We Don’t Want to Give Anyone Sleepless Nights: An Appreciation of “Ghostwatch”
As you can see, I’m finally getting a chance to do another long-form horror writeup on this here blog, after weeks of being buried under the writing of a new book (which will probably be titled The Unseen Hand: A New Exploration of Poltergeist Phenomena; more details to come) and the work of keeping up with our weekly 13 O’Clock podcast (which you should check out here, if you haven’t already). Oh, and we have shirts too!
Anyway, I had been itching to get around to seeing Ghostwatch for a while now, since I had noticed it on so many “Best Haunted House Movie” lists and since I had heard a little bit about the uproar it caused when it was aired. If you don’t know, Ghostwatch was broadcast by the BBC on Halloween night 1992, and it was presented as an actual live program of a poltergeist investigation, complete with actual BBC TV personalities (Michael Parkinson, Mike Smith, Sarah Greene, and Craig Charles) playing themselves, and a real phone number that viewers could presumably call while the show was going on.
However – PLOT TWIST – the show was actually a fictional teleplay that had been recorded weeks before; anyone who called the phone number during the ostensibly “live” show heard a prerecorded message explaining that the show was fictional, and then prompting the caller to record their own personal experiences with the paranormal to be used at a later date.
Much like Orson Welles’ infamous War of the Worlds broadcast, apparently a shit-ton of viewers did not get the memo that the show wasn’t real, and understandably were concerned, and then totally wigged out, as they watched some of their favorite Beeb presenters being terrorized by an increasingly violent haunting occurring on live television. Adding to the realism was the rather clever conceit of callers during the show complaining of paranormal activity like stopped clocks and inexplicably broken glass happening in their own homes as the program progressed, giving the whole affair the feeling that it could get you too.
In these more cynical, post-Blair-Witch times of meta-fictions, “found footage,” and mockumentaries, it’s probably hard to imagine how so many people could have been fooled by the BBC’s inventive little Halloween prank (though even in 2012, many dumbasses fell for that fake-as-shit mermaid documentary on Discovery, so maybe we can’t judge too harshly). I gotta say, though, even though I saw Ghostwatch in 2016 with the benefit of hindsight and knowledge of the film’s origins, I can kinda see why some folks were confused (well, at least until the end). Ghostwatch did seem, at first, to be a pretty standard, somewhat larky British chat/investigative program of the time (much like the popular CrimeWatch show that it was based on), and the movie even threaded in some cunning little details like lost video feeds, dead air time, prank and drunk callers, and other little glitches that made it seem like an actual live broadcast.
In brief, the film detailed an investigation of an allegedly haunted house in Northolt, London. The home was occupied by a single mother named Pam Early and her two teenaged daughters Kim and Suzanne, and it’s clear that the family dynamic and the phenomena on display was a direct reference to the Enfield haunting (and in fact Guy Lyon Playfair, who had been on the Enfield investigation and wrote a book about it called This House Is Haunted, worked as a consultant on Ghostwatch, so the similarities should not be surprising). Children’s show presenter Sarah Greene and comic relief broadcaster Craig Charles were on site at the house, while the serious and seemingly trustworthy Michael Parkinson acted as the main in-studio host (chatting with a parapsychologist named Dr. Pascoe, played by Gillian Bevan). Mike Smith, Sarah Greene’s real-life husband and a popular presenter in his own right, manned the phones and gave ongoing reports on the public’s reactions to what was unfolding before them.
Although the film is obviously a little dated now, it’s actually still pretty damn effective, and I can imagine how much more effective it would have been if you were watching it without having any idea that it was all staged. The performances are all fairly naturalistic, and the manifestations of the paranormal are rolled out slowly, realistically, and rather subtly (again, at least until the end).
The movie messes with the viewer in myriad ways: for example, a piece of footage shown at the beginning of the program that ostensibly shows the two girls in their bedroom being assaulted by weird banging sounds and a couple of flying objects becomes a bone of contention when, later in the show, callers to the program start insisting that they saw a dark figure standing in the shadows of the girls’ room. As the calls pile up, the parapsychologist asks if they can replay the footage to see what the callers are talking about. Parkinson eventually replays it, and yeah, there does seem to be a dark figure there, maybe, even though you are quite sure you didn’t see it the first time. But both the parapsychologist and Parkinson claim they don’t see anything. Then they rewind the tape and play it again, and now, there’s nothing there. The parapsychologist then draws a little doodle on the screen showing where she thinks a shadow on a curtain is making people see things, but she draws it in a slightly different place to where we think we saw the figure. Very sneaky indeed.
