A population in panic, a record number of complaints, the BBC under siege, stories of descents into mania, demonic possession, spontaneous happenings all around the UK, all attributed to one programme which aired at 9:00PM, October 31st, 1992.
What work of fiction has ever been this successful?
Described as “...the most subversive piece of television in history,” the BBC's epic Halloween prank, Ghostwatch, consisted of a purportedly “live” investigation of Foxhill Drive, “the most haunted house in the UK.” Consisting of on-site investigations, interviews, on-going commentary from the family affected, parapsychologists, skeptics, all presented in the familiar format of a “crime-watch” style documentary, Ghostwatch traumatised the nation with its brilliantly subtle, almost subliminal scares, by upsetting the audience's expectations and desires; their very relationship to the media in question. Not only did it present its content as factual and live, it also directly involved them in the narrative by urging them to phone in with their own accounts of the supernatural, and later as part of an unwitting mass séance created by their viewing of the show via the television. Most recall the show fondly, but also not in its entirety; part of the controversy that erupted around the show the following day largely derived from the fact that people were so scared by it, they stopped viewing before some of the more overt, clearly crafted shocks and horrors occurred (familiar chat show host Michael Parkinson getting possessed and hissing nursery rhymes in the closing quarters should have certainly given the game away).
Disowned and buried by the BBC for years, the show nevertheless remained fondly remembered, for the most part; the audience reaction, barring a few militant, moral quarters, generally very positive, the experiment an unparalleled success, drawing the kinds of viewing figures that the likes of the X-Factor and Britain's Got Talent in the present day can only dream about. Much of the negative response derived from an entirely conscious and deliberate media campaign from certain right leaning tabloids, not one of which presented a genuine critique of the show as a piece of fiction nor any kind of commentary on what it betrayed about the audience's relationship to the media itself. As a result, it remained little more than a matter of memory for some time, until the internet allowed for a resurrection of the piece. Now, it is fondly recalled and rightly regarded as a masterful experiment, of a type that the BBC nor, indeed, any TV station, would likely consider, terrified as they are of being sued or drawing condemnation from certain vocal, moral minorities. This is television at its most witty, its most engaging and subversive, in that it betrays audience trust; it does not coddle, it does not condescend; it tricks and abuses audience trust and expectation, and in that, throws into stark question the relationships we have with our media. Much of the more vocal outcry against the show seems to have been based on exactly that; not the fact that it was “scary” (it was called Ghostwatch. What the Hell did people expect?) or disturbing, but that it betrayed them; that it tricked them into believing it to be documentary rather than drama (despite the fact that a cast list appears on the show itself and was readily available from the Radio Times magazine of the time). This, in turn, provides a stark and fairly unflattering commentary on our relationship to the medium of television, that is: there are certain fairly significant quarters of its consumers who treat it in a parental fashion; who have an infantilised relationship with it; they want it to be familiar and comforting; to cling to its skirts and suckle at its teats. What they do not want is something that challenges them, which upsets that relationship. The extremity, the almost violence of the response the following day, fed by the media hysteria now that the tabloids had gotten the bit between their fangs, stands as testament to that. Ultimately, it was a piece of television. All control is and has always remained with the audience, the viewer. That those who did not enjoy the conceit of being delightfully deceived, there was always the option of changing the channel or turning off the set. Or, better yet, adjusting their own expectations and parameters to appreciate and enjoy what was being done.
But no; Ghostwatch found itself the subject of a small maelstrom of politics, hysteria and sheer absurdity that casts a none too flattering light on the culture of television of the era and, indeed, in general.
But, context aside, does the piece stand up to a current viewing? Does it suffer for the lack of ambiguity fostered around its original broadcast?
There is no clear cut answer. Though the visceral, emotional impact that informed the original hysteria is certainly diminished by the knowledge that it is a contrived and created thing, taken as a piece of fiction, as an experiment, it is utterly masterful, playing with perception and uncertainty in ways that too little in the way of self proclaimed “horror” does.
Take, as an example, the profoundly simple but witty manner in which the audience is first introduced to the spectre, “Mr. Pipes,” who occurs off shot, subliminally, in reflections, crowds and shadows, throughout the entire running time, but which you will not spot unless you are specifically looking for him: footage rolls of a purported recording from the bedroom in which much of the activity occurs. The children of the house are terorrised by poltergeist activity; moving objects, bangs in the walls...what appears to be the faint outline of a figure in the shadowed corner of the room. During the course of the show, multiple calls apparently come in commenting on this, prompting host Michael Parkinson to call for a replay of the footage. The figure is definitely there, however, Parkinson and the parapsychologist responsible for the footage claim not to see anything. When the tape is run back and played again, the figure is gone, the two commenting that it is simply a matter of human perception: “...faces in the fire.” You know as the viewer that you saw it, but, without the benefit of being able to replay the footage (in the original broadcast at least), with these two authority figures telling you that you are mistaken, that it was not there, you begin to doubt the veracity of your own senses and perceptions. Which is terrifying. Which is fantastic. It is an invasive and faintly abusive and utterly brilliant thing for a piece of horror fiction to attempt, much less succeed in.
