No creaking gates, no gothic towers, no shuttered windows...
October 31, 2010 10:44 AM   Subscribe

Broadcast on Halloween night 1992 Ghostwatch - a live investigation into a haunted house - was one of the most controversial and terrifying programs the BBC has ever shown.

You can watch it on google video or youtube (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10) (and, if you've not seen it before, I would advise watching it first before reading further if you want to avoid spoilers and get the full effect)

Ghostwatch - Behind The Curtain
Ghostwatch's writer Stephen Volk homepage
Bite Back (1, 2)
Points Of View
Ghosts in the Machine
Shooting Reality with Lesley Manning
Ghostwatch - Channel Four's 100 Greatest Scary Moments
Article at The Bad Movie Report
Ghostwatch: Remembering a classic
posted by fearfulsymmetry (36 comments total) 58 users marked this as a favorite

/falls over from PTSD.
posted by Artw at 10:49 AM on October 31, 2010 [4 favorites]

I remember this and it wasnt that scary.

And more controversial that the Brasseye Paedo show? Nah.
posted by the cuban at 10:56 AM on October 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

And more controversial that the Brasseye Paedo show? Nah.

that was one of channel 4's. ghostwatch probably still ranks as one of the beeb's mpre controversial moments as far as drama goes.

i think it'd probably look a bit laboured now, but in 1992 playing around with a format like that wasn't that common. there was something quite odd about watching all these familiar faces from kids tv and chat shows being menaced by the supernatural. thanks for reminding me of it.
posted by peterkins at 11:30 AM on October 31, 2010

I remember this and it wasnt that scary.

I remember it, and it absolutely was terrifying.

I even had to get my mum to move my bed away from the bedroom radiator!
posted by metaxa at 11:34 AM on October 31, 2010

Jesus, I've wanted to watch this, since it's an obvious piece of my Introduction to British Pop Culture that I've missed, but, at the same time, I don't want to watch it, because I know it'll terrify me.

posted by Katemonkey at 11:36 AM on October 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

I wish the fuckwits from the SyFy channel would stumble on to some genuine supernatural menace and then never be heard from again.
posted by Artw at 11:37 AM on October 31, 2010 [5 favorites]

Also if Mr. Pipes could start offing wrestlers...
posted by Artw at 11:43 AM on October 31, 2010

I remember this and it wasnt that scary.

Then you sir, are an INHUMAN MONSTER
posted by Jofus at 12:04 PM on October 31, 2010

Mr Pipes. The ghost was called Mr Pipes. That alone sends a bright white icicle of fear shooting up my spine. God damn you fearfulsymmetry. God damn you to hell.
posted by Jofus at 12:08 PM on October 31, 2010

When I'm scared I tend to suddenly insult people for no very good reason, you dicks.
posted by Jofus at 12:09 PM on October 31, 2010 [4 favorites]

Suddenly insulting Mr. Pipes will not save you TONIGHT.

Are you a wrestler?
posted by Artw at 12:14 PM on October 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

Wikipedia says this aired as an episode of a dramatic anthology series, and had a writers credit at the beginning. To me that's not enough, especially with the use of actual television personalities. If you're going to do this, and not use a disclaimer identifying it as fictional, then it's because you hope to mislead at least some people into thinking it's real, no matter how bad the acting is.
posted by evilcolonel at 12:41 PM on October 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

Please stop encouraging the 'ghost' idiocy that seems to be taking over American TV. Thanks.
posted by Huck500 at 12:41 PM on October 31, 2010 [7 favorites]

I remember watching this as an 11 year old and it scared the crap out of me. I'm so glad my parents let me watch it though because it's such a vivid memory from my childhood, and remains one of the few times that I've been genuinely frightened by something I've seen on screen. Most of that was to do with my age, but it was also probably connected with the fact that it was presented by Sarah Greene who had been a presented on Going Live on Saturday mornings. She couldn't be pretending...right?
posted by jonnyploy at 12:50 PM on October 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

If you're going to do this, and not use a disclaimer identifying it as fictional

There actually was a disclaimer. But, as in the infamous War Of The Worlds broadcast a lot of of people missed it, tuning in late.

