Ghostwatch: A Classic Piece of UK Horror TV

The 'live' broadcast Ghostwatch scared many people witless nearly 15 years ago.

Like many who are old enough to remember Halloween 1992, I watched Ghostwatch when it aired on BBC1 and was just the right age; poised somewhere between old enough to love it and young enough to believe it was real. I was staying over at a friend’s house and his mum had no problem letting us stay up late. We were giddy with excitement because we already loved all things supernatural and the possibility of seeing actual, real live ghosts on actual, real live TV was irresistible.

Never mind that it was billed quite clearly as a fictionalized drama. Like a significant slice of the UK population, I conveniently missed the writer’s credit at the start and bought into the conceit hook, line, and sinker…

The premise involved a team of TV presenters (Michael Parkinson, Sarah Greene, Mike Smith, and Craig Charles) broadcasting ‘live’ from a haunted house as they searched for spooks. By using much-loved, trusted and family-friendly celebs like this, they gained the audience’s trust without even trying. We blithely saw Parkinson and thought “well, he’s not an actor and he wouldn’t lie to us, it must be real!” as he earnestly reassured “We don’t want to give anybody sleepless nights…” Of course, this credulousness led to some very sleepless nights indeed. Not to mention a record number of viewer complaints. Reports of the program causing everything from suicide to PTSD to demonic possession filled the newspapers for days afterwards.

Ghostwatch starts innocuously enough with presenters exchanging vapid banter and setting up a story that paranormal fans may recognize as being similar to the Enfield Poltergeist case (recently adapted less effectively in The Conjuring 2). Each of the celebs plays their role perfectly; the patronizing presenter (Parkinson), the earnest on-the-spot reporter (Greene), the flustered phone-in co-ordinator (Smith), and the zany sidekick (Charles). There’s a charmingly British ineptitude to it that not only lends realism but also primes audiences to pay attention, waiting for it to inevitably go wrong. Bear in mind, this was an era before reality shows and the most you could hope for in terms of televisual spontaneity was that someone broadcasting live would somehow mess it up.

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As it goes on, Ghostwatch subtly asks viewers to question the reality of what they’re seeing. There are screens within screens everywhere. Even those involved in the broadcast are often physically separated, communicating with each other through technology rather than real life. This sense of disconnection works with the more traditional horror techniques (callers ringing in with strange anecdotes, clips of anonymous blurryfaced people telling their own ghost stories) to slowly build dread.

One caller suggests they’ve seen something lurking in the background in an earlier scene which is – cleverly – played back once with a shadowy figure standing there and once with nothing, just to keep you doubting what you’re seeing. Planting that seed of doubt ensures you’re concentrating very hard on the detail; an act rewarded by not one but eight blink-and-you’ll-miss-‘em sightings of the ghost.

Of course, as a kid watching at the time, I only noticed one of these but it scared the life out of me. I remember literally jumping up and down on the sofa, screaming to my friend “IT’S REAL! You can’t do that with a camera! You can’t fake that!” while his mum casually did the ironing, rolled her eyes and told me quite calmly that you could.

Admittedly, by the nerve-jangling but wildly over-the-top climax even I realised it was a ‘hoax’ but I’d loved every minute of being scared so much, I didn’t care. I was shocked the next day to find not everyone had been so delighted.

It’s very easy – in our hyperaware internet culture – to wonder how on earth so many people could be fooled into thinking that something so obviously scripted was real? But this was a different time. In addition to not having access to as much information about things as we do now, there was – in general – a less questioning attitude to the media and Ghostwatch is such a pitch-perfect satire of this. It asks dangerous questions of the viewer about what they’re watching, why they’re watching it and whether they should believe it, and the answers aren’t always pleasant.

It plays into the TV addict’s relationship with the ‘Normal transmission will be resumed shortly’ message too when everything falls apart in the same way an earlier Paul Daniels Halloween Special did, when the magician pretended to die in an iron maiden trap and transmission blacked out. We’re eager for things to go wrong on live TV to prove it’s real but when they go too wrong and the transmission stops, it’s a little too real and it becomes terrifying. Almost like severing our link with reality altogether and leaving us in literal darkness.

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Speaking of literal darkness, the BBC buried Ghostwatch deep in its archive and refused to re-broadcast or even talk about it for ten years, on account of the unprecedented number of complaints. For some, this helped build its legend. Those of us fortunate to catch it still spoke with awe about how frightening it was and those who’d missed it could only imagine the horror unless they were lucky enough to get hold of a taped-off-the-telly bootleg.

At the Fortean Times unConvention in 2003, director Lesley Manning and writer Stephen Volk conducted a Q&A about the programme and treated attendees to a full Ghostwatch screening from a newly-released BFI DVD. For many of us there, it was the first time we’d seen it since 1992 and, although a very different experience, the emotional responses were still the same. Personally, I’d been expecting to enjoy a little nostalgia trip and to laugh at myself for being duped but I was shocked by how brilliantly it had stood the test of time. I’ve watched it several times since and it never fails to impress.

What makes Ghostwatchspecial and secures its place in the Horror Pantheon is how careful it is with every detail, how much there still is to appreciate with every repeat viewing. From the bumbling hilarity at the start to the visceral terror of that final act, each beat hits hard and I always come away feeling unsettled and impressed. The back story of ‘Pipes’ is as macabre and chilling they come and those barely-perceptible glimpses of his skull-like, half-eaten face in the shadows are a masterclass in precisely how much you should show.

When I first wrote about this in 2007, I said I was baffled how something so brilliant had been consigned to fleeting mentions on ’50 Scariest TV Moments’ style shows. Since then, it’s celebrated quite the resurgence. There’s been a deep-dive documentary about it (Ghostwatch: Behind The Curtains), an annual ‘National Seance’ where at 9:25pm every Halloween fans are encouraged to simultaneously watch their copies to see what happens, and it’s rightly and regularly hailed as an influence on many subsequent mockumentary/found footage horror films (although, in my mind, nothing’s beaten it yet).

I’d like to say that the idea of something like this airing now is crazy but that implies it wasn’t crazy even back then. Wherever you put Ghostwatchon the timeline of TV history, it’s a menacing, marvelous anomaly. Sleepless nights guaranteed.