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.

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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.

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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.

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Pipes was only visible here if you brightened your TV screen, for instance.

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.

Hulu Horror Double Feature: The Inhabitants and Wax

It’s another lazy Saturday afternoon, my horror honchos, and that means it’s time for another random double feature to while away the weekend hours. Today’s mix was a pretty strange juxtaposition, I gotta say, but it ended up a generally better viewing experience than last time, so let’s jump right in. Oh, and I know I usually forget to say this, but there will probably be some spoilers ahead, though I’ll try not to ruin anything completely.

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First up, The Inhabitants from 2015, directed by Michael and Shawn Rasmussen. Hot damn, this was a good one. It had pretty much everything I like: a spooky old house in New England, an atmosphere of increasing dread that never showed too much or went too far over the top, and best of all, Salem witches, you guys! Yay, I love witches!

The setup of the story is simple in the extreme. Jessica (Elise Couture) and Dan (Michael Reed) are a young married couple who decide to purchase the March Carriage Bed and Breakfast when the elderly folks who previously owned it died (in the husband’s case) or got sent to a nursing home (in the wife’s case). One thing I should point out that gave this movie an added bonus of historical eerieness is that the house where it was filmed actually once belonged to the Reverend Samuel Parris, whose daughter and niece kicked off that whole Salem Witch Trial thing with their crazy accusations. Nice job, girls. 😦

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So, pretty standard creepy shit starts to go down once the couple get moved in; floorboards creak like someone’s walking around, some kinda menacing teenagers hang out in the woods like they’re watching the place, and so on. Jessica begins to research the history of the house so she’ll be able to tell their potential guests some interesting anecdotes, and it turns out that the house was once the home of a 17th-century midwife who was accused of and eventually hanged for witchcraft. The couple find a “gently used” birthing chair in the basement, to boot. Eeeewwwwwww.

The festivities don’t really begin in earnest until Dan is conveniently called away for a few days on a business trip, leaving Jessica in the house alone. I won’t spoil too much, but when he returns, he finds that Jessica has…changed, and not necessarily for the better.

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The thing I loved most about this movie was its consistently tense, claustrophobic atmosphere. The house itself is so eerie and so effectively filmed that the whole movie just drips spookiness during its entire running time. I also liked the measured pacing of the film; steady, not in any hurry to get anywhere, but subtly ratcheting up the dread as it went along. Another thing I really liked was that everything was done through suggestion; there was no splashy gore, not many jump scares, and a lot of plot aspects were left ambiguous for the viewer to puzzle over. For instance, who installed those video cameras in all the rooms? What were those teenagers doing out in the woods, and exactly what were they planning to do when they broke in? What ultimately happened to Dan and Jessica’s dog Wylie? Where did the “children” originally come from, and why did they need to be “fed?” These questions are not answered outright, but it doesn’t matter; it all just adds to the overall ambience. I would recommend this film unreservedly to anyone who enjoys slow-burn haunted house flicks as much as I do; I thought it was really fantastic and effective.

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Next up was a film that was a whole different kettle of fish, and while I didn’t dislike it, it gave me a lot more mixed feelings than The Inhabitants did. Part found-footage, part torture porn, part self-referential homage, the 2014 Spanish movie Wax was directed by Victor Matellano and featured a bunch of genre-specific cameos, including Geraldine Chaplin (daughter of Charlie), Jack Taylor (who starred in some of Jess Franco’s films), and the voice of Paul Naschy. It was a fairly enjoyable movie on the whole, but I feel like it was a little unfocused and too long and drawn out to really ring my bell, if you know what I’m saying.

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The conceit is this: Muppet-haired smart-ass and horror geek Mike (Jimmy Shaw) is hired by a TV producer (Geraldine Chaplin) to be locked into a supposedly haunted Barcelona wax museum overnight, and film a documentary-cum-reality-show while he’s in there. Interwoven with this narrative is the story of the subject of the museum’s newest exhibit—a notorious and cannibalistic serial killer named Dr. Knox, who had a thing for gadding about dressed like Vincent Price’s character in House of Wax and eating his victims’ internal organs while they were still alive.