I didn't see it at the time it was broadcast and only caught it after it came out on DVD a few years ago. It was still pretty unnerving - I think only Ringu had it beat. This was probably because I watched it really late at night pretty much cold, not knowing hardly anything but that it was controversial. Going through the extras on the DVD I learned the writer and director used a large number of psychological and visual tricks to you to make it as disturbing as possible - most of which you don't consciously pick up until you watch it a second time or have them pointed out to you. There's no way they would make anything like it now. Although they did show some restraint in nixing the writer's idea to have a supersonic sound broadcast during the show to make viewer's dogs go mad!
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 1:04 PM on October 31, 2010 [2 favorites]

Heh - I remember seeing a little bit of this. I walked in to see my dad watching this when I was a teenager. It had just gotten to a part where everyone was running around in confusion. We discussed whether it was real or not, I checked the Radio Times and noticed that it had a cast list and that was that. Shrugged and walked back out. Good thing too - even if I knew it was a play, it would have still terrified me.
Thanks for bringing back that memory though.
posted by YAMWAK at 1:07 PM on October 31, 2010

Well, current BBC would shit a brick at the slightest posibility of someone mistaking it for real, that's for sure.
posted by Artw at 1:10 PM on October 31, 2010

There actually was a disclaimer

Sorry, but that was as clear as mud...
posted by evilcolonel at 1:15 PM on October 31, 2010

This show was terrifying. Yes, there was a disclaimer, and yes, even as kids we all knew it was fiction, but it felt totally real. On reflection it should've been put on later, but it's a shame the BBC doesn't try more stuff like this any more (although it'd be nice if it wasn't quite so scary).
posted by adrianhon at 1:23 PM on October 31, 2010

The verite aspect really worked in it's favour, even though it was pretty apparent it was fiction if you spent more than five minutes watching it. Other than that it's rather hard to say what makes it so effetcive - next to nothing happens until the end, and even then there really isn't anything too specific.
posted by Artw at 1:29 PM on October 31, 2010

If you're going to do this, and not use a disclaimer identifying it as fictional, then it's because you hope to mislead at least some people into thinking it's real, no matter how bad the acting is.

Well, yes and no. They wanted to make it feel very real, make the suspension of disbelief easier, but people aren't supposed to believe everything they see and hear on the television just because Parky is on the set. They don't show a disclaimer when they run Godzilla, no matter how realistic the in-film news reporting might be. The kiddies should have been in bed and the adults should have had the sense to know that ghosts do not exist.
posted by pracowity at 1:30 PM on October 31, 2010 [3 favorites]

[T]he adults should have had the sense to know that ghosts do not exist.

posted by LordSludge at 2:02 PM on October 31, 2010 [3 favorites]

Thanks for this! I'd never heard of "Ghostwatch" before today. I've just reached segment seven on YouTube and am enjoying it tremendously --- far more than I thought I would at the end of the first segment! It starts out with winking camp, but it descends into really unsettling but vaguely described terror as the show proceeds.

[spoilers]: Even having missed the disclaimer, I knew from the first few minutes that this was a mockumentary, not a documentary: the first scene in the bedroom feels so obviously and amateurishly staged (which is a great set-up for later, so we're surprised when the staging becomes much more persuasive and eerie).

The most glaring example: in that very first minute of two of the program, when the girls start screaming and objects are tossed at them from across the room, the camera inconveniently pans to that end of the room only after [whatever force] hurls the stuff. And it does that twice. That and the timing of the lamp explosion (which happens just after the girls have safely fled to cling to their mother) telegraphed to me that this is a comfortably fictionalized event. That also set me up to get cozy and expect nothing more ambitious than misdirection and clumsy cutting, a false expectation which is paying off quite deliciously.

... but then I have to ask myself: if a reporter or newscaster (especially someone I'd grown up watching) presented this to me, even with a disclaimer, would I give it greater credence? Would his/her very presence persuade me to overlook the apparent staginess of first few minutes, and make me more susceptible to belief when the truly weird stuff starts happening? I guess it depends on that journalist's credibility, and how the show itself is promoted and framed.

