On October 31st, 1992, over 11 million people across the UK (including a 10-year-old me) switched on BBC 1 for Ghostwatch (1992). It looked like a Halloween puff piece, with roving reporters on the scene at a supposedly haunted house, some cosy chat in a TV studio, and a phone line so the audiences could call in and share their ghostly experiences. It looked to be a little spooky, but not too scary – perhaps something to have on in the background while tidying away the Halloween decorations and scoffing sweets left over from the trick-or-treating.

 

 

Ghostwatch was made to resemble a real BBC studio show, styled after the long-running Crimewatch, and familiar real-life presenters were used – veteran chat show host Michael Parkinson, ex-Blue Peter presenter Sarah Greene, Top of the Pops host (and Greene’s husband) Mike Smith, and Red Dwarf  actor Craig Charles. The show centres around a live link up to the Early family’s home in Foxhill Drive, North London, an apparently haunted house which has been under investigation by paranormal expert Lin Pascoe (played by actor Gillian Bevan), who is also on hand as a guest in the studio. The show proceeds benignly enough for some while: at Foxhill Drive, Greene chats with Pamela Early and her two daughters while Charles interviews the neighbours and plays pranks on his colleagues.

Back in the studio, Parkinson oversees proceedings with a sceptical tone, gently preparing viewers for the likely prospect of not much happening during the evening.  Gradually, however, odd occurrences start to happen: a picture falls off the wall and an inexplicable damp patch appears at the house, and viewers call in with claims that they’ve seen a strange figure in the background of the live feed from the Early’s home.  While it seems at one point that a hoax may in fact be behind it all, the supernatural events begin to escalate, and it soon becomes clear that the paranormal phenomena are not confined to Foxhill Drive, and may actually be using the show itself as a conduit to gain wider influence…

Often cited as among the most effective and scariest ghost films ever made, what makes Ghostwatch so chilling is, paradoxically, that for much of its runtime it’s actually quite mundane. The presenters of the show-within-the-film spend a lot of time near the beginning clearly trying to fill time, not really expecting any actual paranormal manifestations to occur.  The ordinariness and familiarity of the set up lulls the audience into a state of security: surely nothing could really happen here – not with Craig Charles goofing about in a rubber mask and Sarah Greene bobbing for apples and making rounds of tea?

 

 

There is incredible attention to detail that makes Ghostwatch like an authentic live broadcast – the cheesy Halloween set dressing and minor technical hitches all feel utterly authentic. The actors playing members of the public are also all convincingly awkward, and Brid Brennan especially gives a wonderfully stilted rabbit-in-the-headlights performance as Pamela Early. When the scares eventually happen, this realism makes them feel all the more threatening.

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The terror in Ghostwatch fully ramps up in the final 20 minutes or so, but smaller eerie moments are peppered throughout. We’re introduced early on to the supposed ghost, Pipes (so nicknamed by the girls, Kimmy and Suzie, as their mother at used to tell them the clanking noises they heard in the house must be caused by the pipes).  Kimmy shows Sarah a picture she drew of Pipes – a bald man in a long black cloak with one bloodied eye.

This figure then very briefly appears a number of times throughout the show in the background of shots, one instance being clearly flagged – a caller says that they saw a shadow standing against the curtains in the girls’ room, and this piece of footage is then rewound and analysed by Pascoe and Parkinson. Although this incidence is dismissed by the characters as just a shadow, the discussion primes the viewer to expect to see a ghost, with the suggestion that maybe something is lurking in the background.

 

 

Shared narratives are a major theme in Ghostwatch, and the smaller tales told through the show add to the mounting unease. The general public have been invited to share their stories of past spooky encounters, and also report on any odd things happening while the show is on air.  These start off quite unremarkable, or as probable jokes (one call involves a possibly possessed cheese & pickle sandwich), but take a sinister turn as callers provide disturbing facts about the house’s history as a site of abuse and murder. The segment with Craig Charles interviewing neighbours also becomes nastier than was intended in the world of the live show. Obviously meant to be a light-hearted sharing of “things that go bump in the night” tales, Charles instead hears from two local women some worrying accounts of missing children and animal mutilation.


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Despite being full of effective scares, Ghostwatch is far more than just a gimmicky shocker. By centering the story around the all-female Early family, stuck in their haunted house because the council don’t believe the problems they are having, the film explores themes of gender and class, and who has the power to tell their own stories. Pamela is shown to have previously gone to the press in an attempt to get some help for their situation, which backfired when they published her story under lurid, inaccurate headlines. In this detail, the creators of Ghostwatch actually somewhat predicted the controversy about the film itself that would be stirred up in the tabloid press.

 

 

Ghostwatch has had a huge influence on horror cinema, paving the way for a new wave of found footage and faux-reality horror. The Blair Witch Project (1999) showcased a more lo-fi style of documentary horror, but shared with Ghostwatch the real-world uncertainty as to what was being shown was real or fake. The TV show-gone-wrong format would be seen again in Spanish zombie film REC (2007), and the found footage cycle continued with Paranormal Activity (2007), which shared with Ghostwatch a preoccupation with examining recorded footage to uncover supernatural phenomena.

Subtle, background scares like Pipes‘s near-subliminal appearances have also become a staple in modern horror. Lake Mungo (2010) uses this technique to great effect, repeatedly placing eerie apparitions into shots with little fanfare. Mike Flanagan’s The Haunting of Hill House (2018) made the background haunt into an artform in itself, filling with mansion with barely-there ghosts. There have also been a number of works that have directly referenced or acknowledged their debt to Ghostwatch, such as Inside No. 9’s 2018 live episode “Deadline”, and the lockdown Zoom horror HOST (2020).

 

 

On its airing, Ghostwatch created significant controversy – many viewers concerned that the content was far too strong for a Halloween show. Although it started at 9pm (after the “watershed”, when more adult programmes could be shown), the presence of family presenters was seen as encouraging underage viewers, on a night when children were usually allowed to stay up later than usual. While writer Stephen Volk and director Lesley Manning maintain that they intended Ghostwatch to be seen as a fictional drama, for the faux-realism to be effective it couldn’t be signposted too blatantly – as Volk said in an interview with BBCi, “if we’d had a screaming banner across the screen reading THIS IS NOT TRUE, what is the point of that?”

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The skillful tactic of familiar presenters on the main public service broadcast cannel had resulted in the film being somewhat a victim of its own success, as some of the audience felt a sense of betrayal, “duped and hoaxed by trusted Auntie Beeb”, and to this day the film has never been rerun on the BBC. However, over the years Ghostwatch has built a loyal cult following, many fans (like me), the very children scared out of their wits that Halloween night in 1992.

 

 

From its origins as a one-off Halloween drama, Ghostwatch has grown into a genuine cultural phenomenon. As well as its continuing influence on the horror genre, there have been live cinema screenings, regular Halloween watch-alongs and a behind-the-scenes documentary. Ghostwatch definitely still has the power to unsettle nearly 30 years on, and will surely continue to scare audiences years into the future.

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