GHOSTWATCH is a famous 1992 BBC Halloween special which, like THE CONJURING 2, is based on the alleged ghosting incident known as “The Enfield Poltergeist.” A mom and her two young daughters claimed to have a ghost they could hear knocking on the walls and bending their spoons and stuff. And there really was no way to disprove that this was a ghost, other than that they caught the kids faking it. Still, other than that, 100% for sure it was real ghosts and worthy of multiple true story movies and books.
While THE CONJURING goes through the motions of pretending to be based on a true story, GHOSTWATCH goes the extra mile and pretends to be a documentary. It takes the form of a live broadcast with an in-studio host (Michael Parkinson as himself), on a corny set decorated with skulls and crystal balls, interviewing a doctor (Gillian Bevan) who’s supposed to have investigated the case. They have a bunch of screens to go via satellite to the house, where a reporter (Sarah Greene as herself) and camera crew are with the family talking about their story and hoping to document ghost activity. Also Red Dwarf‘s Craig Charles (playing himself) is the wacky comic relief reporter on the scene outside the house. And in the studio they also have a phone bank and take calls about people’s ghost stories and stuff.
They’re pretty calm about the whole thing. They don’t act like they think they’ll definitely see anything, and when people call in claiming to notice strange things in the live feed the host rejects them at first. Just like in the real case, one of the girls is caught faking it (banging a broom handle against the wall and screaming) and the investigator continues with the argument that yeah, but most of the time it was real though. That’s actually a clever and unexpected thing to do in a mockumentary like this. It makes the supernatural shit feel more earned, as if the skeptics have had their chance already.
The girls call the ghost “Pipes” because that’s what Mom first said was making the knocking sound. Like in most ghost movies, a backstory is discovered for Pipes. It comes from a guy calling in who has information that the doctor doesn’t, and it ties together some of the things they’ve been seeing and hearing.
As the fictional audience combed the background for important details like ghostly shadows and shit I was doing something very similar but way more important. While the real incident was in 1989, the show of course had to take place in 1992, as we can see by the posters and pinups hanging in the girls’ room. I can’t identify any of the teen heart throbs, but here are Kris Kross and two MC Hammers:
I tried to call in to warn them, but the number didn’t work for some reason.
By the end of the special we’re hearing about ghostly phenomenon spreading through people’s TVs, and finally it makes it to the studio, where the lights explode and cameras move around on their own. That’s a good way to make people scared in their homes, especially considering how few ghostbusters were around to help at that time since eminently qualified women were turned down due to the sexist policies that had always been the main appeal of the movie and why it was a hit and it would be ruined if it was a different cast that was women because how would they pee if they got trapped in a car somewhere during a ghost mission they wouldn’t be able to pee in a bottle which is the main talent of all ghostbusters and the only reason the movie was ever made.
I had to get a PAL import to watch GHOSTWATCH, and apparently it wasn’t even available like that for quite a few years, adding to its legend. Reportedly there was a War of the Worlds type situation where people thought it was really going on and were scared out of their pants and socks and what not. I find that shocking. Maybe a familiarity with early ’90s British live broadcasts would reveal more subtleties, but to me it always plays as a clearly scripted, acted story. That said, hats off to the performance by Bevan, especially her expression while playing a disturbing recording she made. She has the exact correct look that someone makes while they’re playing somebody a tape that they themselves are already very familiar with but they’re listening to it again with you as you hear it for the first time.
As a member of the community that ain’t fraid of no ghost, I did not find this scary. But it is a cleverly put together piece of television. For scaredy cats it might be worth seeking out. There’s also a documentary about the show and its popularity called GHOSTWATCH: BEHIND THE CURTAINS.
July 6th, 2016 at 11:30 am
As a young Brit at the time, I can honestly say that many people took Ghostwatch seriously. X-Files was still a year away (Michael’s Biehn’s Asteroid another five), and there hadn’t really been anything of this ilk since War of the Worlds. Mockumentry wasn’t a word we’d heard (save for the cool cats who’d seen Spinal Tap). Especially not on TV. Consider also that Parkinson is/was a hugely respected and honest TV host. While he’d playfully interview all the biggest stars, he wasn’t as Hunter Thompson-esque as say Jimmy Kimmel. He didn’t do things like that. So it was a pretty badass coup to get him to agree to it, which helped “put it over” as the wrestling fans would say. I also think it was broadcast live, without weeks and weeks of build up and so fourth. It was just sort of on one night. It took lots of people by surprise.
I think the slogan on the DVD about it being “banned” is a bit misleading. It was most likely just forgotten about. It’s hardly the Human Centipede or a Lars von Trier movie. Still, a great find, and one I’d love to watch again some day.