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On-Air Séance: The Ghostwatch Broadcast

“This is Orson Welles, ladies and gentlemen, out of character, to assure you that War of the Worlds has no further significance than as the holiday offering it was intended to be; The Mercury Theatre’s own radio version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying “Boo!” Starting now, we couldn’t soap all your windows and steal all your garden gates by tomorrow night, so we did the next best thing: we annihilated the world before your very ears and utterly destroyed the CBS. You will be relieved, I hope, to learn that we didn’t mean it, and that both institutions are still open for business. So goodbye everybody, and remember please for the next day or so the terrible lesson you learned tonight. That grinning, glowing, globular invader of your living room is an inhabitant of the pumpkin patch, and if your doorbell rings and nobody’s there, that was no Martian; it’s Halloween.”

– Orson Welles’ on-air apology following his
War of the Worlds broadcast;
October 30, 1938

SHOT AND EDITED WEEKS IN ADVANCE to its airdate, Ghostwatch is presented as a live BBC on-air special that spotlights an alleged haunted house on Foxhill Drive in London. The host of this show is Michael Parkinson, a well known (and quite real) British journalist. Next to him sits Dr. Lin Pascoe, a parapsychologist who fervently believes that the spooky events occurring at Foxhill Drive are genuine signs of a haunting. And in the cursed house live the Early family; mother Pam and daughters Suzanne and Kim. Much like modern ghost-hunting shows of today, a camera crew enters the house to investigate the events the Early family claim to have been dealing with for months. Leading this crew is Sarah Greene, another well-known British personality. Sure enough, the house is haunted for real, and as the investigation unfolds, the events within the house steadily increase into utter chaos.

While the crux of Ghostwatch is built around the events occurring inside the house at Foxhill Drive, the power of the story comes from all the different sources of information used throughout the film. Michael Parkinson and Dr. Pascoe provide much of the exposition and background on the investigation, and because they are on a “live” on-air show, they frequently patch in phone calls from “audience members” who share either their own ghostly encounters, or provide even more information about the Foxhill Drive house previously unknown. What this does is add to the legend of the specter haunting the house, and with each new detail, the events become more and more creepy. Think Blair Witch: The first half of that film is the kids gathering information, and the only spooky goings-on are married to stories told by locals and experts. Ghostwatch operates the same way.

ghostwatch_3 The awful thing causing all this havoc is Pipes the ghost, the name derived by the Early children after the first few times their mother had claimed the weird noises they were hearing were caused by their water pipes banging beneath their walls. Over the course of the last few months, Pipes made his presence quite well known, focusing most of his wrath on young Suzanne. The few scarce sightings we have of Pipes, along with eyewitness accounts of the young children, paint a very chilling image of him in our mind, but it’s at the very end when Pipes’ true origins are revealed is when the film is at its most frightening. The filmmakers do a great job of teasing you with brief sightings of Pipes, but never long enough to give you a full, detailed glimpse of how he actually appears. Brief images of him are scattered throughout, and while the film today can be paused, or slowed down frame-by-frame, twenty years ago the audience had no such options; they watched it unfolding “live” on their televisions, and the brief sightings of him were made to induce moments of “did I just see that?”

Pipes is described as having a skull-like and bald head, a scratched face, and one bloodied eye. He wears a black dress with large buttons running down the middle (the explanation for which is eventually provided), and sightings of him seem to be accompanied by the shrill howls of cats. The image enough is unnerving on its own, but once we find out the ghost’s real name, his origins, and how he possibly might have come to be, it becomes much more so.

Ghostwatch plays out in real time, darting back and forth between the live feed in the house and the studio. Every actor handles their part with ease, from those playing different people to those playing versions of themselves; all the performances come across as very genuine. Despite the more lurid attacks young Suzanne endures, or the terror Sarah Greene finds herself facing, it’s Michael Parkinson that has the most interesting role; his performance is incredibly realistic, in that it suggests he doesn’t take much of what Dr. Pascoe and the Early family are telling him all that seriously, but is willing to go along with it for the sake of journalistic objectivity. Being a real journalist, he knows he cannot let his own prejudices cloud his attempts to tell a story.

