You would never think that a house in the suburbs of North London could provide so much unintentional terror, but from the very outset, BBC One’s GhostWatch provided more understated horror and genuine scares than million dollar directors have by rebooting the same old tired formats and cliched characters.
Oh look, I’m a minor cheerleader with big bazongas. I might as well book my bay in the morgue because I am so very dead, etc.
Lots of scary things were going on in 1992, when GhostWatch was first and only aired; the European Union was founded on February 1st, Jeffrey Dahmer was sentenced to life in prison and Sinead O’Connor tore up that picture of Pope John Paul II with that hair, but all of that didn’t bother a quiet eight year old from North East England as he carelessly sat down to watch a little bit of TV with his parents before going to bed on Halloween night.
Instead of aimlessly watching a mindless piece of fluff with brash rubber masks that would befit the holiday, he was taken in completely by the pre-recorded, yet masquerading as live, documentary that was about to change his life forever.
Based on the Enfield Poltergeist hoaxes of the 70s and early 80s, GhostWatch set out to create a drama that centred itself on a North London house and featured an adolescent girl being possessed, that presented itself as a factual documentary that wouldn’t look out of place on Tomorrow’s World or Going Live!
Presented by cheeky chappy Craig Charles (pre-cocaine scandal), man and wife presenting duo Sarah Greene and Mike Smith and helmed by Michael Parkinson, a man so intrinsically honest that even now his good name is being put to good use selling services where you can get a free Parker pen just for enquiring, from the very outset this looked genuine; it was entirely plausible that these four would present in these roles in other shows. Sarah Greene was everywhere during the 90s. So everything that did take place afterwards, took place against a background of complete instant plausibility.
Cut to an outside broadcast of Craig Charles telling us all about what was going to happen; he would interview bystanders or people of interest and fill in lots of the terrifying backstory of the neighbourhood, while Sarah Greene would go into the haunted maisonette and speak to the affected family. Still, all entirely and perfectly plausible, right?
Then we met the star of the show: Pipes.
It’s hard to make a spirit appear with a modicum of realism. Many have tried and failed, falling into hokey ‘Creature Feature’ territory of shaky backdrops and paper balls moving from one place to another. Blair Witch Project, a film which cited GhostWatch as an inspiration is one of the few films that has managed to capture a realistic sense of adrenaline driven panic over the past few years; focusing on the quick and decisive (and also flawed) human reaction to paranormal activities instead of ‘man made’ scares that are created to give the optimum fright. But where GhostWatch, and Pipes, succeeds is that it anchors it’s horror against empathy; in this example, a single mother with two daughters. You felt sorry for the beleaguered Early family long before Pipes showed himself. Even though Brid Brennan’s acting as the mother, Pamela, lets the facade slip with her poor skills, the overall image of a family tormented by an imaginary spirit keeps you convinced.
Rocking pipes, angry cats, scratches manifesting on the oldest daughter’s face, it all contributes to a possibility that the house actually is haunted. It isn’t until the end of the show, when Pipes plays his ectoplasmic trump card that the story comes clean with all of it’s twists and turns, but that’s almost besides the point because it’s the attempts to keep the level of possibility high that makes Pipes truly terrifying.
Back in the studio Parky and Smithy are taking “calls” from “viewers” about paranormal activity, cementing the notion that the events onscreen were happening now, much like what Uri Geller did for much of his career. With further input from a “paranormal psychologist” and a “sceptic” elaborating on the validity of whether possessions can happen, this is where the real genius of GhostWatch lies.
It isn’t the chilling revelations garnered from residents of the ghoulish cul-de-sac. Or the spiralling events that end in tragedy. It isn’t even Pipes showing up frequently throughout the film, right under the unsuspecting viewer’s nose. It’s the monumental effort the makers went to to ensure that the consumer believes what they are watching.
Leslie Manning, the director, said
“I’d been noticing shows like 999 presented by Michael Buerk that were dramatising real emergencies. Fact was feeding into drama, so why couldn’t it go the other way? I was very strict about the language of the day and I remember saying in rehearsals, “The better we do this, the greater the effect will be.”
And it’s in this case, that the efforts monumentally backfired.
Despite the show being shown in the regular drama slot, and having a “written by…” tagline at the beginning, many members of the public believed that what they had seen take place, had done. The BBC were inundated with angry and scared parents. Even the tabloids turned against it (shock horror) calling for a ban, which the BBC slapped right on them.
But it wasn’t until five days later, when Martin Denham, an 18 year old man with learning difficulties, committed suicide because of GhostWatch, that shit truly hit the fan. This wasn’t just another Video Nasty that Mary Whitehouse got sand in her vagina about; GhostWatch started to pose an actual threat to the mental stability of vulnerable minds.
David Hodges, a BBC information duty officer at the time, remembered
“It was a nightmare. The call counter used to go up to 20 and basically it was stuck on that level for five days after transmission. People were concerned about Sarah Greene or saying that their pedal bin had just moved across the room or that their dog had gone mad. A man even said that his wife had been watching and had gone into labour because she was so spooked.”
Acting of 35 complaints following Denham’s death, the Broadcasting Standards Commission ruled that “The BBC had a duty to do more than simply hint at the deception it was practising on the audience. In GhostWatch there was a deliberate attempt to cultivate a sense of menace.” Which laid the entirety of the blame squarely on the BBC’s, more accurately writer Stephen Volk and director Leslie Manning’s shoulders.
The duo became ostracized by the BBC, and GhostWatch was banned from being mentioned in the Radio Times, never to be shown again in the UK (although it is shown abroad), but, like all things that are banned, cult interest piqued and a legacy that stretches 20 years was left behind, fueling interest every time Halloween comes around, or a programme wants to look at the scariest things on TV, GhostWatch always comes up.
And so it should.
It’s a terrifying film, that although can still get the heart of that quiet 8 year old racing, also speaks volumes about the way that we are faced with an existence of fictional half-truths perpetuated by PR companies through our TV screens, and much like Pipes’ eventual escape, how do we know what we’re seeing is real when everything is gradually becoming more and more extreme and less and less believable?