The Kübler-Ross Model and Five Stages of "Groundhog Day"

Did "Groundhog Day" writer use Kübler-Ross as a template for Phil's progress?

Posted Jan 31, 2020

Wikimedia Commons
Groundhog Day ceremony in Punxsutawney, PA.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The film Groundhog Day has become a truly timeless part of popular culture. In it, Bill Murray plays TV weatherman Phil Connors who, while covering the annual Groundhog Day event, finds himself caught in a time loop in which he repeatedly relives that day. The cycle does not end until he finally gets the day—and himself—right.

Writer Harold Ramis said that Groundhog Day screenwriter Danny Rubin "actually took Elisabeth Kübler-Ross as a model—her five stages of death and dying—and we used that as a template for Bill Murray's progress." Throughout the movie, as the lead character struggles to deal with his strange situation, Phil undergoes denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, according to Ramis, although the order is debatable. 

One of the most misused and misunderstood concepts in psychology or psychiatry is Elisabeth Kübler-Ross's model of how people face death. Best known as the "stages of grief" once extended to include bereavement over the loss of others, the framework began with her observations on how people face their own deaths (Kübler-Ross, 1969). In fact, she had referred to them as stages of dying, having developed her ideas about this while working with terminally ill adults and children (e.g., Kübler-Ross, 1969; Kübler-Ross & Kessler, 2005/2014).

She and a colleague (Kübler-Ross & Kessler, 2005/2014, p. 7) later wrote that the so-called stages "were never meant to tuck messy emotion into neat packages. They are responses to loss that many people have, but there is not a typical response to loss, as there is no typical loss," and they stressed that "they are not stops on some linear timeline of grief. Not everyone goes through them or goes in a prescribed order." Treating these five responses as stages might not be the best way to view them, because empirical evidence has not demonstrated that people typically move through all five, going from one to the next (Bonanno, 2004; Corr et al., 1999; Friedman & James; paragraph adapted from Langley, 2017). 

  • Denial: Of course, Phil initially resists the idea that's he reliving the same day over and over. 
  • Anger: Though Phil mainly expresses it as annoyance and irritation, some overt anger does out. For example, he slams a man against the wall, saying, "Don't mess with me, pork chop. What day is this?" He vents some aggression by punching Ned for no good reason. He spends little time at this stage. Anger is an activating emotion, preparing the person to do something, while the kind of resigned misery he suffers later falls more under the umbrella of depression.
  • Bargaining: Phil plays around with his situation, experimenting with his circumstances and for a time simply trying to have fun with it. This runs into the start of his depressed period when he drives himself and a groundhog over a cliff in an attempt to end his loop one way or another.
  • Depression: Distraught and emotionally weary, Phil kills himself time and time again only to restart the day yet again every time. Whereas his earlier punch to Ned also helps him have a bit of fun, he's having no fun when he later snaps bitterly at people, even the adored Rita. He just resents it all. Receiving some social support from news producer Rita Hanson (Andie MacDowell) helps him begin to lift out of this dark slump.
  • Acceptance: At last, Phil starts to find peace by learning new skills. The character attempts some bargaining here, but now for the sake of others, as demonstrated by his efforts to save the life of an elderly man only to learn that some things are beyond him. This realization and newfound acceptance of his situation lead him to try to make the day the best one he can for everybody else. Ramis said in an interview, "The hero stops thinking about himself and starts performing service."

Final thought: It seems peculiarly appropriate that the first palindromic date (written the same both forward and backward, mirroring itself as it repeats its digits) of this millennium happens to be Groundhog Day: 02/02/2020. In fact, it's the first in 909 years that is a fully palindromic date regardless of whether you write the date as month/day/year or day/month/year. We can consider, at another time, why the order of a palindrome appeals to so many of us. Maybe it comes out of the innate attraction to symmetrical faces and other images.

References

Bonanno, G. A. (2004). Loss, trauma, and human resilience: Have we underestimated the human capacity to thrive after extremely adversive events? American Psychology, 59(1), 20-28.

Corr, C. A., Doka, K. J., & Kastenbaum, R. (1999). Dying and its interpreters: A review of selected literature and some comments on the state of the field. Journal of Death & Dying, 39(4), 239-259.

Kübler-Ross, E. (1969). One death and dying: What they dying have to teach doctors, nurses, clergy, & their own families. London, UK: Routledge.

Kübler-Ross. E. A., & Kessler, D. (2005/2015). On grief and grieving: Finding the meaning of grief through the five stages of loss. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Langley, T. (2017). Denial. In T. Langley & L. Zubernis (Eds.), Supernatural psychology: Roads less traveled (pp. 78-83). New York, NY: Sterling.