“Darkness there and nothing more” Ghostwatch (Retrospective)

It was never meant to be taken seriously. It was meant to thrill and chill, not terrify and lead to over 2000 complaints to the BBC. It had been advertised in the Radio Times as a Halloween featured drama. The indent explained that it was a Screen One film marking Halloween; it had Screen One and “written by” title cards at the start. It was supposed to be drama dressed up as a live broadcast to celebrate Halloween. Instead, it ended up receiving a rebroadcast ban on the BBC, earned a mention in the BMJ as a cause of PTSD in children and gave birth to the found footage genre of horror. Ghostwatch (1992) is one of those watershed moments in television and film that not only changes the landscape, but also maintains its status as the best one, with everything else following being nothing more than a paling imitation. Even after all these years, Ghostwatch still has the ability to be frightening, something which has become incredibly rare in horror movies.

Inspired by the infamous Enfield Poltergeist incident, writer Stephen Volk envisioned a six-part drama. Each week, the mystery would build to a supposed live episode where all hell would break loose. Eventually, it was decided to run with a 90 minute television film instead. During an interview, Volk said what he wanted “was to create a good old fashioned ghost story…the second intent was to… do a satire about television in the early nineties.”[i] Having well known television personalities and icons of the time (such as Michael Parkinson, Sarah Greene, Mike Smith and Craig Charles) playing themselves only heightened the sense of realism. Could anyone really see talk show host Parky and sports commentator Smithy acting in a ghost story? Parky’s own mother thought the show was real. It’s easy to see why.

Had you just switched over, you would have seen what appeared to be a live broadcast between a studio and location as they investigate a home and family that have been at the centre of supernatural events for several months, haunted by Mr. Pipes.

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In the studio, Parky MC’s the show and speaks with paranormal researcher Dr Lin Pascoe (Gillian Bevan) while out on location, Greene and Charles interview Pamela Early (Brid Brennan) and her children Kim (Cherise Wesson) and Suzanne (Michelle Wesson). Everything seems normal, with replays of some previous incidents and interviews in the studio, vox pops with people on location, time fillers, all of them. It’s only when people start phoning in with reports of strange activities at home and describe seeing the same figure that all hell breaks loose. Suzanne is attacked by an unseen force leaving her covered in scratch marks, lights explode, heavy banging noises and a cat mewling echo throughout the house as the crew come under fire and all contact is lost. As the film develops, we discover the site has had a long dark history; a child abuser, Raymond Tunstall, lived in the house during the 1960’s and committed suicide, with his cats gnawing at his body. Tunstall claimed he was menaced by the spirit of a Mother Seddons, a baby-farmer and child killer. As paranormal incidents increase in violence across the country, Dr Pascoe realises what they have done; they’ve created a nationwide séance. As Pipes gains terrifying levels of power, Suzanne becomes trapped in the room under the stairs. The room Tunstall killed himself in. Greene tries to rescue her, only to be dragged under the stairs as Pipes takes control of the studio and the BBC transmitter network. The show ends with Parkinson slowly becoming possessed by Pipes.

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Well that’s the story in a nutshell. Condensed and laid out like that, it does seem somewhat run of the mill and even slightly ridiculous. I mean, Michael Parkinson possessed by a ghost? So why does this 90 minute TV Film not only remain firmly lodged in the collective psyche as one of the most chilling films ever made, but yet to be topped by the output of horror industry?

When talking about Ghostwatch, it is impossible to ignore the outcry that followed it. It became a War of the Worlds (1938) for the closing years of the twentieth century. The makers sought to create the right amount of realism in the production; cuts between studio and location come with the precise amount of delay, its’ shot on video rather than film, the broadcast timeline is the date of airing. These little details added to the sense of plausibility, something you would otherwise ignore on an actual broadcast but would zone in on if it was missing. It drew you in as a viewer and made you think that at any moment something might happen, like so many live event broadcasts. The production is masterful in creating a realistic studio and live broadcast setting, because it’s easy to forget that this is a drama: just the right amount of minor tech issues, the drunk caller getting on air, the playful banter between the presenters, this all builds it up. To give it that extra feel of realism, the actors were encouraged to ad-lib and improvise when possible, giving it the off-the-cuff sensation of magazine shows.
The phone number was the standard BBC phone in number and originally had a pre-recorded message informing viewers that they were watching a drama. Unfortunately for the terrified public, the phone line became that inundated that many callers only got the engaged tone.

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It wasn’t until the show was over that the BBC were flooded with complaints from an outraged public. How dare they make a ghost show for Halloween that tricked them? When the tabloids begun jumping on the outrage bandwagon, the condemnation went to what professionally is known as “froth level”.