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Ghostwatch remained unavailable on home video for ten years after its airing for quite an interesting and unfortunate reason: Despite the film running during the same time slot that a popular (and scripted) BBC series called “Screen One” usually ran, despite the program being preceded by a “written by” credit, and despite the call-in number provided during the program stating that the program callers were watching was a work of fiction, certain members of Ghostwatch‘s viewing audience thought it was real, and it really fucked with their minds; from the revealed origins of Pipes to the in-studio phone calls made by “audience members” experiencing weird occurrences in their own home seemly caused by the events in the program – they bought it all: hook, line, and sinker.

And while any writer who crafted such a project might say, “Then I’ve done my job,” he probably didn’t count on, hope for, or expect the effect it would have on some lesser-stabled viewers:

18-year-old factory worker Martin Denham, who suffered from learning difficulties and had a mental age of 13, committed suicide five days after the programme aired. The family home had suffered with a faulty central heating system which had caused the pipes to knock; Denham linked this to the activity in the show causing great worry. He left a suicide note reading “if there are ghosts I will be … with you always as a ghost.” His mother and stepfather, April and Percy Denham, blamed the BBC. They claimed that Martin was “hypnotised and obsessed” by the programme. The Broadcasting Standards Commission refused their complaint, along with 34 others, as being outside their remit, but the High Court granted the Denhams permission for a judicial review requiring the BSC to hear their complaint. (Wiki.)

And so, following such controversy, any future broadcasts of the program were pulled, and for ten years it remained unavailable on home video. A ten-year anniversary VHS and DVD were issued but are now out of print.

Obviously, London natives were privy to a very different experience as they experienced Ghostwatch for the first time, as the power of the film’s realism is enforced when seeing the likes of Michael Parkinson, Sarah Greene, Mike Smith, and Craig Charles all dealing with the paranormal activity in very different ways – because they are all real people; very well-known UK television and media personalities playing victimized and scared versions of themselves.

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Ghostwatch is tremendous for many reasons, but most of all because it was planned, written, and executed simply to have something fun to play on Halloween night. Normal scripted shows will often incorporate Halloween into one of their plots, much like “The Simpsons” continues to do with their annual Treehouse of Horror episodes; “Ghost Adventures” and “Ghost Hunters” will perform a “live” investigation to honor the dark night. But you hardly ever see a program being created from scratch to pay tribute to October 31st. It feels like a perfect melded concoction of paint-by-numbers television and reality – and all to give viewers something a little spooky to watch as they put to bed another Halloween night. It would certainly be refreshing for major US network to put something like this together – to concoct a Ghostwatch of their own. Found footage has never been more popular than it is right now, and with the format being applied to television with the likes of “The River” and “The Lost Tapes,” it’s surprising that this program hasn’t been snapped up for some kind of Americanization. Perhaps it’s the slowly waning interest in Halloween, which is sadly becoming more and more apparent as less and less trick-or-treaters seem to take to the lead-strewn streets on that October night as the years go by. Or maybe American studios instead want to forcing Halloween into their own established programs – to focus on seeing a Halloween-themed episode of “The Kardashians” as each of the spoiled divas dress like a slutty witch and say something inherently racist. Ironically, it was the reality-television movement – something Ghostwatch had not only mastered back in 1990, but also subtly mocked at the same time – which began the decline of American culture, and with it, things that once had cultural value. Like Halloween, for instance.

 

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Written by

J. Tonzelli is a writer, film critiquer, and avid Arnold/Van Damme/Bronson enthusiast who resides in rural South Jersey. He is the author of "The End of Summer: Thirteen Tales of Halloween" and the "Fright Friends Adventure" series, co-authored with Chris Evangelista. He loves abandoned buildings, the supernatural, and films by John Carpenter. You can read some of his short fiction at his website, JTonzelli.com, or objectify him by staring at his tweets: @jtonzelli. He apologizes for all the profanity.

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