Ghostwatch. 1992. Directed by Lesley Manning. Screenplay by Stephen Volk.
Starring Michael Parkinson, Sarah Greene Mike Smith, Craig Charles, Gillian Bevan, BRid Brennan, Michelle Wesson, Cherise Wesson, & Chris Miller.
Not Rated. 91 minutes.
On the night of October 30th, 1938, Orson Welles directed and narrated an episode of The Mercury Theatre on the Air in which he adapted H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. It caused a good deal of fright for those tuning in, as they thought it was real. Following suit 54 years later, BBC’s Ghostwatch aired on Halloween night in 1992. And as opposed to the uproar in the wake of Welles with his radio programme (an event that was likely inflated by people over the years judging by how many people actually listened to that station), Ghostwatch prompted some incredibly unintended consequences, even one death.
The reason being is because, for 1992 particularly, this is an exciting blend of paranormal horror, long before Paranormal Activity and its many copies, with a very real dose of mystery – 7 years before The Blair Witch Project (the filmmakers acknowledged they’d seen this BBC production before making their own movie). Of course it’s a mockumentary posing as a reality programme looking into whether ghosts are real, but because of the acting, the story, and the overall execution of the faux-documentary, Ghostwatch is effective. It’s a lot of creepy fun that doesn’t have to be outrageous to get you spooked. The subtlety of many scenes is what ultimately gives the horror its impact.
Not only is it documentary-like in its look at the supposed ghostly hauntings, the program plays truly great as a live television event. Excellent real look and feel, as if you’re directly in the midst of it happening. You’ve got the presenters of the programme, the camera guys, the reporters on location. Then there’s all the added fun of having people calling in, supposedly seeing things in the live show – figures and ghosts in the background, shadows in the curtains which the presenters later debunk. The number people called was actually genuine, although they were told immediately the programme was not real; they were allowed to tell their stories on air regardless if they wanted. So all that makes for a palpable atmosphere of eeriness.
Dread really sets in once the haunting aspects become more intense. The mother of the haunted family talks about being locked in the dark room once, the room under the stairs, where she feels a presence – a man breathing on her. We come to understand that this is the ghost named “Pipes” who lingers in the home. We get the expected voice on tape, an ugly and evil sound, breathless like you might expect of a spirit. Worse, nobody’s capable of recreating the voice afterwards, and things start getting scary. There’s a lot of amazing stuff we now consider archetypal of paranormal films focusing on investigations – marks on the children, disturbing scratches over the young girl’s face, weird photos of possible haunting evidence (an Amityville-style picture of a room in disarray comes up at one point). Because it was so fresh in ’92, these elements work wonders. Perhaps a little too well.
After Ghostwatch, there were actual cases of emotional distress. Because the BBC’s always been popular and had a large viewership, the programme reached a lot of unsuspecting eyes. One case has to do with a thirteen-year-old boy who took his own life, leaving a suicide note that explained he believed ghosts were in his house (due to pipes knocking like the girl hears in this film), so “if there are ghosts I will be … with you always as a ghost.” This is a tragic instance which illustrates how real, and frightening, Ghostwatch actually played for people at the time. Another two years after the programmed originally aired, in ’94, a report in the British Medical Journal presented the case that this programmed was the first of its kind on television to cause cases in PTSD – specifically in ten-year-old boys. Clearly the reach of such a mockumentary could never be predicted. That doesn’t change the fact it was obviously effective in its aims. Sadly, there were very real consequences to such fake frights.
I don’t doubt why anybody found this disturbing. The story itself about the house, the revelations of Pipes and why he’s been haunting the place. All of it’s unsettling. At one point there’s even a brief view and discussion of pregnant mutilated animals. But it’s the finale that I find creepiest. Because of how everything is filmed, edited, the sound, there’s a genuine feeling even once things start to get over-the-top. Right before the credits roll is my favourite moment: creepy cat noises in the dark and the sound of Pipes’ voice will make your skin crawl. Although the bit in the studio feels too much, the rest of what’s going on is properly distressing.
I only recently saw this for the first time. After seeing all the imitations, as well as the films rightfully influenced by it, Ghostwatch feels fresh. Going back to the earliest found footage and mockumentary movies it’s fun to see where some of the techniques used in later efforts originated.
Sure, there are more bloody, visceral stories out there. But this one is fun, a nice little grim thrill in the form of a live television programme. There are legitimately troubling scenes and brief moments. You can spot the spirit of Pipes in 13 different places, adding an extra creep or two when necessary. You’ll be hard pressed to find a better mockumentary in terms of paranormal/supernatural horror. Good mystery leads into full fledged creeps territory. The actors all sell their parts well, when things devolve into ghost madness they compel you to keep on watching past every dark turn. I’m excited to put this on again around Halloween. Perfect time of year for these sort of frights.