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The film: Heavenly Creatures

Date of visit: February 2008

Location of visit: Christchurch, New Zealand

My love of cinema is twinned with another fascination of mine; true crime. When out jaunting across the globe back in 2008, I visited New Zealand for two months. While the majority of that time was spent picking apples and getting skanked on wages, the remainder I spent trekking to film location sites. Now I know you’re thinking, “Why isn’t this about Lord Of The Rings?!” I love the Lord Of The Rings series, I do. They’re not my favourite of Peter Jackson’s films, however. That title is taken by one of his earlier works…

SPOILER ALERT! 

If you haven’t yet seen Heavenly Creatures, I recommend you watch it before reading the rest of this article.

While I was passing through Christchurch I wanted to find out as much as I could about the Parker-Hulme murder which took place in Victoria Park, 1954 and was immortalised in the Jackson film, Heavenly Creatures (1994). It is based upon the true story of two Christchurch schoolgirls, Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme who together conspired and carried out the murder of Parker’s mother, Honora Parker. This incident has held my continued interest for some time. The film depicts a fantasy world where the girls retreat, far from the persistent nagging of their parents. In this land they act out stories from their many novels, operas and poems. As the narrative progresses there is a definite questioning of the girls’ psychoses. Both girls consider themselves genii and bound for stardom, planning to publish their works and even take them to Hollywood. When Hulme’s parents decide to leave for South Africa, Pauline is desperate to go with them, but her mother insists she stay and finish school. This leads to the planning of her “moider” as Parker describes it in her diary.

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The film also includes one of the most harrowing deaths I’ve seen in film. The construction of the screenplay was taken from Parker’s diaries and statements the girls gave to the police and doctors, so how close the film is to the actual death is unknown. Regardless, I am deeply upset each time I watch it. All of my sympathy and heartache goes out to the actress portraying Honora, and I feel a ridiculous longing to reach into the screen and save her from her terrible fate.

She was simply a mother keeping watch over her daughter, worrying when her grades slipped and trying to include her in family activities. Only she was shrugged off by Pauline who preferred to spend her free time in the affluent and elite world of the Hulmes. Perhaps the reason it haunts me so, is that she has the humble, earnest traits of every mother. Of my mother. The girls far-fetched and downright ludicrous justification for the murder is impossible to empathise with.

No on-screen death has made my heart lurch or my eyes sting so hard with tears. So I wanted to see where it began.

Heavenly Creatures - Cranmer Building

Cranmer Building, Christchurch. Previously Christchurch Girls High School.

I left my hostel on Worcester Blvd and took a right onto Rolleston St. I saw the old University of Canterbury site which now houses Christchurch Museum and ventured onto Armagh St. I passed cyclists and dog walkers as I walked half a block down the street to the Cranmer Building, now a council-owned property but previously, Christchurch Girls High School. This is where the girls met and where the filmmakers shot Heavenly Creatures. It opened in 1878 and ceased as a school in 1986. A grand Victorian structure, it sits among similar buildings and at 7pm that Monday night, stood empty. Oblivious to its own dastardly intervention. As I snapped a photo a man walked past and noticing me, looked up at the building as if to say “What’s of interest in there?”

After collecting the camper van to be used for the remainder of our journey, my friend and I started the steep drive up Dyers Pass Rd, through Cashmere and onto our next port-of call: Victoria Park in the Port Hills. The views of Christchurch were breathtaking and I’m surprised this wasn’t mentioned more in the Lonely Planet.

We parked up and proceeded down into the woods on the Harry Ell walkway. After a while, we walked towards the visitors centre where I hoped we’d find a marker for the site of the old tearooms, as this is where the girls took Honora for a cup of tea before taking her on her last walk in the park. I found nothing to point me in the right direction so had a quick gansy in the visitors centre. I didn’t expect to find a great deal of information about what happened that June afternoon back in 1954. Obviously there wouldn’t be a brochure with a detailed map saying “Come and see where an innocent woman was butchered to death!” They did however have a slice of a tree trunk. It displayed the trunk’s inner rings annotating the events which occurred during each year of the tree’s lifespan. The moon landings and (bizarrely) when post-its were invented were two examples. Sat alongside them in a plain typewriter font, a slip of paper simply said “1954: Parker-Hulme Murder.”

Victoria Park, Port Hills, New Zealand.

After taking the bus up Dyers Pass Rd, the girls and Honora walked the last kilometre up the hill and had a stop in the tearoom, chatting with the staff, the girls joking and in high spirits. After a while they took a right and walked 450 metres down a path, wherein Honora asked if they could return as she felt tired. As they walked back, she bent down to pick up a shiny pink stone completely out of place on the ground of the Port Hills (which was placed by Hulme on the walk down) and was struck repeatedly on the head (by both her daughter and Hulme) with a brick concealed within a stocking. The police reported she received 45 blows and died instantly.

Now, you may call me morbid, weird, morose or any such other word to describe my need to visit this site. I’m not quite sure myself why I wanted to take this pilgrimage. Everyday you read in the paper, or hear on the news of terrible atrocities human beings feel justified to inflict upon others. In the Christchurch Art Gallery I saw a piece called “Doublet” by a New Zealand photojournalist, Ann Shelton. Shelton had photographed the place where the murder happened. She explained her interest in sites of violent events both fictional and factual as “being about where myths are born and then ‘exported’ through film and literature.” This comes as close as I can get to my reasoning. I don’t have the rights to show you an image of her work, but you can access it on the Museum Of New Zealand website.

Sign Of The Kiwi Tea Rooms, Victoria Park, New Zealand.

So I can’t exactly tell you why the murder of a woman with little known history, no lasting legacy, has affected me so. I suppose I wanted to pay my respects to a woman I never knew and only know through cinema. I suppose I wanted to say “I’m so sorry you died.” As I walked to the right of the visitors centre, I took the long winding path shaded by the leafy canopy of trees. Despite not finding exactly where it happened, I’m quite glad I didn’t. I think she’s owed that much.

A discovery in the last decade which unearthed Hulmes’ current identity as that of crime writer Anne Perry led to an interview in 1994 on New Zealand television in which she said “I made a very, very wrong decision.” What insight! A colleague at the library I worked at informed me that Perry had participated in an author event called (coincidentally) “The Body in the Library” prior to my working there. I was glad I had not been present.  Crime writer Peter Graham has since published a book after being allowed access to Parker’s diary. His work, “So Brilliantly Clever: Parker, Hulme and the Murder that Shocked the World” even adopts its title from her journal. He too has spent time seeking out the site of the crime, as evidenced in this news report from TV New Zealand.

To think that the dream those two girls shared of having their works published and translated to the screen, has come true (for Perry anyway) utterly frustrates me. It seems they got what they wanted all along.

All images copyright Gem Seddon except featured image which appears courtesy of Cinefilles.