“I think he’s come to hurt everybody. I think he wants to do nasty things.”
Back in the 1980’s I remember watching a program… what? Yes, it’s related to Ghostwatch, just hold on for a paragraph or two. Anyway, there was a program that aired on NBC called Special Bulletin. It was presented as a “Special Bulletin” news break-in to regular programming and presented as a series of escalating news reports about a terrorist group in Charleston that had brought a nuclear device into the harbor. Over the course of the show things go terribly wrong and the device ends up going off.
Despite the constant warnings that it was a ‘dramatization’ and several disclaimers, it was powerfully realistic (especially for residents of Charleston). I remember being absolutely horrified – even though I was (mostly) sure it wasn’t real. That was part of growing up during a time when it felt like there was a nuclear sword of Damocles over your head – even if a show about nuclear war or disaster wasn’t real, it felt like it could be. I think I had nightmares that night. I probably had them for a while.
That was my own personal (minor) experience of the War of the Worlds effect, wherein mass media tells a fictional story disguised as a news event and scares the shit out of people. As bad as that was, it was very limited in scope and effect because of the disclaimers and other indicators (like the compression of time to fit in events and the use of actors instead of real news personalities).
Then there’s Ghostwatch. (Ah, see, I told you it would come around.)
Presented as a live event on BBC1, Ghostwatch contained only minor indicators that it was a work of fiction (most of them only shown at the beginning of the broadcast). It made extensive use of actual BBC presenters and personalities. Finally, the call in number for the show – which was an actual call-in number often used for live BBC programs – was overwhelmed, and therefore a large number of concerned citizens never heard the taped disclaimer that the show was a drama, not an actual live broadcast.
People flipped out. The BBC was inundated with calls and the press lambasted them for disturbing imagery. There were reports of children suffering PTSD from the show and at least one death was blamed on the broadcast. As a result, the BBC banned the show from being re-aired and it became – like Alternative 3 – an item of interest, curiosity and conspiracy.
It was one of those shows I only heard vague whispers about (I may have heard that the makers of The Blair Witch Project had been inspired by it), and wanted desperately to see. I caught bits and pieces of it over the years, but never the whole thing until a few years ago when it showed up on Shudder. Despite being a live show from the early 1990’s I was entranced. It was extremely well done and very spooky, even now. It quickly became one of my go-to Halloween viewings, which was why I was so disappointed last year when I saw it was no longer available on Shudder.
Luckily last week I found a copy at Goodwill – for a buck! – and couldn’t wait to make up for my missed viewing.
The DVD of Ghostwatch I now have is pretty bare-bones. It contains only the program, with no extras. I’d dearly love to see the documentary, Ghostwatch: Behind the Curtains. The picture is serviceable and is probably as good as it will get, as the show was shot on video tape in order to increase the verisimilitude. There are a couple of other DVD releases WITH extras (and one with The Stone Tape, and early Nigel Kneale BBC offering that I also enjoy), so if you can find one – grab it!
Ghostwatch is currently not available (in the US at least) on any streaming service, either for subs, rent or purchase.
Ghostwatch starts off in the BBC studios and is presented as a sort of Halloween special, a fun ‘haunted house ghost hunt,’ more tongue in cheek than serious. (You know, in that more staid, BBC sense of fun.) We’ve got the respectable presenter, Michael Parkinson (as himself) in the studio with the ‘expert’ Dr.Pascoe (Gillian Bevan – recently seen playing Theresa May on The Windsors). Mike Smith is answering the phones and his real-life wife and reporter, Sarah Green, is in the field with an array of technicians, as well as the family at the heart of the special – Pam Early and her daughters, Suzanne and Kim. As a side-note, the whole cast – actors and otherwise – do a great job. There are perhaps one or two characters who are a little too smooth where they shouldn’t be, but other than that it’s all sold extremely well.
Over the course of the program there are interviews, call-ins, old footage and an increasing sense of something wrong in the Early house. There are sounds and strange stains. Footage from previous investigations (by Dr. Pascoe) and interviews with neighbors heighten the sense that there’s something weird about the house, as does stories told by Pam and the girls about the entity they say haunts them – an apparition they’ve nicknamed ‘Pipes.’
After a nicely timed bit of misdirection about halfway through, things start to get seriously weird. The true history of the house and what – if anything – might be causing the disturbances is doled out in call-ins and newspaper clippings, revealing something possibly darker than a mere poltergeist. As phenomena expands beyond the confines of the council house and into the studio Dr. Pascoe worries aloud that the program has created a virtual nationwide seance, giving power to the entity. Whatever her concerns – and Michael’s – about safety, it’s far too late.
Ghostwatch does pretty much everything right in creating a sense of verisimilitude. Using actual BBC presenters, using cutting edge (for the time) science for the investigation (including temperature sensors and even an infrared camera), the man-on-the-street interviews and the occasional cast and/or technical flub. It all feels like the best found-footage movies do – that you’re watching something that actually happened.
It also connects you in ways that you might not expect. If you thought you saw something on screen that was too fast to see clearly, there would be a call-in (or mention of one) that called out the same thing. (There’s actually a list of ‘Pipes sightings’ that document how many times the entity appears on screen. Currently there are about 9 out of a possible 13 – so there are still some secrets to be pried out of the film)
The ending sequences are a bit abrupt and frenetic, but also disturbing. The last shot, in particular, has a deliciously disquieting effect.
It’s weird to be essentially avoiding ‘spoilers’ for something that came out 25 years ago, but if you can go in without too much info it’s just going to be a better experience.
The Bottom Line
Ghostwatch is a BBC television special from 1992, but it’s still a great ghost story and has chills to spare, even after all this time. It’s a great way to get into the spirit of Halloween, even when watching it in the depths of Fool’s Spring (early March in Maine). Very much recommended.
If you’re interested, a sequel of sorts, “31/10,” was written by the screenwriter of the original, Stephen Volk. It used to be available on his website, but, like Ghostwatch itself, has disappeared. (There are a bunch of other Ghostwatch related items on his site, however.)