Friday, October 27, 2017

The Horror Of...Halloween Night, Ghostwatch (1992)

Back before the now that doesn't seem real...

A world of fake news, and utterly ridiculous presidents...

We had, in some ways, a simpler time...

A time when we assumed the news and networks wouldn't screw with us...

That seeing was believing...

Perhaps this was naive...

But it was.

Today, we have Reality TV. Today, we have Reality TV presidents. The circle is complete. But let's go back to a Halloween when the veil between the naivety of the past and the madness of the future was breached for just one night...


Oh, yes. Ghostwatch. The show they only showed once on the BBC. The show that brought in 10's of thousands of angry calls in the hour after it aired. The show that cruelly robbed a nation of their innate faith in...Ah, well. Let's take a look at this.

This show was originally proposed by Stephen Volk. He had an idea for an interesting new series the BBC could run. It would start with a season/series of a show following some paranormal investigators going to paranormal hot spots in a North London council estate (It isn't clear how real he wanted this show to look, but I would bet he wanted it to feel genuine.). The final episode would be a live show, where they investigate a "real" haunted house.

The idea was pared down to just that last episode. The live broadcast of the goings on of a paranormally besieged family. Live. Halloween night. 1992. A scary little play of a BBC investigation of the paranormal that goes horribly wrong.

But this teleplay would be played straight. BBC regulars and crew. No nods to it being fake as the show progresses. Everyone in the cast commits. And the results...we will talk about further down.

The cast is led by Michael Parkinson, a respected host in English television. He anchors the show from the studio, where he guides the audience, keeps orders, and converses with guests and the infield presenters.

He is a serious individual, known for being in general proper. No reason to believe he'd play a trick on the public, or play a part in something not completely above board.

Interviewing people outside the haunted house is Craig Charles, who is best known for his role on Red Dwarf. But he also was a frequent face on kid's TV in the 90's. So it wasn't too surprising to see him doing more special shows with the BBC.

He is there to add humorous notes, get information from locals, and add additional perspectives from near the home being investigated,

And then we have Sarah Greene. She's interviewing and investigating inside the home. She's talking with the mother and children in the home. She's drawing out information from them, and also giving them some support. At the time she also was doing a lot of work presenting on kid's shows (like Blue Peter and Saturday Superstore), so she also was not some red flag to see on this.

They and others all looked and felt the part. It would be just another documentary special.

The show was trying in many ways to emulated Orson Welle's radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds, which went out October 30th, 1938. It also was a teleplay that strived to play out realistically.

Volk's idea was that horror movies were becoming too predictable. People going to movies agree to be scared, and know what to expect. But TV was extra safe. Comfortable. He wanted to throw people's expectations out of the window. A level of reality that would blur the lines a bit. He didn't want there to be any clue that something unexpected might be coming the audiences way.

For Volk, it was to be something you could get lost in as you were drawn into the unfolding drama. Things could get tenser and tenser. Then the shocking end...And then there'd be an ad break before the next show.

Conceptually, I can appreciate this. But in reality it is a bit much to screw with audiences to that extent. Today we have a definite negative view to pulling stunts like this.

And the idea was audacious. An idea that you get one shot at. Once you try this the audiences are going to realize it can happen again. And in this age, it would be leaked on the Internet by the first day of filming.

Like Welles before, the show did leave signs this was fiction. Welles's radio play opens introducing the story. And the BBC Announcer made it clear a movie with these people was about to start.  Then as the show starts we see credits for the main cast. And there's also a credit for the show's writer.

But, like with The War of the Worlds, and life in general, many people turned in late. So they all saw Parkinson hosting a strange live show.

The show borrows a good deal from famous stories of hauntings in England. In particular the Enfield story (It was later used as the basis of The Conjuring 2, among many other haunted house TV and movies).

Ghostwatch photo.

Enfield photo

The reality of known stories pulled in helped to create a more familiar narrative for the family to be enduring.

