Why ‘Ghostwatch’, the BBC’s Controversial Mockumentary, is a Genuine Horror Classic
Ghostwatch, the infamous BBC horror mockumentary that was banned from television after being deemed too disturbing, is finally available to view legally in the United States. This controversial made-for-TV film was broadcast on Halloween night in 1992 but never again, and although it was later released on DVD in the United Kingdom, there had not been a legitimate way to watch it in the U.S until now. This past week, Ghostwatch was added to Shudder, the horror-only streaming service, and it’s time for Americans to acquaint themselves with this masterful and revolutionary piece of horror storytelling that truly stands the test of time.
Years before The Blair Witch Project became a cultural phenomenon, Stephen Volk’s Ghostwatch perfected the art of duping audiences by presenting itself as genuine. Following in the footsteps of War of the Worlds, Ghostwatch aired on BBC1 and took on the appearance of a news broadcast, being introduced as a “unique live investigation” during which a reporter would be sent into a haunted house in an attempt to discover the supernatural. The film goes out of its way to mimic the look and feel of modern television, and there are even (fake) calls taken during the show with an actual phone number being placed on screen; this was the BBC’s standard call-in number.
Adding to the realism was the fact that the host is Michael Parkinson, a journalist who at the time had his own talk show that aired on BBC1, and the other presenters were also prominent BBC personalities. The reporter who goes into the haunted house is Sarah Greene, who viewers would have recognized from a morning show called Going Live! Also part of Ghostwatch is Craig Charles, an actor who appeared on the BBC series Red Dwarf. Both Greene and Charles play themselves, not fictional characters, and if the BBC were to air a live ghost special, these are the kinds of folks they’d probably get to be on it.
Enough people saw Ghostwatch and believed it to be real that the BBC received thousands of complaints and never aired it a second time. That being said, there were plenty of indications that the broadcast was a scripted drama and not a real live investigation. For starters, it opens with the logo for Screen One, an anthology drama series, and it has an opening title card which announces the program as being Ghostwatch “by Stephen Volk.” Why would a live TV broadcast be “by” anyone? But a substantial number of viewers apparently tuned in late and did not see any of this. Another indication that Ghostwatch was fictional was that if you called the number on the screen, you’d hear a message informing you that the show is fake. However, the number was so flooded that a lot of callers got a busy signal and never heard the message.
Looking back at Ghostwatch after the subsequent wave of found-footage and mockumentary horror films, it’s remarkable just how much of the subgenre that we’d come to know is on display here, long before mockumentary horror was much of a thing. Right from the beginning, we’re closely examining security-camera-style footage of two characters sleeping that looks like it’s straight out of Paranormal Activity, and as in that film, the protagonists wake up at 3:00 a.m. to find something strange is happening. Like The Blair Witch Project, the movie also seamlessly introduces the mythology of the universe in the first act through interviews, with these scenes coming across as natural conversations in the moment even though they convey vital information.
There are also a number of innovative bits that play with technology, as when the movie provides us with a demonstration of temperature sensors, only to have that become a major part of the third act. And a particularly great surprise comes when supposedly-live footage is revealed to not actually be live; this would become the key twist in plenty of horror films including Saw II, and in general, the idea of using technology to warp our perception of reality is also a staple of found-footage films like V/H/S and Unfriended.
These are merely a handful of the elements of Ghostwatch that we see echoes of through horror film history. But the primary reason the movie works as well as it does is because of something that few other films have accomplished or even attempted; the true magic of Ghostwatch is that it is peppered with eerie “blink and you’ll miss it” moments, none of which are pointed out by any of the characters when they occur.
See, the main ghost, “Pipes,” sporadically shows up on screen all throughout Ghostwatch, standing in the darkness or being visible in a reflection. But never does he interact with any of the characters, and so this is mainly just to mess with the viewer’s head. Pipes’ appearances are hidden well enough that you could easily miss most of them, but they’re prominent enough that you’re likely to catch a couple on your first viewing.
Viewers are sent on this Easter Egg hunt right from the get-go. The movie opens with Michael Parkinson presenting us with footage of the main two girls asleep in their bedroom. Some generic ghost haunting goes down, and we’re lead to believe that this is the reason we are being shown the tape. The program then completely moves on, lulling us into a false sense of security by having the reporters banter and introduce us to the family as we impatiently wait for things to get started.
But then the first bomb drops 13 minutes in, as a concerned caller says that she saw a hidden figure standing in the corner during the bedroom footage that played at the top of the show.
With those chilling words, our heart sinks as we realize that a creature may have been hiding in plain sight all this time, during a stretch of the movie that we initially thought was somewhat slow. The call plays out like one of those unexpected moments in live television that the hosts are not entirely prepared to handle, and it takes the behind-the-scenes crew seven excruciating minutes to cue up the footage so that it can be reviewed. All that time, we dread having to see whatever horrifying sight was captured on camera; it’s the feeling of knowing something is behind you and not wanting to face it, but in this case, the movie forcibly turns us around and makes us look.
