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Heavenly Creatures and the Parker-Hulme murder case

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Nov 20, 2020, 6:00 PM EST

Few major crimes have reverberated through New Zealand history as much as the now near-mythic case of the Parker-Hulme murder. The brutal killing of Honorah Parker in 1954 by her daughter Pauline and her best friend Juliet Hulme remains one of the most notorious events to occur in the country over the past century. To this day, the case leaves a grisly mark on Christchurch. A media sensation in its day, the Parker-Hulme trial became the stuff of armchair psychology speculation, pop culture curiosities, and a worldwide moral panic regarding the supposed inherent darkness of young women.

In a society preoccupied with the lurid details of true crime, it was inevitable that the case of Pauline and Juliet would become the subject of decades' worth of interest. How could a story about an obsessive pair of teenage girls driven by delusions to kill not inspire such fascination? Cases of matricide committed by adolescent women remain rare. According to a report by CBS, approximately 82% of matricide offenders in the USA over a 30-year period acted alone. In 1954, it seemed utterly inconceivable that two girls under the age of 16 would ever consider an act as heinous as murder, let alone go through with their violent plans. The details of the death of Honorah Parker remain seared into the public consciousness for that very reason.

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Pauline Yvonne Parker was a working-class Christchurch girl who attended the local high school and often found herself isolated because of her health problems. She suffered from a condition called osteomyelitis, a kind of bone infection that impacts the arms and legs, especially of younger patients. Juliet Marion Hulme entered her life as a teenager when the English girl moved with her family to New Zealand. Hulme had her own health problems, having been diagnosed with tuberculosis as a child. She briefly lived in the Caribbean and South Africa before New Zealand since doctors had advised that a warmer climate would improve her wellbeing. Unlike Parker, Hulme came from a comfortably middle-class background, as her father was the celebrated physicist Dr. Henry Rainsford Hulme, one of the key scientists in the creation of the British H-Bomb. The girls quickly bonded over their shared illnesses, which forced them to sit out physical education classes.

It did not take long for their friendship to become extremely intense. Both lovers of fiction, they began to create their own stories that soon developed into their own deeply detailed fantasy life. They would craft stories then write to one another in character as their creations. They revered actors and artists and even imagined their own religious system devoid of Christianity where music and art were celebrated. Both girls hoped to sell their stories to Hollywood and be together as collaborators and friends for the rest of their lives.

The intensity of their friendship concerned both families. Pauline's parents were especially concerned that their closeness was an indicator of homosexuality, which was a criminal act in New Zealand at the time as well as being labeled a serious mental illness. LGBTQ+ people could be "treated" for homosexuality in institutions, much as they were in many countries around the world. By this point in time, both girls were so obsessed with one another that they would become withdrawn and even physically ill when separated. Eventually, after Juliet's parents separated and her father resigned from his job as the university rector, it was decided that Juliet would be sent to live in South Africa with relatives. This decision was ostensibly related to her health and as a way to make the divorce somewhat easier on her, but both she and Pauline saw it as an act of war against one another. Growing hysterical at the possibility of being separated against their will, the girls planned to go to South Africa together, then head to America to become world-famous writers. The major impediment to this dream, they decided, was Pauline's mother, Honorah.

On the afternoon of June 22, 1954, Pauline and Juliet accompanied Honorah Parker on a walk through Victoria Park. In a wooded area a hundred meters or so down the main path, the girls killed Honorah, bludgeoning her to death with half of a brick encased in an old silk stocking. After finishing the deed, the girls fled to a nearby tea kiosk where they had eaten with Honorah only minutes before. Both were covered in blood. They told the shop owners that Pauline's mother had fallen and hit her head. It didn't take long for that story to fall apart. Honorah's body was so brutally beaten, with protective wounds across her hands and neck, that no mere fall could have caused such damage.

The media frenzy erupted from the moment the case was made public. The newspapers made note of the "grotesque evidence" discovered in the girls' diaries, as well as their supposed lesbian passions. The defense case rested on having both girls declared not guilty by reason of insanity, which the court shot down after having them declared sane enough to stand trial. The question surrounding them was a reductive one: "Are they mad or bad?" The public consensus was that Parker and Hulme were either psychologically broken creatures or evil lesbian temptresses. The pair were infamously described as “dirty-minded little girls.”

