thus closes the distance between the viewer and the character on-screen with a mental illness. Christine tells the real-life story of Florida news reporter Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) who struggles to connect with her friends and family due to her chronic depression and later commits suicide on live television. The very thought of such an event unfolding would frighten anyone, and they would wonder what would drive a person like Christine to do such a thing. The film never gives a definitive answer to the question, but it does show the kind of person she was and what experiences she had before her death. What Christine does well for representing mental illnesses on-screen, and for setting an example for other films of its kind, is not only humanize the person and the struggle with their condition but also show that they are a fully realized person outside of their disease that other people define them by.
The film portrays depression’s effects on a person’s behavior yet shows that it preserves the essential human need for community. Julia Kristeva describes depression in very beautiful yet sorrowful words, saying that is “an abyss…a noncommunicable grief that at times, and often a long-term basis, lays claim upon us to the extent of having us lose all interest in words, actions, and even life itself.” (3) This description lines up well with the on-screen portrayal of Chubbuck in the film, as we see in one scene in which she performs a puppet show for children with special needs. In that show, we see the two puppets decide to spend quality time with each other not talking and in peaceful silence. It is this pathological need for silence and idleness that characterizes Chubbuck’s condition. However, in this same scene is a feeling of genuine friendship. Two people are able to spend time together and feel that they are closer than they were before without the need for conversation between them.
Other films that delve in to the psychological, such as Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind (2001), also make it a point to show the person with a mental illness in a real yet humanizing light. This film is based on the life of John Nash, a Nobel prize-winning mathematician who studied at Princeton University and was diagnosed with schizophrenia, a mental illness that is associated with serial killers in other films. Taking creative liberties with portraying mental illness on screen, Howard has the voices that speak to Nash manifested as characters who talk to him. While one could criticize the film for taking such differences, this decision takes the viewer into the mind of a person with a mental illness in a new way. How Nash perceives voices like his supervisor William Parcher and his roommate Charles Herman in his head feels more real and understandable for the viewer when there is a person who talks directly to Nash. This decision’s impact on the film is especially important when Nash is brought into a psychiatrist’s office and he sees Charles sitting in a chair on the other side of the room. Nash tries to reach out and call Charles, but the psychiatrist keeps telling him that Charles is not there. This reframes the perspective on a person with schizophrenia to show the tragedy in the person’s illness.
Christine, and other films revolving around mental illness, also shows that a person with mental illness is more than just the illness that other people may define them by. We see Christine’s day-to-day routines, both her good and her bad experiences. She is able to report on more light-hearted news such as a woman who raises chickens on her farm, and she spends her time outside of news reporting putting on puppet shows for children with special needs. We also see that she has a desire to be self-sufficient by moving out of her mother’s house, marrying the man that she is in love with and start a family. Though her depression inhibits her ability to feel emotionally connected to people and sometimes the people she tries to connect with tell her that she is unapproachable, it does not inhibit her ability to want to connect with people. Similarly, in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), the main character, Scottie, is a fully realized person with a career and a personal goal in mind. “[He] is a detective, a bachelor, and a man searching for his identity; his fears are manifested in acrophobia and vertigo.” (Zimmerman, 48)
What Christine leaves ambiguous to the viewer is the exact reason why Christine Chubbuck had pulled the trigger on herself. The viewer might assume that it was the constant suffering that she had to live with because of her chronic depression, not being able to fully connect with people on a deep emotional level. However, this is not outright said throughout the film. We see Chubbuck taking steps to prepare for her suicide on television, purchasing a gun and writing out her own script. Yet, in all of the time that we spend with her, the reasons behind taking all of these steps and mentally and emotionally preparing herself for this fateful broadcast seem to be the only things we never learn about Christine Chubbuck. The film acknowledges that the reasons why the real Christine Chubbuck committed suicide in 1974 are a mystery, and the film does not try to create thoughts in Chubbuck’s head to give a definitive answer. Even though in real life her mother attributed her suicide to dissatisfaction with her personal life (Hooton), the film implies that there may have been more to Christine’s depression than just her personal life. She is shown having a couple close, personal friends within her workplace, who try to help and comfort her when she is struggling in her personal or professional life. Yet, during a scene in which she is having dinner with George Ryan (Michael C. Hall), her coworker with whom she is in love, she confesses to him that she has a tendency to close people off from her. The fact that she has grown so close with a person like George to be able to confess a fault like this shows that she was on the way to reaching her personal life goals before her suicide. Therefore, what is present here is the struggle between the person and their illness that obstructs them from what they truly want. Whether this was the real reason that Christine had committed suicide is never revealed.
