Movie Review: Ghostwatch (1992, UK)

The British make the best fake documentaries. There was the BBC’s “Spaghetti Harvest” of 1957 (which resulted in a flood of phone calls from people asking how they could grow their own spaghetti tree), and “Alternative 3”, a show on Anglia TV in 1977 that purported to uncover a secret plan to set up bases on the Moon and Mars (which despite including easily disprovable “facts” and a cast listing at the end is still taken seriously by some conspiracy nuts).

Then there was Ghostwatch

In 1992, the BBC decided to dust off the old “live broadcast from a haunted house” trope and produce a version for a Halloween special. Seems that year there were a number of haunted house / paranormal phenomenon stories in the news in the UK, so it seemed like a logical outgrowth. The show would investigate the “most haunted house in Britain”, a “council flat” in the London area. A poltergeist given the name “Pipes” (its first manifestations were passed off as noises in the plumbing) has for several months been terrorizing the single mother and her two daughters residing there.

The BBC went all-out with the production. Real TV presenters and personalities were tapped to be the “hosts” of the show. A real phone number was displayed onscreen, and viewers were asked to call in with their own tales of the supernatural. Actors playing a psychic expert and a scientist skeptic added color and commentary. Tapes from a “university research study” investigating the case were shown. References were made to technology used by actual ghost hunters – motion sensors, thermal sensors, and thermal imaging cameras.

The show starts off slowly, with not much happening at all. Just assorted background information on the case. When one of the daughters is caught making some Pipes-like bangings, it looks like the show is going to be a bust. But a couple of other things start happening; things that no person in the house could be responsible for. And when people start calling in a panic to tell of strange things happening in their own homes…

Once again, the verisimilitude convinced far too many people that the show was indeed a live broadcast, even though it was clearly identified at the start (and in broadcast listings in Radio Times) as a work of fiction. The call-in phone number was set up to play a recording that restated that fact, but so many people called in that the system was overwhelmed. In the days after the broadcast, there was a report of a suicide related to the show, and in 1994 the British Medical Journal reported on two cases of PTSD in children that were linked directly to the show.

Given all that controversy, the BBC placed a ban on the show’s ever being re-broadcast. That ban has been lifted, but the show has yet to reappear on the airwaves. It may be some twenty years old, but the technical excellence and creativity holds up very well. If there was a script, it was a very loose one. All of the dialogue seems completely natural and unrehearsed. The pacing is excellent as the tension builds exponentially until all heck breaks loose. Even when you know it’s fake, it can still send a chill up your spine for a long time afterwards.

“It’s Pipes, Mum! Pipes is here…!”

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