TFI Friday: Who remembers Ghostwatch (1992)?
The BBC 'haunting mockumentary' gave me nightmares for weeks
Halloween is one of my favourite times of the year. It’s an excuse to lure my friends and family around to my house with the promise of food and drink and make them sit through a movie marathon of horror classics.
I love the iconography of Halloween. I love the spooky silliness of it all. Here are the pumpkin efforts in my house this year:
My anniversary edition blu-ray of ‘Ghostwatch’ arrived in the mail today courtesy of 101 Films. I’m wondering how many of my fellow Brits remember the one and only TV broadcast of Ghostwatch on the BBC during Halloween in 1992?
Ghostwatch has earned itself a cult following and a legacy of controversy. When broadcast 30 years ago—although it was a pre-recorded work of fiction—it was presented as a live paranormal investigation. In a pre-Blair Witch early 90s, audiences were not so wise to the ‘found footage’ and ‘mockumentary’ formats of contemporary horror. The show also featured a number of loved and well-known British TV presenters appearing as themselves, which only added to the sense of realism.
Here are a couple of clips to give you the basic gist of the format/premise:
The show’s cleverer moments revolved around quick ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ shots of the ghostly antagonist “Mr. Pipes” lurking in the background:
Ghostwatch was also broadcast in an era before television receivers would allow you to pause and rewind live TV. This gifted the show’s creators with an opportunity to gaslight its audience. Presenters would replay certain parts of the footage from earlier in the show in response to faux audience call-ins about ghostly sightings. The presenters would find nothing when ‘replaying’ the relevant footage in ‘real-time’ of course which had the effect of making you wonder whether you had imagined seeing what you had definitely just seen—increasing a sense of confusion and paranoia.
I was only 8 years old at the time of broadcast. My parents were out for the evening and my aunty was baby-sitting me and my older sister. And I assumed every second of Ghostwatch was live and real.
The ghostly antagonist was referred to as “Mr. Pipes” due to the rattling in the walls that was either attributed to him—or the house’s central heating system depending on who was speaking. It did not help that I also lived in a house that had this exact same problem with its noisy central heating pipes.
I had nightmares for weeks and my aunty heard a few choice words about it from my mum, I’m sure.
It turned out I was not the only one that had this experience—apparently the BBC received a record number of phone calls (30,000) from furious parents complaining about their traumatised children. The wiki entry has a section with details on this ‘controversy’. I suspect this may have been my generations’ equivalent of Orson Welles’s ‘live’ radio drama of War of The Worlds from 1938.
The BBC made its apologies and promptly memory-holed the entire thing, never broadcasting it in full again. I’m looking forward to re-watching it over the weekend, no doubt finding it more humorous than terrifying —such is the way these things typically age (as have I).
I’ve not believed in ghosts or anything supernatural since I was a kid. But I love to get wrapped up into the story telling of it all and be made to feel a sense of dread at the hand’s of someone else’s imagination and filmmaking skills.
A recent movie that takes a similar concept and executes it flawlessly is ‘Host’ (2020). Filmed during Covid lockdown restrictions, the entire thing plays out as a real-time Zoom call between friends:
If you haven’t seen it and are looking for some jumps and scares this Halloween, I cannot recommend it enough.
Do you have memories of watching Ghostwatch when it was broadcast? How old were you? Did it scare you? What other horror movies have left a lasting effect on you? Put it all in the comments!
UPDATE: I’ve just found this excellent 10 min retrospective on YouTube channel ‘Unleash The Ghouls’