Lesbianism was baked into the cases of both the prosecution and the defense. The defense counsel, Brian McClelland, said, "Well, the problem was they'd both confessed to it, and the only defense we had was insanity, but how could we find the two of them insane? And then this chap, Reginald Medlicott comes along with this wonderful idea that they could have folie à deux, so we went with that." Had they been found not guilty by reason of insanity, the chances are they would have been incarcerated indefinitely in a psychiatric hospital, and one of the most common treatments at the time for homosexuality was a pre-frontal lobotomy. This was considered the best choice for the defense, not a guilty verdict that allowed them to serve their time and move on with their lives.

It only took the jury under two and a half hours to reach their verdict. Both Parker and Hulme were found guilty of murder. A 1954 news report noted that, after the verdict was delivered, "Parker looked across at Hulme, whispered something and they both smiled." As minors, they were too young to be considered for the death penalty. Both spent five years in prison before being released to live under new identities, still under the watchful eye of the New Zealand justice system.

In 1994, New Zealand director Peter Jackson, then best known for hyper-violent DIY horror slapstick like Bad Taste and Braindead, released Heavenly Creatures. He had been encouraged to adapt the true story for film by his wife and collaborator Fran Walsh, as both had grown up knowing about the case and how it impacted their homeland. Instead of focusing on the media circus that surrounded the trial or the murder itself, Jackson and Walsh decided to delve more into the friendship between Pauline and Juliet. Their relationship was frequently mischaracterized by the press, with the rumor persisting to this day that the girls were in love, something that both women have repeatedly denied. The film doesn't exactly confirm or refute this, but its portrayal of such a close-knit and wholly co-dependent relationship is far more sympathetic than anything in the press of the previous four decades.

The most intriguing aspect of Heavenly Creatures is its development of Juliet and Pauline's fantasy world and how they allow themselves to sink into it beyond the realms of reality. In one scene, Juliet has a panic attack after her parents announce that they are going away and plan to leave her behind, and she retreats into the Fourth World, their version of Heaven. This is her safe space, and it becomes visible to Pauline too, which acts as a confirmation for the pair that their world is the real one, the right one.

While Heavenly Creatures is deeply empathetic towards Hulme and Parker, it pulls no punches in showing the abhorrent brutality of their murder. Honorah's death is deeply uncomfortable to watch, and Jackson makes sure the viewer understands just how hard it is to kill someone with a brick in a stocking, thus extending the agony further. By the end of the movie, you're left with a feeling of immense sadness for everyone involved. It's a brilliant movie, one that probably did more to soften the image of Parker and Hulme than many decades of press fervor and gossip. It doesn't excuse their crimes, but it allows the audience to understand how easy it was for two isolated girls to lose themselves in a fantastical world that was much kinder to them than their reality.

Both Parker and Hulme are still alive and living purposefully quiet lives. For a time, both women lived in Scotland, but have made no attempts to contact one another in decades (contrary to popular belief, they were not legally forbidden from doing so). After she was released, Pauline Parker became a devout Roman Catholic and spent time running a riding school for children. Her sister said that she now lives a near-reclusive life, not unlike a nun, and that Pauline "committed the most terrible crime and has spent 40 years repaying it by keeping away from people and doing her own little thing." Juliet Hulme converted to Mormonism and, after spending time as a flight attendant, moved to the Scottish village of Portmahomack and began writing novels. Under the name Anne Perry, she has become a renowned author of historical crime fiction. Her Thomas Pitt series has over 30 books to its name and has won her numerous awards. In 2017, she announced that she was moving to Hollywood in order to more effectively promote her work for film and TV adaptations. Perry has given more public interviews and commented on the murder than Parker, but still prefers to keep that part of her life out of the limelight.

In 2009, the writer Peter Graham tried to contact both Pauline Parker and Anne Perry to interview them for a book he was writing on the murder case. After Perry ignored his initial letter of request, he called her, and after she chastised him for dragging up the darkest part of her past, she told Graham, "I've forgotten everything anyway."

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