Found Footage 101: ‘Ghostwatch’ (UK, 1992)

❉ We continue our ‘found footage’ retrospective with BBC TV’s infamous Halloween spooktacular, Ghostwatch!

“The programme you’re about to watch is a unique live investigation of the supernatural.  It contains material which some viewers may find to be disturbing…”

Plot Teaser

A live broadcast by the BBC from a haunted house.  What could possibly go wrong?

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You’ll Like This If You Like…

TV shows where people explore haunted houses; the works of Nigel Kneale; any found footage film featuring ghost hunters; deliciously old-fashioned scares.

Spoiler-Free Review

One of the scariest things ever shown on British TV, this can also claim two rather grim firsts – the only programme ever to cause Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in children, and the first to cause a viewer to commit suicide through sheer fear.  It’s a particularly good ghost story, old-fashioned in its concept, but thoroughly modern in its execution.

SPOILERS BELOW!

Location

A studio at BBC TV centre and a house on Foxhill Drive, Northolt, London.

Enemy

Either Pipes (a paedophile serial-killer), old Mother Seddon (another child serial-killer) or possibly evil from the dawn of time itself.

Why Are You Still Filming?

As it’s a live TV broadcast, no one ever asks this.

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Review and Analysis

“The programme you’re about to watch is a unique live investigation of the supernatural.  It contains material which some viewers may find to be disturbing,” says host Michael Parkinson to camera as the film begins.  He couldn’t have been more accurate.

As much a film about television as it is about the paranormal, ‘Ghostwatch’ created a media storm on original transmission and has never been repeated by the BBC since, instead trying to play down any memories of it at all.  Given the public reaction (outright fury in some cases), this is hardly surprising.  Whilst made as a film (and credited as such in newspapers and TV listings magazines) the premise was that this was a live broadcast examining a haunting at an otherwise-normal house, transmitted on Halloween itself.  The BBC had been cautious about the project at every stage of production (this was almost pulled from transmission right up until the broadcast, the BBC well aware of the potential reaction from an audience who might believe it was real) and rightly so.  The production team had crafted an excellent piece of drama that seemed credible in every respect.  TV at the time was full of live programmes examining some aspect of life or another and ‘Ghostwatch’ seemed no less factual than any of them: Had the BBC really made a live programme studying an alleged haunting, this is exactly what it would have looked like.  A sober and familiar host in the form of Michael Parkinson (American readers may find it helpful to think of Dick Cavett as a local equivalent), cosy husband and wife team of Mike Smith and Sarah Greene as everyday observers (imagine Regis and Kathy if they were a married couple) and joker Craig Charles (a Craig Bierko or Seth Green type) as the one in the team who didn’t take it remotely seriously all played themselves and made this seem so much more credible, as did the guests in the studio overseeing proceedings.

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Beautifully structured from the outset, the chills came thick and fast: we open with a video (filmed by an investigating parapsychologist) of paranormal activity in the house. Ten minutes later a viewer rings the live phonelines (because viewer participation is always mandatory in such programmes) to report that they saw a figure in the footage.  The audience didn’t see this figure because it wasn’t there, but nevertheless the footage is replayed and this time the audience quite clearly see a figure in the bedroom of the two girls haunted by its presence.  The people in the studio don’t see it.  The footage is repeated (this time the figure is far more faint) and the audience grudgingly accept the explanation that we’re confused by a trick of the light.

All of the appearances by the ghost are treated this way: he appears throughout the film (thirteen times in all, according to the director, although viewers have only been able to identify eight of them) subliminally, in reflections of windows, standing in crowds, in the studio.  Each appearance is more terrifying than the last (his appearance helps greatly – one of his eyes has been gouged out by the cats that ate his rotting corpse) and as we learn very little about him until the closing act of the film, he remains mysterious and therefore more menacing.

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When we get the backstory it is no less disturbing – he’s the spirit of Raymond Tunstall, a psychiatric patient and serial child-molester/killer.  He committed suicide in the haunted house and his body was left for eleven days in a house full of cats (we also hear the howls of cats in the house – a freaky noise at the best of times).  The family in the house refer to him as Pipes, because of his tendency to make noises which sound enough like pipes banging to justify name.  We’ve already heard that another previous resident of the house was Mother Seddon, herself a child killer, and in the closing minutes (before all hell really breaks loose) it’s theorised that Seddon had possessed Tunstall, before the parapsychologist realises that this may go back even further than that, in a deliberate reference to another ghost story, Nigel Kneale’s classic ‘The Stone Tape’, in which evil from the dawn of time manifests itself in a country house.

One of the girls in the house, much earlier, had told us all that “Pipes wants to see everybody” and the enormity of the mistake the BBC has made becomes clear to the parapsychologist: “We’ve created a séance, a massive séance.”  As homes around the country are visited by the spirits of Pipes/Seddon/Pure Evil Sarah Greene is seen to killed by the spirits on live TV and they burst into the studio, throwing cameras around and possessing Michael Parkinson (and, by extension, the televisions of every single viewer).  The film ends.

It’s a powerful film, stunningly well realised and effective seen some twenty years later.  There are enough jump moments to keep the audience unnerved throughout, enough invention to hold their attention, and a climax which should chill anyone.  It’s no wonder that the public were so disturbed, although the outcry remains puzzling (I saw this on original transmission and was perfectly aware that it was fictitious).  It’s true that thanks to a film ending on another channel some thirty minutes in to ‘Ghostwatch’ a number of people tuned in unaware that they were not watching a live broadcast (it was Halloween after all), but surely the complete cast and crew end credits would have been sufficient to allay any suspicions.  Manipulated by the media or not (every front page the next day carried a story about the effect the film had had) the BBC washed their hands of the embarrassment and did their best to forget that it had ever been shown.  It’s a tragedy that they felt this way as this has been one of their best productions and incredibly influential – the ‘Blair Witch’ team watched it in preparation for their film, and the way this has permeated many ghost stories since is testament to its quality.

Availability

Once deleted, this is now available in the UK as a region 2 DVD.


❉ Next week on Found Footage 101: ‘Man Bites Dog’ (1993)

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