Ghostwatch (1992) took UK television by storm when it first premiered on BBC1 on Halloween night, 1992.
A pseudo-documentary horror film– an early antecedent to some of its more contemporary found-footage horror ilk– Ghostwatch was directed by Lesley Manning and written by Stephen Volk. Ghostwatch, despite having been filmed weeks prior, was ostensibly aired as a “live” broadcast–an homage to Orson Welles’ 1938 War of the Worlds radio broadcast– and as was the case in the latter, incited considerable outrage from television viewing audiences.
Though standard credits were present at the start, many audience members concluded that what they were watching had to be true. Ire and horror are almost one in the same. Aristotle conceived of the body and the soul as material, codependent entities– one cannot exist without the other– and for some horror audiences, controversy and shivers down the spine exist just as conditionally.
Ghostwatch was never repeated on BBC. Children reported symptoms of post-traumatic-stress-disorder. Most tragically, Martin Denham– an 18-year-old factory worker with learning difficulties– died by suicide five days after the program aired, attributing the noise from a central heating system in his home to those created by the central ghost, Mr. Pipes, in the film. His note read, “Please don’t worry – if there are ghosts I will be a ghost, and I will be with you always as a ghost.” There was just the first and only UK broadcast. It’s a shame, too, because Ghostwatch, even in 2020, remains one of the most frightening movies ever made, circumspect as it is.
It’s difficult to determine just how or why Ghostwatch is as terrifying as it is. The collective, unostentatious nature of its scares, for instance, could just as easily be the result of budget-constraints or a deliberate, less-is-more approach to on-screen scares. Whatever the case may be, Ghostwatch is an integral part of horror history, a 90-minute made-for-television movie that had a great deal to say in 1992, and perhaps even more in the present day.
The plot is as follows: BBC personalities air a live investigation of a house in Northolt, Greater London, the alleged site of ongoing, poltergeist activity. The reporters spend the evening in the house while parapsychologist Dr. Lin Pascoe (Gillian Bevan) reports live from the BBC studio, contending with the skeptics and incredulous Londoners phoning in.
The goings, at least for a short while, are a standard, spooks-and-goblins-in-the-house affair. There are whispers from the dark and banging pipes in the wall. There are fake-out scares, pranks from an ostensibly professional on-air crew, and expository monologues about technology capable (apparently) of detecting paranormal activity. The paranormal activity, however, escalates, and soon glimpses of the central spook, Mr. Pipes, appear in almost every other scene. Some are so quick and blurred, like memories wiped clean, it’s hard to remember whether they ever even happened. Dr. Pascoe concludes that the live broadcast, in a way, has been acting as a séance for Mr. Pipes, giving him a terrifying degree of power. The studio is attacked. Lights flicker and shatter. Cameramen are dragged into the dark. Doors are slammed and people disappear. Mr. Pipes commandeers the broadcast– “Fee, Fi, Fo, Fum,” Mr. Pipes chants. Then, the film ends.
There is a pretty resonant message congenital to Ghostwatch’s narrative– the more we will evil to be true, the truer it becomes. This certainly doesn’t discount the existence of evil on its own terms– as an independent, unqualified state of being that is inveterate in our natural world– but it does contend that there are distinct evils that aren’t born out of natural law but of our own minds.
There can be a desire innate in us all to triumph over evil, whether there is evil to overcome or not, and in doing so, we create villains out of the innocent and render the benign as growingly insidious. The current state of the United States prison system, for instance– and incarceration worldwide, quite honestly– is a microcosm of this ideal, this pernicious desire to live alongside and create evil so that we can punish it. Recidivism rates are so high in some regions and for some offenses because the opportunities for considerable reform and rehabilitation are either inefficacious or nonexistent. Like the poltergeist activity in Northolt, the examples are varied and diverse, but unequivocally enduring. Evil is a prerequisite for good, so some people want to believe it. They want to believe it so very, very badly, it will be made so.
At the start of the Ghostwatch broadcast, several viewers phone in to suggest there was a figure in some previously aired footage of one of the bedrooms. Dr. Pascoe is unconvinced. “The first thing your mind creates,” she says, “is a face in any abstract shape or form.” There is no figure, she says. Our minds are seeing exactly what we want to see– nothing more and nothing less.
Fear is perhaps faith in evil, and we let fear drive us to do horrible things. Fear takes good people and makes them monsters– it makes us see them as evil. Our minds see what they want, but that isn’t an absolute, immutable state. We can see and perceive differently. Horror can be curative. It can be illuminating. We just have to let it. We just have to watch for the ghosts of the good things we know to be true and know can be true. That’s all we have to do.
Collectively, the thrilling subtext and sublime scares result in Ghostwatch still feeling so terrifyingly fresh even 28 years later. It’s a dynamite movie, one of considerable historic value, and a presage to last decade’s found-footage craze. For some viewers, watching Ghostwach has become an annual tradition every Halloween night. That’s something special indeed.