Recently, streaming service Shudder did something incredibly noble and, in my personal opinion, incredibly lousy. The noble thing they did was rescue a horror gem from potential obscurity. The incredibly lousy thing they did was deny me the privilege of scaring the Hell out of unsuspecting guests with it.
For the past ten years or so, it’s been something of a tradition for me to ask friends, family members, and acquaintances who happened into my living room if they would like to see a rare video I owned—a documentary aired only once on the BBC, Halloween night, 1992. Sometimes the response would be an enthusiastic “yes!” Other times, there was more hesitancy. Regardless, some poor soul—my best friend, my wife’s college roommate, my niece—would find themselves parked in front of my television as I popped in a movie called “Ghostwatch.” Despite the variety of initial reactions, the evening would always end the same—in abject terror. While Ghostwatch is no ordinary documentary—its’ classification lies somewhere at the intersection of mockumentary and proto-found-footage—it is one of the most genuinely disturbing movies ever committed to film. It’s a picture that, twenty-five years on, retains the ability to unsettle even the most staid horror fan, burrowing into the brain and messing with the human psyche not with blood or viscera, but an expertly deployed understanding of the uncanny and the power of slow-building dread.
Ghostwatch employs a “this is real” tactic that puts The Blair Witch Project to shame. The cast is made up largely of real BBC personalities playing themselves, ostensibly investigating paranormal activity at a suburban home as part of a Halloween special. Part of the evening’s events will be broadcast live from Northolt, Greater London, where Sarah Greene and Craig Charles will spend the night with the Early family—mother Pamela and daughters Suzanne and Kim—who claim that their house is being haunted by a malevolent entity the girls have nicknamed “Pipes.” The rest of the show will be simulcast from BBC Elstree Centre in front of a live studio audience, where hosts Michael Parkinson and Mike Smith will take calls from viewers at home and discuss the unfolding events with a panel of paranormal experts. For a long time, nothing happens—or, nothing appears to be happening, anyway. As a strangely disorienting tone begins to set in, and odd occurrences begin to disturb both the Early family and the BBC crew, it becomes apparent something is happening at the Early household—and that it could have far greater implications than anyone could have imagined.
Ghostwatch’s original broadcast would also be its’ last. In a testament to the film’s power to terrify and unnerve, it caused nothing short of a modern-day War of the Worlds disturbance in the UK. Only the film’s title card indicates that it’s a work of fiction, leading those who tuned in late to the show to believe they were watching a “real” BBC Halloween special. Although viewers were encouraged to call a number displayed onscreen to tell their real-life ghost stories—a number which led them to a recording informing callers that the show was staged—an initial deluge caused the line to go down, and most people who rang through the duration of the show only got a busy signal. The result was, as writer Stephen Volk recalled years later, a divide in audience members between those who recognized it as a movie and those who believed every second of it was real. The next day there was a media outrage. Tabloids condemned the program as irresponsible, and claimed that the presence of Greene (then a children’s show host), along with the film’s relatively early airtime (despite occurring after the 9pm watershed), had lulled parents into believing that the program would be child friendly. The Broadcasting Standards Commission—the UK equivalent of the FCC—received 35 complaints from outraged viewers, including, most troublingly, one from the parents of eighteen-year-old Martin Denham, a mentally handicapped factory worker who committed suicide in the belief that his home was haunted by the entity from the film. The BSC would later condemn the stunt as irresponsible, stating “”The BBC had a duty to do more than simply hint at the deception it was practicing on the audience. In Ghostwatch there was a deliberate attempt to cultivate a sense of menace.” As a result, the BBC placed a decade-long ban on reairing the film; even then, it wasn’t rebroadcast, but simply issued to home media. Even off the air, the impact of Ghostwatch would prove to be long-reaching: In 1994, the British Medical Journal cited it as being responsible for the first diagnosed case of PTSD in children resulting from a television program, though it was later determined that the children had simply suffered severe anxiety attacks.
