Retro Review: “Ghostwatch” (1992)

Summertime. Phew.

I can only apologize for the long absence. Things have been especially crazy. Last month I moved from the Midwest back home to the East Coast, where things continue to be crazy (albeit in a very different way). True to form I’ve started a few projects too many, and true to form I’ve coped with it by making very little progress on any of them.

But one side effect of the move, for some reason, has been that I’ve started to feel especially Halloweeny even earlier than usual. I don’t know if it’s the nostalgia of being home, or the fact that this summer has been especially mild (even Autumn-like many evenings), or what, but I’m fully into the Halloween spirit already, and it’s just the beginning of August. Make of that what you will.

There’s been a dearth of new horror lately, so I decided to re-watch Ghostwatch, a classic British made-for-TV film, because it perfectly captures the atmosphere that I (and, no doubt, many of you) so love about the approach to Halloween.

"Welcome to a very special edition of Masterpiece Theater."

“Welcome to a very special edition of Masterpiece Theater.”

“The program you’re about to watch is a unique live investigation of the supernatural,” host Michael Parkinson tells us at the show’s opening, setting the stage for one of the earliest mockumentary horror films–and an accompanying real-life panic. From beginning to end the film is framed as a real, live investigation of a haunted house, and it constantly alternates between in-studio footage of presenters and commentators, “live” footage of reporters at the scene, and found-footage-style recordings made by parapsychologists investigating the case. References to real-life organizations like the SPR and “live” calls from viewers talking about their own experiences and opinions on the events in the house beautifully heighten the realness of the film. And naturally the film was broadcast on Halloween night, further adding to the sense of immediacy and, I’d imagine, creepiness.

The idea is both simple and kind of revolutionary. The BBC has set up shop at the home of divorcee Pam Early and her daughters Suzanne and Kim. The Earlys have reported poltergeist activity and the BBC decides to investigate because, you know–ratings. A film crew and reporters will remain at the Earlys’ residence overnight, reporting on any unusual events in an attempt to verify the haunting. Back in the studio, Michael Parkinson (as himself, a real television host) is joined by a (fictional) parapsychologist, Dr. Lin Pascoe, who provides commentary on the events at the house. Dr. Pascoe has already conducted extensive research with the Earlys in their home and is convinced of the reality of the haunting. In addition to live footage from the house, the program features recordings of several of Dr. Pascoe’s earlier interactions with the Early daughters. The “live broadcast” conceit is always foregrounded, which adds to the weirdness of the experience.

Windowless white vans are scary in any context.

Windowless white vans are scary in any context.

The program progresses as a real broadcast might, with interviews with the family and other members of their community, frequent cuts to different locations as “new” information arises, calls from “viewers,” and blandly humorous banter between the hosts and reporters. We learn that the family has experienced a number of typically poltergeisty events–floating objects, broken stuff, strange sounds, scratches that appear from nowhere–and called in the BBC because their previous interactions with the press made them look foolish. They view Ghostwatch as an opportunity to set the record straight. They are apparently haunted by a ghost they call “Pipes,” which stems from the mother’s attempt to explain the strange noises as coming from the heating pipes.

Everything is slow, calm, and even cheery until the halfway mark. At this point we start to learn more about the bloody history of the neighborhood (child murders, a butchered pregnant dog and dog-fetuses scattered around a nearby lot). The very first “live” anomalous thing happens at 49 minutes in (a weird water stain appears on the carpet), but even that happens off-camera. Then in the last third of the film, shit starts to get real, as what people were starting to write off as a hoax actually starts affecting things not only in the house, but in the television studio, and even in the homes of “viewers,” who call in to report anomalous events they experience as they watch the live broadcast. It’s a brilliant, multi-layered meta-film, escaping from television into reality in a fascinating and frightening way.

Kim's depiction of Pipes the ghost. Because no post-Amityville Horror horror is complete without creepy children's drawings.

Kim’s depiction of Pipes the ghost. Because no post-Amityville Horror horror is complete without creepy children’s drawings.

While it isn’t flawless, Ghostwatch remains a masterpiece of modern horror. It does become a little difficult for the studio actors to maintain the level of realism toward the end when the ghost’s identity is revealed and the paranormal events escape into the studio, but in light of the grand scope of the film this is forgivable. It’s got one of the most plausible premises for a found-footage-style film I’ve ever seen, and it’s smart. And it has Craig Charles, aka Lister from Red Dwarf. The show also caused something like a panic among some viewers, and was banned for ten years from British television (if you ask me, another point in its favor).

Altogether it’s a brilliant concept and a very well-executed film, and I only wish I’d been able to watch the original broadcast, which I imagine would have been a vastly different experience. (And if any readers did get to view the original broadcast, I’d love to hear about your experiences.) I’d very much like to see a true follow-up (according to the Wiki, linked above, there is a short story sequel by the original writer). Of course, it’d be nearly impossible to generate the same kind of response today… or would it? I’m looking at you, Mermaids: The Body Found.

If you haven’t seen it, good news! It’s on Ye Olde Tubes of You right at this very moment. Check it out now, or wait for Halloween. Either way, as long as you don’t mind a slow burn, you’re in for a treat.


4 thoughts on “Retro Review: “Ghostwatch” (1992)

  1. I love this documentary – I chased it up on Netflix after reading an earlier post in which you referenced it. I thought it worked really well, and at times was quite subtle. However by the end things went little hammy – especially events in the studio – by that time I would have thought that most of the audience SHOULD have guessed it was a hoax….but hey, I didn’t see at when it was aired.

    And I understand that there was some issue with the ‘helpline’ that was supposed to be a fake number but actually came up as busy when members of the public rang it…all adding to the panic!

    • I agree, it did get pretty hammy toward the end. But by that point I was so into the whole idea that I was willing to let it slide.

      Yeah, according to the wiki they showed the usual call-in number for BBC1, so people really did try calling in. I love it when horror breaks the fourth wall like that.

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