But, y'know, even so it's wise to remember that journalists and news presenters have other facets and are capable of satirizing themselves. [spoiler]: the Brian Williams character played by Brian Williams on "30 Rock" is not the same as the Brian Williams on the nightly news. Probably.
posted by Elsa at 2:17 PM on October 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

At the risk of crossing threads the Jon Stewart that gets interviewed on CNN isn't even the Jon Stewart that presents the daily show.
posted by Artw at 2:29 PM on October 31, 2010 [2 favorites]

I have heard of this! Very excited to actually see it.
posted by Ouisch at 4:28 PM on October 31, 2010

Oh, man, Ghostwatch. However hokey and staged it looks now, as a ten-year-old it was about the most terrifying thing I had ever seen. I watched Sarah Greene every Saturday morning presenting happy squeaky-clean kids TV, and it just never occured to little penguinliz that it might all be staged until the next day when I saw all the media attention. It really did have a huge effect on me, and even watching as an adult it takes me right back to being a ten-year-old checking behind my bedroom door every night.
posted by penguinliz at 5:19 PM on October 31, 2010

I love this! I saw it when it aired, and probably the scariest thing about it was that I was watching it illegally (no TV license! Take THAT, BBC! )

What I found really interesting is the TV personalities involved. Parkinson being a serious interviewer, Sarah Greene & Mike Smith who were all over the TV at the time, and Craig Charles.
It was totally conceivable that this was actually a show about people claiming to have ghosts. Years before I'd read a book about the Enfield Poltergeist and wondered briefly if it was that that was being investigated, but of course the time frames didn't match up.
I remember watching and wondering "are they serious?!", but Craig Charles really gave the game away with his irreverence and piss takery. The bit where he is interviewing 2 women at the playground is full of WTF, especially the line at the end: "The kids weren't right for weeks afterwards".

Also, the ending is fantastic!
posted by goshling at 5:27 PM on October 31, 2010

I appreciate this so much. I've never before taken the time to watch an hour-plus MeFi link, but I knew somehow that this would repay it, so I did.

It was only with "Emilio Sylvestri" that I would have figured something was up. I happen to be pretty familiar with CSICOPs, and they would have been -- perhaps gentler, considering kids were involved, but if not gentler, then at least not such cartoonishly brash American stereotypes. But if I were 13 in 1992 when this came out and watching TV in the UK for some reason, I would have swallowed it whole. I was a big fan of Craig Charles at the time (SF nerd, you see) and wouldn't have had the savvy to question it unless I had seen the disclaimers.

As it was, I found it quite sufficiently scary for my Halloween viewing. The thing about the playground -- ! I was tempted to shut it off in the last five minutes before the credits rolled, because I am a huge weiner, but did not. I didn't even watch through the cracks in my fingers, I'll have you know.
posted by Countess Elena at 8:02 PM on October 31, 2010

This was really, really well done. I'd never heard of this before, and I can imagine that if I'd seen it as an impressionable kid, it would have scared the crap out of me.

[SPOILER] I thought the eeriest moment was the deserted studio at the end, the way the (until now) incredulous host keeps remarking about how everyone seems to have just disappeared.

I also thought the vague image that could have been a figure standing in the girls' bedroom was quite chilling.
posted by treepour at 9:11 PM on October 31, 2010

Even though the idea of a realistic, chilling, faux-documentary style predates this show, what's interesting to me as I watch the beginning is the pedestrian setup, the jovial joking, the dry explanation of technical details.

And the use of real broadcasters the audience would've been familiar with? Having read the ending spoilers, this makes it all the more horrifying. I would've been freaked out of my gourd had I seen this live on TV, thinking it was real.

Why am I watching this alone, after midnight? And I don't have PC speakers so I have to listen with earphones which'll make it even creepier.
posted by NorthernLite at 9:27 PM on October 31, 2010

I'm not watching this again! I was 11 when this was on telly. I missed the start, and it took me at least half the show to realise it wasn't real. By that time I was totally freaked out. Bastards. Magnificent bastards.
posted by howfar at 1:49 AM on November 1, 2010

That reminds me, it's almost time for the spaghetti harvest!
posted by LiteOpera at 8:14 AM on November 1, 2010

I remember watching this with my parents as a young teen, and we absolutely did *not* know that it was fictional until well into the programme. There was a point where I turned to my mum and saying "this can't be real" and she agreed. It was a lot less scary after that - but the first third or so...
posted by AFII at 11:11 AM on November 1, 2010

I`m glad Sarah Greene got out of that cupboard! Imdb says that she's worked pretty steady since then, so the ghost must have lost out in the end. But there's no word on if Michael Parkinson still speaks in otherworldly tongues.
posted by Kevin Street at 10:31 PM on November 1, 2010

The wikipedia summary scares me enough, thank you very much.
posted by Theta States at 11:48 AM on November 2, 2010

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