Sure enough, when the footage plays again, the ghostly figure is instantly apparent, and seeing it for the first time is genuinely shocking, like a creepy version of finally locating Waldo in a Where’s Waldo puzzle and in retrospect wondering how it took you so long. If this ghost was right in front of our faces all along, what else might be lurking inside this movie? And what might be standing in the corner of the room out of view right now, as we watch this on television?
The secret here, though, is that the footage of the ghost is actually different footage than before. No ghost was there originally, but the movie so thoroughly convinces us that we simply missed it the first time around. Not only that, but Stephen Volk goes out of his way to mess with us even further: when the hosts first review the footage, Pipes is there, but when they rewind to view it again, he’s gone, and we question whether it was all just our imagination.
Ghostwatch, then, establishes itself from the start as a movie where things will be hidden throughout, and therefore we spend the rest of its runtime in a state of constant paranoia, questioning every tiny movement and intently staring at each reflection. Pipes shows up seven more times, but it certainly seems more frequent than that, as we spend 70 minutes freaking out over the thought of him popping up again. And because it is human nature to see figures and faces where none exist, we add in at least a dozen more false Pipes sightings ourselves; these are just as terrifying as the real ones.
The next legitimate Pipes appearance after the bedroom sequence is a subtle one, and it actually takes place in the studio, which we assumed was a safe space. As Dr. Pascoe is playing an audio tape of a possession, Pipes can be seen standing behind her. We can barely make out the outline of a person, and at first, we assume it’s a crew member, but when the lights come back on, no one’s there. The possession tape doesn’t end up being that important, and Stephen Volk has intentionally misdirected us. We become distracted by the tape so that it takes longer for it to sink in that something is off about the shot, and the longer it takes for us to find the truth, the more unnerving the eventual realization is.
About 20 minutes later, there’s another sighting, this one the clearest so far. As Craig Charles is walking outside of the house and there is a small crowd gathered, mixed in with the ordinary people is Pipes, standing there with his bloodied face and everything as if he’s a normal townsperson. In any traditional horror movie, a character would see Pipes, scream, and this would lead to a climactic moment and probably a death. Not in Ghostwatch; we only catch a few frames of Pipes and our stomach turns, but the movie rolls on. This is how Ghostwatch operates: subtly scaring the audience and then refusing to acknowledge that it did so.
The next Pipes sighting comes about 55 minutes in. The camera pans around while Sarah is in the kitchen, and for a moment, Pipes can be seen in the door’s reflection. This goes by so quickly that most viewers won’t immediately register that it’s Pipes who is there. Rather, it dawns on us that there is one extra person in that reflection than there should be, and that lingering feeling of fright is exacerbated by the fact that the characters never notice.
About 71 minutes in, another sighting comes, with this one being perhaps the most dramatic of the entire movie. As the house is being evacuated and the girls are leaving the room, we can see Pipes standing in front of the curtains, in the precise spot where he was standing earlier. The cameraman sees him, too, but as he whips back around to get a better look, there’s no one there anymore. Or was no one there in the first place?
Six minutes later, a cupboard is very slowly opened, and for a fraction of a second, we can see Pipes before the camera shifts its attention to something else. If we could control the camera ourselves, we would turn back around to see what was there, but the movie continuously deprives us of the information we so desperately want. Finally, Pipes can be seen for just three frames in the static about an hour and 27 minutes in, and the last appearance comes as Pipes stands on a gantry in the TV studio.
Well, actually, there’s one more sighting we missed. Ghostwatch is so genius and so layered that in 2016, 14 years after the original air date, a new Pipes appearance was discovered: he can just barely been seen in the patio window as Craig is conducting an interview seven minutes in. For all we know, there are even more sightings peppered throughout the movie that are waiting to be unearthed, and so viewing Ghostwatch is like embarking on a journey through a mysterious forest that has not yet been fully explored.
Some of the magic of Ghostwatch is unfortunately lost when viewing it in 2017, as at the time, there was no way to pause the broadcast or go back to review the footage like we can now. Just imagine seeing Ghostwatch during its original broadcast back in 1992 without knowing for sure that you’re supposed to be looking for Easter eggs the whole time. All through the evening, you’d be noticing bizarre but unspoken activity and would have no way to verify it or find out if anyone out there was experiencing the same thing.
The film realizes that even worse than seeing a ghost straight on is seeing one in the corner of your eye. Scarier than being confronted by a monster is having a gut feeling that one is standing right beside you and might show itself at any moment. Strangely, this is something that few other horror films play with, with one notable exception being the scene in Insidious during which the dancing boy is hiding on the left side of the screen as Renai is walking through the house.
But have you ever been watching a horror film and found yourself terrified by the darkness comprising the frame, anxious that you might suddenly see a face in that black void? Rarely does this happen, and it’s usually just our mind making the movie scarier than the director did. Ghostwatch, though, taps into this primal fear of the hidden terror that continuously evades our grasp, and outside of all of the gimmickry, this is what elevates a low budget, made-for-television film into a genuine horror classic.
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