There are other great little moments like that. All the real TV presenters do a believable job of treating the whole thing as a bit of a laugh at first, and Michael Parkinson gets pretty riled up at one point when the camera crew at the house catches one of the girls faking the mysterious banging sounds they’ve been hearing off and on (which is supposedly coming from the poltergeist that the family has dubbed Pipes). Parkinson is huffy and just wants to end the whole show after that happens, but the parapsychologist starts arguing that just because the girl was caught faking doesn’t mean that some of the other manifestations aren’t real, because she (meaning Dr. Pascoe) has been to the house and investigated it herself, and saw many inexplicable things that could not have been faked by the children. This also had parallels with the Enfield case (where the girls were caught faking a couple of times), as did the tape the parapsychologist plays in the studio which is supposedly a recording of one of the girls speaking in a creepy spirit voice (Enfield focus Janet Hodgson would often speak in the gruff voice of an old man who said his name was Bill). There was also the nice touch of a pooh-poohing skeptic from the real-life organization CSiCOP appearing on satellite feed and denouncing the whole thing as a fraud.
I also enjoyed the slow-burn buildup of the story behind the house’s haunting, and the eerie details that emerged when neighbors and people on the street got interviewed by the jocular Craig Charles. Bystanders mention missing girls from the neighborhood, beheaded pregnant dogs found in the playground, and the possibility that the street was once the home of a murderous “baby farmer” (who I’m guessing they modeled after infamous serial killer Amelia Dyer).
Best of all, though, was the way they treated the actual ghost, Pipes, with such subliminal deviousness. According to most internet accounts, Pipes actually appears in the movie eight or nine times, but on my first viewing, I only caught a glimpse of him once or twice, and I wasn’t even completely sure of those. I actually had to go back and check for the other instances, because I had missed him completely. Hell, a few times he was only put in there for three frames, so you would have had to have been watching with an eagle eye to spot him at all. I liked this trope a lot, because it meant that the movie was trying to creep you out without really showing anything that your brain registered consciously. Pipes was always a did-I-just-see-that flash in a mirror as a camera panned across, or a subtle shape in the background that could have been anything, or an uncannily grinning dude behind someone else in a crowd scene who you would barely notice was there. It was actually pretty genius.
Now, it should be said that if you watched this “live,” you could be forgiven for thinking it was real until the whole thing went a wee bit over the top as it got nearer to the end. While I loved the concept of the television show itself acting as a “nationwide séance” that was causing paranormal havoc in the homes across the UK that were viewing it, as well as in the studio itself (giving it yet another layer of meta-ness), I felt like it would have been more effective if they had reined it in a tad. That said, the final shot of Michael Parkinson wandering around the darkened and apparently abandoned studio and then talking in that creepy voice as though he had also been overtaken by Pipes, was actually pretty well done.
And you know I couldn’t get through this review without mentioning the unintentionally hilarious tidbit that the scary closet under the stairs where Pipes allegedly lived was referred to throughout the show as the “glory hole.” I’m sure British people of today are aware, but WOW, that phrase has a REALLY DIFFERENT connotation in America. Heh.
All in all, I thought Ghostwatch was a really entertaining and subtly unnerving film that was WAY ahead of its time in terms of its willingness to fuck with its audience in such a clever way, making the viewer complicit, as well as making a broader statement about the believability of media in general. While this theme is old hat nowadays, it was pretty subversive for 1992, and the viewing public’s reaction to the broadcast tells that tale pretty adequately, I think: 30,000 calls to the BBC during the program’s runtime, thousands of complaints pouring in for weeks afterward (mostly from people pissed off that they had been duped by presenters they had grown to trust), a couple claims of children watching it and developing PTSD because they thought it was real, and one sad case of a mentally disabled boy taking the whole thing far too seriously and committing suicide a few days after it aired. The BBC was actually forced to issue an apology, and never broadcast the program again. It developed something of a cult following in the ensuing years, though, and was eventually released on DVD. There was even a documentary made about it in 2013, and to this day, fans of the movie have an annual ritual where they all watch their copy of the movie at 9:25pm on Halloween night to see if they can actually bring about that fabled “nationwide séance” thing for real. It doesn’t appear to have worked so far.
I would definitely recommend Ghostwatch for fans of more subtle psychological horror and found-footage type stuff, but try to approach it from the perspective of the time to really appreciate it. That’s probably hard to do if you can’t remember a time when Blair Witch wasn’t a thing, and I guess it’s also hard if you’re not British and don’t understand the subtle mindfuck of seeing actual famous TV presenters messing with your head like this (the American equivalent might have been Walter Kronkite doing what appeared to be a serious documentary in which he at one point gets kidnapped by a sasquatch), but give it a shot and I think you’ll enjoy it a lot more.
Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends. Goddess out.