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So Mike is wandering around the dimmed museum, filming his reality show, and every now and then there’s an intercut of footage of Dr. Knox addressing the camera and describing whatever indignities he is visiting upon his current unfortunate victim. These interstitials are described in-film as being videos that were found in one of Dr. Knox’s hideouts after his arrest, and the museum has them playing on a loop near his wax figure. Fun for the whole family! These bits of the movie are actually fairly gruesome, but nothing to really put you off your lunch or anything, unless you’re super squeamish.

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At about the halfway point of the movie, some paranormal-type stuff starts happening around the museum, like figures seemingly moving, props falling over, mysterious lights, and a red ball that is significant to the plot turning up in the darnedest places. Then, during one of Mike’s scheduled phone calls with the TV producer, it comes to light that Dr. Knox has escaped from prison, and wouldn’t you know it, Mike soon starts seeing him lurking around the museum and understandably begins to freak the fuck out.

One thing I will say about the found footage aspects of the film, is that I thought the trope was pretty effectively utilized here, especially near the end, when Mike is being pursued around the museum by Dr. Knox and only has that creepy green night-vision mode to see by. The museum itself, which I’m guessing is probably a real one, also looks terrific and suitably unsettling, especially in Mike’s POV shots, because you can really get the palpable sense that you’re walking through this spooky-ass place in the dark yourself.

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But overall, I felt like the movie just didn’t hang together all that well, like it was trying to be too many things at once. And I was also left pretty confused by what was actually going on at the end of the thing. AHOY! SPOILERS AHEAD! Okay, so at the end, we’re led to believe that the TV producers had actually set the whole thing up, that Dr. Knox was not actually in the museum, and that they were deliberately trying to drive Mike crazy (or crazier) to make a good TV show. Were they actually planning for him to die of fright, or was that just a lucky side effect? Also, Mike’s wife and kid were killed by Dr. Knox? And he didn’t know it? I mean, he must not have known, because he didn’t seem any more squicked out by the Dr. Knox murder footage than a normal person would be. It wasn’t really made clear whether he even knew his wife and kid were dead, honestly. I mean, there was that one scene where he was kinda getting weirdly friendly with a wax figure of a prostitute and saying how much he missed his wife, but I thought that was because she had left him, like she said she was going to in that one flashback he had. If that’s not what happened, then what was the point of that brief flashback where she said she was gonna leave him? And when he showed the picture of his son Rob to the museum curator at the beginning, he referred to the kid in the present tense and didn’t act all sad or like the kid was dead or anything. So like, in light of the ending, were we supposed to interpret that as a symptom of his mental illness, or what? I just feel like that whole situation wasn’t conveyed effectively, and neither was the line between what was really in the museum, what was set up by the producers, and what was only in Mike’s imagination. It didn’t really ruin the movie or anything, but it was sort of frustrating nonetheless.

This one…eh, I could have taken it or left it. I wouldn’t really recommend it unless you think it’s the kind of thing you’d be into, but keep in mind that it’s kinda meandering and goes on way longer than it needs to. Not bad, but not great.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends. Goddess out.

Hulu Horror Double Feature: Find Me and Spirit in the Woods

Woo, look at me, doing another one of these things already. It’s Monday as I write this, and I can’t use a hangover as an excuse for my movie-watching sloth like I did on Sunday, but hey, I got all the work done I needed to get done today (two graphic design jobs, two loads of laundry, two mile walk, thorough kitchen clean, thank you very much), and decided to chill with some more Hulu. Don’t judge me, y’all.