Another important piece was establishing a feel to the broadcast. The decision was made to make this on video, instead of film. Some wanted to use film, but that would have made it clear this wasn't a news program. And at the time many BBC shows were being made on video, so it made the show feel more uniform with the rest of the programming.

Other steps taking were in creating a proper studio feel, and on site feed. Ghostwatch feels like other existing shows where you have teams in different locations trying to pull together a show, fill time, and deal with technical hiccups.

So let's note some of these touches. The on scene camera and production team.

A phone line for calling, where people like you "were phoning" to share their experiences, and also noting weird events they saw breaking out around them. In reality the line could be used, so people could call in. But people were told that the show wasn't real, but they could still share stories that might get used.

Interviews with the family members where they could discuss the experience and express their concerns.

In studio experts. A skeptical host that finds the idea of it all ridiculous, but is doing his job.

Experts on site.

And technology to ooo and aah at. Cameras in every room. Devices to register strange occurrences...

and special thermal cameras.

Plus, older videos of the kids' experiences in the house...

...and with earlier investigations.

Sound evidence.

Photos of injuries.

Some physical evidence from the house.

 And a range of interviews.

Including one with an American skeptic who challenges the ideas being presented.

It is layers and layers that have a believable feel to them.

What's also interesting to see in watching this is how much of the structure and different aspects of this show were replicated a decade later when paranormal reality shows really started to take off.

Most Haunted

This show is really quite similar to any Most Haunted Live show. But this show doesn't try to pretend the next day it was all real, and they do far less night vision work.

As well, they have one dramatic flourish near the start, when they are lighting up the outside of the house for the TV crew. It feels like a tell to demark where the ghost story actually starts.

The show opens.

Parkinson sets the professional and serious mood, showing off the various stages the show will take place on: his seat, the phone bank, the house, the interviews outside the house.

He also introduces Dr. Lin Pascoe, a scientist who has been studying the troubled family for years. She is a true believer, eager to share what she's learned and show her findings. She will be sitting with Parkinson through the rest of the show, giving input.

Then we have Sarah Greene begin readying to go into the house with the family.

Craig Charles hovers around, joking and helping to keep the mood light. He thinks it's all a laugh.

Sarah talks to the family, the Early family, some. The mother says they've had trouble for some time. The kids have been jumped on by some force. A strange voice has come out of the kids' mouths. They've been scratched up. Things have been thrown around. Loud noises have shook the house. Even the strange mewlng of a cat arise from nowhere.

She hopes they can find some answers and peace.

Now it's time to go in and investigate.

At the beginning they are having some Halloween fun. Bobbing for apples. (And still, no one is telling me if this is still a thing kids like to do.)

Sarah hears some strange noises, and looks around. A masked man jumps out! But it's Craig, pulling a prank on her.

All of this keeps the events light and grounded. It all seems silly. Nothing is going to happen.

Before long it is time for the girls to start preparing for bed. It seems much that happens, happens after they go to bed. The little one tells them about Pipes. He comes and visits them. (It got this name because they thought the noises early on were caused by pipes in the walls.)

One kid has drawn something they've seen in their room. A really disgusting figure.

In studio, they look at some earlier video of the girls sleeping. For a moment it seems like there might be a transparent person in the background.

But when they rewind the tape, no one is present. False alarm.. (Ah. Back when most TV wasn't recorded, or streamed, or DVR'd. So you couldn't go back and check. And screencap.)

Dr. Pascoe says it was just the curtains. She is challenging the early evidence making the scares looking like their just in our imagination. Everything's cool.

At the house, the mother takes Sarah to see "the room". It's a glory hole, apparently. A little room under the stairs. The mother went in a while back, and she felt a force keep the door shut, trapping her there for some time.

Since then, she's sealed the door, so the girls don't go in.

"Yeah. We stop letting the Potter kid out years ago."

The girls talk about there experiences some,and their fears. We also see a book of scribbling the girls don't remember making.

