Ghoulish Delight #11: Ghostwatch | DaysAreNumbers
When I talk to people who haven’t seen Ghostwatch (either because they were too young, or they were watching something else at the time), I sometimes feel like the deranged stereotype of a Vietnam veteran; “YOU WOULDN’T KNOW, MAN! YOU WEREN’T THERE, MAN!” I holler upon recalling the horror (and yes… the horror) of it all.
If ya don’t know, Ghostwatch was a mockumentary broadcast by BBC One on Halloween night, 1992. Clearly and cautiously signposted as a drama, the events depicted in this one-off broadcast nevertheless began to unfold with an astounding feel of authenticity. Ghostwatch purported to be an investigation of the “most haunted house in Britain”, carried out with semi-ironic enthusiasm by several loveable TV stalwarts of the day; Sarah Greene, Mike Smith, Craig Charles, and even Michael “Parky” Parkinson.
Things soon turned very nasty, however, as the family residing in said haunted house were invited to recount in creepy detail their ongoing torment at the hands of a malevolent spirit named “Mr. Pipes” on account of his habit of banging on their heating pipes. Now, I’m not going to lie or exaggerate for effect. I knew Ghostwatch wasn’t real from the off. I watched it from the start, so had seen the warning, and I was watching it with my mum, who definitely knew it wasn’t real, and reassured me accordingly. BUT, and as you can see it’s a big but, Ghostwatch was still fucking scary, really fucking scary, and weird.
This is partly due to the fact that it was so unprecedented. You have to remember, this was 1992. We weren’t so clued up on how telly worked back then, and we weren’t used to it lying to us or playing tricks on us. A handy reference point, perhaps, is the fact that Chris Morris’ epoch-shattering mock news satire The Day Today was still two years away. So into this telly age of innocence stalks a programme that looks, feels and smells like the real thing, and quickly turns into something so frightening and intense that you can’t quite believe that, even if it is a prank, the BBC has had the audacity to make it.
Ghostwatch is deviously cynical in the way it earns your trust. The popular presenters (each of whom still resides to some extent or other in the public consciousness) employed to bring it to life couldn’t have been better chosen. Affable lads Craig Charles and Mike “Smiffy” Smith would never want to scare you or make a fool out of you, would they? Carrying even more potential for psychological damage is the use of children’s TV presenter Sarah Greene as a roving reporter who at one point conducts a terrifying interview with the clearly traumitised young daughter of the house, who also happens to be covered from head to foot in scratch marks. I was 11-years-old at the time and still watched Greene on Going Live! Perhaps most dastardly of all is “Parky” himself who uses all of his hard-earned credibility as a National Treasure to convince us that he himself has been possessed by Mr. Pipes. Believe it or not, this is actually really quite convincing.
But it’s not just shrewd TV trickery that makes Ghostwatch such an unsettling brain-bomb of terror. It is also brilliantly written by Stephen Volk (who penned the screenplay for William Friedkin’s typically duff The Guardian two years before) and expertly directed by Lesley Manning. One of Ghostwatch’s greatest strengths is it’s employment of a surprisingly underused ploy in modern horror; namely keep all sightings of your spook, monster or killer fleeting. Mr. Pipes is scarcely glimpsed but eight times during the programme’s 90 minute running time, but each time he is, be it a half-face in the darkness or a shadowy silhouette behind a bedroom curtain, it sends a shiver down your spine. At one point the programme even has the balls to re-run a sequence in which we have seen Mr. Pipes to show us (deceitfully, of course) that he wasn’t there at all! No wonder the BBC’s duty-log went white hot with complaints while it was still on air.
Ah yes, the complaints… While I had been fully assured from the very beginning that Ghostwatch wasn’t real, others weren’t so lucky. 1992 was also still firmly in an era of four channels, and people flicking around for something to watch were incredibly likely to hop onto Ghostwatch without being fully aware it was a drama. The BBC may have felt they had their backs covered somewhat with the presence of a helpline, which when called would assure troubled viewers the whole thing was a hoax. Unfortunately, so many were scared shitless by what they were seeing that the line became jammed. It was also undermined somewhat by another devastating ploy in which Mike Smith fielded a (fake) call from a petrified mother whose young son had fallen into a trance whilst watching the programme and violently smashed a glass coffee table, cutting himself horrifically in the process. This was my personal most traumitising moment of Ghostwatch, I remember the woman’s voice being wild with emotion and frighteningly real. You just had to keep thinking to yourself; “They wouldn’t go this far, would they?”
In the end, maybe people were victims of their own foolhardiness to have accepted Ghostwatch as anything less than an elaborate prank. But as I’ve already made clear, the time was right and the entire production was sly enough to catch a hell of a lot of people completely off-guard. As a testament to Ghostwatch’s undiminished power, the BBC have never repeated it, and undoubtedly never will.
It is, however, available on DVD from the BFI, and take it from me, it’s well worth seeing if you haven’t already, and well worth revisiting if you remember being scared shitless by it, like me. Why not have a look at this clip below and see what you think? Please don’t have fucking nightmares.