Samantha Caslin

The Parker-Hulme murder gripped the town of Christchurch, New Zealand in the summer of 1954. On June 22, 16-year-old Pauline Parker and her 15-year-old friend, Juliet Hulme, murdered Pauline’s mother in a violent and premeditated attack. The fact that the case has achieved such notoriety and longevity makes it a compelling example to cite in courses about crime, deviance, gender and sexuality. I have used this case to discuss with students the ways in which “deviant” women have been used by the media, legal system and medics to establish the boundaries of “normal” feminine behaviour. The girls’ supposed homosexual relationship was pathologised to explain their criminality. The theory went that if the girls were not mentally “normal”, as supposedly evidenced by their homosexuality, then this explained why they had committed murder. Not only did these girls challenge feminine ideals by engaging in such a violent crime, but in committing matricide Pauline Parker contravened traditional notions that placed women at the centre of the creation and maintenance of familial bonds. Here was a girl so alienated from her family that she would murder her own mother in a bid to save her obsessive relationship with Juliet.

Peter Jackson, Heavenly Creatures, 1994.
Peter Jackson, Heavenly Creatures, 1994.

Directing students towards a case with such a well-known narrative can present problems. Students may already be familiar with the case via popular culture representations and, in the case of my own students who are based in the UK, easy access to less mediated source materials may seem unlikely. However, I want to counter these problems by discussing, first, how this case introduces students to debates about the uses and limitations of film as a secondary source and, second, the ways in which digitally archiving sources enables students to access primary material from the other side of the world.

Using Film

In 1994 Peter Jackson’s movie Heavenly Creatures premiered. Starring Melanie Lynskey and Kate Winslet, the film told the story of the infamous Parker-Hulme murder case from the point of view of the attackers. To a large extent, the film presented these attackers as victims of the rigid social structures and family politics that limited their real and imagined experiences. Perhaps the most notable way the film portrayed their victimization was through the treatment small-town locals and doctors meted out to them for their supposed homosexuality. This film tried to make sense of a terrible murder not by vilifying Pauline and Juliet but by examining the intensity of their relationship in the run up to the girls’ gruesome attack on Honora Parker, Pauline’s mother. In the words of James Bennett, the film presents an “alternative history of the case.” In eschewing the typical victim-attacker dynamic, the film instead plays out like a tragedy, with much of the narrative focusing on the intense connection between the girls rather than the murder or its aftermath.

While I do not disagree with Bennett’s suggestion that we can consider Heavenly Creatures a history of the case, students must be aware that the story is told from a very particular perspective: that of the girls as imagined by the film-maker. As such, we must warn students about the problems of over-reliance on the film. Heavenly Creatures is as much a reflection of the 1990s as it is of 1950s Christchurch. As useful as it is for introducing the issues and themes of the case, it is a film of its time. As Ann M. Ciasullo has noted, lesbianism developed a degree of cultural cachet in the 1990s. That is not to say that sex between women had become socially validated or even widely accepted, but it was fashionable for pop culture to explore the issue. Heavenly Creatures sits alongside mainstream films like Chasing Amy and Bound and TV shows like Friends and Ellen, which all featured lesbian storylines. As such, it is worth encouraging students to ask why a film-maker in the 1990s may have focused upon the girls’ sexuality over any other aspect of the case. A film about sex and forbidden desire is much more marketable than one that focuses upon, for example, the breakdown of a relationship between a mother, Honora, and a daughter, Pauline.

Online Primary Sources

Rather than relying entirely on the film, encourage students to do their own research on the case using primary source material. These resources help students trace similarities and differences between representations in the 1954 source material and the 1994 film. The online availability of sources about this particular case makes it highly adaptable to teaching. Christchurch City Libraries digitised newspaper reports about the case, meaning that lectures and seminars can analyse quotes and images from contemporary sources.

"Girls Guilty of Murder", The Press, 30 August 1954, 12.
“Girls Guilty of Murder”, The Press, 30 August 1954, 12.

However, the sources available on the Christchurch City Library website are not free from issues of representation and mediation. Whilst a digital archive of this nature invaluably presents us with historical documents about the case, other challenges are difficult to overcome without actually visiting the archive in person. Although newspaper articles about the trial and later coverage are easily accessible on the website, these articles are divorced from their publication context. For example, a considerable number of the PDFs and transcripts available come from the newspaper Star-Sun, but the website includes no information about the local distribution or general politics of this publication. When using digital newspapers, we do not have the liberty of flicking through previous issues in search of possible agendas or trends. Newspaper sources never offer a simple representation of the facts, therefore students ought to critically interrogate the digital materials. In this way, the digital archive gives us an opportunity to discuss with students, especially in seminars, these primary sources’ limitations.

Despite these challenges, the articles offered by this digital archive are especially useful for students interested in how homosexuality was understood in 1950s New Zealand. Quotes and paraphrases journalists extracted from the trial showcase how Parker and Hulme’s relationship was pathologised. In particular, these sources highlight the extent to which homosexuality explained the murder: “Homosexuality and paranoia were frequently associated, in the opinion of Dr. Medlicott. He thought the girls were suffering from paranoia of an exalted type in a setting of folie a deux.”

Situating these digital primary sources alongside Heavenly Creatures presents the opportunity for students to question the validity of film as a source of information and analysis. In studying this case, we can encourage students to reflect upon methodological issues involved in using digital archives. Although the archive’s selection processes mediate material, the online collection still offers an important balance to popular understandings of this case. The Christchurch City Libraries’ online resources enable students across the globe to study this internationally notorious case and its widespread cultural implications.

wp_20150610_11_30_51_pro-e1441727733312Samantha Caslin works at the University of Liverpool where she lectures on Modern British History. Her research to date has focused upon the social and moral control of women in urban space, using Liverpool as a case study. She is currently working on her first book and recently published her article ‘“One Can Only Guess What Might Have Happened if the Worker Had Not Intervened in Time”: the Liverpool Vigilance Association, moral vulnerability and Irish girls in early- to mid-twentieth-century Liverpool’. Sam tweets from @drcaslin.

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