It's noted that a lot of what is happening is centered around the older daughter.

Sarah goes on to share an odd experience from her childhood, where she thinks she met a ghost.

This also slowly builds up a bit of an undercurrent. We continue to get very quiet normalcy. But the mom is troubled and nervous. The kids are sad and uncomfortable. The investigators are doubtful. But it seems that something is wrong.

And, it's time for the kids to go to bed.

The investigators walk around the house, checking for anything. They note they have some tech problems occurring, and some of their watches are dying.

Outside, Craig ups the energy. He's running around talking to neighbors about what they've experienced. Some women from across the street talk to him about the strange stuff that has been seen, like gruesome dog deaths. But Craig seems unphased by it, clearly not buying in.

In the house, the team start to hear banging, and run around the house trying to work out what is happening.

They also find the children's drawings scattered around the ground floor.

But then, on one of their camera, they spot the older daughter. She's in a concealed spot banging on the walls.

Suddenly it seems we have our answers. It is fake. The kids are playing around.

The girls are distraught, saying they are frustrated with everyone around them.

But the show is not over yet, though Parkinson seems to think it will be soon. They get more and more calls of strange things happening around the country. Clocks dying. Glass tables shattering.

People are saying something strange is happening.

When Sarah goes to check on the older daughter, her face is all scratched up. And she lies in bed, still, unable to move, and in pain.

They finally decided they need to leave the house.

And as they leave the room, the camera pans. It almost seems a transparent figure is standing by the curtains again. When they pan back, there is nothing.

Downstairs the older daughter backs up to wall, and refuses to leave. Or, she won't be allowed to leave.

At the same time, knocking reverberates through the house again. And the young daughter is no where to be seen.

Sarah races through the house looking for her. She finds the child's favorite bunny doll drenched in the kitchen sink. Drowned.

Behind the refrigerator, the little girl is hiding and afraid.

Then a horrific cat wail starts to fill the house. The TV crew run about trying to locate it. They finally determine it's under the stairs.

So they start to remove the barrier from the door. (And in the  ranks of horror movie bad ideas...How close is this to reading the Necronomicon aloud?)

And then it starts to open, and it seems someone is standing inside...

But, before we can get a good look, a mirror crashes down on the head of the sound guy. And everyone's attention is turned.

...and the transmission is disrupted.

No one can see what is happening in the house any longer.

Outside, they lost sound minutes before, so they have no idea what is happening in the house or studio. Craig Charles is joking with a paranormal expert, unaware he's on air.

He's annoyed soon to realize he didn't know he was on air.

And then the house cameras are back...and everything is fine...

Playing. Joking. Relaxing.

Back in studio they take more calls, not sure what to make of all of this. They learn a story of a woman who long before lived in the area. She took in children, and then drowned them.

Another call offers a large amount of new information on the house. Before, there was no sign of anything strange in the house's history. But now we learn a new facet from a few decades before.

One owner sublet a room to a nephew. He was a troubled man. He was hospitalized and prosecuted for a number of crimes, including child abuse, abductions, and molestation.

He had paranoid fantasies that someone was in his body, controlling him. Some woman. He felt he couldn't escape it.

While his family was away, he committed suicide in the room under the stairs. The family returned a 2 weeks later to find the body.

And the family had many cats. And weeks without feeding means they finally made use of the dead man's body...

Parkinson is dubious. And that is his role, to say this is all ridiculous, it can't be real.

But Pascoe is more worried, even scared. It all seems to connect to and match with what they are learning about the house. And she wonders if the problem is even older, and an original evil preyed on the dead man, and now the family.

Slowly, Pascoe notices something wrong from the live coverage of the house. Things that had been knocked off the walls before, are back up.

This isn't live coverage of the house.

We see the footage change and contort suddenly. It jumps to various pieces of old footage, all in slow motion, with distorted sounds.

Then a wind roars through the studio. Pascoe realizes that they've just created a national seance for the spirit to use.

