Ghostwatch is a quarter of a century old today. Broadcast only once on Halloween night twenty-five years ago it remains a milestone in television history. Ostensibly a live broadcast following a real time investigation of a haunted house, the programme was so convincing, and the resulting outcry so palpable, that the BBC disowned it. Hundreds discover it each Halloween when the memories are stirred, and those who watched it live pipe up to tell their own tale.
It marked a turning point for the horror genre. Much like Wes Craven’s Scream would do four years later, Ghostwatch’s influence would creep into numerous films and TV programmes to come after it. The Blair Witch Project would not have existed without it. The thousand derivative Ghosthunting TV reality shows would never have happened. We would have been denied Most Haunted with Carol Thatcher, which may not have been a bad thing.
Its cult status grows each year, as does its prestige. Ghostwatch showed what was possible, and its influence is clearly split into the fictional documentary horror genre (thanks to Blair Witch, it became known firmly as Found Footage) and Paranormal Reality TV on the small screen. What is also becoming clear is how unlikely we are to ever experience anything like it again.
We’re in a different world now, changed irrevocably by our insistence of two things: the march of technology and our insistence on being part of the story. Scream preempted this with the ‘rules of the horror genre’; it was filled with victims and killers who had, like us, grown up on a diet of popcorn slasher flicks and pointless female nudity in the movie’s first five minutes. That it had its own sequels (which, naturally, continued to comment on the downward spiral in quality of such follow ups) is an indication that change comes rarely, even when it comes from within.
The more interesting, often forgotten, Wes Craven’s New Nightmares was evidence that as the fallout from Ghostwatch was going on Craven knew the writing was on the wall for the horror genre. It was mired in thoughtless carbon copy horrorshows, and duplicate sequels with ever-decreasing returns. With New Nightmare and Scream he took the Hollywood horror film into new territory – into the realms of reality.
He defiantly broke all the ‘rules of horror films’ his Scream characters so excitedly expounded. Only at the very end of the 1996 film, when the camera slowly pulls back on Courtney Cox’s Gail Weathers filming her news report as dawn breaks over the terrible scene, are we firmly back in the realm of fantasy. Ghostwatch has no such reassuring endgame. Parky was possessed, the studio set and outside broadcast location shuttered in terrifying darkness, the BBC itself lost in the eye of the storm. And there were cats screaming, over and over and over.
That is when Ghostwatch passed into legend, and the real storm began.
But why was the outcry so vicious? It’s due in part to the nature of reality and trust. In the US in 1938 Orson Welles adapted The War of the Worlds and forever altered the nation’s trust in their radios. In the 70s, 80s and 90s we trusted TV. Then we trusted the slew of reality TV shows we welcomed into our homes. The premium rate phone voting controversies and manipulative editing were just part of the entertainment – rigged for our pleasure – and no-one really minded. It was, after all, what TV shows are made for.
Though Ghostwatch was previewed with a Radio Times cover and featured articles on the fictional nature of the TV play many thought the programme was a genuine reality TV show about an actual haunted house. There was no hashtag, no instagrams of the TV personalities on set, no live-tweeting from Sarah Greene and Craig Charles throughout the airing. The drama was allowed to breathe. Spoiler culture was still in its infancy, though the mendacious smugness of saying the next day, “Well, obviously, I knew it was fake…” was ever-present. It was never set up a hoax, but in the scramble to save face in the aftermath the word was stamped onto the programme forever.
Today there would be no such outcry. As an audience we are an active participant in the whole endeavour. We’d have trigger warnings and official hashtags. We’d be pushed to the edge of our seats with a daily Twitter countdown. There would be an official emoji. We’d all be in on it. If Ghostwatch were made today we could expect this, and more:
- Thousands of tweets along these lines: “Is this real?”
- Equal thousands of replies – “It’s a hoax and an OBVIOUS one!”
- Scared emojis.
- Threaded diatribes about the manipulative leftist agenda from the BBC telling us we’re not safe in our homes.
- Several fledgling sects of #ghostwatchtruthers with online petitions to force the broadcaster to tell us EXACTLY WHAT REALLY HAPPENED THOUGH…
During the broadcast it would all fall apart.
At the 27 minute mark a 21st century Ghostwatch would come into its own. Hundreds of freeze frames of the first sighting of Pipes would fly out onto social media. The instant responses of “Did you see that?!” would be tweeted. Those who missed it would pause, rewind, playback – ah yes! Spooky! Right…Start again, but you’re behind now. While everyone else watches as Parky and Dr. Pascoe listen to the disembodied voice of Pipes you’re still watching Pamela Early introduce us to her glory hole. Someone’s tweeted they saw Pipes in the studio! Another flurry of pictures taken with phones in front of the TV – is that him? Who knows! The broadcast is continuing all the while and social media is racing ahead. Essentially you’re now watching this thing via your twitter feed. You’d see the image of Pipes in the kitchen window – another crappy phone camera pic with the words “OMG DOD YOU SEE TGAT?!??? I’m dead. Scary emoji.” So much of the good character work and atmosphere would be lost.
The revelation of Suzy banging the radiator pipes herself would be told to you by hundreds of I KNEW IT tweets and the #suzypipedream hashtag. You have to answer a twitter poll on how immersed you are in the show (“Really Quite Immersed” you click). Facebook brings up another line of distraction. It offers ten scary moments you’ve only had if you were born in 1976 – hey! That’s my age! It then offers you a load of adverts for new pants and trousers and you start to worry about how much Facebook knows about you. But hold! Things are happening at Fox Hill Drive! Sarah Greene’s dead?! Bullshit. Check Breaking News. Check Wikipedia. Oh no, it’s OK. She on twitter saying it’s a play. Filmed last August. Phew. Oh it’s over. Ok. Well I’ll watch the rest tomorrow…
It’s like heckling Charles Dickens at a public reading, and the having the assembled audience breaking off into hundreds of tiny conversations, drowning the author out. Or filling the skies with a host of carrier pigeons bound for Jane Austen’s home with tiny scrolls affixed which all begin with the word “Actually…”. It’s why I still treasure the sanctity of the cinema. It’s why I’m so resistant to the encouragement of having phones in there. It’s our last sanctuary against distraction. With TV it’s now impossible to do that.
Technology marches on, and it too insists upon itself. Right now the cracks of credulity as showing. We trust the internet but we’re getting wise to the fake news brigade and the images of photoshopped proof. It is predicated that the exponential possibilities of CGI and faked video mean we’ll soon not be able to tell fact from fiction. Until thenthe Slenderman webseries Tribe Twelve, Marble Hornets and Everyman Hybrid have picked up the baton. Unfriended was a decent attempt to tell a horror story through the medium of Skype. There are ghost stories told on Twitter, such as the brilliant haunted holiday tale from Manuel Bartual and Adam Ellis’ Dear David are sterling examples of horror finding its feet in a new medium, one in which our participation is mandatory.
I spoke to Stephen Volk a few years ago and asked if he would try to make Ghostwatch today, he said:
No…I think you wouldn’t. The climate of TV now is that if you were to do it then you’d do it as a reality TV show, you wouldn’t go to the bother of writing the damn thing and getting actors and making it into a drama. If you did do it as a drama what would it be commenting on?
The broadcast of Ghostwatch was a watershed moment for many of us horror fans, and its power remains today. Ghost stories will always adapt to new media as the very best of the horror genre finds its hold on an eager audience in exciting new ways. There will always be faces in the fires, we will always wonder what’s under our beds or behind the curtains. The darkness will always have that power over us, and it’s an exciting time watching, waiting for new writers and directors to find ways to shine a light onto our greatest fears.