It raised questions about our relationship with television up to that point. Television had entered our homes forty years previously and an unspoken rule system developed. Drama was drama, factual was factual and the two were never meant to overlap; we trusted the TV to tell us the news, to entertain, to shock, but never all together. This blind, unquestioning acceptance, even when informed we were watching a piece of fiction, was what brought home to many the terror of the film. It also shows our reliance on media and our unquestioning acceptance of the information we are provided with. We have become less trusting of traditional media; would Ghostwatch still have the same impact today in our cynical era? Did Ghostwatch, inadvertently, play an important role in the breakdown of media trust?
Ghostwatch became dwarfed by the spectacle others made around it, which is a shame because going into it today, knowing it’s a faux-documentary, it’s still scary.

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There is a depth to Ghostwatch that many other horror films lack. Volk originally wanted a six-part show ending with a pseudo-live broadcast. He had the material to expand upon, creating a deep, dark world to set his horror in and never gives any straight answers to the questions raised by the story. A horror, a ghost story, becomes less scary after you see the monster or have an explanation given to you. In Ghostwatch, you have to keep your eyes peeled to see even a hint of Pipes.

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It is a masterclass in both storytelling and visual narrative that draws the viewer deeper and deeper into it. Parkinson says it best in the opening: “No creaking gates, no gothic towers, no shuttered windows.” This is horror in suburbia, taken into the home not too dissimilar from the one you’re sitting in.  We never truly find out what or who the ghost is. Is Pipes Tunstall or Mother Seddons? Or is it, as one character hypotheses, that these are merely its newest layer and this is something malicious that stretches back into pre-history. A malevolent entity bound to a location that is older than the human race. The idea speaks of a constant prevalent type of evil, old and powerful that is beyond us, whispering in our ears. One that we have amplified in power through a national séance, that appears to be invading homes up and down the country.

Ghostwatch understands that jump scares aren’t scary, not in the long run. Like a blob of mustard; hot for a moment and then gone. Jump scares shock, startle, but after that it’s back to normal. What scares more, a monster jumping out at you or knowing that there is a monster sat behind you, calmly waiting for you to turn around? Ghostwatch understands this and you never see Pipes, only impressions of him. All the action takes place just off camera as the crew tries to understand just what is happening. When action does occur, it’s so fleeting that you can’t tell just what it was you saw. This was in the days before DVR and playback was not an option.

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Take the following scene: a caller to the show has asked for a piece of footage to be played; claiming that there is an outline of a figure and that it can be seen in the top right hand corner of the shot. When shown, the viewers make out a figure standing there.

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The in-house crew quickly examine it, dismissing it as a trick of light and shadow, and the viewer gets this shot instead. The figure is gone but it’s the same timeline code.

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This simple camera trick caused people up and down the country to start arguing that there had or had not been a figure there. When the camera lies, who can you trust?

Ghostwatch used trick photography, sound manipulation, and a sense of realism to put layer upon layer onto the story until it gets too much. We never learn what happens to Suzanne or Greene and can only assume that Pipes has killed them or maybe they have become the new layer of this horror. Children’s nursery rhymes sung in a deep adult voice, creepy enough at the best of times, mixed with the cries of cats gets under the skin quicker than some Hollywood horrors.  It’s a stripped down production that has more weight in story, and creativity in filming techniques than many of the biggest horror movies.

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Ghostwatch’s legacy continues well into today. Mention the name Pipes around anyone between their late twenty’s and early thirties, there’s a good chance you’ll see them shudder. Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez both saw the movie which provided the inspiration for their film, The Blair Witch Project (1999) and Derren Brown’s Séance (2004) was directly inspired by Ghostwatch, right down to the number people could phone in on to report strange activities they might be experiencing. In 2013, Rich Lawden produced the documentary Ghostwatch: Behind the Curtains, a retrospective review of the film, its production, and its reaction. An annual “National Séance” is held on Twitter every Halloween; viewers start watching DVD copies of Ghostwatch and comment in real time.

We love to watch horror movies; there’s no denying that. We love to be scared, but by and large this is something that most horror films fail in doing, be it the supernatural or secular in setting and theme. Ghostwatch, a slightly obscure TV film from the early nineties, not only caused outrage when it was made, but created its own genre, scared the vast amount of the population and still resonates with us today.  Most importantly, it showed how a horror should be done.

That it should be “darkness there and nothing more.”

[i]Tyne Tees Television, 2003,  “The 100 Greatest Scary Moments”, Channel 4