Halloween Horror Week: Ghostwatch (1992)

(This was originally written in 2017 for a website that is no longer online. In honor of Halloween, I’m posting it here.)

The Early family – mother, Pamela, and her two daughters, Suzanne and Kim – face torment by a ghost they call “Pipes” in their house in Greater London. On Halloween night, 1992, the BBC went to investigate in a live special called Ghostwatch. It featured notable BBC presenters such as Michael Parkinson, Sarah Greene, Mike Smith and Craig Charles and even invited viewers to call in with their own ghost stories.

Unlike a lot of “found footage” horror, Ghostwatch actually aired “live” on Halloween night, 1992 (it was taped weeks earlier). While it was an episode of the drama anthology series Screen One and aired in its usual timeslot, beyond some brief credits, there was little to indicate that this was anything other than the live special it was purporting to be. Not knowing quite what they were watching, many people believed Ghostwatch to be real. Even now, it remains infamous and controversial.

Even watching it long after its airing, Ghostwatch is a great, slow-burn horror. We meet the family (played by Brid Brennan, Michelle Wesson and Cherisse Wesson) and learn their history. The crew shows off their ghost-hunting equipment, including an infrared camera. The in-studio host, Parkinson, interviews the paranormal expert Dr. Lin Pascoe (Gillian Bevan). Greene plays games with the girls as they all wait for something to happen. Charles plays pranks and jokes and smirks his way through the special.

There are long stretches where not that much happens but that adds to the dread. But things do begin to escalate, though, as the night progresses, with mysterious water stains, more knocking and objects moving of their own accord.

(You can also spot Pipes in several scenes, lurking in the shadows or the background. Even if you don’t know where to look, it adds to the feeling of something is not quite right.)

The house is clearly a real house, with posters on the walls and Care Bear bedding in the girls’ room. It’s cramped and lived-in and doesn’t feel like a set as the crew navigates through narrow hallways and around furniture. It adds to the feeling of realism.

Like all good creepy stories, the focus is on a crawl space under the stairs. Mother Pamela had a bad experience where she was trapped down there and Kim says she saw “Pipes” down there.

Some of the seams do show, however. Dr. Pascoe is a bit too mannered and the New York-based skeptic Dr. Emilio Sylvestri (Colin Stinton) seems like a caricature. The overall story also comes across as a bit obvious – all the typical haunting motifs like knocking behind the walls, broken dishes, drops in temperature are here, along with scratches on the girls’ faces and demonic voices.

But as Ghostwatch continues and more and more “callers” are reporting seeing the same vision and strange happenings in their own homes, things take a darker turn. At this point, it doesn’t matter what is “believable” – it just all feels too real and immediate.

The true history of the poltergeist is revealed – a combination of a 19th century “baby farmer” who lived in the neighborhood and child molester who committed suicide in the house –  and things go progressively downhill quickly

As it turns out, by broadcasting Pipes’ story, a country-wide “séance” has occurred and Pipes is able to escape from the Earlys’ house and into the larger world. The Early family leaves the house, but the chaos cannot be contained, eventually making its way into the BBC studio itself.

Ghostwatch ends with Greene being pulled into the crawl space and Parkinson in a darkened studio reciting the nursery rhymes in Pipes’ demonic voice.

Some of that, by the end, does feel a bit fake, but it’s still scary. And combined with the mundane beginning and the way horror escalates makes the whole thing seem almost plausibly real.

Unfortunately, Ghostwatch seemed too plausible for some. An 18-year-old with the mental age of 13 killed himself reportedly after hearing the pipes in his house knocking and believing it to be the ghost from the show. Other children suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after viewing Ghostwatch were reported. That, combined with that many of these presenters were familiar to children, was enough for Ghostwatch to never be re-aired in the UK (although it’s been aired in other countries and has been released on DVD).

That’s a heavy legacy for a 90-minute TV show, especially one, for all its frights, feels somewhat tame 25 years later. But even without knowing all its history or even of the real-life presenters involved, Ghostwatch remains an inventive and influential work of horror that’s worth watching.