We then see footage from outside the house. The sound guy is being taken out to an ambulance.

The mother and young daughter come out, but then the mother tries to run back in to find her other daughter. But she's convinced to leave. Craig Charles ushers them to a police car.

Inside the house we finally get footage again. It's thermal. Sarah and the camera guy are still there, and they are trying to find the last daughter.

Things in the studio get worse as the lights starts to blow out.

At the house, Sarah is drawn to the door under the stairs, believing that is where the girl is. Pulling the door open, a force starts pulling her in.

The camera guy tries to stop her, but she's sucked in and the door slams behind her.

In the studio, the lights are gone and the wind is blowing equipment around.

Parkinson is in stunned confusion. He mutters and wanders through the empty studio.

And then the voice that had inhabited the girls now comes from Parkinson.


The story, in and off itself, is quite enjoyable. It starts out friendly, takes turns, let's you make logical leaps, and then turns things on it's head. The beats of the story work. And the scares work even if you are aware it is all fiction.

And, it seems, many did not know it was fiction. People were calling into the BBC to ask what happened, and to know if the people were okay. People were left unsure what happen.

Despite the fact that after the show fades to black, we see the shows writer.

We see Dr. Pascoe has another name.

Even the Early family has different names.

The show's anonymous man isn't so anonymous.

And even the ghost has another name!

And the BBC Announcer again noted that this was a story, it was over, and things at the BBC Center were fine.

I don't want to be mean, I am looking at this show decades on. And I think as a kid this would have thrown me. But parents? You need to step in here. Like when an episode of Dr Who ends, reassure the kids.

There were complaints about the show, but I am not sure how much confusion there actually was. After The War of the Worlds broadcast there were many stories about panics, but most proved to be exaggerated or tall tales. It was in part an effort by newspapers to pull down radio's growing prominence .

It is said some 30,000 called in. But tabloids were among the most eager to chase this show's notoriety, to weaken and destroy the BBC. So how many were just annoyed a horror story popped out of this show, and it wasn't what they expected? How many were actually disturbed to a serious extent? How much is puffery?

One young man's death was blamed on the show. He was dealing with some learning issues, and after the show it is said that he was terrified a ghost would possess him. So he committed suicide.

Some doctors, via the British Medical Journal, believed a handful of kids showed signed of PTSD's after watching the show. Doctors said some kids suffered sleep loss and panic attacks. But how different is this from these kid's experience if they'd caught The Thing, a Friday the 13th film, or Poltergeist on TV? The Journal noted that the impact on the kids was actually very short term, so calling it PTSD was unfounded.

And November 1st, Sarah Greene went on morning TV to show kids and some adults that she wasn't dead or stuck in a hellish void.

For the Broadcasting Standards Commission the BBC assurances weren't enough. They ruled against the BBC. They believed that too few warnings were given that the show was fictional. They didn't hold them responsible for the death, or most of the other complaints, but felt the show fictional nature wasn't made clear enough.

And that is a debate to be had. Where is that line? How much can a public station play games, or tricks, on an audience?

What is clear is that the show broke ground and rules. It punished you for assuming you couldn't be tricked. And it used all the trick TV had available (sound effects, visual effects, lighting tricks, and mixing taped and live events together) to take it's audience on an unexpected trip. It is an inspiration among it's cult of fans. It's gone on to inspire faux documentaries and filmmakers of the future.

Years on, we have confidence that this is all fiction, so we can avoid some of the stress. As such, this can be a fun watch. It's a creepy 90 minute chase that gives a historic view of 90's BBC, the era before Reality TV, and a CGI light experience (for those annoyed by it).

And I only noted a few appearances of Pipes in this review. Apparently, he appears around 13 times, including in crowd shots outside. Do you think you can spot all of his appearances? Can you see him in your screen's reflection now?

The show has never again been shown by the BBC, but Shudder has it available, should you wish to delve into this historic show, and see if, even being fiction, it can get the hairs on the back of your neck to stick up with Halloween.

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