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First on today’s agenda is 2014’s Find Me, one of many low-budget haunting flicks that came out following the smash success of The Conjuring. The setup of Find Me should be pretty familiar to any horror fan with two brain cells to rub together: Newlywed couple moves into long-empty house in wife’s rural hometown, scary noises and flashes of a female spirit in a white dress commence, there’s a creepy tinkly music box involved, and eventually a past tragedy concerning the wife comes to light. Lather, rinse, repeat. I don’t mean to be too hard on this movie, because it was actually pretty well done and enjoyable, but it isn’t anything we haven’t seen before.

That said, one place where it really did bring something new to the table was the characters. The two leads were also co-writers of the screenplay, and they did a nice job of making the married couple at the center of the action quite likable and sympathetic. I really appreciated that they subverted the “husband doesn’t believe the wife about the haunting” trope; it was really refreshing to see the couple investigating the mystery together, and even making self-aware jokes about Indian burial grounds and quoting the movie Poltergeist in jest (“You only moved the headstones!!!”). The wife’s friend was also a sarcastic delight, and I was really happy to see the three characters treating the haunting the way most modern people probably would: Freaked out, but curious, and oddly bemused by the whole thing. Additionally, there were some pretty creepy moments and a few good scares, so points there.

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The resolution of the mystery at the center of the haunting, though, probably could have been handled better. For one thing, I found it pretty hard to believe that it took like an hour of the movie’s runtime before the wife figured out who the ghost might be, even though the answer was staring her right in the face. I mean—and this is a SPOILER ALERT, so don’t read the rest of this paragraph if you don’t want to know who the ghost is—if you had a twin sister who was kidnapped and murdered as a child during a game of hide and seek, and there’s a ghost in your house who looks just like you and keeps leaving you messages to “find me,” you don’t have to be a rocket surgeon to grok what’s going on, dig? I thought you could.

Also, as much as I loved the way the movie clearly tried to undermine the typical horror movie clichés, in the final act of the story, it seems like it fell prey to pretty much all of them, all at once. The ending might have been much better if it had been toned down some, since the nice slow burn of the first two-thirds of the movie was kinda thrown out the window at the end, when it all just got preposterous.

So would I recommend this? It’s a serviceable ghost story with a few fresh elements that gets kinda hamstrung by its silly ending, but overall I thought it was pretty decent. I wasn’t bored at any point, the characters were good and kept me interested, and it didn’t annoy me overmuch, though the ending was a bit disappointing. If that sounds like something you can live with, then by all means, give it a whirl.


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Next on the Hulu agenda is a straight-up Blair Witch ripoff called Spirit in the Woods. It has the same premise of college students wandering off into the legend-rich forest and disappearing, with their video cameras turning up later and the contents presented as real found footage. In fact, it looks like it mirrored some shots from Blair Witch pretty much exactly. Now, this movie came out in 2014, and the whole found footage trend was way played out far before that. That’s not to say that something interesting still couldn’t be done with the concept, but this amateurish effort sure ain’t it. In fact, I had a really hard time just sitting through it; it was just painfully, cringingly bad. There is no way that anyone would ever believe that this was actual found footage, since the “actors” were so wincingly terrible that no one would ever mistake them for real people. And it wasn’t even bad enough to be entertaining in a Birdemic sorta way; it was just plodding and boring and lame and irritating as a hemorrhoidal itch. Nothing much happened for easily the first half of the movie; it was just poorly-acted “college students” deciding they were gonna go do their nebulous biology project (?) in the reputedly haunted “Spiritual Woods” (groan), and then there was seemingly endless footage of them getting ready to go out there, interspersed with stupid “news” footage with an anchorman who kept worrying about his hair and doesn’t know how to count down to live TV (note: It’s 3…2…silence, not 1…2…3). Also, did I notice some spelling mistakes on the purportedly real “Missing” posters? Jeez. Director Anthony Daniel raised the money for this on Kickstarter, and I hate to say it, but his backers got ripped off just as surely as The Blair Witch Project did. Honestly, if you’re lucky enough to raise some money from folks to make your movie, at least come up with something original and not something that actively insults your viewers. Spare yourself the hour and twenty minutes of agony and skip it. Blech.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends. Goddess out.