What is it, then, about Ghostwatch that created such an uproar? Why, in an era marked by cynicism and jadedness, were audiences so upset by something that, in so many ways, was obviously a work of fiction? Much of that credit goes, of course, to the acting of the BBC personalities, who sell their parts so well that even the most skeptical of viewers must consider the possibility that this is real. What of American audiences, then? I’ve never failed to show the movie to someone who found it legitimately unsettling, and with one exception, none of them knew who any of the people in the film were. Too, they weren’t watching it live on television like most of those who experienced the film—they were watching it from the safety of a recording, nearly two decades on.
The answer to that lies in Volk’s expert writing and the superb directorial talents of Lesley Manning. As I said above, for much of the initial running time, nothing appears to be happening. The children eat snacks. The presenters tell jokes. Some people make some not-very-scary phone calls in to the studio. We see some kinda-sorta weird hidden camera footage taken of the girls’ room, in which something seems to make a noise, but it has more in common with 1950s William Castle hokeyness than anything of the soul disturbing variety.
And then things start to happen. Slowly. And then the realization sets in that things have been happening all along.
Part of the brilliance of Ghostwatch lies in how effectly Manning employs near subliminal imagery and audio in the film to begin building a sense of dread in the audience even before the supernatural stuff hits the fan. Although there’s no set piece involving a grand reveal of Pipes, the ghost—which takes the form of a bald, disfigured man in a black cassock—is periodically onscreen from practically the beginning of the film. The focus is just never on him. Whether it’s casually hanging out in the corner of a room, looking in a window, or even mulling about in the background of crowd shots, the ghost is omnipresent throughout the film, and his hidden incongruity—wait, did I see that?—is slowly working to build a sense in the viewer that, just as they’re watching, they’re also being watched back. Perhaps the most brilliant example occurs early in the film, when Manning employs three takes of the same scene—one featuring an empty corner, one with Pipes, and one with a vague shadow—to get the audience second guessing their own eyes. (Talk of Pipes’ effectiveness is also incomplete without addressing his slowly revealed backstory, which is both creepy when taken at face value and which has some very disturbing implications when, like the rest of the movie, the audience gives it time to sink in).
Similarly, the program introduces hints of darker elements and then quickly drops them, never letting the audience wrap their heads around what’s happening. A morbid audio recording played in the studio—in which one of the girl’s voices becomes a demonic growl uttering nursery rhymes and weird blasphemies—is quickly forgotten in lieu of domestic shenanigans. A woman-on-the-street interview about the history of Northolt seems to have no relevance to the night’s events until much later when a caller to the studio unexpectedly elaborates on it. Ghostwatch is one big exercise in uncanny, delated gratification, so that when the conclusion arrives, the initial sense of the mundane is replaced by cold, empty dread. (In a testament to the film’s power, audiences still thought the film was real after its’ admittedly SFX-laden finale, to the point that callers believed one of the cast members had actually died and that the BBC’s protestations that it was a movie were an attempt at covering up the death).
I was ambivalent about Shudder’s acquisition of Ghostwatch earlier this year. On the one hand, it’s a movie that I’ve spent nearly a decade of my life trying to show to as many people as possible. Now that it’s available for the masses to watch at their leisure, it’s sort of mission accomplished. On the other hand, it’s a movie that I’ve been trying to show to as many people as possible—with its’ relatively obscurity on this side of the Atlantic, I’ve always felt a certain guardianship over the film, like I was its’ protector and benefactor, carrying out a special mission to spread its’ word. It was all but a guarantee that, if I mentioned “Ghostwatch” to someone, they would meet me with a blank stare. Now, it’s a toss-up between that and, “Oh, yeah, I saw that on Shudder.” It’s the end of an era of sorts. Ultimately, though, a genuinely terrifying movie is finally able to get the mass love it so rightly deserves; that’s something any horror fan should be well pleased with.
Now, I’ve got to find something even more obscure.