In 1992, seven years before The Blair Witch Project, long before social media became a big part of everyone's lives, a BBC TV play had its one broadcast on Halloween night. Ghostwatch proceeded to freak the entire United Kingdom out that night and brought attacks on the BBC. It has never been repeated and has a huge cult following amongst horror fans. Once again, British Horror and the BBC have created a hugely influential yet obscure entry into the genre.
The First of the "Found Footage" Horror Movie Wave
Ghostwatch went on the BBC's Screen One drama slot. It was written by Stephen Volk, who had previously written Ken Russell's movie Gothic. Aside from the credits, it was shot to look like a live broadcast, played completely straight with a cast of real-life talk show personalities like Michael Parkinson, Mike Smith, Sarah Greene and Red Dwarf star Craig Charles playing heightened versions of themselves. The whole 90 minutes is a live broadcast show (filmed in advance) where the hosts decide to cover the events at a house in a London suburb where the family claims the two girls are constantly harassed by a ghostly entity named Mr. Pipes.
The hosts follow the classic story of skeptics who don't really believe the hauntings at the house are real. They're doing the show as a TV event for ratings with neighbours and curious bystanders gathering on the streets in a party mood. The hosts at the house play tricks on each other to while away what they think will be a boring, uneventful night. Parkinson back at the studio also makes digs about how ridiculous he thinks it all is with the paranormal expert they have on as a consultant. It's all fun and games until things get real. And things get way too real before the night is done.
It all goes horribly wrong. The children are menaced by Mr. Pipes, who pops up intermittently in the background throughout. Chaos erupts. The spirit seems to use the broadcast airwaves to spread itself across the country and a supernatural apocalypse erupts. People get possessed as the show's hosts lose control. Malevolent spirits reach all the way to the BBC's studio and the broadcast cuts off with Parkinson wandering in a daze, seemingly possessed and babbling nonsense…
The show got 11 million viewers that night, and apparently many of them freaked out. Many viewers missed that it was in the Screen One drama slot and thought it was all real. The BBC's switchboards were flooded. In the weeks that followed, the media and the BBC were attacked for scaring the crap out of the public. Parents were outraged that their children were traumatized. A young man with learning disabilities committed suicide because he believed the ghosts from the show were coming after him. The BBC was forced to issue an apology and Ghostwatch has never been shown again on British television. To this day, people remember being terrified by it when they saw it as kids.
To think back to 1992 is to go back to the dawn of the digital TV age, when social media was still barely a blink of an eye. People still relied on newspapers and believed what they saw on television. This was also before reality shows like Big Brother came along and completely changed the TV landscape. The Video Nasties hysteria, mostly over the gore and violence in Italian zombie and misogynistic slasher movies, was about to wane but the Establishment still looked upon Horror with disdain and contempt.
The Legacy of Ghostwatch
Things are different now. Horror has become more mainstream. The Video Nasty movies were tame compared to what we see in an average episode of The Walking Dead every week. With social media being all-pervasive, there are doubts over whether a TV event like Ghostwatch could make people think it was real when internet sleuths can debunk anything within hours, even minutes. It's hard to see Ghostwatch now unless you get a hold of the British DVD. It was streaming on Shudder for a time but was taken off circulation. The show has attained near-mythic status amongst horror fans as a result. It anticipated movies like The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield. Even Host, the current hit Shudder horror movie shot on zoom during lockdown shows that its director Rob Savage might have been strongly influenced by Ghostwatch.
The British have always had a particularly paradoxical relationship with ghost stories and the supernatural. They purport to be rational and skeptical, but many of them still harbour that primal fear of spirits and the unknown. It's not for nothing that the Victorian ghost story became a major literary genre and tradition. As a result, the culture still turns out stories like The Stone Tape, Ghostwatch and now Host.