Freud’s “Mourning and Melancholia” also expands on what makes an illness like depression seem so curious. Melancholia, he explains, has many similar characteristics of mourning like “profoundly painful dejection, cessation of interest in the outside world, loss of the capacity to love inhibition fall activity.” (244) However, unlike mourning which is the result of the loss of a beloved person or object, drawing itself externally, melancholia draws itself inward, trapping the person inside of their own head. A person who is in a state of melancholia unconsciously mourns the loss of something from their own self, they display “an extraordinary diminution in [their] self-regard, an impoverishment of his ego on a grand scale.” (Freud 246) Taking these definitions into account puts what Mrs. Chubbuck and the film attribute to Christine’s behavior at odds. Mrs. Chubbuck points to her rough personal life, having a hard time connecting with people, while the film shows this, yet also points to something deeper within Christine’s mind like a deep-seated melancholia.
It is the somewhat mysterious nature of the disease that the film’s screenwriter, Craig Shilowich, not only captures in the screenplay, but also has experienced himself. He speaks about his behavior at the time, saying he spent “days on end walking [his] room, peeking out of the window, just to not have to deal with anybody.” (Friend) He had attended New York University around 9/11 but then dropped out to find the answers to his illness with the doctors. It was these experiences that helped him to connect with the Christine Chubbuck who he had read about in reports about her death and heard from some of the people she had worked with in the newsroom. When it came to filling in certain parts of her life, not including her suicide, Shilowich drew from his personal experiences. “I’m drawn to people like her — troubled, intelligent, vibrant people.” (Friend) Rebecca Hall, who portrays Chubbuck on screen, praised the script and explained that her goal with the film was to “try and get rid of the ‘scary-monster’ reaction [to Chubbuck’s story.]” (Friend)
While it does not do many favors for people with mental illnesses to be commonly represented in ways that make them appear “scary”, these kinds of sensationalist responses to traumatic events caused by people with mental illnesses have resulted in some of the most famous works of fiction involving serial killers. One of the most infamous cases of these incidents is the murders of serial killer Ed Gein in the 1950’s. He had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and sentenced to life in a mental institution after authorities had discovered his grotesque collection of body parts scattered all over his house. Soon after, his story had inspired works such as the 1959 book Psycho by Robert Bloch, its 1960 film adaptation directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Psycho both book and film, explores the psyche of Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), a man with multiple personalities and an unhealthy attachment to his mother. The relationship Norman has with his dominating mother was directly inspired by the relationship that Ed Gein had with his own mother, who had verbally abused him and forced him to live a sheltered life away from women other than herself. Both Gein and Bates’ conditions are caused by the restricted lifestyles chosen for them by their mothers. This shows that there is much more to how mental illnesses come about than simply being a pre-existing condition at birth or suddenly and mysteriously appearing.
The Virgin Suicides (Coppola 2000) is another film that explores mental illnesses brought about by dysfunctional family life. Based on the novel by Jeffrey Eugenides, The Virgin Suicides is the story of neighborhood boys who witness the suicides of the five Lisbon sisters, who live repressed, sheltered lives as a result of their mother’s extreme and restrictive views on sexuality. As the boys get to know them more, they fall in love with them and want to help them out of their situation. Their love for the Lisbons becomes more than just pity for their poor living condition, but a genuine love that one has for a friend or committed romantic partner. When it comes to the question of ‘nature vs. nurture,’ The Virgin Suicides falls very heavily on to the side of nurture. The more that the Lisbon sisters have spent time with the neighborhood boys and outside of their dysfunctional household, the more that they seem to come alive. However, when they are forced back into their home for misbehavior and placed under lockdown, they gradually wither away until each of them has died by their own hands.
In films related to mental illnesses, it seems that parental figures, especially the mother figure, have a large impact on the mental health of the person or people with mental illness. For Norman Bates and the Lisbon sisters, their mothers’ repressive behavior towards them. The way that these characters have been raised at a young age greatly influenced their mental and emotional health later in life. In the case of Christine Chubbuck, while her mother does not exhibit the behaviors of Mrs. Bates or Mrs. Lisbon, she still serves as a negative symbol in her life as an adult. For Christine, she feels ashamed that she is dependent on her mother to provide her needs for her, despite Christine being twenty-nine years old. For this reason, she wants to break out of the shell that her chronic depression places her in so that she can finally be self-sufficient like other people her age.
People can place themselves in the perspective of a person with mental illness and try to analyze what makes them the person they are or what causes them to suddenly commit suicide, yet a film like Christine shows that there is always something deeper than what everyone else sees on the outside and that only the person experiencing the illness can fully understand.
Freud, Sigmund. “Mourning and Melancholia,” 1917 Friend, David. “Rebecca Hall on bringing humanity to TV reporter's on-air suicide in ‘Christine’,” News 1130, 9 Nov. 2016. Web. Accessed 11 May 2017.
Hooton, Christoper. “Christine Chubbuck: True story of televised suicide behind two of this year’s biggest Sundance films,” Independent, 26 Jan. 2016. Web. Accessed 12 May 2017.
Kristeva, Julia. “Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia,” Columbia University Press, New York, 1989.
Zimmerman, Jacqueline Noll. “People Like Ourselves: Portrayals of Mental Illness in the Movies,” Scarecrow Press, 29 Sept. 2003.