The show subtly escalates this technique throughout, presenting more and more overt phenomena, manifestations, but always calling them into question, leaving the viewing audience in profound doubt and increasing panic as to what they are seeing, until finally, things explode into utter, paranormal chaos with the fantastic conceit that the show has acted as a kind of “mass séance,” allowing the entity the girls simply know as “Pipes” to infiltrate the TV set, people's homes...it's a wonderful notion that, once again, feeds into the overall themes of the piece as a work of meta-fiction; a commentary on its own nature and medium and the relationship that its consumers have with it. Also, it is genuinely frightening, even now: the atmosphere is slow building, the tension tangible, the pay off slow but incredibly satisfying.
Negatives?; Some of the acting is a little ropey, certainly from the child actors, and some of the lines certainly betray its contrivance, but these are very minor quibbles, especially considering that it is so gripping, so utterly fascinating to watch and to consider what people of the time must have experienced viewing it first hand.
As for me, I was nine years old at the time, and remembered it fondly, right up until the point I discovered the DVD whilst at university. However, the original experience was somewhat ruined by my Mother who, being knowledgable in all things media-centric, immediately recognised the actress playing the parapsychologist from some obscure, “play for today,” utterly puncturing the illusion of documentary before it ever got under sway in our house. Perhaps, if it had been allowed to swell, our reaction would have been somewhat different; perhaps we would have found ourselves amongst those calling for heads to roll at the BBC (though I doubt it). As a result, we were able to appreciate it for the work of fiction it was from the outset, not to mention finding ourselves “in on the joke” far earlier than most. Even so, it remains a powerful and strangely persuasive piece of work, one that you can't help but watch multiple times over, looking for spectres or manifestations that you might have missed first time round (and there are plenty; I've watched the DVD any number of times, and I still keep finding more).
Also, bear in mind that this was before the advent of “documentary horror,” pre-dating The Last Broadcast and The Blair Witch Project by almost half a decade. In that, it stands as an incredibly forward thinking bit of work on a technical level and in terms of conception, not to mention that it arguably succeeds in many areas where latter instalments in the sub-genre do not.
Like Psycho, Night of the Living Dead, The Exorcist, The Omen, Ghostwatch is one of those works that, for a particular generation, has become a part of cultural consciousness, despite the BBC's attempts to bury it, the media's efforts to diminish and discredit it; something that, for a fleeting moment, did what television generally does not; stirred its audience from torpor, from apathy; made them feel what the seemingly endless spew of soap operas, banal social commentaries and reality shows never will; genuine emotion. That, more than anything, was the sin for which Ghostwatch and so much else considered “controversial” media was condemned; that it dared to exist in defiance of tradition, of expectation. Far from reinforcing what was considered gospel, and arguably is more today than ever, the experiment served to agitate and unsettle its audience to the point of furore, not because they were scared or disturbed by its content, but because of what it represented: a breach of unspoken social contracts, an exposure of an uncomfortable, potentially toxic status quo in which we are force-fed the same tasteless, textureless mulch day in, day out, its providers insisting that it is the very finest of nourishment, when in point of fact it may as well consist of ashes and dead things.
So, as a work of fictional horror?; Extremely well done, especially for something produced on such a limited budget, as a one-off experiment, entirely intended to be aired, remarked upon and then forgotten. Purely on a technical level, the piece is remarkable, the manner in which narrative unfolds in a fairly naturalistic fashion, in which atmosphere is fomented with the most subtle reference to the tropes and techniques of purely “narrative” horror...deeply clever, deeply effective. However, its true significance lies in what it represents: a work which provided no comfort or consolation at the time of its broadcast, which, in fact, shook people so profoundly in terms of their relationship to their media and its devices that they ended up baying for its blood. In that, there is a far more profound and incisive horror than any the spectre of “Mr. Pipes” can provide with his bangs, clangs and nursery rhymes; one that we all assume and engage in as part of our daily lives, rarely stopping to even question or consider: the deceits and illusions we casually accept owing to the familiarity of their source. When Ghostwatch's audience were told they were being subjected to a live broadcast, a genuine investigation, they believed it, because the TV told them so. When they were told that the phenomena they were witnessing, as improbable ad they became, were real, they believed it, because the TV told them so. When they were told that the actors portraying “experts” in various fields were experts, they believed it, because the TV told them so.
In that, Ghostwatch stands as a brilliant piece of what would now be called “meta-fiction;” something which calls into question its own medium, its own veracity, by insisting upon it. Not only are the BBC or mainstream television in general unlikely to approach anything quite as disturbing again, they are unlikely to engage in anything that treats its audience with quite the same degree of respect again, for fear of provoking similar outrage.
Ghostwatch, a notable piece of horror, a remarkable TV phenomenon, and one well worth investigating.
Follow the links for a two part exclusive interview with Stephen Volk the creator of Ghostwatch.